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Problems of Moral Philosophy

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Abstract

Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969), one of the leading social thinkers of the twentieth century, long concerned himself with the problems of moral philosophy, or “whether the good life is a genuine possibility in the present.” This book consists of a course of seventeen lectures given in May-July 1963. Captured by tape recorder (which Adorno called “the fingerprint of the living mind”), these lectures present a somewhat different, and more accessible, Adorno from the one who composed the faultlessly articulated and almost forbiddingly perfect prose of the works published in his lifetime. Here we can follow Adorno’s thought in the process of formation (he spoke from brief notes), endowed with the spontaneity and energy of the spoken word. The lectures focus largely on Kant, “a thinker in whose work the question of morality is most sharply contrasted with other spheres of existence.” After discussing a number of the Kantian categories of moral philosophy, Adorno considers other, seemingly more immediate general problems, such as the nature of moral norms, the good life, and the relation of relativism and nihilism. In the course of the lectures, Adorno addresses a wide range of topics, including: theory and practice, ethics as bad conscience, the repressive character, the problem of freedom, dialectics in Kant and Hegel, the nature of reason, the moral law as a given, psychoanalysis, the element of the Absurd, freedom and law, the Protestant tradition of morality, Hamlet, self-determination, phenomenology, the concept of the will, the idea of humanity, The Wild Duck, and Nietzsche’s critique of morality.

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... "I" am owned by the structures that see "me" as I am with regard to those logics, the very process of subjectivation is the dispossession of the self, an ethical violence constituted around 'universal' norms that function by way of unspoken (literally unspeakable) consensus (Adorno, 2014(Adorno, (1963). It becomes unclear whether one's account is an account of one-self or of structure it-self. ...
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Chapter
This chapter proposes some reflections on the rationality of insurrectional actions. It questions the explanatory capacity of the models for explaining collective action based on individual agents endowed with utilitarian rationality that maximizes values ex-ante with respect to the action itself. The chapter outlines an alternative, dialectical model for explaining the relationship between consciousness and action. This model rests on ex-post rationality, according to which collective action itself generates retroactively those values (here synthesized by the concept of “dignity”) that endow insurrectionary actions with rationality.
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Article
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Article
This article explores a particular connection between friendship and social solidarity and seeks to contribute to understanding the societal significance of non-institutionalised relationships. Commonly the benefits of friendship are assumed to accrue to friends only. But this is only part of the story. Friendship, as instantiation of intimacy and site of moral learning, is conducive to solidarity understood as felt concern for unknown others. That potentiality rests on a specific characteristic: friendship’s loose institutional anchorage. Beginning with an explanation of friendship’s institutional deficit, the article elaborates Durkheim’s ‘positive solidarity’ juxtaposed with Honneth’s recent take on solidarity. It then discusses the contribution (partial) personal relationships make to (impartial) morality, before turning to the specifics of moral learning in friendship. Finally, the article argues that although undesirable as social organising principle, friendship’s institutional deficit renders it conducive to the relational acquisition of a comprehensive understanding of solidarity.
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Theodor W. Adorno often made reference to Immanuel Kant’s famous essay on enlightenment. Although he denied that immaturity is self-incurred, the first section of this article will show that he adopted many of Kant’s ideas about maturity in his philosophically informed critique of monopoly conditions under late capitalism. The second section will explore Adorno’s claim that the educational system could foster maturity by encouraging critical reflection on the social conditions that have made us what we are. Finally, this article will demonstrate that Adorno links enlightenment to Kant’s idea of a realm of ends.
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Many recent commentators have noticed how Adorno, in his late works, borrows Kant’s definition of enlightenment to define key areas of his own critical practice. These discussions, however, have failed to notice how these late borrowings present an image of Kant’s enlightenment which is diametrically opposed to his previous discussions. By tracing the development of Adorno’s engagement with Kant’s essay, I discover Adorno deliberately sublating Kant’s definition as to enable its incorporation into his own works. Further, the article will examine some problems which appear to arise for Adorno when borrowing Kant’s definition of enlightenment in his late works, which coalesce around the topics of negativism and the prospects for societal change.
