This article is from the Winter 2013 issue of New Humanist magazine. You can subscribe here.

If you like to think of yourself as a straightforward common-sense rationalist then you may not want to bother your head with Theodor Adorno, the German philosopher who blamed the Holocaust on the over-valuation of reason. But Adorno was not an apologist for irrationality, mysticism or superstition. He was a wilful paradox-monger, but like you he was on the side of progress, science and secularism. The difference is that he was also acutely alert to the ways in which dogged good sense can lead to intellectual complacency and then to incomprehension, prejudice and catastrophe.

Adorno was born into a wealthy Frankfurt family in 1903, and brought up to be a cultural aristocrat with a strong sense of historic responsibility – a duty to cherish and preserve the high traditions of European art and literature that he had inherited. But while he was a schoolboy during the Great War he learned to hate German nationalism and began to feel the attraction of revolutionary Marxism. He did not need to earn a living, and spent the 1920s establishing himself as a self-consciously stylish writer, an expert in both philosophy and music, and a ferocious critic of anything that could be regarded as bogus, bombastic, slick, simplified, nostalgic or sentimental. He despised the gormless optimism of the scientific positivists, just as he loathed the pessimism, as he saw it, of Kierkegaard and Heidegger, and he was repelled by popular culture of all kinds. In 1934 he exiled himself to England and then America, and observed the resistible rise of Nazi violence with terrified fascination. In his book Dialectic of Enlightenment, co-written with the social theorist Max Horkheimer in 1944, he tried to demonstrate that the political calamities of the 20th century were not deviations from some pre-ordained path of progress, but symptoms of a congenital disease of modernity: a disorder which allows benevolence to flip into terror, knowledge into myth, reason into dogma, and civilisation into barbarity. Economic growth, he said, “furnishes the conditions for a world of greater justice”, but at the same time “allows the technical apparatus and the social groups which administer it a disproportionate superiority to the rest of the population.”

This might sound like classical Marxist doctrine but, for better or for worse, it was in fact deeply revisionist. For Adorno, the origins of contemporary injustice lay not so much in the inequalities and miseries created by the capitalist mode of production as in the idiocies generated by the culture of modernity. He thought that society as a whole had fallen victim to a form of technological reason that quenched the power of criticism by obliterating individuality and destroying authentic culture, and he had no expectation that the working class would ever rise up to expropriate the expropriators and lead humanity into a sunlit realm of freedom and equality. Enlightenment reason had bred a form of false consciousness which – borrowing from the Hungarian theorist Georg Lukács – he called “reification”, meaning that it treated mutable social relations as if they were unchangeable facts of nature. This process had been brought to grotesque perfection by the “culture industry”, where cinema, radio, theatre and newspapers poured out a poisonous miasma of pornography, prurience and mutual self-congratulation, while success and popular celebrity passed as artistic merit. True intelligence and genuine art had therefore devolved into the idiosyncratic avocation of a small and exclusive avant-garde.

Some readers bridled at the apparent implication that Adorno was uniquely qualified to speak for the tiny cultural enclave that had escaped the general devastation. He seemed to have discovered a way of becoming a Marxist that did not require him to relinquish the habits of an exquisitely refined aesthete, or for that matter a rich elitist and a snob, and his fellow exile Erika Mann described him as “pathologically conceited” and “a great bluffer”. But when he returned to Frankfurt in 1949 he was welcomed by the traumatised students and intellectuals of West Germany as an emblem of incorruptible rectitude, and he enjoyed a curious form of popular fame till his death 20 years later at the age of 65.

His reputation was founded mainly on Minima Moralia,a book of aphorisms and observations published in 1951. The general premise was that we live in a “false society”, where everything is “totally organised” and people are treated as things, and things as people. There was no value except exchange value, and it had infiltrated our lives so completely that we had forgotten how to love anything for its own sake. We had even lost the ability to give thoughtful presents: the act of making a gift had degenerated into a tactical ploy, a grudging exchange of objects executed with “careful adherence to the prescribed budget, sceptical appraisal of the other, and the least possible effort”. Meanwhile every encounter with popular culture made us coarser and more stupid, and we were always far too busy to spend much time on art, settling at most for “trashy biographies” that “humanise” the achievement of great artists by bringing them down to our own level. The strenuousness of original thinking had been replaced by the “salaried profundity” of university professors, who train their students to harmonise their judgements with those of their colleagues so as to earn a living as “spokespersons for the average”. The only possible remedy was to turn our backs on the “cultivated philistines”, renounce the old ideal of “theoretical cohesion” and strive to attain truth in the only form that still has any meaning: not the premasticated platitudes of common-sense rationality, but jagged fragments of insight whose value lies not in their plausibility but in their “distance from the continuity of the familiar”.

For spicy provocations like these, Minima Moralia deserves a place on every rationalist’s bookshelf. But there are moments when Adorno overreaches and becomes too clever by half. “Only the absolute lie now has any freedom to speak the truth,” he says, and “the demand for intellectual honesty is itself dishonest” – remarks that, to me at least, sound like nothing but whining excuses for Adorno’s own intellectual vices. His more respectable books – notably Negative Dialectics and the posthumous Aesthetic Theory – are exasperating in a different way: they are written in the style of someone who has swallowed a library and lost all capacity for clear perception and forthright statement, and it is hard to imagine anyone reading them except under some kind of professional imperative. On the other hand he sometimes turned his hand to less rebarbative forms of expression – including lectures, many of them unpublished, and popular radio talks – in which the idea of the irrationality of reason comes across at last as sweetly reasonable.

In a new book, Adorno and the Ends of Philosophy, Andrew Bowie of Royal Holloway, University of London, draws on these unfamiliar sources, presenting his readers with a thinker who, once stripped of his “indefensible exaggerations”, might be able to bring peace and prosperity to the war-ravaged territory of contemporary philosophy. If Bowie is right, then the factions that have been fighting for decades over science and art, nature and culture, body and mind, or determinism and freedom, need to read the works of Adorno and call an end to their destructive obsessions. Once they realise that humanity has relations to the objective world that are “not just cognitive” – in particular those at work in music and other forms of artistic enterprise and in the experience of natural beauty – they will lay down their arms, open unconditional negotiations and prepare to win the peace. Bowie combines a massive range of reading with an extraordinary power of lucid exposition, and it is hard to see how the task of turning Adorno into an intellectual peacemaker could have been better achieved. But still we may not be persuaded: Adorno was surely at his most interesting when he was most outlandish, and perhaps the best things in him were the exaggerations.

Adorno and the Ends of Philosophy is published by Polity Press