All posts by morelocj

I have a Masters Degree in Sociology and teach at Boston College. My research interests include popular culture, critical theory, authoritarian populism, and infectious disease.

Adorno – Lecture 4 on Negative Dialectics: “Whether Philosophy is Possible Without System” (11/18/1965)


You’re Damned if You Do, You’re Damned if You Don’t

Adorno sees philosophy struggling at a fork in the road, choosing between hopeless and fruitless paths. One of these paths, the more “traditional” of the two, aims toward totalization, i.e. ‘system’. A philosophy with a system, in Adorno’s definition, is one that proclaims some sort of overall, encompassing structure that is rooted in some sort of starting place or absolute principle, and explicitly extends a rational structure or “architectonic” to incorporate all of existence. Examples might include Aristotle’s Prime Mover, Kant’s categories, Schopenhauer’s will, Hegel’s Being-in-itself, etc. This tendency is especially glaring in German Idealism, and while Hegel is the quintessential case, Adorno specifically highlights Fichte as a good example. Philosophies with a system are essentially obsolete though, and generally speaking, everyone knows it. The other path for philosophy is largely a result of the recently developed, wide recognition that system is a hopeless pursuit. Philosophies of this ilk reject the possibility of a legitimate system, which is good. But they fail to put anything strong in the place of system. In effect, they are weak, which is bad.

The Way Forward

While Adorno rejects the possibility of a legitimate totalizing system in philosophy, he also insists on the power of the philosophies that have tried to extend to everything in a structured way. He also indicates that philosophy is ridden with a very strong drive toward system that extends even beyond the more obvious thinkers like Aristotle, Spinoza, Hegel, etc. The drive toward system is so strong in fact, that many thinkers who ostensibly eschew systems unwittingly create latent systems – or least system-tendencies – within their own philosophies. Adorno points notably to phenomenologists and existentialists who he thinks display this tendency to a kind of disowned or buried system. He identifies Heidegger’s philosophy as being very similar to German Idealism in its totalizing nature, it is just that Heidegger’s language is so confusing that it is difficult to discern what he is doing underneath it. There is a sense of openness and fluidity, but there is a latent system underneath.

This is where negative dialectics comes in. Adorno says that the only realistic path open for philosophy is the one pointed to unwittingly by these ostensibly non-systematic philosophies: philosophy needs to own and honor its system-like qualities, and to use these qualities without all-encompassing, architectonic structures. Negative dialectics arrives with awareness of this condition. Negative dialectics includes the self-awareness of the larger movement of philosophy away from explicitly totalizing systems, yet preserving latent system or system properties. This awareness can help us to set free the power of system within philosophies that are no longer constrained by the hopeless pretension to system.

How Philosophy is Possible Without System

In architectonic philosophies, the structure of the philosophical system is determined by the first principle(s) of the philosophy and the logical relations that stem from it. Although nailed down in structure, these philosophies rely on thought in a kind of free-floating way, unchecked by material realities. Whatever thought structures thought thinks out of a philosophy’s principle of origin and structuring rules, are taken as legitimate and correct.

By contrast, negative dialectics is flexible and attuned to material reality. Negative dialectics does not aim to structure all claims in accordance with a self-generated logical shape. Instead, negative dialectics will have its structures determined by the “shape of whatever confronts it” (p. 39). Philosophical thought will be confronted by the material world, and will morph in relation to it. Instead of appropriating objects into a total philosophical system, identifying and subsuming them within a predetermined set of logical relations, negative dialectics will open up the object using the rigors of philosophical analysis. Instead of subsuming the particular within a single universal structure of thought, negative dialectics will look deeper into the particular, using the power of thought to open up its multiplicities. The direction is basically opposite.

This is how philosophy will be possible without system. The analytic power that systemic philosophies have will be preserved in negative dialectics, and so will the tendency to understand different ideas and things as interconnected. The key difference is that this analytic power will not seek to interpret everything as contained within a fixed, total, necessary structure. Instead, analysis will interpret whatever it exams by looking at its inner dynamics. What relations with other objects does the object in the spotlight lead us to discover, when we pry into its immanent, internal contradictions?

