It is not only, as Nietzsche knew, that all good things were once evil: even the most tender of these, left to its own momentum, has the tendency to culminate in unthinkable barbarity... Abstraction in love is the complement of exclusivity, which manifests itself deceptively, as its opposite, as the clinging to the appearance of someone-just-so... If human beings were no longer possessions of any kind, then they could also no longer be exchanged. The true affection would be one, which speaks specifically to the other, holding fast to beloved traits and not to the idol of personality, the mirror-reflection of possession... The property relationship in human beings, the exclusive right of priority, recalls to mind the old saying: Lord, they're only human beings, which one, doesn’t really matter. The affection which knows nothing of such wisdom, need not fear infidelity, because it would be immune to faithlessness.

Adorno, MM49

What is wisdom, in this context, which I assume is a plea for something better than being immune to others? Can anyone be exchanged, in society today?

  • Look in to Nonduality.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 11 at 22:24
  • In terms of psychology humans are just Baboons with a symboling mind. The baboon model is little ones and mothers are respective possessions of their kin. The females select for males fierce enough to terrorize lions and hyenas, tooth and claw, that otherwise would prey upon the baboon children and adult females. Humans are just apes with a symbolic mind that incorporates the drama of tribal survival into our social status games. Jesus probably did more to help humanity transcend the symbolic drama than any other religious figure or philosopher. Buddha abstracts away from infantile psychology. Commented May 18 at 18:08
  • This is a video about kinship and individual recognition within baboon social structure: youtu.be/5yaQrMYX78Y. The adult females and males both make efforts to belong to a social group for protection against threats. I call this the skirmish line. A group of males is more effective at intimidating predators, or hunting prey, than a single male in baboon society. A group of females is more secure against threats or domination by males than a lone female. Humans are doing these things with symbolic mind. The distortions in the symbolic mind drive some of what we call the problem of evil. Commented May 18 at 21:24
  • 1
    This is a link to MM translation online: marxists.org/reference/archive/adorno/1951/mm. Commented May 19 at 2:14

2 Answers 2


Major edit after reading the whole aphorism in German again, old answer see below

What wisdom and how is it linked to being exchangeable?

The theme of the aphorism is morality and time, and the danger with love is that you tend to cling to that which you already have, the one that is. This psychologically leads to a natural prioritisation of that which is in fear of losing it, the first in time (which can be random or enforced by society) is naturally privileged. At the same time, the object of love can be instrumentalised, become a mere thing that shall not be lost but remain "mine", possession ("the human being becomes 'my human being'"). As soon as this is the case, the object of love can be exchanged for someone else I don't want to lose (in the same way, it is the same relation after all!).

He writes that personality was a mirror image of property and what he means by that is that since we have something (the personality) which is an abstract category and hence not unique to the person at hand and, therefore, not exclusive, we can exchange the person for any other that fits the bill personality-wise since it is the personality we don't want to lose, not the person.

The reason why he links Christian "wisdom" to that is that "Love thy neighbor as thou love thyself" etc makes love abstract in the same way as "personality" does: Since love is not linked to something particular (in person and time, something which is then becomes unique and not exchangeable) but something abstract (personality, being human), the "being the first and not wanting to lose them" remains but without the specificity of experiencing the uniqueness of a particular person. Therefore, we have mechanism of turning the relation in one of (exchangeable) property without the antidote of exclusivity: the relation becomes susceptible to exchange and faithlessness.

Ultimately, the question of real love and whether the object is exchangeable or not becomes one of whether love is bound to something that cannot be experienced with or in other persons (anymore):

Aber in anderem Sinne ist [das Spezifische] doch ausschließlich: indem es die Substitution der unlösbar an ihm haftenden Erfahrung - zwar nicht verbietet, aber durch seinen reinen Begriff gar nicht erst aufkommen läßt.

But in another sense, [the specific] is exclusive: by making the substitution of the experience that is immutably bound to it impossible - not by prohibiting it but by not letting it arise due to its pure concept. [My own translation]

Old answer: Quite the opposite, I'd say

The bit has two takeaway messages, really:

  1. Love taken as the 1-to-1 relationship that is typical between couples is a relationship of exclusivity, ie. this is my partner (and nobody else's). This has a momentum towards "loving" the other as mine, a role or abstract concept they fulfil in one's eyes and not for the person they are. It is this momentum that makes a partner "exchangeable" since as soon as it is not about the unique individual and their traits but just a human being, saviour, mother figure, or whatever, many a thing can be tolerated as long as they can embody this for me and me alone.
  2. In order not to be exchangeable, love/affection needs to be the one "which speaks specifically to the other, holding fast to beloved traits and not to the idol of personality, the mirror-reflection". This kind of love that does not love someone just because they happen to fit into a certain category but is manifested in particular traits of the other person (mind, the paragraph starts with the danger of abstraction!) then "need not fear infidelity, because it would be immune to faithlessness".

Adorno is pretty cynical when using Christian "wisdom" here. All over the book, he makes quite clear that he considers Christian thought to have played a crucial part in the history of thought that lead to Nazi Germany and the Shoa/Holocaust. Thus, he basically writes that love that knows nothing of this "wisdom" like love your neighbor like you love yourself (which leads to exchangeability of the object of love and makes the concept of love hollow and morally meaningless) is actually the only kind of true/moral love. It is absolutely not a coincidence that he starts the paragraph with Nietzsche.

