Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Philosophy as 'imaginary witness' since Adorno

“It is not the portrayal of reality as hell on earth but the slick challenge to break out of it that is suspect. If there is anyone today to whom we can pass the responsibilities for the message, we bequeath it not to the ‘masses’, and not to the individual (who is powerless), but to an imaginary witness – lest it perish with us.”

Adorno, Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), New York, 1993, p. 256


Events are sometimes witnessed only by a ‘ruffle of leaves’. When later on historians step into the square where the incidence took place, they found no longer the tree with the many leaves spending shade. Instead high rise cement buildings block the view towards the open sky. It is then that someone suggested calling upon philosophy to testify if that event took place, and if yes, to tell exactly what happened. Such a testimony is, however, only a small consolation to the kind of knowledge needed by people living in a reality marked by absence of nature, and therefore without words and without a critical memory base such as a tree spending shade.

The calling upon philosophy as a witness may invoke immediately a confusing series of associations from Kafka’s ‘The Trial’ to the acquittal of John Demjuanjuk by the High Israeli court on charges he was the Nazi guard “Ivan the Terrible”. Other associations may circle around the place of the Agora and ponder what sort of trial would require of philosophy to take to the stands, but this time not the accused Socrates, but a new witness and if so, who would be that philosopher? Or could thoughts about such an 'imaginary witness' be evoked by scenes shown on television in Greece, when PASOK members, including the then former Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, faced charges of being linked to the Koskotas scandal? The scenes in the court depicted angry faces of the defendants looking up to judges wearing wigs as if Dumas’ like caricatures. The eye was forever distracted by this anachronistic form. It meant a political motivated ‘game of truth’ (Michel Foucault) was being played out underneath the higher benches of justice.

Many other court room scenes could be mentioned since the ‘film industry’ has discovered that the thrill connected with law suits provides endless materials which helps to blend entertainment with reality. Insofar the question of guilt or not involves a brilliant lawyer to present the case and whose ability to defend his client is proven to be most crucial for the outcome, it becomes proof to stay free of any charges you need money to afford such a lawyer. Consequently justice is reduced to a mere technical matter as to who can afford it to survive within the system without morals or ‘guilty conscience’.

If the case, then such trials transform ‘the pursuit of the law (and truth)’ into an extension of promises of pecuniary rewards of a different order than lottery, if successful. The argumentative style used by the lawyer would only then be of interest to philosophy, if called upon as a witness to testify that justice has been done. Yet the first paradox is already incurred when philosophy is coerced into justifying reality with mere words, while having to contest that the substantial facts are really not worthwhile to be considered if memory is faulty and too much attention has been given to ill-founded interpretations of them. For the person standing trial there is only left but this underpinning of hope, namely that judgements in court rooms are not made arbitrarily. However, this rigorous demand of the French Revolution has as of yet to be fulfilled.

Most likely the phrase ‘in pursuit of the law’ can give already an indication as to why philosophy has to be called upon, especially given the current state of affairs described by some as a complete lack of truth and hence no honest words can be heard. For does not philosophy have something to do with the concept of ‘law’ on the basis of ‘love for truth’ and is not everyone entitled to know his or her Rights, especially when situations becoming very difficult due to everyone lying? Indeed, a series of issues can be connected with such an interest in philosophy as a witness, while it remains to be seen whether or not contemporary philosophy can fulfil such an expectation.

While trying to reflect upon this, it must, however, be pointed out that the term imaginary witness adds only to the confusion. As if it is not already difficult enough to relate law to facts and interpretations thereof! By involving the ‘imagination’, things become even more complicated. For it is suggested that not a real witness ought to be heard, but something outside the immediate given or something beyond that and what has not been heard so far in the court case. Yet anything having to do with the imagination (Sartre) is close-by, a matter of the ‘self’. It makes its appearance in how we speak: with or without the imagination, itself the witness whether we are alive or else have already perished in many, that is countless ways. If Shakespeare’s saying “cowards die many a death, fools but one” can be applied to this, then death in life prior to perishing in the absolute sense refers to the many possibilities of loosing the self to the unknown.

For example, oblivious of what they were saying, many Germans stated after 1945 that “they had not witnessed the disappearance of the Jews” and thus acknowledged indirectly that they had lost all political consciousness for reality and therefore their imagination, including the ability to see behind walls. To explain this thought, Mahmoud Darwish wrote while in jail how the walls can be transformed into the beginning of freedom (see ‘Diary of Daily Sadness’, Beirut 1973, p. 131). He describes how prisoners manage to hold out to the worst conditions by transforming the confines of the walls into a beautiful ocean with the help of their imagination. The poetry of Ritsos called “Stones, Bars, and Repetitions” reflects the same kind of resistance against succumbing to the mere given.

Imagination plays thus an important role in how people confront reality without loosing thereby the ability to retain some optimism, including some deep compassion for life and for fellow human beings. As in Prague 1968, a human face illuminated by the imagination can be easily defeated by tanks, but it is the best expression of resistance against loss of truth, namely propaganda (see Adorno, Horkheimer, “Propaganda” in: Dialectic of Enlightenment, transl. Cumming, New York 1993, p. 255). For the imagination stirring thoughts makes possible the upholding of truth without any other intention than for the sake of truth. As generally in life, a tree stands simply in the middle of the square and there is no need to read into its existence any further purpose then it should be possible to imagine that it is there, even if we do not find ourselves within visible distance. Imagination has to do with the belonging of things to their places.

