The Relation/Difference between Spirit and Nature in Horkheimer and Adorno

John Duncan

Ph.D., Professor, Director of Ethics Society and Law (Trinity College) and Academic Director of Ideas for the World (Victoria College), University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Address: 6 Hoskin Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M5S 1H8.

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Abstract: Horkheimer’s 1947 Eclipse of Reason is examined closely in order to develop a fundamental approach regarding the relation and difference between spirit and nature. Adorno’s 1969 “Subject and Object” is also examined, in order to develop its relevant contributions to the approach. Horkheimer’s largely Freudian major critical argument most often has its sights set on late modern realist philosophical traditions. Adorno is critically concerned with late modern idealist philosophical traditions, and the problem of constitution with respect to the relation and difference between subject and object. It is in the domain of the complicated between of relation/difference that we find crucial philosophical roots of the social and political critique of instrumental reason made by the first generation Frankfurt School.

Key words: Frankfurt School, Max Horkheimer, Theodore Adorno, Critical Theory, Epistemology, History of Philosophy.

Received at April 09, 2020.

How to cite: Duncan, John (2020). The Relation/Difference between Spirit and Nature in Horkheimer and Adorno. Researcher. European Journal of Humanities & Social Sciences. 2 (3), 97–115.


Copyright © 2020 Authors retain the copyright of this article. This article is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

What had recommended him to the late Mr. Clark for rapid promotion would, by many, have been considered a defect: he did not possess a trace of imagination. Whatever was he accepted; he studied and defended it. Nobody could outdo him in the strict logic and tenacity with which he reasoned from, and held to, a given basis of fact; the conclusions arrived at he followed up in an unhesitating, ruthless way which commanded respect and even admiration. But it never occurred to him to examine that basis or to challenge a fact. Nobody, at the present moment, was so well fitted to ensure continuity. Brief as the life of the mill had been, Bob Stevens represented its tradition; and that tradition had resumed itself in one aim: profit. Profit was his God; not his profit; not anyone’s; profit in the abstract.

Frederick Philip Grove

The Crisis of Reason

As is well known, science’s prowess, developed during the modern period, inspired almost every field of enquiry to emulate its methods. For example, in philosophy, positivism attempted to reveal and normatively systematize what it took to be the method of science in order to grasp its power. What positivism came up with was, in the end, a criterial reduction of the domain of the meaningful: only those propositions which could be either analytically or empirically verified were to be considered cognitively meaningful. All propositions that failed to meet this criterion were considered nonsense with respect to the domain of knowledge. Only if enquiry, in whatever field, held fast to this criterion could it free itself from the pie-in-the-sky dogmatisms that had held civilization back for nearly two millennia. A number of versions of this no-nonsense methodology were put into play within the various disciplines and had a significant impact.

According to Max Horkheimer, in his Eclipse of Reason, no-nonsensers utilize the “pinning-down strategy” in philosophical analysis (2004, p. 168). This strategy determines necessary-and-sufficient condition definitions (reputed to be reliable a-historically) for concepts. Concepts retain these atomic definitions intact when they are put to use in a context governed by the rules of identity logic. In such a context, propositions can be constructed with concepts, and systems with propositions. The systems so constructed contain nothing but valid logical connectives and a-historically reliable atomic definitions, some of which contain empirically verified propositions about the world. The pinning-down strategy is, in this fashion, supposed to be the shortest route to non-dogmatic accounts of the various features of the world.

For Horkheimer, this strategy is only really appropriately used “in natural science, and wherever practical use is the goal” (2004, p. 168). No-nonsense accounts, in whatever field, are, from the start, directed toward a logical world. Logical worlds have the virtue of being reliable because, within them, temporal processes are never surprising: each instance of a process is a repetition of its essential definition. Reliability of repetition yields predictability, which in turn generates the possibility of control over processes. And, finally, control is the only guarantee of efficacy in practical action.

However, it is not the case that every field is concerned primarily with practical action. For example, much of what goes on in the various fields of intellectual analysis, creativity and expression is concerned rather with something like edification, or the goal of a better world that transcends the conditions of the current world. As such fields emulate the methods of science more and more they lose themselves. They are rendered “pragmatistic” (Horkheimer 2004, p. 185). If every field of inquiry becomes pragmatistic we will find the expression of some important endeavours of human analysis and creativity eclipsed by a rationality of policy planning rooted in the calculative thinking of prediction and control. Human aspirations for a better world will be displaced by the mere efficient reorganization of features of the present world as it is.

