Adorno’s Essay on Ideology: A Commentary in Three Parts

Jacob Bard-Rosenberg

1. The Cloud of All Knowing

When judgments are clouded by interest they are said to be prejudiced. The history of Western philosophy displays an unstinting effort to guard the truth of its judgments from the presentation of interest. This motif can be seen as far back as Plato’s opposition of doxa and episteme—opinion and knowledge—in Socrates’ dispute with the sophists,[1] and Aristotle’s conviction that the lives of philosophers must be separated from those of the political, monastic, entrepreneurial, or working classes.[2] Accordingly, those who freely commit to truth must be socially distinguished from those who seek to persuade in the service of power, or those who, under the duress of unfreedom or want, mistake their needs for the truth.

While this gesture of philosophical autonomy endured, its posture changed throughout history. With the Enlightenment, the aristocratic stance of the philosopher king was renounced in favor of a more democratic bearing. Reason was for the use of every citizen-subject, if not at all times and places.[3] Hegel commended Plato and Aristotle on their separation of philosophical concerns, writing:

To occupy oneself with pure thoughts presupposes a long road the human spirit must have traversed; it is the need, one may say, of having already attained the satisfaction of necessary need, the need of freedom from need, of abstraction from the material of intuition, imagination, and so forth; from the material of concrete interests of desire, impulse, will, in which the determinations of thought hide as if behind a veil.[4]

However, Hegel did not assign this task to the bourgeois public, noting instead that this is “the reason it is customary to reserve [the study of logic] for the instruction of youth, for the youth is not yet involved in the practical affairs of concrete life but lives a life of leisure so far as these are concerned.” Beyond youth, philosophical concerns with logic, which ought speculatively to address the ground of free universality, gave way to instrumental arguments serving particularistic interests. The consequence of this perversion into justificatory logics appears in the power-dynamics of objective spirit:

We do not indeed say of our feelings, impulses, interests, that they serve us; on the contrary, they count as independent forces and powers, so that to have this particular feeling, to will or to desire this particular thing, to make this our interest – just this, is what we are. […] Such determinations of the mind and spirit when contrasted with the universality we are conscious of being and in which we have our freedom, quickly show themselves to be particulars, and we rather regard ourselves to be caught up in their particularities and to be dominated by them.[5]

To readers of Marx this description might seem familiar, for it is homologous to his exposition of commodity fetishism. However, for Marx it was not only objectified forms of thought that confronted people as dominating independent powers, but also their alienated labor and its fruit. Conceived of as capital, this labor does not serve people, but dominates people so they serve it. Rounded relations between people are congealed into phantasmagoric, one-sided relations between things. Yet Marx’s account of the object’s particularity of interests is, contrary to Hegel’s view, veiled in a deceptive abstraction. Reified relations are inadequately universal to represent a free society, but abstraction paints the particular interests of the life of work in a universal color, such that all commodities, and labor too, might at least be equally exchanged. In a society that is not yet free such presumed equality, which levels all interests, is simply false.

Where Marx embraced a praxis that would undo these abstractions, revealing class interest, Hegel defended an anti-social philosophical practice for himself:

The author, in the face of the magnitude of the task, had to content himself with what could be made of it in circumstances of external necessity, of the inevitable distraction caused by the magnitude and multitude of contemporary interests, all the while in doubt whether the noisy clamor of the day and the deafening chatter of a conceit that takes pride in confining itself to those interests, might still leave room for partaking in the dispassionate calm of a knowledge dedicated to thought alone.[6]

Speculative philosophy returns us to the beginning, as perpetual novices Peter-Panning in the university. This almost came to pass as this philosophic motif developed beyond the dialectical gymnastics of the nineteenth century. When, at the turn of the century, logical positivism espoused the value-free disinterestedness of a scientific mode, it did so from within the university. Ivory towers became pallid fortresses, assured that their autonomous legal rationality could fend off the torrents of particularistic interests that streamed beyond their walls, once more separating themselves from the world they studied.

This précis of the historical vicissitudes of philosophical autonomy might provide a backdrop to Adorno’s “Contribution to the Theory of Ideology.” He composed this essay in the mid-1950s but noted that it “belong[ed] to the context of his continued collaborative work with Max Horkheimer.” This statement refers not to 1938, when the pair considered writing a materialist logic together (only for this plan to be subverted into Dialectic of Enlightenment), but to the first years of Horkheimer’s directorship of the Institute of Social Research in Frankfurt. In the early 1930s, thinkers associated with the Institute developed three related lines of criticism regarding philosophical autonomy. These criticisms are so closely related that they may constitute a single argument, albeit with varying conclusions depending on how strongly the argument is put. The evaluation of these different conclusions was decisive in the development of critical theory.

(1) In modernity, as philosophy ceases to maintain its purity through the social separation of philosophers, the clouding of judgment by prejudice changes. The problem is no longer merely the susceptibility of those who judge to forego truth in arguing for their needs, desires, wills, interests, and capricious opinions so much as the susceptibility of judgment itself, constituted in its new social setting, to be afflicted by presuppositions. The modern form of judgment gives way to preformation. Responses to this predicament have been various: Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason can be read as an austere study in prejudice, in which all experiences exerting undue influence are ascetically cleared from this presuppositive moment, while retaining only the starkest of necessary categories. Kafka lampooned the situation, providing the image of a judgment supplanted by a prejudicial moment extruded into a terrible infinity, for whoever stood before the law. Even then, the law turned out to be particularistic, intended only for whoever searched for it in vain. For Freud, concepts dissolved into a field of linguistic charges in the preconscious system, assuming a shape ineluctably hooked to prior experience. Adorno advanced a similar argument, concerning the entanglement of reason with mythic images. The very condition of modernity is that judgment might itself be perpetually postponed, and its place usurped by a prejudicial moment. In fear of succumbing, philosophy is drawn into this prejudicial landscape in order to clear a path for itself, but might fail to escape.[7]

(2) Philosophy has sought to banish opinion, to eliminate experience from logic, and to deny its own foundation in the heteronomous sphere of society against which it proclaims its autonomy. Insofar as these efforts are internal to philosophical work, and these claims are philosophic in themselves, philosophy admits its social grounds precisely where they are supposed to be excluded. While these social grounds may appear within philosophy only negatively, postural changes in its claim to autonomy reflect historical changes of the social totality. Philosophy, where it most adamantly proclaims its autonomy from the social, can thus be read as a ciphered expression of social life.

