Adorno on Mimetic Rationality: Three Puzzles

Pierre-François Noppen


I examine Adorno’s controversial claim that human rationality is inherently mimetic. To do so, I break this claim down into three puzzles (the natural historical puzzle, the metaphysical puzzle, and the epistemic puzzle) and consider each in turn. The first puzzle originates in Adorno’s assertion that in the course of human history the mimetic moment of human thought “is melted together with the rational momentâ€. So whereas, on his narrative, mimesis has become an intrinsic component of human rationality, it appears that we are oblivious to this state of affair and unable to recognize the workings of mimesis in what we otherwise refer to as rationality. The second puzzle concerns the traditional metaphysical question regarding the possibility of knowledge. Adorno holds that the key to this question lies in the “mimetic moment of knowledgeâ€, which he characterizes as the “moment of the elective affinity between the knower and the known.†The third puzzle concerns his views on how the mimetic moment of thought plays out in our epistemic practices. As he puts it, “consciousness knows of its other as much as it resembles that other,†which seems to entail that our very efforts to conceptualize objects somehow rely on imitative processes. I work out what I take to be the basics of Adorno’s understanding of mimesis and use them to make sense of each puzzle. I argue that Adorno’s insistence on the mimetic component of human rationality isn’t meant to promote more mimetic modes of comportment, but a reflexive awareness of the extent to which our rational activities already rely on imitative (or immersive) processes, even those we view as embodying the strongest claims to the contrary.


Theodor W. Adorno, rationality, knowledge, mimesis, immersion

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