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To make Adorno’s difficult notion of “identity thinking” more amendable to sociological research, this project brings his Negative Dialectics into conversation with Schutz’s theory of typification. When revised with Adorno’s attention to political economy and the pathologies of reification, Schutz’s framework allows for an analysis of identity thinking in everyday life. Both theorists argue that categories of thought: (1) automatically subsume objects for pragmatic yet socially conditioned reasons, (2) are socially formed, transferred, and selected, and (3) suppress particularizing characteristics of objects. Their overlapping arguments are cross-fertilized to propose a critical approach to cognitive sociology that can engage in a form of ideology critique that illuminates forms of thinking that conceal social contradictions. This approach is useful for explaining the “mundane dialectic of enlightenment”: the daily reproduction of unreflective rationalization that breeds irrationality in the form of social domination and environmental harm, a contradiction which finds its ultimate expression in climate change inaction.
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Adorno and Horkheimer’s legacy is incomplete without reference to their infamous political quietism. To thinkers such as Habermas, this was the unfortunate consequence of their alleged evacuation of reason. Attending to the treatment of Nietzsche in Dialectic of Enlightenment illuminates the distinct irony of such charges. Here, in their most popular book, Nietzsche is presented as precisely that which they praised him for warning against elsewhere: an advocate of cruelty animated by a reactionary morality. I contend that this exaggeration is not accidental, but rather illustrative; the authors present a consciously hyperbolized version of Nietzsche in order to articulate how he made possible his own misappropriation, and to distinguish themselves sharply from Nietzsche given their disagreements about the necessity of reason. Ultimately, however, even though Adorno and Horkheimer performatively differentiate themselves from the nihilism they saw in Nietzsche, their alternative would ironically be subject to precisely the same charges of irrationalism and political aporia that they sought so desperately to avoid.
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Narrative is introduced as a cultural practice and life form which contributes to creating the foundation of our lives as it helps us to interpret the world, through stories, in which we must be able to act. Borrowed from Ricœur ( Time and narrative: The configuration of time in fictional narrative (Vol. 2, K. McLaughlin & D. Pellauer, Trans). Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press (1985) and The course of recognition (D. Pellauer, Trans). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (2005).), the concepts of time and space are presented as the contexts and products of narrative. The functions of storytelling are discussed under the heading of “technologies of Self-construction” (inspired by Foucault, Technologies of the self. In L. H. Martin, H. Gutman, & P. H. Hutton (Eds.), Technologies of the self: A seminar with Michel Foucault (pp. 16–49). Amherst, MA: The University of Massachusetts Press (1988).), which provide orientation, self-understanding, and transgression. These need to be developed within the constraints of social norms—so the theory goes—and yet subjects still have some room to move within the process of adopting norms (Butler, Giving an account of oneself . New York, NY: Fordham University Press (2005).).
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Adorno's departure from praxis and his focus on theory seemed to be an unnatural move for a critical theorist. Among students and colleagues this was perceived as a serious aberration from Horkheimer's program. In this paper, two arguments in Adorno's favor are proposed: firstly, that, rather than separating the theory-praxis couplet, Adorno undertook necessary revisions which made theory more accurate in relation to a world that had undergone profound social, political and economic changes. The "old" theory was anachronistic, subjectless and left completely to the benevolence of blind actionism which represented a new form of (pseudo-) praxis. The author will attempt to demonstrate that Adorno held a firm position on the unity of theory and praxis. The second argument has to do with contemporary praxis. Revisiting Adorno's thoughts on theory and praxis can teach us two valuable lessons, namely: 1) that theory can reflect on itself, while praxis lacks this capability, and 2) that tactics applied in other societies cannot be imported blindly and unmediatedly because they are context-dependent. Both lessons are extremely valuable for contemporary social movements and especially for those inspired by Marcuse's version of activist critical theory. Adorno reminds us that resistance can easily slip into repression and that, before it can be changed through praxis, the world must first be (re)interpreted.
