Frank S. Hong | Thinking through Despair

By Frank S. Hong*


Critical theory can be read as an extended dialogue about the place of thinking in an irrational, disenchanted, and profoundly unjust world—and in Critique 2/13, Professors Axel Honneth and Bernard Harcourt pursued this debate by parsing some of the important differences between Adorno and Horkheimer.


Adorno starts from a position of seeming despondency to arrive at a quite vigorous defense of critical theory, whereas Horkheimer’s despair and ambition for the project are more modest. In Adorno’s famous words, “philosophy stands powerless before the question of being”[1]: only a new type of philosophy can emerge from what he sees as the historical ruins of “grand and total philosophy.” [2] To use Benjamin Snow’s words, Adorno was “the metaphysician with no faith in metaphysics,” [3] and this forced him to develop new methods and new goals for philosophy.


The key to understanding Adorno’s despondency concerning traditional philosophy is his belief that reality is no longer rational. On the one hand, this makes it easy for philosophy to fend off the encroachment of other sciences, which try to “liquidate philosophy and dissolve it into the particular disciplines.” [4] On the other hand, this renders philosophy’s traditional tools for apprehending reality inadequate, and he proposes instead philosophy as “interpretation,” which “does not meet up with a fixed meaning which already lies behind” the reality. [5]


If reality is no longer rational, then the traditional philosophical distance will no longer suffice, as it will not reveal any underlying logic or order. Instead, philosophy must dive into concrete reality as presented by the sciences, gathering “elements into changing constellations” [6] until they “fall into a figure,” which like the right key, will make reality “spring open.” [7] Philosophy has become a riddle-solving process, whereby the elements of the riddle are re-grouped until solved, and the crucial ingredients in this riddle-solving process are materialism and dialectic. Or to use another one of his analogies, the philosopher is like a foreigner without a dictionary, gathering meaning wherever he can, not systematically but as a forager.


Adorno’s approach was galvanizing in both its modesty and its ambition. The focus of philosophy was narrower and more concrete—no longer above confronting mundane problems and specific conundrums. But it was also more immediately useful, not an idle game, but rather an integral part of materialist praxis. [8] Adorno shared Marx’s basic ambition for philosophy—to change the world through interpretation—if not Marx’s faith in systematic theory’s ability to help in this regard.


As he himself put it, the mission of critical theory is “to blow open what cannot be absorbed by concepts, or what, through contradictions in which concepts themselves entangle themselves, betrays the fact that the network of their objectivity is a purely subjective rigging.” [9] In this light, his famous dictum that the only true thoughts are those that fail to comprehend themselves loses its despondency—pointing rather to the unpredictable resonance and explosive force of true thoughts.


Compared to Adorno, who from a place of seeming despondency arrives at a critical role for philosophy, Horkheimer’s understanding might seem more consistently bleak. Concerned with the function of critical theory—as opposed to “traditional theory”—he claims that it does not aim to “eliminate one or other abuse,” because “it regards such abuses as necessarily connected with the way in which the social structure is organized. Although it itself emerges from the social structure, its purpose is not, either in its conscious intention or in its objective significance, the better functioning of any element in the structure.” He is no reformist, for critical theory “is suspicious of the very categories of better, useful, appropriate, productive, and valuable, as these are understood in the present order.” [10]


Thus whereas Adorno never loses faith in reason’s ability to slice through the mendacious reality—if only momentarily, and never comprehensively—Horkheimer seems fundamentally skeptical of our ability to do so. Some of the differences between the two can be glimpsed in a 1956 dialogue, in which they attempt to write a contemporary version of the Communist Manifesto. [11]


Although the despair is shared, it comes from slightly different places.


Adorno: We do not live in a revolutionary situation, and actually things are worse than ever. The horror is that for the first time we live in a world in which we can no longer imagine a better one. [12]


Horkheimer: The Party no longer exists.


For both of them, the absence of a party was a profound challenge to the relationship between theory and practice, but one that Adorno seemed more willing to overcome.


Adorno: When ideas become too concrete, I protest; when they become too abstract, you protest. When Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto there was no party either. It is not always necessary to join up with something already in existence. [13]


Horkheimer: What use is a theory that does not tell us how to behave towards the Russians or the United States? … Today we have to declare ourselves defeatists. Not in a fatalistic way, but simply because of the situation we find ourselves in. There is nothing we can do.


Rarely do we see philosophy struggling so openly with the problem of intellectual despair: if we clearly see the world and the role thought plays within it, can we continue to think, and if so, how?


Luckily, our seminar engaged in the fundamental question without ever ceding to it. Without taking sides, and building on Habermas’ Knowledge and Human Interest, Axel Honneth developed a theory that seems to accord with Adorno’s vision for philosophy without ever losing sight of Horkheimer’s skepticism [14]:


The semblance of naturalness that in everyday life attaches to any established

interpretation first needs to be ruptured before agents can then jointly explore which

new and creative interpretation is most suited to accommodate their hitherto excluded

interests and concerns. This de-naturalization of hegemonic interpretations of norms

is one type of knowledge in which those engaged in social struggles have an essential

interest. [15]


Having arrived at a workable synthesis, the seminar concluded with thoughts on how the contemporary reader can use these texts. Once again, Professor Honneth made a skillful compromise, this time between different styles of reading. According to him, you should read dialogically, but this does not prevent you from then using the text however you see fit. Thus, although the text must initially be approached on its own terms, once we exit the text we are free to use it as a toolbox—the metaphor that Professor Harcourt continually returns to, although mainly, it would seem, to provoke discussion on this crucial topic


As I reflected on this discussion of reading techniques, I wondered what Adorno might have said. Perhaps, like a man living in a foreign country who does not need to check the dictionary every step of the way, he would have had no trouble leaving the text behind. On the other hand, it seems hard to believe that a man as attuned to context and as careful with words would have ever willingly violated those of another.

* LL.M. 2020, Columbia University


End Notes


[1]        Adorno, Theodor W., “The Actuality of Philosophy.” Telos 1997, No. 31 (1997): 124, 120-133. This was Adorno’s inaugural speech on May 7, 1931 delivered to the philosophy faculty of the University of Frankfurt where he taught until 1933.

[2] Ibid., 124.

[3] Snow, Benjamin, “Introduction to Adorno’s ‘The Actuality of Philosophy’.” Telos 1997, No. 31 (1997): 117, 113-119.

[4] Adorno, 125.

[5] Adorno, 127.

[6] Adorno, 127.

[7] Adorno, 130.

[8] Adorno, 129. During the seminar, Professor Étienne Balibar pointed out that in the original text, the German word translated as riddle in English included connotations of “symptom.”

[9] Adorno, 129.

[10] Adorno, Theodor W., “The Essay as Form,” New German Critique, 1984; No. 32: 170, 151-171 (Translated by Bob Hullot-Kentor and Frederic Will).

[11] Horkheimer, Max., “Traditional and Critical Theory, in Horkheimer, Max. Critical Theory: Selected Essays. New York: Continuum, 1992. This essay was first published in 1937. P. 207.

[12] Adorno, Theodor W. & Horkheimer, Max, “Towards A New Manifesto”, New Left Review, 2010; 65: 32, 33-61.

[13] Ibid., 61.

[14] Ibid., 60.

[15] Honneth, Axel., “Is There An Emancipatory Interest? An Attempt to Answer Critical Theory’s Most Fundamental Question” European Journal of Philosophy, 2017; 25: 905-920.

[16] Ibid., 917.