‘Philosophy and Sociology’ by Theodor W Adorno reviewed by Frederico Lyra de Carvalho

Philosophy and Sociology

Cambridge, Polity Press, 2022. 341 pp., €21.50 pb
ISBN 9780745679426

About the reviewer

Frederico Lyra de Carvalho is a postdoctoral at São Paulo University and a PhD at Lille’s …


Every new translation of a lecture series by Adorno is an important event, even more so in the case of a thinker who has recently been gaining new readers and original interpretations that breathe impetus into the study of his thought. Some of his lectures are of greater interest to the so-called ‘Adornian studies’, others, however, are of wider interest especially when they touch on questions of aesthetics and dialectics. The present book, which consists of a transcript of Philosophy and Sociology – a lecture series given in the summer of 1960 – is perhaps of the greatest interest to Marxist theory among the courses published and translated so far. We can say at the outset that only in a few instances in his work does Adorno mobilise with such skill the fundamental concepts and categories of the critique of political economy as in the second part of this lecture series, which is devoted to the theory of ideology. This alone would be reason enough to consult the book. The lecture series took place two years before Adorno’s famous seminar on Marx in 1962, of which we only have the Hans-Georg Backhaus notes. In his afterword, the editor recalls that this was the first of three series devoted to sociology delivered by Adorno over the decade. The other two – Philosophical Elements of a Theory of Society and Introduction to Sociology – took place in 1964 and 1968 respectively. Together these three series form a dense and complex whole that gives a solid picture of the intimate relationship that the philosopher had with the discipline of sociology, and his deep knowledge of the field of study. One of the main points of the series we are discussing here is to insist that the separation between philosophy and sociology, that although the effective result of the division of intellectual labour should not be considered as an absolute and should therefore always be subject to mediation.

The series is structured into eighteen lectures transcribed either from audio recordings or from the reproduction of transcriptions that had already been made by Adorno himself. It can be divided into two parts. The first, incorporating lectures one to eight is an introduction to sociology. The second, which goes from the ninth to the eighteenth lecture, proposes a detailed theory of ideology. Throughout the lectures, Adorno in no way proposes a synthesis between these different spheres, nor does he propose to treat them separately: ‘these disciplines are not merely antithetical but also constitute a functional or dynamic unity’ (35). In the first part, where he deals with an introduction to sociology, Adorno presents the thought of Comte and Durkheim. While first noting the Saint-Simonian origin of sociology, he points out that it is Comte who introduced the scientific character that the discipline has held ever since. Sociology emerged in France in the nineteenth century, in the aftermath of the Revolution, as an affirmation of the bourgeois civilization which was fast imposing itself in the world. Comte’s slogan, ‘Order and Progress’ – something that is doubly problematic for anyone from Brazil due to the weight that the motto, present in the flag, carries in the country’s ideology – aptly sums up the impetus of this historical moment. Adorno also criticizes and at the same time does not discard the necessity of Comte’s nominalism. With Durkheim, a dialectic of progress that takes into account the necessity of violence in the process of social progression was theorised for the first time. Adorno also argues that Durkheim managed to elaborate a determined negation of Comte. It is noteworthy that by the time of the lectures, Durkheim was poorly translated into German and that Adorno distributed copies of his own translations to the students.

The ninth lecture functions as a transition to the second part of the course in which Adorno deals with the theory of ideology. Horkheimer, who had previously replaced Adorno in two lectures and thus introduced some ideas around the theory of ideology, had in fact made the transition. Without denying the division of scientific work between the two disciplines, Adorno begins by emphasizing that the theory of ideology touches on both philosophy and sociology. This is because of the social dimension of mind in capitalist society, which originates in the centrality of mediation through the exchange relationship. According to Adorno, ‘social reality itself already contains a conceptual moment, namely this moment of abstraction’ (100-101). This ends up creating a necessary illusion of society as nature, or second nature in the Lukácsian concept drawn upon by Adorno. Adorno insists that that the limits of sociology for thinking about ideology resides here. According to him, sociology cannot grasp totality either empirically or immediately. Totality demands a philosophical theory able to deal with the abstract side of reality. Although he does not use directly the term ‘real abstraction’, it is surely to what he is referring. Ideology is in totality, or rather, ideology is the totality. It is no longer a simple ‘façon de parler’ (102). According to Adorno, this idea of totality as ideology has its origins in Hegel and his famous statement ‘truth is the whole’. However, he insists, the whole is not immediately accessible, it is an a priori that conditions individuals, therefore, it is not given and, above all, it must be criticized. This is why the theory of ideology must necessarily be a philosophical theory and not a sociological one, because it must above all be able to account for the whole in a conceptual way.