(3) Arguments for philosophical autonomy are contradicted by the theory of ideology, which was first elaborated in the eighteenth century. This long-standing approach attempts to account rationally for interests that cause prejudice even where those prejudices are irrational. The cloud of prejudice might therewith become organized into a field of social forces. Ideological critique asserts that this clouding aspect contains elements of rationality that philosophy had traditionally excluded from its purview; or, that this cloud might itself become crystalline and transparent where those interests through which thought is refracted become rationally ordered. Such rational ordering of interests became thematic for later eighteenth-century discourse, from Rousseau’s discussion of the general will to Adam Smith’s political economy. These ideas threatened to overcome the authority of philosophy’s claim to truth founded in its supposed autonomy from social interest. Ideology therefore offers a counter-history to philosophy, which the first half of Adorno’s “Contribution” elucidates in relation to the French idéologues:

Destutt de Tracy considered this highest science to be a human one, which would provide the basis for the entirety of political and social life. Comte’s notion of the ruling role of sociology within the sciences, and ultimately in real social life, is therefore already virtually contained in the work of the idéologues. Furthermore, the idéologues initially intended theirtheory to be progressive. Reason ought to rule in order to erect a world according to human preferences. Taking a liberal view, they presumed there would be a harmonious balance of social forces, insofar as each person acted on the basis of their own well-understood, transparent interests.

While the previous two lines of criticism demonstrate philosophy’s implication in a wider social situation, the theory of ideology proper proposes an expansion of reason beyond philosophy’s disciplinary bounds, into the social practices that encompass it.

The theory of ideology culminates in a new science of society. As Adorno notes, “sociology, which wields this concept [of ideology]. stands in opposition to traditional philosophy.” Reason’s expansion relativizes all of the contents of philosophy, which it considers, like all other intellectual products, as expressions of social interest, however much this is protested. Ideological critique replaces the philosophical concern over the validity [Gültigkeit] of judgments with an account of their genesis [Entstehung]. Philosophy’s majesty is overthrown by the supreme explanatory powers of a sociology, which more willingly synthesizes the realms of knowledge and opinion, finding reason and unreason in both.

These lines of criticism were elaborated in the light of Max Scheler and Karl Mannheim’s establishment of the academic discipline of the “sociology of knowledge” [Wissenssoziologie], and in particular Mannheim’s 1929 publication of Ideology and Utopia. This coincided with Adorno’s period of post-doctoral study and subsequent appointment as a Privatdozent in philosophy at the University of Frankfurt, where Mannheim was appointed as Professor of Sociology in 1930. Mannheim’s office was housed in a building shared with the Institute of Social Research, to which Horkheimer took directorship the following year. Both Adorno and Horkheimer developed their considerations on ideology in dispute with Mannheim’s conception of a “total theory of ideology.”[8] Horkheimer wrote a lengthy critique under the title “A New Concept of Ideology” in the Institute’s journal in 1930. Meanwhile, Adorno’s inaugural lecture addressed the relationship of philosophy to sociology (Mannheim was in attendance and took exception to Adorno’s thesis.)[9] Adorno began work on an essay about Mannheim in the early 1930s,[10] considering it his “most explicitly Marxist work,”[11] but after two years Horkheimer rejected its publication in the Institute’s journal.[12]

Adorno revived these materials after returning to Germany from the United States at the end of the 1940s.[13] In 1950, he reworked his essay on Mannheim into a lecture titled “On Mannheim: Sociology of Knowledge,” then redrafted it again in 1953 for publication in Prisms under the title “The Sociology of Knowledge and its Consciousness.” These earlier theoretical materials can also be discerned in the opening paragraphs of the “Contribution”: Adorno’s opening remark that the concept of ideology had shifted into academic parlance echoed the first sentences of Horkheimer’s 1930 article. Meanwhile, a reference to Heidegger’s description of sociology as a cat-burglar invading the house of philosophy reworks a comment from “The Actuality of Philosophy.”[14]

To summarize the critique of Mannheim, Adorno and Horkheimer recognized a neo-Kantian argument in his work that had become common in academic trends adjacent to Marxism.[15] Where Kant’s philosophy offered forms of knowledge whose judgments about nature were limited by their legitimacy, neo-Kantianism extended this method to forms of knowledge about society and culture. The social realm—including social motivations and interests—was therefore considered analogous to natural objects, such that philosophical judgments about society might be validly fashioned. In this regard Mannheim’s “sociology of knowledge” reverts to philosophy.  Adorno derided it variously as “philosophical sociologism” and “bourgeois sociologism.”[16] Indeed, Mannheim represented the revenge of philosophy against the social ambitions of sociology (and also Marxism’s practical intent to transform the world.) Where a cloud of interests may once have been considered the unwanted presupposition of knowledge, which encompassed and encumbered it, this new scientific mode restored philosophy by taking these interests as its object.

Put otherwise, Mannheim attempted to rescue the subject from its ideological prejudices by loading them into the object. This method, however, delivered only “relative” security for the subject regarding its own ideological foundation. Mannheim’s methodological conceit was to claim that the tendency, especially amongst Marxists, to accuse one’s enemy of ideological motivation must be limited, since no ground free of ideology, from which such an accusation could be legitimately leveled, existed.[17] Thus he conceived of the notion of “total ideology” as the universal condition of judgment; its totality, grounded in social reality, supposedly represented a common partisanship of positions among a colloquy of “free-floating intellectuals.” If Mannheim’s critique was homologous to Kant’s attempt to limit judgments prior to their enunciation, then, similarly to Kant’s transcendental synthesis, the purpose of his method was to demonstrate a harmony between the “total” (or, one might say, transcendental) ideology that formally afflicts the necessarily partisan subjective moment of judgment and the ideological objects of those judgments.

