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Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics by J. M.…
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Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics

by J. M. Bernstein

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Theodor W. Adorno is best known for his contributions to aesthetics and social theory. Critics have always complained about the lack of a practical, political or ethical dimension to Adorno's philosophy. In this highly original contribution to the literature on Adorno, J. M. Bernstein offers the first attempt in any language to provide an account of the ethical theory latent in Adorno's writings. Bernstein relates Adorno's ethics to major trends in contemporary moral philosophy. He analyses the full range of Adorno's major works, with a special focus on Dialectic of Enlightenment, Minima Moralia and Negative Dialectics. In developing his account Bernstein lays particular stress on Adorno's contention that the event of Auschwitz demands a new categorical imperative. This book will be widely acknowledged as the standard work on Adorno's ethics and as such will interest professionals and students of philosophy, political theory, sociology, history of ideas, art history and music.… (more)

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This was a weird one. Bernstein wants to put Adorno into dialogue with contemporary meta-ethics. He argues that, once upon a time, human beings’ practical reason was identical with our theoretical reason: there was a form of moral knowledge. We knew what we ought to do. Thanks to disenchantment and rationalization, as analyzed by Weber, this has ceased to be the case. We are no longer motivated by reason to perform ethical actions. Adorno picks up on the German Idealist theses that:

i) conceptuality is subjectivity; and that
ii) conceptuality is normative.

The problem we have is that our concept of the concept is inadequate, overly rationalized, no longer capable of motivating us normatively. Bernstein calls this the ‘simple concept.’ In its place, we have to start thinking in accordance with the ‘complex concept,’ which will motivate ethical action, because it will take into account the materiality of our world and the fact that we're animals.

As a work of ethical philosophy, Bernstein’s book is remarkable, but it also ends up making claims which completely contradict Adorno’s own arguments. For Bernstein, the problem is a non-identity of general and particular (our general concept does not motivate our particular actions); for Adorno, the problem is the identity of them. For Bernstein, we need to ‘re-enchant’ our world; for Adorno, the problem is that our world remains too enchanted. For Bernstein, bad reason is negative and critical; for Adorno, good reason is negative and critical. For Bernstein, reason is insufficiently authoritative; for Adorno, it is overly authoritative; and most importantly, for Bernstein “It is our reasoning that disenchants nature and creates the iron cage of modernity,” 138, while for Adorno – following Marx, rather than Weber – it is material social processes which lead to reification, fetishisation and alienation. In short, the danger of a Hegelian reading of Adorno is that it makes him into an idealist in the bad sense: it looks, on Bernstein’s reading, like the problem is with individual human beings, who have just made some intellectual mistakes. Bernstein was trying to get philosophers to pay attention to Adorno; but the Adorno they’re paying attention to is just a slightly more stylish version of themselves. ( )
  stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
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