‘Adorno’s Practical Philosophy: Living Less Wrongly’, ‘Adorno’ reviewed by Koshka Duff

Adorno’s Practical Philosophy: Living Less Wrongly

Cambridge University Press, New York, 2013. 298pp., $95 hb
ISBN 9781107036543


Routledge, Abingdon and New York, 2012. 224pp., £16.99 pb
ISBN 9780415367363

Reviewed by Koshka Duff

About the reviewer

Koshka Duff is a PhD student at the University of Sussex. She previously studied philosophy at …


Students’ banners in ’69 proclaimed the death of Adorno `als Institution‘ [as an institution] after he sided with the university authorities, and ultimately with the police, against the young militants occupying his lecture theatre. Despite the frequency and gusto with which that anecdote has since been repeated, however, the near-total exclusion of Adornian concerns from Anglo-American philosophical institutions should probably be credited to more conservative forces. Freyenhagen and O’Connor’s new books are excellent representatives of a recent push to get Adorno taken seriously by the philosophical mainstream, and in doing so to bring many of its assumptions and methods into question.

Freyenhagen offers a sustained and nuanced defence of what he calls Adorno’s ‘negativism’. Essentially an anti-utopian epistemology, it shows how radical social criticism is still possible despite the mystifying effects of oppressive social relations. The term ‘ideology’, in Adorno’s Marxist lexicon, refers to those distorted forms of consciousness which are generated by social relations of domination, and which help perpetuate those relations by concealing the objective antagonisms between dominators and dominated. The pervasiveness of ideology is a reason for rejecting utopianism, which Adorno, following Marx, understands as the faith that we can simply think our way outside of those distorting social conditions which formed us. On the contrary, our ‘utopias’ replicate the forms of our domination. This provides an epistemological justification for the importance of proceeding ‘negatively’, of trying to understand what is wrong and inhuman and distorted and monstrous in the present state of things, and of resisting it, without a fully worked-out image of the Good to guide us.

Freyenhagen’s closely-argued exposition of this position certainly presents a challenge to mainstream political philosophy, dominated as it is by a plethora of liberal utopian projects which purport to be setting out ‘just’, ‘well-ordered’ or otherwise jolly decent societies, justified by Reason and Experience, which just miraculously turn out to mirror, in all but a few (often thoroughly unrealistic) details, the capitalist status quo. Equally, Freyenhagen reveals the fallacy of that ubiquitous move whereby a radical critic is silenced by the demand that they offer a concrete positive alternative, a demand which ‘would require subordinating critique to the status quo and to what is conceivable within it’ (217).

O’Connor’s guide to Adorno’s philosophy is in the more difficult position of attempting to cover much of the same ground as Simon Jarvis’ excellent Adorno: A Critical Introduction (Jarvis 1998), but in rather fewer pages. Still, this new introduction is lucid and gripping, and probably more likely than Jarvis’ to engage readers within Anglo-American philosophy departments, in whose sides it should register as a nicely-packaged yet ultimately still uncomfortable thorn. In particular, it is excellent in bringing out the significance of Adorno’s criticisms of identity-thinking, which are too often dismissed as obscure. Identity-thinking, O’Connor explains, is thinking which operates by classifying objects, putting them into preconceived conceptual slots. This is the kind of thinking which is elevated as ‘rational’ by the dominant positivist mindset. Adorno argues, however, that such thinking does violence to the object, and in fact becomes irrational by failing to be responsive to reality.

In the case where the ‘objects’ are human beings, this is clearly a political point. Approaching human beings with a categorising eye, seeing people only as instances of preconceived schema – male/female, straight/gay, citizen/criminal, tax-payer/benefits-claimant – is clearly an ideological aid to violence, as well as presupposing and thus masking the violence which upholds those schema. Medical professionals ‘treat’ a person with an ‘intersex disorder’ by surgically imposing order on their genitals, forcing recalcitrant matter to fit the requisite form. The fact that something is necessarily excluded by the push towards identity, and that such exclusion is often violent and anti-human, is also exemplified in the phenomena of right-wing nationalism and fascism.