In haste, Mannheim’s argument reduces all ideological falsity to a cognitive or epistemological error, which is then understood as a general condition. He combines the first and the third arguments given above, such that all ideology appears only as the prejudicial preformation of judgment. However, in conceiving of the “totality” merely as the universal, formal conditions of judgment, he accounts for partisanship and interest without any consideration of what those interests might be, or what social role they play. As such, Mannheim retreated from active, practical engagement with social interests to a passive contemplation of them, and offers no reason for how the totality is socially constituted.

Adorno and Horkheimer’s criticisms of Mannheim differed in part due to their different disciplinary settings. As Susan Buck-Morss explains:

Even if Adorno’s original choice was to teach philosophy rather than join Horkheimer’s Institute, he acknowledged from the first the dependence of his kind of philosophy on the findings of social research, just as Horkheimer considered speculative theory indispensable to the findings of social science research. One was doing sociological philosophy, the other philosophical sociology.[18]

Yet they agreed on certain central points. Following Marxist critiques of idealist formalism and subjectivism, both argued that Mannheim’s conception of a “total ideology,” afflicting the object just as it had the subject, failed to address the ideological object proper: the truly sociological data—the material and intellectual interests of people and groups.[19] In their place Mannheim had posited the reflection of the ideological process of the subjective moment of judgment. The harmony of his philosophic view is therefore nothing but the subject looking clearly at a clouded image of itself.

Adorno was also critical of the implicit harmonic motion of thought in Mannheim, swinging from subjective metaphysical method into the realm of society, in order to discover interest and prejudice as its object, and then back into a (meta-)philosophical position. Against this, he proposed that those clouding aspects of judgments were neither merely formal, nor to be found only in the reflection of the subject. Instead, this cloud was produced by a history whose antagonistic motion could not be reduced to epistemology. The “Contribution” repeats this conclusion, asserting that both ideology and the concept of ideology are subject to a historical dynamic. No harmony could be established in the historical cloud of philosophy, because history governed the antagonism between philosophy and the sciences, and was the substance of their division. Because truth is historical, Adorno refused to return the dynamism of its movement, however disintegrative, to a contemplative philosophy in eternal repose (for even this reposing philosophy partakes in the dance!). Yet he attempted, from within this historical cloud, to defend philosophy, at precisely the moment when “the sciences […] have set about a liquidation of philosophy with an earnestness which hardly ever existed before.”[20]

The result was dissonant: refusing the dissolution of this cloud either by putting philosophy in the service of science, or by proclaiming its autonomy from the separated sciences anew, in proposing a formalistic, transcendental, or quasi-eternal totality:

Philosophy will not be transformed into science, but under the pressure of the empiricist attack it will banish from itself all questioning which, as specifically scientific, belongs of right to the separate sciences and clouds philosophic questioning. I do not mean to suggest that philosophy should give up or even slacken that contact with separate sciences which it has finally regained, and the attainment of which counts among the most fortunate results of the most recent intellectual history. Quite the contrary. Philosophy will be able to understand the material content and the concretion of problems only within the present standing of the separate sciences. It will also not be allowed to raise itself above such sciences by accepting their “results” as finished and meditating upon them from a safe distance. Rather, philosophic problems will lie always, and in a certain sense irredeemably, locked within the most specific questions of the separate sciences. Philosophy distinguishes itself from science not by a higher level of generality, as the banal view still today assumes, nor through the abstraction of its categories, nor through the nature of its materials. The central difference lies far more in that the separate sciences accept their findings, at least their final and deepest findings, as indestructible and static, whereas philosophy perceives the first finding which it lights upon as a sign that needs unriddling.[21]

These riddle-figures, which constitute the clouded center of the philosophical problematic, are the motions of a history subject to a logic of disintegration. The resolution to these riddles is historical action. The Mannheimian restitution of a contemplative mode merely translates these historical scenarios into objective conditions of thought alone; it is a defensive wall between philosophy and social forces, even where it encompasses this social force. Against this, Adorno read these cloudy spots as historically produced moments of mediation between the two, which in their unriddling would reconcile theory and praxis:

The answer stands in strict antithesis to the riddle, needs to be constructed out of the riddle’s elements, and destroys the riddle, which is not meaningful, but meaningless, as soon as the answer is decisively given to it. The movement which occurs in this process is executed in earnestness by materialism. Earnestness means here that the answer does not remain mistakenly in the closed area of knowledge, but that praxis is granted to it.

If such a vision leaves philosophy derelict as its claim to truth is ripped from eternity and transcendence; if, as Adorno says, he “shrank from putting these invariants forth clearly and left them clouded,”[22] this was the price of recognising that philosophical autonomy was already a social demand, requiring an answer as social as it is philosophical, in the shape of history. And where philosophy remained separated, as an anti-social element prior to its reconciliation with praxis, it became aesthetic, struck between experience and fantasy.

2. Labors of the Heart

The problem of ideology manifests on the border of disciplines, between philosophy and sociology, where the truth with which philosophy classically concerned itself is overtaken by the facticity of the results of isolated sciences. While the “Contribution” points back to the earliest years of Horkheimer’s leadership of the Institute, Adorno’s essay also points toward later developments in his thought. In the summer semester of 1960, Adorno gave a lecture course under the title Philosophy and Sociology. Like the first paragraphs of the “Contribution,” the opening lectures rehearse arguments drawn from Hans Barth’s book, Truth and Ideology, which offers a genealogy of ideological critique. Yet unlike Barth’s book, the lecture series perched upon the scission and union of disciplines. Adorno noted in his introductory lecture that despite “exploring the difference between the sphere of philosophy and sociology, these disciplines are not merely antithetical but constitute a functional and dynamic unity.”[23]

The centerpiece of the lecture series casts the tendency of intellectual work to be separated into discrete sciences as a “division of intellectual labor.”[24] This position is borrowed from György Lukács’s essay, “Reification and the Class Consciousness of the Proletariat,” which states:

