Adorno's Theory of Philosophical and Aesthetic Truth by Owen Hulatt
Owen Hulatt has written an exceptional book. As truth takes a beating at the hands of late capitalism, Theodor W. Adorno's assessment of the modern world and of truth becomes intimately relevant. There is a lot to recommend in this book, and it is a bold contribution to understanding Adorno.
Following Adorno, Hulatt suggests that there is a connection between epistemology and aesthetics (x), that the objects of both admit of being true. As he puts it, "art is itself a kind of knowledge" (xiii). Hulatt's strategy is to begin with epistemology and focus on the emergence of conceptuality (chapter 1). Following Adorno and Max Horkheimer's account in Dialectic of Enlightenment, Hulatt develops a novel reading of that text that argues that human conceptuality emerges as a response "to our pragmatic commitment to self-preservation [End Page 743] and control of our environment" (27). The second chapter presents the notion of 'thin determination,' as a way in which human rationality develops and gets deformed by society. Hullat argues that "even though concepts are based on mere self-preservation, there are determining constraints at every social level that make conceptual arrays fall out as the same in each case" (71). 'Arrays' is Hulatt's term for a set of concepts with their specific internal relations.
After these two chapters, the reader is presented with a grim view of things: our concepts arise from a drive towards self-preservation, they are warped and fitted by an all-pervasive social totality, and these two elements are further detailed to operate on both sides of the coin, as determining concepts by both "sociological structures (enforcing self-preservation as an ever-present concern) and reification (this self-preserving impetus translating into the identification of objects with concepts)" (66). And, lest the reader worry about these claims: Hulatt does a fine job of grounding them, offering an account of the nature and operations of reason, and of the relationship between transcendental and empirical standpoints, and between philosophy and other disciplines, notably sociology.
Hulatt proceeds to see how both philosophy (chapter 3) and art (chapters 5 and 6) are able "to overcome these obstacles" (xviii). Hulatt does this by presenting a novel understanding of truth in Adorno, as dependent on a particular form—what Adorno calls Gewebe and what Hulatt rightly translates as 'texture'—as the site where "diverse epistemological categories and perspectives are exhaustively interrelated and interwoven, in order to demonstrate the incapability of any single form of conceptual discourse exhaustively describing its object" (116). This makes for a unique conception of truth, but one that Hulatt admirably details, showing—notably in conversation with both Anglophone and European philosophical traditions—how it is able both to solve certain problems in the history of philosophy and to relate to concrete problems in the world. What emerges is an account of philosophy (and, it will be shown, art) that is processual, that is, guiding "the reader through the enacted application of a concept or a set of concepts" (120). Such performativity is essential to the account and reveals a novel understanding of one of Adorno's most contested terms: 'nonidentity.' On Hulatt's view, "nonidentity is … produced wherever conceptual systems betray a want of pliability, and thereby create a failure of fit between themselves and the world" (133). There is a lot more that is going on Hulatt's book, namely, discussions of negation, of mediation, of language, and of specific instances of art; I end my summary here, however, to raise a critical point.
In chapter 1, Hulatt stresses a connection to Kant. Hulatt's suggestion, on Adorno's behalf, is that in prehistory, experience was "discontinuous" (20), and that this elicited a particular "cry of terror" that set consciousness on the path to self-consciousness, that is, towards the use of conceptuality. Hulatt claims that "it would seem that the discontinuous experiential stage is pragmatically unsustainable. The subject is unavoidably thrust into the project of identifying and manipulating regularities in his or her environment by virtue of… being a creature with organic needs (food, water, and the like)" (24). In other words, practically, "consciousness could not synthesize discrete experiences, as experiences of the same object" (23), and thus the emergence of conceptuality. This is, at best, imprecise, and at worst, mistaken. According to Kant, there can be no self-consciousness without synthesis: as he argues in the A deduction, any consciousness requires a threefold synthesis (apprehension, reproduction, and recognition in a concept); the object of consciousness is not just the input of sensibility, but that plus the idea that I must view these inputs as belonging together; and that is only possible if there is one consciousness that unifies everything. The significance? There just is a distinction between what is natural and what is normative; the latter is an achievement that cannot be explained naturally, and requires even more dialectical engagement. [End Page 744]