Key Series: Psychology and Society

UPDATE 20/06/2016: After publishing part one of my paper, I received an invitation by Palgrave to publish the whole of my research as a book. At the request of the publisher the second part of the work presented below will no longer be made available on the Heathwood website. Instead, it will be included in the more complete research presented in my forthcoming book. Thanks for your understanding. – R.C. Smith

 Note: This is the third article of a collection by R.C. Smith that examines certain key concepts of Adorno’s social philosophy, with a mind toward discerning which of these concepts are still alive and relevant to 21st century critical theory. Heathwood will be publishing each article of the collection online, as a series. The series will also be edited and published as a book sometime in 2016/2017, complete with additional notes, a few new essays, as well as a lengthy introduction and afterward.

Due to the length of the following publication, we have decided to publish it in two-parts. Below is Part One. A complete PDF version will be provided upon the publication of Part Two.

By R.C. Smith

1) Introduction

In the second article of this series I reflected on the existential and, impliedly, material dimension of the dialectic of enlightenment, particularly in relation to Adorno and Horkheimer’s “domination of nature” thesis (Smith, 2015b). The early significance of this revisiting of Dialectical of Enlightenment was three-fold:

First. I illustrated how there is an “existential dimension” to the human impulse toward domination, control and the mastery of (internal and external) nature. In identifying this existential dimension my claim is that we can further root the dialectic of enlightenment in experience, and thus also further substantiate the basic tenets of Adorno and Horkheimer’s analysis through a more interdisciplinary course of study. My position here, which I intend to continue to develop, can be described almost as a sort of cross-disciplinary critical synthesis which spans several disciplines and fields of study.

Second. I elaborated the philosophical and practical significance of recognizing and establishing a deeper view of the existential dimension of the dialectic of enlightenment: namely how, contrary to William Leiss’ (2011) argument about the lack of domination of nature in primitive society or pre-historical social formations, this line of argumentation is beside the point because what matters (and what we must deal with in terms of achieving a truly emancipated society) is that conceptually the attempt to control nature, to absolutize along distinct epistemological and cognitive lines, was present. I first introduced this hypothesis in Consciousness and Revolt (2012/2015) via a critique of epistemology and the formation of what I term “totalized experiential orientations”. But the main point to highlight is that, to the detriment of their work, there has been a lack of understanding of the significance of the link Adorno and Horkheimer drew between myth and enlightenment, and what this link actually reveals when it comes to understanding certain underlying problems of the modern social world.

Third, I argued that recognizing and understanding the existential dimension of the dialectic of enlightenment can and will deepen a critical theory of society and ultimately strengthen an emancipatory social-systemic analysis. I argued that it will do so precisely in the sense of opening up the dialectic of enlightenment to an even more significant historical, anthropological and psychological program of study, one which combines existential and humanistic perspectives, and ultimately makes us aware of how societal transformation reaches all the way down to the subject, similar to what Glenn Parton describes as the “journey within” (Parton, 2015b) or what is identified in humanistic psychology (for example: Rogers, 1983) as well as in certain strands psychotherapy and psychoanalysis as reconciliation in relation to a complex theory of personality and issues of self-structure, internalization, disintegration, anxiety, threat, defence, maladjustment, and distortion (Benjamin; 1977; Brandchaft, 2010; De Graaff, 2016; Fonagy and Gergely et al., 2007; Gruenewald and Kemeny et al., 2004; Fromm, 1994; Illeris, 2007; Lichtenberg and Kaplan, 2014; Rosenberg, 2012; Shane et al., 1997; Tracy, Robins, Tangney, 2004).

With this brief and simplistic summary in mind, I would like to now turn to a separate, albeit fundamentally interconnected issue: a systematic, cross-disciplinary analysis of the modern subject, of social pathology, in relation to the development of a radical philosophy of psychology. The aim of my engagement in this article can be broken down even further: in outlining some key parts of my research over the last several years[i], the following analysis is comprised of several separate essays, each contributing toward a larger thesis, which has been organized in two parts. With my more general study based on a methodologically innovative approach[ii], in part one I discuss Adorno’s philosophy of the subject – or what I consider to be a progressive and critically retrieved version of it – analysing some of his key concepts along the way. A new conception of social pathology is considered as informed by critical theory and integrated with a number of strands of psychology.

In part two, I then introduce the broad coordinates of a radical philosophy of psychology. In the process I develop my argument along several important lines:

1) I argue that critical theory, as it stands, offers an important if not vital contribution to the development of a broader emancipatory critical social philosophy. A key aspect of this emancipatory or foundational critical social philosophy is a radical philosophy of psychology. The development of such a radical or progressive philosophy of psychology requires what I term a “critical synthesis” of several important strands of psychology, as well as grounding in critical theory. I conclude by showing why Adorno’s critical theory provides an important part of the framework for such a project.

2) I suggest that while critical theory – focusing particularly on Adorno – offers an important contribution to both a wider critical social philosophy and a radical philosophy of psychology, it lacks what I see as the need for an explicit “radically virtuous alternative of normative humanism”. If critical theory offers the first pole of an emancipatory social analysis, I argue that it is a critically retrieved humanistic perspective that represents the other pole.

3) In the process, I offer an initial or preparatory analysis of why enlightenment values find direct expression in humanistic psychology, in anticipation of a much more substantial paper to follow (currently being developed with Arnold De Graaff). In laying out my analysis in this regard I also introduce – however tentatively – an early case (again anticipating arguments in a following paper with De Graaff) toward a critical retrieval of enlightenment values, something which I suggest is central to Adorno’s critical theory, even if he left such a thesis undeveloped. This provides a direct link between critical theory and the development of a “critically retrieved humanistic perspective”, which, again, I argue is vital for a foundational critical social philosophy and also the development of a progressive radical alternative philosophy of psychology.

4) Having introduced the notion of “critical humanistic psychology”, or, what I also call a “critical humanistic perspective”, I explain why this notion supports the advancement of some of Adorno’s key theories. I argue that “critical humanistic psychology” needs to be grounded in critical theory, while, at the same time, critical theory would benefit tremendously from integrating a critical humanistic perspective. This then leads me to sketching out the importance of a new culture of healing and therapy as an essential cornerstone for any potential emancipatory politics – radical praxis – tying together my many arguments to illustrate what a foundational alternative vision of life and society might look like.

2) Crisis of social theory

Understandably, over recent decades a lot of criticism has been directed toward Adorno’s project from several angles. As I have noted at the outset of this series: some of the criticism is legitimate, some is not. A perfect example can be found in Jürgen Habermas. In many or all cases, however, what is clear when it comes to a project of critical retrieval is that a great deal of nuance is required (Zuidervaart, 2007). Adorno’s thought is neither of complete hope nor completely void of hope. His gravest error, as with many other philosophers, is the totalization of theory and, in Adorno’s case, especially of transformation (Zuidervaart, 2007; Smith, 2015d). But when works through Adorno’s project as a whole and considers his key concepts and the importance of his many critical interventions, one quickly realizes the fundamental significance of many certain aspects of his critical theory when it comes to formulating a broad critical social philosophy.

Aside from the many legitimate and illegitimate criticisms, most of which can be worked through in a fairly clear and concise manner (Zuidervaart, 2007; Sherman, 2007; Foster, 2008, Cook, 2011; Smith, 2015d), one of the biggest issues I perceive today with regards to a retrieval of Adorno’s thought and the advancement of critical theory in general, has to do with how many poststructuralist readings have more often than not contributed to tremendous error in understanding some of his key theses and also those of the early Frankfurt School, distorting in the process the many issues at hand. I see many poststructuralist readings as a general contributor to a situation of “great confusion” (to borrow from Habermas). This state of confusion is especially evident in the younger generations of students who have learned of and been introduced to critical theory – and to Adorno in particular – not in line first with the Frankfurt School view, but through the lens of poststructuralist interpretation of the Frankfurt School view. This has resulted in a significant absence of methodological innovation – which critical theory, at its core, aims to practice (Kellner, 2014). In the many students who wish to break from and move beyond poststructuralism, it is amazing to witness their rediscovery of critical theory, as though an entire world of progressive critical social theory has suddenly been revealed. In many ways, this experience can be shared with the discovery of many important philosophers, from Jean-Paul Sartre to Pierre Bourdieu to Ludwig Wittgenstein, all of which have been subject to a process of poststructuralist appropriation (to varying degrees). Translating in hypertheoretical and often senseless circular logics of discourse, my analysis in this work builds from what I view as a position advanced beyond the poststructuralist project, as it works toward a more progressive epistemology and methodology, which bridges philosophy and systematic empirical study as well as combines cross-disciplinary research and even, ultimately, a critical synthesis of a diversity of perspectives while working toward a broader, more foundational social philosophical view. Seen as an extension of the development and practice of critical theory, my hope is that this paper serves as one example of a progressive response to the crisis of social theory (Kellner, 2014).

Regarding the poststructuralist appropriation of Adorno, several comments are worth making at the outset of this work. When it comes to Dialectic of Enlightenment for example, whose focus on a critique of the modern (bourgeois) subject has already been noted in this series (Smith, 2015b), poststructuralist readings tend to focus on criticism “of the western philosophical tradition” in Adorno and Horkheimer’s seminal study, as well as “Adorno’s critique of the enlightenment project – with its emphasis on universal history, the autonomy of the subject, and the unity of reason and rationality through the transparency of language and communications” (Hohendahl, 1995, p. 7). David Sherman summarizes, before offering the same quote above, that “Dialectic of Enlightenment considers the subject from the historical or “third person” standpoint. From this standpoint, notions such as freedom and responsibility, which constitutes “the subject” as such, become quite problematic – indeed, with the ineluctable march of history as a backdrop, they tend to all but disappear from view (even if they are implicitly presupposed, as is the case with Adorno). It is for this reason that a variety of poststructuralists see Dialectic of Enlightenment as a prototypical poststructuralist work” (Sherman, 2007, p. 181). However, a primary trend can be identified when it comes to poststructuralist engagement with Dialectic of Enlightenment: it essentially reads the seminal study by Adorno and Horkheimer as an analysis that abandons hope in the liberating force of the enlightenment (Sherman, 2007, p. 183). But as Sherman points out, and as I wrote in the last essay in this series, “this depiction […] is just plain wrong” (Sherman, 2007, p. 183). In fact, such a poststructuralist reading of Dialectic of Enlightenment has no ground to stand on. To borrow the words of Nikolas Kompridis:

The distinctive feature of the critical theoretical tradition [is] its insistence on the possibility of another kind of reason, another way of living in practice, which is not merely an abstraction or something impossibly utopian but an actual possibility that we can locate in existing, if marginalized, practices of reason’. For ‘if we are to overcome the negative effects of the dominant forms of reason we need to weaken our attachment to them to make room for neglected, devalued or suppressed forms of reason. (Kompridis, 2006, p. 237)

Without repeating past arguments, what’s interesting is that poststructuralists seem to want to emphasize in Adorno a critique of subjectivity while rejecting the conceptual apparatus of Marxist theory and others (Sherman, 2007; p.182) central to his social philosophy, refraining in the process from any notion of universal history on behalf of fragmented perspectives which, in all honesty, as the basis for theory, loses all emancipatory or revolutionary potential.

