Nature Becoming Conscious of Itself: Adorno on Self-Reflection

By Cook, Deborah | Philosophy Today, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Nature Becoming Conscious of Itself: Adorno on Self-Reflection


Cook, Deborah, Philosophy Today


Wir sind uns unbekannt, wir Erkennenden, wir selbst uns selbst: das hat seinen guten Grund. Wir haben nie nach uns gesucht-wie sollte es geschehn, daß wir eines Tages uns fänden?

Friedrich Nietzsche

During the Nürnberg trials, defendants argued that they were only following orders when they murdered and tortured their victims. In an appalling reminder that those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it, this defence of the morally indefensible has recently been used again by some of the Americans who tortured and murdered detainees in the Abu-Gharib Prison. Their attempt to deny and deflect responsibility for their actions raises important issues about individual autonomy; some of these issues were discussed by Theodor W. Adorno as early as the 1940s. If the Nürnberg judges famously deemed those who carried out the orders of their superior officers to be morally responsible for their actions, Adorno took the opposite route, charting the loss of autonomy in the West that helped to explain why so many Germans had simply followed the order to commit atrocities. He also made the disturbing observation that the authoritarian character traits prominent in Nazi Germany were visible in other Western countries as well. The Authoritarian Personality revealed that Americans were potentially fascistic to the extent that they tended blindly to submit to authority figures out of fear and resentment, engaged in stereotypical thinking, and exhibited a readiness to attack those perceived as weak whom they considered to be members of an out-group. In fascism, aggression towards the authorities one unconsciously fears is directed away from these authorities towards a substitute object (Jews, blacks, communists, etc.) defined in rigid and stereotypical terms as outcast, evil. Adorno devoted much of his work to understanding the social, political, and economic conditions that had contributed to making these authoritarian traits so alarmingly pervasive. Unfortunately, much of his analysis remains relevant today.

Speaking again about totalitarian movements in his lectures on metaphysics, Adorno noted that the trademark of these movements is to monopolize "all the so-called sublime and lofty concepts," such as freedom, justice, and democracy, "while the terms they use for what they persecute and destroy-base, insect-like, filthy, subhuman and all the rest-they treat as anathema.'" Yet, he also offered a solution to this problem in the conclusion to The Authoritarian Personality when he wrote that, to counter totalitarianism, it is not only imperative to understand the damage inflicted on individuals by exchange relations, but concomitantly, to increase "people's capacity to see themselves and to be themselves."2 Believing that people "are continuously molded from above" in order to maintain "the over-all economic pattern," Adorno claims that "the amount of energy that goes into this process bears a direct relation to the amount of potential, residing within people, for moving in a different direction."3 This potential is inextricably linked to people's capacity to see themselves. To become more fully autonomous, reflection is needed on how our ideas, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours have been shaped both by the societies in which we live and by instincts and needs. Critical self-reflection may reveal the extent to which our activities and beliefs merely reflect prevailing opinions and the views of authority figures, the materialist values of our exchange-based society, and our accommodation to existing states of affairs in the interest of survival. Because self-reflection fosters the capacity to think for oneself rather than merely parroting others, it represents a form of political maturity that is essential for more substantively democratic polities.4 Given the widespread loss of autonomy and freedom in the West today-the craven submissiveness of individuals to the powers-that-be, their adaptation and adjustment to the way things are, along with their propensity simply to follow orders-it is all the more urgent to examine why Adorno recommends self-reflection as a solution. …

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