There is an even more monstrous intensification of the one-sided specialization which represents such a violation of man’s humanity. Marx’s comment on factory work that “the individual, himself divided, is transformed into the automatic mechanism of a partial labor” and is thus “crippled to the point of abnormality” is relevant here too. And it becomes all the more clear, the more elevated, advanced and ‘intellectual’ is the attainment by the division of labor.[25]

As labor is brought under the dominion of scientific management, intellectual work retreats into the bureaucratic management of the sciences. Through specialization, intellectual endeavors are integrated into a more general process of social disintegration. The 1960 lectures culminate with a comprehensive account of ideology, for “the theory of ideology or the sociology of knowledge is the area where [… philosophy and sociology], in spite of the separation imposed by the division of intellectual labor, clearly intersect with each other.”[26] The problem of ideology refers not only to the dethroning of metaphysics as queen of the sciences by the new “ruling role” played by sociology in marshalling a multitude of separate sciences, but to the very separation of the sciences in the name of a rationality that has renounced any binding universal claim in favor of partisan interest. Here a totality endures, but only an irrational one founded on abstractions that govern relations of exchange and equivalence between now isolated, partial modes of work. This was the same “totality” described by Mannheim’s “total ideology.” Yet, for Adorno, this whole, composed on the fractured edge of disciplinarity, could not be adequately captured even by the concept of ideology. Instead, thinking and acting through this fractured edge allowed the discovery of the material of social life stashed in seemingly abstract thought, as well as conceptuality (however false or partial) within the material dynamics of society.

A prominent mode of Marxist criticism of philosophy (set out in argument 2 above) saw philosophical problems as ciphered reflections of their social setting.[27] As such, the philosophical diremption of mind and body is read as an allegory for the division of intellectual and manual labor in the material processes of social production. Such an approach implies a complex relation, because philosophy is itself subject—as intellectual labor—to this schema. As Adorno writes,

These intellectual products originate within this [real historical] movement, and they perform their functions within it, too. They may stand in the service of particular interests, whether intentionally or not. Indeed, their very isolation, through the constitution of an intellectual sphere and its transcendence, is, at the same time, identified as a social consequence of the division of labor. This transcendence already justifies a divided society simply by virtue of its form. Participation in the eternal world of ideas becomes the preserve only of those who are privileged through their exemption from physical labor. Motifs of this kind, which resonate everywhere that ideology is discussed, have a certain concept; sociology, which wields this concept, stands in opposition to traditional philosophy.

Since Marx, critiques of the division of labor have been associated with an allegorical motif of the dissection of the body. Marx’s description of factory work, which Lukács cited, referenced a famous fable by Agrippa Menenius Lanatus which compared the elements of society to organs of a body, such that the Senate is its stomach.[28] As the division of labor recoils into the body, the head and hand are horrifically severed. However, these heads and hands are not simply physiological elements of the bodies of workers and bosses (although they are that too), but, as in Agrippa’s fable, constitute a monstrous anatomy of “the collective worker, who constitutes the living mechanism of manufacture.”[29]

Marx’s bodies are riven and recombined. Yet partisanship for one organ against the other causes hypertrophic deformation. While intellectual labor might be preserved for those not compelled to labor physically, their social separation produces their intellectual malady of one-sidedness in thought, and even the self-serving notion that thought is socially dominant. Meanwhile, so-called handwork is rarely devoid of intellect.[30] The head and the hand make bad allegories for the two great classes that constitute capitalist society in their antagonism, despite the claims of certain Marxist philosophies.[31] It is as little the case that the proletarian labors only by the hand as it is that capitalism is led by the capitalist intellect, as though the contingencies of profit-making were fully-fledged ideas blooming out of the bulbous heads of CEOs, and not a mere storm of opportunism backed by force, only sophistically justified in soothing concepts after the fact. Even language bears traces of the fact that the capitalist class rules by the hand: in words such as management, which like manipulation arises from the Latin manus; or the German term for trade, Handlung. Capitalism is a system ruled by force, albeit mediated through an objectified world. As if by projection the capitalist class identifies this force of the hand not as its own mechanism, but instead as the modus operandi of the working classes, as though their brutalization were their own doing! Meanwhile, the stultification of the mind under conditions of divided labor might, contrariwise, be projected such as to blame capitalism’s futility on the meager bourgeois intellect.

If, as the organizing principle of production, the division of labor decisively affects forms of thought (both judgment and prejudice), then Adorno saw these divisions valorized in the conclusions of “the sociology of knowledge.” In the “Contribution,” he recognizes this both in Scheler’s class-based typology of ideologies and in Pareto’s notion of “derivations,” which endure as lopped-off elements of a shattered characterology. Sociologists of knowledge become nothing more than anatomists picking apart the corpse of this social body, as well as the real bodies it contains. What is important for Adorno, though, is not the preference for the hand over the head, but the partiality of both as they are synthetically recombined. Within these ruptured and monstrously reconfigured bodies that constitute the capitalist productive process, another organ is decisive for ideology.

Adorno briefly examines an extraordinary speech by Napoleon, cited in a footnote in Pareto’s The Mind and Society. The Emperor proclaimed:

All the misfortunes that our beautiful France has been experiencing have to be ascribed to ‘ideology,’ to that cloudy metaphysics which goes ingeniously seeking first causes and would ground the legislation of the peoples upon them instead of adapting laws to what we know of the human heart and to the lessons of history. […] When a man is called upon to reorganize a state, he must follow principles that are for ever in conflict. History draws the picture of the human heart. The advantages and disadvantages of different systems of legislation have to be sought in history.[32]

If, by the late 19th century, ideological critique had become associated with Marxism, offering a basis on which to question the idealist deception that society is led by the mind, the deprecation of ideology also held a consistent place in bourgeois thought itself. However, bourgeois ideological critique forever contented itself with the correction of prejudice within the realm of thought alone, disregarding the more fundamental prejudice towards thought’s isolation. Nonetheless, the Marxists’ derogatory use of the term “ideology” (which Mannheim sought to prosecute) was borrowed directly from Napoleon. Yet Napoleon’s opposition was not just to ideology but, specifically, to the school of idéologues. While this speech dates from the immediate aftermath of the defeat of his Russian campaign in December 1812, it pointed back nearly a decade. By the end of the eighteenth century, idéologues occupied important positions in the Institute Nationale, of which Napoleon was a proud member. These thinkers soon became his critics as his rule became increasingly autocratic, and his ideas increasingly Christian. Napoleon responded by closing down the moral and political sciences department of the Institute in January 1803, hamstringing the idéologues’ political power.[33] Within a year, Napoleon had been crowned as Emperor, cementing the idéologues’ disfavor.[34]

