This chapter by Brian O’Connor seeks to illuminate the features of Adorno’s epistemology, putting a strong emphasis on the priority of the object in experience. In Adorno’s conception of contemporary models of philosophy, he sees a failure in their commitment to forms of subjectivism, excluding a model of experience that shows the reciprocity of subject to object. The problem with philosophical subjectivism, according to Adorno, is the fact that it assumes that the subject in any experience supplies the priority of a concept. Thus, subjectivism, “…stipulates meanings in advance […] and since […] concepts—the meanings—are universals they cannot encapsulate particularity when employed as the sole meaning-bearing element of our experience” (46). These concepts with which Adorno calls particularities are the objects that subjectivism calls universal. Because of subjectivism’s broad universalism in defining objects as concrete concepts, it is unable to withstand the relevance of the object’s particularity—something that Adorno finds imperative to a shifting epistemology.
The priority of the object rests on the notion that objects cannot be reduced to simple concepts, that they cannot even be made identical with concepts. The key to maintaining this precarious balance between subject and object is by maintaining critically thought’s totalizing claim. The comprehensiveness of mediation in subject-object epistemology “…lies in its ability to express the claims that the subject is not merely passive in relation to the object and the object is not exhausted by the categories of the subject” (48). Adorno uses the term “mediation” to describe how the mutual reciprocation between subject and object produces meaning in a more all-inclusive way, improving upon subjectivist tendencies of philosophy. Thus, subject and object are reciprocally inherent in each other, constitute one another, and equally depart from one another simultaneously; subject and object “necessarily requires the other in order to be thought at all” (PT 220). The idea of mediation is central to Adorno’s thesis, because it allows for philosophy to be capable of expressing the particulars of nonidentitiy within the object, freeing it from being subjected to universalizing concepts or categorization.
Adorno’s conception of objects constitutes two elements: that objects are meaningful in that they are significant within linguistic conceptualization, and, conversely, that objects are individuated because of their non-conceptual nature. These elements correspond to Adorno’s understanding of Hegelian and Kantian theories of lateral and vertical judgment relations. Describing either subject or object in isolation is difficult because an epistemology that begins with either one will produce a distorted, one-dimensional picture. Because experience cannot be generated by subjectivity alone, objects are the entities that are the irreducible data of conscious acts and of knowledge. In this way, the object is prior to the subject as part of an experience that is given—“An object can be conceived only by a subject but always remains something other than the subject…” (ND 184/183).
Another rational substantiation of the principle of the object’s priority is the object’s ability to surprise expectations and to be unpredictable. This idea that the particularity of objects surprises us is most apparent in science, where objects from our external experience never cease to astound the spectator. In putting this forward, Adorno means to make us realize that experience cannot be realized without the external realities of objects that are irreducible to the conceptualization by the subject—that external realities have an important role in the context of experience itself.
Our way of understanding the object in experience is to conceptualize it. Idealistic terms from Kant and Hegel are adopted by Adorno to explain our relation to the external world. When we are given an object, our natural reaction is intuition—a mode of knowledge that creates an immediate relation to the object. Intuition arises, according to Kant, through sensibility, a passive and active capacity. However, in the same way we conceptualize objects to understand them, objects will always be separate from the concepts we glean from them—thus the conceptual/non-conceptual ambivalence of the object. In the faculty of judgement, concepts play the role of predication in order to express difference. In this respect, Adorno describes concepts as elements within dialectical logic. Judgement also highlights that in judging object-concepts there is an inherent ambivalence—the vehicle of identity and nonidentity: “What survives in [the concept] is the fact that nonconceptuality has conveyed it by way of its meaning, which in turn establishes its conceptuality” (ND 24/12).