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Eidetic intuition as physiognomics: rethinking Adorno’s phenomenological heritage

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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.

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  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from his book Against Epistemology (1956), Adorno’s most extensive confrontation with Husserl can be found in his yet unpublished lectures: Probleme der zeitgenössischen Erkenntnistheorie (1951) and Darstellung und Kritik der reinen Phänomenologie (1956).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. For some first significant forreys into this field, see Kramer and Wilcock (1999) and Wolff (2006).

  3. Kaufmann (1940: 125).

  4. Patočka (1977: 154).

  5. Tengelyi (2012: 48).

  6. Bedorf (2017: 333).

  7. Patočka (1977: 151).

  8. GS 5: 102; EN: 96.

  9. Windelband (1911: 145).

  10. GS 5: 103; EN: 97.

  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. See Heidegger (2004: 38f).

  13. Husserl (2001: 312).

  14. Geiger (1925: 36).

  15. Husserl (2012: 213).

  16. Tengelyi (2012: 48).

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

  18. Husserl (1983, §15 and 75).

  19. Husserl (2012: 214).

  20. Husserl (2012: 214).

  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. Cf. Husserl (2005: 659f).

  23. Husserl (2012: 216).

  24. Husserl (1982: 72).

  25. Heidegger (2004: 38f).

  26. GS 5: 126; EN: 120.

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

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

  29. See also Ferencz-Flatz and Staiti (2018).

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

  31. Cf. Derrida (2003: 140).

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

  33. Husserl (1973: 339f).

  34. Schuetz (1959).

  35. Lohmar (1998).

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

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

  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. Lavater (1775: 13).

  40. Spengler (1926: 91f).

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

  42. Adorno (2006: 505).

  43. See Babich (2014) and Kane (2016).

  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. “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. Adorno (1940: 12).

  47. Adorno (1984).

  48. Husserl (1970: 356).

  49. GS 5: 219; EN: 216.

  50. GS 5: 219; EN: 216.

  51. Husserl (1973: 57).

  52. GS 8: 320.

  53. GS 8: 320.

  54. Adorno (2006: 138).

  55. Adorno (2006: 138).

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

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

  58. See especially Husserl (2008: 423f).

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

  60. GS 5: 160; EN: 156.

  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. OD: 284; EN: 202.

  63. OD: 283; EN: 201f.

  64. OD: 283; EN: 201f.

  65. GS 8: 315.

  66. Adorno (2017: 129).

  67. GS 10.2: 530.

  68. GS 8: 552.

  69. OD: 284; EN: 202.

  70. GS 5: 126; EN: 120.

  71. OD: 284. EN: 202.

  72. GS 6: 87; EN: 82.

  73. Husserl (1986: 248).

  74. Adorno (2006: 111).

  75. OD: 284. EN: 203.

  76. Adorno (2017: 41).


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

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Ferencz-Flatz, C. Eidetic intuition as physiognomics: rethinking Adorno’s phenomenological heritage. Cont Philos Rev 52, 361–380 (2019).

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