In various ways, Horkheimer and Adorno make the contentious argument that reason’s development into its no-nonsense form was pre-destined in the very origin of reason, that no-nonsense reason is a form of what reason has always been — i.e., domination — and that the social and political catastrophe of authoritarianism experienced during the twentieth century cannot be fully left behind without a self-critique of reason. These are extravagant sounding claims. By the end of this essay, perhaps, they will be less so.

A simple preliminary characterization of the nature of Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique can be had by considering the slogan: we should think about what we are doing. This slogan points to the root of their understanding of the self-critique of reason. “What we are doing” — i.e., practical activity — carries within it a practical rationality that guides the activity toward the efficient satisfaction of its goal. It is subjects that engage in practical activity, and they act with respect to objects of the world. Horkheimer and Adorno challenge us to think about the rationality between subjects and objects — that is, to think deeply about what we are doing. Before this notion can be discussed in detail we will need to travel a path of thinking that brings into view the context of the self-critique of reason.

Ideology, Negation, History

Horkheimer and Adorno engage in something like a critique of ideology. Ideology, however, is a slippery term, one that has been used to cover a wide range of concepts. It will be helpful to more or less stipulate a definition of a basic understanding of the term and then point out the significant departures Horkheimer and Adorno take from it.

(a) A common understanding of ideology: Let us take ideology to be a set of opinions that are held by the members of a social group—a set of opinions that misrepresent the group’s genuine socio-political interests (and in so doing may benefit some other group). Whether the misrepresentation is intentionally orchestrated or not is less important for our purposes than that the genuine interests of the social group are not recognized as such by it. Based on this conception of ideology, the critique of ideology launches its attack from the justified foundation of genuine — true — interests against the group’s false opinions of its interests in order to bring the group to understand its true position in the social formation. This in turn enables the group to work toward its own betterment.

(b) Determinate negation, the first departure: Assumed in the above conception of ideology critique is the belief that genuine interests can be ascertained before critique begins. Horkheimer and Adorno do not make this assumption. Thus, they cannot accept the idea of a foundation for ideology critique. Remaining faithful to enlightenment (which criticizes ontological dogmatism, which will be discussed below), they argue that critique should not presume to know the ground of the road to betterment. Critique for them is “determinate negation” (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002, pp. 23–24). Determinate negation does not confront false representations with true ones, because truth is precisely what it is in the process of building. Interests ascertained from situations involving injustice cannot fail to have been shaped, to some extent, by the injustice they oppose and so should not be used in the manner of justified foundations.

Horkheimer and Adorno suggest that what is required is a negation — of what is unjust — that does not fall into an illegitimate foundationalism. Such a negation has two moments to it. It denies the claims to ultimate truth of its ideals (drawn from society), and it confronts the society’s actual state of being with its demystified ideals (Horkheimer 2004, p. 182). Horkheimer and Adorno bring the ideal dimension of a society to bear against its dimension of actuality after having shown that the ideal dimension itself is not a realm of eternal truth, but is rather produced through the workings of the whole social formation through history.

(c) History, the second departure: However, this method of negation — a form of immanent critique — only counts as one of the two significant departures that Horkheimer and Adorno take from traditional ideology critique as defined above. By approximately 1940, when the authoritarian nature of developed capitalism had become clear to them, they were compelled to shift their views significantly. They found themselves living in an increasingly “one-dimensional” society, as Marcuse would call it. The dimension of the ideal was coming to be defined solely by the values of technical efficiency (Arato 1982, pp. 10–11). Paradoxically then, without significant ideals (such as individualism, for example) at its disposal, immanent critique, by confronting the actuality of advanced capitalist social formations with their own ideals, might only result in spurring already overly rationalized societies (in Weber’s sense, on which see Arato 1982, pp. 191–193) on to become more so. Because of these pressures of one-dimensionality, Horkheimer, in Eclipse of Reason, complicates the conception of negation as immanent critique by adding a historical dimension to it.

On the one hand, in two-dimensional society, ideals contradict greater social actuality; here lies the “contradiction that spurs all historical progress” (Horkheimer 2004, p. 178). On the other hand, one-dimensional society is overwhelmed by “conformism”, which “presupposes the basic harmony of” actuality and ideals, finding only “minor discrepancies in the ideology of itself” (Horkheimer 2004, p. 178). Against this conformism Horkheimer opposes the method of negation as immanent criticism, what he often calls “philosophy”, which alone “makes men conscious of the contradiction” between the ideal and the actual. But philosophy in this sense is unlikely to be a match for the overwhelming conformist pressures of the forces of one-dimensionality. Thus, we find Horkheimer turning to a kind of philosophical history for support. Philosophy, he argues, by retrieving, without anachronism, “those images and ideas that at given times dominated reality in the role of absolutes ... can function as a corrective of history, so to speak” (2004, p. 186). A careful retrieval of past ideals can help humans to remember, to keep in mind, the path humanity has travelled. Casting “light upon the current course of humanity ... philosophy would be mankind’s memory and conscience, and thereby help to keep the course of humanity from resembling the meaningless round of the asylum inmate’s recreation hour” (Horkheimer 2004, p. 186).

