Peter Gordon. Adorno and Existence. Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard University Press, 2016; 272 pages. ISBN: 978-0674734784.

Reviewed by Richard Westerman, University of Alberta.

The Western Marxist tradition has had an ambivalent fascination with phenomenological and existential philosophy dating back to its own prehistory. Georg Lukács, for instance, whose History and Class Consciousness inaugurated this school, wrote positively about Kierkegaard in 1908 and Husserl in 1912–13, before either had attained canonical status and prior to his own conversion to Marxism. By the 1950s, however, he returned to their thought to condemn it as an anti-rationalist forerunner of Nazism. Conversely, Herbert Marcuse, one of the key figures of the early Frankfurt School inspired by Lukács’s work, studied with both Husserl and Heidegger in the late 1920s, and although he condemned Heidegger’s collusion with the Nazis, he never rejected his mentors’ ideas in toto, drawing on them well into the 1960s. More recently, even Jürgen Habermas has referred positively to Kierkegaard. (See Morgan, 81–101) Despite the obvious resonance between existential themes of alienation and the Western Marxists’ critiques of societal reification, it is at first glance puzzling that thinkers so oriented towards socio-historical analysis should return with such frequency to phenomenological and existential thought, and its overwhelming preoccupation with individual experience as such.

One of the great merits of Peter Gordon’s fine new book, Adorno and Existence, is that it helps understand why this should be so. In three dedicated books and numerous other chapters and papers across several decades, Adorno repeatedly engaged with Kierkegaard, Husserl, and Heidegger, demonstrating a lifelong fascination with the philosophy of existence. (I shall follow Gordon’s lead in distinguishing “existentialism, the philosophy of existence, existential ontology” and similar terms, but as treating them as a relatively unified “tradition of philosophical discourse” from Adorno’s perspective. [x-xi; 2] ) But given Adorno’s relentlessly critical tone, Gordon asks why he kept going back to a philosophical paradigm he seemed to find so repugnant. His bold central claim is that “Adorno…would move toward the thought of negative dialectics via a critical reading of phenomenology.” (82) In other words, despite his obvious criticisms of them, Kierkegaard, Husserl, and Heidegger played a decisive role in the development of Adorno’s own most important philosophical project, culminating in Negative Dialectics (1966).

What made the philosophy of existence so significant for Adorno, Gordon argues, is that he saw it as responding to the Scylla of Idealism and the Charybdis of positivism in a way that indicated a solution even in its ultimate failure. More than once, Gordon quotes Adorno’s begrudging statement that, “Heidegger reaches the very borders of the dialectical insight into the non-identity in identity,” indicating that he saw Heidegger – like Husserl and Kierkegaard – as engaged in a genuine but unsuccessful attempt to accomplish the same philosophical mission. (6, 167–68) Adorno’s investigations tacitly assume Lukács’s analysis of German philosophy laid out in History and Class Consciousness. Kant’s shift from ontology to epistemology, Lukács argued, led to two opposed conclusions. On the one hand, the world appeared idealistically as the projection of the knowing subject: phenomena were determined by the categories of the understanding, not by any relation to underlying things as they are in themselves. On the other hand, the rational necessity of these categories meant that the world was governed by a strict causal necessity that brooked no creative interference: the individual subject was left only as a passive spectator of a phenomenal world operating without intervention. Adorno took on Lukács’s critique but rejected his revolutionary solution. He interpreted Lukács (quite incorrectly) as simply replacing the Idealist thinking subject with a Marxian labouring subject, i.e., the proletariat, which created the social reality in which it lived and was thus capable of restoring identity with its object by recognizing society as its own product. This, for Adorno, was no less identitarian, except that it replaced a merely philosophical unity of rational subject and phenomenal world with a material one, subsuming everything beneath rational categories in practice and not just in thought.

