Adorno and Heidegger: Philosophical Questions

Adorno and Heidegger: Philosophical Questions

by Iain Macdonald

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Adorno and Heidegger explores the conflictual history of two important traditions of twentieth-century European thought: the critical theory of Theodor W. Adorno and the ontology of Martin Heidegger. As is well known, there has been little productive engagement between these two schools of thought, in large measure due to Adorno's sustained and unanswered critique of


Adorno and Heidegger explores the conflictual history of two important traditions of twentieth-century European thought: the critical theory of Theodor W. Adorno and the ontology of Martin Heidegger. As is well known, there has been little productive engagement between these two schools of thought, in large measure due to Adorno's sustained and unanswered critique of Heidegger. Stemming from this critique, numerous political and philosophical barriers have kept these traditions separate, such that this separation has rarely been submitted to scrutiny, let alone questioned. The essays making up this collection are fresh and original attempts at coming to terms with the nuances and difficulties that these two towering figures have bequeathed to the history of European thought. The volume's authors deal with a variety of issues ranging from epistemology to aesthetics, to ethics, to intellectual history and modernity, providing the reader with detailed insight into a thorny debate.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Partisan scholarship has perhaps made it too easy to simply separate Adorno and Heidegger, and this volume admirably makes the case that such a separation is theoretically and historically erroneous. This fine collection of essays by an important and diverse group of experts brings us to the next stage of evaluating Heidegger and Adorno’s work.” —Stephen H. Watson, University of Notre Dame

“Adorno’s polemical antagonism to Heidegger hid what now appears as a fateful proximity between their two philosophies. The drive toward concreteness, the critique of technological modernity, the critical power of art, an ethics without principles, the need for remembrance are among the philosophical tropes binding Adorno and Heidegger together. Macdonald and Ziarek have put together an exhilarating collection of essays exploring these and related topics. For the English-speaking reader, the dialogue between Adorno and Heidegger begins with this volume.” —J. M. Bernstein, New School for Social Research

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Philosophical Questions


Copyright © 2008 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
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ISBN: 978-0-8047-5636-5

Chapter One

Ethics and Authenticity: Conscience and Non-Identity in Heidegger and Adorno, with a Glance at Hegel

Iain Macdonald

Adorno's Critique of Heidegger: The Suppression of Non-Identity

In Negative Dialectics, Adorno makes the following possibly astonishing concession: "Heidegger gets as far as the borderline of dialectical insight into the non-identity within identity." granted, it is a meager concession, especially since it is followed up by the usual invective:

But he does not carry over the contradiction into the concept of Being. He suppresses it. Whatever can be thought of under the concept of Being mocks the identity of a concept and the object 'meant' by it; but Heidegger treats it as identity, as pure Being itself, devoid of its otherness. He hushes up the non-identity in absolute identity like a skeleton in the family closet.

The aim of this chapter is to discuss what Adorno might be aiming at when he says that Heidegger gets "as far as the borderline of dialectical insight into the non-identity within identity," and what he thinks are the principal reasons why he can go no further. Doing so will also require an assessment of Adorno's critique and the stakes of his own thought. The result, with any luck, will be insight into why the struggle between Adorno and Adorno's Heidegger is not one that can be settled by siding with either Adorno or Heidegger.

What seems obvious for starters is that the left-handed nature of the concession allows Adorno to come at Heidegger from a familiar angle: to say that he has got as far as the borderline of dialectical insight into nonidentity amounts to saying that he is totally undialectical, as Adorno already says of Heidegger in his 1931 inaugural address:

If philosophical interpretation can in fact only thrive dialectically, then its first dialectical target is given by a philosophy that cultivates precisely those problems whose removal seems more urgently necessary than the addition of a new answer to so many old ones. Only an essentially undialectical philosophy, which aims at ahistorical truth, could imagine that the old problems could simply be removed by forgetting them and starting fresh from the beginning. In fact, the deception of the beginning [der Trug des Beginnes] is precisely that which in Heidegger's philosophy comes under criticism first of all.

