File spoon-archives/bhaskar.archive/bhaskar_2001/bhaskar.0112, message 7

Subject: BHA: Adorno, Bhaskar, and theories of knowledge
Date: Wed, 5 Dec 2001 02:26:24 -0000

Howard, Ruth, Martti, and all,

Howard, on reflection I have decided to reply to your post (below) about
Adorno, since it is possible that some clarification may result.  My
impatience with the way you and Ruth read Bhaskar and Adorno has to do with
what I perceive to be the (epistemologically) frozen loyalty with which you
treat critical realism.  To me, critical realism is a theory of knowledge,
just like Adorno's NEGATIVE DIALECTICS and other works is a theory of
knowledge, in other words critical realism is not THE (unsurpassable) theory
of knowledge.  In philosophy, theories of knowledge are meant to be compared
with each other, in order to see what they can learn from each other.
Engels expressed this in a much fuller and very useful way in LUDWIG
point of this process of comparison is not just to see how the more recent
theory of knowledge has advanced on the earlier one, it is also to see what
the earlier theory of knowledge may have to add to the recent one.  Your
post makes some points about a certain lack of realism in Adorno's work with
which I am inclined to agree.  But my reaction is: where does this get us?
We already know about these realist points from the work of Bhaskar.  You
are correct to say that I must be reading Adorno in a different way to you
and Ruth.  Let me elaborate a bit.

First, you and Ruth read Adorno as a Kantian sceptic.  You think that Adorno
is saying that we can't ever know the object.  That is not how I read
Adorno.  To me, Adorno is saying that there is a constant struggle between
materialism and idealism in epistemology.  Some objects ARE knowable (and
contrary to Gillian Rose's account Adorno is not anti-science) but the
battle between materialism and idealism in epistemology continues unabated.
To me, this is the point where Bhaskar is in trouble because in FEW he seems
to be claiming to have definitively resolved the opposition between
materialism and idealism.  Whereas it seems to me that this opposition will
continue *forever* (or as long as there are human beings).  What Adorno is
arguing for is not scepticism (as you and Ruth believe) but reflexiveness
and immanent critique.  Immanent critique of one's own work is made possible
by not building in guarantees into one's epistemology.  Here again the
Bhaskar of FEW seems to be in difficulty.

Althusser understood the need for constant materialist philosophical
interventions into science to counter the spontaneous idealist philosophical
SCIENTISTS).  But Althusser's anti-Hegel stance (which seems to be shared to
a large extent by Bhaskar) meant that unlike Adorno and the Lenin of the
PHILOSOPHICAL NOTEBOOKS, Althusser is unable to read Hegel's theory of
knowledge seriously.  Whereas in his own way Lenin, and certainly Adorno,
seem to understand that you never fully settle accounts with the theories of
knowledge of major thinkers of the past.  Of course, progress is made in the
course of the process of comparison of major thinkers' theories of
knowledge, but there is also the possibility of regression when thinkers are
misread (Adorno and Hegel seem to be much misread).

My own critique of Bhaskar's epistemology (insofar as I have developed it)
was delivered in a paper to the Critical Realism seminars at Kings College
London.  I do not have the paper to hand.  But essentially what I argued was
that Roy's notion of the mind as a "complex of powers" is idealist because
it leaves open the possibility that ideas are not matter.  (The "complex of
powers" notion comes from PLATO ETC., I have not got round to critiquing
FEW).  If ideas are not conceived of as matter, then the door is open to
subjective idealism, and you have a dualist separation between matter and
mind (despite Mervyn's claim that Roy is a monist).