The significance of Napoleon’s speech resides not in its institutional history, but in his astonishing image of the heart that historically reconciles conflicting principles. The division of labor in modernity, and its recoil into the dismembered bodies, cannot be resolved by Humpty-Dumpty style putting humanity back together again. However, Napoleon’s criticism points to a failure of any anatomical gaze that simply dissects, renouncing every view of the whole in favor of the part. Napoleon’s image might remind us of the theological problem in which the divine spirit and the body are reconciled by way of the mediating heart. If we indulge a media-theoretic reading, as appropriate to Paul’s evangelical writings, Christ’s gospel is love, its motion uniting body and soul. Paul also knew Agrippa’s fable, which Marx had cited, and wrote a version of his own:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect, whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.[35]

Unlike the loving heart of Jesus, the Napoleonic heart to which a new “enlightened” politics appeals is sclerotic. Immanent to the division of labor, it is as partial as the severed head or hand. This severed heart is the organ of the purest irrationalism not because it ceases to play the role of a ligature connecting spiritual and material life, but because it does so by force. Where it ought to represent the reconciliation between all other social organs, it represents only its own partisan interests, which it projects as though they were motivated by the entire body. These labors of the heart are no work of love; the social body that it ever-newly reconstitutes is less miraculously formed than monstrously shaped by history. While Adorno does not dwell on this bodily allegory in the “Contribution,” he made just this argument in Dialectic of Enlightenment:

Th[e] social character of intellectual forms is not, as Durkheim argues, an expression of social solidarity but evidence of the impenetrable unity of society and power. Power confers increased cohesion and strength on the social whole in which it is established. The division of labor, through which power manifests itself socially, serves the self-preservation of the dominated whole. But this necessarily turns the whole, as a whole, and the operation of its immanent reason, into a means of enforcing the particular interest. The power of all the members of society, to whom as individuals no other way is open, is constantly summated, through the division of labor imposed on them, in the realization of the whole, whose rationality is thereby multiplied over again. What is done to all by the few always takes the form of the subduing of individuals by the many: the oppression of society always bears the features of oppression by a collective. It is this unity of collectivity and power, and not the immediate social universal, solidarity, which is precipitated in intellectual forms.[36]

The heart, this powerful medium of politics, touches on the self-undoing of ideology as a progressive, rationalizing project: in the end, precisely because of ideology, people represent interests opposed to their own. There is no open marketplace of competing ideas, with free-floating intellectuals setting out their stalls, but a situation in which the strongest control the medium of exchange itself. In spite of their own interests, the weaker are compelled to adopt the “reason” of the stronger, however unreasonable such a situation is.

As for Napoleon’s reactionary turn, and his rapprochement with Christianity, Marx’s quip that “religion is […] the heart of a heartless world” hits the mark. This Napoleonic heart is not sated by universality or love, but where divine orders once were, it establishes profane-religious orders of a wholly modern type. Napoleon’s “historical picture of a human heart” revealed a new demagogic power of the media hypertrophied in society’s body. Where ideological critique once attempted to rationalize particular interests, Napoleon instantiated a new mode of ideology—pitched against the idéologues. In an age in which universality (of humanity, of freedom, of rights, of equality) was asserted by proclamation, ideological critique had offered a check on the authority of those proclaimers. From this perspective, opponents of ideology, such as the bellicose emperor who spoke in the name of universality, were shown to smuggle in a violent, particularistic rule. This purported universality exposed its own partiality precisely where it retaliated against those who criticized it.

The revelation of ideology at the heart of purported universality is, however, only half the story. Adorno refers to Helvétius’s remark that “Experience shows us that nearly all questions of morality and politics are decided not by reason but by force. If opinions rule the world, then in the long run it is the powerful that rule opinions.” However, Napoleon’s critique correctly accuses the idéologues of a disintegrative view that sees only in partial systems. In accounting for some underlying force of the part they forewent the truth of the whole. The synthetic power of the heart would reunify the perspective, in order to restore truth to it. Nonetheless, this Napoleonic salvo is what Adorno described elsewhere as “false reconciliation”; even where some essential truth is invoked (and the heart might be the very best allegorical symbol for this), it transpires as a new, powerful medium’s image of itself.  

Lukács had made a similar argument in History and Class Consciousness. His model for this new synthetic ideology was found in the classical aesthetics of Schiller, who presented the “living heart” otherwise obscured by prolix philosophy:

By extending the aesthetic principle far beyond the confines of aesthetics, by seeing it as the key to the solution of the question of the meaning of man’s existence in society, Schiller brings us back to the basic issue of classical philosophy. On the one hand, he recognizes that social life has destroyed man as man. On the other hand, he points to the principle whereby man having been socially destroyed, fragmented and divided between different partial systems is to be made whole again in thought.[37]

 Ideology in its synthesizing, reconciling form adopts the aestheticization of politics. In doing so, it plays a compensatory role, forming a religious element in a modernity for which religion proper is no longer justified. The mediatizing element of the bourgeois severed heart tends relentlessly towards the aesthetic sphere. Those ligatures between body and mind phantasmagorically produce a spectacle of solace veiling the antagonisms between the social body’s organs.

Bourgeois society established a class of specialist heart-workers,[38] of political operators, demagogues, and PR men. Their power is not derived from their miraculous work (lest we indulge conspiracy theories that see the evils of capitalism emanating from their evil hearts). Instead, power arises out of the capital that they possess, and which, as social objectivity, in turn possesses them. Moguls and politicians notwithstanding, capitalism’s greatest heart-worker remains the machinery of manufacture itself, preforming the world for circulation and creating a reality that cannot be overcome in the mind of the subject; at best these media operatives adopt this power as their own, transfiguring it into spiritual forms.