This passage is, for a number of reasons, key to understanding how to read Adorno on Heidegger. I will quickly mention a few points to bear in mind, simply in order to recall some of the salient features of Adorno's critique of Heidegger.

First, the charge of being undialectical needs to be understood in connection with two related charges: (1) what Adorno here calls "the deception of the beginning" and what he elsewhere calls Heidegger's archaism, his insistence on the primordiality of Being, and (2) Heidegger's alleged ahistoricality, or his indifference to historical contingency, suffering, and adversity. Heidegger, he says, commits himself to a concept of Being that in its very primordiality sacrifices the material, historical dimension of thought to an arche that is indeed always historical but only indeterminately so, through the formal, universal structures of Being. Thus, historicality (Geschichtlichkeit) is primordial, for Heidegger, whereas determinate history is merely factual. In this sense, says Adorno, Heidegger forgoes the comprehension of "historical Being in its most historical determinateness." And so he claims that the categories of Being elaborated by Heidegger fail to do justice to historical reality; or in other words, they do not look outward toward the "concrete inner-historical determinateness [of beings, das Seiende]." Consequently, the problems posed by history cannot be addressed by Heidegger's ontological strategy, which restricts itself to investigating formal structures of Being.

This historical objection leads to the further charge of dressing up what is basically a tautology and serving it up as philosophy. Concerning this tautological spinning in the archaic void, Adorno says that "the so-called question of Being condenses into a zero-dimensional point, into what it admits as the only legitimate [echtbürtig] meaning of Being. It turns into a ban on any step beyond this, and finally into any step beyond the tautology whose manifestation in Heidegger's prose is that time and again self-unconcealing Being says nothing else but 'Being.'" What Adorno has in mind here is the fact that Heidegger's approach, at least in Being and Time, involves the interpretation of Being in terms of a being, Dasein, for whom, "in its very Being, that Being is an issue for it." in other words, for Adorno, the way Heidegger lays Being bare involves nothing more than explaining Being in terms of Being.

Finally, by way of this tautology, we come to the question of identity. "Tautology," he says in the essay "The idea of natural History," "appears to me to be less a self-grounding of the mythical depths of language than a new way of covering over the old classical thesis about the identity of subject and object." More explicitly, he also says that the "tautological tendency can only be clarified through the old idealist theme of identity. it [the tendency] has its origin in the subsumption of historical Being by the subjective category of historicality. The historical Being that has been subsumed by the subjective category of historicality is supposed to be identical with history. Being has to conform to the categories with which historicality stamps it." According to Adorno's reading, then, what is is for Heidegger adequately conceivable by categorial comprehension; nothing essential falls outside the web of interpretive existentiales. There is no non-identity in Heidegger, and no impetus to dialectical movement and engagement with history; there is only the claim that Being can be understood—and in fact is always already understood, if only implicitly.

These charges regarding ahistoricality, archaism, tautological thinking, and identitarian thinking are the real cornerstones of Adorno's critique of Heidegger, and are therefore more serious than some of the other, more satirical accusations leveled against Heidegger in various places—accusations such as bureaucratism, agrarianism, arty-craftiness, and homely murmuring. The question that needs to be asked at this juncture, however, is whether Heidegger, in arriving at the borderline of the dialectical insight into the non-identity within identity, has anything at all to offer us on the subject of the non-identical; or does he rather (as Adorno would claim) fall into the camp of ahistorical, identitarian busybodies? As a starting point, though it may seem obvious to some, there is more to what Heidegger says in Being and Time than Adorno is letting on. However, at the end of the day the aim here is not to defend Heidegger against Adorno. Instead, I will simply try to put one aspect of Heidegger's thought into dialogue with Adorno's historical and ultimately ethical concerns.

