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In the Shadow of Hegel

Colin Harper reviews Adorno’s essays on the Master.

The three essays which make up this book date from the late 1950s and early 1960s and they bear the marks of their origin in Adorno’s attempts to teach Hegel’s philosophy at the University of Frankfurt. One of the uniting themes of the book is the peculiar nature of Hegel’s thought as presented in his writings and the particular problems this poses for both its readers and teachers. A central concern throughout is the question of how the philosophy of Hegel should be approached and regarded today.

In ‘Aspects of Hegel’s Philosophy’, the first essay, Adorno recognises the enormous influence of Hegel on later European philosophy. He is rightly sceptical of any attempt to present an ‘appreciation’ of Hegel’s work and of any attempt to separate what is ‘living’ (or ‘useful’, or ‘interesting’) from what is ‘dead’ and obsolete in the Hegelian system purely on the basis of our own concerns. Adorno refuses to adopt the sort of approach to Hegel which apologetically skips over Hegel’s grandest claims with embarrassment and attempts to scavenge among the wreckage left after the dissolution of German Idealism. Such an approach stands outside the object of appreciation and thus, in Adorno’s view, necessarily fails to actually engage with its object. What appear to us as the most scandalous claims of Hegel’s thought must be taken seriously and engaged with rather than dispensed with. Adorno seems to think that the reception of Hegel’s thought is still in its early stages, certainly at too early a stage always to be sure what Hegel was writing about. This uncertainty precludes any too ready analysis.

Much of the book is an application of Adorno’s idea of ‘immanent criticism’ to Hegel’s thought. The method of immanent criticism seeks to follow the inherent dynamic of a philosophy through to its (as yet) unarticulated end. It is an approach which seeks to undermine a philosophy from within, rather than from without. Hegel: Three Studies retains and maintains the deep irony of Adorno’s work. Immanent criticism as an approach to philosophical ideas is not itself immanent in those ideas; it seems to be transcendent rather than immanent. In other works Adorno generally does not hold the views he engages in criticism, whether they are those of Kierkegaard, Husserl, Heidegger or of a movement such as the Enlightenment. However, this is not so clearly the case for his approach to Hegel. These essays make plain the deep affinity of Adorno’s work to that of Hegel and the roots of immanent criticism can be seen here as being deeply embedded in Hegel’s own thought.

In the second essay Adorno discusses ‘The Experiential Content of Hegel’s Philosophy’, Hegel’s concept of experience and the experience presented in Hegel’s philosophy. Adorno sees these aspects as essentially connected and bound up with our experience of Hegel’s philosophy; he thinks that the substantive content of Hegel’s philosophy cannot be separated from the dialectical presentation of that content and the experience of reading Hegel’s works.

The third essay, ‘Skoteinos, or How to Read Hegel’, is in many ways the most interesting in the book as it takes up the question of the difficulty of reading Hegel’s works, considers the experience of engaging with Hegel’s philosophy. Many commentators regard Hegel’s prose as at best poor and at worst wilfully obscurantist. “If only he would have written more clearly” is the often repeated lament. Adorno brilliantly argues that such comments betray a failure to understand the nature of Hegel’s break with previous philosophy. “The norm of clarity holds only where it is presupposed that the object itself is such that the subject’s gaze can pin it down like the figures of geometry.” (p.98) If the clarity of our concepts is to grasp the shadowy nature of a shifting reality, if the labour of thought is to actively cast light on that reality, then thought must capture the shadows of reality rather than simply dispel them. In order to identify objects with adequate concepts, our concepts must paradoxically seek to grasp the nonconceptual that is, or is in, objective reality. Rejecting Wittgenstein’s maxim that “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof must one be silent” as “utterly anti-philosophical”, Adorno claims: “If philosophy can be defined at all, it is an effort to express things one cannot speak about, to help express the non-identical despite the fact that expressing it identifies it at the same time.” (p.102) According to Adorno, it is this paradoxical nature of Hegel’s undertaking, of attempting to grasp in thought that which is other than thought, which gives rise to the difficult style of his works; the style attempts to grasp the content and is not simply a result of incidental factors, such as a whim on Hegel’s part or a simple lack of ability to write clearly. The attempt to express the truth in the tension between the clarity of the concept and that which is unclear is ‘clearly’ not an abandonment of clarity as a goal. It is also, however, “not the same thing as the vague and brutal commandment of clarity, which for the most part amounts to the injunction that one speak the way others do and refrain from anything that would be different and could only be said differently.” (p.106) In Adorno’s view, Hegel is thus not to be criticised for writing in the manner he did, but rather for believing that he had more success in his undertaking than he actually had.

In these essays it is often difficult to separate Adorno’s thought from that of Hegel, the commentary from the object of the commentary, but this is as it should be if the two stand in the kind of relation Adorno claims. There is some overlap between the essays, but not an excessive amount. In a highly un-Hegelian fashion some Hegel commentators concentrate on the details of Hegel’s texts to the extent that they fail to actually illuminate Hegel’s thought as a whole. Adorno succeeds in adventuring deep into the core of Hegel’s philosophy without losing himself in philological niceties and thus remains true to Hegel’s own approach to a remarkable extent. These essays nevertheless require both a good background in Hegel’s writings and a familiarity with Adorno’s thought to appreciate their true value. This is a remarkable, but definitely not an introductory, work; Hegel commentary rarely reaches these heights.

© Dr Colin M. Harper 1997

Hegel: Three Studies by Theodor W. Adorno, is translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen and published by MIT Press. Paperback £10.50 ISBN 0-262-51080-4

Colin Harper lectures in political philosophy in the University of Ulster at Jordanstown

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