Adorno and Social Physiognomics: Towards a Reconstruction of Theodor W. Adorno’s Dialectical Sociology

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In the following thesis I have sought to provide a defence of the Critical Theory of Theodor W. Adorno by providing the outlines to a reconstruction of his implicit sociological methodology, his Social Physiognomics. Adorno‟s thought has been haunted by misunderstandings since his death not least because of his esoteric writing style. However, the influence of the Habermasian reading of Adorno in the social sciences has also played a role in the stereotyped views that exist of him. One of the main tasks of the thesis has therefore been to provide an alternative reading of Adorno.
It is well-known that Adorno takes over the Weberian analysis of modernity and radicalises it in his critique of instrumental reason. However, according to Adorno, the process of disenchantment described by Weber has not only affected our beliefs about the world but has disenchanted our very use of language as well. As a consequence of this the linguistic practices of both science and our everyday life are not wholly rational because the (simple) concepts we use continually overlook that which is non-identical to what we already know. People living in modern societies are thus unable to experience and engage in certain forms of relations towards other people and objects. Insufficiently rationalised linguistic practices have this effect because all our experiences are mediated by language. Adorno‟s philosophical project could therefore be interpreted as an attempt to resurrect a broader concept of experience that would enable us to overcome (most of) the „negative‟ consequence of the „dialectic of enlightenment‟.
This has profound consequences for an empirical science like sociology as well because it relies on experiences as empirical data. I therefore seek to show how the disenchantment of language affects traditional sociological methodologies that do not explicitly take this historical development into consideration. This is done by sketching a critique of two paradigmatic methodologies of sociology: Popper‟s Critical Rationalism and Glaser & Strauss‟ Grounded Theory. This critique reveals that both methodologies are problematic because they are essentially subjective, reifying and non-critical and therefore contribute to the very process of disenchantment that helps bring about a process of societal domination.
Contrary to common views Adorno does not think of this situation as inevitable or as incapable of being remedied although this is no easy task. For this reason I end the thesis by a reconsideration of his ideas for empirical sociology and the implicit methodology that can be found in scattered remarks throughout his sociological works. This leads me to conclude that Social Physiognomics must be built on the „principle of granting primacy to the object‟ and deciphering the physiognomic appearance of the object in order to read society as an expression in and through this object. Translated into the vocabulary of sociology this means that processes of theory generation must be emphasised because they ideally „grant primacy to the object‟. However, because of the disenchantment the immediate appearance of a social phenomenon cannot be taken for granted and must instead be submitted to an unrelenting critique and process of reflection. By doing so it will become possible to relate the singular phenomenon to other and through these relations gain an insight into the structures of society. This is not done only to arrive at an adequate description of society, but also in an attempt to reveal those aspects of society that contain an unrealised potential. In other words, sociology must be inherently critical and thereby contribute to a (true) rationalisation of society so as to make sure that society never fails to realise some of its inherent potential.
Original languageDanish
Number of pages119
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2004

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