Negative Dialectics: Concept Versus Object in Materialistic Thought. (05/23/2001)

Theodor Adorno, in Negative Dialectics, expresses a kind of epitome of Western philosophical thinking, in full-blown crisis-mode, as it were, when he comes to the realization that concepts (ideas) are not the same as (identical to) the objects they are meant to express. I do not mean to suggest, of course, that Adorno stumbles across this notion out of the blue, or that he reaches it after a long and convoluted process of theory building that slowly and meticulously drags him kicking and screaming to an unwanted conclusion, to something he would rather not have to face, like a hungry lion or tiger stalking its prey in the wilderness of east Africa or India, since suggesting either of those circumstances would surely belie the inescapable fact that the notion is so self-evident in itself that no thoughtful person anywhere on the face of the earth could have failed to notice it as soon as any thought entered his or her mind. Thinking "knife-in-hand," for instance, when confronted by the lion or tiger in the bush, when in fact the thinker does not already have a knife in his/her possession, will do nothing whatsoever to bring one to hand. Since mere concepts cannot be used very effectively in place of real objects to defend oneself against tigers and lions looking for lunch in the wilderness, it is always better to go looking for trouble well supplied with whatever equipment might be necessary to avert or delay disaster.

Just as self-evident that concepts are not the same thing as their objects is the fact that Adorno could not possibly be the first philosopher to have noticed that ideas and objects tend to exist, or reside, in radically different arenas of both time and place. "Knife," as a pure thought, can be said to exist first in my mind as I envision it, and then on this computer screen as I inscribe the sign that represents it to the other, neither of which places are the same, on the one hand, and neither of which occur at the same moment in time, on the other. Hence, thinking and expressing an idea cannot even be said to be identical functions that occupy the same place and time simultaneously. Even more removed from these first two actions is the object itself, the real knife, which inspires them.

What tends to surprise me the most about any of this is that a world-renowned philosopher as recently as 1966, when the book was first published, would find something so obvious as the disparity between a concept and its object as a suitable subject for investigation, even one that he places at the "center" of his inquiry into the nature of dialectics itself, an idea, furthermore, that has been part of the philosophical tradition of Western civilization since Plato first articulated his concept of the ideal types. Even before Plato, if you think about it even a little, stands the fact surely that no proto-human hunter ever left the safety of his or her cave empty-handed with the idea that when finally confronted by the hungry lion or tiger all he or she had to do was think "knife-in-hand" in order to become equal to the threat of death epitomized by the beast out looking for lunch in the wilderness. In other words, even pre-human "thinkers" two-and-a-half million years ago knew where to draw the line between a concept and its object. Adorno expresses his view of dialectics and its "origin" in these terms:

"dialectics is neither a pure method nor a reality in the naive sense of the word. It is not a method, for the unreconciled matter-lacking precisely the identity surrogated by the thought-is contradictory and resists any attempt at unanimous interpretation. It is the matter, not the organizing drive of thought, that brings us to dialectics. Nor is dialectics a simple reality, for contradictoriness is a category of reflection, the cogitative confrontation of concept and thing. To proceed dialectically means to think in contradictions, for the sake of the contradiction once experienced in the thing, and against that contradiction. A contradiction in reality, it is a contradiction against reality." (144-145)

A problem here with this statement might be that Adorno exhibits an obvious bias in favor of the thought as opposed to the object it is meant to represent or encompass. One can say that this is only to be expected, of course, because Adorno is a philosopher and not a hunter. Blaming the object, "matter," as it were, for failing to coincide with the thought that expresses it, for generating the contradiction he finds lying at the heart of dialectics, seems sequentially backwards, since it must be true that matter existed long before there was any mind capable of thinking about it at all. Truth be told, in fact, matter has probably existed as either energy or mass, as Einstein demonstrates in his Theory of Relativity, virtually forever; whereas, minds capable of conceiving of its presence have existed for only a few million years at most. Given the fact that the material universe is 16 billion years old already, ideas derived from its material reality constitute little more than the blink of an eye compared to the duration of its established existence. To say that thoughts, concepts, or ideas are a "contradiction against reality" seems incredibly arrogant in the face of any human perception that has arisen in the brief span of our collective life's run against matter's infinite duration. What would be less troubling, though not necessarily more valid, would be to reverse Adorno's statement and say that the brevity and frailty of human thought processes, the inadequacy of human perception and expression, is what causes the sense that reality is somehow contradicted by what we think about its nature. That any single living tree is more than any idea we have formulated to express it is certainly true but that fact can never mean that our idea of tree contradicts its reality. Trees exist and grow whether we think about them or not. In fact, one can probably argue that if we (or even just lumberjacks) thought less about trees there would be more of them.