The Philosophers Have Only Interpreted the World…

Adorno concludes this lecture by poking at Marx’s famous 11th thesis on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” The basic thrust of the Marxian theory this quote expresses is that philosophy being a separate sphere from social and economic realities means that philosophy is an expression of the alienation of thought from real life; a split between thought and reality. This alienation will end once history brings humanity to the point where it can end the split between workers and capitalists; when labor is no longer alienated, so philosophy and life will no longer be alienated. As the Revolution will be the realization of this social unity in a classless society, so at the same time a revolution should take place in philosophy where people start really addressing social and economic life rather than abstract, ephemeral logical structures.

Personally, I have questions about the 11th thesis not so much concerning the Marxian theory it expresses, but rather concerning the surface nature of its expression. I have no idea what were Marx’s intentions regarding the surface meaning versus the theoretical meaning, but I think the surface meaning has greater and wider influence these days than the deeper meaning. Here is my biggest beef with the surface: The point of what is to change the world? Not that I decry having ideals and striving to realize them in the world. I am very much in support of this. But what is this alleged imperative to activism that is supposed to trump the tendency toward deep reflection? And is that really a helpful way to approach things? In desperate, clear, pragmatic circumstances I would argue it is – for an immediate solution to a temporary problem. But for long-standing social questions I have serious misgivings about this attitude. The 11th thesis is, in my mind, easily appropriated as an attractive gloss on anti-intellectualism, under the ardent banner of ‘100% certified Leftism’.

Whenever there is an impulse to say “stop thinking, just join the movement” we need to be very careful. Leftism is a multiplicity, a spectrum. “It” can involve many things, and some of its potentialities are, in my mind, very honorable, just, reasonable, liberatory, fair, compassionate, etc. But the Left is also just as inherently susceptible to authoritarian tendencies and gross miscalculations as is the Right. Having admirable ideals doesn’t exempt you from being an asshole. And translate this into terms of social or state power, and you can get…something like Stalinism. And you may find yourself saying “This is not my beautiful socialism!” And you may ask yourself “How did we get here?”

I am particularly fond of this Žižek clip titled “Don’t Act. Just Think” where he gets into this stuff.

But back to Adorno: Adorno’s critique is about the deeper theory. Marx’s argument embodied in the 11th thesis hinged on the notion that the Revolution was about to occur, and in fact it did not occur. The end of ‘philosophy’ was supposed to coincide with the end of class society. Class society has not ended. The global Communist revolution was not and is not about to occur. Even if we agree with Marx’s basic dialectic of thought/reality corresponding to the dialectic of class division – and I do not agree, but that’s another issue – philosophy’s end has not arrived yet, and may never come. Philosophy should continue.



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

Marx, K. (2005[1845]) “Theses on Feuerbach.”

Žižek, S. (2012) “Don’t Act. Just Think.” Youtube.


Adorno – Lecture 3 on Negative Dialectics: “Whether Negative Dialectics is Possible” (11/16/1965)

Disclaimer: It is very difficult to be “down to earth” when discussing Adorno’s critique of Hegel. So be forewarned, this particular summary may be a bit abstract and confusing to the uninitiated reader. Consider consulting lecture 1 and/or lecture 2 for assistance if you get bogged down. Enjoy!


Adorno is obviously very invested in negative dialectics. Why? He defends its importance in terms of its assistance to critical thought. He insists on the importance of tirelessly questioning and seeking insight, not being content to accept apparent truths let thinking coast along gleefully in a bubble of preconceptions. People often accept concepts as true without checking them against their contents. Concepts arise in particular times and places, under particular circumstances, or at least sets of circumstances. Then people take these concepts as if they are universal, and continue to apply the concepts in other times and places, without really checking to see to what extent they fit. Adorno claims negative dialectics can help people guard against the tendency to be lazy with and misled by their concepts in this way.

The Question

Adorno poses the question of whether negative dialectics is possible in reference to his enormous respect for and debt to Hegel’s philosophical system. In Hegel’s dialectic, the negative has an honored place. And in fact Hegel’s system is so comprehensive, that any challenge to the system is already articulated, accepted, and submerged within the system. Hegel’s dialectic neutralizes all adversaries by accepting them. Moreover, regarding the first point, negation is accounted for in Hegel’s system, and in fact is a huge part of it. So then, if Adorno in already contained within Hegel, is it meaningless to talk about “negative dialectics”? The answer to this will be determined by whether Adorno’s system really differs from Hegel’s enough to warrant the different name.

