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. 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.  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. 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
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.” 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: Read more
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
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). 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. 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
Many of Habermas’s critical commentators agree that Discourse Ethics fails as a theory of the validity of moral norms and only succeeds as a theory of the democratic legitimacy of socio-political norms. The reason they give is that the moral principle (U) is too restrictive to count as a necessary condition of the validity of norms. Other more sympathetic commentators want to abandon principle (U) and remodel Discourse Ethics without it. Still others, try to downplay the role of universalizing moral discourse and to make more of Habermas’s less demanding, though still somewhat vague, conception of ethical discourse. Against this chorus of critical voices Habermas maintains that his conception of moral discourse and the moral principle (U) are central to Discourse Ethics in general, and to the normative heart of his political theory in particular. This conflict may have arisen in part because of the obscurity surrounding the central concept of a ‘universalizable interest’. Actually Habermas’s concept of interest is pretty obscure too. But the obscurity surrounding the concept of interest is not the issue here. For our present purposes we can simply stipulate that an interest is a reason to want. The obscurity that is the problem here arises from ambiguities in the notion of universalizability that is in play. Once we pay due attention to the conditions of the universalizability of interests contained in Habermas’s formulation of the moral principle (U), we can distinguish between a weaker and a stronger version of it. I argue that only the weaker version is defensible. But I also want to show why Habermas is tempted into defending the stronger version. Read more
Adorno’s late work is often been compared to negative theology, yet there is little serious discussion of this comparison in the secondary literature.Moreover, in most of the existing discussions virtually nothing is said about negative theology, as if it is just obvious what it is and what the parallels with Adorno’s ideas are. The truth is that it is not obvious what negative theology is, and what, if any, the parallels with Adorno are. To find out would require a detailed account of both. In this article I shall make a start in this direction.
Let me begin by provisionally characterising negative theology as a discourse about God based primarily upon denial or negation, which is
sometimes known as apophatic theology. The Greek word apophasis stems fromthe verb ἀπόφημι, meaning to deny or negate. It contrasts with cataphasis which means affirmation.  Apophatic theology was a central preoccupation of the Hellenized Judaeo-Christian tradition of theology, and arose from the confluence of two sets of ideas: broadly – Judaic notions of God’s transcendence, and ancient Greek ontological questions about the nature or essence of God. For the ontological question of what God’s essence or being consists in poses peculiar difficulties when God is supposed to be wholly transcendent and therefore unknowable and ineffable. Apophatic theology is the strategy of responding to these peculiar difficulties through negation or denial, the so-called negative way. Read more
In my judgement there is more sympathy among radicals on the academic left for Adorno’s conception of critical theory than there is for that of Jürgen Habermas If I am right, this prompts the question of what the reasons are for the relative charity shown to Adorno and the relative hostility towards Habermas? One reason for the latter might be that Habermas has never Wilde’s good advice: a man cannot be too careful in choosing his enemies. He has succeeded in making enemies the left as well as on the right. Over the years he has demonstrated a ruthlessly pragmatic willingness to cull sacred cows – such as the philosophy of history and the conception of society as a macrosubject – in the interests of theoretical hygiene. Furthermore, he has never shirked from swimming against the intellectual tide, as is demonstrated by his defence in the 1980’s of modernity as an unfinished project, and by his tireless championing of the unfashionable causes of rationalism and moral universalism. This may help explain why so many academic Marxists, in a consensus that is ironically almost worthy of an ideal speech situation, concur that Habermas has sold out theoretically to analytic philosophy and to liberal political philosophy, and politically to some form of market socialism. I do not lie the term ‘selling out’. For one thing, it is freighted with entirely inappropriate connotations of apostasy, for the willingness to abandon or revise untenable theories and to borrow from diverse intellectual traditions are to my mind epistemic and intellectual virtues. Nonetheless Habermas’s work continues to provoke hostile reponses from Marxists, which may stem from the suspicion that his reconstruction of historical materialism and critical social theory represents less a movement within Marxism than a departure from it.
