Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A brief note on Adorno and Tillich

I have been reading some of Adorno's lectures from 1965-66, as a way back into Negative Dialectics. The printed English translation of this latter work is subject to so much negative press it is almost impossible to read it with a good conscience. It reads perfectly fine and smoothly to someone like me, whose facility in German exhausts itself in being able to pronounce "Goethe" more or less correctly, but the denunciations one finds of it (e.g., "a kind of pidgin Adorno") are many and vociferous, and made by those who seem to know what they are talking about, so I have been supplementing it with a couple of available online versions, and the aforementioned lectures, which often go over the same ground in a more brief and, well, "lecturey" style. Recently I've been looking at the 1965 course Metaphysics: Concepts and Problems and the '65-'66 course Lectures on Negative Dialectics. This latter opens up with a brief homage to Paul Tillich, who had died a few weeks before the first lecture of the course was delivered. Tillich approved Adorno's 1931 Habilitation thesis on Kierkegaard (which became his first book); Adorno was Tillich's unofficial assistant for a few years, and they remained collaborators in seminars until Tillich's death, but the usual scholarly verdict is that there was little intellectual influence between them in either direction. No doubt Tillich was more open to the spirit of existentialism in general, and Heidegger in particular, than was Adorno, who is pretty scathing in The Jargon of Authenticity. While Adorno in this tribute is explicit in attributing to Tillich "whatever I have myself acquired in the way of pedagogic expertise" (he says he has never met anyone more gifted as a teacher), it seems to me there is more here than just interpersonal or professional skills.

What strikes me is that Tillich's famous conception of "ultimate concern" is itself an instance of what Adorno calls a constellation. Adorno writes:
The determinate flaw in every concept makes it necessary to cite other [concepts]; this is the font of those constellations which alone inherited some of the hope of the Name. (Negative Dialectics, p 53).
I read Adorno here as saying roughly that the "Name" would have been the (impossibly) fully sufficient word for the thing; the constellation is the way concepts are deployed to correct for one another in order to bring the thing, as it were, into focus for consciousness. Late in the lectures on Metaphysics, Adorno, commenting upon what is probably the remark that everyone knows even if they know nothing else about him -- his declaration that it is impossible after Auschwitz to write poetry -- says that he was surprised by the storm of controversy that followed this judgment.
I did not anticipate it because it is in the nature of philosophy... that nothing is meant quite literally. Philosophy always relates to tendencies and does not consist in statements of fact....[i]t could equally well be said, on the other hand, that one must write poems....And, heaven knows, I do not claim to be able to resolve this antinomy. (Metaphysics p. 110)>
This seems to me to illustrate well the notion of the constellation. Every statement is an overstatement, and needs to be balanced, countered, in a delicate play of conceptual interaction. I might note that this is even true of "nothing is meant quite literally"-- though this strikes me as one of the best one-sentence accounts of philosophy I've ever read.

Tillich's account of ultimate concern has obvious resonance here. Tillich's categories are the absolute and the concrete. Only what is concrete can concern us at all, because concern just is a concrete engagement; but, Tillich goes on, only what is absolute can concern us ultimately, without reservation, without condition. The notion of ultimate concern is thus a constellation of two opposing tendencies in thought moving dialectically across each other. But how does it actually play out in ordinary human practice? Early in volume I of Systematic Theology, Tillich gives his answer. He writes,
What is the content of our ultimate concern? What does concern us unconditionally? ...Our ultimate concern is that which determines our being or not-being. (Systematic Theology vol I, p. 15)
In the same passage as he talks about the question of poetry after Auschwitz, Adorno says that this issue mutates into another one, connected, but with larger consequences.
One must ask a further question, and this is a metaphysical question, although it has its basis in the total suspension of metaphysics.... It is the question whether one can live after Auschwitz....the bleaters of connivance soon turned this into the argument that it was high time for anyone who thought as I did to do away with himself as well....But...since it concerns the possibility of any affirmation of life, this question cannot be evaded. (Metaphysics pp 110-111)
Adorno's question and Tillich's are not absolutely identical, but it's obvious that they share a field of overlapping issues. I will add that this question of "to be or not to be" really does seem to me to be the question to which philosophy was devised to engage. The Greek tragic poets are, emphatically, not sanguine about whether human life can be good. "Best of all for man is not to be born," is the melancholy advice of Silenus to Midas, "and next-best is to die soon." Against this (and I believe it was expressly devised as a response) Socrates claims that the difference between a human life worth living and one not worth living is examination, a kind of intense and unrelenting scrutiny, and declares that "what is best for man" is
daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others. (Plato, Apology 38a)
Two thousand years later, Adorno and Tillich formulated different (not opposite) responses to the question, but they both knew that this was the question.