ADORNO ESSAY SECOND DRAFT - Daniel Zauderer Is Perception...

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Daniel Zauderer Is Perception Constant or Dynamic? Immanuel Kant’s idealist philosophy regarding experience stands in contrast to the views of other philosophers. Critical theorists Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, for example, disagree with Kant that perception is constant. Rather, they believe that it is mediated by historio-sociological factors such as history, government, and art, and that an understanding of these factors is essential to understanding perception. Kant believes that the senses come to man as “sense impressions.” The faculty of “intuition” enables man to receive sense impressions. And “concepts,” or “categories” ( a priori knowledge that exists independent of experience) categorize the raw sense impressions received through intuition, which results in man having a coherent understanding of the world. For Kant, this process is unchanging. All experience can be explained through the finite a priori categories that Kant has posited. Adorno and Benjamin strongly object to Kant’s explanation. For both Adorno and Benjamin the senses do not come to man as “sense impressions,” but rather as already mediated by historio-sociological factors. As written in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Adorno, “The objects of philosophical study and, indeed, the very exercise of philosophy itself, were social and historical phenomena.” So, as society changes, perception changes; and as perception changes, experience changes. And if experience changes, the “unchanging” process that Kant explicates is in fact very changeable: “The object of philosophy was not the discovery of timeless, immutable truths, but rather to provide interpretations of a socially constituted reality,” the IEP entry states i . At first thought, this notion may seem far-fetched. It is difficult to accept that the way we experience the world is conditioned by historical and social factors. Yet there is evidence that lends it a surprising degree of support. For example, some people collapsed at
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the sight of the first railroad ii . It seems, then, that railroad technology so radically altered perception that people unaccustomed to this technology could not tolerate it. That experience is conditioned by historio-sociological factors is a notion accepted by both Adorno and Benjamin. But there are differences between them that cannot be ignored. The debate initiated in Adorno’s response to Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility” iii centers upon differences that arise from the notion of dialectics. Both Adorno and Benjamin are “dialecticians.” The German word for dialectics has three meanings: to negate, to lift up, and to preserve iv . For two subjects to be in a dialectical relationship, then, they must not only negate each other, but must preserve each other and lift each other up. Or, as professor of philosophy Drew A. Hyland of Trinity College puts it, “two antagonists don’t remain merely antagonists but become something else.”
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