The implications of that will become evident once this is related to what Adorno described as the task of philosophy: ‘to give with the help of the exact imagination an interpretation to reality free of all intentions’. This kind of philosophy can do so by providing other than exact evidence ‘key elements as found in reality by means of the imagination’. ‘Elements of the question’ pertaining to that reality are ‘regrouped’ without, however, ‘going beyond the scope of the elements’. The exactness of the imagination ‘can be controlled on hand of the disappearance of the question’ in the kind of interpretation brought about (see Th. W. Adorno, “Die Aktualität der Philosophie” – ‘The actuality of philosophy’ in: Philosophische Fruehschriften, F.a.M. 1973, p. 343). What Adorno describes here that can be applied equally to that of a poem.

The calling upon philosophy as an ‘imaginary witness’ may thus be conceivable, if these constraints are respected. At the same time, the wish to do so may reflect more truly the present state of affairs. The need to have an exact imagination for interpretation of reality, than merely experiencing that reality in a fragmented manner, stems partly from the mistrust in ready-made solutions encompassing a drive towards totality. Insofar Adorno replaced Hegel’s notion of the ‘whole being the truth’ with ‘the whole being untrue’ (Adorno, Minima Moralia), it depicts the loss of any kind of unified theory attempting to be the equivalent of totality or similar formulas producing the illusion of being able to unify the various fragments or bits of information available, in order to offer some plausible explanation.

Already here, in answer to this need to stay free from such totalitarian suggestions, different philosophical reactions have set into motion discussions. One of them follows De-constructivism towards Post-Modernism as if the remaining reality can be discovered by means of disjunctive elements while producing texts based on an opposition to any holistic approach. The other case can be the redemptive or else communicative discourse which acknowledges that theory of totality has become impossible, but which still retains some critical tension to that notion of the whole. Martin Jay indicates that he has more sympathy for the latter and quotes Goethe in his book discussing Habermas, Blumenberg, Horkheimer and others in terms of this loss of totality. He underlines this with a saying by Goethe: “leave me at least the metaphor, so that I can express myself.” (Martin Jay, Fin de Siecle Socialism, New York, 1988, p. 171)

In continuing this discussion, ‘the actuality of philosophy’ as understood by Adorno has to be re-invoked. All too quickly we turn away from the sciences and the ‘spirit of the enlightenment’, in order to follow some fashionable trends conveyed by post-modern ironies. For instance, there has come as of late into contemporary philosophical discourse the usage of literature as a kind of replacement for active research, discursive elements and hence a ‘theory of the whole’. It appears that literature is used by philosophers so that they can still express themselves. It is like riding a metaphor out of the academic field into a reality presumably described by literature in a more authentic way. They do so under the assumption that literature is a representation of reality. While providing otherwise empty philosophical concepts with some kind of content, there is the danger that knowledge ends up being reduced to mere methods with the intention to impose upon life a ‘grammatology’ of fictitious rules. This can be done by assuming language as being a mere reflex of something apparently deeper, in most cases identified as a significant representation of the ‘being’ (Derrida).

In his criticism of Heidegger, Adorno points out that such a reduction of language to the ‘jargon of actuality’ is really impossible. Rather he suggests that philosophy has lost all of its ‘symbolic functions’ and hence must approach reality very much like being a puzzle. Individual elements can illuminate upon reality in a Benjamin sense once the imagination providing the interpretation of these elements becomes a part of a dialectic process moving towards practice. (Adorno, “Die Aktualität der Philosophie”, in Philosophische Fruehschriften, F.a.M. 1973).

Adorno’s philosophy is thus an open challenge to continue reflecting critically the relationship between the elements and an imagined whole as part of a continual adaptation process moving towards practice. The implications of that for philosophy and the answers given so far to problems of society have not been really understood as of yet. ‘Critical theory’ or the theory of the Frankfurt School, as it is known more widely, is rejected generally on the ground of being obsolete, when in fact the important connection between the imagination and the kind of envisioned knowledge by such a philosophy is overlooked. This is all the more crucial to denote since Adorno speaks about interpretations of reality as being ‘Deutungen’.

A better translation of the German word ‘Deutung’ into English than the word ‘interpretation’ would be ‘intuitive guess’: puzzles deciphered on the basis of a knowledge having a degree of certainty due to its imaginative simulation of reality. Freud would use ‘Deutungen’ to interpret dreams to point at the source of conflict blocking the free flow of associations (memories) of lived through experiences. As an ‘imaginary witness’ such use of ‘Deutungen’ could testify as to our ability to relate to reality and be at ease within it i.e. by doing practical things.

As Adorno puts it, philosophy must find the right key, in order to unlock reality. This puts him in the tradition of poetic inspirations starting with Parmenides and his fragmentary description of how man can leave only the city by turning the ‘key of fate’ at the main gate leading out of the city into nature. Only then he is able to step out into nature and therefore into a new realm of experiencing knowledge due to this ‘state of mind’ having changed from being urban based to being unified by nature. This means the senses are spoken to in another language – not one alienating the senses from reality but giving freedom to experience the world outside man’s own concepts. The key to reality is, therefore, one of fate because one can only turn it once one forgets everything experienced and known previously while in the city. According to Parmenides, only then can man step outside the urban realm and into nature. Adorno rephrases this condition of fate when he comments about people not wishing to experience the new and thereby limiting themselves to the already known. Hence the stop in having any experiences at all.