In its suspicion of coherence and of notions of truth, not to mention fundamentally important issues of structure and systems, post-structuralism has contributed much to the crisis of social theory (Kellner, 2014), culminating in a state of theoretical disorientation, ineffectual critique and views of praxis, as a failed attempt to deceivingly transcend issues of modernity without ever actually dealing with or working through said issues. And when it comes to Adorno in particular, it is interesting to reflect on this fact in relation to how: “the motivation that impels poststructuralists to appropriate Adorno’s thought is their own repudiation of Marxism” (Sherman, 2007, p. 182). To quote a passage by Peter Uwe Hohendahl that Sherman also cites:

What characterizes the poststructuralist approach to Adorno is its deliberate attempt to distinguish his work from the body of Marxist theory and to underscore the difference between his thought and the conceptual apparatus of Marxist theory […]. In other words, the question of reason and rationality becomes the touchstone for the poststructuralist reading […]. This reading wants to subvert what Marxist theory had, by and large, taken for granted and therefore ascribed to the writings of Adorno: namely, a stable concept of subjectivity and agency (as opposed to the state of fragmentation and passivity found in advanced capitalism, for instance). The poststructuralist reading would emphasize Adorno’s critique of subjectivity, a critique that does not merely focus (as does Lukács) on fragmentation under monopoly capitalism but rather calls the entire Western tradition – the very constitution and identity in Greek culture – into question. (Hohendahl, 1995, pp. 7-8)

Though the same can very much be said of the poststructuralist treatment of Walter Benjamin, especially when it comes to the central most part of Benjamin’s project and the poststructual jettisoning of dialectical thinking and its methodology of “determinate negation”, it is similarly true that poststructuralist interpretations of Adorno tend to abandon his notion of dialectic reason among other things (Hullot-Kentor, 2006).

With that in mind it is worth pointing out that, while Adorno and poststructuralists share some things in common, this commonality is widely misinterpreted as sameness or, perhaps ironically, as consistency in identity. In truth, I would say that in spite of Adorno pointing to and analysing similar problems as certain poststructuralists, how he actually interprets and formulates a response to these issues in the context of his broader social philosophy is often very different than the prototypical poststructuralist thesis. Consider, for example, Adorno’s (1992) emphasis on the particular – his thesis concerning how we must give ourselves up to the object, how we must give priority to the object – this can be interpreted as strikingly similar to the poststructuralist emphasis of a constant encircling of the particular, as in the case of recent poststructural writings on trauma (Shick, 2014). However, what is inconvenient when it comes to the poststructural appropriation of Adorno, which is basically an attempt to standardize his thought (as with others) into being just another fragmentary critical perspective amongst many according to the poststructural mantra against “grand narratives”, is the dialectical character of his thought, wherein while emphasising recognition of the particular Adorno is never without engagement with the universal. To put it differently: what underlines Adorno’s entire project is a dialectical understanding of the relationship between the universal and the particular, which, contra Hegel, emphasizes the particular side of the dialectic for the benefit of the universal (Adorno, 1992; Sherman, 2007). The same approach can be said of Adorno when it comes a number of other false enlightenment antinomies: individual-society, nature-culture, and so on. And it is precisely this dialectical nature of his thought – and the Frankfurt School in general – which, in part, gives his critical theory its emancipatory thrust.

Thus, in a certain sense, when Hohendahl suggests one possible solution to the conflict between critical theory and poststructuralism would be an appropriation through poststructuralist theory, especially the world of Derrida and Lacan, this assumes the poststructural response to modernism is in fact the correct one and that it is actually compatible with Adorno’s project. Along these lines, according to Hohendahl, Adorno would be seen as a forerunner or German version of poststructuralist theory (Hohendahl, 1995, p. 187). This leaves me to ask how much Hohendahl is actually familiar with a deep and considerate reading of Adorno (not to mention critical theory), who, in my opinion, would actually be very critical of poststructuralism as a theoretical and philosophical movement. Moreover, I would argue that the general direction of Adorno’s thought is one that anticipates and provides a natural challenge to poststructuralism (Sherman, 2007; Kellner, 2014) as well as other postmodern theories, and offers direction in how to advance beyond poststructuralist thinking without slipping back into positivism and relativism.

Indeed, even in terms of recent attempts to appropriate Adorno through the poststructuralist theories of Lacan, I have argued in the past that Adorno’s radical theory of the subject is actually less compatible with Lacan as some seem to assert or want to suggesting, emphasizing instead what I see as more of a fundamental commonality with other strands of psychology (Smith, 2013a). To state it even more sharply: if today the need of the hour is to move beyond poststructuralism without regressing to positivism or falling into the trap of relativism, it is Adorno and the rest of the first-generation Frankfurt School who ultimately provide some of the most important theoretical and practical contributions when it comes to laying the necessary foundation for social philosophy moving forward. This does not take away from the reality that certain key concepts and theories by Adorno and the rest of the early Frankfurt School need to be retrieved, reworked or even advanced or discarded altogether. It is also true that, in our historical moment, with the advance of theory in the past 30 years, an essential part of such a project of critical retrieval requires synthesis between critical theory and other progressive, seminal thinkers in social theory – something people have already started to do in relation to Jean-Paul Sartre, Pierre Bourdieu and even Ludwig Wittgenstein. But it remains that critical theory – the early Frankfurt School – already provides, in my opinion, a large part of the base to a contemporary emancipatory social philosophy and to a project of (cross- or supra-disciplinary) thought which seeks to move beyond the “state of confusion” (Habermas) that is poststructuralism and the poststructural takeover of the contemporary university.

With that in mind, I should like to note in passing, before I turn our attention to the heart of my analysis in the first part of this work, that it is also true that the poststructuralist project has contributed some very valuable things and these contributions should be recognized and not simply discarded – but overall my position is that we must also move beyond poststructuralism and its overall lack of critical bite and of a more foundational perspective, especially (but not limited to) when it comes to its rejection of dialectical or what I call emancipatory reason and the values of the enlightenment (Bronner, 2006, 2014). Further, I am of the position that poststructuralism (and other post-modern schools) has emerged largely as a reactionary movement of thought, which, in a way, has served or at least intensified the neoliberal-corporate takeover of the university, which harks back to Fredric Jameson’s analysis when he writes:

I believe that the emergence of postmodernism is closely related to the emergence of [a] new moment of late consumer capitalism or multinational capitalism. I believe also that its formal features in many ways express the logic of this social system. (Jameson, 1988)

With that said, perhaps Douglas Kellner (2014) said it best in the opening paragraphs of his important paper “Critical Theory and the Crisis of Social Theory”:

In opposition to the subjectivism and relativism, often bordering on nihilism, advanced by some of these postmodernist perspectives, critical theory, by contrast, advances the conception of a critical and normative theory which is committed to emancipation from all forms of oppression, as well as to freedom, happiness, and a rational ordering of society. In contrast to the often hypertheoretical and apolitical discourse of postmodern theory, critical theory seeks a connection with empirical analysis of the contemporary world and social movements which are attempting to transform society in progressive ways.

3) Fine incisions: Social interaction, developmental psychology, ego colonization

Moving forward, there are, as I have said on a number of occasions, significant issues with Adorno’s project. One of the popular criticisms is that his social philosophy ultimately results in depoliticization – that is, in my own words, it is so totalizing that it doesn’t leave space for a radical politics or any possibility of transformation. Interpretations along these lines are very true up to a certain point, because it’s not that Adorno’s project is actually inherently de-politicizing. In other words: it is only a partial truth which, I think, can easily be overcome if we look to what Adorno was actually saying with regards to issues of “totally administered society” and radical praxis. In a similar way as Lambert Zuidervaart, who states the need to “go after Adorno” (2007), I agree with the sentiment that Adorno’s critical theory can be recovered and even further developed as an integral guide to an overall emancipatory horizon of social, political practice – to a broader critical social philosophical perspective. In the last several years, Zuidervaart (2007) has already offered a valuable contribution in this regard. Sherman (2007) also deserves mention here. As does Kellner and Stephen E. Bronner, whose writings and interventions over the past few decades cannot be understated in terms of significance. The contributions of these individuals and many others (Smith, 2015d) allows us to understand how, if Adorno made several wrong turns in the development of his overall critical social philosophy, we can essentially traces these turns, dissect them, while also preserving the key concepts he was trying to formulate.

A perfect example of what I mean has to do with his “totally administered society” thesis. This turn, Sherman rightly reflects, essentially renders his negative dialectics obsolete (Sherman, 2007, p. 239). One of the reasons for his stepping into this trap, I think, is a result of Adorno’s indebtedness to György Lukács. Lukács theory of reification undoubtedly had a tremendous influence on Adorno and others associated with the early Frankfurt School (Feenberg, 2014). In truth, it is Adorno’s totalizing propensity – in theory and in terms of a view of transformation, as confronted in the first essay in this series – which reaches back to Lukács theoretical base and the notion of totally reified society (Lukács, 1967). In some respects, I would say that Adorno takes Lukács to his extreme.

On the other hand, the general thrust of Adorno’s “totally administered society” thesis offers several valuable insights, especially when it comes to his study of the genesis of the modern subject in relation to the historical unfolding of capitalism’s institutions and structures (Sherman, 2007). For example, in a play on Freud’s Oedipal Complex, Adorno sees internalization of authority not simply through the father but how “totally administered society” goes over the head of the father to directly exercise control of the child (Adorno, 1968, 1991, 1992, 2002; Sherman, 2007, pp. 227-228). One can read a similar thesis in a number of critical assessments within psychology (Kelman, 1958; Wood, Lundgren et al., 1994; Gilbert, Fiske, and Lindzey, 1998; Freedheim & Weiner, 2003; McLeod, 2007; Aronson, Wilson, & Robin, 2010; Doise & Palmonari, 2011), development psychology and early childhood development studies (Piaget, 1929, 1977; Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 2005; Seifert, 2004; Maschinot 2008; Montgomery, 2008; Krishnan, 2010) and even also education (Holt, 1991, 1995; Kohn, 1990, 1999, 2005; Spodek & Saracho, 2004; Illich, 2004; Amsler, 2015; Titchiner, 2016).

This important line of critique helps us understand one dimension of the power behind the sort of social production and re-production we observe in contemporary capitalist society. One of the issues for Adorno, to put it plainly, has to do with the colonization of the ego, similar to what we read in Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization (1969). Arresting “all differentiation”, he writes, this “brutal, total, standardizing society […] exploits the primitive core of the unconscious” (Adorno, 1968, p. 95). Such a society, whose “Social power-structure hardly needs the mediating agencies of ego and individuality any longer”, essentially conspires “to annihilate the mediating ego” and, thus, “triumphant archaic impulses, the victory of id over ego, harmonize with the triumph of the society over the individual” (Adorno, 1968, p. 95).

One of the main of focuses of Adorno’s dialectic of subjectivity, which, again, can be in many ways affirmed and substantiated by a broad cross-disciplinary meta-analysis (as referenced above), concerns the (de)formation of the subject and how the extreme lengths of social-psychological coercion and manipulation result in a certain course of ego colonization. One step further, even existentially, if my past thesis is considered correct (Smith, 2015b): one of the directly coercive powers of capitalism is how it focuses, almost naturally for the purpose of its own reproduction, on exploiting the “fear”, “threatenedness” and “angst” which underlines, to a certain extent, the existential and humanistic dimensions of the dialectic of enlightenment and the advent of instrumental reason. I argue that this double-sided exploitation of the “existential dimension” helps perpetuate the system of capital and its ever-expanding economic vision of life (Smith, 2015b) – even naturalizing it in many ways (i.e., Adorno’s critique of “second nature”). How so?

Bracketing the existential impetus behind counter-enlightenment trends and the increasing expansion of the capitalist vision of life (Smith, 2012/2015, 2015b), even on a structural and systems level – capitalism intentionally, directly, produces a condition of artificial scarcity and threat that keeps the individual in a constant state of sensing precarity. The psychological implications of this condition run deep, resulting in a highly traumatized psyche and repressed subjectivity, as a number of systematic studies show (Westen, 1985; James, 2007; Fromm, 2010; Harris, 2015). Research in trauma focused psychotherapy has even shown how capitalism exploits the body’s response to traumatic stress (Kerr, 2014). For Adorno – and, pointedly, for Marcuse (1969) – when it comes to a critique of capitalism’s methods of psychological and economic coercion, we read how capitalism artificially manufactures scarcity. It produces, actively and intentionally, a systemic context in which, for many if not most people, the threat of constant impending economic scarcity defines the basis for one’s life, one’s activity through life, and commitment to “work” through the exploitative cycle of capitalist labor. In a humanistic sense, such artificial manufacturing and then also exploitation of fear is deeply traumatizing (Fromm, 1994; Rowan, 2001; Brick, 2006; Biel, 2012; see also my forthcoming article on a culture of healing).