Horkheimer’s turn to history is an expansion of what is taken to be social actuality. By considering not merely the contemporary social formation, but rather whole swaths of social history, of which the contemporary is the most recent phase, Horkheimer’s critique operates in an expanded dimension of ideals. Historical ideals, in a sense, give back to one-dimensional society a second dimension. Although these ideals, removed from their original contexts, are diminished in direct applicability they are sorely needed to help confront twentieth century conformism. The most important retrieved ideal for Horkheimer is that of individualism, in part because this ideal has not yet completely faded from current memory and because it most directly contradicts contemporary mass conformism (2004, pp. 78, 186–187, 112–114).

It should be pointed out that Horkheimer, unlike the neo-Thomists he criticizes, is not arguing for a restoration of past ontologies or religions. As we have seen, the method of negation relativizes every ideal with respect to its place in social history and only deploys ideals against actuality in order to criticize the relation between the actual and the ideal in order to transcend them. If it does this in wider history rather than solely within a contemporary social formation this does not mean that it has attempted to restore transcended ontologies. (See Horkheimer’s critical remarks about Huxley’s attempt to restore a “metaphysical individualism”: 2004, pp. 56–57).

There are two emphases in this historical version of the method of negation as immanent critique: on the one hand, by developing our historical memory, it reveals our contemporary directionality; on the other hand, by bringing past ideals to bear on contemporary social formations, it critically confronts those formations. More generally, the turn to history widens the lens for philosophical reflection, takes seriously the long view of what we have been becoming, and steadfastly adheres to the possibilities within what we have been becoming in order to both comprehend and overcome what we have become.

The Critique of Subjective Reason

In this section we will see how Horkheimer deploys the method of critique outlined above in order to critically comprehend late modern capitalist social formations, and the barbarism to which they have given rise.

Horkheimer provides a complicated sketch of the history of Western reason — a history which is significantly linked to the history of the Western individual. In a grand narrative of philosophical history, he traces the barbarism of twentieth century authoritarianism back to the emergence of individuality and reason from prehistorical, undifferentiated, mythically experienced nature. Before its emergence, the subject, as un-individuated natural being, was a complex of fears and pains from which it received intermittent release. Individuality and reason emerged together when the subject first came to “sacrifice ... immediate satisfaction [(i.e., release)] for the sake of security” (Horkheimer 2004, p. 129; also see Horkheimer and Adorno 2002, pp. 9–10, 11, 51). Purposeful sacrifice marks the emergence of the subject in a manner analogous to Freud’s idea that the ego emerges in the transition from “pleasure principle” to “reality principle” (Freud 1962, p. 111). Only the ego, as the id’s developed consciousness of external reality, can sacrifice the satisfaction of immediate desires in order to increase the chances of the long-term preservation of the entire psychic complex. The stronger the ego becomes in its development, the greater will be the subject’s ability to survive. In socio-historical terms, the Western individual’s aptitude for sacrifice, Horkheimer argues, peaked in the Christian Middle Ages through denial of the present world in lieu of the promise of eternal life — the promise of ultimate psychic self-preservation (2004, p. 136). In the West, since the Renaissance, along with the decline of Christianity, humanity became less and less able to be inspired to reach comparable heights of sacrifice. The development of concrete individuality slowed and reversed, resulting in decline (Horkheimer 2004, pp. 115–116). The so-called “self-made” individual of the period of liberal capitalism retained some of the remnants of earlier strong individualism, but with the advent of authoritarian capitalism, the move from economies dominated by individual entrepreneurs to those dominated by state and corporate bureaucracies edged out the significance of the liberal individual. In order to survive, post-liberal individuals, largely hollowed out individuals, spend their time adapting themselves to social mega-forces over which they have no control. “The theme of this time is self-preservation, while there is no self to preserve” (Horkheimer 2004, pp. 128, 141–142). Thus, the history of the Western individual gives us a picture of initial rise and eventual decline into adaptation and conformity to what is the case.