Adorno’s critique is broader than this, however, as O’Connor explains. Adorno links the dominance of identity thinking with the dominance of capitalist social relations, under which everything is exchangeable: ‘Bourgeois society is ruled by equivalence. It makes the dissimilar comparable by reducing it to abstract quantities’ (quoted in O’Connor, 32). The qualitative element of experience is progressively lost, as objects are forced to fit the categories which best aid their manipulation by instrumental reason. The irrational tendency inherent in this mode of thought derives from its uncritical relation to itself: while ‘reality takes on the character of the mode of enquiry that revealed it’ (15), the uncritical identity-thinker takes this simply to prove the ability of their mode of enquiry to encompass everything worth knowing about the world. As with all idealism, it creates reality in its own image, then celebrates the unity of mind and world. Against this, the need to emphasise the non-identical, to reflect always on the limitations of our ideologically constrained experiences of objects, the inadequacy of dominant schema to each individual, is therefore a demand of materialism.

When it comes to the critique of political economy, however, O’Connor’s presentation is less rigorous. Rather than explaining the social relations which constitute capital, for example, he tries to hint at their nature through such perplexing formulations as ‘exchange capitalism’, or ‘bourgeois capitalism’, which imply that there could be some other kind of capitalism which involved neither exchange nor bourgeoisie. Also, although he explores Adorno’s notion of reification in detail, its origins and development in Marxist (or, for that matter, Freudian) thought are obscured. The terms ‘commodity’, ‘fetish’, ‘alienation’, and ‘real abstraction’ do not appear in the glossary, or even in the index.

Freyenhagen is much clearer in this respect, devoting a chapter to what you might call ‘Marx 101’ (26-51). A controversial feature of his exposition, however, is its downplaying of class conflict, which he presents as merely ‘aggravating’ the contradictions of class society, rather than as at their heart. This points towards a more general issue facing any expounder of Adorno: despite being a profound critic of all that exists, his philosophy is marked by a decided lack of interest in contemporary struggles. Contrasting contemporary proletarians with their nineteenth century counterparts, he argues in “Reflections on Class Theory” that the exploited ‘are [now] unable to experience themselves as a class’ because of the illusions generated by mass society (Adorno 2003, 99). A sympathetic reader might see this as simply an expression of pessimism, understandable in 1942, if perhaps unfair to the fallen anarchists of Spain. However, by 1968 he sounds even more dismissive: ‘in the countries that are prototypical for class relations, such as North America, class consciousness did not exist for long periods of time, if indeed it ever existed at all’ (Adorno 2003,115). Yet North America in the 1960s saw Black people challenging the institutions of white supremacy through protests, riots, and armed struggle. It saw long-standing violent repression of subversive sexualities exploding into resistance in the Compton Cafeteria and Stonewall riots, and rebellious auto-workers in Detroit bringing American industrial capital to its knees with wild-cat strikes. It saw conscripted GIs killing their own officers rather than follow orders in Vietnam.

Neither Freyenhagen nor O’Connor consider the possible problems with Adorno’s unwillingness to give any recognition to such acts of collective resistance, of conscious refusal to be mere appendages to the value-producing machine, to fit smoothly into the categories allocated by capital – in other words, his unresponsiveness to the non-identical in its more proletarian manifestations. Nor do they consider whether there might be something epistemologically dubious about claiming to know what ‘most of us all of the time … think and experience’ (Freyenhagen 2013, 249), given the effects of material inequalities and (the threat of) violent repression on what critical thoughts get heard.

Freyenhagen’s discussion of punishment (95-9) is particularly uncritical. Here he explains how, for Adorno, there is a tension between the need for society to hold criminals responsible for wrongdoing, and the fact that society is itself implicated in this wrongdoing, undermining the claim that criminals should be held responsible. At no point is the function of the police and the penal system in class society – their role as violent enforcers of capitalist and white-supremacist imperatives – even mentioned, much less questioned. The pronoun ‘we’ is assumed to encompass not only the reader and the author, but those law-makers and law-enforcers who decide whether and how to mete out death and incarceration. It is never considered whether the category of ‘criminal’ might be an ideological one (in the critical Marxist sense), or whether anyone might be in the position of being labelled as such precisely because they (or even, we) offer some resistance to the order of private property.

Freyenhagen, to be fair, is following Adorno here, and indeed a long Marxist tradition of disparaging the Lumpenproletariat. Still, it is a noticeable feature of both these books that their centre of gravity – and the assumed perspective of the reader – is to the political right of Adorno. While detailed philosophical attention is paid to ‘sober’ liberals like Habermas (O’Connor, 190), criticism from the left is represented only in the figure of the disruptive students who, it seems, are of merely biographical interest. Without any serious exploration of their (probably complex and certainly various) politics, they are summarily dismissed by O’Connor. Adorno, we are told, was alert to ‘the dangers of a praxis which did not fully explore its own commitments’, and preferred ‘to address the problems of the state through democratic methods’ (189).

