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The Utopian Promise of Adorno’s ‘Open Thinking,’ Fifty Years On (nybooks.com)
58 points by kwindla 66 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 36 comments

I'm a big fan of Adorno's work. I think American/Anglo readers struggle with it for two reasons:

1. It's largely consumed in translation. Normally, this isn't so problematic, but in addition to being incredibly philosophically dense, Adorno's work is rhetorically and compositionally complex, rife with structures that are rather difficult to translate, punning, particular sentence arrangements, etc.

2. It's unashamedly steeped in tradition and assumes a lot of knowledge of the history of Western thought. Adorno's texts are rich with allusions that require knowledge of philosophical and literary history, which can really confound those engaged in a superficial or cursory reading--it's easy to miss his point if you're not on your toes.

If you're curious, I recommend David Held's Introduction to Critical Theory which does a great job of framing the work of the Frankfurt school. This article also does quite a nice job of summarizing his work.

I also think Adorno's critique of Existentialism and Heideggerean philosophy (mentioned in the article), (also contained in Negative Dialectics) actually serves as a great precis of key components of his thought.

Or, more cynically, people struggle with it because they have literally no education in philosophy - so reading Adorno is sort of like reading Knuth before you've written a single program.

The Art of Computer Programming contains all the introduction necessary for someone who has never written a computer program. It even explains the flowchart thing. A better analogy might be trying to read TAoCP without knowing algebra.

I think this issue is also often coupled with another problem: a good portion of people seem to harbor an assumption that one can simply comprehend any philosophical work (or really, any work of the liberal arts, be it philosophy, history, or literature) without perquisite knowledge.

Hand the average person a highly specialized work on mathematics, biology, or computer science and they'll quickly explain to you that they lack the prerequisite training or reading to understand it. Hand them a philosophical tract or a novel of literary merit and they seem more likely to either attempt to struggle through it, ignoring things they don't 'get' to come up with a impoverished sense of the work, or they'll claim the language is too (and unnecessarily) foreboding and dense, but not necessarily the subject matter--there's no sense that the difficulty lies in lack of training, but rather in something inherit in the work (conceived as a flaw or virtue). The onus is on the work to be comprehensible, rather than on the reader to comprehend--yet the obverse relation is oft upheld for texts in the sciences (in the rooms of average opinion. Specialists, of course, feel quite differently).

There seems to be less general acknowledgement of the fact that dedication to the tradition and assimilation of historical concepts is just as requisite in the humanities as it is in the sciences.

It's odd how certain subjects are victim to the full fury of uninformed opinion while others are immune. Ask anyone of his politics and he'll (usually) soon explain his view and why its correct, all the while finding the fact that he hasn't studied any political history, political science, political economy, or political philosophy totally irrelevant. Ask the same fellow his thoughts on a mathematical conjecture and he'll quickly scramble his way out of the conversation. It probably comes back to the mild religiosity our culture maintains about the sciences--its seems a profane thing for mere laymen to opine on the word from on high. Meanwhile the things of men are open to all cant and blasphemy.

Education systems are generally built around producing employable workers, so they always have this tension between totally concrete, 'train them for the job they'll have at the factory who founded the school', and totally abstract, 'maybe the job will change, so teach the foundations'.

The sad thing about this framework, is there's no obvious place for stuff that's not only abstract, but perhaps orthogonal to the economic sphere. So nobody gets taught philosophy. I think this lets everybody down, because with stuff you learn at school, you generally either learn it's hard, or you learn some things about it. With philosophy, you learn neither. So you think it's easy, and you know nothing about it.

I guess there's also some compounding effects from the prestige that gets attached to various subjects - I think philosophy is a weird case though, since the better an academic or scientist is, the more likely they are to take philosophy seriously.

The whole thing used to really bug me - but then, when people take philosophy really seriously (which seems to me, the history of christianity - a lot of people getting beaten to death over kind of dry philosophical trivia), it generally leads to worse philosophy. So everybody making the subject a target of shame and ridicule, making it out to be a ridiculous, worthless and pretentious occupation - all this actually is to the benefit of good thinking, in the end, since you won't get anybody philosophizing with ulterior motives.

"Quack's book has re-release." Adorno largely deserves to be forgotten.


It's fine to dislike Adorno, but to say he largely deserves to be forgotten is preposterous. He's arguably the first thinker to attempt to recast and reformulate philosophy in such a way that it could remain critically potent in the modern world.