A roughly parallel historical story can be traced regarding human reason. Reason’s emergence eventually replaced the mythical web of gods and forces — anthropomorphic “nonsense” — with the view of nature as disenchanted object. Actually, reason was already at work in the “nonsense”, organising the earliest of myths by domains, relationships, hierarchies, etc., although “it failed to discover the trace of itself in such objectivation, in the concepts of matter and things not less than in those of gods and spirit” (Horkheimer 2004, p. 176). However, the general point is that reason tended to reject, by rationally criticizing, the untenability of mythical worldviews, and tended to set up in their stead views of nature as disenchanted wholes, the core feature of reason under its objective concept. Objective reason attempts to discern the nature of the whole so that humans can pattern themselves to harmoniously groove in their rightful places within it. The critical impetus of reason that rejects anthropomorphism, however, does not disappear in the establishment of objective reality. And so it cannot do otherwise than criticize what it finds untenable in the objective views of the whole it itself attempts to form.

Ultimately, all talk of aspects of a putative, meaningful, objective whole is unable to withstand the criticisms of formal reasoning. After this critical force has run its course through history all that is left of rationality is formal reasoning itself, reason under its subjective concept. There being no tenable conceptualization of the whole, reason loses its role of harmonizing humanity with the greater world. Subjective reason is left with only the substance of disconnected empirical facts and subjective desires and fears. In this situation, all that it can do is act instrumentally to help subjects control their environments sufficiently so as to serve their desires and fears. Hume, “the father of modern positivism” (Horkheimer 2004, p. 18), argued that “Reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them” (Hume 1948, p. 25). Thus, “Justice, equality, happiness, tolerance, all of the concepts that ... were in the preceding centuries supposed to be inherent in or sanctioned by [objective] reason, have lost their intellectual roots” (Horkheimer 2004, p. 23). Lacking these roots, reason comes to regard as irrational the aspiration to make the world a better place. “Subjective reason conforms to anything” (Horkheimer 2004, p. 25).

The subjectivization of reason and the decline of the individual are intimately linked historical trends. As reason critically displaces its various versions of objective nature with which the individual is to be harmoniously patterned, the intellectual ground for behaviour which reaches beyond mere adaptation-to-prevalent-forces is displaced. To be sure, there seem to be similarities between patterning and adaptation, but the similarity is superficial. On the one hand, taking the virtue ethics of classical Greek philosophy as a model, we may argue that, faced with the achievements of objective reason, the individual becomes aware of the objective whole as they stand back from it, and so becomes well-placed to lead a “splendid” life “according to nature” (Duncan 2013, pp. 191–195). On the other hand, the individual’s complete lack of power in authoritarian capitalist society reduces them to a being who uses a purely instrumental reason to satisfy the needs of self-preservation. Reason conforms to impersonal forces, learning how to predict them so as to control the subject’s immediate environment just enough to survive. The individual is adapted to a social machine it has no influence over and no ability to rationally criticize — because its only intellectual resource is a conformist, no-nonsense rationality. Add to this the culture industry’s grip on popular consciousness and the picture is bleak.

The patterns of thought and action that people accept ready-made from the agencies of mass culture act in their turn to influence mass culture as though they were the ideas of the people themselves. The objective mind in our era worships industry, technology, and nationality without a principle that could give sense to these categories; it mirrors the pressure of an economic system that admits of no reprieve or escape (Horkheimer 2004, p. 154).

The result is a crisis of decline into barbarism. The question “why mankind, instead of entering into a truly human condition, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism” (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002, p. xi) is partly answered by the history of instrumental reason. The confrontation of rationalized actuality and ideals with anti-conformist ideals can bring this home, but how can we enhance our ability to critically advance beyond the crisis?

Horkheimer: Between Spirit and Nature

The reduction of thinking to no-nonsense instrumentalism “affects the very foundations of our civilization” (Horkheimer 2004, p. 26). But the critical force of subjective reason, which has been with us from the beginning, cannot be halted by a return to objective reason. Unfortunately, “the transition from objective to subjective reason was not an accident ... [S]ubjective reason ... has dissolved the philosophical basis of beliefs ... because this basis proved to be too weak” (Horkheimer 2004, p. 62). Thus, we are forced to deal with subjective reason if we wish to alter our decline into barbarism. We need to ask what is at the root of subjective reason’s destructiveness and whether this can be changed.

In the emergence of reason and ego from mythic experience, humanity reduced nature to its other — to a mere object — which resulted in its own reduction to a mere subject. Thus, an opposition insinuated itself between object and subject, nature and spirit, the hunted/gathered and the hunter/gatherer. From that moment, when humanity faced nature as its other, an antagonism of dominator and dominated developed. The antagonism could not help but be destructive because the difference between the dominator and the dominated can never be an absolute difference: in truth, subject and object are not utterly distinct (Horkheimer 2004, p. 176).

