Eidetic intuition as physiognomics: rethinking Adorno’s phenomenological heritage


Adorno’s intensive criticism of phenomenology is well known, his entire early period during the 1920s and 1930s being marked by various polemical engagements with Husserl. This engagement finds its peak during his work at his second dissertation project in Oxford, a dissertation that was supposed to systematicaly expose the antinomies of phenomenological thinking while particularly focusing on Husserl’s concept of “eidetic intuition” or “intuition of essences” (Wesensschau). The present paper will take this criticism as its starting point in focusing on two highly specific aspects of Adorno’s interpretation: the opposition between eidetic intuition and the traditional theories of abstraction and its relationship to genetic phenomenology. In light of this criticism I subsequently show: 1. that, in his later work, Adorno’s understanding of eidetic intuition undergoes a significant revaluation; 2. that he reappropriates key elements of the eidetic method in his own procedure of physiognomic analysis, and 3. that his account of physiognomics is relevant for addressing the aforementioned incongruities of phenomenological eidetics itself.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. 1.

    Aside from his book Against Epistemology (1956), Adorno’s most extensive confrontation with Husserl can be found in his yet unpublished lectures: Probleme der zeitgenössischen Erkenntnistheorie (1951) and Darstellung und Kritik der reinen Phänomenologie (1956). He also convened at least two research seminars on Husserl during the 1950 s with Horkheimer.

  2. 2.

    For some first significant forreys into this field, see Kramer and Wilcock (1999) and Wolff (2006).

  3. 3.

    Kaufmann (1940: 125).

  4. 4.

    Patočka (1977: 154).

  5. 5.

    Tengelyi (2012: 48).

  6. 6.

    Bedorf (2017: 333).

  7. 7.

    Patočka (1977: 151).

  8. 8.

    GS 5: 102; EN: 96.

  9. 9.

    Windelband (1911: 145).

  10. 10.

    GS 5: 103; EN: 97.

  11. 11.

    See manuscript M III 1 II 6/2-12, to be published as Text 11 in the second volume (Ergänzungsband) of the new edition of Ideas II, currently prepared at the Husserl Archives in Cologne. I am grateful to the director of the Archive, Dieter Lohmar, for granting me permission to study this material.

  12. 12.

    See Heidegger (2004: 38f).

  13. 13.

    Husserl (2001: 312).

  14. 14.

    Geiger (1925: 36).

  15. 15.

    Husserl (2012: 213).

  16. 16.

    Tengelyi (2012: 48).

  17. 17.

    For a condensed presentation of this, see Adorno (1940).

  18. 18.

    Husserl (1983, §15 and 75).

  19. 19.

    Husserl (2012: 214).

  20. 20.

    Husserl (2012: 214).

  21. 21.

    Adorno himself also criticizes the notion of eidetic singularity by showing that, since both the concepts of “eidetic singularity” and “noema” designate the concrete object without its empirical position, the difference between eidetic and transcendental reduction tends to get obscured. See GS 5: 119f.; EN: 112f. This is a quite common confusion in early phenomenology, traceable for instance in Paul Linke’s works (Linke 1916). Though Linke is a marginal figure in the phenomenological camp, being explicitly disconsidered by Husserl (1986: 226), his conception was an important influence for Benjamin and perhaps indirectly for Adorno. See for this Ferencz-Flatz (2019).

  22. 22.

    Cf. Husserl (2005: 659f).

  23. 23.

    Husserl (2012: 216).

  24. 24.

    Husserl (1982: 72).

  25. 25.

    Heidegger (2004: 38f).

  26. 26.

    GS 5: 126; EN: 120.

  27. 27.

    GS 5: 123f.; EN: 117f.

  28. 28.

    GS 5: 108f.; EN: 102f.

  29. 29.

    See also Ferencz-Flatz and Staiti (2018).

  30. 30.

    “Das Substrat der Wesensschau ist die zweite Natur.” Theodor W. Adorno Archiv, Frankfurt a. Main, Ts 2959ff.

  31. 31.

    Cf. Derrida (2003: 140).

  32. 32.

    See also Lohmar (2003) and Ferencz-Flatz (2014).

  33. 33.

    Husserl (1973: 339f).

  34. 34.

    Schuetz (1959).

  35. 35.

    Lohmar (1998).

  36. 36.

    See especially Husserl (1970: 353–378). See also Hacking (2010) and Ferencz-Flatz (2017).

  37. 37.

    See for instance Husserl (2008: 219f). See also Ferencz-Flatz (2018).

  38. 38.