The fundamental problem with Adorno's position, however, goes much deeper than this. To argue that dialectics depends on the contradiction inherent in the fact that concepts are not the same as their objects fails to establish its own validity by virtue of the fact that it does not itself generate its own binary opposite, its own contradiction, in that one cannot say that concepts are identical to their objects in some other context or at some other time. This seems both a monumental and insurmountable difficulty where one means to establish a ground upon which to build a conceptualization of the primacy of dialectics as a methodology for philosophical reasoning. In fact, the absence of a circumstance where it can be shown that concepts do coincide with their objects renders the assertion that they are not the same impossible to make.

But, of course, I am being purposefully obtuse in putting this observation forward here. There is a circumstance in Western ideology where the opposite of Adorno's claim rises like a blinding sun to banish the darkness of any doubt whatsoever that thoughts, concepts, and ideas are the same as, and identical to, the objects they express. Adorno, however, is constrained from referring to it directly because Marxian theorists long ago, and from the beginning, denied it had any relevance whatsoever to dialectical materialism. He escapes the necessity of bringing it up directly, at the same time, because it goes without saying whenever and wherever certain issues in Western ideology are discussed. I am referring, of course, to the Christian doctrine of the Logos, to the assertion that God created the world out of nothing, ex nihilo, as it were, by simply voicing the words necessary to bring reality into existence. In other words, when the all-powerful Creator said: "Let there be light" (Genesis 1:3), light came into existence. There is no more definitive, no more obvious, no more absolute, expression of a circumstance in which a concept corresponds to its object than the one that occupies the first Chapter of Genesis, where every act of creation was accomplished by the mere expression of its idea. In fact, in its biblical context, the idea ("light") is so overwhelmingly identical to, and consistent with, its object, that its mere mention by God causes it to come into existence ex nihilo. This circumstance, therefore, provides the opposite pole to the binary, or dialectical, opposition that Adorno leaves unexpressed in his discussion of the fact that concepts are never the same as their objects.

Sad to say at the same time, however, is the fact that this single example of a dialectical thesis (concepts are identical to their objects), which stands opposed to its consequent antithesis (concepts are never identical to their objects), is nothing more than the product of myth, in the worst sense of that word, since it cannot rise to the level of being a statement about the real nature of the world, where its opposite never escapes from being anything else except a statement about reality. Working to juxtapose a purely mythological expression in a dialectical construct with one that is just as purely real, only undermines the ground of dialectical thinking to a point where it becomes impossible to assert that any such methodology exists at all in a state of actual utility. Since Adorno clearly seizes the moment of his dialectics at the "cogitative confrontation of concept and thing," where no such opposition can be found to exist in the wider frame of universal reality, his "methodology," which is no methodology at all by his own admission, never rises to the level of being particularly rational either, in as much as it depends on asserting a juxtaposition of opposites between the mythic and the real at its initial point of departure. Clearly, confusing the mythic with the real in the Middle Ages was a common enough practice; but, just as certainly, allowing that practice to persist into the 21st Century, without significant objection, does little to insure the likelihood we will ever move beyond the ground where such problems flourish. While it might be enticing, even provocative, to accept a valid motive behind creating binary structures in this context, where none clearly exist, it seems, at the same time, a practice that can only inspire more confusion than it will ever eliminate.