Gordon’s account is particularly useful in understanding the development of Adorno’s alternative. In Gordon’s interpretation, Adorno found common ground with Kierkegaard, Husserl, and Heidegger in seeking to escape the subjectivist paradigm of German Idealism. Thus, Husserl’s call to return “zu den Sachen selbst” was an effort to give a direct account of the structure of objectivity as such, rather than subordinating it to the subject. Similarly, existentialism’s “ambition to break free from the abstractions of conceptual philosophy” at least aimed at avoiding the subjugation of the object by the categories of cognition. (170) In embryonic form, Gordon suggests, they point towards Adorno’s own concern with the “priority of the object”: while any subject is necessarily also an object (both as a body in the world and to the degree it is shaped by its social context), objects do not require subjects in order to exist. Consequently, Adorno argues, any object extends beyond our conceptual grasp of it, and there can never be the identity between thought and being or subject and object that Idealism supposedly aimed at. It is the duty of philosophy to give this nonidentical surplus its due, rather than subsuming it beneath thought.

Gordon’s argument, then, is that Adorno’s own position developed as a determinate negation of the philosophy of existence. Gordon unfolds his case over five chapters following the chronology of Adorno’s writings. The first four chapters are, as Gordon explains, largely expository. Chapter 1, examining Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic (1933) and Adorno’s other work on Kierkegaard in the 1930s, exemplifies his approach: Gordon identifies the core of Adorno’s negative judgment but then argues that this is tempered by a “barely disguised bond of sympathy” with Kierkegaard. (27) Adorno characterized Kierkegaard as a philosopher of “bourgeois interiority,” an interpretation stimulated by the theologian’s use of imagery of the bourgeois household. Rejecting a society he saw as herd-like and reified, Kierkegaard predicated his argument on those aspects of a pure subjectivity that had nothing to do with the objective world, neither determining nor determined by it. Fulfilment and salvation depended only on the internal leap of the subject, not on external objects. For Adorno, of course, this very individuality was itself socially contingent, symbolized by the window-mirror that cast an image of the world outside even into the bourgeois parlour. Kierkegaard’s retreat simply left this existing social reality untouched, offering no real redemption. But in a 1940 lecture, Adorno revalued Kierkegaard’s interiority as a justifiable rebellion against the social conditions that reduce us to a mass. Though his solution may have failed, the direction of his thought offered penetrating social critique.

Gordon follows a similar model throughout the following three chapters. In the second, he turns to Adorno’s work on Husserl and Heidegger from the 1930s, above all Against Epistemology (not published until 1956). The third is concerned predominantly with The Jargon of Authenticity (1964), Adorno’s polemic on the irrational aura around the language of Heidegger, Jaspers, and others, while Chapter 4 deals with his critique of Heidegger in Negative Dialectics (1966). Gordon gives full rein to Adorno’s often ill-tempered attacks in these texts, showing that the main themes of his early Kierkegaard critique are present throughout: in each case, the philosophy of existence is right in trying to manifest the incommensurable uniqueness of the individual experience, but every time it lapses into an undifferentiated, static notion of existence rather than offering significant critical potential.

In Chapter 5, Gordon brings these strands together in a compelling argument for the importance of the philosophy of existence for Adorno’s thought. Here, Kierkegaard emerges as the hero of the narrative, as Gordon points to Adorno’s return to him in a 1963 lecture Kierkegaard noch einmal and in Aesthetic Theory, in which he seems to reverse his earlier evaluation: Kierkegaard now appears as a philosopher of negativity and non-identity, and hence an opponent of reification. Despite continued reservations, Adorno identifies as the truth-content of his thought the “deeper significance of inward subjectivity as the necessary precondition for any dialectical relationship with the object.” (190) Kierkegaard’s flight from the exterior world offers a negative image of redemption which, in its very cracks and imperfections, undermines identity and draws our attention to what would be necessary (if not sufficient) for redemption. Thus, Gordon argues, Adorno came to a new appreciation of Kierkegaard, and in grasping what the theologian had aimed at and the immanent grounds for his failure, Adorno laid the foundations of his own negative dialectics.

