Adorno Vs. Levinas: Evaluating Points of Contention

Aug 16, 2008 by

Nick Smith
University of New Hampshire

Continental Philosophy Review, Vol. 40, No. 3, pp. 275-306, 2007

Although Adorno and Levinas share many arguments, I attempt to sharpen and evaluate their disagreements. Both held extreme and seemingly opposite views of art, with Adorno arguing that art presents modernity’s highest order of truth and Levinas denouncing it as shameful idolatry. Considering this striking difference brings to light fundamental substantive and methodological incompatibilities between them. Levinas’ assertion of the transcendence of the face should be understood as the most telling point of departure between his and Adorno’s critiques of instrumental reason. I attempt to explain why Levinas believed this move was justifiable and how Adorno would understand Levinas’ notion of illeity as a cultural byproduct and a form of dogmatism. Adorno’s historical and sociological account of the disenchantment of the world and the destruction of aura within a culture fully administered by scientific rationality and economic reductionism sharply contrasts to Levinas’ transcendental phenomenology, and I argue that Adorno’s thoroughgoing refusal to constrain dialectical reflection is ultimately more compelling.


  • dlow

    Interesting article, in many ways, but operates with a fundamental misunderstanding of Levinas. As noted in the abstract, there is the claim that Levinas\’ work is a \"transcendental phenomenology,\" which is a wild and strange claim (lacking substantiation in the article). Also, the identification of art as idolatry in Levinas fails to understand the complexity of Levinas\’ treatment of the aesthetic generally, literature in particular (readings of Celan, for example).

    The understanding of Adorno is better. In the end, not very helpful for a \"dialogue\" between thinkers, given the awkward and caricature-like reading of E.L. Besides, isn\’t it strange to read an article where one \"imagines what one would say to the other\"? I found it very strange.

Facebook Icon