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Drawing on the thought of Jean-Luc Nancy, Roberto Esposito, Judith Butler and others, the article looks back at José Saramago’s Blindness to explore his experiment in thinking the foundation of human community. Positing a fundamental precarity of human co-existence, Saramago subtly develops a set of basic moral values, including trust, dignity, and a sensus communis, to show what binds us together as meaningful communities in the absence of a shared ethico-religious tradition. Paying close attention to the details of Saramago’s famous and gripping thought experiment, the article shows how the novel, with help from some recent theoretical work in moral and political philosophy, can continue to teach us important lessons in community today.
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Prefigurative mobilizations replace protest with direct action, means and ends becoming ideally one and the same. Analytically this entails a two-step movement: first, subtraction (withdrawal) from some arrangement; second, affirmation of an alternative. Both positive and critical assessments focus on the strength or lack of affirmativeness. However, as Foucault and governmentality studies have shown, power today crucially builds on promoting and influencing behaviours, rather than on commanding and prohibiting. Neglect of this aspect depends on the dominance, in current social and political theory, of ‘affirmative thinking’, whereby emancipation stems from the unbridled expression of vital forces. The flaws of affirmationism are discussed by focusing on post-workerist autonomism and degrowth theory. The possibility for subtraction to be self-sufficient in actualizing the alternative, rather than instrumental to the affirmation of something else, is explored with the help of Adorno and Agamben. The former offers a framework for understanding the emancipatory force of negation; the latter gives clues to how negation can be actually lived, via the concept of inoperativity. This is not passivity but activity pivoting on the human capacity of not being or doing – of leaving potentials inactualized – not as renunciation but as achievement, running counter to the capitalist thrust to endless (self-)valorization. Observable experiences offer clues to how consistency of doing with being (form-of-life) is pursued against the lure and trap of its opposite (lifestyle). In this view, as with Benjamin’s account of revolution, the transformative potential of prefiguration may lie more in doing things differently than in doing different things.
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Both Critical Theory and Aristotelian Naturalism take issue with subjectivism in meta-ethics, and with formalist “law conceptions” of ethics—both of which they take to be characteristic of modern moral philosophy. Aristotelian Naturalism aims to rectify these faults by elaborating on the idea that practical rationality is essential relative to the human form of life, or to our nature. I distinguish three consecutive versions of this argument, and discuss objections against each. The meta-critique put forth by Critical Theory provides, I argue, a sympathetic and kindred amendment to these basic tenets of Aristotelian Naturalism: it facilitates an understanding of practical reason as receptive to objective claims stemming from the human form of life, but at the same time allows for an understanding of categories like “nature” and “reason” as essentially historically and socially mediated.
Article
Descriptive studies of morality in organizations have to date been largely focused on the scene of individual decision making without paying adequate attention to other important scenes. However, an integral part of what people understand as morality is comprised of those moral norms that they appropriate in the scene of moral reflexivity, i.e. through conscious reflection, analysis, and deliberation. In this article, I bring in and integrate a diverse set of insights, primarily from the sociology of morality, to identify what contextual factors condition the moral reflexivity of organizational members, both in terms of triggering their reflexivity and in terms of orienting their thoughts. The result is an integrative framework that delineates three core dimensions representing the conditioning effect of context on individual moral reflections: Symbolic resources, attention prompts, and the existing self-concept. Finally, I discuss the implications of the offered framework for management and organization studies of moral phenomena.