Gordon’s book offers a significant contribution to our understanding of Adorno’s thought. He writes with expertise, authority, and compendious scholarship, moving with confidence across the thinkers he examines. Throughout his argument, he effectively places Adorno’s work in the context of contemporary debates and events. His well-organized exposition and lucid prose are particularly noteworthy, conveying complex ideas with clarity and nuance. Above all, I found myself persuaded of his central claim, as it seems quite clear that Adorno’s engagement with the thought of Kierkegaard, Husserl, and Heidegger played a decisive role in the development of his own philosophy, rather than entailing merely a straightforward rejection. After this book, it will not be possible to explain Adorno’s philosophical development without serious consideration of his reactions to them.

At the same time, the success of Gordon’s argument raises its own further questions. Gordon explicitly eschews both direct examination of the thinkers Adorno criticises, and any judgment on the adequacy or accuracy of Adorno’s attacks. He conscientiously acknowledges, however, that posterity has not judged Adorno’s accounts with kindness, mentioning a number of sharply-critical evaluations (particularly Morgan & Hodge, 64–86). Indeed, whatever their merits as expressions of Adorno’s own position, his critiques of Kierkegaard, Husserl, and (to a degree) Heidegger are almost worthless as accounts of the thinkers they purport to examine. In Kierkegaard, for example, contrary to most serious scholarship, he deliberately ignores his target’s use of pseudonyms, thus attributing positions to the author instead of the persona. If Adorno’s attacks therein seem to hit the mark, it is because his blows fall on a crudely-constructed straw man—next to Kierkegaard’s subtle irony and deft touch, Adorno here risks making himself look like a clumsy polemicist, unable to detect the nuance and ambiguity that characterizes his target’s writings. Meanwhile, his confession at the start of Against Epistemology that Husserl was merely “the occasion and not the point” of the book is revealing: Adorno deliberately refuses to engage with Husserl’s thought on its own terms, and frankly admits his unconcern as to the accuracy of his attacks. (Adorno, 1–2)

Of course, it might be argued that this is all part of his dialectical method and immanent critique whereby he presumes to extract the truth content of their thought. But in these texts at least, Adorno is sometimes not so much dialectical as tendentious, entirely predictable in the criticisms he makes—he finds the traces of bourgeois society and its problems in Kierkegaard, Husserl, and Heidegger, because he brought that notion to his reading of them, not because of the immanent contradictions of their arguments. Rather than giving himself over to these textual objects, he fits them to his own subjective categorical scheme, excluding everything nonidentical with his purpose. This raises the obvious question as to why someone as capable of brilliant insight as Adorno should produce such mangled accounts of their philosophy. This is particularly the case if, as Gordon argues, Adorno saw his own negative dialectics as “the overcoming of existentialism but also its fulfilment.” (145) Such a claim demands a comprehensive reckoning directly with the texts Adorno examines so as to understand how and why he distorts these them, and to explore the significance of the tensions between those texts and Adorno’s representations of them in his attempt to “fulfil” them. Such an examination might also encompass Adorno’s more straightforwardly positive appropriations of existential themes (for example, his allusions to a rather Kierkegaardian concept of the moment at certain points in Negative Dialectics), even where he does not make the relation explicit.

Nevertheless, this is not a criticism of Gordon’s book. He accomplishes the task he sets himself admirably, making a persuasive case for the importance of Adorno’s engagement with the philosophy of existence in the development of his thought. Indeed, such questions arise only because of the success of his argument in making clear that Adorno’s confrontation with these interlocutors was far more rich and significant than the straightforward polemic it is usually seen as. While previous commentators have rightly identified similarities and overlap between Adorno and Heidegger (above all), Gordon shows both that such parallels can be extended to Kierkegaard and Husserl, and – crucially – that they are more than just resemblances, and instead indicate profound involvement with such thought meriting much further study. In rather Adornian fashion, then, Peter Gordon manages to point beyond his own book to the problems it has set for us.

Additional Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. (1982), Against Epistemology: A Metacritique. Studies in Husserl and the Phenomenological Antinomies, W. Domingo tr. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell)

Hodge, Joanna. (2008), “Poietic Epistemology: Reading Husserl through Adorno and Heidegger,” in Adorno & Heidegger: Philosophical Questions,  I. Macdonald and K. Ziarek eds. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press)

Morgan, Marcia. (2012), Kierkegaard and Critical Theory (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books)