“[T]he destructive antagonism of self and nature, an antagonism epitomizing the history of our civilization, reaches its peak in this era”; unfortunately, however, “philosophical thinking, whose task it is to essay a reconciliation, has come to deny or to forget the very existence of the antagonism” (Horkheimer 2004, p. 162). Descartes, the father of early modern philosophy in an important sense, began his Meditations with a metaphysical differentiation of the epistemological subject from the object only to find himself subsequently unable to account for the possibility of the subject’s cognition of the object — unable, that is, without the help of God’s benevolence (Duncan 2005, pp. 92–93). Descartes’ famous dualism of subject and object set the stage for the great intellectual monisms of rationalism and idealism in much European philosophy, as well as the great physicalist monisms of empiricism and naturalism in much Anglo-American philosophy. If Descartes failed to remember the relation between subject and object, the various monisms failed to remember the differences between them. The thrust of Horkheimer’s remarks on the relationship of subject and object steer us away from these two basic failings (especially from the physicalist monisms of empiricism and naturalism), toward the between. Between subject and object difference is also relation, and relation is also difference.

For Horkheimer, the subject-object relationship is the spirit-nature relationship, and, as we have seen, “[t]he real difficulty of the relation between spirit and nature is that hypostatizing the polarity of these two entities is as impermissible as reducing one of them to the other. This difficulty expresses the predicament of all philosophical thinking” (2004, p. 171, and see pp. 165, 173).

(a) The mistake of forgetting the relation: “The assumption of an ultimate duality is inadmissible” (Horkheimer 2004, p. 171). Substance dualism — the doctrine that two mutually exclusive fundamental substances make up all-that-is — is cumbersome, counter-intuitive and perhaps self-contradictory (Horkheimer 2004, pp. 171, 173). Spirit and nature are “inseparably related”, and we must not forget this.

(b) The mistake of forgetting the difference: Forgetting the difference between spirit and nature can occur in three possible forms. (i) Unifying the two: Arguing for the unity of spirit and nature is difficult. Most Western philosophers have aimed at this unity by favouring one or the other of the polarities. The attempt to make the argument is a denial, a forgetting, of those central problems of epistemology (the difference between knower and known) and ethics (the difference between agency and the material, causal world) which have virtually always concerned Western philosophy. (ii) Reducing spirit to nature: “When man is assured that he is nature and nothing but nature, he is at best pitied” (Horkheimer 2004, p. 170). Reducing spirit to nature is what various versions of contemporary positivism — e.g., popular Darwinism and pragmatism — attempt to do (E.g., see Duncan 2005, pp. 104–107). As we have seen, according to Horkheimer, positivism is the result of historical-sociological forces that reduce reason and ego to a mere instrumentality in a one-dimensional society. The positivist or naturalistic understanding of spirit and nature results from the destructive antagonism at the root of subjective reason. Over the course of history, it has come to forget the difference between spirit and nature. (iii) Reducing nature to spirit: Reducing (or perhaps elevating) nature to spirit has occurred in rationalism and German idealism. These philosophies reduce experience to general categories. For example, Kantians argue that a formal filter constitutes all possible human experience. This filter is not detectable empirically, but rather, at the least, is the condition of the possibility of empirical experience. However, this hypostatization of the abstracted forms of experience as transcendental categories conceals “the basic conflicts in society behind the harmony of its conceptual constructions” (Horkheimer 2004, p. 170), which is ultimately indefensible, as our discussion of Adorno will attempt to show below.

If a fundamental difference (which forgets relation) and various forms of a primary relation (which forget difference) are both inadmissible characterizations of the relation/difference between spirit and nature, we cannot abstractly pin down either spirit or nature in tight definitions. “This difficulty expresses the predicament of all philosophical thinking” (Horkheimer 2004, p. 171). However, the predicament of all philosophical thinking is not something to be escaped or denied. Avoidance of it would amount to a repression of that queer relationship between spirit and nature that simultaneously relates and differentiates spirit and nature. “On the one hand, each of the two poles has been torn away from the other by abstraction; on the other, their unity cannot be conceived and ascertained as a given fact” (Horkheimer 2004, p. 173).