  • i thought the 'wisdom' was ironized, that's all, so thanks for the addition.
    – andrós
    Commented May 11 at 20:38
  • 1
    @andrós Changed my mind a bit after rereading the German original of the aphorism in full.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented May 11 at 22:17
  • To love in that way requires overcoming ego. This has been covered pretty thoroughly for 2 to 3 thousand years, if not more. No further debate is needed.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 11 at 22:28
  • "the object of love can be exchanged for someone else I don't want to lose" i think this gets to the crux. sorry if my answer is poor. i took the aphorism to be less about willingness to forget etc., than the strange dilemma of how another person can lack both infidelity and obligation. i cannot read german...
    – andrós
    Commented May 11 at 23:15
  • @ScottRowe Minima Moralia was written in the face of the atrocities committed in Nazi Germany. It should make clear (as many contemporary deeds do) that the discussion is very much still one to be had.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented May 12 at 8:09

Original Question:

What is wisdom, in this context, which I assume is a plea for something better than being immune to others? Can anyone be exchanged, in society today?

Answer by Phillip Klocking:

Ultimately, the question of real love and whether the object is exchangeable or not becomes one of whether love is bound to something that cannot be experienced with or in other persons (anymore):

Baruch Spinoza defines love as a feeling of pleasure accompanied by an idea of its external cause. This means the self is not the source of cause of pleasure, but rather, that something independent of the self, and in relation to the self, is taken to be the cause of self-pleasure. Let us refer to the item of recognition as the love-object.

Object relations theory holds that the same object, for example the breast, can be an object of love or hatred. Spinoza defines hatred as a feeling of pain accompanied by an idea of its external cause. The breast is taken as the first potential object for love or hatred due to the impulse to suckle and the necessity of feeding during early life. The breast is taken to be the part-object of the mother, and not the whole mother, and it is thought that during early infancy humans cannot recognize the whole mother or father.

Object relations theory, as expressed by Melanie Klein, goes too far, assuming the very young child is inherently schizophrenic, projecting fantasies of love-hate onto objects; but my theory is that the body generates an appetite, desire, and will to experience pleasure in the presence of others. This is the will to love; and it is the biological basis for the general injunction to love God. The deprivation of this need in early life is the proximate external cause of what we diagnose as persistent schizophrenia in later life. There is no such thing as inherent schizophrenia any more than a seed that lands in bad soil is inherently a bad seed. The soil is bad not the seed! Jesus teaches this as the parables of the good seed landing in the good soil and of the good seed growing up alongside the weeds.

A feeding bottle can substitute for the breast. An orphan can have substitute parents and teachers. The idea of love or pleasure associated with external objects has more than one affective attribute.

I took a class on Buddhist ethics with a local Zen master. One of the attributes he describes is "the precious particular". Humans cannot be exchanged, one human for another human, when one considers each human as a unique person with unique personality. If Adorno is mapping the word love to apply only with the experience of the precious particular, then this is a quite narrow interpretation of the broad concept of pleasure in the presence of an external object.

Children can be raised to discount their own individuality in favor of submission to the group or to some social ideal(s). When I lifeguard for a local summer camp I treat the children as a group and don't know their names or personalities in my role as lifeguard. But the women who run the group treat every child as unique person and I love them for it!

My Professor of Legal Philosophy, Hugh Gibbons, said the law can be based on an unstated Axiom: The will of each person is worthy of respect. The will is not content to simply gaze upon the beauty and perfection of creation and to recognize each passing moment as the amazing precious particular! The active will is operating in parallel with the experiences that I call receptivity. A person with receptivity can amplify pleasure in the presence of all that is precious in this moment and is very careful when discounting the plants, animals, and humans in service of the personal will. We call them Saints.

But even if plants, animals, and humans have this attribute of precious particular, which they do, and we agree to call it the precious particular, it does not mean that we can altogether stop using plants, animals, and humans as resources in the context of exerting our individual will. We have to kill plants to eat; and we can kill animals to eat; so to live we must violate the Buddhist precept stated as not killing. The precepts in Buddhism or any valid religion are a guide to cultivating what I call receptivity and to stop discounting the precious particular! If the precious mother dies then the human child still needs mothering from a distinct substitute mother! The grief of the child is the loss of the precious particular. But even more grief and tragedy will ensue from the loss of substitute mothering! Humans seek mothering and fathering from the cradle to the grave, in part internalizing and incorporating the attributes of the adults as we mature, and this is why Jesus taught us to pray to Our Father in Heaven. Philosophers in general lack the insight into early life patterns of drama and decode the symbols poorly.

The laws of property and contract have theories to deal with the precious particular and the generic utility of persons performing roles in society. A contract for special expertise or unique personal services or the sale of real estate might be strictly enforced under the doctrine of specific performance https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Specific_performance. But if the performance of contract terms can be satisfied by generic substitution then money awarded as actual damages is the proper legal remedy for breach of contract.

The accumulation of money represents a claim on the output of society in the future. The person who kills another person for money is discounting the precious life of that person to gain claim on the output of society in the future. This has nothing to do with love unless love has become twisted into a subjective desire to gain money, power, or resources while showing contempt for life. Money societies in general discount non-human life at the interest rate or rate of economic development which destroys natural habitat.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .