Adorno’s Practical Philosophy: Living Less Wrongly

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What did Adorno think about philosophical anthropology? We cannot say what man is. Man today is a function, unfree, regressing behind whatever is ascribed to him as invariant—except perhaps for the defenselessness and neediness in which some anthropologies wallow. He drags along with him as his social heritage the mutilations inflicted upon him over thousands of years. To decipher the human essence by the way it is now would sabotage its possibility.

Existence is a moment. It is not the whole it was conceived against, the whole from which, severed, it seized the unfulfillable pretension of entirety as soon as it styled itself philosophy. That we cannot tell what man is does not establish a peculiarly majestic anthropology; it vetoes any anthropology. Hence they are just as idealistic and ahistorical as their positivist antecedents. So, on the one hand there is the positing of human nature or essence, understood as either determinate functions a certain kind of Aristotelianism or essential indeterminacy Heideggerian existentialism , and on the other the rejection of anthropology in favour of changing constellations of societal relations.

As early as , Adorno contemplated developing a dialectical anthropology. Adorno, GS Although Adorno never, as far as I know, fully worked out a dialectical anthropology, we can sketch out a possible reconstruction based on some of his writings.

Adorno's Practical Philosophy: Living Less Wrongly

First, there is no immediate epistemic access to, no pure concept of first nature, including our own: first nature is always mediated through second nature—culture, economy, society. But the social and natural moments of need cannot be split up into secondary and primary in order to set up some sort of ranking of satisfactions. Hunger, when understood as a natural category, can be sated by the grasshoppers and mosquito-cakes eaten by many uncivilized peoples.

To satisfy the concrete hunger of civilized peoples, however, implies that what they have to eat does not disgust them; in this disgust and its opposite is reflected the whole of history. So it goes with each need.

Each drive is so socially mediated that its natural side never appears immediately, but always only as socially produced. The appeal to nature in relation to this or that need is always merely the mask of denial and domination. Even physical disgust is not a natural invariant, but rather must be understood through the historically variable, social mediation of nature. For example, in his valuable and nuanced discussion of the role of senseless suffering as an immediate index of the bad, Freyenhagen concludes:.

But in his early essay against positivist philosophical anthropology Horkheimer takes as one of his examples the transformation of sympathy under bourgeois conditions:.

Introduction | SpringerLink

Economic development has progressed to a point where even successful advancement within society is contingent on the ability to show interest in the concerns of others. In a free market economy, other things being equal, the salesman who shows such concern for his customers has a distinct advantage over his competitor.


  • Adorno's Practical Philosophy;
  • Introduction;
  • Translating for Children (Childrens Literature and Culture).

Besides the participation of the bourgeoisie in the government, each citizen is bound by the necessities of taking pains for customers, of showing them what is to their advantage, and of guessing and influencing their inclinations. These exigencies counteract purely selfish dispositions and develop the capacity for compassion toward others. This interpersonal understanding, which even in its more sublime manifestations bears the mark of its relationship with trade and commerce, is not equivalent to the spontaneous feeling of unity in prebourgeois forms of community or to unconditional solidarity.

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Nevertheless, bourgeois commerce in conjunction with egoism has nurtured its own negation: altruism. Classes that were left behind in economic development—for example, a segment of the farmers in certain parts of a country—appear to the more refined, bourgeois consciousness as emotional cripples, not least because of their concern with themselves.

Horkheimer —3. The attempt to conceive of human beings either as a fixed or as an evolving unity is futile […].

The Psychology of Solitude

Human characteristics are inextricably linked to the course of history, and history itself is in no way marked by a uniform will. Like the object of anthropological studies, even history itself represents no autonomous entity. Adorno then charts a dialectical movement between these two moments. In the movement from nature to history the reverse occurs: what has hitherto been taken to be immutable nature is revealed to be transient, contingent, alterable. Whenever something historical arises, it refers back to something natural that passes away within it.

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Adorno [6]. The decay of individuality today not only teaches us to regard that category as historical but also raises doubts concerning its positive nature […].

The tendency toward human emancipation emerged under the aegis of individuality but at the same time was the result of the very mechanism from which humanity was to be emancipated. In the autonomy and uniqueness of the individual, the resistance to the blind, repressive power of the irrational whole was crystallized.

But that resistance was made historically possible only by the blindness and irrationality of the autonomous and unique individual. Conversely, however, that which, as particularistic, was absolutely opposed to the whole remains perniciously and opaquely attached to the existing order. The radical individual, unassimilated features of a human being are always both at once: residues not fully encompassed by the prevailing system and still happily surviving, and marks of the mutilation inflicted on its members by that system. More specifically in our discussion, any positive characterisation of human nature, human function, should be read dialectically as both the imprint of specific historical societal relations and as a specific capacity with the potentiality to transcend its historical disfigurement.


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  4. A solution to this problem would be to deploy the conceptual relation determinable—determinate. But I shall come to this point obliquely, by means of my second set of critical comments, on epistemic negativism.

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    Freyenhagen grants that Adorno is a utopian thinker only insofar as he is an anti-positivist about the status quo:. I am not […] denying that his thinking is utopian in the sense that he holds on to the possibility that things could be different. What I am denying is that he can tell us how things would then be—what utopia would consist in positively speaking that is, other than the avoidance of the bads he can identify. While Adorno often does seem to maintain such an austere epistemic negativism, his writings also exhibit frequent appeals to what a changed social world, and a changed humanity, would look like.

    When one imagines: a society in which exchange occurs no more, that is, that people receive goods through the market no more, but rather production occurs in accordance with the needs of people, then this element of absolute comparability and thereby the levelling element would fall away and one could imagine that the qualitative and with it all the elements of form that appear covered over by contemporary society would reproduce and restore themselves at higher levels […].

    The deformation [ Entformung ] is rather […] a phenomenon of bourgeois society […] I would say: precisely in the idea [Vorstellung] of a world in which there is no more levelling through exchange—this idea seems to me to be something completely understandable [ Vollziehbares ] […]. The idea [ Idee ] of a really—according to its own substance—liberated society […] that production occurs in accordance with the needs of people.

    Then, admittedly in an altered societal organisation, it would cease to be the case that the needs are produced by the apparatus. This research output has an Altmetric Attention Score of 3. This is our high-level measure of the quality and quantity of online attention that it has received. This Attention Score, as well as the ranking and number of research outputs shown below, was calculated when the research output was last mentioned on 03 December All research outputs. Outputs of similar age from Philosophical Quarterly.

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    Altmetric has tracked 13,, research outputs across all sources so far. This one is in the 49th percentile — i. He argues that Adorno's deep pessimism about the contemporary social world is coupled with a strong optimism about human potential, and that this optimism explains his negative views about the social world, and his demand that we resist and change it. He shows that Adorno holds a substantive ethics, albeit one that is minimalist and based on a pluralist conception of the bad - a guide for living less wrongly.

    His incisive study does much to advance our understanding of Adorno, and is also an important intervention into current debates in moral philosophy. No right living. Social determination and negative freedom.

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