(c) Remembering the between: We must not forget or evade the difficult truth of the matter regarding the relationship of spirit and nature: “spirit ... is simultaneously identical with and different from nature” (Horkheimer 2004, p. 170). Between spirit and nature is a relation/difference. We must remember this “between” through a process of defining it — that is, through reconstructing its history (Horkheimer 2004, pp. 167 & 168) — so that we may increase our understanding of it. In regard to the present situation of crisis, this non-denial of the between will be helpful to us in possibly “transcending it intellectually in conformity with the potentialities and tendencies inherent in it” (Horkheimer 2004, p. 169). This is to argue that the “predicament of all philosophical thinking” may not be solved by merely pinning down the abstract concepts of spirit and nature. Moving away from philosophical thinking’s predicament — the mediated relationship of the between — is to move away from philosophical thinking itself.

Humanity will be unable to break free of the domination which is rooted in the very core of reason as long as it does not come to reflect on dominating reason itself. As we have seen, reason emerged by instrumentally objectivizing nature in order to serve the self-preservation needs of the subject. Concretely understood, this service includes an active practical rationality that affects the world. It is through the very attainment of the ability to carry out calculating action that the subject emerged from mythically experienced nature. Thus, reason only emerges from its undifferentiated origin when it reduces mythic nature to the objective other in order to place nature at the subject’s disposal.

If reason is able to reflect on itself with the aim of reconciliation, it might emerge from, and become more than, its merely calculative function: “Thus also, by being the instrument of reconciliation, it will be more than an instrument” (Horkheimer 2004, p. 177).

The truth of the relation/difference between spirit and nature can only be honoured if the domain of this relationship is reflected upon. Only reason can do this and only if it brings its reflection to bear on itself. This is because it is precisely reason that abides in the domain. By taking nature as its object, it raised itself above nature to the place of master, and so by taking itself-as-master as its object, it may raise itself above dominating mastery. To do so, reason must do something other than plan to act instrumentally. Policy programs generated by instrumental reason are directed at the world as object, which means reason is directed away from reflecting on itself. If no-nonsense philosophy dominates our thinking, then “action seems to represent the fulfilment of our eternal destiny” (Horkheimer 2004, p. 187). However, Horkheimer warns us, “[t]his age needs no added stimulus to action”; rather, “[t]he concentrated energies necessary for reflection must not be prematurely drained into the channels of activistic or non-activistic programs” (2004, p. 184).

Reason must take a step in reverse and think itself; it must reflect on the between if there is to be any hope of it realizing a less dominating reasonableness. Indeed, “the advances and retrogressions of this effort, reflect the development of the definition of philosophy” (Horkheimer 2004, p. 177).

Risking oversimplification, I suggest three comparisons. Firstly, as we have already suggested, we may compare Horkheimer’s view of the break from prehistorical nature to socio-historical spirit, the rise of spirit to the heights of Medieval self-sacrifice, and the subsequent fall into barbarism, on the one hand, with the Freudian break from the pleasure principle to the reality principle, the strengthening of the ego and superego to the point of adult maturity, and a subsequent fall into pathology, on the other hand. However, the comparison may be deepened such that we may compare Horkheimer’s view of nature and spirit, and the philosophical reflection of spirit, with respect to ideals, on itself and its relation and difference with and from nature, on the one hand, with the Freudian id and ego, and the overseeing by the superego, with respect to ideals, of the ego and its relation and difference with and from id, on the other hand. Finally, we may compare Horkheimer’s turn to historical development in order to comprehend and possibly overcome the crisis of barbarism in which spirit finds itself, on the one hand, with the Freudian diagnostic and therapeutic turn to biographical development in order to comprehend and overcome the pathology of the psychoanalytic patient. In many respects, Horkheimer’s phylogeny is analogous to Freudian ontogeny. (The above Freudian ideas are introduced in brief compass in: Freud 1965).

Adorno: Between Subject and Object

Horkheimer’s views on spirit and nature developed in Eclipse of Reason are complemented by Adorno’s views on subject and object as developed in his paper “Subject and Object”. Though closely related, there are differences between the two views. One difference, not a rigid one, but rather a matter of emphasis, is that, whereas Horkheimer works with nature and spirit largely in terms analogous to Freudian id and ego, respectively (as the above references to Freud indicate), Adorno works with the more historicist “cognitions of Hegel and Marx” with respect to “so-called questions of constitution” in the tradition of German idealism (Adorno 1982, p. 511). In a way, the Freudian leanings in Horkheimer’s text root the analysis in philosophical naturalism and its critique, whereas the German idealist leanings in Adorno’s text root the analysis in philosophical idealism and its historicist critique.