A discussion about limitations of experience was started by Martin Jay at quite another level of philosophical reflections. He did so by reconsidering Walter Benjamin’s pessimistic position of not being able to experience the ‘otherness’ to one’s own consciousness, that is the consciousness of a different subject other than oneself. Since this means recognizing limitations in intuition based on empathy, human compassion about truly founded knowledge has to be re-thought.

At the beginning of the twentieth century there existed different positions with regards to the kind of knowledge made possible by communicating with others. The main emphasis was then not so much on communication, but on reasoning with the other. As a reminder, Adorno criticized the positivist stream of thought in philosophy even though he respected deeply the Vienna Circle around Schlick and Carnap. Even Karl Popper ventured forth from this position but it serves here little purpose to reconstruct the Positivism-debate. Rather it is important to recognize that Adorno’s critique was directed at the premise this Circle used to develop a ‘philosophy of knowledge’. For to Adorno’s mind it entailed the prerequisite to have the other(s) participate in an ‘intersubjective dialogue’ (Popper) which presupposes shared values in scientific objectivity. What it does not explain is how that other consciousness comes about when divergent viewpoints and opinions are expressed nor how refutations or objections can be incorporated into the theory claiming to be at one and the same time ‘knowledge’ as well as the explanation of the particular object in question.

Martin Jay discusses the same controversial point about knowledge being more than a shared form of experience, insofar as common knowledge and/or theory can entail the consciousness of the other(s), but not necessarily. Martin Jay points out that Walter Benjamin believed that it is only possible to have ‘experience without a subject’. However, there is still one place left to consider where the ‘voice of otherness’ can be heard and thus be communicated as a different kind of knowledge, namely through the novel. Martin Jay argues that Walter Benjamin did not see this possibility but it explains why philosophy has turned recently to the novel for reasons of wishing to experience that ‘otherness’ (see Martin Jay, “Experience without a Subject: Walter Benjamin and the Novel”, translated into Greek, Leviathan, Nr. 13, Athens 1993)

Thus, despite the earlier made critical remarks about philosophy turning too quickly towards literature, Adorno could accept the thesis of Martin Jay in the sense that this can be one of many other models of communication. Indeed, authentic art expresses truth if the facts in it are stated without any further intention than to name reality while leaving the space to be filled by the imagination. The name is, however, according to Adorno more than just a name; there stands behind each name a complex theory in need of being made conscious and reflected upon so as to ensure the proper or exact naming of reality. Otherwise distortions of reality would weaken the stand of philosophy being called upon to fulfil the role of the ‘imaginary witness’.

If names are applied ‘materialistically’ in a theoretical that is not crude manner, then dialectically speaking naming reality is an act invoking the imagination, so that reality can be questioned as to what is truth. The experiences made in such an act can be considered as the ‘key’ to reality. At such level of reflection, ‘Deutung’ (interpretation as intuitive guess like showing true understanding to a child crying by naming the reasons for the pain not immediately visible and thus opening up the child by it feeling understood) relates to the subject of being in reality. That makes the concept of the subject sensitive to how difficult it is for the real subject to retain that positive tension between knowing of itself as imagined and knowing of what is possible for the self in reality. The tension by which consciousness is attained can only be retained if the being itself as subject is connected to actions by ‘something’ (and not ‘nothing’ as is the case in such Existentialist philosophical positions like those of Heidegger or even Sartre who depart in their thinking from the dual pole of being and not being).

Indeed, novels retain that something at a literary, even mere descriptive level, although that ‘something’ connecting present and future may be just ‘smoke’ – Rauch – as described in one poem by Paul Celan after him having looked out of a train window upon arrival in Berlin shortly before the outbreak of Second World War. He saw then such a cloud that appeared to him like gas going up in the air as if an omen for things to come. At quite another scale of perception is Adorno’s love for Samuel Beckett’s plays. Through them can be explained how bourgeoisie society is slowly coming to an end, the tension in life having been reduced to subjects having almost nothing to do except to gaze into nothing as in ‘Waiting for Godot’.

If novels provide models of communication, and here James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ can be taken as an outstanding example, then because they seem in their descriptions to be closer and at the same time at a greater distance to daily lived through experiences. This includes in particular on how to realize being involved in relationships to others when seeing them eat, dance, work or even doing nothing. Brendan Kennelly explains James Joyce’s ability to describe people from close-up as well as out of a distance by taking up a position up in the clouds above Dublin: a true standpoint of ‘indifference’.

Indeed, the difficulties of finding distance to the others while remaining close enough to see what is going on, that too circumscribes the special tension which not every author can hold out to in the language he decides to use when naming reality. The degree of differentiation is here decisive. Once but a fake language covers up the loss of exactness, then the novel looses interest precisely because a lack of attention to this crucial difference makes the writing become flat or even worse a mere symbolic gesture. It is like a person standing outside a shop and waving a big white handkerchief to people sitting inside as if that is a sufficient form of communication or even more so an adequate expression of knowing what the others are doing inside that room!

Literary and poetic models seem to relate intricately to that wish of living in a truthful reality, one in which the senses are not deceived and the mind called upon to describe reality in beautiful terms even if it is not that beautiful at all. Here then enters the ability to call upon philosophy as the ‘imaginary witness’ at any time of the day, in order to testify that reality is so. Adorno cautioned about this possibility to call upon the ‘imaginary witness’, since there cannot be heard truthful thoughts in a wrong life, let alone a ‘damaged life’ emancipate itself so easily out of the ‘morass of feelings’ without inflicting even further damages upon life. In that sense the metaphor ‘wounded scream’ suggests nothing else but that the scream is so wounded itself, that it cannot be heard (in reference to ‘Wunder Schrei’, poem by the author of this paper).

