Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format



Doctor of Philosophy


Theory and Criticism


Tilottama Rajan

2nd Supervisor

Kevin Mooney


This dissertation examines the thought of Theodor W. Adorno and Walter Benjamin in critical constellation with German Idealism, specifically G.W.F. Hegel and F.W.J. Schelling. I explore how Adorno and Benjamin deconstruct and refashion Idealist notions, while also providing the post-Idealist theoretical armature to read Idealism in speculative directions. Through this mosaic, I pose questions regarding the actuality of philosophy, considering how thought might open itself towards a fuller spectrum of experience, while nonetheless remaining systematic, creating new (inter)disciplinary models of philosophy which tarry with the para-philosophical domains of art and nature. In the first part of this project, I provide a critical exegesis of Adorno, whom I locate as a fundamentally “post-Idealist” thinker, one who works through, while extending, German Idealism’s central problematics. I elaborate Adorno’s impossible hope for philosophy in relation to crisis, elaborating ruin, conflict, and “natural-history” as the motivating elements of Adorno’s negative dialectic. I then survey Adorno’s contestation of philosophy’s absolute autarky by way of disciplinary conflicts with sociology and psychoanalysis, along with the ur-conflict Adorno opens between philosophy and art- aesthetics. The second part of this project takes up the early writings of Benjamin (~1928), whom I position as elaborating an expanded, though nonetheless transcendental, philosophy of experience via a meta-critical expansion of the Kantian program into the domain of language (which comes to be understood in a mimetic and medial sense). Though Benjamin’s attempts to found a novel “coming philosophy” began with Kant, the limitations of the (neo) Kantian epistemic conception of philosophy led Benjamin to enter the “force-field” of post-Kantian Idealism, developing his own mortuary romantic conception of philosophy, via the speculative potentiation of the Frühromantiker, Goethe, and the Baroque poets. In summation, I present a reading of Benjamin’s Trauerspiel centering on notions of allegory and natural history, ideas which provide the foundational contours of his natural-historical philosophy of transience. Part three of this project takes up the work of Schelling and Hegel respectively, thinkers whom I read “without absolutes,” that is, as theorists that problematize the final unity of philosophy by way of nature and aesthetics. I explore Schelling as a thinker for whom the “original diremption” of nature continually troubles the constancy of thought, resulting in a negative dialectical mode of organization in which autonomous members threaten any possible philosophical system. My final chapter elaborates my own ruined reading of Hegel, which methodologically follows the (Hegelian) interventions of Bataille. I elevate nature and aesthetics as “phantasmatic domains”—or prisms—which can be employed to productively refract the Hegelian program, reading his (supposedly) panlogicist corpus against the grain.

Summary for Lay Audience

How might philosophy—along with the humanities more broadly— help us think about ourselves and our time in provocative, imaginative, and speculative ways? Amid current crises of ecology, politics, and economy, and as the world returns to a “new normal,” what might philosophy and its history teach us about our existential situation along with our possible relationships to the (natural) world? This dissertation considers such questions by way of the writings of Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) and Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969), thought in constellation with German Idealism, specifically G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) and F.W.J. Schelling (1775-1854). In interrogating the “actuality” of philosophy, these thinkers question the proper form and purview of philosophy, considering philosophy’s relationship to other disciplines and para-philosophical domains such as aesthetics and nature (Hegel, PS, 27; Adorno, AP, 120, 126-7). For these theorists, to think following crisis entails fracturing philosophy in new modern directions, considering modes of intellectual grounding that allow philosophy to be opened towards the plethora of possible “experiences.” These thinkers envision open models of rationality, seeing philosophy as an interdisciplinary dialogue that continually tarries with insights from other spheres. This dissertation, Transient Constellations: Adorno, Benjamin, and the Actuality of Idealism, examines the modes by which the twentieth-century Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School poses questions of philosophy’s actuality anew. Taking up and rethinking German Idealism’s tendency to form overarching philosophical systems, the Frankfurt School allows the humanities to be thought in new critical and interdisciplinary directions. This allows one to consider the relation between “the system” and categories such as nature, history, art, and experience. Further, does the Idealist architectonic, as it is expressed in thinkers like Hegel, necessarily have a panlogicist “dominating character,” or can it be refashioned for critical purposes (Adorno, ND 26-28; AT, 64- 65)? How might the humanities relate themselves to nature and the physical sciences differently? This dissertation places German Idealism—an interdisciplinary and speculative model of thought—in constellation with Benjamin and Adorno, examining how the latter intervene upon, and amend, Idealist categories through considerations of history, nature (“natural history”), art and aesthetics, experience, and their very style of philosophizing. Such engagements allow Benjamin and Adorno to forward their own “coming philosophy”: a critical interdisciplinary model for the humanities based on a new relationship to history, experience, and the (natural) world.