One of the strengths of the series is the reconstitution of the history and changing function of ideology that Adorno discontinuously reconstructs between lectures ten and fourteen. We will not reconstruct this history here, but the key point is the shift in focus from ideology as a problem of subjectivity to its contemporary objectification. An important idea is that, according to Adorno, ideology did not effectively exist during the Middle Ages, ‘the concept of “ideology” is not an abstract universal concept but one that strictly applies only to bourgeois society’ (161). At first, in the prehistory of capitalism and bourgeois society, ideology was a problem of the subjective consciousness of individuals and, at the very most, of a class. With the development of industrial and late capitalism, however, it has becomes something objective. Throughout these lectures Adorno shows the historical path that will lead to one of his main theoretical elaborations, namely that reality had become its own ideology. This shift from subjectivity to objectivity was not made by decree; it originates in the sphere of production, more precisely in the relationship between the forces of production and the relations of production. On the one hand, the forces of production concern human labour power in its relation to the technology of its time that enables the necessary mediation with nature. On the other hand, the relations of production concern social relations, with special emphasis given by the philosopher to exploitation and domination. For Adorno, ideology in its objectivity is formed in the relationship between, and not in the separation from, what Marx called superstructure and infrastructure. It is not simply a problem reduced to one of the poles, but originates in the mediation between the current state of the productive forces and the social relations of domination and exploitation. At the same time, Adorno does not ignore the separation of the two spheres and even notes that the historical temporalities of the superstructure and the infrastructure may not always coincide. According to Adorno, the forces of production, especially due to accelerated technological development, tend to develop at a very fast rhythm while ideological changes and the massive effects of these changes in society tend to be slower and often less noticeable. This is because the categories of understanding do not hover in the world of ideas, but act as mediators of social perception because, according to Adorno, they are pre-formed by the social forces of production. In other words, the categories with which we mediate reality are not simply philosophical ideas; the a priori framework that organises existence according to bourgeois categories originates where human life is produced and reproduced. Adorno insists all the time that these a priori forms precede individuals who find themselves under a spell in this virtually impossible to get out of frame. What could actually open a breach in this Kantian matrix schema would be, Adorno observes, the difference in perspective that contradictory social positions can have on the same social structure. Only dialectics can break the spell of the structure of ideology (it is important to note that at one point in the lectures Adorno engages in a rapid introduction to and defence of dialectics as philosophy against the mechanical and methodological reduction to a worldview associated with the then dominant version of dialectics, known as Diamat). The problem, already signalled by Adorno during World War II in Minima Moralia, is that a large portion of workers no longer recognized themselves as working class. An awareness was increasingly far from being guaranteed due, above all, to the mass adhesion of individuals to reality. The cultural industry with its capacity to schematise and standardise the social experience of individuals is not the least of the perpetrators in this process. It implies taking into account that the moment of non-perception of the labour conditions manages, in turn, to organise the form of society objectively.

The lectures do not develop in a linear fashion, something that we might naturally expect from a dialectical thinker. Throughout his exposition Adorno develops his ideas with the help of examples that allude to the Middle Ages, music theory and mass media. He traverses the entire history of philosophy, with an emphasis on scepticism, affirming that a theory of ideology is not at all a psychology of interest. He concludes with a reflection on the philosophical problem of truth as historical but also with the Benjaminian idea asserting that ‘history inhabits truth’ (194). In a way, the critique of ideology goes hand in hand with the struggle for truth; not an eternal, genetic or objective truth, but a truth that historically actualises:

The decisive thing is to try and free yourself as resolutely as possible from the idea that truth stands motionless on one side, while the realm of factical existence, of change, of becoming, stands on the other, and the task is somehow to bring them both together. Only once you have seen through this notion – the antithesis between objectivity qua truth and mere subjectivity qua becoming – as illusory, or simply provisional, will you be able to escape the spell of ideology (203).

The concept of freedom serves as an example for Adorno because if it has an origin in the relationship that the nascent bourgeoisie had with medieval society, it has undergone a historical process that cannot be separated from the concept itself. It has become ideology, but nonetheless must be must be saved from the spell. It is a perfect target for the Adornian critique of ideology.

By way of conclusion, this lecture series enables the reader to immerse themselves in a work through which a professor speaking directly to his students. The continued relevance of Adorno’s radical thought is confirmed by these published lectures.

25 July 2022

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