Heidegger's Critique of Adorno: Non-Identity in the Phenomena of Conscience and Guilt

One reason for focusing on the sections of Being and Time on conscience and guilt is that it is in these passages that Heidegger deals with the question of Dasein's self-identity in connection with normativity and the existential basis for historical, ethical action. Interestingly, it is also a section of the book where Adorno's assault on Kierkegaardian or existential pathos might seem most germane—wrongly, but more on that in a moment. For now, suffice it to say that it is here that we find the most convincing evidence for what Adorno says is suppressed in Heidegger's thought.

In this chapter of Being and Time, Heidegger is seeking an "attestation" or demonstration (Bezeugung) of Dasein's capacity for authenticity. Ultimately, the search for this authentic Being-one's-Self will culminate in the concept of resoluteness (Entschlossenheit), whereby Dasein tears itself away from its lostness in the 'they' and "brings itself back to itself" as authentic potentiality-for-Being. But it is only the phenomena of conscience and guilt that provide Heidegger with the means to articulate resoluteness. For this reason, it is not resoluteness as such that interests me here; to understand resoluteness we have, at any rate, to pass through conscience and guilt. Moreover, it is conscience and guilt themselves as distinctive moments of articulation between inauthentic and authentic individual Dasein that really provide us with Heidegger's ontological understanding of normativity. Thus, to be clear about what is at stake here: in this chapter of Being and Time, we are presented with an understanding of normativity rooted in non-identity.

Up to this point in the book, we have not as yet come across an analysis that lays out the way in which Dasein apprises itself of what it must do, of what it ought to do, nor (what will amount to the same thing) an analysis of how norm-based action is possible. Conscience as a "primordial phenomenon of Dasein" is what, according to Heidegger, provides the key to understanding authentic potentiality-for-Being-a-Self; and it is conscience that will therefore attest Dasein's authenticity. Obviously, Heidegger does not have in mind the everyday concept of moral conscience, which he shows up as being inconsistent and derivative. He does, however, take everyday interpretations of the 'voice of conscience' into account, precisely because, through the variety of ways in which conscience is ordinarily understood (e.g., good, bad, or guilty conscience), he sees their generic possibility as rooted in a necessary structure of Dasein.

Thus Heidegger accepts that conscience "gives us 'something' to understand," that it "calls" us in a certain way, in the sense that I am interpellated by conscience and 'pushed' by it, as it were, in a certain direction, called to something. But these more or less usual ways of understanding the call of conscience are to be taken absolutely generally, as the necessary moments of concrete instances of conscience 'telling me something,' whereby it is unequivocal to me who the 'me' is (it is always me), as well as what the 'something' is, even if this 'something' is at first only the sense that things are 'out of joint.' In its generality, then, freed from everyday conceptions, conscience is an interpellation of the self that consists in a self-apprisal aimed at realizing something. Or, as Heidegger puts it, in acting on conscience I enact a "choosing to choose [Wählen der Wahl] a kind of Being-one's-Self," which in turn is what will define resoluteness.

However, this call of conscience, as formal as it is, is nevertheless always rooted in individual Dasein's concrete situation: "Dasein exists as a potentiality-for-Being," says Heidegger, "which has, in each case, already (je schon) given itself over to definite possibilities.... Dasein 'knows' what it is capable of, inasmuch as it has either projected itself upon possibilities of its own or has been so absorbed in the 'they' that it has let such possibilities be presented to it by the way in which the 'they' has publicly interpreted things." The 'call' of conscience is therefore both a calling away, as it were, whereby the individual Dasein breaks away from its fascination with the hubbub of idle talk, and a calling back of this Dasein to itself and its essential, individual role in the determination of possibility. This call is non-vocal, but it is still a mode of discourse, by which he means only that the call of conscience is a kind of articulation of intelligibility. Discourse "articulates intelligibility" (sie gliedert die Verständlichkeit), as Heidegger puts it. This is a way of saying that in the call of conscience, something takes shape for Dasein in terms of its potentiality-for-Being, or, in other words, conscience calls Dasein to understand its possibilities, and to give them substance in action—instead of simply going along with what the 'they' inclines it to do. Heidegger speaks of this aspect of the call of conscience as "the momentum of a push—of a disconcerting awakening." This is still rather vague, of course, and so the coherence of Heidegger's account of conscience will depend on how he explains the particular articulation of intelligibility that constitutes the call of conscience.

