Adorno’s Critique of Existentialism

Kierkegaard hoped that agape, or universal love, could be achieved through transcendental inner reflection and commitment. He believed it could be accomplished through the subject in her radical inwardness, a radical inwardness that aimed to liberate the worldly limitations grounding one’s love to particulars. This was the only way Kierkegaard could think of transcending the historical, material conditions constraining love to individuals in one’s life. It was the only way he could replace existing love-relations, like the one he had with his fiancé before breaking off their marriage, with a genuine experience of religious, transcendental love. The only way love could be universal involved transcending existing, historical constraints in order to become eternal, universal, and absolute, and the means of accomplishing this was through the transcendental nature of one’s divine subjectivity. In actuality, so argues Adorno, the day-to-day activity of internalized reflection in search of universal love—individualistic reflection in an isolated life—itself creates the conditions that prevent one from actually loving others. In Hegelian terms, agape remains abstract or non-actual. When any love strives to be actualized, it does so in direct, real human relations with subjects—not as a relation with “all humans equally or universally” in the abstract—and when the religious individual reflects on the need to bring their universal love into the world, they realize that they cannot. This is because no individual human being could ever actually love, through actions and existing relations, every human being in the world without having to enter into actual relations with particular subjects in time. One cannot actualize in time what is by necessity transcendent or atemporal in nature. Religious love, as abstract love, exists in opposition to actual love.  The concept of universal love remains empty, so long as it demands its purity.
Adorno thinks that the radical inward nature of the existential pursuit of authenticity—a pursuit grounded in the desire to discover one’s true nature through inner reflection, free from the shallow business of worldly, social life, is doomed to create ideological barriers that prevent one from actually living through one’s relations with others. In other words, so long as authenticity is seen in opposition to relations with others, what Heidegger called the they, one’s authenticity will be like a precious and fragile stone that is shattered the moment one ceases focusing only on the self in empty reflection and enters into existing relations with others. The shell of the ego is posited as housing an ideological possibility capable of granting one absolution—an experience of God, eternity, universal love, and true authenticity—but this experience must forever remain subjective in nature because it is defined as such. If the subject in reflection alone experiences authenticity, then this authenticity can never become historical and can never take upon itself the burdens of life. Existentialism treats the individual self as if it were the only stable island in a sea of chaos, just as Descartes treated the self, along with God, as the only grounds of certainty.
German philosophy offers us the critique we need of not only empty religious ideals, but also of existentialism’s fetishization of the self as the house of truth and authenticity. Hegel in particular emphasizes the nature of ideals as existing subjectively but being incomplete unless these ideals can actualize themselves in the world. In other words, if something cannot come to exist, cannot be birthed and acted out in existing relations, that thing is in a significant sense unreal, merely abstract. Thus, the certainty of Descartes and the authenticity of the existentialist, so long as they are grounded in the atomic self as a thing to be studied in isolation from the subject’s existing relations—apart from the systems and conditions of living that make up the subject’s existence—remain empty and abstract.
Now, you might argue that religious love and existential authenticity ought to strive to find a way to actualize itself in the world through existing relations, and that only the most extreme sage or philosopher takes these ideas to extreme isolation and inner reflection. However, this undermines the logic of certainty and authenticity itself, because the pursuit of each is grounded in a fundamental critique of the world’s capacity to grant absolution, either through epistemological eternal certainty or phenomenological authenticity. Descartes seeks certainty in the self because all other perceptions, relations, sensations, and thoughts that exist relationally are deemed uncertain. The certainty of the self as an irreducible thing that must exist is discovered, in itself, but then fails to inject its certainty back into the very existing relations that were initially doubted. If the self was meant to serve as the foundation upon which a system of philosophy is built, it ends up instead being an isolated island, secure in itself but incapable of supporting any certainty outside of itself. Instead, a leap of faith is posited by Descartes, an appeal to God as an additional certainty alongside the self.
Similarly, the ground of the individual as a transcendent, subjective singularity and is discovered by Kierkegaard, a good Cartesian skeptic himself, and posited as the center of being and gateway to God. If Heidegger is seen as taking a similar path, which might be a fair interpretation of his work, then Dasein as a center of authenticity remains abstract in its authenticity, solely on behalf of its need to negate derivations of being from subject-object relations. Instead, Heidegger’s experimental meditations attempt to experience being beyond subject-object relations, leading to what Adorno considers abstract mysticism. Indeed, the anxiety of the authentic individual is precisely the anxiety of the impotent one who knows they cannot bring into actuality what they prize most dearly without fundamentally altering its nature and becoming real.
This is because things that exist in the world are constantly changing. ‘Philosophers’ have always despised this element of reality and instead sought that which is unchangeable and eternal. But that which is unchangeable and eternal thus could not exist in reality, but instead must transcend reality, and so the philosophical pursuit becomes abstract. This is because if the unchangeable thing were to enter into reality it would immediately enter into relations with others, whereby its very nature, taken in the context of its newfound relations with others, is fundamentally altered and made historical. An unchangeable thing in relation with a changing thing itself partakes of change, since things are understood in and through their relations. Find two individuals with the same conception of God, or the same conception of the self. You can’t, because even that which is supposed to be the highest and most certain thing in all reality turns out to itself just be part of the play of relations.

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