Adorno – Lecture 7 on Negative Dialectics: “Attempted Breakouts” (11/30/1965)

Formal vs. Arbitrary

How to break out of the impasse of contemporary philosophy? We are stuck between a rock (formalism) and a scattering of hard places (arbitrariness). Either we regress into the illusion that we can somehow congeal everything into an interconnected, systematic philosophy that captures everything; or we make a bunch of allegedly sound claims that are essentially hovering in the ether. Either way, the emperor wears no clothes. What to do?

Excavation Attempts

Bergson and Husserl both try to do better than either of the above options. They try to break out of the impasse conceptual thought has reached in philosophy; which always seeks to reach the non-conceptual with its concepts (see lecture 6). For both of them, there is an attempt to address directly bare consciousness, before it is filtered and contorted by concepts. Unfortunately, they both attempted to do this through capturing bare consciousness in concepts. Doh!

What Now?

Clearly, we cannot access the non-conceptual directly. When we articulate it, we try to contain it in language and concepts. When we do that, we leave out a remainder. The subject cannot reach the object outside of subjectivity. So in order to access the non-conceptual, is there is a way at all, it must be done indirectly. Instead of trying to be exhaustive and subsume the non-conceptual within the conceptual, we can use concepts in an open way where they respond to different objects. Adorno suggests that we can “unlock” the non-conceptual through having the subject critically assess subjectivity, having concepts critique concepts. He indicates this can create a context which will implicate the non-conceptual, despite not being pinned down directly. He says that the non-conceptual is always already present with the conceptual, as its implicit remainder. In a sense, it is always at our backs. When we turn to see it, it is still at our backs. We have to learn to look backward, not just forward from different directions.


Adorno, T. W. (2014). Lectures on negative dialectics: fragments of a lecture course 1965/1966. John Wiley & Sons.

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