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Review of Adorno, by Brian O’Connor

Brian O’Connor, Adorno, Routledge, 2013, 219pp., $29.95 (pbk), ISBN 9780415367363.

Hegel, a writer of brilliant introductions, knew that they posed peculiar difficulties. Some of these were due to the absolute pretensions of systematic philosophy, but not all. Introductions, like beginnings, as the German saying goes, are difficult. A good book may not be a good introduction. Anyone who has read Gillian Rose’s brilliant The Melancholy Science: An Introduction to the Thought of Theodor W. Adorno (or, for that matter, Adorno’s own Introduction to the Sociology of Music) will know this.

Introductions such as Brian O’Connor’s Adorno (the latest in The Routledge Philosophers series) are a genre in their own right with their proper demands. One task is to initiate non-expert readers into the world of Adorno, and to make it accessible to the non-specialist without oversimplifying. Another is to give readers an overview of Adorno’s entire work situating each aspect of it in relation to the others. O’Connor meets these demands deftly.

Writing an introduction to a thinker such as Adorno, whose writing is dense and difficult, and whose thought is set out unsystematically and diffused across a number of different texts that do not form a whole, is challenging in particular ways. Just consider the range of subjects his writing embraces: music, philosophy, sociology, literature, psychoanalysis, German politics and society. Though not the grandest polymath of his era, Adorno is nonetheless one of several European public intellectuals of the 20th Century with wide cultural horizons.

Read the full review at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.

The Persistence of Normative Questions in Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action

My latest article. Forthcoming in Constellations.

Abstract
From the beginning The Theory of Communicative Action labored over the difficulty of answering the criticism that it fails in its aim of “justifying the normative premises of his projected social theory.” What makes that criticism potentially so devastating is that this is one of the avowed central aims of TCA, which, Habermas states on the first page, is “not a metatheory but the beginning of a social theory that is concerned to validate its own critical standards.”

 

Here, I re-examine TCA in the light of this criticism. In my view neither Habermas, nor his commentators, have managed satisfactorily to answer it, in spite of numerous different attempts so to do. That said, I do not believe it is unanswerable. On the contrary I believe that the criticism, as it has been widely construed, rests on a mistaken assumption about the kind of critical social theory TCA purports to be. That said, I argue that a modified version of the criticism, shorn of this mistaken assumption, and more in tune with the complex of analyses, arguments, and conjectures TCA actually puts forward, still applies. I end by suggesting the shape that a satisfactory response to it would have to take.

1. Theory of Communicative Action and Frankfurt School Critical Theory


Habermas’s remarks on the first page suggest strongly that the first volume of TCA should be read backwards. It suggests that the theory of modernity and the account of rationalization (section II) together with the Intermediate Reflections (section III) are best understood in the light of the diagnosis and criticism Habermas makes of Frankfurt School critical theory – particularly of Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment and Adorno’s Negative Dialectic – in section IV. Recall the following passage:

From the beginning, critical theory labored over the difficulty of giving an account of its own normative foundations.

Habermas confronts the Critical Theory of his former mentors and teachers with a serious problem, and is not content to find fault with it while offering nothing in its place. Rather, he offers in its place a critical social theory that does not suffer from that same problem, since, he claims, it contains within it an ‘account of its own normative foundations.’ So on the backwards reading of TCA, sections II and III of Volume 1 are to be understood as providing an “an account of the normative foundations” of the social theory which is set out in Volume 2, and as validating its critical standards.

No doubt one of the aims of TCA among others was to settle accounts with first generation Frankfurt School critical social theory by making salient the main advantages of Habermas’s new approach. For example, according to Habermas, Adorno and Horkheimer construe reason in an undifferentiated manner, because they are captivated by the limitations of the philosophy of consciousness that recognized only two perspectives, that of “an objective reason that had fallen irreparably into ruin” and a subjective reason that had been “absolutized in the service of self-preservation”. Thus, he argues, they can only understand the process of social rationalization as the reifying force of an “instrumental reason that has gone wild” in the pursuit of the ever more efficient mastery of external nature, and as the hidden hand behind social domination. By contrast his theory, which is based on a paradigm of intersubjective communication, distinguishes between instrumental reason and communicative reason, which latter “cannot be subsumed without resistance under a blind self-preservation.” TCA thus construes reason and social rationalization in a more differentiated way. In Habermas’s theory the reifying effects of social rationalization are understood not in the wholesale and undifferentiated manner of his predecessors, but as a more localized phenomenon arising from the circumstance “that an unleashed functionalist reason of systems maintenance disregards and overrides the claim to reason ingrained in communicative sociation”. Furthermore, Habermas rests his social theory on a substantial premise (reminiscent of Hegel) that Horkheimer and Adorno both disavow: namely that we “already have before us –in fragmentary and existing form, to be sure – the existing forms off a reason that has to rely on being symbolically embodied and historically situated.” This affords Habermas the possibility of mounting an immanent social criticism which, in the Marxian manner, “is critical both of contemporary social sciences and of the social reality that they are supposed to grasp” and which criticizes “ the reality of developed societies inasmuch as they do not make full use of the learning potential culturally available to them.”