Determinate Negation

Hegel’s principle of “determinate negation” is very important for Adorno. Try not to slam your computer shut just yet, I am going to try to explain this term. In my summary of Adorno’s lecture 2 on negative dialectics, I briskly outlined Hegel’s dialectic. In this description, I painted the progression from an initial affirmation through to the 2nd negation (the process that can be crudely referred to as thesis -> antithesis -> synthesis) as an inherent process in…well in everything. It is just the logic of Spirit, what can I say? But there was something I left out, or at least minimized, which is important now. This inherent, perpetual process is not led from outside, as if on a cajoling leash (yes, again with the dog references). No, it is internal. The initial affirmation not only passes into its negation, it notably splits itself into itself and its negation. It’s not like the original in-itself version vanishes. In the for-another mode, it is this subject that was the in-itself before, that finds its object in the other. Oh this has not gotten any better, has it!

Okay, take the day/night example, but in logical terms, rather than in terms of time. It is possible to think “night” on its own terms. Night has qualities. It is dark. We might call this understanding “night-in-itself”. The thing is though, night in itself is an empty idea. It exists, but it has no substance.

Q: Why would we even think of night without the corresponding/negating concept of day?

A: We wouldn’t.

Night makes no logical sense unless it is posed in opposition to day. Its meaning is so wrapped up in this binary relationship that the concept of night could not ‘exist’ (at least not in the same way) without the concept of day. Not only is there a relationship of co-dependence between night and day, but the concept of night contains the concept of day, as its negation, already within it.

A little more on that last point: Night is the opposite of day. The concept “night” importantly contains an opposition to its negation, “day”. Out of pure concept of night, the night-in-itself, we necessarily get the binary concept of night/day. We might call this “night-for another”.  In this example, night not only inherently passes into its negation, day, it also already contains day within itself. Night contains its opposite. Day, night’s negation, is determined by night of necessity. This is the principle of determinate negation, basically.

Adorno likes this stage of the dialectic. The A confronts the not-A as its necessary negation, that implicitly exists within the logic of the A. When you look at A, really look at A, you find not-A as well; and moreover you find A and not-A in a relationship of contradiction. Adorno wants to encourage this kind of thinking through his negative dialectic. Look within A, and discover its internal contradictions! Let the object and the concept meet and duke it out. Nobody wins, but it’s not about winning. It’s about how you play the game of dialectics. Keep on doing this, and your thinking will not become complacent.

We should not assume, however, that negativity is a good thing absolutely, in all cases, by definition. Adorno does not want us to just reject things mindlessly. His is not a philosophy of nihilism in that way. He wants us to dedicatedly examine our own concepts. Further, he insists that the positive and the negative are both aspects of the dialectic. It’s not all about negativity. How could it be, when negativity’s determinate negation would be positivity? Negativity and positivity need one another, and we need them both. Up to this point, Adorno is still in step with Hegel.

More Hating on the Negation of the Negation

The key place where he differs – and Adorno claims this is the difference that makes the difference, that makes “negative dialectics” possible – as discussed in lecture 2, is in reference to Hegel’s all-important, all-encompassing reconciliation stage of the 2nd negation. Adorno hates this second negation fetishism. In Adorno’s estimation, Hegel makes the 2nd negation out to be more and better this it is. Hegel has this idea that the 2nd negation preserves the in-itself and the for-another moments within a higher, all-embracing for-itself moment; but Adorno says this is not the case. The 2nd negation only sort of preserves the in-itself and for-another moments, or the initial affirmation and its determinate negation. The rest of the story is that it perverts them both. It does them both “violence”. You cannot have your day and eat it too. The state of opposition in the for-another moment, contains a certain integrity of the opposing sides. This is irreducible. When you try to integrate them again, you destroy their autonomy, along with the qualities they had in their own separate (but related) spheres. Falsehood, for example, is what it is. It is not falsely false. It is just false. Let it be false, in opposition to truth. Keep that moment alive!