    Further on, it is questionable whether geometry and phenomenology indeed make a similar use of fantasy. In his Against Epistemology, Adorno adresses the methodological role of phantasy in phenomenology on several occasions, criticizing “the reified and rigid view of fantasy as a mere discovery of objects distilled from the factical which should have no advantage over the factical except the fact that they are not.” (GS 5: 129; EN: 123). An extended discussion of this criticism would exceed the purpose of the present paper.

  39. 39.

    Lavater (1775: 13).

  40. 40.

    Spengler (1926: 91f).

  41. 41.

    “Gesellschaftliche Erkenntnis, die nicht mit dem physiognomischen Blick anhebt, verarmt unerträglich.” (GS 8: 315).

  42. 42.

    Adorno (2006: 505).

  43. 43.

    See Babich (2014) and Kane (2016).

  44. 44.

    For sure, one could be tempted to regard Walter Benjamin as a more plausible source both for this concept and for Adorno’s philosophical understanding of the relationship between individuality and generality. However, there are at least three points which should be taken into account when making that claim: 1. Several passages, both in Adorno’s early radio physiognomics, as well as in his later works and lectures, explicitly put this concept, developed in the immediate aftermath of his work on Husserl, in relationship with phenomenology. I have quoted these passages throughout the paper and in their view it is fairly undoubtful that Adorno indeed saw a relevant connection here. 2. Though Benjamin’s speculative theory of the salvation of the phenomena by means of the idea, developed in his book on the Baroque German Drama, and its developments in his later work indeed has some resemblances with Adorno’s own conception of singular abstraction, this is nevertheless not really what Benjamin’s concept of physiognomy originally refers to and it doesn’t overlap with his later use of the term either. Benjamin was no doubt an influence for Adorno, but it is nevertheless safe to say that Adorno doesn’t borrow his concept of “physiognomics” from Benjamin, all the more since Adorno’s own concept is employed in an entirely different context, namely primarily his methodological confrontations with empirical sociology in the 1940s and 1960s. 3. One could even show that Adorno’s early interpretation of Benjamin’s aforementioned speculative methodological solution to the problem of individuality and generality, as well as his precise understanding of Benjamin’s “micrologic” approach themselves bear visible traces of his advanced confrontation with phenomenology. Thus, Adorno, for instance, explicitly interprets Benjamin’s method in the Baroque-book as a thought-experimental procedure (GS 1: 335) much in line with the common reading of eidetic variation at the time (cf. Kracauer 1922: 88f). For a more detailed account of these issues, see also Ferencz-Flatz (2019).

  45. 45.

    “Einmal ist Ideation wahlverwandt der Ideologie, der Erschleichung von Unmittelbarkeit durchs Vermittelte, die es mit der Autorität des absoluten, dem Subjekt einspruchslos evidenten Ansichseins bekleidet. Andererseits nennt Wesensschau den physiognomischen Blick auf geistige Sachverhalte.” (GS 6: 89; EN: 82).

  46. 46.

    Adorno (1940: 12).

  47. 47.

    Adorno (1984).

  48. 48.

    Husserl (1970: 356).

  49. 49.

    GS 5: 219; EN: 216.

  50. 50.

    GS 5: 219; EN: 216.

  51. 51.

    Husserl (1973: 57).

  52. 52.

    GS 8: 320.

  53. 53.

    GS 8: 320.

  54. 54.

    Adorno (2006: 138).

  55. 55.

    Adorno (2006: 138).

  56. 56.

    Husserl (2008: 10f). For Husserl’s concepts of “apperception” and “appresentation,” see Holenstein (1972:132–166) and Dwyer (2007).

  57. 57.

    Husserl (2008: 411). See also Ferencz-Flatz (2012).

  58. 58.

    See especially Husserl (2008: 423f).

  59. 59.

    GS 5: 149f.; EN: 144f.

  60. 60.

    GS 5: 160; EN: 156.

  61. 61.

    “Als Erfahrung des Gewordenen in dem was vermeintlich bloß ist, wäre Ideation fast das genaue Gegenteil dessen, wofür man sie verwendet, nicht gläubige Hinnahme von Sein, sondern Kritik am Sein als einem Scheinenden.” (OD: 284; EN: 202).

  62. 62.

    OD: 284; EN: 202.

  63. 63.

    OD: 283; EN: 201f.

  64. 64.

    OD: 283; EN: 201f.

  65. 65.

    GS 8: 315.

  66. 66.

    Adorno (2017: 129).

  67. 67.

    GS 10.2: 530.

  68. 68.

    GS 8: 552.

  69. 69.

    OD: 284; EN: 202.

  70. 70.

    GS 5: 126; EN: 120.

  71. 71.