Download the first version of the full article here.

New Book: Dialogue, Politics and Gender

Here is my contribution to  this new book edited by Jude Browne for  Cambridge University Press.

Ch. 1: Women and the standpoint of concrete others:

from the criticism of discourse ethics to feminist social criticism.

Abstract

A still influential strand of feminist criticisms of Rawls arose from a confluence of Gilligan’s moral psychology and the communitarian critique of Rawls. Later this criticism was turned against a certain kind of moral theory including Habermas’s discourse ethics. Benhabib’s distinction between the standpoint of the generalized other and the standpoint of the concrete other was a key part of this critique of moral theory.

In my view, however, this distinction is much more confusing and less straightforward than is generally acknowledged. It does not help to establish the criticism that moral theory of Rawls and Habermas are in some way exclusionary, as is commonly thought. At best it leads Benhabib to develop some criticisms of discourse ethics which are valid. However, these criticisms are not obviously germane to feminism. It remains unclear how these criticisms of Habermas’s moral theory advance the aims of feminist social criticism, such as the overcoming of ongoing injustice and the emancipation from patriarchal oppression.

Download earlier version of this article here.

Beethoven, Adorno, and the Dialectics of Freedom

In a recent article on Freedom in Beethoven, Daniel Chua observes that Beethoven’s symphonies, especially the 3rd Symphony, the Eroica, is often said to hold out an image of freedom. He writes:[i]

[T]he abstraction epitomised by his symphonic works should not only be understood as an aesthetic revolution but a political one. The music itself, by being itself, speaks of freedom. Drawing a blank is the very image of liberty. And this was precisely how Adorno heard the music. For him the internal laws of Beethoven’s compositions expound a liberty as ambitious as the philosophy of Kant or Hegel.[ii] He attaches to music’s abstraction the freedom that historians often attribute to the discourses of the politicians.[iii]

We can take it that behind this thesis is the assumption that the Eroica is a prime example of an autonomous work of art, and that as such it is peculiarly apt to represent or express freedom. Chua identifies different versions of this judgment in several phases of the Eroica’s reception history, and attributes one such – quite correctly – to Adorno. In this article, I want to consider in more detail the merits of the thesis that the Eroica symphony promises freedon, and to reflect on its place within Adorno’s aesthetics of music. As it stands the thesis opens up a number of difficult and intriguing questions.

  1. What is meant by the autonomy of a work of art, and in particular, how is this term to be understood in reference to Beethoven’s 3rd symphony?
  2. In virtue of which features can and does a work of art, in particular the Eroica symphony, succeed in holding out an image of freedom?
  3. What kind of freedom is thus foreshadowed or promised?
  4. What is the relation between the autonomy of the work on the one side, and the freedom that it promises on the other?

Until these questions are answered, the very idea a piece of music by Beethoven promises freedom remains as opaque as it is intriguing.[1]

Read more

Habermas and Rawls: Disputing the Political, ed. Finlayson and Freyenhagen

Introduction

The Habermas-Rawls Dispute: Analysis and Reevaluation

by

James Gordon Finlayson and Fabian Freyenhagen

 

La justice sans la force est impuissante; la force sans la justice est tyrannique. La justice sans force est contredite, parce qu’il y a toujours des méchants; la force sans la justice est accusée. Il faut donc mettre ensemble la justice et la force; et pour cela faire que ce qui est juste soit fort, ou que ce qui est fort soit juste.

