Why do we love conspiracies? Why does our skepticism turn to credulity? What are the social causes – and political consequences – of our dalliance with the irrational, be it astrology, witchcraft, faith-healing, a belief in shadowy and sinister forces, or casual superstition? Although Theodor Adorno
is widely known for his critique of “positivism” – the philosophical conviction that all knowledge can be exclusively known through the application of scientific reason to empirical data – Adorno did not believe that the limitations of reason justified a turn toward the irrational. Having lived through the explosion of interest in the supernatural during the Weimar era, he was deeply skeptical of everything from the existentialist turn to “Being” to the popular turn to the horoscope. Yet he had little interest in simply “debunking,” but rather wanted to understand why these phenomena arose when they did, among whom, and for what reasons. It’s not simply that we reach for the horoscope or point to a hidden enemy in the face of ever continuing and intensifying political, economic, and social crises. We want our charts to be, in Adorno’s words, “semi-erudite” or “pseudo-rational.” We need them to have an “authentic” history that harkens to “time immemorial” but a modern presentation and sophistication that mimics the periodic table of the elements. Seemingly regardless of our overt political commitments, we want Glenn Beck’s blackboards or popular Tweetstorms that mimic the appearance of structural analysis without their actual form or content.
Students in the course will read selections from a number of Adorno’s works, including The Stars Down to Earth
, Minima Moralia
, and The Authoritarian Personality
. We will look at the famous dispute between Adorno and philosopher of science Karl Popper
both to understand the grounds of their debate but also to understand their vast areas of agreement between empirical research and critical theory. We will pose a series of questions that emerge from Adorno’s critiques to more contemporary work and our lived conditions today: Why have so many marginalized populations been forced to express themselves in languages and forms of the irrational? Why is, as the old German saying puts it, antisemitism the “Socialism of Fools”? What are the connections between irrationalism, authoritarianism, and fascism? Why does structural racism seek to exclude entire social groups from reason and rational discourse? Why should we not merely dismiss superstition but try to understand it? Should we think, with Adorno, that “superstition is knowledge, because it sees together the ciphers of destruction on the social surface; it is folly because in all its death-wish it still clings to illusions”? How does society let go of its illusions?
Instructor: Ajay Singh Chaudhary
Ajay Singh Chaudhary is the founding director of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research and a lecturer in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University. He holds a PhD from Columbia University’s Institute for Comparative Literature and Society through the MESAAS Department specializing in comparative philosophy.