The dominant liberal assumption that whatever upholds the status quo does not even count as acting may perhaps obscure the fact that this trite response raises more questions than it answers. For example, what does ‘democratic’ mean? Why should acting in collaboration with bourgeois institutions, including the police, count as more ‘democratic’ than the students’ methods, rather than as precisely the kind of ‘joining in’ with increasingly normalised authoritarian violence which Adorno analysed as supporting the rise of fascism, and which Freyenhagen positions his Adornian ‘ethics of resistance’ against? Did the university function ‘democratically’ prior to the student occupations? What are the commitments, explored or otherwise, of such practices as: holding an institutional post; appearing on public radio and endorsing public education programmes; calling in armed gangs to violently remove students from their own place of education? On what grounds did Adorno judge his own praxis less ‘dangerous’ than the students’? Was he right?

These questions connect with broader ones, fundamental to any kind of revolutionary philosophy, about the relation of theory and praxis, and indeed the very meaning of the distinction. In the context of an anti-utopian epistemology, such questions seem particularly pressing. One might agree with Adorno that utopia can only be approached negatively, through determinate negation of what exists, while believing that this shows precisely the centrality of struggle against the ideology-shrouded object in the process of coming to know its nature. To open up such debates would be fruitful not only in probing the limits of an epistemology which renounces ‘praxis’, but also in seriously following through Adorno’s objections to the uncritical pseudo-revolutionary anti-intellectualism which so troubled him, and which is equally troubling today.  

This is not the task that Freyenhagen and O’Connor set themselves. In style and content, their books address the liberal academy. Hopefully, this will make it more difficult for philosophers to ignore Adorno’s radical criticisms of their discipline, and facilitate his inclusion in that key disciplinary instrument: the reading list. The downside is that, in presenting Adorno’s as the most ‘extreme’ position to be countenanced, like a BBC interview, they reinforce certain parameters of ‘reasonable debate’. In a tellingly unreflexive moment, Freyenhagen illustrates an excellent anti-utopian point with the following example: ‘when faced with a group of youths who are pouring petrol over a cat and are about to set it on fire’, he claims, ‘I do not need to make positive suggestions about how they could spend their afternoon in order to intervene and to criticise them for what they are about to do’ (218). This is probably the most vivid image of a proletarian collective we are offered in the whole book. (Anyone who doubts the class-inflections of this example should ask themselves when the last time was that anyone referred to the Oxford Union as a ‘group of youths’.) My suggestion is that it may be more of a problem than they like to admit that the authors of these books can’t actually think of a better use for petrol.  

2 February 2014


  • Adorno, T. W 2003 'Reflections on Class Theory' and 'Late Capitalism or Industrial Society: The Fundamental Question of the Present Structure of Society' Can One Live After Auschwitz? A Philosophical Reader ed. R. Tiedemann (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press).
  • Jarvis, S 1998 Adorno: A Critical Introduction Cambridge: Polity Press

One comment

  1. If I had to venture a guess, I would say that most first meet Adorno in one of two ways: either after having met Marx, in which case they meet the Adorno of Dialectic of Enlightenment and are suddenly handed a modern (and dare I say cool) context in which they are given familiar examples to help make sense of Marx’s views on phenomenon such as alienation and commodity fetishism, through discussions of cinema, sex-icons, the advertising industry, etc. Or, they encounter Adorno in the guise of an abstruse aesthetician who labeled all but the fiercest forms of modernist art kitsch. Now I make this assumption for honest and simple reasons. Being told that they are to dive headfirst into Negative Dialectics or any of the rest of his more strictly philosophical works would have most college students running for the exits, swearing to never return to Adorno again. It is simply too much to ask students to partake in such a purely philosophical entrance into Adorno and thus it often happens (as it has here) that Adorno’s philosophy is read through his Marxism, rather than his Marxism being read through his more refined theoretical, mostly epistemic, and sometimes inherently ethical, commitments (it is all the more troubling when Adorno’s general philosophical aspirations are siphoned through his aesthetic theory, but no need to discuss that here!).

    In the first paragraph the reviewer lauds the efforts of O’Connor and Freyenhagen and their diligent attempts to get Adorno to be taken seriously by the philosophical mainstream, and so it would appear that we are going to be told how they accomplish this feat, how these books serve to get philosophers interested in Adorno. Thus the books should be mainly of interest to philosophers, not politicians, not political theorists, not even strictly Marxist philosophers, but simply philosophers. This seems to me to be not only what the review promises, but what the two recent contributions to Adorno studies themselves promise, a promise which they deliver, and which gets no mention in this review.