Blaise Pascale

 

1 A TIME FOR REEVALUATION

Fifteen years after the appearance of the dispute between Habermas and Rawls in the Journal of Philosophy, their exchange has yet to receive adequate attention.

This is all the more astounding given that the former was arguably the greatest social theorist of the twentieth century and the latter arguably its most important political philosopher. Considering how much thought has been devoted to—and how many words written on—the works of these two thinkers, it is surprising that the dispute between them has been relatively neglected. Why is this? A likely answer is that initial high expectations were followed by a sense of disappointment in the immediate aftermath of the dispute, which quickly congealed into the received opinion that neither thinker had properly understood the other. As one recent commentator puts it, the much anticipated dispute amounted in the end to “a somewhat embarrassing failure of two of the greatest contemporary minds to meet.”[1]  This widespread view is a curious combination of truth and travesty. The truth is that each disputant was rather more concerned with defending and clarifying his own project than with genuinely engaging the opponent on his own ground. Moreover, the dispute was a missed opportunity inasmuch as important issues, which might have been broached (several of which are discussed by the contributors to this volume), were not. Read more

The Artwork and the Promesse du Bonheur in Adorno.

Forthcoming in the European Journal of Philosophy

 

Abstract

Adorno’s saying that ‘art is the promise of happiness’ radiates into every corner of his work from his aesthetic theory to his critical theory of society. However, it is much misunderstood. This can be seen from the standard answer to the question: in virtue of what formal features do art works, according to Adorno, promise happiness?  The standard answer to this question suggests that the aesthetic harmony occasioned by the organic wholeness of the form realized in the artwork contrasts with and throws into relief the antagonistic nature of society. The trouble is that this answer is flatly incompatible with Adorno’s historicism and central components of his aesthetic modernism, including his critique of classicism, and his negativism. I propose a re-interpretation of Adorno’s thesis that art is the promise of happiness that overcomes these difficulties.

 

1.         Stendhal’s Dictum and its place in Adorno’s work

A signficant and recurrent motif of Adorno’s aesthetic theory is that art is a promise of happiness.[1] Adorno attributes this dictum to Stendhal, which is misleading, because although the idea it contains originates in Stendhal – in a remark about physical beauty – Adorno interprets the remark through the lens of Baudelaire and Nietzsche, and it has been so amplified by the time he deploys it that it is virtually his own. Hence it is better to refer to it as ‘Adorno’s dictum’ rather than Stendhal’s. [2]  The idea that art is a promise of happiness radiates in every direction of Adorno’s thought. For example it is a central idea of Adorno’s critical theory of society that art, almost uniquely in his eyes, because of its peculiar proleptic relation to happiness, provides the appropriate foil against which the existing social world is to be contrasted, criticised and found wanting.[3]  Unravelling the meaning of this dictum can thus help us to better understand not only Adorno’s aesthetics, but his entire philosophy. Read more

The Persistence of Normative Questions in Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action

This article is forthcoming in Constellations

The Persistence of Normative Questions in Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action

James Gordon Finlayson

From the beginning the author of The Theory of Communicative Action and his more sympathetic commentators labored over the difficulty of answering the objection that it fails in its aim of “justifying the normative premises of his projected social theory.”[1] What makes that criticism potentially so devastating is that this is one of the avowed central aims of TCA, which, Habermas states on the first page, is “not a metatheory but the beginning of a social theory that is concerned to validate its own critical standards.[2] Here, I re-examine TCA in the light of this criticism. In my view neither Habermas, nor his commentators, have managed satisfactorily to answer it, in spite of numerous different attempts so to do. That said, I do not believe it is unanswerable. On the contrary I believe that the criticism, as it has been widely construed, rests on a mistaken assumption about the kind of critical social theory TCA purports to be. That said, I argue that a modified version of the criticism, shorn of this mistaken assumption, and more in tune with the complex of analyses, arguments, and conjectures TCA actually puts forward, still applies. I end by suggesting the shape that a satisfactory response to it would have to take.