Anyway, the above is a brief account of why I think the really important
questions about Roy's work are not about his ontology but about his


> -----Original Message-----
> From:
> []On Behalf Of howard
> engelskirchen
> Sent: 02 December 2001 15:10
> To:
> Subject: RE: BHA: ontology, ontic, etc
> Phil,
> Although I did not understand at all your impatience with ruth -- to whom
> I'm grateful for a straightforward clarification -- I was completely
> delighted with your reference to Adorno and with the issues you raised!!
> In fact it was work on Adorno that sent me back to SRHE, among
> other texts.
>  But I have reached conclusions -- tentative ones! -- quite the
> opposite of
> yours, so I'd be very much interested in openly sorting these
> things out. I
> want to emphasize that I have no axe to grind and would be delighted to
> come round to your point of view.  That said, I find Adorno
> altogether more
> problematic than you do.  So let me raise the problems that I see and
> perhaps you'll help me get to the bottom of this.
> The whole idea of the subject's control over the object, reason's control
> over nature, etc., seems to me, in the way Adorno raises these issues,
> first, a category mistake, and, second, maybe one of the last
> anthropomorphisms in the way of green and socialist science.  One of the
> really significant things in RTS is the distinction between patterns of
> events and causal laws.  Bhaskar points out at RTS 33 that
> Anscombe and von
> Wright before him had already pointed out that scientific experiment
> involved the active intervention of scientists in nature (ie as
> against the
> fiction of the "passive observer").  But RB observes that they
> did not draw
> the ontological conclusion required:  that mechanisms of nature could not
> be reduced to patterns of events, the empirical grounds, that
> made possible
> their identification.  That is, the experimenter's intervention
> participates in the event of the litmus paper turning red by dipping the
> paper in liquid, but the experimenter does not *turn* the paper red!  A
> generative mechanism of nature does that.  It follows that by
> providing the
> occasion for the operation of a mechanism of nature, the agent as subject
> does not "control" it (and it seems hubris rooted in an anthropomorphic
> view to suppose that he or she could).   Much more to the point is
> Collier's explanation that insofar as our experiments are constructed so
> that more than one outcome is possible, then we are engaged in a sort of
> ongoing dialogue.
> Certainly with respect to our use of any natural process we can at most
> claim to be co-participants in bringing about a result, that is, we
> co-operate with nature rather than control it.  (Parethetically it is hard
> to see anything wrong -- as Horkheimer and Adorno often seem to think --
> with turning nature to our purposes.  This is the circumstance of our
> condition -- compare Marx in Capital I, the second paragraph of Chapter 7
> on the Labor Process.  We are not unique among living creatures in this,
> obviously!)
> If it is correct that the idea of the subject controlling the object
> depends on collapsing the distinction between patterns of events
> and causal
> mechanisms, then it is likely Adorno is working within the field of
> ontological monovalence.  We would want to take that into account, then,
> when evaluating the distinction between "identity thinking" and negative
> dialectics or "non-identity thinking."  In other words, if we work from an
> actualist terrain, then the idea of the subject mastering the
> object, or of
> the concept conceived of as comprising the object under it, or of the
> particular coming to be dissolved by the universal, or of reason subsuming
> particular objects under general concepts, or of whatever other way you
> would want to explain identity thinking, these propositions all lack
> ontological depth.
> That is, Adorno is correct to insist on the primacy of the object.  He is
> correct also to insist that any concept we form is going to incompletely
> capture the mind independent reality of the object.  There will be an
> unassimilated residue left over, something not subsumed.  But at the level
> of the actual, this doesn't get beyond logical classification.  The
> ontological distinction between a power and its realized exercise, between
> the real and the actual -- upon which Bhaskar's idea of a 'universal law'
> depends -- is missing.  I have not been able to find in Adorno a reference
> to the reality of powers in nature other than to the critiques he makes of
