Wednesday, 12 May 2004

From "Negative Dialectics"

By Theodor Adorno.


How objects can be unlocked by their constellaiton is to be learned not so much from philosophy, which took no interest in the matter, as from important scientific investigations. The scientific accomplishment often ran ahead of its philosophical comprehension, ahead of scientivism. And we certainly need not start out from a work's own content, in line with such metaphysical inquiried as Benjamin's "Origin of German Tragedy" which take the very concept of truth for a constellation [...] We must go back to a scholar of so positivistic a bent as Max Weber, who did -- quite in the sense of subjectivist epistemology -- understand "ideal types" as aids in approaching the object, devoid of any inherent substantiality and capable of being reliquefied at will. But as in all nominalism, however insignificant it may consider its concepts, some of the nature of the thing will come through and extend beyond the benefit to our thinking practice -- not the least of our motivations for criticizing an unreflected nominalism! -- so are Weber's material works far more object-directed than the South-West German methodology would lead us to expect.

Actually the concept is sufficient reason for the thing [...] insofar as the exploration of a social object, at least, is falsified if confined to dependencies within its domain, to dependencies that have established the object, and if its determination by the totality is ignored. Without the supraordinated concept, those dependencies conceal the most real among them, the dependence on society; and this dependence is not to be adequately compensated by the individual res which the concept covers. Yet it appears through the individual alone, and thus the concept in turn is transformed in specific cognition. When Weber, in his treatise on Protestant ethics and the spirit of capitalism, raised the question of defining capitalism, he -- in contrast with current scientific practice -- was as well aware of the difficulty of defining historical concepts as previously only philosophers had been: Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche. He explicitly rejected the delimiting procedure of definition, the adherence to the scheme genus proximum, differentia specifica [...] and asked instead that sociological concepts be "gradually composed" from "individual parts to be taken from historic realit. The place of definitive conceptual comprehension cannot, therefore, be the beginning of the inquiry, only the end."

[...] Whether such a definition is always necessary at the end -- or whether, even without a formal definitory result, what Weber calls "composing" can be equal to his epistemological goal -- remains unsettled. Definitions are not the be-all and end-all of cognition, as popular scientivism holds; but neither are they to be banished. A thinking whose course made us incapable of definition, unable even for moments to have a succinct language represent the thing, would be as sterile, probably, as a thinking gorged with verbal definitions. More essential, however, is that to which Weber gives the name of "composing," a name which orthodox scientists would find unacceptable. He is indeed looking only at the subjective side, at cognitive procedure; but the "compositions" in question are apt to follow similar rules as their analogue, the musical compositions. These are subjectively produced, but they work only here the subjective production is submerged in them. The subjectively created context -- the "constellation" -- becomes readable as sign of an objectivity: of thte spiritual substance.

What resembles writing in such constellations is the conversion into objectivity, by way of language, of what has been subjectively thought and assembled. This element is not one of Max Weber's themes, but even a procedure as indebted as his is to the traditional ideal and theory of science does not lack it. The most mature of his works seem at times to suffer from a glut of verbal definitions borrowed from jurisprudence, but a close look will show that these are more than definitions. They are not mere conceptual fixations. Rather, by gathering concepts round the central one that is sought, they attempt to express what that concept aimms at, not to circumscribe it to operative ends. The concept of capitalism, for instance, which is so crucial in every respect is emphatically set off by Weber from such isolated and subjective categories as acquisitiveness or the profit motive -- in a manner similar to Marx's, by the way. In capitalism, says Weber, the oft-cited profit motive must take its bearings from the principle of lucrativity and from the market chances,; it must utilize the calculation of capial and interest; organized in the form of free labor, with household and business expenses separated, capitalism necessitates bookkeeping and a rationalistic legal system in line with its pervasive governing principle of rationality at large.

The completeness of this list remains in doubt. We have to ask, in particular, whether Weber's stress on rationality, his disregarding of the class relation that reproduces itself by way of the barter of equivalents, will not as a mere method equate capitalism too much with its "spirit" -- although that barter and its problematics would certainly be unthinkable without rationality. But the capitalist system's increasingly integrative trend, the fact that its elements entwine into a more and more total context of functions, is precisely what makes the old question about the cause -- as opposed to the constellation -- more and more precarious. We need no epistemological critique to make us pursue constellations; the search for them mis forced upon us by the real course of history. In Weber's case the constellations take the place of systematics, which one liked to tax him with lacking, and this is what proves his thinking to be a third possibility beyond the alternative of positivism and idealism.

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