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After the Second World War, Adorno was politically engaged as a critical public intellectual in the new Federal Republic of Germany. Nonetheless, in the 1960s, a time of active protest against established norms and the underlying socio‐economic and political conditions, he was widely perceived by the protesting activists as adopting an attitude of resignation in blatant contradiction to the aims of his critical social theory. The chapter considers the validity of this accusation. Section 37.1 sets out Adorno's position with regard to the relationship between theory and praxis from the 1950s onwards. Section 37.2 considers the adequacy of his position from the point of view of Critical Social Theory's fundamental concern with radical societal transformation. Contending that Adorno does in effect adopt a stance of resignation vis‐à‐vis radical societal transformation, it draws attention to some questionable elements in his theory that push him toward adopting this stance. It concludes that his theory would benefit from dispensing with them.
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This chapter explores the interrelations between Theodor W. Adorno and Gershom Scholem's thought. It argues that despite the overt differences between Adorno's materialist social philosophy and Scholem's scholarship of Jewish mysticism, both intellectuals were motivated by similar concerns and interests. Following a brief historical contextualization of the intellectual exchange between Adorno and Scholem, the chapter focuses on three main thematic intersections between their thought and writings: The concept of myth and the dialectical entanglement of myth and reason; the heretical element in its relation to natural and social life, and to the critique of normativity; and the theological dimension in their work, and the role of negativity, metaphysics, and materialism within it.
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The phrase after Auschwitz plays a central role in Adorno's oeuvre. To him, the industrialized genocide of Jews, Sinti and Roma, and Slavic people at death camps like Auschwitz, the systematic mass killing of human beings labeled “life unworthy of life” by their murderers and the ideologues behind them, the ruthlessness and utter contempt for humanity of the Nazi German perpetrators of these unimaginable crimes, give those who live after Auschwitz certainties about the extent of human cruelty as well as human torment that undermine any trust in civilization and social progress, in traditional appeals to meaning, beauty, truth, or goodness. The clearest theoretical expression of these certainties can be found in Adorno's impossibility claims about poetry and art, about the good life, about metaphysical fundamentals. This contribution will examine these impossibility claims in order to clarify the philosophical role of Adorno's phrase after Auschwitz in his own works, but also in order to place Adorno's reflections on life and thought after Auschwitz with respect to our contemporary situation.
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This essay reconstructs the place of Marx's thought within Adorno's writings from his 1931 inaugural lecture to his famous 1962 seminar on Marx. It focuses on three areas: the critique and transformation of philosophy; the sociology of the commodification of art; and the social ontology of the objectivity of illusions, derived from the critique of political economy. Adorno, it argues, ended his academic life significantly more of a Marxist than he had entered it, leaving a legacy that was distinctive both for its dialectical appropriation of Marx's critique – and suspended supersession – of philosophy and for its philosophical interpretation of Marx's critique of political economy.
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In this essay I reconstruct what I take to be Adorno's metaphysics of moral solidarity in the moment of its fall. At its heart lies a materialist idea of humanism, and a moral notion of human solidarity. I put this reconstruction to work, answering Michael Theunissen's challenge, namely that Adorno must, but cannot, justify the positive premise of his negativism of what ought not to be, and that he must, but cannot justify his minimal deontological morality. In my view, properly interpreted, Adorno once equipped with this moral notion of human solidarity, can answer Theunissen's challenge, in a way that makes best sense of his (Adorno's) epistemological and metaphysical negativism, and in a way that is consistent with his critique of Kantian morality.
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This essay explores how a physiological notion of affect, one predicated on the transsubstantial circulation of micro-materiality, provides useful connectivity among old and new materialisms. First, it explores nascent theories of energetic matter in Marxism as potential sites for new materialist extensions. Second, it proposes affect as a theoretical shorthand for the circulating flows of matter central to the physiological production, orientation, and materialization of bodily capacities, including the ability to reinvent political economic habituation from the perspective of difference. Third, it illustrates the contributions of a Marxist new materialism through a brief discussion of contemporary race politics.
