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Powers and Particulars: Adorno and Scientific Realism

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This essay suggests that Adorno's failure to explore a 'things-with-powers' ontology explains, at least in part, the limits that constrain his thought and that undermine the compelling force of his critique of positivism. While insisting that 'thinking is tied to particulars', Adorno associated the idea of powers with the occult residue of traditional metaphysics, and therefore did not take up scientific realism's suggestion that particulars themselves are causally potent. That is, because he never challenged Hume's explanation of causality, he was never able to challenge positivism's core ontological assumptions. But critical realism has shown that Hume's critique of causal connection rests on the category mistake of reducing the generative mechanisms of nature to their empirical grounds. Recognizing that we do not make or control the causal powers of nature blocks anthropomorphic pretension in science and shows instead that inquiry must reach beyond the limits of instrumental reason. Just as for Adorno the aesthetic object takes us past identity thinking because it points beyond itself, so, too, things with powers possess always the impulse to reach beyond their phenomenal appearance.


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