While a separate article must be written on this issue, what might also be said here is how capitalism has sealed, through deep psychological and emotional manipulation, a serious grip over many individuals and over one’s internal sense of security with regards to being open to the unknown possibilities of transformation. In its course of domination in a triple sense (Zuidervaart, 2007) – which can be broken down as control, repression, and exploitation – the vicious circle (to borrow from Marcuse) is that capitalism deepens the already present free-driven impulse toward domination (Zuidervaart, 2007; Smith, 2015b) with ever greater consequences. A result of this – what I describe as “systemic cycles of domination” is an increasingly closed and hardened subject (Smith, 2012/2015, 2015b) driven all the more by the intensification and threatenedness and fear. Consider, for example, a recent article by Yotam Marom (2016) and on the “fear” experienced within the camp at Occupy Wall Street[iii]. Another example – this one more of the exploitation of fear – can be found during the Greek vote, where the narrative surrounding that the vote was one of economic Armageddon. This is psychological coercion at its extreme, producing fear and existential threat at the prospect of anything other than the status quo.

In short: I think the deeper implication of Adorno’s analysis, especially when applied within massive cross-disciplinary program of research and study, has to do with the psychological coercion, manipulation and, finally, trauma, that exists within capitalism. To put it more aptly: the manipulation of the unconscious is necessary for the actualization of political domination (Parton, 2015). I would say, too, that Adorno’s analysis here can and should be expanded. It’s not just the unconscious that gets manipulated, coerced, dominated or violated. It has to do, in a humanistic sense, with the whole human being: physically, biochemically, emotionally, cognitively and so on. And this is where, I think, in part, a critically retrieved humanistic psychology and existential perspective is absolutely vital in terms of the possibility for advancing critical theory and an emancipatory social analysis, especially when applied to the development of a radical philosophy of psychology which intersects with such areas as biopolitics, biophilia, psychophysiology, and certain strands of discourse within the cognitive sciences (to name a few).

The main point I want to strike, however, has to do with the production of a hardened ego-structure (Adorno, 1968, 1991, 1992, 2002; Sherman, 2007) – what I describe as a closed, hardened, cold or desensitized instrumental subjectivity (Smith, 2013a, 2015b, 2012/2015). Thus, to put it simply, such a “brutal, total, standardizing society” goes against the thrust of Adorno’s negative dialectics and important interventions in other fields: namely, the notion of the mediating subject (Adorno, 1992; Sherman, 2007; Smith, 2013, 2012/2015).

Now, in a critical dissection of Adorno’s thought, it is around this point where we begin to encroach on one of the biggest problems of his analysis. His totalizing thesis, while suggestive of a real truth, is too overwhelming and doesn’t, in the end, allow for recognition of the “cracks” (Holloway, 2010) and, indeed, the existence of the mediating subject. His total and relentless negativity essentially drives him, theoretically and practically, to betray the very possibility of his negative dialectics. But like Sherman, it is because I reject as extreme Adorno’s totalizing thesis that I can accept not only the continuing viability of negative dialectics (Sherman, 2007, p. 239) but also the general thrust of his theses on the subject in relation to the historic unfolding of capitalism’s institutions. In other words, the idea here is that contemporary capitalist culture, not to mention its many institutions and systems, “manipulates consciousness for the very purpose of undermining the prospect of what I call a mediating subject, which, for Adorno, shares nothing in common with the overinflated, but critically impotent, subjectivism that the Culture Industry fosters” (Sherman, 2007, pp. 8-9).

In closing: Though “Adorno refuses to consider the subject in abstraction from its concrete sociohistorical situation,” comments Sherman, “he unremittingly attacks those who would conceive of the free self-determining subject as merely a deceptive notion emanating from the metaphysical tradition” (Sherman, 2007, p. 8). This is because, at its heart, Adorno’s philosophy of the subject is dialectical. On this point, I am in agreement and wholeheartedly share with poststructuralists the idea of the flourishing, vibrant individual subject, although I remain critical of strands of theory which resort to liberal-capitalist libertarianism. Rather, the point is that the flourishing, vibrant individual subject is, as Sherman (2007) states, a mediating subject which, as I have argued in the past, runs against the colonization of the ego and the socially engendered closed, repressed subject that Freud once described (an analysis still applicable today). It is no coincidence, moreover, that contemporary social movements often put an emphasis on radical collective space and, even if only implicitly, a reclaiming of the self, of one’s subjectivity in the midst of that alternative social space (Smith, 2014). For this reason – and certainly in line with my own theoretical and empirical analysis of movements – I share Sherman’s (2007) position that it is a terrible mistake to “reduce the standpoint of embodied, intentional consciousness, which obliges us to recognize ourselves as free, efficacious agents in the world, to the sociohistorical standpoint” (p. 6). On a greater theoretical and philosophical plane of analysis we must, as Adorno wants to do, although eventually betrays with his concept of “totally administered society”, remain dialectical in our theory of the subject. Thus, we might say: “Although subjectivity is plainly mediated by the existing sociohistorical structures, it also has the capacity to affect these very structures in turn, and therefore the self-identities that they engender” (Sherman, 2007, p.6). Just as I argued in my critique of the Zizek’s Lacanian theory of the subject (2013a), with emphasis on an interdisciplinary analysis of subject formation which includes several significant contemporary bodies of research: “subjectivity is active and mediating. And, ethically speaking, the notion that we are mediating subjects is basic to our self-constitution, both collectively and individually” (Sherman, 2007, p. 6). Thus, in no mistaken terms, in addition to Zizek by way of Lacan, a number of other philosophers have sought to revivify the subject (Sherman, 2007, p. 3) – the issue, however, is that their project cannot bear the weight of their endeavours (Sherman, 2007; Smith, 2013a). They more often than not “confuse genesis and validity” (Sherman, 2007, p. 6) and even, along political lines, end up reproducing the very bad social conditions they seek to overcome (Sherman, 2007, p. 6; Smith, 2013a). For these reasons, as I have alluded and as I will reiterate several times over, it is not Lacan that is closest to Adorno’s radical theory of the subject, it is an altogether more radical interdisciplinary approach which does the most justice to the “mediating subject” Adorno works toward (Sherman, 2007).

4) Marking a progressive return to the subject

Having covered several important opening points, I would like to now turn to an even deeper discussion concerning the development of a radical philosophy of the subject, particularly by first expressing my agreement with those who pick-up on the valuable insight Adorno’s negative dialectics offers when it comes to a critique of epistemology (Fink, 2008; Foster, 2008; Miller, 2009; O’Connor, 1998; Smith, 2012/2015; Titchiner, 2016).

One of the strengths of Adorno’s analysis is in how it reveals, similar to Hegel, certain fundamental epistemological issues as entwined with the question of subject-formation (Sherman, 2007). The basic premise underlying Adorno’s critique is summarized nicely by David Sherman, namely how: “To the extent that we misconceive our relation to the objects of our experience, we deform of our experiences, and, therefore, ultimately our selves [emphasis added], given that subjectivity is the result of our experience” (Sherman, 2007, p. 273).

Adorno’s critique of Heidegger and Husserl is particularly notable along these lines (Adorno, 1992; Foster, 2008; Sherman, 2007), particularly when we consider his rejection of “constitutive subjectivity” which Adorno sees in a number of traditions of thought, from positivism and classical idealism to dogmatic rationalism (Sherman, 2007, p. 60). Furthermore, if the “Philosophy of origins took shape scientifically as epistemology”, Adorno dissects in rather brilliant fashion how, “[t]he latter wished to raise the absolutely first to the absolutely certain by reflecting on the subject” (Adorno, 1992, pp. 22). As Sherman reflects: what Adorno calls prima philosophia is a critique aimed at the “fundamentally misguided” inclination of thought found throughout the history of philosophy, namely, how the “absolute foundation” which is “necessarily held to be immediate”, “is itself, as a concept, mediated [emphasis added], and thus not the absolute, irreducible first as all “attempts to justify knowledge by way of this privilege category” claim (Sherman, 2007, pp. 60-61). This mediation, for purpose of clarity, is social. And the fact that concepts, like the subject, are mediated socially is one of Adorno’s most important lessons – lesson which remains as relevant today as when first formulated.

For the same reason as Sherman in his book Sartre and Adorno: The Dialectics of Subjectivity (2007), I dissected the significance of this insight concerning social mediation in my own study Consciousness and Revolt: An Exploration toward Reconciliation (2012/2015), wherein the point was emphasized that the coercive legacy of capitalism’s institutions and structures is entwined with the issue of subject-formation. What this is to say is that within the ‘bad social totality’, the process of subject development, of self-development, which is illuminated in the research emanating from self-psychology for example (Rogers, 1959, 1983; Stern, 1985; Shane et al., 1997; Buirski & Kottler, 2007; Lichtenberg & Kaplan, 2014), is entwined to whatever degree in the sociohistorical-cultural structures that contextualizes one’s general situation in the world.

Society, social institutions and structures and systems, impact the subject’s development, as we discussed in the previous section of this work. One step forward, whether subject-formation is generally healthy or unhealthy depends, significantly, on the extent in which one internalizes all of the antagonistic aspects of one’s sociohistorical-culture reality, which, it has to be said, is more often than not the case, as one simply cannot escape society today. To put it differently: in an authoritarian, coercive and dominant society, the subject is scarred – one might even say deformed – as it is unavoidable that we internalize whatever aspects of that negative reality that we are subjected too. On that point, does this analysis not support the thrust of Javier Sethness Castro’s argument when he writes: “childhood in late capitalism is little more than a preparatory stage for getting along: conformity, adjustment, and alienated labor. The system progressively negates the radical potential of the unintegrated child” (Castro, 2015).

Moreover, what is being indicated here is that as a result of our social mediation, our identities, our self-development, not to mention our general orientations with the world (Smith, 2012/2015) are partly or in some cases largely a product of our internalization of our sociohistorical-cultural structures (Piaget, 1929, 1977; Kelman, 1958; Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 2005; Wood, Lundgren et al., 1994; Gilbert, Fiske, and Lindzey, 1998; Freedheim & Weiner, 2003; Seifert, 2004; McLeod, 2007; Maschinot, 2008; Montgomery, 2008; Aronson, Wilson, & Robin, 2010; Krishnan, 2010; Doise & Palmonari, 2011; Titchiner, 2016). Thus, in many cases, personality disorders are developed (Rogers, 1959, 1983; Stern, 1985; Shane et al., 1997; Rowan, 2001; Buirski & Kottler, 2007; Lichtenberg & Kaplan, 2014). Neurosis as a result of bad or negative family upbringing is or may also be re-enforced (see above references).

In short: it is this reality of how sociohistorical structures are entwined with subject-formation that emphasizes the importance of not only a critique of political-economy or broader social-systemic forces and trends of organization, but even or especially such institutions as education, which can have such a dramatic impact on early childhood and overall individual development, for bad or for good (Fromm, 1955, 1960; Shostak, 1986; Kohn, 1993, 1999; Rowan, 2001; Illeris, 2007). Think, for example, of the damaging effects authoritarian education has on children and, more pointedly, on their developmental process as individual subjects. There is a reason why authoritarian, coercive and dominant social circumstances tend to foster or support the development of hardened, repressed subjectivities.