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This review of Amy Allen's book, The End of Progress (2016), first addresses the structure of the book and focuses on specific points made in individual chapters, including the affinity between postcolonial theory and the approaches of Adorno and Foucault in subjecting the notion of historical progress to "withering critique," and Allen's alternative approach to decolonization; Habermas' aim to put critical theory on a secure normative footing; Honneth's stance that the history of an ethical sphere is an unplanned learning process kept in motion by a struggle for recognition; Forst's attempt to reconstruct Critical Theory's normative account through a return to Kant rather than Hegel; and Allen's claim that her approach is fully in the spirit of Critical Theory and could be seen as continuation of Critical Theory's first generation, as in Adorno, and how it is a "genealogical" approach that draws on Adorno's negative dialectics and critique of identity thinking, as well as on Nietzsche's conception of genealogy, as developed by Foucault. The second part of my response raises three issues: (1) Allen's partial compromise with the idea of progress; (2) whether critical theory would profit from engagement with other critical theories and theories of ethics, beyond postcolonial theory; and (3) nonwestern theories shed a different light on the question of Allen's critique, a theme that also draws attention to the gesture of The Challenge of Progress: Theory Between Critique and Ideology
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In this article I claim that Adorno's Negative Dialectics contains a thin humanist metaphysics, and an idea of human solidarity that, suitably interpreted, can provide the ground of his normative moral philosophy and critical theory. Together, the idea of the human, and the notion of moral solidarity it contains, can when suitably interpreted explicate and justify what Michael Theunissen calls Adorno's positive premise in Negative Dialectics, and can do so in a way that is broadly consistent with his negativism
Book
The Routledge Handbook of Critical Pedagogies for Social Work traverses new territory by providing a cutting-edge overview of the work of classic and contemporary theorists, in a way that expands their application and utility in social work education and practice; thus, providing a bridge between critical theory, philosophy, and social work. Each chapter showcases the work of a specific critical educational, philosophical and/or social theorist including: Henry Giroux, Michel Foucault, Cornelius Castoriadis, Herbert Marcuse, Paulo Freire, bell hooks, Joan Tronto, Iris Marion Young, Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci and many others to elucidate the ways in which their key pedagogic concepts can be applied to specific aspects of social work education and practice. The text exhibits a range of research-based approaches to educating social work practitioners as agents of social change. It provides a robust and much needed, alternative paradigm to the technique-driven ‘conservative revolution’ currently being fostered by neoliberalism in both social work education and practice. The volume will be instructive for social work educators who aim to teach for social change, by assisting students to develop counter-hegemonic practices of resistance and agency, and reflecting on the pedagogic role of social work practice more widely. The volume holds relevance for both postgraduate and undergraduate/qualifying social work and human services courses around the world.
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In the current era, humans have reshaped relationships with other animals in ways that have significant environmental impacts. While the populations of animals raised for human food continue to increase, populations of wild animals continue to decrease with species increasingly going extinct. These changes in human-animal relations along with their environmental and ecological impacts are unprecedented in human history. This paper examines these impacts as well as the common drivers that perpetuate destructive relations. Drawing from the Frankfurt School, capital’s ethos and domination ideology are examined as interlinked drivers of current human-animal relations. While new policies to address animal agriculture and biodiversity loss are critically needed, a more transformative response relies on addressing these underlying drivers.
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The term ‘transnational’ can be read in two simultaneous dimensions: as an ontological description of a primordially queer birthing (trans+natio) and as a trajectory of practice engaging with the historical actuality of borders. Ecocritique is centrally transnational in both senses, and ecomedia are privileged vehicles for conflictual practices of friction and suture acting along the line of alienation dividing and binding the two dimensions. This is a fundamental fracture between those who govern – some but only some humans – and those who in varying degrees or absolutely are ruled with limited access or none to the work of ruling. The paper proposes an ecocritical aesthetic politics operating through mediation and communication to produce a commons engaging excluded ecologies and technologies in the co-production of a new political space.
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