Philosophically speaking, uncertainty about the ‘self’ being able to be present in various, even most precarious situations underlines the reason for such a wish to be present in real life. Kafka thought of himself as being unable to be present once his beloved Felice would mingle in the crowd of businessmen in Frankfurt a. Main; their sense for reality would more than overshadow his ability to exist in such a world. In a letter Kafka confessed that he could only exist between the lines he was writing to her.

The small- or greatness of a place to exist in depends not upon the physical limitations but upon the imagination it allows. The very presence of the imagination makes the size of space become irrelevant. It is important to note that in cases like Kafka there are people who think that they cannot exist in the so-called real world. Rather they are in need of spaces that they can create for themselves and in doing so find it possible to reach out to others, in order to communicate through them to other people. Such an attempt is based on the acknowledgement of failure. Kierkegaard described as the most existentialist moment when love is possible but also a failure to reach the other and thereby miss out on happiness. But there may other reasons for such failure. One may be due to the fact that the others have gone already in their experiments with life beyond all realms of possible human understanding, or as Nathalie Sarrautte would say about Kafka, ‘he tried at least to follow with his imagination those scientists having gone way beyond human borders and who were no longer understandable due they having started to experiment with human beings by trying out the power of new technology in First World War’. This includes the testing of gas as weapon, as described by Andre Malraux. Those scientists had stopped working within human knowledge and trespassed all ethics by treating people as objects of experiments. Gone was since then in science the thoughtfulness needed to respect others as subjects of human self-consciousness; rather their experiments were designed to test as to what technical knowledge could do to other people.

The importance of understanding the other by means of the imagination based on ‘empathy’ can be best seen in the arts with perhaps Vincent Van Gogh being one of the last painters who tried to paint the others as ‘subjects’, and not as ‘objects’. For example, the ‘potato pickers’ he had painted only after he had lived with them, in order to develop that structure which makes possible for him to experience their ‘otherness’. For Vincent Van Gogh it became important to focus as much on hands and faces because a key to all of his experiences was the realization that they were eating with the same hands that had picked those potatoes. That made Vincent Van Gogh’s painting into an ‘imaginary witness’ of their living conditions being the same for all generations of their kind.

Notably from a standpoint of the imagination guided by ‘intuitive guesses’ to be exact as to what is taking place in reality, there is no real difference between an outer and an inner self. By doing something that connects in reality the subject with the action undertaken, the imagined subject of being is brought out and related to the self in reality. It brings about such consciousness as the tension is retained now not merely in thoughts, but in the forms of expression allowing the subject to articulate itself throughout the work. Authentic remains the entire movement as long as the thoughts expressed through words adapted to social forms of communication stay in true relation to the self. If it gives the freedom to the imagination, then every expression thereof goes beyond mere words and allows the flow of associations as follow-up to any action. In that way the self indicates that it is present as subject even when expressing itself merely by gestures (Bart Verschaffel).

There is, however, this terrible situation when people feel themselves left alone or completely abandoned as did many Jewish people during the Second World War. In such a situation of conflict and confrontation with the power of others the terrible truth is that their ‘inner’ cry for help goes unheard. Their plight seems to have been that they were unable to speak up for themselves. They may express only indirectly their political weakness as a wish that there would be at least someone who would speak out on their behalf. Such a wish can be translated into a call upon ‘philosophy’ not so much for reasons of seeking consolations or even a shoulder to cry on (Gorky), but to have an ‘imaginary witness’ beside them so that their personal act of resistance is not in vain. Paul Celan gave this a precise poetic meaning, namely being alone implies as well that ‘words witness something without there being any witness’. Indeed, when a Jewish person faced all the atrocities of the concentration camp, he or she was then not merely a victim, but equally a lone witness as to what was happening not only to him or her, but to humanity that let this happen.

Immediately that changes not only interpretations of reality. In an effort to overcome the situation of isolation of those having been left alone in history that is without any outside help it alters also the philosophical attempt to understand their traumatic experience. It comes close to the reason as to why Adorno and Horkheimer do not place hope in either the masses or in the individual – lest the ‘imaginary witness’ perishes with them. The transformation of caution into precaution as a result of historical events leading up to Auschwitz and not ending there, reflects more than disappointment the failure of humanity when it comes to prevent abuse of power in the past, present and future. That happens once human beings turn against one another and do something beyond all reason and understanding. It severs all human relationships and thereby damages the ability to still recognize the other as a human being.

Such a failure to experience the ‘otherness’ is not as post-modern irony likes to remark the result of loss of difference in a world that has become the same, i.e. nearly everywhere Coca-Cola and therefore without that ‘exotic otherness’. Rather the failure to perceive the other(s) as human beings comes about due to the loss of the imagination. People can then be easily cut off from one another. They will cease to speak to one another. In their hostility they will erect such high, equally invisible walls because of the wish to no longer see the other that they cut themselves off from the world.