    OD: 284. EN: 202.

  72. 72.

    GS 6: 87; EN: 82.

  73. 73.

    Husserl (1986: 248).

  74. 74.

    Adorno (2006: 111).

  75. 75.

    OD: 284. EN: 203.

  76. 76.

    Adorno (2017: 41).


  1. Adorno, Theodor Wiesengrund. 1940. Husserl and the Problem of Idealism. The Journal of Philosophy 37(1): 5–18.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Adorno, Theodor Wiesengrund. 1984. The Essay as Form (English trans: Hullot-Kentor, B. and Will, F.). New German Critique 32: 151–171.

  3. Adorno, Theodor Wiesengrund. 2003a. Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 1–20. Frankfurt a. Main: Suhrkamp (cited as GS).

    Google Scholar 

  4. Adorno, Theodor Wiesengrund. 2003b. Negative Dialektik. Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 6. Frankfurt a. Main: Suhrkamp (cited as GS 6) (English trans: Ashton, E. B.). Negative Dialectics. London and New York: Routledge. 2004 (cited as EN).

  5. Adorno, Theodor Wiesengrund. 2003c. Zur Metakritik der Erkenntnistheorie. Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 5. Frankfurt a. Main: Suhrkamp (cited as GS 5) (English trans: W. Domingo). Against Epistemology: A Metacritique. Malden: Polity. 2013 (cited as EN).

  6. Adorno, Theodor Wiesengrund. 2006. Current of Music. Elements of a Radio Theory. Frankfurt a. Main: Suhrkamp.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Adorno, Theodor Wiesengrund. 2008. Ontologie und Dialektik 1960/61. Frankfurt a. Main: Suhrkamp (cited as OD) (English trans: Walker, N.). Ontology and Dialectics 1960/61. Cambridge: Polity. 2019 (cited as EN).

  8. Adorno, Theodor Wiesengrund. 2017. Einleitung in die Soziologie (1968). Frankfurt a. Main: Suhrkamp.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Babich, Babette. 2014. Adorno’s Radio Phenomenology: Technical Reproduction, Physiognomy and Music. Philosophy and Social Criticism 40(1): 1–40.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Bedorf, Thomas. 2017. Kritische Theorie. In Husserl Handbuch. Leben-Werk-Wirkung, ed. Sebastian Luft and Maren Wehrle, 332–336. Stuttgart: Metzler.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Derrida, Jacques. 2003. The Problem of Genesis in Husserl’s Philosophy (English trans: Hobson, M.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  12. Dwyer, Daniel. 2007. Husserl’s Appropriation of the Psychological Concepts of Apperception and Attention. Husserl Studies 23(2): 83–118.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Ferencz-Flatz, Christian. 2012. Objects With a Past. Husserl on ‘Ad-memorizing Apperceptions’. Continental Philosophy Review 45(2): 171–188.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Ferencz-Flatz, Christian. 2014. A Phenomenology of Automatism. Habit and Situational Typification in Husserl. Phenomenology and Mind 6: 65–83.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Ferencz-Flatz, Christian. 2017. Zur geschichtlichen Wende der genetischen Phänomenologie. Eine Interpretation der Beilage III der Krisis. Husserl Studies 33(2): 99–126.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Ferencz-Flatz, Christian. 2018. Das Experiment bei Husserl. Zum Verhältnis von Empirie und Eidetik in der Phänomenologie. Philosophisches Jahrbuch 125(2): 170–198.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Ferencz-Flatz, Christian. 2019. Edmund Husserl. Das Wesen der Phänomenologie. In Entwendungen. Walter Benjamin und seine Quellen, ed. Jessica Nitsche and Nadine Werner, 199–219. München: Fink.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Ferencz-Flatz, Christian, and Andrea Staiti. 2018. Editors’ Introduction: Notes on a Troubled Reception History. Studia Phaenomenologica 18: 11–30.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Geiger, Moritz. 1925. Phänomenologische Ästhetik. Zeitschrift für Ästhetik und allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft. Zweiter Kongreß für Ästhethik und allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft Berlin, 16–18. Oktober 1924, pp. 29–42.

  20. Hacking, Ian. 2010. Husserl on the Origins of Geometry. In Science and the Life-World: Essays on Husserl’s ‘Crisis of European Sciences’, ed. David Hyder and Hans-Jorg Rheinberger, 64–82. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Heidegger, Martin. 2004. The Phenomenology of Religious Life (English trans: Fritsch, M., Gosetti-Ferencei, J.A.). Bloomington: IU Press.