To take such a hand-waving, dismissive attitude toward all of his contributions, which are dense, difficult, and backed by a deep study of the history of western thought, based on the flaws of one study (by the way, Adorno himself even admitted to not being the best equipped to conduct sociological studies like this, he was first and foremost a critic and philosopher) is ridiculous and in fact the very imprint of the sort of limited uncritical/psuedo-critical forms of modern thinking he constantly rallied against.

> He's arguably the first thinker to attempt to recast and reformulate philosophy in such a way that it could remain critically potent in the modern world.

Citations needed. That statement doesn't even mean anything. I'm pretty sure if it does mean something, it applies more readily to someone like Wittgenstein, Heidegger, hell even Richard Rorty or David Stove.

It would be nice if you could name "all of his contributions" or even one of his contributions beyond the book touted in this review: I don't think there are any worth talking about. He really deserves to be forgotten. Unless you think "everything I don't like is Hitler" is a great contribution to Western Philosophy.

Sure, I can clarify. By critically potent, I mean specifically philosophy that can serve as a value critique--"moralizing philosophy" if you will.

Wittgenstein's philosophical work is incredible and was fundamental to the discipline and to logic and mathematics, but his work is typically not value critique (excepting Culture and Value which is not considered important by most readers of his oeuvre).

Heidegger is, I suppose, another contender, but again, I don't consider the majority of his philosophy oriented around value critique (though his essays on technology do fit into this category and are excellent). Heidegger's thought, I find, is also less coherent, and he really stood by this image of the philosopher as "holier than thou" bearer of truths (this is actually touched upon in the article) which is an old model (actually, a mythic model concerned with power) that I think is impracticable. Not to mention, Sarte's conception and formulation of existentialism had a much greater general impact on human thought than Heidegger's, which, though in vogue for a while, has been mostly re-confined to the academy.

I'm not as familiar with Richard Rorty's work as I should be, so he may qualify. But Adorno has him beat on timing--Rorty's Bibliography doesn't start until '52 (https://web.stanford.edu/~mvr2j/rr/biblio_2007.html). Meanwhile, Horkheimer and Adorno had already published Dialectic of Enlightenment at that point (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodor_W._Adorno_bibliography).

I am not familiar with David Stove or his works. So he may qualify. I'll certainly check him out later, however!

As for the works of Adorno's that are worth reading:

Negative Dialectics, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Minima Moralia, Aesthetic Theory, His works on Hegel. And there's more--those are the major works.

Your last sentence smacks of someone who has never even read a page of Adorno but rather has some generic, skewed conception of "critical theory" and thinks that's an adequate account of the thought of a philosopher (which, clearly being familiar with philosophers and the depth of their works, seems absurd that you'd adopt such a reductive and uninformed viewpoint on the matter). It's the equivalent to thinking Wittgenstein is reducible to a concern over "mere semantics" or Heidegger is reducible to, and dismissable on account of, his nazism. Rather presumptuous and rather close-minded.

"Value technique" seems to be garden variety moralizing. Yes, the entire Frankfurt school did this. So did the old testament prophets and Billy Graham. I don't think it's a particularly potent philosophical argument; though it is functionally a sort of cod religion with purity rituals you can get dumb, lost people to adopt in a post-christian culture. Which is more or less what actually happened in the 60s.

I'll say it again: Adorno is a quack who is best forgotten, except as a cautionary tale. The book reviewed here, which attempted to use science to back up his cod-morality/purity religion is a great example of why.

Fair enough, but while we're on the subject of religiosity, I'd recommend reflecting upon your own line of thinking and arguments, which are airy and empty, and make plain that you're not willing to change your stance on the matter (dogma).

It's also quite funny that you'd mention Heidegger, of all people, and then accuse the Frankfurt school, of all things, of engaging in rituals. Let's not forget, you're discussing a school of thought that was criticized for having no positive assertions and operating almost entirely negatively. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems quite impossible to construct a religion on something that's comprised of nothing but the critique of other ideologies and value systems all the while offering little to no alternative. In fact, your claim is totally bizarre. Adorno's inability to offer a positive system/alternative to all the things he relentlessly critiqued was, and still is, the chief argument against his philosophical work today.

In efforts to try to unpack what you're saying, perhaps what you mean by "cod religion" is that the popularity of the school's stances and works bothers you? or more likely the means in which some people have adopted the thought bother you (passionately and aggressively)? but it's not fair to extend distaste for the followers of a thinker to the thinker. Existentialism has its own merry band of people that don't have a complete understanding of the subject but bandy it about and rudely shove it down everyone's throats nonetheless. Same goes for the "analytic" philosophers. Cynicists...etc.