On another level, Adorno portrays the 2nd negation as uncreative and thus unimpressive and largely unnecessary. It is really just an overlay on the for-another moment. The for-itself moment is an expression of the determinate negation. It is a reflecting on the determinate negation. It does not actually generate anything new. The action is contained in the for-another moment, in determinate negation. The supposed negation of the negation is just the acknowledgement of that action. The 2nd negation claims all the credit, when the first negation did all the work.


Adorno, T. W. (1973). Negative dialectics. Continuum.

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

Baeza, Natalia. (2015) “The problem of determinate negation in negative dialectics.”

Hegel, G. W. F. (1969[1831]). Science of logic. Humanities Press.

Adorno – Lecture 2 on Negative Dialectics: “The Negation of Negation” (11/11/1965)

Adorno rejects the Hegelian principle that the second negation is an affirmation. Whoah! Hold on there! Okay back up…

Hegel’s Dialectic

Hegel’s dialectic is often crudely put as “thesis -> antithesis -> synthesis”. To translate this closer to Hegel’s actual terminology, as well as to his actual framework, we could denote this process instead as “affirmation -> negation -> negation of the negation (a.k.a. 2nd negation)”. Now, in basic arithmetic, when you multiply a negative number by another negative number, you get a positive number; this is somewhat the principle here as well. The second negation is an affirmation. Negation*negation = affirmation. This 2nd negation which is an affirmation, is sort of a synthesis, although it is not a neutral synthesis. It is sort of like if you start with “yin” and you add “yang” and you get “SUPERYIN(/yang).” In one sense it’s a synthesis, but in another sense, it’s lopsided.

We are dealing with opposites here, sort of. An example will make this a little clearer, I hope. Take the binary of day/night. First you have day, and then day develops into its negation, night. And then night develops in turn into its negation, day. In other words, the second negation is not just an affirmation; it is a return to affirmation. In the model thus described, there is an oscillation – day, night, day, night, day, night, ad infinitum. This is not quite Hegel’s dialectic either. Where’s the lopsided synthesis? Hold on! We’re getting there…

Here is a more complete example. What is pure consciousness? Obviously this is too big a question, but in a smaller sense, for argument’s sake, let’s says pure consciousness is pure cognitive awareness. It is like the faculty of thought, only without being filled with thoughts. It is the form of thought, without the contents of particular thoughts. This is the “in-itself” version of thought. It is thought, plain and simple. Like a master meditator on the needlepoint of loss of the ego. It is that split second which cannot even be perceived because even “perceiving” would require that the moment was an object, and there is no object, only the faculty of thinking.

Now, already it should be clear to you that this is essentially impossible. Thought is motion, or focus, or something at least, not just open space. It is not static, and it requires some kind of object or contents. Well so then thought, in order to be its fully thought-like self, requires non-thought in order to be thought. In being thought, it necessarily relies on its negation: the object of thought. Thought requires an object in order for thought to be thought. When thought reaches out toward its negation, this is the “for-another” version of thought. Thought exists in its extension beyond itself toward that which is not thought – the object of thought.

Thought doesn’t stop there though. It presses on, to reflect on its successful reflecting. Instead of just being aware of the object like a dog with a plastic bone in the grip of its determined jaws, thought moves on to recognize itself from a position of otherness, although this otherness is actually itself (obviously!). Um…okay so instead of a dog with a grip on a plastic bone, we move into something more akin to human awareness. I not only think of the plastic bone in the grip of my muzzle, I am also aware that I am holding onto a dog toy with my teeth. I think the object, and I also think myself thinking the object. I become self-conscious (and perhaps embarrassed).

And this is a path of development that Hegel sees as integral to everything, essentially. In logic, is sociality, in history, this path of development plays out again and again. It is not just a movement of oscillation between opposites, although it does involve that. It is not just a synthesis of opposites, although it does involve that too. It is a passing to a higher stage of development, higher as in the broadening of consciousness, not as in the top of a staircase. Eventually, all things lead to the apex, where all is contained in the Absolute. This is pure thought, pure being, pure knowledge. The parts (me and the dog toy) ascend through a dialectical process toward their ultimate unification in the whole (God?).

