Sunday, October 19, 2008

Adorno on Computerized Thinking

Theodor W. Adorno atttacked in 1964 a kind of thinking that he thought had deteriorated into an "independent apparatus," a "booty of reification," and a "tyrannical method."[1] Not surprisingly, perhaps, he thought that it was roughly revealed in cybernetic machines," or in what we would call "computers" today. "They make apparent to humans the nothingness of formalized thought that has been emptied of any substantial content," just because they can do better some of the things of which of thinking subjects were proud in their methodical and subjective reasoning. Indeed, he claims, thinking subjects who "passionately" make themselves into the organs of this kind of formalism virtually cease to be subjects. "They become closer to the machines as their imperfect image" (11).

Philosophical thinking, if we are to believe Adorno, "begins only where one is no longer satisfied with results that can be expected and that do not show more than one has put in" (11f.).

It might seem that Adorno is not just attacking the artificial intelligence of a computer, but all logical thinking. For, the logical definition of a valid argument amounts to the claim that the conclusion of an argument cannot contain more information than the premises upon which it is based. If taken as attacking the idea of valid arguments, his claim about philosophical thinking, is just nonsense.

But perhaps he just meant to say that philosophical thinking is a kind of inductive thinking, or the kind of thinking in which we make generalizations on the basis of particular experiences that are strictly speaking insufficient to yield the conclusion. To be sure, this could not be for him simply the kind of inductive and statistical reasoning employed in empirical sociological research. It would have to do with generalizations from ideal types or a certain version of "the abstract" (Abstraktheit). He uses Hegel and a thoroughly misunderstood Kant to illustrate this kind of thinking. He also uses "American" expression of "armchair thinking" to clarify what he has in mind (15). It is for him an example of the "spiteful rancor against the one who sits and thinks" (15).

Adorno thought that even this entirely negative American attitude against pure thinking captures something important, namely the idea that thinking needs to be "about" something, that it cannot be empty meditation. While the "meditative aspect" is essential for him, because otherwise praxis would become "a conceptless business" (begriffsloser Betrieb), it needs material. "Thinking happens in working on a subject matter and in [the activity] of formulating; they provide the passive material of thinking. ... An adequate symbol for this would be the pencil or the fountain pen, who is held by someone who thinks, like it is reported of Simmel or Husserl, who apparently could only think by writing. This is similar to some writers who get their best thought by writing. Such instruments, which one actually does not even have to use, show that one cannot think without a plan, but must think of something. Texts that are to be interpreted or to be criticized therefore inestimably support the objectivity of thinking" (19).

Such texts include those that one has written before, be they notes of what one has read or drafts of what has written before or first formulations of thoughts based on them. The material means of thinking represented by the fountain pen imply paper on which these are written. There is no reason why keyboard, hard drive, and computer screen can fulfill the same function (if perhaps in a slightly different way.

Adorno can perhaps be excused for his wholesale rejection of what he thought was instrumentalized thinking because he did not actually see how a personal computer can be used in this context. But in the end his reflections on formalism and "cybernetic thinking" are just as inappropriate and inapposite as his unreflected dismissal of jazz, or so I would argue.

1. It is the introductory essay to his last book Stichworte: Kritische Modelle 2 of 1969, called "Comments on Philosophical Thinking" (Anmerkungen zum philosophischen Denken), 11-19, 11. And this would hold, even if one were to agree that his view of "philosophical thinking" is defensible.

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