Moving beyond a mythic level altogether, if only by insisting that an all-powerful Creator has never existed, as Adorno's Marxian precursors always did, even if they also refused, at the same time, to abandon binary opposition, dialectical thinking, and the hierarchical structures that depend upon His existence, we are brought back to the inescapable conclusion that concepts and their objects never reach a state of equilibrium with each other. That assertion, then, achieves a special category on the fringes of dialectical thinking, or rather at the heart of the absence of any possible demonstration of its utility, where it stands, in all its opulent singularity, as a fact that is probably irrefutable, eternally, so to speak, and where it shares a certain affinity with another singularity, although of a completely different kind, and one that is only material in its nature, which came into existence (if such terminology even applies) just before the last atom (whether of pure energy or pure mass or both simultaneously) of all space and time was drawn by its absolute gravity into the first and only object (whether it can be called that or not) which contained everything visible and invisible in the universe. This "happened" 16 billion years ago. The object I refer to, of course, is that "thing" that held all but the final atom of its absolute totality-that "black hole"-as it were, of the universe's absolute mass. Only the single atom of its absolute mass existed outside its singularity at the moment of which I speak, a single atom, furthermore, that was being drawn into it by virtue of its absolute gravitational reality minus the single atom itself that was on the verge of crossing into its singularity.

When that single and final atom breached the wall of the event horizon of the whole universe's absolute mass, inside and outside ceased to exist and, more importantly, any distinction between something and nothing became not just inexpressible but totally meaningless as well. One might be tempted here to appeal to God as a cause for the "big bang" that resulted from the accumulation of all matter and all mass into the whole universe's singularity, by saying that God thumped the object with His finger, say, or that He kicked it with His foot, but that would be superfluous and unnecessary. As a point of fact, when that final atom arrived at its inevitable destination and became part of the absolute mass of the universe's whole content, with everything inside its absolute event horizon and nothing outside at all, gravity itself became over-burdened, as it were, since it too ceased to exist outside the absolute wall of the universe's totality and, in the absence of gravity's "will" to hold everything together, since that which does not exist cannot be said to do or will anything, the whole mass of the universe simply came apart, exploded, if you will, in the event known as the big bang. At the instant that happened, of course, gravity returned with everything else in the universe from its exile on the other side of the event horizon of the whole mass of the universe's absolute black-hole reality. Put differently, since mass and energy share an eternal existence as components of the universe's total reality, when everything that exists came to be mass alone, it was instantaneously converted to its absolute other, to energy alone, which caused the explosion known as the big bang. With the reemergence of gravity, as the force which determines how one piece of matter is related to another, energy began to be converted back into mass according to the principles that determine such relationships. After 16 billion years of formation and reformulation, piece to piece, as it were, the universe came to be what it is today.

As Einstein has explained, the earth, because of its mass, came to reside at a certain distance from the sun in its elliptical orbit around the gravitational field generated by that object's mass. The sun in turn burns at a certain temperature which is also determined by the total mass of its hydrogen and helium being compressed toward its center. The heat radiated outward from the sun warms the earth through its atmosphere whose density and composition is such that it came to sustain various forms of life as we know it. While many people continue to decry this explanation for reality as being spiritually deprived, and somehow inferior to the myth of creationism, it is nevertheless all the explanation necessary to account for anything that actually exists in the total reality of the universe. The only thing one must give up in this view of reality is the unsupported assertion that everything is controlled and defined by binary opposition, dialectical reasoning, and hierarchical structures. In short, the idea that concept was the same as its object when God created the world ex nihilo, where God as cause of anything at all is unfounded and unnecessary, by simply speaking it into existence, cannot seriously stand in opposition to the notion that the idea never coincides with its object, as anyone with any sense readily admits. Hence, when Adorno adopts this primary opposition, as thesis and antithesis, at the ground for his "methodology" of negative dialectics, he does little more than perpetuate the same groundless delusion that has always plagued Western philosophy at its heart. The delusion, simply stated, claims that a God-ordained hierarchy exists in the natural world that necessarily places one class of objects at a higher, and therefore better, level of existence than another class of objects. This natural binary opposition between high and low not only can be, but also must be, applied to everything that exists in the world. The only possible result of this kind of thinking about the nature of reality is that one thing, one person, one idea, must have dominance (by virtue of its being high) over its opposite (by virtue of its being low). The idea that has always benefited the most from this ideology, in the sense that it has always managed to avoid critical scrutiny, is the notion that a God-ordained hierarchy exists at the ground of all created reality.