Critique and Conformity

It is commendable in Adorno’s assessment that Hegel calls out independent critical thought as an emancipated form of mind in relation to unthinkingly following the status quo. Independent critical thought is in fact that negation of herd conformity. Bravo for Hegel! Unfortunately, Hegel always puts in this pesky second negation. In this particular case, Hegel declares that the even greater, more complete, self-aware way of being is through assimilating into society as it is. Rather than unthinking conformity, we have thinking conformity. Criticizing and questioning the status quo is just the first negation: the “for-another” mode. We finally ascend to the “for-itself” when we decide to go with the flow again, regardless. With the greatest awareness then comes a knowingly conservative attitude.

Adorno will most certainly not pay a lot for this proverbial muffler. He admits some sympathy however. One of the perks of Hegel’s second negation in this instance is the insistence that the individual is intrinsically social. The fashionable capitalist notion of self-sufficiency and independence is a farce. It is an incomplete form. It is still in the “for-another” moment. Humanity really comes into its own when the individual finds her freedom within society, consciously integrated within the human community.

Here’s the rub: what form is this going to take? For Hegel, the whole always ends up with final priority over the individual, despite pretensions of an equitable reconciliation of opposites. Hegel acts like he gives universal and particular equal weight, but implicitly he places the universal out in front. And so with the political question of the individual and the community, the reconciliation of the two does not result in the community allowing the individual great personal freedom. No, it consists in the individual freely submitting to the community.

Positive Thinking after Auschwitz

Adorno insists that the second negation by no means should be assumed as the higher stage of development a priori. If this Hegelian picture was not already haunting, then let’s just translate it into directly political terms. It has been catastrophic in the modern era when large swaths of individuals decide to find their ‘true’ freedom in relinquishing their individuality to the horde. Groupthink is not a reliable judge; it is a holocaust waiting to happen.

He wants to get rid of the common “fetishizing” of the positive as well. For Hegel, there is the equation of the real with the rational. The way things are is how they’re meant to be, and how they are meant to be is good, hands down. Adorno doesn’t buy it. How can we possibly hold onto these sorts of ideas after the holocaust? How, in good conscience, can we claim that everything that happens is meaningful, rational, and good? Obviously these are rhetorical questions.

The Need for Negative Dialectics

Adorno repeatedly claims that his ideas are all contained in Hegel, or at least hinted at in basic form. So does it even make sense to talk about negative dialectics then? He says that it does, because there is such a need to toss out the deference to the second negation. Negative dialectics is necessarily critical. We cannot afford to just accept positivity or reconciliation with the whole. Independent critical thought is a crucial human good, and should not be subsumed or disregarded. It is imperative to keep critique going.


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

Hegel, G. W. F. (1969). Science of Logic. Humanities Press.


Adorno – Lecture 1 on Negative Dialectics: “The Concept of Contradiction” (11/9/1965)

Adorno denotes non-identity as a central motif of his negative dialectics, distinguishing it from the more typical ‘positive’ dialectics epitomized in Hegel. In the positive variety, dialectics addresses rifts between seeming opposites, reconciling them into a higher or more fundamental identity. Binaries like matter and idea or being and nothingness, for example, are only binaries in an incomplete view of them. In Adorno’s negative dialectics, however, the rifts between these sorts of things are not reconciled, and instead need to be highlighted and explored in their own right.

Especially important in the present context is the binary between object and concept. When Adorno references “objects” he is not necessarily referring to material objects such as door handles, spoons, etc., although they would certainly qualify. Instead, the term has a more general use really anything we can refer to as having some sort of empirical existence for us, could be said to be an object. Sociology, for example, is an object. Adorno is an object.


In the ‘positive’ dialectics of Kant, as presented in the Critique of Pure Reason, the abstract and the concrete are mutually dependent, and mutually generative. In other words, the capacity to consciously perceive concrete objects is dependent on our use of our cognitive faculties which involve abstract concepts. Without abstract thought, concrete things would not appear to us in consciousness. One might posit that they do in fact exist ‘in-themselves,’ but once we start talking about things existing outside of human consciousness, we leave the domain where it is reasonable to claim anything about their properties – including their ‘existence’ in space and time as we know it.