To state the issue differently, what I am indicating here is something that underlines much of Adorno’s social philosophy: a critique of the dialectical relation between the individual and society, structure and agency. That said, one should not mistake the position I am drawing as one which falls back into a hardened social determinism. As a matter of fact, Adorno’s position generally allows for one of the most substantive critiques of deterministic theory. He states in Negative Dialectics for instance: “Reflections on freedom and determinism sound archaic, as though dating from the early times of the revolutionary bourgeoisie. But that freedom grows obsolete without having been realized—this is not a fatality to be accepted; it is a fatality which resistance must clarify (Adorno, 1992, p. 215). Sherman writes, moreover: “Although subjectivity is plainly mediated by the existing sociohistorical structures, it also has the capacity to affect these very structures in turn, and therefore the self-identities they engender” (Sherman, 2007, p. 6). The point, once more, is that the relation between the subject and his or her sociohistorical-cultural conditions is a dialectical one. Thus, on the one hand, we can state conclusively that the subject is mediated socially and that sociohistorical-cultural structures have a significant part to play when it comes to shaping one’s development. On the other hand, social mediation like neurosis is never absolute, and thus we can also determine through a phenomenological study of consciousness (Smith, 2012/2015; Parton, 2015a) that the subject also always has the potential to affect those structures (Rogers, 1959, 1983; Shostak, 1986; Schmookler, 1988; Adorno, 1992; Rowan, 2001; Sherman, 2007; Smith, 2012/2015). Hitherto the radical philosophy of the subject I am drawing in this essay is one which simultaneously allows for a critique of social structures and system, their impact and interaction when it comes to subject development, whilst leaving room for recognition of the efficaciousness of the subject who can build transformative power and create societal change (Parton, 2015a).

Moving forward, what has also always felt significant to me when considering Adorno’s analysis along these lines, is the manner in which he offers a unique insight with regards to the entire cognitive dynamics of the bad social totality not only lived in and through the subject but also imprinted in the many institutions, systems and structures of what we now describe as the neoliberal phase of capitalist development. Moreover, I think it can be concluded in very clear terms how within modern capitalist society, within the modern social totality – with its dominant and coercive institutions and structures, as well as its deeply ingrained instrumental rationale and mode of cognition (Parton, 2015a), the subject is both produced and reproduced. Within this process of reproduction – not only are social norms, traditions as well as patterns and structures of behaviour reproduced (Bourdieu, 1980, 1984, 1986), but also a general mode of cognition (Adorno, 1992; Smith, 2012/2015). Within this mode of cognition not only is a questionable anthropology and epistemology found operating underneath, but more practically a critique emerges concerning both how we misconceive the phenomena of our thinking by way of the impulse toward identity and mastery – “the false universalizing tendency of thought” – and how we relate with our selves and with one another (Adorno, 1992; Sherman, 2007; Smith, 2012/2015).


On that point, allow me to now turn to a more theoretical discussion explicitly on Adorno. It has already been noted that Adorno’s negative dialectics offers important hypotheses when it comes to the speculative study of an alternative cognitive paradigm (Cook, 2008). His magnum opus (Adorno, 1992) was dedicated to exploring the broad coordinates of such an alternative paradigm (Cook, 2008), resulting in one of the most fascinating critiques of Kant and in the seminal formulation concerning the subject that is “spent and impoverished in its categorical performance” (Adorno, 1992, p. 139). Though I think we can break Adorno’s negative dialectics down to an exploration of an alternative epistemology, anthropology and cosmology (Smith, 2012/2015), what is so meaningful about his text is the way it provides a comprehensive early first-step toward a radical philosophy of the subject, especially when we consider Negative Dialectics in the context of Adorno’s social philosophy as a whole.

If in Adorno and Horkheimer’s dialectic of enlightenment, it is the anxious impulse of enlightenment thought to obliterate the particularity of objects (Smith, 2015b), then it was Adorno’s aim in Negative Dialectics and elsewhere to introduce the notion of an alternative cognitive paradigm that, to put it succinctly, is meant to run counter to the destructive paradigm of identity thinking. In his proposition of a new cognitive paradigm, Adorno developed the notion of non-identity thinking, which Cook (2008) summarises in relatively practical terms:

Claiming that identity thinking merely “says what something falls under, what it exemplifies or represents, and what, accordingly, it is not itself”, Adorno contrasts it to non-identity thinking …/ [which] identifies in “other ways” because it is not content merely to subsume objects under universal concepts with a view to manipulating and controlling them …/ In non-identity thinking, then, the “direction of conceptuality” is turned back towards non-conceptuality because concepts are generated in our embodied contact with material things, and they continue to refer to things by virtue of their meaning in which their relation to the non-conceptual survives (ND: 12). Yet concepts have a dual relation to objects. On the one hand, they de-pend on the non-conceptual matter that provides their content and is the source of their power to name. To convey “full, unreduced experience in the medium of conceptual reflection”, then, non-identity thinking must immerse itself in things (Ibid: 13). On the other hand, concepts transcend objects by heeding “a poten-tial that waits in the object”, and intending in the object “even that of which the object was deprived by objectification” (Ibid: 19). (pp. 10-11)

It is important to note here that, while Adorno offers a clear emphasis on the object, he does so for the sake of the subject. In an especially emblematic passage, Adorno (1992) writes:

What transmits the facts is not so much the subjective mechanism of their pre-formation and comprehension as it is the objectivity heteronomous to the subject, the objectivity behind that which the subject can experience. This objectivity is denied to the primary realm of subjective experience. It is preordinated to that realm. Wherever, in the current manner of speaking, judgment is too subjective at the present historical stage, the subject, as a rule, will automatically parrot the consensus omnium. To give the object its due instead of being content with the false copy, the subject would have to resist the average value of such objectivity and to free itself as a subject. It is on this emancipation, not on the subject’s insatiable repression, that objectivity depends today. The superiority of objectification in the subjects not only keeps them from becoming subjects; it equally prevents a cognition of objectivity. This is what became of what used to be called “the subjective factor.” It is now subjectivity rather than objectivity that is indirect, and this sort of mediation is more in need of analysis than the traditional one. (pp. 170-171)

As Sherman (2007) notes, “Adorno’s emphasis on the object, it should be clear, is largely for the sake of the subject. If it is “now subjectivity rather than objectivity that is in-direct,” it is because an “objectivity produced by identity thinking performs the subject’s world, and subjectivity becomes a mere function or it” (Sherman, p. 276). Because it is now subjectivity that is in-direct there is, in my own words, a sort of stunting or closing down that occurs between the subject and phenomena, which are reduced objects, wherein it is indicative of identity thought to no longer honour the particularity not to mention the multifariousness or multidimensionality of the object (Smith, 2012/2015).

In simpler terms, rather than giving a phenomenon its due, “constitute subjectivity”, instrumental reason – identity thinking – is more likely to hypostatise it and subsume it under an overwhelmingly (false) general category (Adorno, 1992). This type of experience tends to be extremely rigid, hardened, one-way and hierarchical: it is tantamount to a closing down of what I would term one’s intersubjective relation with a phenomenon or another person, i.e., subject-subject, precisely insofar that identity thought represents a break in the subject-object dialectic. It is, in even more simplistic terms, a dominant mode of experience (Smith, 2012/2015). The subject is driven to dominate the object, but not always directly as this mode of domination can also play out conceptually (Smith, 2012/2015; Smith, 2015b). The subject, no longer relinquishing itself to the object, no longer surrendering itself to the uniqueness of its experience, blocks the conceptual fluidity and healthy mediating moments of experience (mediation, in terms of the phenomenology of consciousness, is used differently here). For this reason we can say that, while subjectivity is always active and mediating, the amount in which a subject opens itself up to the object (as the object openness itself up to the subject) depends on the degree of conscious stunting that takes place (Adorno, 1992; Smith, 2012/2015).

This analysis can be considered, I think, as particularly crucial when it comes to a critique of the neoliberal subject: “to mistakenly see human social constructs in ontological terms when it reflects on its experience of the world, and without the idea of an embodied consciousness that freely strives to make the world its own” (Sherman, 2007, p. 6). One can say that, although analysed via different conceptual language and ultimately theorized in another way, a similar phenomenon of hypostatization, of identity thought and of “constitutive subjectivity” is be found in several different fields of study and lines of critique, especially if we consider my framing that what Adorno was working toward is actually a notion of the mediating and free-flourishing subject (Sherman, 2007) as opposed to what we might generally describe as a closed, repressed, cognitively hardened, and consciously stunted subject (Smith, 2012/2015). Add to that the existential dimension that I propose underlines Adorno’s dialectic of enlightenment – most notably an anxiety, fear or threatenedness which propels the subject to dominate internal and external nature – the cross-analogous research and hypotheses from a variety of disciplines is simply stunning.

Consider, for example, Carl Rogers important and widely referenced study on a theory of personality, which reflects, in not so dissimilar terms, “the development of incongruence between self and experience” (Rogers, 1959) and what we might describe, in Adornian language, as the problem of “hypostatization” (Adorno, 2002). It can also be said that existential-psychology plays with similar themes in relation to the self (Rowan, 2001). Then there is Babette Rothschild’s (et al.) fascinating research in the area of psychophysiology, Jean Piaget’s work concerning a study of cognitive development (1977), Thomas J. Owens work in phenomenology and intersubjectivity (1970), Knud Illeris’ (among many other’s) research in education (2007), Tara Lynn Gruenewald emerging work in and around the acute threat to the social self (2003), or the similarly fascinating phenomenological research emanating from out of the cognitive sciences (Gallagher and Zahavi, 2007) and self psychology (Shane et al., 1997; Buirski and Kottler, 2007; Lichtenberg, and Kaplan, 2014). This does not even scratch the surface, let alone do enough justice to my suggestion that there is significant cross-disciplinary connections to the sort of radical philosophy of the subject one might read in Adorno (see my list of references, which only begin to scratch the surface): one can also cite research in cognitive behavioural therapy (Titchiner, 2016), cognitive science (Gallagher and Zahavi, 2007; Brook, 2008; Kriegel, 2013), Gallagher, S. neurophenomenology (Gallagher, 2009), neurology (Fullman, 2015), and in psychotherapy (Yalom, 1980; Brammer & Shostrom, 1982; Rowan, 2001; Brandchaft, 2010).

Preserving this last point for a little later, what’s important to point out is how, for Adorno (1992), “if the “subjective factor” was not overrun by objectivity’s “false copy” – a social lowest common denominator that constitutes the “average value of objectivity” – it would not fail to identify in such a way that it would contribute this “subjective factor”, which is the result of “self-reflection”: “Non-identity is the secret telos of identification […]. Dialectically, cognition of non-identity also lies in the fact that this very cognition identifies – that it identifies to a greater extent, and in other ways, than identity thinking” (Adorno, p.149). Self-reflection, the “subjective factor” that is currently overwhelmed, is the mediating moment in the subject, and this mediating moment, in turn, presupposes the subject-object dialectic” (Sherman, 2007) and our working through it. In passing, it is this problem of what I shall tentatively label as the repression of the mediating moment of experience – of experiential coherence – which really lies at the heart of the conflict when it comes to moral theory based on empathy (Fulman, 2015).

To approach the issue differently: there is no wholly non-reflective human person. Self-reflection is in other words an organic mode of our experiential experience (Smith, 2012/2015), a point which can be affirmed via a phenomenological study of consciousness (Smith, 2012/2015). Irrespective of how one’s experiences might become distorted, stunted or overwhelmed by objectivity’s “false copy”, one cannot not be self-reflective in the same way that one cannot not experience (due to the intentional aspect of consciousness). Every experience we have, moreover, ultimately depends on our interacting with a phenomenon, because, as we learn in phenomenology, especially that after Husserl (as read in Sartre, for example), it is through ‘conscious intentionality’ that we are constantly orientating ourselves toward the world: that is, we are always consciously focused on some thing (Wider, 1997; Smith, 2012/2015). But it is how this mediating, this subject-subject interaction, this openness of the subject, gets blocked that is one of the fundamental problems we must address, as the implications of this “repression of the mediating moment of experience” or what I call “experiential coherence” (Smith, 2012/2015) has serious implication with regards to the possibility of radical praxis (see, for example, my past series on Occupy-style politics).