This introduces a deeper critique of ideology in both Marx and Adorno. If ideology allegorically presents interests in the disjecta membra of the social body, ideological critique nonetheless cleaves to the mind, allying with its power of the severed head. When ideological critique recognizes the failure of universality in particularistic genesis, it resolves to correct the matter in thought alone. Ideology reverts to idealism (Adorno remarks that for the idéologues, “consciousness determines existence”). Indeed, Adorno traced a historical trajectory from Plato’s Gorgias to the newest positivism in which “the antisophistic movement misuses its insight into such misconstructions of freewheeling thought […] in order to discredit thought, through thought.”[39] Counter to this idealist resolution, in the antagonism between the synthetic authoritarian medium and ideological critique, one can discover, albeit negatively, a need that endures: for a heart that would take up the fragments of the body and reconcile them without partisanship of its own. In doing so it would carry out a truly philosophical work, uniting the torn halves of theory and praxis, and transforming the world. Unlike ideology’s reversion to idealism, the materialism of such a heart is a communism that would free philosophy of its pretensions to abstraction and free the body from its subjection to brute force.

Experience against Totalitarianism

In the “Contribution,” Adorno argues that ideology does not truly occur “in situations ruled by bare, immediate relations of violence,” and that “ideology in the proper sense requires relations of power that are opaque, mediated, and to an extent milder.” Indeed, ideology emerges in societies of exchange and endures within social relations as representation. Bourgeois ideologies aestheticize these relations, cloaking the material processes of social production. Hence “ideology” popularly refers to spectacular processes that disguise the global division of labor and the expropriative brutalization of the great mass of humanity and nature amid a resplendent world of commodities.

Sensitivity to the question of appearance leads back to the eighteenth-century. For the idéologues—and this is a Platonic inheritance in all theories of false consciousness—the ground of ideology is a sensuous manifold in which interest is an element. Helvétius’s epistemology, following Condillac and other Lockean philosophers of sensibility, is immediate and pre-critical in this regard. For Kant, whose concern was the legitimacy of judgments, such a manifold required a transcendental synthesis, with the work of the categories preceding experience, while for Helvétius, ideas and their associated interests were already aspects of the sensible realm. Critical philosophy’s skepticism about the meaning of intuitions in themselves can be contrasted to the ideological notion that sensibility is itself charged with morality, interest, or power. To critical philosophy, the ideological manifold of given sensuous objects lacks binding force: however much they are charged with social and historical determination, the ideas addressed by the idéologues appear occasionalistic and without proper unity.

This seemingly minor epistemological antagonism plays an important role in Adorno’s assessment of ideology. If interest has a prejudicial function, it afflicts not only judgment but the entire realm of experience, which it reduces. This can be demonstrated by taking the prejudice of racism as an example. Racist prejudices stop us seeing people as people. It is not just that someone might be wrongly judged because of their color of their skin, but that they are not seen at all and what is seen instead are a set of false, irrationally rationalized categories. In a strong sense, prejudice supplants experience, delivering the pseudo-experience of ideology in its place. It should be noted that this does not actively explain classical questions of sociology, such as the sectoral racialization of labor. If ideology plays a part in these matters, it is to provide a justificatory logic by way of both judgment and experience. However, the example certainly demonstrates a significant shortcoming in the Kantian project, which sacrifices the philosophical critique of experience for the sake of legitimacy in judgment. After Kant, it was not until Hegel’s Phenomenology that experience (and its relationship to consciousness) was returned to the center of philosophical concerns. With Hegel, however, sensible immediacy arises not out of immediate intuition, but through mediation. As Adorno noted in an essay written around the same time as the “Contribution,”  

According to Hegel, there is nothing between heaven and earth that is not mediated, nothing, therefore, that does not contain, merely by being defined as something that exists, the reflection of its mere existence, a spiritual moment: “Imme­diacy itself is essentially mediated.”[40]

While Hegel shared with the idéologues the view that ideas compose the social objects that are founded in consciousness, he offered a corrective by placing the subject into the scene of social objectivity.[41] Thus the Kantian notion of the legitimate judgment is postponed through experiences of false intuitions in the search for a just judgment. For Hegel, the just judgment of Absolute knowing transpires as this very historical process of coming to know. As much as Hegelianism refuted the formalism of Kantian epistemology, it prosecuted any intuitive vision of ideology, since ideological critique’s recognition of the one-sidedness of its social object also leaves itself hopelessly one-sided.

Hegel’s description of the mediacy of the immediate reconciles dirempt fragments into a whole by showing that the partial interests recognized by ideological critique mutually constitute each other in antagonistic history. The guarantee of this medial whole is the historical experience of experience, a phenomenology not reducible to either category or datum, but motile in their mutual co-determination. The Hegelian heart, endlessly transforming in the shape of love, strains from partisanship into universality. This Hegelian resolution has its pitfalls. For as much as historical, social antagonisms can be unified in a process of spiritualization that reveals not the social fact of power but the social reality of historical movement, this introduces the threat of a blindness towards the possible partisanship of any proclaimed universality. The historical experience of false experience might, under ideological conditions, be transformed into the false experience of historical experience. As Adorno noted “some partial, particular and objective truth [could take] itself to be absolute, when of course it is not.”[42]

Nonetheless, when Adorno invoked ideology, he adhered to this dialectical line. Any truth revealed within prejudices by ideological analysis was not some abstract quantum of power imagined as some elemental natural force, but the dynamics of historical movement. Here the critique of ideology touches on a fundamental argument in Adornian metaphysics: that the “true” is not eternal, but instead is constituted in historical motions of becoming and passing away. Truth is not some timeless kernel, like the Platonic idea, veiled beneath a world of perpetually changing appearances. Any such claim was “objectively and fatally challenged by Hegel’s theory of universal mediation.” In his final lecture on Philosophy and Sociology, Adorno responds to “[t]he idea, which was first articulated by Plato […] that only that which directly or immediately ‘is’, or that to which everything that ‘becomes’ can ultimately be traced back, can properly raise the claim to truth” by stating that “the idea that nothing which has become is really capable of truth is the primal phenomenon, the very prototype, of reifying thought, for which truth must be always tied to what remains or persists”—thus admonishing his students to “relinquish the belief that the truth cannot have ‘become.’”[43]