  22. Holenstein, Elmar. 1972. Phänomenologie der Assoziation. Zu Struktur und Funktion eines Grundprinzips der passiven Genesis bei E. Husserl. The Hague: Kluwer.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Husserl, Edmund. 1970. The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology (English trans: Carr, D.). Evanston: NU Press.

  24. Husserl, Edmund. 1973. Experience and Judgment (English trans: Churchill, J. S., Ameriks, K.). London: Routledge and Keagan.

  25. Husserl, Edmund. 1982. Cartesian Meditations (English trans: Cairns, D.). The Hague: Nijhoff.

  26. Husserl, Edmund. 1983. Ideas pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy. First Book: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology (English trans: Kersten, F.). Den Haag: Nijhoff.

  27. Husserl, Edmund. 1986. Aufsätze und Vorträge. 1911–1921. Den Haag: Martinus Nijhoff.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Husserl, Edmund. 2001. Logical Investigations, vol. 1 (English trans: Findley, J.). London/New York: Routledge.

  29. Husserl, Edmund. 2005. Phantasy, Image Consciousness and Memory (1898–1925) (English trans: Brough, J. B.). Dordrecht: Springer.

  30. Husserl, Edmund. 2008. Die Lebenswelt. Auslegungen der vorgegebenen Welt und ihrer Konstitution. Texte aus dem Nachlass (1916–1937). Dordrecht: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Husserl, Edmund. 2012. Zur Lehre vom Wesen und zur Methode der eidetischen Variation. Texte aus dem Nachlass (1891–1935). Dordrecht: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  32. Kane, Brian. 2016. Phenomenology, Physiognomy, and the Radio Voice. New German Critique 43(3): 91–112.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Kaufmann, Fritz. 1940. Husserl and the Problem of Idealism’ by Th.W. Adorno. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 1(1): 123–125.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Kracauer, Siegfried. 1922. Soziologie als Wissenschaft. Eine erkenntnistheoretische Untersuchung. Dresden: Sybillen.

    Google Scholar 

  35. Kramer, Andreas, and Evelyn Wilcock. 1999. A preserve for professional philosophers’ Adornos Husserl-Dissertation 1934–37 und ihr Oxforder Kontext. Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 73(1): 115–161.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Lavater, Johann Caspar. 1775. Physiognomische Fragmente, zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntniß und Menschenliebe, vol. 1. Leipzig/Winterthur: Weidmanns & Co.

    Google Scholar 

  37. Linke, Paul Ferdinand. 1916. Das Recht der Phänomenologie. Eine Auseinandersetzung mit Th. Elsenhans. Kant-Studien 21: 163–221.

    Google Scholar 

  38. Lohmar, Dieter. 1998. Erfahrung und kategoriales Denken. Hume, Kant und Husserl über vorprädikative Erfahrung und prädikative Erkenntnis. Dordrecht: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  39. Lohmar, Dieter. 2003. Husserl’s Type and Kant’s Schemata: Systematic Reasons for Their Correlation or Identity. In The New Husserl. A Critical Reader, ed. Don Welton, 93–124. Bloomington: IUP.

    Google Scholar 

  40. Patočka, Jan. 1977. The Husserlian Doctrine of Eidetic Intuition and its Recent Critics. In Edmund Husserl: Expositions and Appraisals, ed. Frederick Elliston and Peter McCormick, 150–159. London: University of Notre Dame.

    Google Scholar 

  41. Schuetz, Alfred. 1959. Type and Eidos in Husserl’s Late Philosophy. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 20(2): 147–165.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Spengler, Oswald. 1926. The Decline of the West. Form and Actuality (English trans: Atkinson, Ch. F.). New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

  43. Tengelyi, László. 2012. Negative Dialektik als geistige Erfahrung? Zu Adornos Auseinandersetzung mit Phänomenologie und Ontologie. Phänomenologische Forschungen 2012: 47–65.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Windelband, Wilhelm. 1911. Präludien, vol. 2. Tübingen: Mohr.

    Google Scholar 

  45. Wolff, Ernst. 2006. From Phenomenology to Critical Theory: The Genesis of Adorno’s Critical Theory from His Reading of Husserl. Philosophy and Social Criticism 32(5): 555–572.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


This work was funded by CNCS-UEFISCDI (PN-III-P1-1.1-TE-2016-0307).

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Christian Ferencz-Flatz.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Ferencz-Flatz, C. Eidetic intuition as physiognomics: rethinking Adorno’s phenomenological heritage. Cont Philos Rev 52, 361–380 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11007-019-09477-6

Download citation


  • Adorno
  • Husserl
  • Eidetic intuition
  • Physiognomics
  • Genetic phenomenology