In closing, what I would like to point out is that this “repression of the mediating moment of experience” is not always ideologically related. Nor is it always necessarily the product of a negative, dominant mode of cognition or existential impulse to dominant internal and external nature (Smith, 2015b). As we learn in psychology and other fields of research, this “conscious stunting” (Smith, 20120/2015) can also be the result of basic neurosis and anxiety, a sense of acute threat to one’s self, or even simply because one is so overwhelmed by their present social reality that they simply need to shut-down in order to emotionally survive (consider, for example, the phenomenon of “compassion fatigue”).

5) Stupidity is a scar

In the context of all that has been discussed, I would like to now turn our attention to an issue which has bothered me for quite some time: namely, the phenomenon of stupidity and the dehumanizing of people as “stupid”. There was a 2003 documentary entitled Stupidity, which was all the rage among progressives in Hollywood and elsewhere. In this documentary, directed by Albert Nerenberg, “the persistence of stupidity throughout human history” is examined. In the process, “the origins of the dunce cap and the word “moron” are explained, while prominent figures from Noam Chomsky to John Cleese share their thoughts on the subject”. Narrating the film, “Nerenberg argues that many people deliberately present themselves as stupid because society at large prefers them that way, focusing especially on President George W. Bush”. I found the analysis in this film quite significant in more ways than one. However, if I have one complaint, it is a deeply important if not fundamental one: namely, the manner in which the social reproduction of stupidity as the result of the (de)formation of the subject (Adorno, 1992; Adorno & Horkheimer, 2002; Sherman, 2007) was ignored.

In a fragment toward the end of Dialectic of Enlightenment (1964/2002), we read a fascinating series of reflections on the problem of stupidity which I believe can be developed into an even more fundamental course of analysis[iv]. Horkheimer writes (to quote in full):

The emblem of intelligence is the feeler of the snail, the creature “with the fumbling face”, with which, if we can believe Mephistopheles, it also smells. Meeting an obstacle, the feeler is immediately withdrawn into the protection of the body, it becomes one with the whole until it timidly ventures forth again as an autonomous agent. If the danger is still present, it disappears once more, and the intervals between the attempts grow longer. Mental life in its earliest stages is infinitely delicate. The snail’s sense is dependent on a muscle, and muscles grow slack if their scope for movement is impaired. The body is crippled by physical injury, the mind by fear. In their origin both effects are inseparable. […] Each time an animal looks out with curiosity a new form of the living dawns, a form which might emerge from the clearly formed species to which the individual creature belongs. But it is not only this specific form which holds it back in the security of the old state; the force which its look encounters is resistance, millions of years old, which has imprisoned it at its present stage from the first, and which, constantly renewed, inhibits every step which goes beyond that stage. That first, tentative look is always easily repelled; behind it stand goodwill, fragile hope, but no continuous energy. In the direction from which it has been definitely scared off the animal becomes shy and stupid.

Stupidity is a scar. It can relate to one faculty among many or to them all, practical and mental. Every partial stupidity in a human being marks a spot where the awakening play of muscles has been inhibited instead of fostered. With the inhibition, the vain repetition of unorganized, awkward attempts originally began. The child’s endless questions are already a sign of a secret pain, a serious question to which it has found no answer and which it cannot frame in its proper form. The repetition half resembles playful determination, as when a dog endlessly leaps against a door it has not learned how to open, finally giving up if the handle is too high, and half corresponds to hopeless compulsion, as when a lion paces endlessly up and down in its cage or a neurotic repeats the defense reaction which has already proved futile. If the child has wearied of its repetitions, or if the thwarting has been too brutal, its attention can turn in another direction; the child is richer in experience, as one says, but at the point where its impulse has been blocked a scar can easily be left behind, a slight callous where the surface is numb. Such scars lead to deformations. They can produce ‘characters’ hard and capable; they can produce stupidity, in the form of deficiency symptoms, blindness, or impotence, if they turn cancerous within. Goodwill is turned to ill will by the violence it suffers. And not only the forbidden question but the suppressed imitation, the forbidden weeping or the forbidden reckless game, can give rise to such scars. Like the genera within the series of fauna, the intellectual gradations within the same species, indeed, the blind spots within the same individual, mark the points where hope has come to a halt and in their ossification bear witness to what holds all living things in thrall. (pp.213-214)

In this terrific passage, Horkheimer is essentially laying out a theory regarding the genesis of stupidity as entwined in the process of subject (de)formation. Because David Sherman (2007) has already provided a rich and detailed account of the (de)formation of the subject, particularly in terms of Adorno’s analysis of it, I will not venture to repeat this vitally important investigation. Rather, what I would like to elaborate is how, in Adorno’s analysis of the genesis of bourgeois subjectivity, his critical assessment of subject (de)formation in relation to the historical unfolding of capitalism’s institutions and structures is second to none (Sherman, 2007). In line with the aim of this series, I argue that Adorno’s analysis in this area and several of the critical concepts he draws remain entirely relevant. On the back of Sherman’s reading of Adorno, in which my own approach to the issue of subject (de)formation is philosophically and theoretically inspired, I would like to elaborate on a certain aspect of Adorno’s theory: namely, the result of the hardened subject as it has already undergone practice. Moreover, what concerns me here is the lack of openness (Smith, 2012/2015) toward the “non-conceptual moreness of experience (Adorno, 1992; Sherman, 2007; Smith, 2012/2015) as it relates to a critical theory of stupidity.

If what I claimed earlier is accurate, namely, that we can deduce, even if in over-simplistic terms, that Adorno’s philosophy of the subject can be broken down into two poles – the hardened, repressed subject and the open, mediating, free-flourishing subject – I want to argue, in advancing Horkheimer’s intriguing series of reflections, that stupidity is in essence the manifestation of damaged subjectivity. Further, I think the insight offered by Adorno that the subject today is almost entirely exhausted of subjectivity, supports the notion of stupidity as more or less the absence (although not complete absence) of subjectivity in the subject. If Adorno wants “to use the strength of the subject to break through the fallacy of constitutive subjectivity” (Adorno, 1992; p. xx), expounding in turn “philosophical experience”, the analogies we can draw between Adorno’s critique of instrumental reason and the regress of the enlightenment to irrationality and the persistence of stupidity throughout human history are astounding. Consider, as one example, the section of Negative Dialectics entitled “Cogitative Self-Reflection”. Adorno (1992) writes:

The force of consciousness extends to the delusion of consciousness. It is rationally knowable where an unleashed, self-escaping rationality goes wrong, where it becomes true mythology. The ratio recoils into irrationality as soon as in its necessary course it fails to grasp that the disappearance of its substrate—however diluted—is its own work, the product of its own abstraction. When thinking follows its law of motion unconsciously, it turns against its own sense, against what has been thought, against that which calls a halt to the flight of subjective intentions. The dictates of its autarky condemn our thinking to emptiness; in the end, subjectively, the emptiness becomes stupidity and primitivity. Regression of consciousness is a product of its lack of self-reflection. We can see through the identity principle, but we cannot think without identifying. Any definition is identification. (pp. 148-149)

It is clear that what Adorno is focused on is a critique of “identity thought”. However, I want to argue that the sort of stupidity I am seeking to assess here is also directly linked to identity thinking – the mode of subjectivity which, as a product of a highly distorted cognitive paradigm (Cook, 2011), is so withdrawn in itself that the subject, “thinking to emptiness”, performs in the world as if turning “against its own sense”, regressing not only to a state of a “lack of self-reflection”. Moreover, the sort of regression I want to consider here is different to what Robert Hullot-Kentor, a leading Adornian scholar, describes as “a person who” is “becoming immanent to the social structure […] immanent, that is, to a progressive dynamic of primitivization” (Kentor, 2008). He continues, “[t]he emergence of this person” amounts “to the reduction of life at a highest level of technical achievement to the primordial struggle for survival in a fashion that demolishes the self. It is survival at the price of the very self that self-preservation wants to protect in the first place. It is self-assertion as self-renunciation; a structure in which the primitive effort at the manipulation of reality through external sacrifice becomes the no less primitive internal structure of the modern self in its effort at survival” (Kentor, 2008). In response, one may recall in the last article of this series a discussion on self-preservation in relation to a key thesis in Dialectic of Enlightenment. We learned, for example, that a particular “self-preservation, which exemplifies enlightenment self-assertion”, is entwined in a drive for power and control (i.e, domination of internal nature), referring to the “preservation of a particular ego structure that separates a human being both from nature and other human beings” (Sherman, 2007, p. 185). The result, “when taken to the extreme”, not only threatens to destroy “its bid for self-preservation […] but ultimately threatens its self-preservation as well” (Sherman, 1985, p. 185).

Rather than this more philosophical plane of analysis, the type of regression I want to propose is present in the contemporary “culture of stupidity” (Woliver, 2008) is one which is simply a product of the subject’s withdrawal, enforced by both the (de)formation of the subject – that is, the issue of the damaged or scarred subject – and also by the modern cognitive paradigm described earlier. I see both of these dimensions of the genesis of “stupidity” to be entwined, finally, in the sort of generally existentially threatened, fearful, anxious subject fostered in contemporary society (Furedi, 2007; Smith, 2012/2015, 2015b). To quote Sherman (2007):

Accordingly, for Adorno, the ego – in wrestling us from the absolute violence that was inherent in our undifferentiated oneness with nature – must be understood as offering a promissory note on a future reconciliation whose redemption is endangered by subjects that continue to fetishize the threat that scarcity presents for self-preservation [emphasis added] even after the objective conditions that gave rise to this threat have been largely overcome. As he states in “Sociology and Psychology”, “what society, for the sake of its own survival, justly demands of each individual is at the same time unjust for each individual and, ultimately, for society itself”, but at this historical stage it is now the case that “given objective possibilities, adjustment to society should no longer be a necessity”: Self-preservation succeeds only to the extent that, as a result of self-imposed regression, self-development fails. (p. 229)

What I am indicating here is if the hypothesis is correct that there is an existential dimension to the dialect of enlightenment (2015b), fear is seen to have played a significant role in the dawn of the subject through to the enlightenment and finally also in twenty-first century consciousness (Furedi, 2007). But fear, as I mentioned in my past article, is not only purely existential – as in a pure reaction to one’s existential circumstance in the world – it is also social-existential, cognitive, psychological, emotional, and so on. Could it be that, generally, in society which manufactures (artificially) economic scarcity as well as a general sense of social and political threatenedness, including a political economy that threatens the individual of impending economic shortage and the possible shortage of jobs necessary to secure one’s own ‘livelihood’ – in such horrendously coercive and terrifying social conditions, is it not possible that the sense of fear induced, after so many years, entices one to withdraw in the same sense as the feeler of the snail? Additionally, is there a link to be drawn between the following passage by Adorno and sociohistorical-cultural structures that produce the necessary preconditions for the emergence of the “culture of stupidity”?

