Work in Progress: What Intellectual Integrity Demands of Us
Friday 02 September 2022
Last week I wrote that I had been reading Adorno’s Problems in Moral Philosophy. I subsequently found my copy of Adorno’s Minima Moralia, which Adorno — half jokingly and half seriously — characterizes as a study in the “bad life,” in contradistinction to the “good life.” Minima Moralia is subtitled “Reflections on a Damaged Life.” I cannot help but see this in relation to a somewhat well known passage from T. S. Eliot:
“It is true that from time to time writers have labelled themselves ‘romanticists’ or ‘classicists,’ just as they have from time to time banded themselves together under other names. These names which groups of writers and artists give themselves are the delight of professors and historians of literature, but should not be taken very seriously; their chief value is temporary and political that, simply, of helping to make the authors known to a contemporary public; and I doubt whether any poet has ever done himself anything but harm by attempting to write as a ‘romantic’ or as a ‘classicist.’ No sensible author, in the midst of something that he is trying to write, can stop to consider whether it is going to be romantic or the opposite. At the moment when one writes, one is what one is, and the damage of a lifetime, and of having been born into an unsettled society, cannot be repaired at the moment of composition.” (After Strange Gods, pp. 25–26)
The crucial line here is “…the damage of a lifetime, and of having been born into an unsettled society, cannot be repaired at the moment of composition.” Of this passage by Eliot Walter Kaufmann wrote:
“Karl Löwith subtitled his short German book on Heidegger (1953) ‘Thinker in a Paltry Time.’ This theme that his failures are due to the wretched age he is condemned to live in invites comparison with T. S. Eliot’s dictum: ‘The damage of a lifetime… cannot be repaired at the moment of composition’ (1934). I have tried to show elsewhere (Tragedy, Section 37) that if Sophocles had not succeeded in becoming one of the greatest poets of all time he could easily have said the same thing. So could Goethe for that matter, or Nietzsche. But they did not say it. They sensed that greatness is always a triumph over its time, and they did not stoop to the typical self-deception of the weak who when they fail blame someone else.” (Discovery of the Mind, Volume II, section 43)
After Strange Gods was delivered as lectures in 1933 and published in book form in 1934, but the printed version was withdrawn shortly after publication (various explanations are given for the withdrawal of the book from circulation, and some have gone so far as to imply that Eliot actively sought to suppress this work; I do not know whether or not this is true), and the book was extremely difficult to obtain at the time when Kaufmann pulled this quotation out of its context and used it as a way to go after Heidegger. So when Kaufmann’s book was published, it was difficult to check out what Eliot meant by saying that the damage of a lifetime cannot be undone at the moment of composition.
While Eliot’s point was bound up with his idea of the relation of the writer to a tradition (an extension of his thesis from “Tradition and the Individual Talent”), Kaufmann’s reading is not wrong, but it is tendentious, and it would be an easy matter to extend this tendentious reading to cover Adorno on a “damaged life”; indeed, it is hard to resist the temptation to do exactly this. But despite the generally despairing tone of Minima Moralia, the final section includes this:
“The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption.”
While this passage concedes that the present is a time of despair (perhaps the product of damaged lives), insofar as Adorno leaves open the possibility of redemption it cannot be considered entirely nihilistic. Yet Adorno’s reputation outside academia is that of a nihilistic spineless commie hack. Chapter 6 of Andrew Breitbart’s Righteous Indignation presents an amusing reading of the influence of the Frankfurt School on American political thought and social institutions:
“These were not happy people looking for a new lease on life. When they moved to California, they simply couldn’t deal with the change of scenery — there was cognitive dissonance. Horkheimer and Adorno and depressive allies like Bertolt Brecht moved into a house in Santa Monica on Twenty-sixth Street, coincidentally, the epicenter of my childhood. They had moved to heaven on Earth from Nazi Germany and apparently could not handle the fun, the sun, and the roaring good times. Ingratitude is not strong enough of a word to describe these hideous malcontents.”
Whatever one may think of Breitbart, his sketch of these exiles in southern California is pretty funny and worth reading, or you can listen to the adaptation of this by Vertigo Politix, The Architects of Western Decline, which does a nice job of dramatizing this section of the book. Breitbart quotes Adam Cohen that the Frankfurt School were “dyspeptic critics of American culture”; no doubt Ed Dutton would call them “spiteful monsters.” Here’s another funny passage:
“Santa Monica. Google it. It takes a sincerely deranged soul to want to deconstruct the good life and the optimistic citizenry in order to create mass intellectual and spiritual misery. But that’s exactly what they did. And as they constructed their philosophical dystopia, all the pieces of the modern leftist puzzle began falling into place.”