 

  1. 1.             Theory of Communicative Action and Frankfurt School Critical Theory

Habermas’s remarks on the first page suggest strongly that the first volume of TCA should be read backwards. It suggests that the theory of modernity and the account of rationalization (section II) together with the Intermediate Reflections (section III) are best understood in the light of the diagnosis and criticism Habermas makes of Frankfurt School critical theory – particularly of Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment and Adorno’s Negative Dialectic – in section IV. Recall the following passage: Read more

To The Things Themselves Again:

To The Things Themselves Again: Observations on What Things Are and Why they Matter

πάντωνχρημάτωνμέτρονἄνθρωπονεἰ̂ναι, ‘τω̂νμὲνὄντωνὡςἔστι, τω̂νδὲμὴὄντωνὡςοὐκἔστιν.’

Protagorus.[1]

(forthcoming with Oxford University Press)

1.Sometimes a child’s experience can uncover a dimension of reality that remains hidden to adult sensibilities, and to the prejudices, presumptions and ideologies common sense. I was a clumsy child. I used to break and to lose things. As a consequence I had a keen sense of the fragility of things, and of the badness or wrongness of breaking or losing them. I never stopped to ask: What is wrong with breaking things? Why does it matter if I break this thing? Read more

Review of Gunnarsson, Logi. Making Moral Sense: Beyond Habermas and Gauthier

This review was published in Ethics, vol. 112: 4, 828-32.

Making Moral Sense: Beyond Habermas and Gauthier, Cambridge U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp.286. $64 (cloth)

There is an apparent dilemma besetting the philosopher’s attempt to explain why the wrongness of an action generates an obligation not to do it. Either she claims that we are obligated not to do the act just because it is wrong, in which case the argument presupposes what it should explain, or she adduces other non-moral reasons. But in the latter case the reasons adduced are not the ones we take moral agents to be guided by, so the explanation misses its target. Something like this dilemma provides the backdrop to Logi Gunnarsson’s book. His solution is that we should embrace an enriched version of the first proposal, which he calls substantivism, and he presents a convincing case for rejecting the second, which he calls rationalism. The substantivist holds that moral justification comprises two elements: the ‘intrinsic appeal’ of a substantive moral concept and the relation connecting the concept to other substantive concepts (p. 155). A sufficient justification answers at least one of two questions: 1. Is it rational to be moral at all?  2. Which moral outlook is it rational to accept? (p. 4) Once the substantivist for example shown that torture is wrong, because it is cruel, degrading, etc. and adduced the intrinsic evaluative appeal of the concept of torture, he has justified that torture is wrong. Thus, in a piecemeal manner, he can provide a sufficient justification of morality. The rationalist, by contrast, thinks that what is needed is a formal and non-moral justification that even a rational skeptic must accept. Gunnarsson is unforthcoming about what exactly formal means here, but he uses it in the broadest sense. The appeal of rationalism is obvious: it purports to provide a non-trivial, non-circular justification of morality. Nonetheless Gunnarsson thinks it should be rejected because it distorts our view of  ‘rationality, morality and the relation between the two.’ (p. 5) Read more

Modernity and Morality in Habermas’s Discourse Ethics †

This article first appeared in Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy, Volume 43, Issue 3, 2000, pp. 319-340

 I.            Introduction

One of the features that marks out Habermas’s Discourse Ethics from most other contemporary moral theories is the extent to which it is informed by social scientific research in cognate areas of sociology, anthropology, and psychology. This has meant that from its inception Habermas’s conception of morality has been hand and glove with a conception of modernity and with a theory of modernization. The moral theory forms part of a wider social theory. I take it that this is a strength, not just a peculiarity of Discourse Ethics. For much of moral philosophy after Kant, despite Hegelian protestations, has been guilty of neglecting the historical, social and cultural dimension of the phenomenon of moral normativity it explicates.

As the programme of Discourse Ethics has developed since the early 1980s so the constellation of moral theory and modernization theory has altered. Originally Discourse Ethics is conceived as a programme of philosophical justification of the moral principle or the moral standpoint (MCCA, pp. 43, 78-86, 96).[1]  The formal derivation of principle (U) from non-moral premises is central to this programme. If the formal derivation goes through, then (U) can be justified on the non-moral grounds of Habermas’s theory of communicative action and the pragmatic theory of meaning.[2] Thus, according to the original programme of Discourse Ethics a normative moral theory falls out of a pragmatic theory of the meaning of utterances. One of my aims in this paper is to show how and why the promised formal derivation of (U) from non-moral premises fails. As far as Discourse Ethics is concerned this is an important and unresolved issue in its own right. But I also want to elaborate the wider significance of this failure. Read more