Indeed isn’t the simplest perception modelled on the fear of what is perceived, or the desire for such? It is true that the objective meaning of cognitions has, with the objectification of the world, separated itself ever further from the basis of the drives; it is true that cognition fails, where its objectified achievement remains under the baleful spell of the wishes. However if the drives are not at the same time sublated in the thought, which escapes such a baleful spell, then there can be no cognition anymore, and the thought which kills the wish, its father, will be overtaken by the revenge of stupidity. Memory is tabooed as uncalculable, unreliable, irrational. […] The castration of perception, however, by a controlling authority, which refuses it any desiring anticipation, thereby compels it into the schema of the powerless repetition of what is already familiar. That nothing more is actually allowed to be seen, amounts to the sacrifice of the intellect. […] Once the final emotional trace is effaced, what solely remains of thinking is absolute tautology. (Adorno, 2005, pp. 122-123)

As Norbert Elias wrote in The Civilising Process Vol 2: State Formation and Civilization (1982): “the strength, kind and structures of the fears and anxieties that smoulder or flare in the individual never depend solely on his own “nature”’. Rather they are ‘always determined, finally by the history and the actual structure of his relations to other people” (p. 19). Frank Furedi (2007) summarizes the author’s analysis, writing that:

Fear is one of the most important mechanisms through which ‘the structures of society are transmitted to individual psychological functions’. He argued that the ‘civilized character’ is partly constructed by people’s internalisation of fears. This is a striking and important insight into the history of fear and society (18). Unfortunately, Elias’ insights have not been developed in relation to the contemporary experience of fear. Indeed, today writers and thinkers tend to use the term ‘fear’ as a taken-for-granted concept that needs little explanation or elaboration.

We live in an “Age of Anxiety”. It may be true that this age of anxiety (Twenge, 2000; Horwitz, 2010) is particularly relevant to 21st century society. That said, I want to ask in addition to this point: could it be that in a social reality which is increasingly intensifying the manufacturing of fear (Furedi, 2007), the internalisation, repression and ultimately the “closedness” (Smith, 2012/2015) of the subject is also intensifying? In turn, is it not the case that as a result of this “closedness” there also result a closedness or shutting down of self-reflective experience, including, of course, critical self-reflective thought toward objects, phenomena and one’s social conditions, as a such a course of experience necessarily requires openness and experiential coherence (Smith, 2012/2015). If, as Astrid Oesmann (2012) writes, “projection and internalization create the self and its understanding of all aspects of the outside material world” (p.14), as the subject orientates themselves experientially via (consciousness) intentionality, the subject “develops an image of the world by processing and ordering unending sensory traces of perception” (p.14) from within a negative social reality. In doing do, “subject formation enters the temporal realm” when the subject learns to establish what Adorno (1992) calls “synthetische Einheit” (synthetic unity) as identity” (Oesmann, 2012, p. 201; citing Adorno, 1992, p. 201). Thus the “self imprisons itself” in a “social context of blindness” (Oesmann, 2012, p. 8, 12, 15).

Additionally, with fear – socially induced and deeply existential fear – the repression entailed in one’s general subscription ‘of the convention of received thought’, which, itself, has been increasingly emptied of substance in the mainstream, plays directly into the thoughtlessness of repeating patterns and traditions of behaviour which, finally, once longstanding enough to be the basic course of experience, manufactures stupidity (Erdle, 2013). In a play on Adorno in Minima Moralia, where he writes on Flaubert, I am inclined to draw reference to the following passage: “But he underestimated stupidity: the society which he represented cannot name itself, and with its development into a totality, intelligence has developed absolutely along with stupidity. This eats away at the power-centers of intellectuals” (Adorno, 2005, p. 100).

But if the “impact of fear is determined by the situation people find themselves in” and also, “to some extent, the product of social construction”, we can also say that “[f]ear is determined by the self, and the interaction of the self with others; it is also shaped by a cultural script that instructs people on how to respond to threats to their security” (Furedi, 2007). In another passage from Minima Moralia, Adorno (2005) exclaims this very point: “Even if it were, strictly speaking, stupidity, this remains historically determinable: stupidity is above all no natural quality, but something socially produced and socially amplified” (pp. 105-106).

Thus, in the constant ridicule concerning the stupidity of human beings, there may be a more natural foolishness when it comes to being human – a foolishness not always that far from play – but stupidity, as generally criticised, I want to say is more a product of social conditions than anything else. The closed, repressed subject is constantly looking to protect what he or she knows, to “guard the old particularity” (Adorno, 1992, p. 283; Sherman, 2007, p. 281). They want, writes Horkheimer (2002), to maintain “the security of the old state” to the extent that, the internalized fear and trauma, “inhibits every step”. Thus, “[in] the direction from which it has been definitely scared off the animal becomes shy and stupid” (pp. 213-214). If, in other words, “stupidity is a scar”, this is because it is a deep scab formed on the damaged subject, the flip side of the sort of fear and anguish and terror I’ve described in this series: “the status of human subjectivity” as “the inflation of the threat that external forces pose to the individual self” (Furedi, 2007). Considering a critique of the phenomenon of stupidity along these distinctly sociological and psychological lines, there is a reason Horkheimer and Adorno went on to extend the example from “snail” to humanity (Livraghi, 2011). It is possible that intelligence is scary, that new knowledge is disturbing (Livraghi, 2011). But we must also ask ourselves: do our current social conditions actually foster anything less than the snail seeking asylum in its protective shell?

6) Standardization, popular music, dialectic of enlightenment, and ego-colonization

The fact remains – or at least this is how I read Adorno – the systemic relation between humans’ practical existential-relation to the world and the production and reproduction of social domination pervades the dialectic of enlightenment. Consider Adorno’s critique of popular music for example. One of the key tenants of his fundamental critique of popular music concerns what Adorno identifies as ‘musical products’ and how popular music fosters passivity in the listener, especially in the sense of how people listen to mass-produced, popular cultural hits (i.e., top-40 hits) without ‘actually listening to them at all’ (Smith, 2013b). Adorno’s point here is, as can be observed in a study on the phenomenology of popular music, that people already know through habit of listening to the standardised and mechanical beats what’s going to happen or transpire in the musical composition. In other words, the argument is that we already know when Lady Gaga starts playing on the radio what we’re going to hear, even before we hear it. In the world of mass produced music, in the very experience itself, standardisation acts as a sort of regularisation of sensational patterns. As a result of the conformity of these patterns there is a sort of lulling effect which, in a manner of speaking, is almost (inter)subjectively stunting. Thus, one may insert a broad critique of modern subjectivity. However, in keeping to the appropriate path, Adorno (1941) writes:

Standardization of song hits keeps the customers in line doing their thinking for them, as it were. Pseudo-individuation, for its part, keeps them in line by making them forget that what they listen to is wholly intended for them or predigested…Standardization, moreover, means the strengthening of the lasting domination of the listening public and of their conditioned reflexes. They are expected to want that to which they have become accustomed and to become enraged whenever their expectations are disappointed and fulfillment, which they regard as the customer’s inalienable right, is denied, and even if there were attempts to introduce anything really different into light music, they would be deceived from the start by virtue of economic concentration. (p. 25)

Standarisation, as Adorno is describing here, is a product of instrumental reason as considered in a critique of enlightenment rationality in Dialectic of Enlightenment. But as I argued in a past essay (Smith, 2013b): not only does the vast majority (albeit not all) of popular music serve to extend the instrumental consciousness of the repressive cycles of the everyday work week in capitalist society, particularly by establishing passive listening and therefore self-reflective habits which mediates day to day existence, from labour to leisure and consumerism, of the subject; therefore resulting in “the lasting domination of the listening public and of their conditioned reflexes” (Adorno, 1983, p. 124). This “lasting domination of the listening public” also serves another purpose outside of the cultural maintenance of capitalist control on the level of the subject: it is serves, existentially, to subdue the subject on the basis of his/her active want to be subdued.

To escape the existential realities and trials of life as well as negative or antagonistic socially-induced realities and trials (i.e., the intense work week, the psychological trauma and repression of capitalist life), standardized music plays a duel role: one of control and one of self-subduing comfort.

It is precisely by also considering the existential level of critique, which highlights, to borrow the words of Adorno (1983), the nearly insurmountable character “of a phenomenon which is inherently contingent and arbitrarily reflects something of the arbitrary nature of present social controls” (p. 124).

The problem with Adorno is that he pits too much on the side of the culture industry as an explicit measure of direct control and coercion, as the subject becomes passive on behalf of the capitalist scheme to make him/her so. This issue with Adorno’s argument regarding the culture industry and passivity is well documented. But what if we twist Adorno’s words a bit and ask: why does the subject expect “to want only that to which they have become accustomed and to become enraged whenever their expectations are disappointed and fulfillment, which they regard as the customer’s inalienable right, is denied”? To say it is purely due to negative economic forces is too, well, economistic. Is there not, to play on Marcuse, a neurotic element as well? Can surplus repression not be driven by the subject, which wants to forget their neurosis?

This is surely a central trait of consumer capitalism, in that it is driven to help the subject forget, to passively move from image to image, from spectacle to spectacle, without the need for self-reflective experience which, ultimately, as the best of humanistic psychology shows us, is tied to the intimate development of ‘self’, of one’s emotional experiences and therefore also a confrontation with one’s neurosis.

In terms of an existential-phenomenological analysis, I describe this phenomenon as “conscious evasion”, which, I argue, capitalism strengthens, therefore deepening surplus repression, not only due to the dominant and coercive historical, social and economic relations it produces, but also through its fostering of cultural conditions which are driven more toward maintaining a repressed subject as opposed to supporting and fostering a process of healthy subject (self-) development that encourages the individual to be open to the world, to divergence or otherwise, and therefore too themselves. This was, in many ways, the pulse of my thesis in Consciousness and Revolt. In the very least, this level of critique directs one’s attention to the degree of cultural-production of insensitivity, which is a notable feature amongst the worst of consumer capitalism. In Consciousness and Revolt, for example, I argued along similar lines to my engagement with Adorno’s critique of popular music – i.e., listening is cultural and pop-music supports the development of the opposite of an intentive listening subject. The general thrust here is that domination and violence becomes a cultural imprint, a point once again not unfamiliar to Adorno. In other words: in a society where domination and violence is increasingly openly tolerated, in a society which fosters a hardened, repressed subject as opposed to an open, free-flourishing and sensitive subject (Sherman, 2007), one has to ask the question of the structural and systemic construction of that society. In doing so, one must also ask the question of the status of the modern subject, if we consider early Marx’s materialism in which we are challenged to see the constructed character of social objects and institutions, behind that social construction (Vogel, 2011, p. 196).

From Freud to Marcuse, from the earliest developments of existential psychology to contemporary humanistic and self psychology, we read variations around this same theme: capitalism undoubtedly controls, manipulates and coerces. It is a dominant social system which fosters, in Adornian language, “regressive” tendencies. But – and here is a point I shall repeat once more – the subject, already active and in practice within the existing social order – is both actively produced and constituted as well as constitutes. This is one reason why, in my engagement with Adorno, I argued in a past book that any ontology of the subject must be treated with great suspicion, as attempts to ontologize the subject more often than not reproduce the worst of capitalist reason: to treat as ‘natural’ what is actually socially constructed or constituted (i.e., early Marx’s notion of alienation).

