, Volume 40, Issue 3, pp 275-306
Date: 13 Jul 2006

Adorno vs. Levinas: Evaluating points of contention

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Although Adorno and Levinas share many arguments, I attempt to sharpen and evaluate their disagreements. Both held extreme and seemingly opposite views of art, with Adorno arguing that art presents modernity’s highest order of truth and Levinas denouncing it as shameful idolatry. Considering this striking difference brings to light fundamental substantive and methodological incompatibilities between them. Levinas’ assertion of the transcendence of the face should be understood as the most telling point of departure between his and Adorno’s critiques of instrumental reason. I attempt to explain why Levinas believed this move was justifiable and how Adorno would understand Levinas’ notion of illeity as a cultural byproduct and a form of dogmatism. Adorno’s historical and sociological account of the disenchantment of the world and the destruction of aura within a culture fully administered by scientific rationality and economic reductionism sharply contrasts to Levinas’ transcendental phenomenology, and I argue that Adorno’s thoroughgoing refusal to constrain dialectical reflection is ultimately more compelling.

This paper benefited from exchanges with Jay Bernstein, Bob Scharff, Gregg Horowitz, David Wood, Max Pensky, Scott Bakker, and critics of the earlier version of this argument presented at the 2004 meeting of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. I also thank unnamed reviewers from Continental Philosophy Review for their generous and thoughtful comments and the members of the University of New Hampshire Center for Humanities for their financial support.