Consider how scientists have recently decided that matter is made of electrical energy, deep down. The solidity we perceive is actually an illusion, based on our inability to perceive the electrical, non-concretized reality at the root of the one we experience as ‘real.’ What would a table “look” like if we could see it on the level of energy, rather than just on the level of concrete matter? The question is unanswerable, in part because we cannot informatively speak of visual perception beyond the capacities of our visual perception.

Or consider how you “know” that your hands are separate objects from the computer keypad. You perceive them immediately as separate objects. You already know that they are, so well that it is extremely difficult to imagine that your hands are actually not separate from the keypad. This is because of our capacity for abstraction. The understanding that “hand” is an independent object in intrinsic to the perceiving of the hand as an independent, material object. In a crude sense, the concept hand makes the object hand possible. And of course reciprocally, the concept “hand” could never exist without instances of the object “hand.” The concept hand not only references the object hand, it is intrinsically tied to it. The concept hand and the object hand cannot exist without one another, at least not in human consciousness – and where else are we going to look? In a very fundamental sense then, they are inseparable. This is the principle of identity.


In Adorno’s negative dialectics, the object and the concept are not reconciled. Instead, he wants to show that they cannot be entirely reduced to one another. They do not really fit together or fuse into one another. The object always includes more than the concept grants it, and the concept is always more than the object to which it ostensibly refers. While in positive dialectics, contradictions between concepts tend to be analyzed, negative dialectics specifically addresses contradictions between concepts and their associated objects.

Adorno further indicates that the tension between the concept and the object is problematic in advanced capitalism in a way that reflects – although not necessarily in a causal sense – the fact that there are problematic, immanent contradictions in society. The way in which we use concepts in approaching objects is similar to the modus operandi of the modern capitalist order: mastery. We strive to master objects with concepts just as we strive to master nature with science.


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

Kant, I. (1998 [1781]). Critique of pure reason. Cambridge University Press.

Nietzsche – “On Truth and Lie in a Nonmoral Sense”

Nietzsche begins the essay on a misanthropic note. He rails against the arrogance of humanity in thinking so highly of our own intelligence and place in the vast space and time of the cosmos. He further insists that human intellect is originally used for “dissimulation” (p. 20), i.e. lying (of course his notion of “lie” is pretty liberal, as I hope will become clearer in the section below). He paints this within a Hobbesian view of a competitive, individualistic state-of-nature humanity. Truth comes second, as a social pact to use the same language in reference to an alleged access to the same bare reality.

Truth = Lie

All language is metaphor. Between subject and object is an “aesthetic comportment.” When we use language to comprehend and communicate about reality, it is an essentially creative, artistic process. As Kant described, we never have naked access to the thing-in-itself. Instead, we only have our representations, composed of linguistic metaphor. To the extent that we claim access to “truth,” we are in error if not outright lying. Either way, we are wrong. It is impossible to perceive correctly. The sense that we have of “knowing” reality in an immediate sense, is an illusion. All language, all representation, hence all experience and cognition, is metaphor. Metaphor which sticks around long enough, is adopted and repeated by enough people, is forgotten to be metaphor, and thus is felt to be truth. With repetition comes the impression of realness. Truth is aged metaphor, forgotten to be metaphor.


To use a concept is to treat different things as if they were the same. Concepts are created by lumping together a collection of objects under some aspect or aspects that they have in common, while ignoring their differences. Then there is a kind of ideal version of this sameness which is extracted, and used to measure belonging of objects under the concept. Ironically, no object is ever a perfect replication of the extracted ideal. Of course we ignore that too.

For Nietzsche, concepts are far from being transcendental truths. Instead, they are “lingering residues of metaphors” (p. 32). There are no concepts in nature. Concepts come from us. We commonly maintain the arrogant delusion that nature really is patterned according to human concepts, as if our meager interpretations could encapsulate the workings of total reality.

Intuitive vs. Rational

With science, we attempt to fit everything into an ordered tower of concepts. Striving for rationality, we maintain a defensive orientation, stuck at the level of need. When we remain connected to metaphor – as in myth and art – we can live life with beauty and creativity. This ‘intuitive’ mode of living also brings with it greater suffering that the ‘rational’ mode. And it is worth it.


Nietzsche, Friedrich. (2010 [1873]). “On Truth and Lie in a Nonmoral sense.” On Truth and Untruth: Selected Writings. New York: Harper.