> such concepts.  Am I wrong on this?  Plainly he reads this decisive aspect
> of scientific realism out of Aristotle.  In his (Adorno's) Lectures on
> Metaphysics he treats Aristotle like a Platonic idealist with the
> difference only that whereas Plato thought the Ideas had a separate
> existence independent of sensible things, Aristotle thought they were
> immanent in things.  But this seems pretty clearly to misread Aristotle.
> For Aristotle the active form responsible for a thing's development is a
> matter of being, not ideas or concepts.
> Comparably, for Adorno abstraction "liquidates objects" and under its
> "leveling domination" everything in nature "is made repeatable" (Dialectic
> of Englightenment 13).  But abstraction leaves the real object of
> nature as
> it was and it is idealism to think otherwise.  Neither realism or
> abstraction dominate or liquidate or control the object.  Instead,
> abstraction is a conceptual tool that makes it possible, if through
> scientific work we have produced the appropriate conditions, to identify
> from amidst the confusing welter of phenomena, those specific mechanisms
> likely to be responsible for particular effects.
> Incidentally the idea of abstraction making everything repeatable reflects
> the residue of Hume that appears to cling to Adorno, as it did to Kant.
> Reason in Adorno is instrumental, not explanatory, and reason's
> explanations depend on prediction.  Bhaskar breaks the equation of
> prediction and explanation and can think of a power of nature as something
> that always tends to produce a particular effect without necessarily or
> ever or often actually doing so.  Gravity brings heavy objects to earth,
> but birds fly in air.
> Adorno's critique of identity thinking is important.  He insists on the
> ontological primacy of the object and he insists that the logic associated
> with actualist science is not adequate to explain the world.  He brings
> into powerful relief the limits of instrumental reason.  But he
> has nowhere
> to go with this.  In fact the unassimilated residue so important to
> non-identity thinking can lead to silliness if we have no way to
> distinguish (fallibly) what is significant from what is not.  But
> we cannot
> do that unless we have an idea of the real powers of things and of natural
> necessity.  Yet these Adorno rejects.  So he critiques closure in favor of
> the open character of the world.  But this leaves him with the dilemma of
> the positivist who now must either give up the idea that there are any
> universal laws in nature or the idea of the empirical character of natural
> laws.  Negative dialectics clings to the empirical and critiques the
> universal.  But it offers no prospect for science.
> Tell me where I have mis- or under read!
> Howard
> At 01:30 AM 11/27/01 -0000, you wrote:
> >Ruth wrote:
> >
> >> -----Original Message-----
> >> From:
> >> []On Behalf Of
> Ruth Groff
> >> Sent: 27 November 2001 02:44
> >> To:
> >> Subject: RE: BHA: ontology, ontic, etc
> >>
> >>
> >> Hi Phil,
> >>
> >> You wrote:
> >>
> >> >Where is the dialectics here?  To me, this approach seems to be about
> >> >qualifying and hopefully gradually improving and tinkering
> with Bhaskar's
> >> >ontology, overlooking the pressing problem about Bhaskar's
> >> epistemology.
> >>
> >> What approach?  Whaddaya talking about?  All I said was: "Here's
> >> what he's on about.  Plus, it seems wrong when you think about
> >> the social sciences."
> >>
> >> [As for Adorno and Co., I actually had Horkheimer's "Traditional
> >> and Critical Theory" in mind when I added that one sentence in
> >> which I said that it seems wrong (for reasons that could
> >> certainly be described as dialectical).]
> >>
> >> Confused,
> >> r.
> >
> >I believe you know very well what I am talking about.  Is it too
> Nietzschean
> >of me to suggest that instead of starting by trying to give a loyal and
> >frozen account of Roy's method, you instead start sceptically by
> questioning
> >the epistemological presuppositions lying behind Roy's work?  Is
> it or is it
> >not true that Roy has an epistemological presupposition that the subject
> >should seek to dominate the object?  The question answers itself.  To me,
> >Roy's work is suffused with identity reasoning.  It's back to NEGATIVE
> >DIALECTICS for me!
> >
> >For critical thought,
> >Phil
> >
> >
> >>
> >>
> >>
> >>      --- from list ---
> >>
> >
> >
> >
> >     --- from list ---
> >
>      --- from list ---

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