An early enactment of this ideology can be seen in a treatise written by Tertullian in the 3rd Century against the heresy of Hermogenes. Tertullian's view is significant here because the heretic, who, apart from a work of his about rhetoric, is little known except for what the Father of the church has told us about him, argued that God created the world out of pre-existing matter, a position which more closely coincides with contemporary scientific argument than it does with the notion the world was created ex nihilo. At the same time, of course, any attempt now to revive Hermogenes's argument in order to bring Christian ideology into better alignment with scientific perceptions of reality, since it is now recognized as very probably true that matter has always existed as either energy or mass, by claiming that God must therefore have used pre-existing matter to create the world, must necessarily still be classified as heresy in light of the fact that Tertullian's arguments against Hermogenes are as valid now, from a Christian point-of-view, as they were when he made them. A primary point to be taken from Tertullian's argument, as the following passage illustrates, is that God, because He is "unborn and unmade," is necessarily greater than and superior to everything else that does not share those same qualities with Him. Tertullian's objection to Hermogenes rests on this single principle because matter would be equal to God, who is absolute singularity, if it were true that the world had been created out of "unmade," pre-existing material. At the same time, allowing that premise to stand would seriously compromise the notion of the natural hierarchy between high and low, superior and inferior, that has always characterized the primal distinction between God and His created reality.

"When [Hermogenes] contends that matter is less than God, and inferior to Him, and therefore diverse from Him, and for the same reason not a fit subject of comparison with Him, who is a greater and superior Being, I meet him with this prescription, that what is eternal and unborn is incapable of any diminution and inferiority, because it is simply this which makes even God to be as great as He is, inferior and subject to none--nay, greater and higher than all. For, just as all things which are born, or which come to an end, and are therefore not eternal, do, by reason of their exposure at once to an end and a beginning, admit of qualities which are repugnant to God--I mean diminution and inferiority, because they are born and made--so likewise God, for this very reason, is unsusceptible of these accidents, because He is absolutely unborn, and also unmade." (Chapter 7)

According to Tertullian, Hermogenes attributes these same characteristics to Matter ("And yet such also is the condition of Matter."), which inevitably leads to the fact that God and Matter must be considered equal to one another.

"Therefore, of the two Beings which are eternal, as being unborn and unmade--God and Matter--by reason of the identical mode of their common condition (both of them equally possessing that which admits neither of diminution nor subjection--that is, the attribute of eternity), we affirm that neither of them is less or greater than the other, neither of them is inferior or superior to the other; but that they both stand on a par in greatness, on a par in sublimity, and on the same level of that complete and perfect felicity of which eternity is reckoned to consist." (Chapter 7)

The problem with this shared condition of eternity, of course, from a Christian point-of-view, is that it removes the ground on which judgment becomes possible. If there is no way to distinguish between superior (God) and inferior (Creation), then there is no ground on which to build the notion that the high-born has dominion over its low-born other. In terms of Western ideology and civilization, then, the last five thousand years of "human" history, if that unfounded characterization were allowed to fall, would be reduced to what it actually has been; that is, a world in which the high-born few have exercised dominion over the low-born many for the sake of their own aggrandizement. Put simply, anyone who values freedom cannot accept an ideology which, at its heart, advocates the superiority of the few over the right to equality of the many. One reason the Greeks always characterized Christianity as a religion meant for slaves is perfectly obvious in every word Tertullian says.

The fact that Adorno insists on retaining every negative aspect of Christian theology in its expression of binary opposition, dialectical thinking, and hierarchical structure, even if and when he may be inclined to deny their fundamental ground in the radical distinction between the superiority of the Creator and the inferiority of His creation, simply explains as clearly as anything can why every Marxist state since the October revolution has degenerated into a dictatorship whose sole objective has been to suppress the freedom of the many so that a few godlike men (Stalin, for instance) can murder with impunity any and all who might stand in the way of their profit. Not to be overlooked, at the same time, however, is the fact that any democratically elected politician who claims Christian values at the core of his or her belief system stands no more than a single breath away from becoming just exactly what the Bible defines as the perfect ruler for the few to exercise his/her/their god-ordained dominion over the lives and prospects of the scripturally prescribed inferiority of the many. Anyone who believes that one fate can be separated from the other is a fool.