Theodor W. Adorno
Part of a Series on the Philosophy of History
Today is the 119th anniversary of the birth of Theodor W. Adorno (11 September 1903–06 August 1969), who was born Theodor Ludwig Wiesengrund on this date in 1903.
Adorno is remembered today as one of the leading members of the Frankfurt School. The Frankfurt School as a whole has had an enormous influence upon the development of the social sciences, hence upon history. Most of those associated with the Frankfurt School were Marxists, so they drew heavily upon Marx’s historical materialism, and this was clearly the case with Adorno as well. However, Adorno showed more independence of mind than the typical Marxist philosopher.
Adorno’s lectures are being made available posthumously, including the volume History and Freedom: Lectures 1964–1965, which deals more explicitly with philosophy of history than other works by Adorno. What follows is an extract from the first paragraph of Lecture 5 of History and Freedom:
“…the historical construction of an event actually requires and presupposes the totality of elements, both their distinctiveness and their unity. My discussion of the French Revolution may well have been far too abstract and schematic. But if you follow my train of thought for a moment you will realize that, once you take all the relevant factors into account, the philosophy of history merges with the writing of history. In other words, you can really only do philosophy of history seriously if you enter into the subject matter of history itself with all the nuances and distinctions that we struggled with last time. I recollect that I gave a course of lectures on the philosophy of history some years ago1 and felt very dissatisfi ed with it, even while I was giving it. Only later did I understand the cause of my dissatisfaction, and that it arose from the problem I have just described to you. Needless to say, it is quite impossible to tackle any genuine historical topic, even in a very limited way, in the course of these lectures — quite apart from the fact that I am no historian and would be able to make only very limited comment on historical subjects. But what I can do, and what I have tried to do, is to disentangle these various concrete factors in order to show you how intertwined they are. I have tried to show you how the philosophy of history, that is, the interpretation of historical events and the philosophical understanding of these events, not only presupposes historiography proper, but also moves in the direction of history-writing in the process of explicating them. I should add that I make no claim to this discovery; you will find this theory already anticipated in Hegel. I have described the relevant aspects, which I refer to as the ‘narrative’ [episch] aspects in part 3 of my little book on Hegel. As you might expect, there are also passages in Marx where he explicitly calls for the transition from the philosophy of history to historiography proper. Thus it is important to realize that the philosophy of history does not fall outside the scope of historical research, but that the constellation of historical events, both as a whole and in detail, should regard itself as the philosophy of history proper. But the converse is also true. By this I mean that philosophy should have the tendency to become history just as readily as history should become philosophy. I would like to emphasize the importance of this in our day, that is, in a situation in which (as I have repeatedly tried to show you) the world of facts has degenerated into a cloak, a veil that conceals what is essentially real. I may perhaps remind you of my own studies in music history. They deal with such topics as the relations between classicism, romanticism and modernism, and they are intended to make the methodological point that we must try to overcome the sterile dichotomy between history and its philosophical interpretation. Those of you who have an inkling of what the word ‘science’ [Wissenschaft] meant to Hegel — and indeed to Fichte and Schelling before him — will understand what I am driving at. I know full well that what I am saying is at odds both with positivist epistemology and with current trends in the positivistic knowledge industry, but I am firmly convinced that this is the only viable approach. This means, then, that a history of literature that is not also philosophical history, in other words, a study that traces the development of literature in terms of its own conceptual nature, would be entirely nugatory. In this connection, I would refer you to Walter Benjamin’s Origins of the German Tragic Drama, and especially its ‘Epistemological Preface’, which develops a similar argument, though from a very different point of view.”