By Fakhruddin Valika
Critique 13/13 keeps returning to the best ways to read and use a text. On the one hand, every author is owed some basic fidelity and attention—the reader’s honest engagement with the text on its own terms. On the other hand, the great strength of critical thinkers is that they never fully tear themselves out of the present: every argument from the past is also an opportunity to engage with the present.
In Critique 2/13, Columbia professors Axel Honneth and Bernard Harcourt led a discussion on Tradition and Critical Theory by Max Horkheimer and the Actuality of Philosophy by Theodor Adorno that engaged with this larger debate on two levels. First, Professor Honneth answered the question of “how to read?” directly: he proposed a dialogical reading in which the reader is free to be selective in her engagement with the texts. He argued that the key difference was not between an engaged and dialogical reading, but between both of these methods and the manipulative metaphor of the text as a toolbox.
The seminar also engaged in the question of reading at a more fundamental level—namely by showing how many of the differences between Horkheimer and Adorno can be traced back to their different readings of and engagements with the thought of Marx. As Professor Honneth noted, both texts are in dialogue with Marx—but not the same texts, and not in the same type of dialogue. Horkheimer was more influenced by the young Marx and his Paris manuscript, which provides him with the pragmatic view that theory is rooted in action. His vision of critical theory as the expression and articulation of struggles is also rooted in a careful reading of Marxist thought.
Adorno’s reading of Marx seems to have been more selective, and Professor Honneth informed us that Adorno’s library suggests that he mostly engaged with a few chapters and ignored the rest. This perhaps explains why many of Horkheimer’s positions seem more traditionally Marxist. For example—and here we also see the influence that Nazi Germany and Stalinism had on his thought—Horkheimer saw history slowly leading towards a rational society, which is consistent with the thinking of the young Marx. Adorno, in contrast, rejected the idea of reason in history, particularly after capitalism accelerated the whole process so precipitously.
Professor Honneth said that his own heart is on Adorno’s side but that his mind remains with Horkheimer, but I would rather say that while my reason remains loyal to Horkheimer, my intuition belongs with Adorno—whose lacerating aphorisms seem to pierce the thoughtlessness of habit with an immediacy and urgency that reason cannot keep up with. This might also explain why Adorno can be so difficult to read, although Professor Honneth also emphasized the intellectual climate of Germany in the 1920’s and 30’s, as well as Adorno’s habit of keeping up a dialogue with Walter Benjamin and a variety of other thinkers throughout his texts.
Or perhaps one should start with Adorno’s own claim that contemporary reality is no longer rational and that this creates an insoluble problem for philosophy, whose job it is to discursively capture the entirety of reality as rational. According to him, Hegel was the last philosopher to fulfill this task. But this does not mean that we should simply abandon efforts to understand reality; it simply requires a new strategy, one in which we constantly reassemble the disparate elements of reality into new “constellations” until the solution appears. This in itself suggests one of the difficulties every reader must confront at the outset: Adorno is trying to critically engage with a reality whose irrationality is taken as the starting point, and his solution is deliberately anti-systematic. Leaping from stone to stone in a fast-moving stream, the critical theorist is never secure in one place, and his path must of necessity appear haphazard to the outside observer.
Once again, Horkheimer’s quite different views on reality and the place of theory can be traced back to his greater fidelity to Marx. Like Marx, he criticizes science for being unaware of its own gluttonies and surroundings and accuses it of failing to rise to the challenges of the time. (He also chides science for losing sight of its role in furthering man’s domination over nature.) But undergirding this is his functionalist view of the sciences and basic faith in the underlying rationality in history.
Given his faith in rationality, critical theory can be the basis for praxis in a way that it cannot be for Adorno. It can show the way, illuminate the logic that remains hidden in the everyday. Theory is rooted in praxis and works to influence that same praxis. Critical theory follows the lead set by critical behavior and by all struggles against domination. Although this might seem contradictory, what is crucial for us to note is not whether the primary vector of influence leads from theory to praxis or vice-versa, but rather that the inherent rationality in the world provides the basis for a similar ambition for theory.
Thus from the nature of reality to the role of critical theory and the place of history, Adorno and Horkheimer not only put forward different ideas, but embody radically different sensibilities. Whereas Horkheimer seems constantly in search of a systematic, enveloping understanding of the world, Adorno seems determined to break the world up into its irrational shards. Professor Harcourt rightly wondered how men with such different sensibilities could share the same politics, and certainly part of the answer lies in the challenges of being an intellectual in Nazi Germany—a challenge they faced together and that eventually led to their fruitful collaboration.
The other answer might lie in the very openness of their shared work—the ease with which one can read The Dialectic of Enlightenment from either perspective and with either sensibility. If they could gather such different material from Marx, perhaps they didn’t need to worry about presenting a unified front in their own collaboration. Or again, one could point to a unity of purpose that transcends their differing levels of ambition and hope for critical theory, one that links the entire enterprise, namely their shared commitment to thinking against the world as it is.