Ståle Finke (and Espen Hammer) on Adorno


[Posted by BR]

Theodor Adorno: Key Concepts

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Because posting about Ralph Berry yesterday got me thinking about good OLP-inflected work on Adorno, I’ve decided to bring up another recent essay which seems to me also very suggestive about the possible affinities between the projects of Adorno and OLP-thinkers like Wittgenstein and Cavell. The essay, entitled “Between Ontology and Epistemology”, is by Ståle Finke, who is Professor of Philosophy at NTNY, the University of Trondheim, Norway, and it was written for a recent Acumen volume, edited by Deborah Cook (Philosophy, University of Windsor), entitled Theodor Adorno: Key Concepts (2008). The collection as a whole is very strong, but I think Finke’s essay will be of particular interest to readers of this blog, because he approaches Adorno in a way that clearly suggests his proximity to Wittgenstein: particularly when it comes to such issues as the meanings of words and the possibility of a mimetic (or physiognomic) form of perception. (Below, I’ll also say a bit about Espen Hammer’s excellent contribution to this collection).

Here are two excerpts from Finke’s essay. The first, on Adorno’s semantics:

Meaning something [for Adorno] thus implies a claim to attunement with others in judgement, meaning something rightly; it implies common commitments to further applications and uses of concepts, and to the meanings that words may acquire. Again, the point is that I cannot articulate an “original” meaning — and its essential fulfillment (Evidenz) [to recall Husserl’s phenomenology] — in abstraction from the practices of expression, judging and sense-giving that make up the grammar of an ordinary language. Meaning is something to be achieved rather than already fixed or intuitively determined. In agreement with Adorno, Ludwig Wittgenstein notes the following: “We want to say: ‘When we mean something, it’s like going up to someone, it’s not having a dead picture (of any kind)’. We go up to the thing we mean.” In other words, meaning something does not proceed from self-authorizing inner givens, but is something attained, fulfilled or confirmed through living practice as it develops. The meaning of concepts cannot be determined independently of such practice. (81-2)

The second excerpt is on mimetic, or physiognomic, perception:

The sensuous forms of physiognomic traits — which shift with the expressive attentiveness of the experiencing subject — reveal things in their otherness to conceptual consciousness. That is, they reveal things as conditioning appearances. In this sense, mimesis is a reminder of the mutuality of things and language; it also remind us that language can never be entirely sublimated into pure forms. For Adorno — and this brings him close to thinkers such as Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, and Hans-Georg Gadamer — this limitation is not an obstacle to knowing but a salutary corrective to an epistemic (metaphysical, according to Wittgenstein) misconception. (93)

I hope reading just these two brief excerpts will make some of you want to track Finke’s essay down in order to be able to read the rest.

In passing, however, I want to note as well that one additional interest of Finke’s essay is that it is written in the wake of, and in partial response to, Robert Pippin’s fierce critique of Adorno in his important and quite wonderful collection of essays, The Persistence of Subjectivity (from which I’ve learned a tremendous amount). As anyone who has read Pippin’s essay on Adorno knows, he’s deeply impatient with Adorno’s critique of Kant and idealism more generally, and with Adorno’s corollary affirmation of “mimesis” as a supposedly non-conceptual way of relating to the things of the world. In note 35 of Finke’s essay, he briefly addresses Pippin’s critique, and interestingly, exploits Cavell’s distinction between knowing and acknowledging in order to defend Adorno from the charge of propounding an irrationalist (quasi-mystical) epistemology. According to Finke, we should see mimesis not as a way of “knowing” things, but rather as a way of “acknowledging” them. Finke’s note on Pippin refers back to the following question, which he raised in the main body of the text: “Adorno’s epistemic ambition… is to reverse the idealizations of epistemology, and preserve the otherness of things. The question is whether this makes any difference to experience, or whether things should be sacrificed for the sake of the autonomy of concepts” (91). And Finke’s note to this passage reads, in part:

This question, I take it, underlies much of Robert Pippin’s criticism of Adorno. Pippin rejects the idea that experience entails commitment to an otherness or non-identity prior to concepts since the preponderance of things undermines the idealist commitment to autonomy and normative self-authorization…. While I share Pippin’s worries about Adorno’s rather abrupt claims regarding the “falseness” of idealist philosophy in general (and its complicity with a culture distorted by the commodity-form), the following section [from which the paragraph above on physiognomic perception is excerpted –BR] tries to make sense of the claim that respect for the non-identity of things offers an experience of finitude and self-limitation; such respect acknowledges, rather than knows, things and their proximity to our form of life (in language). (96)

Finally, in addition to Finke’s essay in Cook’s volume, I think readers of this blog will certainly also be interested in another of its contributions, written by Espen Hammer (author of Stanley Cavell: Skepticism, Subjectivity, and the Ordinary) on the topic of Adorno’s understanding of “Metaphysics.” It too is excellent, and it also contains a number of suggestive remarks about mimesis, which, though they make no mention of Wittgenstein or Cavell, seem to my ears at least, deeply informed by (and in tune with) their idiom and outlook (which, if true, wouldn’t be surprising, considering Hammer’s prior work).

Here is an excerpt from Hammer’s essay, with which I will leave you, hopefully wanting more:

Adorno emphasizes that, rather than being real, the object of a metaphysical experience must be an illusion. If it were real, this would entail that reconciliation is possible within the false social totality of modern society. However, Adorno rejects this possibility. A reconciliation between subject and object, human beings and nature, would only be possible beyond the current history of domination (or what Adorno, following Benjamin, also calls “natural history”). It is a utopian concept. On the other hand, the illusion that is apprehended in metaphysical experience points beyond itself. In German, the word Schein, which is often translated as “illusion,” means both something unreal and the appearance of the real. Following Hegel, Adorno understands truth as the negation of Schein. Truth cannot be had directly; it must be mediated. This view sets him apart from Benjamin, for whom truth permits no mediation and hence no rationality or conceptuality. Metaphysical experience provides a promise of something which is not a mere projection; it is a transcendence from within.

It is important to realize that Adorno wants to position himself between two extremes. He is claiming neither that metaphysical experience involves an immediate, non-conceptual form of apprehension, nor that it calls for some kind of independent justification or determinate judging. Moreover, he is not claiming that for something to count as a metaphysical experience it must in some sense correspond to something that is real. Metaphysical experience is an intimation of transcendence, not its fulfillment. (68-9)

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