Adorno and Existence

Adorno and Existence

by Peter E. Gordon


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From the beginning to the end of his career, the philosopher Theodor W. Adorno sustained an uneasy but enduring bond with existentialism. His attitude overall was that of unsparing criticism, verging on polemic. In Kierkegaard he saw an early paragon for the late flowering of bourgeois solipsism; in Heidegger, an impresario for a “jargon of authenticity” cloaking its idealism in an aura of pseudo-concreteness and neo-romantic kitsch. Even in the straitened rationalism of Husserl’s phenomenology Adorno saw a vain attempt to break free from the prison-house of consciousness.

Most scholars of critical theory still regard these philosophical exercises as marginal works—unfortunate lapses of judgment for a thinker otherwise celebrated for dialectical mastery. Yet his persistent fascination with the philosophical canons of existentialism and phenomenology suggests a connection far more productive than mere antipathy. From his first published book on Kierkegaard’s aesthetic to the mature studies in negative dialectics, Adorno was forever returning to the philosophies of bourgeois interiority, seeking the paradoxical relation between their manifest failure and their hidden promise.

Ultimately, Adorno saw in them an instructive if unsuccessful attempt to realize his own ambition: to escape the enchanted circle of idealism so as to grasp “the primacy of the object.” Exercises in “immanent critique,” Adorno’s writings on Kierkegaard, Husserl, and Heidegger present us with a photographic negative—a philosophical portrait of the author himself. In Adorno and Existence, Peter E. Gordon casts new and unfamiliar light on this neglected chapter in the history of Continental philosophy.

Editorial Reviews

Seyla Benhabib

Written with elegance and meticulously researched, the book focuses on Adorno’s successive encounters with Kierkegaard, Husserl, and Heidegger over the years as a key to unlock Adorno’s own difficult thinking. A major contribution to Adorno studies and beyond.

Jay Bernstein

Adorno and Existence struck me as almost inevitable: how is it that no one had thought to write this necessary book previously? With a rare combination of narrative brio and analytic insight, Peter Gordon tracks Adorno’s repeated confrontations with Kierkegaard, Husserl, Heidegger, Kafka, & co. This is a fine, even irreplaceable study with a superb and riveting final chapter.

Axel Honneth

This extraordinary study is a marvelous interpretation of the whole of Adorno’s philosophical thinking by making convincingly clear to what surprising degree it is dependent on some constitutive ideas of Kierkegaard. Gordon successfully integrates two aims, the systematic re-interpretation of Adorno’s philosophy and the subtle reconstruction of his intellectual development. This is a tour de force for which Peter Gordon deserves highest admiration.

Symposium - Richard Westerman

Gordon’s book offers a significant contribution to our understanding of Adorno’s thought. He writes with expertise, authority, and compendious scholarship, moving with confidence across the thinkers he examines. Throughout his argument, he effectively places Adorno’s work in the context of contemporary debates and events. His well-organized exposition and lucid prose are particularly noteworthy, conveying complex ideas with clarity and nuance. Above all, I found myself persuaded of his central claim, as it seems quite clear that Adorno’s engagement with the thought of Kierkegaard, Husserl, and Heidegger played a decisive role in the development of his own philosophy, rather than entailing merely a straightforward rejection. After this book, it will not be possible to explain Adorno’s philosophical development without serious consideration of his reactions to them.

New York Review of Books - Samuel Freeman

A perceptive philosophical inquiry.

Critical Inquiry - Robert Pippin

Gordon, in a detailed, sensitive, fair-minded way, leads the reader through Adorno’s various, usually quite vigorous, rhetorically pointed attacks on both transcendental and existential phenomenology from 1930 on…[A] singularly illuminating study.

Marx and Philosophy Review of Books - Sean Sheehan

Adorno and Existence is an expansive and ambitious undertaking and Gordon deserves praise for elucidating the dense constructions of Adorno’s texts, especially in the often elliptical prose of Negative Dialectics. He traces a constant concern in Adorno, from the 1930s onwards, to associate the ontology of existentialism with idealism while also acknowledging an underlying value in idealism’s resistance to the merely given…[An] elegantly composed study.

Martin Jay

On first reading Adorno’s early study of Kierkegaard, Walter Benjamin intuited that it was ‘very possible that the author’s later books will spring from this one.’ When Adorno reissued it many years later, he admitted to Ernst Bloch that it had ‘the character of a dream-like anticipation.’ With Peter Gordon’s arresting new interpretation of Adorno’s life-long struggle with Kierkegaard’s legacy, a struggle generating the dynamic force field of theology, aesthetics and social critique he called negative dialectics, we can understand for the first time how right both of these observations actually were.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780674734784
Publisher: Harvard
Publication date: 11/14/2016
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)

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