Adorno and Horkheimer point out that the modern world with its emphasis upon communication, including individual transportation by car, leads only to isolation. The imagination and thereby the connection to the ‘otherness’ of the other(s) is lost because each individual is cut off within from the ability to complement what can be seen with the richness of human imagination. Once the imagination is destroyed or not experienced any more, then the pattern of behaviour shall change into a negative, equally destructive, indeed violent reaction against any form of human bondage. The reactionary tendencies setting in as a result will deny the fact that there is really nothing that could separate human beings from one another.

In other words, the world will give then way to a mistaken identity trying to assert itself by claiming absolute difference from the others. Such absolutism can lead to war, but also to other conflicts underlined by different forms of violence. These ethnic assertions are really expressions of false disputes. They try to deny that cultural differences even within one and the same society exist and that they cannot be brought to bear upon the identity building process unless this ‘otherness’ as human being can be shared with others, and this independent of the respective societies they may or may not belong to. By sharing is meant really experiencing a felt relation to another human being while one’s own voice becomes more ‘human’ when speaking to all. Truth is then recognizable and understandable for others, not a threat.

In terms of human relationships, the experiences made then form a human entity of which one is a part. It means that there is something that all human beings have in common, including a love for life. It goes without saying, in order to be able to live together, they must be open to each and everyone’s otherness by giving expression to such love.

However, it is very difficult to convince especially those who are mono-cultural and mono-ethnic orientated that there is such a truth that nothing is as great as it could be used to distinguish and to set apart people from one another. Needless to say all categories used for articulating and developing knowledge about the world are derived from something which is universal. In real terms it means everyone is at the same time unique, different and something other than ever imagined while being an intricate part of humanity. Subsequently every self develops over time special features so that all belong sooner or later to regrouped forms of understanding in terms of languages and cultural identities. Most likely, there has to be added to such reflection about the human condition a caution that this ‘can’ be the case, since there is always the danger prevailing of becoming locked up in a close world without regard for others, including the ‘otherness’ within the self.

The scope of such a process has a clear delineation. It is drawn by the need to retain a liveable tension, in order to be able to use language. Such use becomes dead the moment the tension is gone or in the process of being lost. Use of language is, therefore, a critical tension within consciousness. As such it expresses and follows the need to be reflected upon constantly at the level of the imagination. Without it the self consciousness of being human would not be possible. As long as this is possible, then the specific ‘otherness’ can be expressed in relation to what is common to all human beings.

For instance, something like love does exist in all languages, cultures and societies, even though these loves retain their different, indeed untranslatable tensions between people unique to one another (al–Gahiz). Along with that goes the specific tone or voice known to oneself since childhood. There is always that un-mistaking clear identity of a mother easily recognizable by the child due to her unique voice (Katerina Anghelaki Rooke).

The poet Bruno Kartheuser extends this thought of the non translatable even further, when he talks about the poetry of Jannis Ritsos as allowing people to recognise their own human substance without need for translation.

These variations in the degree to which untranslatability and uniqueness of language coincide with interesting cultural patterns, they are more noticeable at social level and involve quite often identities linked to other ‘cultural materials’, i.e. myths. Altogether it forms a sense of belonging to something. The degree to which someone belongs to a group or larger entity by taking on a certain identity depends, however, on the ability to use language that can evoke a sense of understanding of the ‘self’. That understanding is a derivative of the categories of understanding made available by how the self in relation to others are derived from the dialogue of the self with the imagination. That means listening to the ‘inner’ or rather distinct voice communicated through language to the self is a way of bringing forth the personal identity. Hence the knowledge about these categories is as Aristotle put it a part of the ‘grammar of life’, that is the first logical ordering of things. It is brought about by dialectical reflection which links the limited, concrete existence of the individual to something greater, may that be called ‘cosmos’ or the universal scope of the world. Once this is touched upon, then the sense of belonging reaffirms itself through language evoking the imagination to go beyond the immediate given of reality. It is something belonging to all and yet which cannot be owned in the same way as some kind of property.

Hegel made that mistake. For instance, he ignored the common ground, namely the earth , the universe, life, even love as being all part of the reason to exist: ‘l’raison d’etre’ – the reason to be. Instead he reduced the notion of humanness, including the ability to imagine things, to a characteristic identity definition depending upon the recognition of the nation state. He stated in his ‘philosophy of law’ the concept of a person existing only then as a person when having property. There was no other possibility given for a person to be recognised as such by another person directly safe through property possession. Belonging rested upon the specific form of ownership. The materialization of identity in external terms meant that anyone without property was not a person, or, as in the case of the worker, his sole possession was his ‘labour force’ that he had to sell on the market in exchange for money by which he could eventually come into possession of property (land, house etc.). Consequently anyone without property was forced to externalize his or her ‘labour force’ to be used by the market to produce something in exchange for money.

Hegel’s philosophy helped to institutionalize a subject-object relationship with serious political consequences. It made possible a reduction in the definition of the human being to something complying in the end with the official state ideology stating who deserves such recognition. Departing from the prime source, that no one is recognized who does not recognize the state, Hegel excluded already then the Jewish person as being ‘cosmopolitan’ and therefore not bounded in his or her loyalty to the state. That power to define who shall be recognized was then used by the National Socialistic ideology in a most severe way. It is linked to Heidegger taking the crux of the matter still further. In his major philosophical work ‘Time and Being’, published 1929, he states that the true essence of the human being becomes only visible in a ‘fight’, a fight that has to be artificially provoked since no one really cares to undertake such a fight, and therefore it is important to be prepared for such a fight prior to provoking one. It meant clearly before going to war the nation has to be armed.