Adorno is just as guarded as Horkheimer regarding the possibility of advance beyond the deep and abiding conditions of authoritarianism they both saw animating the late modern period. For Adorno, very much like Horkheimer, speculation regarding a better relationship between subject and object would point both beyond nostalgia for their “undistinguished unity”, and beyond their “antithetical hostility” which has marked Western history to date (1982, p. 499). The former corresponds to what was presented above as Horkheimer’s construal of forgetting the difference between spirit and nature, whereas the latter corresponds to forgetting the relation. Beyond these two alternatives, Adorno adumbrates the notion of “the communication of what was distinguished” (1982, p. 499), where communication is relation (or perhaps interrelation), which corresponds to remembering the between as discussed above. Adorno argues that communication at its best would promise “the potential of an agreement between people and things”, but at present such a realized communication is thwarted.

To understand Adorno’s notion of realized or proper communication we need to understand his conception of peace. Peace is a state in which participants are distinct from each other while neither tries or accomplishes domination of the other. Furthermore, the distinction is not hypostatized — ontologically drawn. In the state of peace, the between of the participants is a difference/relation. “In its proper place, even epistemologically, the relationship of subject and object would lie in the realization of peace among men as well as between men and their other” (Adorno 1982, p. 500; also see Horkheimer’s similar position: 2004, pp. 108–109 & 120–121).

The proper or realized relationship of subject and object remembers the relation/difference between social subjects and between subjects and objects.

To understand the significance of these ideas we need to consider Adorno’s critique of idealism’s conceptualization of the subject-object relationship, an important conceptualization in late modern philosophy. Adorno argues that the attempt to find the unconditioned source of the apparent empirical subject leads idealists to unwittingly construct versions of transcendental subjectivity from abstract relations that actually express the conditions of their particular socio-historical context. Raising socio-historical relations to the place of the unconditioned source of empirical activity has the effect of rendering empirical activity powerless with respect to the possibility of changing actual social relations. This is because empirical activity is, in this manner, rendered secondary to the abstracted version of the actual social relations it would change. Thus, Adorno finds constitutive ideological forces within idealism. The function of this ideology is to preclude resistance against the processes which are degrading humans “to functions of the social totality as it becomes more systematized” (Adorno 1982, p. 500).

However, these criticisms of the transcendental subject present an interesting opening for Adorno. He makes the argument that idealism is not as problematic as we might think. The idea that the empirical subject is the source of their own activities is, indeed false, as the idealist argues. Individual subjects “have little to say in the world, having on their part turned into appendages of the social apparatus and ultimately into ideology ... They are deformed beforehand by the mechanism that has been philosophically transfigured as transcendental” (Adorno 1982, p. 501). The transcendental subject — actually, veiled social relations—is indeed “constitutive” whereas the empirical subject, as the human who genuinely is the source of their experiences “would really have to be viewed as not yet in existence” (Adorno 1982, p. 501).

Humans have produced a society which now produces them. By replacing the non-empirical nature of the filters which order our experience with social relations — worldly filters — Adorno replaces idealism with a kind of historical materialism. “The subject’s key position in cognition is empirical, not formal” (Adorno 1982, p. 506). The social context, as object, primarily “constitutes” subjects through socialization processes. Subjects then experience objects in the manner in which they, as subjects, have been constituted. Because the bulk of the coding through socialization insinuates itself passively during the constitution of the subject — occurring as it does mostly before subjects have critical aptitude — the object must be accorded the primary position. (For a brief discussion of subjects’ subjection by the object see: Duncan 2009, pp. 166–171). However, this does not restore a direct relation between subject and object — as some “warmed-over” forms of naive realism might do. Rather, two indirect relations replace the notion of either the direct relation of naive realism, or of idealism. “The object’s primacy is the intentio obliqua of the intentio obliqua, not the warmed-over intentio recta” (Adorno 1982, p. 502). The social context — the object — socializes the subject who habitualizes the social skills required to experience the object appropriately (Adorno 1982, p. 502). Thus, the object’s primacy “is the corrective of the subjective reduction, not the denial of a subjective share. The object, too, is mediated; but according to its own concept, it is not so thoroughly dependent on the subject as the subject is on objectivity” (Adorno 1982, p. 502).