When it comes to social critique and, too, the consideration of the development of systemic alternatives, the general direction of thought presented above is quite revealing if not thought-provokingly gripping. But my emphasis here on the subject and on the existential dimension needs further explanation, before we turn our focus back to Dialectic of Enlightenment. A brief re-production of a line of discussion in my book The Ticklish Subject? will prove of great assistance, particularly as it also brings back into focus David Sherman’s book Sartre and Adorno: The Dialectics of Subjectivity. For Sherman (2007) – and I quite agree with his reading – Adorno’s engagement with Freud evokes one of the most seminal accounts of the oedipal complex, especially when one comes to understand Adorno’s central thesis regarding the ‘(de)formation of the subject’ and, significantly, the ‘colonisation of the ego’. Moreover, Sherman systemically picks through Adorno’s oeuvre and in the process quite rightly highlights that for Adorno the psyche, long extracted from the social dialectic (see Adorno’s critique of Freud’s concept of the unconscious in “Sociology and Psychology”, 1968), must be dragged back into the social dialectic, which happens to also be “the position Marcuse takes in Eros and Civilisation” (Sherman, 2007, p. 225). In doing so, Adorno was right to suggest that “the more strictly the psychological realm is conceived as an autonomous, self-enclosed play of forces, the more completely the subject is drained of his subjectivity” (Adorno, 1968; p, 81). To be sure, Adorno’s goal was a theory of the liberation of the subject, and this is certainly consistent with his overwhelming anti-authoritarianism. The tension in Adorno’s thought, however, which some author’s seem to pick up on but never clearly articulate, is, as Sherman (2007) identifies, “the same tension” in Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization:

If the ego fails to differentiate itself by virtue of the fact that it has been colonized by the institutional structures of society (bourgeois or fascist), it not only effectively cancels itself out as an agent, but, in the process, it also immediately transmits to the unconscious those social aims that would otherwise be subject to the critical capacities of a well-functioning, mediating ego – aims that actually contradict the goals of the primary libido. In other words, if the primary libido is what Adorno intends by the “nature of the subject”, which ideally serves as a reminder of the nondominating possibilities of genuinely enlightened thought (DOE, p. 40), the transposition of societal aims directly into the unconscious (due to a colonized ego structure’s inability to filter out the irrational) would effectively negate the possibility of the “remembrance” [of nature] that would permit the libido to serve as this source of resistance. And, indeed, this is precisely the aim of fascist propaganda. (p. 226)

In critique of Freud’s Oedipal Complex which I referenced earlier in this work, what Adorno is rightly challenging, too, is how: “the internalisation of external authority [is] the deeply problematic outcome of the dialectic of enlightenment” (Sherman, 2007, p. 228) – that is, of the manifesting tendencies of coercive society to maintain control, and, indeed domination through top-down application inasmuch as also through the subject. As Adorno (1968) brilliantly describes in “Sociology and Psychology”, a passage also quoted by Sherman:

The social power-structure hardly needs the mediating agencies of ego and individuality any longer. An out-ward sign of this is, precisely, the spread of so-called ego psychology, whereas in reality the individual psychological dynamic is replaced by the partly conscious and partly regressive adjustment of the individual to society …/ A brutal, total, standardising society arrests all differentiation, and to this end it exploits the primitive core of the unconscious. Both conspire to annihilate the mediating ego; the triumphant archaic impulses, the victory of id over ego, harmonise with triumph of the society over the individual. (p. 95)

While Adorno hangs onto Freud’s Oedipal Complex, the father’s authority enters the developmental process, bringing with him a pre-distorted notion of authority already in practice in society, which is therefore internalised by the child. Sherman (2007) argues, “According to Adorno (who is certainly of the view that the Oedipal Complex is itself a manifestation of untoward authority), it is only by working through the Oedipal Complex that the critical reason needed for opposing authority is engendered” (p. 228). The problem for Adorno, however, is in how: in “totally administered society” – a concept which is becoming increasingly evident in our contemporary times – authority “goes over the head of the father to exercise control over the child, and in this way precludes the critical reason that could one day undermine it” (Sherman, 2007, p. 228). In other words, while Adorno “views the Oedipal Complex as a perpetrator of the enlightenment’s regressive tendencies”, crucially, “he laments its passing, as its internalisation processes held open the space for a mediating ego that could serve as a site of resistance” (Sherman, 2007, p. 228).

7) Conceptualizing social pathology: Toward a radical philosophy of psychology

What’s even more important to note here is that, if we recall our earlier discussion, Adorno views “ego formation in negative terms rather than as a tangled historical achievement that contains violent elements” because, while “these elements are necessary for the ego’s genesis and are built into its structure such that they can never be wholly purged” in the same way that there is no pure childhood upbringing, “they also provide the basis for ego coherence” insofar as a “break through the fallacy of constitutive subjectivity” as entirely linked “to a rigidified ego structure” (Sherman, 2007, p. 228).

In turn, if a society built on three tiered domination (Zuidervaart, 2007; Smith, 2015b) of internal and external nature encourages or indeed fosters, very generally speaking, a repressed, closed, traumatized subject, what we have here is a foundational critical social philosophical view of the phenomenon of social pathology. It is this issue of social pathology in relation to a broad critical social philosophical perspective that I would like examine in the conclusion of the first part of this two part article. My analysis here will lead directly into the many important themes in part two, including a critical retrieval of humanistic psychology and the development of a radical philosophy of psychology in relation to the notion of emancipatory politics as healing.

To begin, what I mean by “social pathology”, in the most simplistic and fundamental sense, refers to the relation between social systems and structures – such as those in neoliberal capitalist society – and the development, actions and behaviours of the subject as well as the general common issues of unhealthy psychic and emotional life. Such a concept of social pathology is not only social, political, economic and cultural, it also refers to a critique of the dominant cognitive paradigm and other important issues, such as a critical analysis of the violent and dominant epistemology of everyday life (Titchiner, 2016). It is a definition of social pathology which is both supported by systematic research within and across psychology as well as theorized, in broader social philosophical terms, by Adorno in his analysis of the genesis of the bourgeois subject as historically related to the unfolding of capitalism’s institutions and structures. However, while Adorno’s critical theory certainly supports the concept of social pathology that I have been working toward in this work and will more directly conceptualize below, perhaps it is Erich Fromm, another member of the early Frankfurt School, who provides the most systematic analysis. As Collin Harris (2010) writes:

The many glaring ills of contemporary Western society have come into sharp focus in the socio-political and philosophical thought of the past two centuries. The cultural pathologies of modern Western society abound, embedded in every dimension of our lives, manifesting themselves in various forms pathological behavior. Within conventional psychological and psychoanalytic frameworks, such matters are often (perhaps mistakenly) treated as essentially individual phenomena. Poor mental health in society is a matter of individual maladjustment. In response to this hopelessly reductionist approach, Erich Fromm proposed the much more radical notion of a fundamental “unadjustment of the culture itself.” Perhaps conceiving of social pathology as an individual deviation from an otherwise healthy and well functioning whole is a false start. It is certainly within the realm of possibility that modern Western society is haunted by what Fromm called a “pathology of normalcy” – when the “normal” functioning of society is itself a disturbing pattern of collective pathology.

In a culture in which the individual is enmeshed in a myriad of complex social structures, systems, and institutions wielding enormous force and influence over daily life, it is appropriate to at least critically address whether the social order itself is in fact sane. The general theme of the following analysis is that Western society is indeed trapped in this pathology of normalcy, rooted in what are fundamentally anti-human properties of capitalist social relations and economic and cultural institutions. It is both the concrete conditions of these arrangements and the values that underlie them that will shed light on the psychological state of contemporary Western society.

Contrary to Axel Honneth, whose overall project has become increasingly reformist and theoretically questionable (Freyenhagen, 2015b), and whose distinction between social pathologies and misdevelopments coincides with a less than adequate perspective of pathologies (Freyenhagen, 2015b) that differs from “social accumulation of individual pathologies or psychological disorders” (Honneth, 2014; also quoted in Freyenhagen, 2015b), I would like to argue toward a different conceptualization. This alternative conceptualization is, once again, informed by an extensive cross-disciplinary and systematic research program (Barnes, 1939; Lemert, 1951; Kelman, 1958; Wood, Lundgren et al., 1994; Braun, 1995; Gilbert, Fiske, and Lindzey, 1998; Goode & Maskovsky, 2001; O’Connor, 2001; William, 2001; Freedheim & Weiner, 2003; Büchs, 2007; McLeod, 2007; Fuchs, T, Schlimme, J., 2009; Fromm, 1955, 1960, 1964, 1994, 2010; Aronson, Wilson, & Robin, 2010; Freyenhagen, 2015b). It is also inspired by Fabian Freyenhagen’s (2015b) analysis, where he argues that what is “calling out” today is, in fact, a radical alternative conceptualization than that which is proposed by Honneth and Christopher F. Zurn. Whether my own intervention and conceptualization throughout this work – introduced in part one and developed further in part two – is similar to Freyenhagen’s view is a question currently without an answer.

With that said, Freyenhagen (2015b) offers some indication of direction, when he writes that “an alternative proposal of how to do this is necessary”, particularly “one that leaves space for radical social critique and that conceptualized them in terms of detriments to individual well-being that is socially caused” . I would argue that, in working through Adorno’s philosophy of the subject and in considering a cross-field analysis by way of an extensive program of study and research in psychology, I have begun to work toward just such a conceptualization that recognizes, in a very deep way, socially caused detriments to human well-being. Much, indeed, still remains to be said and needs to be developed, both in and beyond the limits of my analysis in this article. But I think that in using Adorno as a primary social philosophical basis for a deeper conceptualization of social pathology, and then also turning to Fromm (2010) for guidance, the aim becomes clear: to “approach social pathologies less as a unified set of phenomena with the same necessary and sufficient conditions than as a set of related and partly overlapping phenomena”, and to “carry out a research programme of a constellation of phenomena that mainstream liberal theory either cannot capture at all or only inadequately – a programme that, at the same time, does not domesticate social critique or eschew normative individualism” (Freyenhagen, 2015b).

In passing, it is important to mention that the topic of social pathology will also be developed further in my forthcoming study on social suffering and trauma that serves as a direct follow-up to this two part article. In combination of both works, I tend to believe that my position shares many similarities with the one Freyenhagen (2015b) sketches out. Moving forward, I argue that what is required is a concept of social pathology grounded in a broader, foundational critical social philosophy (again, not to be confused with foundationalism), much in the same vein as my argument in part two when it comes to psychology more generally. In other words: we need to recognize, as I have indicated throughout, the relation between social pathology and cycles of domination and violence produced and reproduced in and beyond capitalist societies. Such a view of social pathology does not only concern psychological or emotional life. Grounded in critical theory – in a broader social philosophical perspective, one certainly inspired by Adorno – an analysis of social pathology also concerns cultural practices and interpersonal relationships; it concerns the whole human being, from epistemology and transforming the standard mode of cognition (Smith, 2012/2015) to a theory of non-violent communication (Gates, B., Gear, J., & Wray, J., 2000; Rosenberg, 2004; Sears, 2010; Larsson, 2011; Bowers, 2012).

One step further, what I am speaking of here is the transformation of the whole of life and how we relate with one another, ourselves and the world (Smith, 2012/2015). A significant part of the sociohistorical-culture process of emancipatory transition is understanding the legacy and depth of social pathology. The established idea, for example, which almost broaches the realm of ideology – that revolutionary societal transformation simply starts with class and ends with its abolishment, for example – is naive. Just as it is incorrect to absolutely externalize all issues of contemporary social and personal life, and approach the situation as though if capitalism were to be abolished so too would all the ills of the world – we really must begin to see emancipatory societal transformation in much more multidimensional, integral and complex light (Fiumara, 2015). As a many-sided process of transformation (Smith, 2014) and deep healing that spans the structural, institutional, psychological, emotional, interpersonal, cultural, existential, and so on, I think a key aspect of grounding an alternative philosophy of systemic change is the development of a theory of a new culture of healing and therapy (Fiumara, 2015) as a constituent part of a potential emancipatory politics. This “new culture of healing and therapy” is not only individual – that is, it doesn’t only concern a “journey within” (Parton, 2015) – it also concerns the ailing social whole – on a structural, institutional and interpersonal level.

Saving this point until later, if recent examples of violent state repression across the U.S. “is symptomatic of the neoliberal, racist, punishing state emerging all over the world,” wherein one of the only modes “of control left by corporate-controlled societies is [direct] violence”, we also have to remember that, outside of a critical analysis of state control there is also a significant part of the general populous who actively supported and continue to support such violent and oppressive tactics by corporate-controlled societies in effort to preserve the status quo. To understand this active defence of the economic and political status quo – a state of affairs which directly runs against the total well-being of the individual and society – we have to, as Adorno already began to, question the relation between culture and psychology as well as culture and economics (Clune, 2012).