All that continues in the saying of German soldiers about to shoot Jewish people reflects that most clearly. The soldiers reasoned that ‘because a human being is only the one who fights and hence deserves to live to fight, anyone who does not fight, deserves to die’. Aside from ignoring the resistance of Jewish people by staying completely passive i.e. not fighting meant not succumbing to the definition of the Nazis, the soldiers’ reasoning as portrayed in the film ‘Shoah’ reveals to what absurd ends such ill attempted definitions of the human being can lead to. Aside from the fact that no human being can ever be fully defined, no such definition can ever be used to justify the killing of someone who apparently does not fit that definition i.e. category of understanding.

As a matter of fact, by refusing to recognize the others as being equal to themselves, that is as human beings like anyone else, the German soldiers lost all contact with reality and could not longer imagine questioning the power behind such absurd definitions attempting to order life even if it meant going to war over it and killing thousands of people, mostly innocent ones for no reason at all. Consequently the German soldiers had lost all abilities to form their own unique identity out of experiences with the ‘otherness’ and the ‘differences’ of other people. Instead they subsumed every human being under just one criterion: ‘fight’. That ensured the sameness of everyone in an endless fight for there would be never any chance of becoming human in such a systematic exclusion of anyone who was different. Of interest is here the remark by the psychoanalyst Alexander Mitscherlich about Hitler never being able to tolerate any deviation; he was only then happy when everyone else marched past him in the same uniform erasing all differences and making everyone appear not only to be the same, but all marching in the same direction of destruction of all differences and otherness, including their own.

Clearly the linkage of being human to ‘not fighting’ is a daring thesis in a world marked by war and all kinds of ideologies in agreement with the ability to fight whenever necessary. But the German soldiers overlooked not only quite another substantial understanding of humanness; they also did not see the ‘imaginary witness’ being there to observe what difference it would have made if they had recognized the others as human beings. It would have meant they were still able to go beyond mere definitions and rather than giving in to the power only evident if that definition is enforced, to take up a dialogue with the other ‘selfs’. But that would only be possible through the imagination i.e. the freedom to imagine many other possibilities of forming human relationships. Instead they succumbed to the principle of ‘sameness’ and no allowance, never mind tolerance for others to be different.

That principle of sameness can be extended to many other aspects of society. Yet under no circumstance can life be reduced to a single definition nor be used against either the self or the other, for life and human beings together constitute a unique complexity of categories. By reducing this to only one, it would not only mean an abstraction bringing death, but it would equally mean claiming to know what life is all about. Such an absolute claim can never be true due to man’s own lack of knowledge about life itself.

In case that such false knowledge is claimed in an absolute sense as did Hegel, then it would put power into the hands of the wrong people. They can think that they can decide over life or death and able to pressure everyone else to conform to such absolutism. As the example with the German soldiers shows, they tried to justify their actions by asking themselves according to definitions given to them by those in power i.e. the National Socialists. They considered only those worthy to live and to be recognized as human beings who would like them fight. The latter is really the replacement of equality by a fictitious sameness. Given such an ill-founded dependency upon an ideological component defining the human being as the one who fights, it meant succumbing to power. Real and therefore imagined life was given up completely. The German soldiers were thus unable to contradict the one-sided definition given to them through the propaganda machine of the National Socialists. In the end, they had no basis themselves in life and forget as a result that the human being can never be defined through a single category. Naturally there was the sarcastic remark made by Hegel: “if reality does not fit the concept, too bad for reality”. Such a philosophy disposition to negate not merely reality, but human reality if it did not fulfil the constructed form of knowledge about reality was a precondition for such disastrous developments as they happened in Germany once Hitler came to power in 1933. Karl Popper, in his critical examination of ‘totalitarian thinking’, including Hegel’s, was one of the few exceptions and did draw this linkage between philosophy and a ‘politics’ gone astray (see ‘The Open Society and its Enemies, London 1966).

Since with power goes always the illusion of an ability to do and to evoke things, only by means of the imagination can self responsibility constitute itself outside the realms of power. But unfortunately after 1945 there were not many philosophers ready to draw such practical consequences as Popper did.

Perhaps the real reason is that in order to understand the period of Fascism and face post war reality, one had to stay outside any institutional protection as did the writer Ernst Schnabbel after having created for many other writers ‘golden opportunities’ in first Radio, then in television. He left ‘Norddeutsche Rundfunk’ without demand of payment for his pensions because, as he said it, the first year was interesting due to starting new things while the second was becoming already a routine and then the third year became impossible since he was forced to sign things he had never undertaken in his life nor even been in contact with at a personal level. To avoid such irresponsibility he left such institutional arrangements behind him and focused only on his writing. He dealt with the ability to become and to remain a human being even when confronted by nearly impossible forms of co-existence (see, for example, his novel “I and the Kings” about Daedalus and King Minos in Crete).

Understanding the human being through history as a reflection of the living process (if process is understand as being under observation, then some people shudder under such comparison: life like being a permanent trial) would mean other than through fight or some absolute notion (more often upheld by religion, but it could also by the judicial system if it succumbs to an over simplistic morality as ruling ideology of the times) would require admitting that there shall never be any complete guarantee of knowing what is the human being.