I doubt that there is a useful distinction to be made between these two. Take the example of Habermas’s defence of the post-war welfare state compromise. Habermas defends Western liberal democratic institutions insofar as they embody the normative, universalistic ideals of the European Enlightenment, and believes that these institutions are worth preserving insofar as they are able to coexist with, and contain the corrosive and destabilising effects of, capitalist market economies. Of course Habermas is not a Marxist, if that means believing that the state should be abolished or allowed to wither away, and that the market economy should be replaced by an alternative politically or democratically regulated institution of production and distribution. But if having a commitment to the values of a liberal democratic culture, and to a radical conception of redistributive justice, grounded in the universalistic ideals of the Enlightenment, is a sufficient credential for being a Marxist these days, then he is one. There is a lot more to be said on the question of Habermas’s relation to Marxism and there are no short answers to be had. A short answer to the question of whether the term ‘Marxist’ is still applicable to Habermas’s social theory would anyway only be of totemic or academic importance, i.e. of importance only to those for whom Marxism is a badge of allegiance, or to those who want to place Habermas’s work within or without a particular intellectual tradition.
I raise the issue of Habermas’s Marxism primarily as the background to a more tractable question concerning the relative merits of Adorno’s vis à vis Habermas’s conception of ideology. The question was raised in a recent issue of this journal in which Deborah Cook defends Adorno’s theory of ideology and attacks Habermas’s social theory as ‘ideologically suspect.’ I take her views to be an instructive example of the tendency I have described and which I think is misplaced, and I shall take this opportunity to defend Habermas against Cook, and to reinforce Habermas’s well-placed objections to Adorno’s conception of critical theory. But beyond that I intend to show that Habermas’s criticisms do not go far enough, for the concept of ideology as Adorno uses it, and which Cook defends, is actually incoherent. A fortiori it is of no practical or theoretical use to social theorists and they ought to look for alternatives. Furthermore, the classical pejorative concept of ideology is, though not incoherent, too outlandish to be a basic explanatory category of social theory. Whilst Habermas’s version of social criticism is complex, and sometimes cumbersome, it is much more promising than Adorno’s. Whether Habermas’s critical social theory is still a kind of ideology-criticism is a moot point. One can think of it that way, but Habermas’s conception of what ideology is differs widely both from Adorno’s and from the classical pejorative concept, and this difference in the use of the concept alters the very nature and point of ideology criticism. Read more
Abstract: Giorgio Agamben’s critique of Western politics in Homo Sacer and three related books has been highly influential in the humanities and social sciences. The critical social theory set out in these works depends essentially on his reading of Aristotle’s Politics. His diagnosis of what ails Western politics and his suggested remedy advert to a “biopolitical paradigm,” at the center of which stands a notion of “bare life,” and a purported opposition between bios and ‘zoe’. Agamben claims that this distinction is found in Aristotle’s text, in ancient Greek, and in a tradition of political theory and political society stemming from fourth-century Athens to the present. However, a close reading of Aristotle refutes this assertion. There is no such distinction. I show that he bases this view on claims about Aristotle by Arendt and Foucault, which are also unfounded.
To someone saying that life is bad, Diogenes said, “not life itself, but the bad life.” (Diogenes of Sinope)
C’est une fois qu’on aura su ce que c’était ce régime gouvernmental appelé libéralisme qu’on pourra . . . saisir ce qu’est la biopolitique. (Michel Foucault)
Since the publication of Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life and three related works, Means Without End: Notes on Politics, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, and State of Exception, the social and political ideas of the Italian literary critic and philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, have spread rapidly. In the last decade or so, Agamben’s intellectual stock has risen sharply in literary theory, comparative literature, sociology, international relations theory, history, law and critical legal theory. His work now commands attention in the highest citadels of European and North American academia. Citations of Agamben abound, as do references to his concept of bare life and to two related distinctions: the distinction between bare life and political life, and the distinction between ‘zoe’ and bios. No doubt, the current fascination with Agamben’s work has something to do with the intoxicating nature of his conclusions. Homo Sacer concludes with the assertion that “[t]oday it is not the city but the camp that is the fundamental bio-political paradigm of the West.” Agamben’s thesis is that a “biopolitical paradigm” is responsible for some of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century, including the