Even returning to your original gripe (by the way, nothing more than the contents of a single Wikipedia article that criticizes one study conducted by Adorno and others, and not a primary nor philosophical argument against his body of work), the criticisms levied at the study aren't even that damning. Do they call the results into question? Certainly. The coding issues are probably the biggest problem with the study. Should they temper one's interpretation of that particular text? Of course. Do they invalidate the entire edifice of Adorno's thought? I think it'd be a bit extreme to go so far, but what do I know of rationality, after all? In fact, criticisms of this kind are not outlandish and similar issues crop up all the time in studies of this sort--social science is difficult to get right, and is much fuzzier territory than the "hard" stuff. There is, after all, a replication crisis in psychology for a reason.

If you have some stronger reasons and philosophical critiques of Adorno's overall positions I'd be more willing to potentially accede and reconsider my own thinking on his work, but as it stands you're just insisting on his worthlessness without so much as attempting to compose even a fart of an argument as to why anyone should agree with you. If anything, your comments suggest the attitude of a person who is both ignorant and passionate on this subject and thus feels it necessary to put forth statements that are extreme, empty, and divisive.

David Stove's "what is wrong with our thoughts" is tremendous. And accessible.

Thanks for the recommendation!

The studies on the authoritarian personality are hardly the cornerstore of Adorno's work (he was primarily a philosopher) and in any case, one imperfect social study does not invalidate the entirety of his thinking by any means.

I've seen "The Authoritarian Personality" recommended online (by philosophy minded people, not as accepted social science), so I think it's good to point out how flawed it is. There is a tendency for philosophy fans to excuse errors in work with, oh they are primarily a philosopher, and then turn around and say, cite Foucault's "Madness and Civilization" as a reliable source of information a paragraph later.

In fact, this very article is a "review" (in the way NYRB does it) of a new edition of "The Authoritarian Personality" which calls him "a great polymath." Since this article is in some ways advertising the very thing you call "hardly the cornerstone" of his work, the best thing for the top comment to be to inform people of it's flaws. In fact, I think it's irresponsible for NYRB to publish this, and mention his stupid opinions about Jazz, which are not really on topic or important, and not mention criticisms of the re-release that prompted the piece.

The article is an announcement of the re-release of his "studies" on the "authoritarian personality." The fact that it doesn't dwell on the actual content of the book it's touting ought to tell you something about its quality.

hn loves to react this way to "continental" philosophy - latch on to one thing that is intelligible to them and then extrapolate from that. eg I got into it without someone about Marx earlier this week that had never read any Marx!

I mean nevermind that adorno is socially validated - ie his peers, those that are actually qualified to assess the value of his work, respect him and his arguments right? that doesn't matter because hackers are qualified for anything right?

like let some metaphysics philosopher read a machine learning paper and dismiss its claims because they're not ontologically sound (or something like that) and you'll have all of hn rolling in tears at the sheer audacity of not knowing calculus (or something), but do the inverse and you're a hero.

the truth is it takes a lot of effort to earnestly engage with both kinds of material so lazy people in both groups use lazy heuristics. the way I see it is you have two options if you want to be honest: either take up the mantle and dig in (read adorno and around adorno) or shutup (quit pontificating just to sound smart). both are completely tenable paths to being a responsible intelligent person.

I generally agree that HN is too ready to jump in with Engineer's Disease, but:

> I mean nevermind that adorno is socially validated - ie his peers, those that are actually qualified to assess the value of his work, respect him and his arguments right?

These days I think we have realised that that counts a mild negative - there are plenty of closed-set groups of people who agree with each other while looking completely incomprehensible to outsiders. Especially in the political arena.

> machine learning

This is a particularly good example because it's so upsetting to any kind of formalist, not just philosophers but the earlier ontology-wielding formal-reasoning AI developers and even those with a statistical training. Machine learning is very short on theoretical soundness. But it works. You throw images at it and it tells you how many of them contain cats or lamp-posts or whatever, and it agrees with a human often enough, despite the fact that neither human nor machine has really grasped "cat-ness".

The line of convincing needs to run the other way. It is no longer enough to market knowledge of Adorno as entrance to a social clique. You need an argument for "what can we do with Adorno that we could not do without Adorno?"

> You need an argument for "what can we do with Adorno that we could not do without Adorno?"

This is an interesting idea. It reduces all human knowledge to things that help you achieve some goal, knowledge is something you 'do things' with.

It's a really common position. It's how schools teach. It's how we define 'hard' knowledge as opposed to soft, wishy-washy stuff. It also is really convenient if you need a culture of employees - they don't need to think why they do things, or what they should do. The boss tells them, and the market tells the boss.