However M. Foucault cautioned to expect too much from this political direction from being outside institutions but inside societal movements. In his opinion very few can hold out to that kind of tension. Aside from the lack of knowledge, there has been inherited over time an inability to cope with life outside of any institution, and even the ‘clochard’ of Paris has a sub-institutional system of survival that ensures he does get his place of rest and some bread to go along with the wine. Also there is the definition of language as institution and no one, so it seems, can really exist outside such realms of communication as that brings together people and provides access to any further going self-understanding. Thus the chiffre to be interpreted, or that what is to be read by the imagination as being written on the forehead, follows a similar pattern as described by Arthur Koestler in ‘Insight – Outlook’, or the ability to become estranged to your own society and environment but while returned as a very different person from the one who had left, being able to imagine on how to bridge the gap between oneself and those that stayed behind. Only with time will the different experiences be told, if at all, and then always with a notion of what is not self-understood. But then this would be most valuable if not everything is reduced as being self-understood. Things can be taken further if the world is regarded as an open ended process of learning. It would allow learning about the others and their ‘otherness’.

But aside from this lack of knowledge about the others while experiencing at the same time the great inability to really cope with life outside any normal functioning institutions, including that of the ‘spoken language’, there is the problem of an elusive, equally only ‘imagined’ but never to be conceived ‘self’. The very elusiveness reflects the difficulties of adapting in one’s imagination to reality. Kant gave it, therefore, the category of ‘possibility’, insofar as the ‘self’ can imagine countless other possibilities than the reality lived here and now.

If that is the case, then to come to terms with reality would mean really to reach a point of acquiescence to truth: the simultaneous ability to let one imagine other possibilities to perceive reality, including oneself, while living but this one truth of being present under certain circumstances in a specific time and place as it is connected with definite people and with whom one has entered a certain relationship from marriage to purchasing one’s food at the local grocery.

The imagination’s presence serves the purpose of reminding about the fact that the potentialities of the human being are never fully lived nor realized within one form of existence. Furthermore, the imagination counters the tendency to forget in daily life what has become a set or functional pattern with emphasis on certain values, routines, ways of doing things, all while this has been the working out of ideas about the ‘self’ as linkage to the need to understand things going on around oneself. Most likely this need to understand things in such terms as they are compatible with what one can experience, that causes a lot of problems. For to bring intuition about reality in line with empathy, that over demands many, given especially the complexity of life and real lived situations in a society that is changing constantly.

Rather people tend towards self denial and for giving up this demand of self understanding as prerequisite of ‘knowledge’. Instead they would alienate themselves from all personal relationships and replace them with an ideological corset having but a faint reminder of what is human substance and therefore also of moral value to not merely others, but also to oneself.

As a matter of fact, Habermas said the only science which allows such self-understanding is psychoanalysis. Thus if people do not work through their own conflicts resulting out of traumatized experiences, they will never come to the point when memories flow again even after they have stepped into the ‘river of forgetting’ (Aaragon and Coucteau) to reach the other side.

The importance of the imagination in all of this cannot be emphasized enough. It allows conscious living and dreaming in relation to others for the imagination keeps open the access to reality. This openness is reflected in not claiming to know completely everything and all about reality. Imagination is, however, the colour that fills in the missing gaps.

The definitions of the others, or that what defines the relationship to the others, must be included in what finally gives shape if not to life, then practice. Here there is fear about shallowness or due to uncertainty in acting in accordance with the imagination.

Significant is that the philosopher Kant started out with “ich denke, ich kann ueberall hin meine Vorstellung begleiten” – ‚I think I can accompany everywhere my imagination’ – and came to the conclusion that he cannot due to structural contradictions forcing a separation of ‚self’ and the ‚imagination’. Ever since then the psychological premises of thinking in terms of self in relation to others and to the world in general has been subject of philosophical inquiry.

Sartre’s work on the imagination is exceptional as it falls into the jurisdiction of Existentialist philosophy. He reduces the existence of the other(s) to a conscious decision just like the objects on the table that cease to exist in one’s consciousness the moment one takes the eyes off them. That leaves unanswered the question of continuity within any given life span as much as the consciousness about the others as an existence in reality that is independent of my ‘self’ outside the scope of the conceivable.

Clearly the discussion would have to return to Kant’s point about consciousness being affected by what? It presumes such consciousness that can be affected by the presence of others. There is no indifference and no negation of the other(s) needed in order to exist. All that could manifest itself in ethical principles ascertaining what is dependency upon a truth like an indicator. The presence of the imagination and the existence of the others would mean that the self is living truthfully i.e. in tune with oneself and the world. There is no need to verify the existence of the self as it exists through the others. This balances carefully a matter of dependency in the sense of being free to return to oneself once the existence of the others and of the world has been ascertained in forms that give recognition to their independent existence. Thus it is not merely Peter that is sitting opposite me but also there are trees and entities like rivers and lakes which exist in various forms. Ernst Bloch would add here the material sense or the lessons of the matter whereby it would leave open the linkage between what our senses perceive and what they can invoke in terms of the imagination. Still, to be in tune with oneself means that a musical application of truthfulness needs to be explored further as there are many tunes which can be deeply disturbing while others are uplifting rebounds of experiences made in due course.

When it comes to ascertaining one’s knowledge about reality, the definitions of others must include that what finally shapes not merely life, but ongoing practice. The latter encompasses what takes place within institutions in tension with what goes on outside. All this must be seen as an open ended process. Language can be experienced here as working towards mutual understanding with others. The level of agreement is really an expression of ‘certainty’ – in German: Gewissheit. That means this understanding must be linked at the same time to what may be called the ‘common ground of existence’ and which philosophers have called up to now as ‘la raison d’etre’.

