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Mimesis and Concept Subsumption; the Dialectic in Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment

Friday, February 16, 2024
4:15 pm
Hall Auditorium 103

The Dialectic of Enlightenment has often been condemned as a bleak work, one which gives up on rationality entirely. (Habermas) We can avoid this conclusion, I shall argue, by attending to the Kantian dimension of Dialectic of Enlightenment. I shall argue that Kant supplies Horkheimer and Adorno with a model for thinking that myth construed as mimesis is not simply fused with enlightenment in the totalizing way Habermas think it is, but rather continues to provide a dialectical antipode to reason’s totalizing tendencies. Here it is especially Kant’s theory of schematization, the ability of mind to encounter sensibility, that is central.

On the one hand enlightenment as myth threatens to colonize even our ways of seeing before they are made into concepts, making concepts ideological from their inception and ensuring that no later conceptual critique could alter their fundamental structure. The version would be in line with Habermas’ view— call it the totalizing view. Yet on the other hand, Kant’s insistence that sensibility and conceptuality are fundamentally heterogeneous, means that this colonization can never become total— call this the dialectical view, one that insists on the irreducibility of the dialectic between mind and nature. I propose that schematism can be understood in terms of a dialectic between mimesis and concept subsumption which, again using Kant, I connect to Kant’s theory of reflective and determinative judgment. Finally, relying on Freud’s conception of the unconscious, I argue that Adorno and Horkheimer’s model of mind can be understood as encompassing both mimetic and subsumption moments. This suggests that the pervasiveness of identity thinking in modern society is not necessary but rather a historical development which can, potentially, be reduced by paying attention to the forms of non-conceptual thinking we habitually engage in.

Stefan Bird-Pollan, Professor of Philosophy, University of Kentucky, works in the areas of political and moral philosophy using the resources of the European philosophical tradition (from Kant onward) as well as of psychoanalysis to understand the ways in which human subjects are influenced by their social and historical environment. Central to his research are the ways in which prejudices of race, and gender are absorbed and can either be unthinkingly (unconsciously) absorbed and passed along or be made conscious and therefore can be critically evaluated and transformed. He is working on two books, one on Kant and another on Adorno.

Co-presented by the Department of Philosophy and the Humanities Center

Stefan Bird-Pollan
Stefan Bird-Pollan
University of Kentucky