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  • Adorno and Existence by Peter E. Gordon
  • Andrew Bowie
Peter E. Gordon. Adorno and Existence. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016. Pp. xiv + 256. Cloth, $29.95.

The Anglophone reception of the work of T. W. Adorno has yet to succeed in making him a major part of mainstream philosophical debate. Among the reasons for this are the refusal of too many analytic philosophers to consider alternative approaches to philosophy, and Adorno's writing style, which does not always offer direct points of access for other philosophical traditions. Things are also not helped by the fact that writers on Adorno can tend to adopt some of his mode of writing, on the basis of the claim that Adorno's esoteric style is part of the content of his writing. However, Adorno's lectures on the topics of his major books are actually often remarkably lucid, offering ways of bringing him into almost any debate on central philosophical issues. Peter E. Gordon's new book takes up a theme in Adorno with resonances in many areas of philosophy, and traces, mainly with respect [End Page 550] to his books, rather than his lectures, how his position on this theme developed. There is much to be said for Gordon's historical approach, especially when the book is as well written and researched as this one. However, the book also makes fault-lines apparent that are still present in the practice of the history of philosophy in the analytic and European or Continental traditions.

The book "unites into one study Adorno's readings of three philosophers: Kierkegaard, Husserl, and Heidegger," who are "exemplars of what I will call 'the philosophy of bourgeois interiority.'" This involves "a tendency to esteem the contents of isolated consciousness over and against the material world," and a "stress on an interior realm" (ix), "defined as the province of authentic selfhood, transcendental subjectivity, or incorrigible belief" (4). Adorno seeks to show that problems in the work of the three thinkers can be understood in terms of their failure to see how subjectivity is inseparable from its historical conditions of existence. He consequently advocates a historical materialism that "differentiates itself from the merely contemplative philosophy insofar as—unlike historical ontology—it abandons the idealist ambition to comprehend the totality," and "embraces the 'liquidation of philosophy'" (46).

Moving from Adorno's early book on Kierkegaard, to Against Epistemology, to the Jargon of Authenticity, and Negative Dialectics, and examining a variety of other texts, Gordon traces Adorno's characterization of the three philosophers as "idealists" for whom "subjective consciousness confronts an external world as something 'foreign and lost'" (52). This even applies to Heidegger's existential ontology, which "still subscribes to a species of 'subjectivistic' idealism where the cogito stands unchallenged as the coordinating principle of all reality" (55). Adorno's alternative is seen as a negative aesthetics: "'In all art that is still possible,' Adorno explained, 'social critique must be raised to the level of form, to the point that it wipes out all manifestly social content'" (107). Gordon focuses on the idea that "Theology in a post-Auschwitz world can survive … but it will persist only in its inverted form insofar as one takes an unflinching and unapologetic view of social suffering" manifest in radical art's refusal to make sense of the senseless (181).

Gordon admits that Adorno sought "a realization of the promise [of a 'turn towards the concrete' (xi)] existentialism betrayed" (171), but there is an issue here that the book seems to me not to address. The historical person Heidegger is clearly open to some of Adorno's criticisms: recent revelations have made it clearer than ever that his aims were often disreputable. But Heidegger's philosophy says much that cannot be construed as a failed "idealist" attempt to grasp the whole of Being in thought. In lectures in 1963–64, Adorno himself talks of Heidegger's "pluralistic, antisystematic motivation in the approach of the ontology," which "was very clearly to be felt in the doctrine of the existentials" ("Fragen der Dialektik," Adorno Archiv, Akademie der Künste, Berlin, 8965). In a broader context, recent work on Heidegger by Lee Braver, Mark Wrathall, and others...


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