So that's how you end up with the kind of headless monster capitalism that's cooking the world in CO2. Nobody's trained to think about the whys and whats. They can only think about the hows, and sometimes, problems simply aren't purely technical in nature.

PS: that was a bit of a tangent, but I think philosophy isn't probably the best place to look for goal-oriented rationality.

A problem with that metaphor is that a machine learning paper refers to an objective reality. If a philosopher came along and said 'I'm not sure how this methodology works, but it is clearly optimized for the wrong metrics as evidenced by your sales since you implemented it', the data scientist should know to listen to the philosopher no matter how he came to that conclusion.

The equivalent in philosophy is, unfortunately, very different for someone deeply engaged with philosophy and an educated layperson. To a layperson, the measure of philosophy is something like the moral and mental well-being of the philosopher. That is why the laity cares and most would say should care about philosophy. Unfortunately, this is not the metric used by professional philosophers. Social validation may be a more rigorous heuristic than moral well-being, but that does not make it more relevant to what makes philosophy itself relevant.

It seems likely to me that the reason laypeople so consistently criticize more educated philosophers is that philosophy optimized for social validation is not optimized for moral well-being. That is an alarm bell that should matter to the intelligent philosopher, much as a 'but sales are down' warning should matter to the intelligent data scientist.

You could apply this criteria to mathematicians or historians, and it would be just as unfair. Philosophy isn’t religion. How one should live is just one of many areas a philosopher might be interested in. Are we to judge the work of artists or writers by their well-being?

But that's a circular argument. What makes his peers qualified? What is the root of qualification in a field where the foundational axioms are ultimately subjective and there is no reliable source of objective truth? Or to put it another way, what makes this branch of philosophy any more respectable than astrology?

To invoke the notion of "objective truth" as a grounding requires that one has already accepted several "foundational axioms [that] are ultimately subjective".

We in software are lucky, representing what Hannah Arendt calls "homo faber", those who work with their hands and use instrumental reasoning to create use-objects. Of course object-ivity is our concern. But using such standards to critique and create philosophy ends up favoring what one might call "propaganda."

here here. i'm not as read up on arendt as i should be but that's a perfect refutation of the kind of ideas i see espoused on hn every day. the problem is that getting people to buy into this very insightful critique of formalism.

>What is the root of qualification in a field where the foundational axioms are ultimately subjective and there is no reliable source of objective truth

without going into post-modernity and socially constructed truths i'll simply ask you: are you an academic researcher in stem? what are the objective metrics for stem? beyond anything else it's citation count.

There you go again, dodging the question.

i'm not dodging any question; i'm trying to explain to you that there is absolutely no such thing as "objective truth" anywhere outside of formal mathematics. so the humanities are absolutely no different from 99% of academia.

I strongly support studying humanities, especially as a way to learn how to think clearly and communicate effectively. Unfortunately much of what passes for "humanities" is simply empty sophistry. Dig below the surface and there's nothing there. Yet everyone is afraid to say that "the emperor wears no clothes" for fear of being labeled unsophisticated by a gang of pseudo-intellectuals.

I know bullshit when I see it.

I could claim that "repeatable experiment" comes pretty close to "objective truth" for at least physics and chemistry.

Since you are responding to my comment: I like and believe it or not, recreationally read continental philosophy: this is a book "review" for the rerelease of the book "the authoritarian personality" -which is a work of sociology and a fraud. You have to read the article carefully to realize this.

I disagree that nepotism is a reason to take a thinker seriously, but that's not relevant towards this article touting Adorno's fraud of a book. It's also a tremendously hostile book. As Lasch put it, the substance of the book, bad stats and all, is that he thinks the culture he lived in is sick and needs therapy. There's a more parsimonious explanation.

I’ll admit it, I couldn’t understand any of the Adorno I read in school, except for the part where he hated jazz, so I wrote him off. On the whole I haven’t found much useful in the Frankfurt school, especially compared to what your average anthropologist is up to.

I'd recommend One-Dimensional Man by Marcuse. You're not going to extract anything too wild out of it, but the picture he paints of 50's American consumerism is worth it.

Sexual Taboos and the Law Today is a good intro but you need to know Freud well. The problem is very few know Freud and Marx.

I’m sure famous homeopaths are also revered by their peers. But this doesn’t make them any less wrong.

your arrogance is showing: hundreds (thousands?) of tenured professors engaging in sincere discourse and investigation are not at all the same thing as homeopaths - to wit homeopaths don't publish treatises on authoritarianism.

>to wit homeopaths don't publish treatises on authoritarianism.

If they did, it would probably be as fraudulent, moronic and evil as Adorno's was.

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