Adorno's lectures on ontology and dialectics from 1960-61 comprise his most sustained and systematic analysis of Heidegger's philosophy. They also represent a continuation of a project that he shared with Walter Benjamin - 'to demolish Heidegger'. Following the publication of the latter's magnum opus Being and Time, and long before his notorious endorsement of Nazism at Freiburg University, both Adorno and Benjamin had already rejected Heidegger's fundamental ontology.
After his return to Germany from his exile in the United States, Adorno became Heidegger's principal intellectual adversary, engaging more intensively with his work than with that of any other contemporary philosopher. Adorno regarded Heidegger as an extremely limited thinker and for that reason all the more dangerous. In these lectures, he highlights Heidegger's increasing fixation with the concept of ontology to show that the doctrine of being can only truly be understood through a process of dialectical thinking. Rather than exploiting overt political denunciation, Adorno deftly highlights the connections between Heidegger's philosophy and his political views and, in doing so, offers an alternative plea for enlightenment and rationality.
These seminal lectures, in which Adorno dissects the thought of one of the most influential twentieth-century philosophers, will appeal to students and scholars in philosophy and critical theory and throughout the humanities and social sciences.
8 November 1960
Ladies and gentlemen,1
It is well known that Gustav Mahler was passionately interested in Dostoyevsky, who stood for something quite different in the years around 1890 than he does in the age of Moeller van den Bruck.2 On one occasion, during an excursion with Schoenberg and his pupils, Mahler is said to have advised them to spend less time studying counterpoint and more time reading Dostoyevsky. And Webern is supposed to have responded with heroic timidity: 'Pardon, Herr Direktor, but we have Strindberg.' The story is probably apocryphal, but it may aptly be applied to the relationship between ontology and the dialectic. For the last thing we want to say here is 'We have Strindberg', or 'We have the dialectic'. It might be tempting to adopt this approach in attempting to offer some initial orientation for those who are not professionally involved in the study of philosophy. But in these lectures I specifically want to get beyond anything resembling a 'philosophy of standpoints'.3 In other words, I want us to relinquish the idea that we can endorse the position of ontology on the one hand or that of the dialectic on the other. For then we would already feel as though the task were to choose between such standpoints. Yet amongst the philosophers who have anything to do with the specific directions of thought we have indicated - and I believe I can say this without exaggeration - no one on either side has ever had any time for the concept of a philosophical 'standpoint', or, as we could perhaps also put it, for philosophy as a 'world-view'. Indeed all those who have given any serious thought to these things have always rightly scorned the idea of a world-view that could be selected from a range of others or be regarded as a sort of supplement to life, and have abandoned this approach to the dilettante. Yet this attitude is actively encouraged by the cultural climate in which we find ourselves; and the power of this cultural climate is so great that it is perhaps advisable for you to stop and think about it for a moment. In other words, to think about the way in which everything between heaven and earth, and most certainly everything in the realm of the mind, is constantly presented in such reified and congealed forms and simply laid out for you to choose from. This is what I generally describe as the reified consciousness that is expressed in such commodified brands of thought. As it happens, I read only recently about a discussion about the radio where someone with a supposedly theoretical interest in the role of radio in contemporary culture - his name is Maletzke4 - claimed that people emphatically have a right to be presented with a range of images which they can proceed to choose from. And, God knows, that all sounds very democratic - sounds as though we had a free choice between high and low. But in reality this already presents the world of mind and culture like a range of cars for sale, where you can get something cheap, like a tiny Volkswagen (if any are still to be found), or something extremely expensive, like a Cadillac imported from America. I think it is a good idea for you to reflect upon these things so that you will have some idea in advance about what these lectures will really be concerned with. On the one hand, I certainly do want to satisfy your curiosity about what stands behind the alternative we are talking about here; in other words, I want to address this need in the sense that you may really learn why it is that I and my friend Horkheimer assume such a critical position towards ontology and attempt to defend a dialectical philosophy. That is precisely what I want to show in the lectures that follow. But at the same time I also want to show you that the opposition between these two philosophies is not itself an unmediated one - in other words, that we are not talking about two brands of thought between which you are supposed to choose, in the way that you might