For Breitbart, all of these émigrés were spineless commie hacks, but Adorno did not think of himself as a spineless commie hack. Indeed, in his Problems of Moral Philosophy he dropped a couple of hints that he thought others, those who might be considered Adorno’s colleagues, were the ones who were the spineless commie hacks. Of Georg Lukács Adorno wrote: “The entire Kantian ethics is, as Lukács observed at a time when he was still allowed to think independently about such matters, a private ethics.” (p. 116) Of this passage the translator wrote this footnote: “Adorno wrote scathingly about his later books which he regarded as the products of a Stalinist hack.” And of Jean-Paul Sartre Adorno said: “…Sartre has ended up placing himself at the service of Communist ideology.” (p. 176)
Adorno did show some spine when confronted with student protesters. Chapter 19 of Adorno: A Biography, by Stefan Müller-Doohm, details Adorno’s exchanges with the student movement of 1968, during which Adorno, despite being a representative of the extreme left ideology that was the nominal basis of student protests, found himself the target of some of these protests and was caricatured as a reactionary. The chapter is long and detailed, so here is a bit of a paragraph to give a flavor of the events:
“In the presence of the majority of the students studying sociology, the professors were called upon to renounce their institutional rights while continuing to carry out their professorial duties. The discussion culminated in the proclamation of the slogan about smashing the bourgeois academic machine, and Adorno and Habermas were subjected to a good deal of verbal pressure, whereupon the two men left the hall without a word. Shortly afterwards, they distributed a statement of their own saying that cooperation with groups who had inscribed ‘smash science’ on their banners was quite out of the question.” (p. 464)
All of this sounds eerily familiar given what we have experienced over the past few years, which just goes to show that Ecclesiastes was right when he said that there is no new thing under the sun.
Going back to Adorno invoking “the standpoint of redemption” at the end of Minima Moralia, D. M. Mackinnon, also mentioned in last week’s newsletter, wrote of this kind of language:
“…the thorough-going utilitarian position rules out any sympathy with what could be called religious attitudes. Thus the denial of the possibility of metaphysics, which is fundamental to its epistemology, leads inevitably to the repudiation of any sort of religious language whether or immanence or transcendence… the most thorough-going utilitarian doctrine was received, and indeed preached, as a liberation. The language of liberation, of deliverance, of redemption, is religious rather than metaphysical; and there is no doubt that it was the use of this kind of language that gave thorough-going utilitarianism some of its peculiar force.” (A Study in Ethical Theory, pp. 237–238)
Mackinnon’s book was written before the tumult of 1968, but here he is being remarkably prescient. The doctrines being received, and indeed preached, by Frankfurt School representatives like Adorno and Marcuse were quite explicitly being presented as gospels of liberation. Just as the point of the Enlightenment was to clear the ground of irrational tradition to make way for a new and more rational social order, this particular strain of the Enlightenment pursued the idea of liberation as the summun bonum, before which all else was the give way. And particularly among the counterculture types, the call was for liberation from traditional sexual morality, which the Enlightenment had not addressed in its heyday.
The Frankfurt school was in no sense utilitarian — Adorno’s Problems of Moral Philosophy is presented as a study in Kantian ethics — but while utilitarianism was the liberation ethic of the nineteenth century, post-Freudian sexual liberation was the liberation ethic of the twentieth century. In both, the doctrine of liberation has an element of hypocrisy because it draws upon religious ideas while repudiating religion, which is, in most societies, a source of tradition, if not the deepest source of tradition. In a sense, it is a necessary hypocrisy, insofar as this particular hypocrisy was nearly unavoidable.
Ethical concepts are ineradicably bound up with religion, as they are ineradicably bound up with emotion, with law, and with the possibility of an ideal social order. Because religion has been at this for much longer than utilitarianism or the Frankfurt school, it has refined its tools to a much greater extent, so that these historically recent attempts at segregating a distinct domain of ethics apart of obvious anthropocentric and anthropomorphic residuals from the past, can only draw upon the same toolkit already deployed so effectively on behalf of religion. Either that, or accept tradition, but if the whole of the liberatory gospel is being preached against tradition, then accepting traditional religion isn’t going to work. And that is why I said that this is a kind of unavoidable hypocrisy.
Whatever might be said of the Frankfurt School and Adorno’s place within it (or, indeed, whatever might be said of utilitarianism), I treat Adorno the philosopher as an individual and not as a member of a movement, much as I would prefer to treat John Stuart Mill as an individual philosopher and not as a member of a movement. Movements are generally shorn of all of the particularistic color that makes an individual and their ideas interesting, and all movements are defined by a canon of thinkers who do not agree with each other on details.
I read Adorno with what Ricouer called “the hermeneutics of suspicion,” meaning that I read him always with an awareness of his historical role, and with an eye to the uses that his ideas have been put by others. But this reading with the hermeneutics of suspicion does not relieve me of the intellectual obligation (which is, at the same time, a moral obligation) to get ideas at their source, and not to rely upon second-hand accounts of what someone else said. I have an abandoned essay (someday I should like to finish it) that I think about every once in a while, which concerns itself with what I call the “intellectual virtues.” Among these intellectual virtues I count the obligation to take each thinker on their own terms, to read their own words, and to follow their own arguments. One’s integrity as a thinker is predicated upon this effort, and a failure to make this effort is an abdication of the intellectual virtues.