Adorno on rigid thinking

In my readings, I have encountered an anti-metaphysical view from the corpus of Adorno. Adorno claims that the system-building kinds of philosophy, that goes back to Aristotle is unhelpful to the picturing we have of the world. For Adorno, putting things into a system is like how people commonly typify as ‘pigeonholing’. In the previous post concerning ‘types’, I addressed the kind of view that Adorno opposes. Adorno’s rejection of system-thinking is a strong statement that makes him typical (excuse me for pigeonholing) of the Continental philosophers (or so-called ‘critical theorists’, or as some hard analytics would call, ‘bullshit merchants’ or ‘frauds’) insofar as they oppose what they see as the large rationalisation of reality by the imposition of metaphysics and dense systems.

It is also true that analytic philosophers in mixed portions are resistant to the kind of system-building philosophy that the early 20thC continentals had opposed. It was championned perhaps at its worst by Hegel, and at its best by Kant or perhaps Aristotle himself.

For Adorno, putting things into a system makes the mind stale. We categorise, systematise and sterilise. Philosophy, or analysis becomes cold and clinical, it becomes a lifeless and unchanging model of our analysan, be that history or social theory or knowledge itself. Adorno was certainly right in pointing out that the historicism of Hegel and Marx, which was essential to their own ‘system’ of thought, made them almost dogmatic in their insight as to how their philosophies related to their historical situation. For Hegel, he believed that history was unfolding in a process, the world-spirit was moving towards its point of perfection which funny enough, happened to be located within early-mid 19thC Prussia (or as Hegel would have known it: the present). For Marx, the social mechanisms that started from early human civilisations would culminate in a process of thesis and antithesis and continual oppression of the lower caste (be they deemed so by brute force, religion, or capitalism). The communist revolution was inevitable in the historical process of things and it was coming very soon.

Adorno was right that theorising through philosophy should not be so fixed as not to be real. The heart of Adorno’s worry was this insight: the system-building tendency of philosophy was problematic insofar as abstraction eventually becomes detached from reality in how the latter is described by the former.

Being a systematicity advocate, this is certainly something to be concerned about. Often, sceptics of scientific theories point that our grounds for disbelieving current theories is to note how every theory until the current theory has been legitimately dismissed. I think this objection can be met by Kant’s notion of the regulative a priori, paired with the notion of the reflective equilibrium character of theories where experience modifies our insight, and our theories in turn have a place in placing predictions which succeed insofar as such predictions obtain.

System building requires a few foundations. One of them is to expect that the structure of a theory can and probably will change. Kant’s systematicity account acknowledges this, and makes the even stronger claim that such a dictum of changing theoretical strata is a desideratum for any future theory; scientific or metaphysical.

Perhaps the most salient point is a psychological adege. Rigid thinking is always bad. For Adorno, systematic thinking meant a solidification of what should be fluid. Our understanding of the social world, and metaphysics should be open minded so as to account that our theory may be wrong, but if we are informed by a theory from the outset; we end up being dogmatic and so closed minded as to make the world fit our theory, instead of vice versa. The notion of a desiderata for theoretical reflective equilibrium would account for this.


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