    Instead, we are dragged down the same familiar path and forced to understand things like Adorno’s subject-object dialectics, his resistance to praxis, and his penetrating negativism all in the context of his Marxist heritage. Thus it is no surprise that the reviewer would take a playful stab at O’Connor’s exceptionally clear and engaging text by comparing it to an earlier work by Jarvis, and then noting in an obviously regretful tone that O’Connor’s book will probably be of more interest to the Anglophone philosopher, which is apparently a shame because it is lacks something which Jarvis’ study does not. What does it lack? A focused discussion of Adorno’s Marxism, we are told. But for anyone who has been thorough in their studies of Adorno, we know that if this is what the reader is after, they should rewind the clock 10, 20, 30 years. Scholars have since found better things to do with Adorno’s thought than to continue to appropriate its radicality (which is essentially meant as a tool for revising experience, not pseudo-class struggles) for their own political agenda; the attempts to bring Adorno’s concept of non-identity thinking to bear on the example of the medical procedure of sex or gender alteration in paragraph five is an absolute joke in this regard, and does nothing but give the unfamiliar reader a false picture of what it is to think non-identically, which is to treat objects as dynamic containers of mediated agency in order to be in a position where one is able to impulsively respond to things in the world without them having to pass through a deliberative filter. The category of the non-identical cannot be understood if one does not appreciate the extent to which it is developed as a response to the philosophical projects of Kant and Hegel. It is utterly astonishing, given the pages that both O’Connor and Freyenhagen devout to these two philosophical Titans, that neither name is mentioned in the review. Like it or not, one of the main ways in which Adorno has gained footing in the philosophical mainstream in recent years is through scholars having gone back to examine some of his work on Kant, Hegel, and the rest of the German Idealist tradition only to discover that on a second pass, it turns out that he does have novel things to say about these figures, that he made good arguments regarding various aspects of their philosophes, and that these should be given a place in the current scholarly discourse.

    So it is no surprise that the reviewer laments the fact that O’Connor’s text lacks terms like ‘commodity,’ ‘fetish,’ and ‘alienation,’ as it is apparent that they refuse to remove their Marx goggles and to examine the texts in any other light. We might charge the reviewer with this same kind of neglect by noting that not once are we given any insight into the theory of negative normativity lying at the heart of Freyenhagen’s book, a theory which he amply tries to defend on almost every page, and which serves as the main thesis of the text. Clearly their cynicism towards the ‘liberal academy,’ though it may be justified, has prohibited the reviewer from engaging in such a discussion, for reasons one can only guess at.

    In any case, it is strange that Freyenhagen’s most plain attempt to draw connections between Adorno’s ‘ethics’ and cotemporary work in ethical theory, agency theory, normative philosophy, etc. would go unmentioned. Again, those are the kinds of discussions that are going to get other philosophers to start making second passes at Adorno’s work. Babbling on about his Marxism, and speaking as if the true transformative power of his thought lies in what he has to say about commodity-fetishism certainly is not. I will say that I am wary of a recent upsurge in hermeneutical attempts to draw comparisons between the work of someone like Robert Pippin and Adorno, or John McDowell and Adorno. I am not sure it’ll benefit the philosophical community if in five years titles such as ‘Adorno and Analytic Philosophy,’ or ‘Adorno’s Philosophy of Mind,’ start to be churned out (although such work may be of a more Adornian ilk than what we have here, which is clearly just another example of someone not capable of the mündigkeit required to get beyond a college professor calling campus security to remove his students from his lecture hall).

    The reviewer begins by noting Adorno’s questionable behavior during the student movements and then charades as if they are not going to let this cloud their reading of O’Connor’s and Freyenhagen’s texts. But in the end, after having been given a list of some paltry ‘revolutionary’ achievements from the 60s that seem to counteract Adorno’s negativism (which the reviewer reads in a dogmatically uncritical sense throughout, I might add), the most disturbing of which seems to be the reviewers appraisal of the murder of military officers in Vietnam (a point that clearly implicates this review in the sort of identity-thinking it attempts to denigrate for its own Marxist agenda), we are back to this just being another example of the same old politically-infused demand for praxis from a man who was much too modest and much to wary of the many guises authoritarianism can take to just give his students the advice they craved.

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