Consciousness does not immediately relate to its object but rather does so mediately. The subject is then the particular socio-historical mediation through which objects are apprehended, the particular socio-historical “How” of conscious apprehension (Adorno 1982, p. 502). “The subject is the object’s agent, not its constituent” (Adorno 1982, p. 506). Adorno’s conception of the primacy of the object directs us to a self-critique of the “How”, a critique of the relationship between subject and object. Idealism’s self-understanding does not require an understanding of the between because the transcendental ego, as the supposed source of all possible experience, is all that idealists feel they need to understand, in order to command, the whole of the phenomenal world. Yet for Adorno, this self-understanding is the height of ideological mystification: “Actually everything in the subject is chargeable to the object” (1982, p. 508). No human being can become a subject without first becoming socialized by the social whole — i.e., by the object. Idealists must come to see this if they are to have any possibility of understanding the between, through which alone it is possible to transcend the view that humanity is locked into its present world. The between, the domain of mutual subject-object mediation, holds the key to how the object — as one-dimensional, “administered society” in Adorno’s terms — is reducing human beings to mere adapting and conforming beings.

We shall find it difficult to criticize or move beyond administered society if we do not reflect upon the mediating relations which are continuously and silently constituting us and our reason. Idealism’s conception of formal constitution is “the reality of reification. Its truth content is the by no means ontological but [rather a] historically amassed block between subject and object” (Adorno 1982, p. 507).

Historically and biographically mediated by the social whole, which is the object, we subjects find ourselves thrown into mere apprehension, classification, and calculation of aspects of the object — the How of action in the world. However, the goal is to engage with and glimpse the object beyond apprehension, classification, and calculation. The object may be approached beyond idealism’s self-understanding of the subject’s supremacy: “Approaching knowledge of the object is the act in which the subject rends the veil it [itself] is weaving around the object” (Adorno 1982, p. 506). Of course, the veil arises from the object’s historical relations of mediation that constitute us — making us agents — and so guide our actions. The object reproduces itself through us.

Somewhat like Horkheimer’s Freudian turn to historical development in order to comprehend and possibly overcome the crisis of barbarism in which spirit finds itself (discussed above), Adorno turns toward that which has been guiding our actions in order to comprehend it and cut it down to size. If the subject “entrusts itself to its own experience” — “fearlessly passive” rather than activist — then “where subjective reason scents subjective contingency, the primacy of the object is shimmering through” (Adorno 1982, p. 506). Through socialisation, the social whole (i.e., the object) makes each of us (i.e., subjects), and it makes us the reproducers of itself so that our actions are the reproduction of the social whole. To step back from the activity of the object’s self-reproduction carried out by subjects would be to withdraw our meditated activity from the reproductive process and begin to see the social whole for what it is, which would be to begin the demystification of the object, on the way to a determinate negation of the apparently immediately given social whole. “The task of cognition does not consist in mere apprehension, classification, and calculation, but in the determinate negation of each im-mediacy” (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002, p. 27).

Concluding Remarks

According to Horkheimer, the dominating instrumentalization of nature that grounds and informs the history of spirit turns back on spirit in the late modern period. The only significant intellectual resource with which history has left spirit is conformist, no-nonsense, instrumental rationality (exemplified by realism, positivism, pragmatism, etc.), which leaves subjects, as relatively weak individuals, adapted to a social machine over which they have no influence and no ability to rationally criticize. Spirit must step back from no-nonsense rationality in order to reflect on itself and the relation/difference between itself and nature if there is to be any hope of it realizing a reasonableness that is not merely domination. Where that occurs, and where nature shows itself, spirit lifts itself from a domination based on fear and self-preservation to an expressive and contemplative peace. “If nature is given the opportunity to mirror itself in the realm of spirit it gains a certain tranquillity” (Horkheimer 2004, p. 179).

For Adorno, a similar history has resulted in the object (as social whole) making subjects the reproducers of itself. The between — the place of mutual subject-object mediation — holds the key to how aspects of administered society are reducing human beings to mere social reproducers — i.e., to adapting and conforming beings. As with Horkheimer, the subject must step back, but for Adorno it must step back from carrying out the object’s self-reproduction and begin to see the object on its own terms. “In its proper place, even epistemologically, the relationship of subject and object would lie in the realization of peace among men as well as between men and their other” (Adorno 1982, p. 500; also see Horkheimer’s similar position: Horkheimer 2004, pp. 108–109 & 120–121).

The subject, both eclipsed by instrumental reason and subject to apparently objectively constituted relations a priori, can understand itself neither as a historical result, nor as an agent of social and political transformation. But “Man is a result, not an eidos” (Adorno 1982, p. 511). Humans make their own history, although not under conditions of their own choosing. To overcome historically generated conditions of domination that have thrown us into conditions of no-nonsense conformism — where we continue to accept whatever is the case in allegiance to profit in the abstract — we must turn toward the differences and relations both between spirit and nature, and between subject and object.


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