Cassierer mentioned that as long as mortality was not individualized, the entire society was based on such a common bondage. Since Christianity and hence the awareness of death, this bondage has changed. The change in the nature of binding elements between people has affected the individual’s relationship to life as a mortal being. That has altered drastically the role of mythology in societal developments and emphasizes all the more the importance of being bound to life rather than be moved by death as the ‘unmoved mover’ (Hegel).

Without such a binding element, there comes into existence the false need for mediation between self and a force claiming to speak on behalf of all others. In such a case any kind of dispute takes on very quickly a polarized character with the self facing the risk of isolation. The traumatic experience comes when the self knows no longer how to defend itself or else to speak up when needed. That limits human language and reason as based on personal understanding of life and one’s role in society. If developments deteriorate to such a point, that people can no longer speak up for themselves, then they face numerous risks from cultural alienation to complete extinctions. The regression begins with a stigmatization of them once society heads for an overt simplification. It is done according to a leading ideological trend articulating itself through specific prejudices and use of categories like ‘black’, ‘gay’ etc. Labels are used in such cases to prevent people from communicating with one another openly. Instead it isolates them. The weakness reproduces itself in a climate of helplessness while only certain ‘types’ have success. That intensifies the exasperation about the other(s) as if only they prevail while oneself suffers defeats after defeats. It becomes nearly impossible after a while for both sides to still talk to one another and to look beyond ‘petty conflicts’ blown up into huge issues and even obstacles to peace. All this can be described as well as leaving out the ‘imaginary process’ and thereby the dialogue the senses with what others can understand and anticipate.

There needs to be said one basic facet. Once the self is isolated, all others appear to act only in self-interest. Such perception of the others undercuts any critical analysis of the self’s involvement in understanding what the others do. Instead it reveals how the creation of an illusion about being a part of a cohesive whole can be disrupted any time when no longer the institutions are accessible and the linkage of the self to the others disrupted or even worse severed. The self will come then to the fatal conclusion of no longer belonging to such a society. By going into exile, this self inflicted pain becomes really in historical terms a non-institutional manifestation of what is impossible to be realized. It negates all real differences between people and leaves the mind in too weak a state as to conceive of other possibilities to exist together with the others. (see here Robert Payne and the collapse of the multi-cultural state after the death of Alexander the Great in: Ancient Greece, New York, 1966).

The living together with others remains outside the realm of the imagination as long as it is impossible to resolve the basic conflict between institutional processes and non-institutional manifestations of differences that count to sustain life.

This is when the call upon philosophy seems to express the wish to have at least a witness objective enough so as to be able to convince all those involved what is in the interest of truth and who is really telling the truth. Since mortal witnesses tend to see things only from their subjective standpoint, their reflections being subject to diverse interests and the degree to which they wish to become involved in societal practices, it becomes all the more crucial that something objective is said with regards to the witness as being acceptable to both sides. Only then mediation is possible.

The ‘imaginary witness’ can make something possible by recreating the missing human linkages, in order to prepare the grounds for reaching not only an agreement or contract, but fore mostly a better, more differentiated viewpoint of the self’s involved. By invoking the imagination, the institutional form is substantiated at a critical point, namely when there is a threat that human beings are excluded by this form of manifestation of the past. Thus by invoking the imagination within the institutional form, the self’s addressed shall altogether become motivated to address the human being in each and everyone. This shall take place with no other intention but to realize a liveable understanding of each other’s self’s.

That this is not always realized, Kant recognized that early enough. He understood that there exists a limit to self-motivation to think about the others, for such ‘affection’ (he speaks about the ‘self affected reason’) remains speechless if out of touch with reality. Here counts the sobering up truth element when the sense of touch evokes the imagination i.e. when fingers touch the quality of the material of a carpet.

The desperate need for the ‘imagination’ suggests reality is being experienced as anything but friendly. In the absence of the imagination, fear is transformed into an aggressive force developing out of a self assertion and becoming potentially ever more dangerous as the other(s) are no longer perceived as human beings with whom any commonality exists. The loss of the imagination affects, therefore, as much the way people think as they behave towards the others. It is reflected fore mostly in the language used.

On the basis of this earlier paper attempting to find out what Adorno and Horkheimer understood when they referred to the ‘imaginary witness’, any philosophical reflection thereof must concern itself with the aesthetical, that is substantial implications of such a thesis.

In his opening paragraph to his Aesthetical Writings which he never could complete in time, Adorno writes:

“Zur Selbstverständlichkeit wurde, dass nichts, was die Kunst betrifft, mehr selbstverständlich ist, weder in ihr noch in ihrem Verhaeltnis zum Ganzen, nicht einmal ihr Existenzrecht.“ (Th.W. Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften 7, Aesthetische Theorie, F.a.M., 1970, p. 9)

Translated into English, the text begins with following postulate:

“It has become self understood that everything with regards to the arts is no longer self-understood, neither in its relationship to the whole, nor even to its Right to exist.”

With that the ‘imaginary witness’ hovers not so much as the ‘Angelus Deux’ that Walter Benjamin had as image in front of him: an angel caught up by strong winds and swept backwards away from earth as if the future destiny has become but a black destiny. Rather in the realms of human understanding that the arts can evoke, if one is to follow the example of Homer’s ability to instil confidence in people with regards to themselves, then it is really the negation of a false self-understanding by means of something never taking anything more for granted or for that matter for being self-understood.




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