Ideological critique therefore requires a revision: in a world composed of synthetic media, instead of revealing some static quantity of force inherent within the world’s sensuous manifold, it turns out to be obdurate appearances and categories, naturalized into eternity, that cloud great transformations in the very material world that produces them. Understood this way, ideology has a positive aspect touching on truth. However much ideological critique relativizes the legitimacy of judgments, its investigation into social genesis produces a historical form of truth appropriate to society. As the “Contribution” states:

As consciousness that is objectively necessary and at the same time false, as the conflation of the true and untrue, differing as much from the whole truth as from barefaced lies, ideology belongs not merely to modernity, but to the developed urban market economy.

Although he embraced the Hegelian line, Adorno saw these totalities as false in actuality. However, synthetic totalities endure in his philosophy, marking states of untruth from which the truth might be gleaned. Vulgar readings of Adorno, which take phrases like “total context of delusion” to refer to a world of absolute immanence so closed in by deception that even registering the falsity in ideology has become impossible, have missed point. In a world governed by profit and false equivalence, everything and everyone partakes in the greatest irrationality. However, the fact that synthetic totalities are produced in the media of falsehoods gives a perspective on what the truth would otherwise be (or what it otherwise would have been.) The truth is not some external, eternal measure against the historical dynamic, but becomes as its element. Adorno’s unresolved resolution to the problem of ideology denies either the discovery of some true thing-in-itself beneath the surface (the claim of fundamental ontologies) or of some true legislative relation between things (the claim of media theories), but instead insists on thinking the thing and the relation in their interpenetration. The tendencies to isolate one or the other both disregard truth’s historical complex.

Despite this, Adorno saw these two tendencies—to isolate either the thing or the relation—not only as truncated thoughts in the minds of his philosophical opponents, but as intellectual manifestations historically arising out of the disintegration of nineteenth century bourgeois culture, from the decadent fin-de-siècle, through the rise of European fascism, to its defeat across Northern Europe during the Second World War and the establishment of post-war liberalism. Both tendencies produced ends to the problem of ideology. In the case of fascism, Adorno compared the notion of force set into a manifold of experience implicit in theories of ideology to a world governed by immediate force:

If, however, one wanted to criticized the so-called idelogy of National Socialism, one would lapse into an impotent naïveté. Not only does the standard of Hitler and Rosenberg as authors scoff at every criticism; their lack of standards, the triumph over which counts only as the lowliest of pleasures, is a symptom of a state of affairs for which the concept of ideology as necessary false consciousness simply no longer immediately applies. No objective spirit is reflected in such a body of thought, rather it is contrived manipulatively, as a mere means of domination; fundamentally no-one expected that it would be believed or taken seriously, not even its authors. They refer to power with a wink: once you use your reason against it, you will see where you end up.

If ideological critique becomes defunct in societies under fascistic rule, this was a result of the decoupling of power from representation. Fascism was understood as a positive ontology of reified power (epitomized in the cult of Blut und Boden) in which social relations were reduced to bloody domination, reducing its victims, too, to thingliness. However, this fascistic end of ideology no longer straightforwardly applied to 1950s Germany. The resurgence of European liberalism, in an American model, demanded a renewed critique of ideology, since this society’s promise of liberty seemed substantial.

Nonetheless, in the new monopoly capitalism Adorno saw a tendency whereby the intensification of media power might have a similar effect on the theory of ideology as totalitarian violence, albeit on the side of the relation and not the thing. The final sections of the “Contribution” offer a bleak provisional discussion “with the aim of giving you some indications of the concrete contemporary form of ideology.” The world described is increasingly totalized. Infinitely concentrated economic interests undergird proliferating media aimed at stupefying people, categorically preforming all social agents in order to annihilate their capacities for critique and action. If sociology set out to discover the interests and beliefs of the people who constitute a society, and to describe these interests’ social origins, people are now reduced to sociological data, which is instrumentalized in the services of an increasingly manipulative media that takes the form of an economic Napoleon.[44] This media apparatus feeds these conclusions of “communications research” back into the development of mechanisms of social manipulation, with the aim of the “synthetic identification of the masses with norms and relations.”

Within this history of the early twentieth century, Adorno discovered the consequences of the Hegelian critique of ideological critique (that this project results only in an insuperable pile of partial views, culminating in the power of partisan fascist power), while also admitting an ideological critique of Hegelianism (that its proposed universality might turn out to be a misrecognized particularity, which in the guise of encompassing corporate media represents the monopolist class). The final passages of the “Contribution” trace this dialectic through a new appeal to experience in the realm of art. Adorno compares the experiences that conditioned the heroic age of modernism in the 1910s to those of the 1950s. He describes a manifest “weakening” in the intellectual realm, such that the mind, under social compulsions, has become “ephemeral, thin, impotent.” It demonstrates its degradation aesthetically. This weakening is the experience of experience during a period in which all experience is being reduced to the pseudo-experiences of ideological categories, seamlessly forming a new media reality. If little is left of experience, this experience of experience in decline can perceive itself to be false in the motion of historical reflection. The historical experience of the reduction of experience to preformation and prejudice, frozen into aesthetics, describes, at last, a fulcrum of truth upon which some benighted resistance might turn.