Nazi concentration camps, and that it provides the hitherto concealed common link or “inner solidarity” between Nazism and liberalism. According to Agamben, the same “paradigm” can explain or illuminate why the post–Second World War period, in spite of the dark shadow cast over it by totalitarianism, has witnessed the gradual diminishment of democratic politics and the irresistible growth of autocratic and executive governance. Agamben is wont to claim, for example, that his theory can throw light on why in the wake of the war on terror apparently liberal democratic states go in for practices such as “extraordinary rendition” and the detainment and torture of “unlawful combatants” at that other camp in Guantanamo Bay. Whatever else one might think about them, these are audacious and provocative statements, which, when viewed at low enough level of historical and empirical resolution, appear to chime with recent geopolitical developments in the aftermath of 9/11. Contra Agamben, I think that the very idea of a single underlying paradigm of Western politics since the Greeks is ridiculous, that his diagnosis of contemporary society is wholly unpersuasive, and that his social theory has no critical purchase whatsoever on the current political state of affairs. The argument I pursue here, however, focuses mainly on the textual evidence on which Agamben bases his thesis of the destiny of Western politics, evidence which consists almost entirely of an erroneous—albeit widespread and hence not yet discredited—reading of Aristotle’s Politics. Partly because that reading is so adhesive and influential, it is worth taking another detailed critical look at it, which I do in section III below. In sections IV and V, I attempt to spell out the consequences for Agamben’s wider social and political thought—that is, for the whole project sketched out in his Homo Sacer trilogy and his State of Exception. If I am right, the credibility of the social theory, namely the diagnosis of Western politics set out in Homo Sacer and elsewhere, is closely tied to, and heavily dependent on, the credibility of his reading of Aristotle and of his intellectual history. Read more
Can a social or political theory insofar as it aims to be critical avoid appealing to normative (moral or ethical) criteria? This question has in one form or another haunted the tradition of Hegelian Marxist social theory. Here, I am only concerned with a specific variant of it. In the 1980’s Jürgen Habermas came up with an analysis and critique of what he called the problem of the ‘normative foundations’ of critical theory. Habermas’s analysis of the problem with Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, and of the direction in which they subsequently took critical theory, has been hugely influential. However, it is freighted with his (controversial) theories of meaning and communicative rationality. This has two bad consequences: first it clouds the real issue of ‘normative foundations’ that besets Frankfurt School critical theory; second, because of the theoretical hostages to fortune Habermas’s criticism of Adorno and Horkheimer needlessly takes, it looks vulnerable to objections. All this has obscured the nature of the debate on the normative problem of critical theory. After analysing and interpreting Habermas’s original criticism, I reconstruct it in five steps by presenting and defending five theses to which, I believe, the first generation Frankfurt School critical theorists are committed. These five theses give rise to a dilemma that captures what I take to be the real normative problem of critical theory. This argument is then used to throw new light on some recent interpretations of the legacy of (first-generation) Frankfurt School critical theory, and on its development at the hands of subsequent ‘generations’, namely Habermas and Honneth.
This article recently appeared in Telos 146, 2009, 7-41.
Adorno’s late work is often been compared to negative theology, yet there is almost no discussion of this comparison in the secondary literature.  Moreover, in most of the existing discussions little is said about negative theology, as if it is just obvious what it is and what the parallels with Adorno are. I believe that it is not obvious what negative theology is, and that meaningful discussion of whether or not Adorno’s philosophy is or resembles a negative theology requires a fairly detailed account of both. Let me begin, then, by provisionally characterising “negative theology” as a discourse about God based primarily upon denial or negation, which is sometimes known as apophatic theology. The Greek word apophasis (denial, privation, negation) stems from a verb meaning to take away or remove, and contrasts with cataphasis which means affirmation. Apophatic theology is a branch of onto-theology which literally means a discourse about God’s being or essence. Ontotheology became a central preoccupation of the Hellenized Judeo-Christian tradition of theology. Apophatic theology in particular arose from the confluence of two sets of ideas: Judaic notions of God’s transcendence, and characteristically Greek ontological questions about the nature or essence of God. For if God is utterly transcendent, and therefore unknowable and ineffable, the task of saying what the divine essence is poses peculiarly difficulties. Apophatic theology is the strategy of responding to these difficulties through negation or denial, the so-called negative way.