choose to vote for the Christian Democratic Party or the Social Democratic Party. For the approach I am offering you here is intended as a well-motivated and well-grounded approach rather than one that is based in an arbitrary fashion on a so-called decision. For the approach presented here must be understood as one that springs from the matter itself. Thus, instead of a choice between what are merely world-views, you may get a genuine sense - if I succeed in what I am trying to do - of what we might describe as philosophically motivated thought, in contrast to the kind of thought that is interested merely in establishing a 'standpoint'. But let me also qualify this somewhat straight away, since I certainly have no desire to rouse any false expectations amongst you. For the rigour which the following considerations may claim for themselves is not the same as that with which you are familiar in the field of the positive sciences, for example, or of the mathematically oriented natural sciences. The structural rigour which belongs to philosophy, and which allows philosophical thoughts to acquire their own plausibility and justification, is very different from that of the natural sciences. Above all, for the kind of fundamental philosophical controversies with which we shall be concerned in the coming months, we cannot presuppose or appeal to the structure of the positive sciences because the form and character of scientific thought itself is something that is first constituted by reference to those constitutive questions of philosophy which need to be addressed in their own right. We would therefore fall victim to a ?ste??? p??te??? [husteron proteron]5 if we tried to turn science, and the procedures associated with science, into the criterion of those considerations which for their part also precede science and are supposed to provide a critical investigation of science itself. And this is a point, incidentally, where I may say at once - although this may well astonish many of you - that I find myself in agreement with Heidegger.
First of all I would just like to outline the path which I hope to follow in these lectures. In general, of course, I am not very sympathetic to such announcements in advance. But since we shall have to concern ourselves here with what are indeed essentially systematic - that is to say, essentially interconnected processes - of thought, which are often by no means simple in themselves, it may be as well for you to know how I intend to proceed; and the way I shall proceed derives from the fact that I have no intention of presenting one position in an external manner in counter-position to another; on the contrary, I wish to show precisely how this position necessarily emerges for its own part out of the treatment of the other. In other words, the path that is meant to bring you to dialectical thinking, to the consideration of certain dialectical models, is the path of immanent critique (as it is generally called in the dialectical tradition).6 I begin, therefore, from the need for ontology that appears in the present. And there is surely no doubt that ontology would not prove as influential as it is unless there was some corresponding need for it amongst thinking individuals and indeed more generally. And I would like to consider this need in both positive and negative terms. In other words, I would like to try and present for you both the justifiable and the questionable character of this need, or rather of these needs. For I shall attempt to resolve this complex of ontological need into its various aspects; and I shall try, through immanent critique, to lead us beyond certain of the motivations behind ontology; and I shall undertake to show you, precisely by taking ontology at its word, by measuring it against its own claims, that it fails to redeem this claim. And what is known as dialectic, fundamentally speaking, is nothing more than this very procedure. We could also express this by saying that, in our present situation, dialectic is mediated by ontology; and the analyses which lead us towards dialectical statements are, in a certain sense, by no means unrelated to the kind of phenomenological analyses which originally led towards ontology. I could reveal this affinity by direct reference to Hegel himself, and specifically to his Logic. Later on in the course of these lectures, once I have said at least something about the texture and structure of Hegelian thought, we may be able to go into this point in a little more detail. This is dialectic: that the transition to dialectic consists precisely in the self-reflection of ontology. Or, to rephrase this in more Hegelian terms, dialectic is mediated in itself precisely through ontology. That I am not simply declaiming empty words here, or simply indulging in idle speculation, and that these very considerations emerge from the philosophical tradition itself, is something you may readily and trenchantly confirm for yourselves. For one of the most fundamental texts of dialectical thought, Hegel's Greater Logic, namely the Science of Logic, opens with the doctrine of Being, and the dialectical movement itself only gets going through an analysis of the concept of being - that is to say, through an analysis of what 'being' really means. Yet it is entirely characteristic that modern ontology, inasmuch as it is a philosophy of being, specifically ignores this dialectical...