  1. [1] Plato, “Gorgias,” in Plato: The Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), 808-810.
  2. [2] See: Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Roger Crisp (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). For a commentary, see: Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 12-13.
  3. [3] See: Immanuel Kant, “What is Enlightenment,” in The Political Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 54-60.
  4. [4] G.W.F. Hegel, Preface to the Second Edition, The Science of Logic, trans. George di Giovanni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 12.
  5. [5] Hegel, The Science of Logic, 15.
  6. [6] Hegel, The Science of Logic, 21-22.
  7. [7] In his 1931 inaugural lecture, Adorno discussed the absurd tendency of philosophy to culminate in a situation prior to judgment, such that judgment itself is usurped by an investigation only into logical possibility appended to experience. “The Actuality of Philosophy,” Telos 31 (1977), 124-125.
  8. [8] For an excellent discussion of Horkheimer’s critique of Mannheim, see: John Abromeit, Max Horkheimer and the Foundations of the Frankfurt School (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 143-150.
  9. [9] Stefan Müller-Doohm, Adorno: A Biography, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge: Polity, 2005), 144 and 154-159.
  10. [10] Adorno, letter to Max Horkheimer, 24/11/1934, in Adorno-Horkheimer Briefwechsel, vol. 1, (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2003), 270-278.
  11. [11] Adorno, letter to Walter Benjamin, 6/11/1934, in Adorno and Benjamin, The Complete Correspondence, ed. Henri Lonitz, trans. Nicholas Walker (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 55.
  12. [12] For a further discussion, see: Martin Jay, “The Frankfurt School’s Critique of Karl Mannheim and the Sociology of Knowledge,” Telos 20 (1974), 72-89.
  13. [13] Adorno’s American years saw work on several distinct projects: Dialectic of Enlightenment with Max Horkheimer, Minima Moralia, The Philosophy of New Music, studies on radio, and The Authoritarian Personality. On returning to Germany, he reworked materials developed during the 1930s, which had no outlet for publication during Nazi rule, such as his monographs on Wagner and Husserl, as well as the Mannheim essay.
  14. [14] “The Actuality of Philosophy,” 130-131.
  15. [15] Horkheimer, “A New Concept of Ideology,” in Between Philosophy and Social Science, trans. G. Frederick Hunter, Matthew S. Kramer, and John Torpey (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993),130-131.
  16. [16] Letter to Walter Benjamin, 6/11/1934, in Adorno and Benjamin Correspondence, 55.
  17. [17] Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia, (Oxford: Routledge, 1997), 238-239.
  18. [18] Benjamin Snow [pseud. Susan Buck-Morss], “Introduction to Adorno’s ‘The Actuality of Philosophy,’” Telos 31 (1977), 117-118.
  19. [19] Adorno, “The Actuality of Philosophy,” 131.
  20. [20] Ibid., 124.
  21. [21] Ibid., 126.
  22. [22] Ibid., 132
  23. [23] Adorno, Philosophy and Sociology, ed. Dirk Braustein, trans. Nicholas Walker (Cambridge: Polity, 2022), 35.
  24. [24]Philosophy and Sociology, Lecture 9, 93-103. For an earlier version of this argument see the fragment titled “Philosophy and the Division of Labor,” in Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 201-203.
  25. [25] Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, trans. Rodney Livingstone (London: Merlin, 1971), 99.
  26. [26] Philosophy and Sociology, 93.
  27. [27] This mode of criticism can be found in Marx’s own work of the 1840s, particularly The Holy Family and The German Ideology, which seek not only to correct the bad abstractness and residual religiosity of the Young Hegelians with materialism, but to expose this abstractness and religiosity as grounded in the real historical situation of philosophy. This argument was repopularized in Lukács’ description of “the antinomies of bourgeois thought.”
  28. [28] Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes, (London: Penguin, 1976), 481-482. The reference here is to a fable reported in Plutarch’s “Life of Caius Marcius Coriolanus”; see Plutarch, Plutarch’s Lives, vol 4, trans. Bernadotte Perrin (London: Loeb, 1959), 131. An earlier account of the dissection and monstrous recomposition of the body in Marx can be found in the 1844 Manuscripts.
  29. [29] Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 459.
  30. [30] The description of the division of the body in factory work in Chapter 14 of Capital, vol. 1, corresponds directly to the famous “fragment on machines” in the Grundrisse, where Marx describes the processes of manual production as embodying a “general intellect” [allgemeines Wissen], perhaps better translated as “universal knowledge.” Grundrisse, trans. Martin Nikolaus (London: Penguin, 1973), 706. By the time the passage was redrafted, this phrase was exchanged for the image of the “collective working organism” (481).
  31. [31] See: Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Intellectual and Manual Labour, trans. Martin Sohn-Rethel (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1978). This study develops a metacritique of philosophy in which metaphysical problems are understood as ciphers of social ones. However, Sohn-Rethel perpetually commits the error of metabásis eis állo génos, such that ideological and philosophical allegories of minds and bodies are reduced to the real minds and bodies of humanity that they are supposed to represent. Despite the materialist intent, all those bodies find themselves handily transfigured into adornments of classical philosophy!
  32. [32] Vilfredo Pareto, The Mind and Society, trans. Andrew Buongiorno and Arthur Livingston (New York: Dover, 1935), 1245-1246.
  33. [33] See: Hans Barth, Ideology and Truth, trans. Frederic Lilge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 8-16, and Charles Hunter van Duzer, The Contribution of the Ideologues to French Revolutionary Thought (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1935).
  34. [34] The issue of Le Moniteur Universel in which his speech was published gives a flavor of this continued culture. The majority of its pages are dedicated to an art-historical article on curule chairs, which, after their discovery in Pompeii and Herculaneum, became iconic when Napoleon, drawing on the image of Roman emperors, commissioned one for his imperial throne.
  35. [35] Corinthians, 12:12-30, New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition.
  36. [36] Dialectic of Enlightenment, 16.
  37. [37] Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, 139, emphasis in the original.
  38. [38] Thank you to Anne Boyer for this term
  39. [39] Adorno, The Jargon of Authenticity, trans. Knut Tarnowski and Frederic Will (Oxford: Routledge, 2003), 45.
  40. [40] Adorno, Hegel: Three Studies, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (Cambridge, MA, and London: MIT Press, 1993), 57..
  41. [41] Gillian Rose’s monumental study Hegel contra Sociology (London: The Athlone Press, 1981) develops this argument.
  42. [42] Philosophy and Sociology, 203.
  43. [43] Philosophy and Sociology, 200-201.
  44. [44] This instrumentalization of the “results” of separate scientific disciplines is presaged by Adorno in “The Actuality of Philosophy,” 126.