But what does Heidegger mean when he says that the call of conscience, as a non-vocal mode of discourse, "articulates" intelligibility? To articulate intelligibility means laying out or interpreting (in the sense of auslegen) the concrete possibilities that engage Dasein at any given moment; it means making these possibilities manifest as possibilities. Heidegger goes into some detail in chapter 5 of division I about how this is a necessary aspect of Dasein's Being-in-the-world. Here, it is enough to say that in the call of conscience Dasein engages in a specific form of this discursive articulation by apprising itself of some actual tension or conflict, such that I find myself interpellated and summoned to my own most potentiality-for-Being; I am summoned to my own Self. Put more plainly, I am compelled to 'take stock' and act by whatever hitch or tension it is that roused me from my usual tendency of floating along with whatever everyone else is doing. Again, we are on a level of phenomenological generality that precludes specific prescriptions; all that Heidegger is pointing out is that such a self-relation, in which I find myself individuated and in tension with possibility, is absolutely necessary for us to understand moral action, as opposed to mere animal behavior. The call of conscience in its existential generality, then, "asserts nothing, gives no information about world-events, has nothing to tell." it is merely the self-relation by which I become aware of a tension (a contradiction, a conflict) in the concrete existentiell possibilities in which I am involved.

In the call of conscience, then, Dasein calls itself. Adorno's accusations of tautological, identitarian thinking may seem justifiable, in view of this circular self-relation, in which Dasein seemingly reacts only to itself; but in fact, on closer analysis, this is far from what Heidegger is claiming. As Heidegger himself puts it: "it is not enough to answer that Dasein is at the same time both the caller and the one to whom the appeal is made." This is because there is something unfamiliar and uncanny about the call of conscience in that the call "comes from me and yet from beyond me." He even uses the impersonal form, "'it' calls" ('es' ruft), to stress this point; when Dasein calls itself it is, in a special sense, not itself. What this means, and how Heidegger avoids the tautology of a pure self-relation, is made clearer in the concept of guilt.

In laying the ground for introducing the concept of guilt, Heidegger returns to the concept of anxiety in saying that the call of conscience is "attuned" by anxiety. Without going into too much detail on anxiety as such, one could say that Dasein's anxiety is focused on its potentiality-for-Being, in the sense that Dasein "exists as an entity which has to be as it is and as it can be." If Dasein is anxious, then, it is anxious as regards the difference between its 'as it is' and its 'as it can be' and indeed, ontologically speaking, this difference is what constitutes Dasein's essence, its existence. But more concretely, what this means is that Dasein's anxiety involves the realization that it is always abandoned to itself and that, faced with its own concrete existentiell possibilities, it can have no alibi. Following up on this claim, Heidegger proposes a phenomenological interpretation of guilt that fills out what he has in mind.


Excerpted from ADORNO AND HEIDEGGER Copyright © 2008 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Iain Macdonald is professeur agrégé in the Department of Philosophy at the Universite de Montréal and Adjunct Professor in the Department of Philosophy at McGill University. He has published in English and French on Hegel, Adorno, and Heidegger and is currently working on a book dealing with the Adorno-Heidegger question. His research focuses on the intersection of epistemology, metaphysics and normativity. Krzysztof Ziarek is Professor of Comparative Literature at the University at Buffalo. He is the author of Inflected Language: Toward a Hermeneutics of Nearness (1994), The Historicity of Experience: Modernity, the Avant-Garde, and the Event (2001), and The Force of Art (Stanford, 2004). He has also written two books of poetry in Polish, Zaimejlowane z Polski and Sad dostateczny

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