The general coordinates of neoliberal capitalist society are set against a vision of social life and “social progress” of any real decency or emancipatory values. The irony is that, the enlightenment – enlightenment values – remains, as bad faith, a central belief in much of mainstream culture, and yet manifest as counter-enlightenment (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002; Bronner, 2006, 2014). Advances in science, technology, and medicine are celebrated as evidence, empirical or spiritual or otherwise, that contemporary capitalism delivers a promise of emancipation. It is thought to reward one’s faith. And yet the issue today – and herein lies an important factor when it comes to social pathology – is how it is often overlooked how these developments are shaped and largely thwarted by negative social forces capitalism actively produces and maintains. Penicillin is a terrific example, because irrespective of one’s politics, most people celebrate its development as a triumph of humanity. While celebrating this historically significant achievement, the question of how access to penicillin is blocked by capital, by one’s ability or non-ability to pay for treatment – this reality of neglect of treatment and social exclusion is often repressed or simply ignored in mainstream (Feenberg, 2015). One may assert the usefulness of ideology critique in this regard; but what’s important to point out is that ideology is not only a reflex of capitalist interests, especially if we consider the diversity of class interest that underlines a faith in the capitalist vision of life. In other words: it is not simply exploitation. It is driven also by a deeper existential motivation and, indeed, a faith in free market principles – in an ultimate vision of life based on the economic as a sort of religious foundation which pervades all aspect of personal life and the many differential spheres of society (Zuidervaart, 2007; Smith, 2015/2015; De Graaff, 2016).

Thus, in turn, we might ask what the attraction is when it comes to a preservation of the status quo for some people. What sort of threat does a non-preservation of the status quo represent for people, whose status, sense of security, and even identity is intimately entwined? What beliefs and desires, what faith and existential security is present? How can the desire for a capitalist utopia be trained against actually existing capitalism? (Clune, 2012). Likewise, if the enlightenment remains culturally significant (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002; Bronner, 2006, 2014), if belief in enlightenment values – however distorted and warped these values have become and however much they have been appropriated by counter-enlightenment tendencies (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002; Bronner, 2006, 2014) – how can we understand the desire for enlightenment within capitalist contexts as revealing of the actual counter-enlightenment realities of global capitalism? To be clear, what I am indicting here is a far deeper course of human enquiry; it concerns, or, at least, anticipates my argument in the second part of my study concerning a “critical humanistic perspective”.

On the other hand, we cannot forget the role social pathology actively plays in the production and reproduction of all or most facets of contemporary social life. Part of this pathology – or, I should say, one of the pathologies – is unquestionable “surplus repression”. A key concept for Marcuse, as are the psychoanalytical concepts of the “reality principle” and the “performance principle”, the point is that surplus: “Repression disappears in the grand objective order of things which rewards more or less adequately complying individuals and, in doing so, reproduces more or less adequately society as a whole” (Marcuse, 1969; p. 51). The excessive or surplus repression characteristic of contemporary capitalist society and the implications of this deepening repression on the subject is frightening to say the least. The fact that such direct repression is tolerated today attests in more way than one to a key argument Adorno makes throughout the course of his entire social philosophy.

Moreover, if one of the only modes of control left by corporate-controlled societies is direct violence, especially when confronted with movements against rising inequality and injustice, we also need to ask: why doesn’t the population in Western countries more generally and more actively rise up about deepening inequality in the neoliberal context, especially in the face of increasing violence? The answer isn’t always entirely to do with violent state repression. Though oppressive state force certainly plays a part, it’s not always the downfall of movements or the reason social movements don’t become mass movements. It terms of the need for a mass movement and its general non-existence, we have to look at the passivity from all angles. Helaine Olen (2015), for example, writes in her intriguing study that, in part, it is because a “culture of shame” has developed. To put it differently, the argument is that contemporary capitalist culture shames the oppressed, the poor – those at the very bottom – to which I reply: is this not, even implicitly, another materialization of social pathology in the context of dominant social relations? If so, is there not an existential dimension present within the twisted notion capitalist-determined self-preservation drives? There are cases, moreover, when even those slightly off the very bottom, but nevertheless within the poverty bracket, shame those below them. What is that cycle of oppression, if not another form of domination and control – self-preservation “run amok” – in accordance to the principle of scarcity? How do we account for traditional “lower classes” oppressing, dominating and exploiting other “lower classes”? A strictly traditional class analysis which many Marxist seem caught up in and unable to move beyond or advance, cannot by itself answer this question adequately. For Olen, she goes so far to align her study with a critique of mainstream psychology as evidenced in the emergence of the superficial “self-help” industry – a critique that, in a way, echoes Adorno’s (1968) own statement in Sociology and Psychology (Part II) when he laments: “in reality the individual psychological dynamic is replaced by the partly conscious and partly regressive adjustment of the individual to society”. What Adorno is describing intersects in many ways with the notion of “contract society”:

What arises is a “contract society” that enshrines as right the egocentrism that is characteristic of infantile psychology. In referencing Daniel Horowitz, Schmookler identifies a personality type built around ambition, a sense that time is money, and an obsession with progress (defined in material terms). A new worship of success and self-fulfillment through economic competition, positing material wealth as the measure of all value, became integral to capitalism’s cultural code. With the development of capitalist society, traditional religious virtues gave way to the secular forces of initiative, aggressiveness, competitiveness and forcefulness. (Harris, 2010)

Fromm (2010) calls this the “pathology of normalcy”. In Escape from Freedom (1994) he writes, moreover:

In the mechanisms we have been discussing, the individual overcomes the feeling of insignificance in comparison with the overwhelming power of the world outside himself either by renouncing his individual integrity, or by destroying others so that the world ceases to be threatening. Other mechanisms of escape are the withdrawal from the world so completely that it loses its threat (the picture we find in certain psychotic states), and the inflation of oneself psychologically to such an extent that the world outside becomes small in comparison. Although these mechanisms of escape are important for individual psychology, they are only of minor relevance culturally. I shall not, therefore, discuss them further here, but instead will turn to another mechanism of escape which is of the greatest social significance.

This particular mechanism is the solution that the majority of normal individuals find in modern society. To put it briefly, the individual ceases to be himself; he adopts entirely the kind of personality offered to him by cultural patterns; and he therefore becomes exactly as all others are and as they expect him to be. The discrepancy between “I” and the world disappears and with it the conscious fear of aloneness and powerlessness. This mechanism can be compared with the protective colouring some animals assume. They look so similar to their surroundings that they are hardly distinguishable from them. The person who gives up his individual self and becomes an automaton, identical with millions of other automatons around him, need not feel alone and anxious any more. But the price he pays, however, is high; it is the loss of his self.

In his humanistic psychoanalysis, which has its roots in critical theory, Fromm develops several important frameworks which can help us understand social pathology. Harris (2010) writes, when reflecting on Fromm:

For any system to survive, it must develop a means of channelling the human energies within society in accordance with the needs of the system, into cognitions and behaviors that ensure the continued functioning of society. If it becomes a matter of conscious choice whether or not to adhere to dominant social patterns, the system could be endangered. In its purest and most effective form, the character structure operates at the unconscious level, ensuring people “want to act as they have to act, and at the same time finding gratification in acting according to the requirements of the culture.” As Adorno pointed out, “it is part of the mechanism of domination to forbid recognition of the suffering it produces.

To conclude part one: When considering, as we have already done, the relation between capitalism as a dominant, coercive and authoritarian system and the (de)formation of the subject, what stands out in most of the research I have reviewed is the consensus that, as Harris (2010) explains, “capitalist institutions subsidize our social atomism by systematically favouring values that concern people as separate individuals and discouraging the fulfilment of needs as an interconnected community”. However, the struggle we’re up against is also, in sense, more than capitalist structures, systems and relations itself. I think it is a reasonable assessment when surveying and considering a wide range of research that it is in no way a guarantee that, in a society based on anti-capitalist systems and structures, that cycles of domination and violence, that social pathology, would cease. Anti-capitalism can take any number of forms, even authoritarian and dominant forms – those which continue “the grain of insanity” of systemic cycles of domination (in an Adornian sense). Coming from a deeper and more foundational perspective can inform us of the complexity of the challenges we face and how to overcome them in an emancipatory way. Fromm, to his credit, was also particular good here, especially when for example, in a critique of soviet communism, he talks about the (authoritarian) logic that people will once again have to adapt to when the new system is in place. In other words: what Fromm is highly critical of is a politics which reproduces past bad social circumstances by relying on the logic of a sort of top-down ‘total social integration’ which forces a more or less totalised single (ideological) model onto society without considering the differences of people’s needs in each particular sociohistorical-cultural context. Here, the universal is just as damaged as it is in global capitalism or the sham of representative democracy in the era of neoliberalism. A single vision of a ‘revolutionary alternative’ is forced onto every society, coercively and even sometimes self-dominantly, bending people at will and creating an entirely new ‘subordinate populous’.

On the other hand, if contemporary society is deprived of decency, justice, health, solidarity, democracy and egalitarianism, these enlightenment values can also help guide how we move forward. They require significant critical retrieval, it is true. But as I will discuss later, a reclamation of the enlightenment is important for several reasons. If society today, broadly speaking, is suffering, trauma and ailment, critically retrieved enlightenment values and morality shows how an actual egalitarian, democratic and enlightened society would be based on the opposite: healthy subject development, healing and total well-being – individually, socially, and environmentally. “The sicknesses that pervades contemporary Western society” demands a “radically virtuous alternative of normative humanism”, writes Harris (2010). Such a humanism, I suggest in anticipation of a future study with Arnold De Graaff, can gain much from enlightenment values considering that, once upon a time, radical humanism was a cornerstone of certain, more progressive strands of enlightenment thought.

However, humanism – even that of Fromm – and a positive notion enlightenment values, as I have said, requires significant critical retrieval and social philosophical advancement (Bronner, 2006, 2014). This will be one focus of the study I am currently developing with De Graaff. But in part two of this work I will offer some tentative and introductory thoughts. I will also expand on the idea of the need for “a radically virtuous alternative of normative humanism” in the context of a critical retrieval of the enlightenment as a culturally significant movement, arguing that positive enlightenment values, those for example not dissimilar to what Adorno sought to recover and write toward, find direct expression in humanistic psychology. The significance of my analysis in this regard has to do with my assessment that radical alternative praxis requires grounding in and direction from an engaged foundational critical social philosophy, which, in turn, itself requires grounding in both critical theory (one pole of an emancipatory social analysis) and what I term a critical existential-humanistic perspective (the other pole, which critical theory currently lacks). To conclude part two, I then offer an early sketching out of a radical philosophy of psychology and argue that revolutionary transition must be an expression of a new culture of healing and therapy as defined by an aforementioned “radical alternative critical humanism”.


[i] Please note that this paper represents a highly condensed, summarily version of the research I have carried out over the last several years. Due to limitations of the current venue, I have had to cut out over 200 references (and counting) and limit my analysis to certain key findings and conclusions. At the time of drafting this paper, I have begun to consider developing a more thorough account of my research as a book.

[ii] See, for example:

[iii] Regarding an existential analysis – I think one will find that on the level of practice, even clinically speaking, the internal struggle of the individual is one between two poles: control and freedom. Often it is a deep existential fear or anxiety or threatenedness which reinforces one’s inclination to side with control, with the false sense of the ultimate secure. It may sound silly from a far, but true freedom can be terrifying.

[iv] This was originally written as a note by Max Horkheimer in the early 1940s, and then included in the final section of Dialectic of Enlightenment (1964).


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R.C. Smith is an academic, author and science student. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Theoretical Physics, while also actively writing in Philosophy of Science. You can learn more on his website: Robert is also the co-founder of Heathwood Institute and Press where he also presently serves as Executive Editor.