A Bad Positivism

So I have two projects this term: Augustine, and the dialectic process from Adorno and Benjamin to Agamben. This post isn't about Gus.

I've been reading through Adorno's lectures on Negative Dialectics -- knowing full well that the book of the same title won't make as much sense until I do -- and it's remarkably enlightening stuff. The key, so far, turns on Hegel's synthetic ideal, that a negation of a negation is a positive. Which is synthesis: the negation of the antithesis by incorporation into the thesis. This is the root of the whole upward progress of history, that ideas grow and advance by incorporating their critiques. The modern ideal of correctibility, which was a Renaissance ideal as well. It is what Hegel means by sublation: the elevation of an idea through the means of its opposition. From positions to positions by means of ultimately temporary negations.

But I do mean that negative dialectics turns on the synthetic ideal -- and turns on it aggressively! "The negation of a negation is a bad positivism." And it does so through what I have to see as deeply connected to the linguistic turn. Saussurean arbitrary signification, even though it nowhere appears -- he gets it through Heidegger and phenomenology. The actual is not rational -- by which we mean that reality does not carry internal meanings. The concept is the negation of the thing -- by which we mean that once we have created a signification, the signifier can no longer be seen for itself. We have given it a meaning. And in so doing we have forgotten that even the thesis, as a posit, is a negation. The rational is not real; the rational supplants the real.

And we can't forget that for both Hegel and Adorno this is a phenomenology of mind -- of Geist. The intellect proceeds by assertions, and corrections, and assertions, and corrections, on and on. But Adorno is at pains to remind us that none of this is real! It is a method of abstractions, of constantly re-grounding idealizations. But for exactly that reason, it cannot proceed upward, away from the things themselves, and call this improvement. The whole process is negative, an act of doing away with the species in their particularity so that we can get at the generic, the universal -- the "true" which is therefore actually false! Actually false -- false when compared with what is actual, what is real. Dialectics is a wandering about on the ground, and it must always return to ground truth.

And this is to a large extent why I want Adorno in my back pocket: for the sake of posterior analytics. Because Hegel is an ideal of conceptual development, beautiful in its own way as an alternative to Platonism, but with its own flaws. And it becomes obvious to us in the wake of World Wars that German idealism isn't truly an improvement on Platonic idealism in basic ways. We're still working upward to ideals. Taking the ideals away from the gods, demonstrating that we ourselves create the ideals, and then modeling a process by which we correct the ideals we create -- all this still leaves us aspiring to abstractions. And self-consciously so!

And yet Plato was himself taking the ideals away from the gods! Plato was creating a realm of ideals by which he could replace the fallibility of pagan gods. A heaven of truths, not deities. But this deification of philosophical ideals was nothing more than an in-situ repair of the concepts people reach for when they try to reason out thus-and-such a situation. Plato is, above all else, attempting to be rhetorically persuasive, which means useful. People reach to the heavens for truth, and to their gods who help them, but the gods are problematic and their truth claims are conflicting -- so we'll fix all of that so that the system genuinely works, right across the board. We'll fix the truth claims, and we'll get rid of the fallible gods, but we'll put truth right back where everybody looks for it.

And it is precisely this idealism that stands at the root of Hegel's "bad positivism," as Adorno calls it. I believe that Plato knew, as Hegel did, that these truths were human constructs. But Hegel democratizes the process. It becomes the people, the social organisms of history, that create and maintain and correct the truths of history. Plato isn't interested in explaining the process -- that's an aristocratic reservation. Plato is interested in establishing his reshaped truths. Hegel simply updates the work for the self-understandings of his time. But the roots of knowledge, in Aristotle as now, are in analysis. And the joy of Hegel is that he moves into phenomenology of idealism -- analysis of its roots. He opens the door to get back behind idealism, behind abstractions into process. And Adorno simply closes the door to idealism from the other side. And he can do so, because in the meantime, phenomenology has become about the things themselves. Not correction of abstractions, but correction of perceptions.

At which point we have a new door open, to the Organon -- but not the one the Scholastics took.


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