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The Concept of Mediation in Hegel and Adorno

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 June 2015

Brian O'Connor*
University College Dublin
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Given its centrality to the intellectual thought processes through which the great structures of logic, nature, and spirit are unfolded it is clear that mediation is vital to the very possibility of Hegel's encyclopaedic philosophy. Yet Hegel gives little specific explanation of the concept of mediation. Surprisingly, it has been the subject of even less attention by scholars of Hegel. Nevertheless it is casually used in discussions of Hegel and post-Hegelian philosophy as though its meaning were simple and straightforward. In these discussions mediation is the thesis that meanings are not atomic in that the independence of something is inseparable from its relation to something else. Hence being is mediated by nothing, the particular by the universal, the individual by society. But does Hegel ever explain mediation in a way which justifies such use of the concept? The same easy employment of mediation is found in Theodor Adorno whose works are replete with the use of this concept and, indeed, acknowledgements of its Hegelian origin. But the concept of mediation in Adorno's negative dialectic is operative in an entirely different context from that of Hegel. How, it might be asked, can a concept be so adaptable? I want to argue that mediation is, in fact, an equivocal term which in both Hegel and Adomo covers a variety of entirely different conceptual relations. Furthermore, as propounded by both Hegel and Adorno it lacks the rigour which could allow the particular conclusions which the concept allegedly facilitates.

Hegel's Logic and Metaphysics
Copyright © The Hegel Society of Great Britain 1999

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1 Hegel, G. W. F., Science of Logic, trans. Miller, A. V. (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1969), p. 68 Google Scholar.

2 EL = Hegel, G. W. F., The Encyclopaedia Logic, trans. Geraets, T. F., Suchting, W. A., and Harris, H. S. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1991)Google Scholar.

3 Kant for a number of reasons is held to have offered a theory deficient in its ability to understand the Absolute. First, Kant's investigation of the structure of perception sets out to account for only the subjective components of perception. However the range of what is subjective is extended to all elements of perception. The result is that objectivity is collapsed into subjectivity since nothing can be posited as other than the empirical subject except by the subject (EL §41). Thus the empty forms of the categories are determined by a content which, in the form of intaition, is “equally itself merely subjective” (EL §43). Second, Hegel turns Kant's critique of Aristotle against Kant himself and argues that the categories are haphazardly taken from traditional logic, rather than deduced: deduction alone making them suitable philosophical concepts (EL §42). Third, because the categories are determined only through sensibility they cannot be employed to explain “the Absolute, which is not given in perception” (EL §44). It is interesting to note that there is a whole subsequent tradition of philosophy which takes its lead from Hegel's critique of Kant. That is, it follows Hegel in rejecting an overdeterminate category thinking. At the same time, however, it is even less enchanted by the motivations behind Hegel's critique, namely, the need for a philosophy which can rationally express the Absolute. Clearly some strange transformation has taken place.

4 “There is nothing that is not mediated, and yet, as Hegel emphasised, mediation must always refer to some mediated thing, without which there would be no mediation” (ND 171, emended).

5 Fichte, J. G., The Science of Knowledge, trans. Heath, Peter and Lachs, John (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 14 Google Scholar.

6 ND = Adorno, Theodor W., Negative Dialectics, trans. Ashton, E. B. (London: Routledge, 1973)Google Scholar.

7 Oakeshott, Michael, Experience and its Modes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1933), p. 19 Google Scholar.

8 Cf. McDowell, John, Mind and World (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1996)Google Scholar, Lecture I.

9 Adorno, Theodor W., Against Epistemology: A Metacritique, trans. Domingo, Willis (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1982), p. 7 Google Scholar.

10 Ibid., p. 4.