On Truth Content and False Consciousness in Adorno's Aesthetic Theory

By Ross, Nathan | Philosophy Today, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

On Truth Content and False Consciousness in Adorno's Aesthetic Theory


Ross, Nathan, Philosophy Today


Adorno makes the notion of truth content into the central category for conceptualizing the function of art and critiquing specific artworks. He writes in the draft introduction to Aesthetic Theory: "All aesthetic questions terminate in those of the truth content of the works: is the spirit that a specific work objectively bears in its form true?"1 Even some of Adorno's most vigorous defenders and creative readers have stopped short of following this demand to work out a theory of aesthetic truth departing from the objective form of artworks. Since the notion of aesthetic truth represents an emphatic and not merely negative concept, it places his aesthetics in tension with post-modern interpretations that emphasize the negativity of the aesthetic.2 On the other hand, since this demand associates truth with a form of experience that is non-discursive, riddle-laden and reticent to communication, it places his aesthetics in tension with later strands of critical theory that depart from the ideal of communicative rationality.3 Adorno's conception of aesthetic truth seems to be an 'untimely thought,' because it challenges our assumptions on many levels:4 first, it challenges philosophy to think of truth in a different way, but more fundamentally, it challenges the public to value art in a different and new way, and most of all, it challenges us to think about ourselves, and what is political in ourselves, in a new and critical way.

Most readers of Adorno's aesthetic theory will quickly realize that his conception of aesthetic truth does not have much to do with how we use the notion of truth in common speech or even in philosophical epistemology. If art has truth content, then it is not in the manner of propositional knowledge, which has something to say about a state of affairs.5 Indeed, any way of articulating the truth of art that reduces it to some propositional content, to a message or statement about the world, would by this very gesture make the artwork superfluous and eliminate its distinctive mode of being. Such a correspondence theory of truth would make the artwork heteronomous in relation to either nature or culture. Instead, Adorno will develop the ontology of the aesthetic monad, in which the artwork is both independent from the world outside of it, and yet also related to the world in the organization of its internal coherence. As Adorno makes clear, truth resides not in the relation to objectivity outside of the artwork, but in the artwork's own internal, objective form, in the way that it organizes feeling and thought, not in the message or propositional content that critique can draw from it. But how can we understand the form as being true or untrue? The form of the artwork is the way in which it organizes itself in time and space, the way in which it presents relations between sensations and thoughts. While Adorno considers the form of the artwork as its 'objectivity,' not reducible to the subjective intention behind its creation or a thought gleaned from interpreting the work, he also believes that this objectivity is only meaningful when subjectively mediated through the experience of the audience.6 Thus I will argue in this paper that the form of the artwork has to be understood as a form that consciousness takes in the creation and experience of the work, and that this form of consciousness can be understood as true or false only in relation to the larger problem of true or false consciousness. The form of an artwork can best be understood as 'true' in relation to other forms of thought and feeling that exist in society. The artwork is true to the extent that it takes up by way of mimesis what is false in society and so renders consciousness capable of transforming or escaping the spell of false consciousness.

In what follows, I analyze Adorno's theory of aesthetic truth in three stages: first I explain how Adorno understands it as different than the kind of discursive truth aspired to in philosophical epistemology; in the second section, I argue that such aesthetic truth is mimetic in its ontology, as opposed to the representational ontology of discursive knowledge, and I further explain that he views the mimesis particular to modern art as an imitation of social rationality; in the third section, I examine Adorno's notion of false consciousness as a variation on the Marxist notion, and show how art both imitates and transforms false consciousness in its formal nature. …

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