Marcuse – “Philosophy and Critical Theory”

This is the first installment of what I intend to be an ongoing personal blogging project called “Critical Theory Down to Earth.” In these posts I will provide summaries and brief reflections of writings throughout the wider critical theory landscape. Because I am personally drawn toward epistemology, first generation Frankfurt School, Foucault and Deleuze, these posts will more than likely be weighted in a general direction that reflects these interests. Assuming I get far enough, on I will archive these posts by thinker and title, which will allow easy navigation. The name is more than a slight nod to Adorno’s essay “The Stars Down to Earth.” And yes, that logo is supposed to be funny.

While I am satisfied with the synopsis I provide below as an introduction for and overview of Marcuse’s “Philosophy and Critical Theory” essay, I will preface it with the disclaimer that I am leaving out the dialectical richness of his philosophical style. These concepts, as I describe them below, are entrenched with Hegelian-Marxian contours in the actual essay. They are also very closely tied to Hegel and Marx’s historical theories. I hope the reader who is familiar with Hegel and Marx’s dialectics and theories of history can fill in the gaps more or less, taking what I have provided as clues.

What is the relationship between philosophy and critical theory? This appears to be the overall question Marcuse addresses here. Yet in this essay Marcuse wrestles with several broad issues and the relationships between them. One major thesis stands out though: critical theory is more truthful than philosophy as well as science. This is a very broad claim, and demands some explanation. In what follows, I will lay out his basic arguments for this.



When Marcuse talks about philosophy, he is a little vague, but also a little specific. He generally focuses on philosophy that specifically arose during the bourgeois era. He tends to mark Kant as the beginning, which may indicate an identification of bourgeois and modern philosophy. Either way, his discussion of bourgeois philosophy tends to frame it as a coherent object, which reached its apex in Hegel. So it is at least tempting to assume that when he speaks of bourgeois philosophy he is largely speaking about German Idealism. This is especially apparent early in the essay, where he spends some time speaking about “idealist rationalism,” which he appears to conflate with bourgeois thought as such. For the sake of brevity here, I will generally refer to this tradition as “philosophy” as well.

Marcuse’s essential criticism of philosophy has to do with the limitations it suffers from, in connection with its ties to bourgeois society. There are a couple of aspects to this. First, philosophy remains very abstract. As he repeatedly points out, the merit of philosophy’s truth only holds up when philosophy remains split off of consideration of current social reality. On the other hand, this separation from current reality is a reflection and fortification of the social limitations of the bourgeois epoch. Second, philosophy equated reason and freedom with individualism. This again marks it as reflecting and fortifying bourgeois society.

Remember that Marcuse’s discussion as a force does not revolve so much around epistemological questions, as on the possibilities for human emancipation. When he speaks of epistemological questions, the importance for him is how the form they take may relate to freedom and human happiness now and in the future. This first problem should be understood in this light. He explains how in philosophy, freedom is found in the realm of ideas and reason. This can be seen in light of Hegel’s association of true freedom, the highest freedom, with an all-consuming self-consciousness. It is also tempting to think that Marcuse suggests that philosophers create very abstract systems of thought as a way to personally experience freedom. He seems to imply that philosophy seeks freedom implicitly, and in the bourgeois era, it found it by escaping from an unfree social reality into the freedom of pure abstraction. Not only is this an incomplete form of freedom, but it also insulates social reality to philosophical interventions toward freedom. Material bondage is fortified by idealistic freedom. Likewise, when freedom is portrayed as independence, self-reliance, and individual choice, this both reflects and fortifies the unfreedoms of bourgeois society through deterring collective identification and harmonizing with the competitive, individualizing tendencies of capitalism.


Critical Theory

Just as philosophy was an expression of its epoch, so too is critical theory. With critical theory, however, the split between philosophy and social reality lessens. Social conditions are increasingly rife for the transition to a rational society. As this transition comes nearer, so freedom is taken out of the realm of pure abstraction, and projected more concretely into the nature of the society of the future. Freedom is transferred from the realm of self-reflecting consciousness into the realm of theoretically engaged collective action. Philosophy is transformed into critical theory. From critical theory, the only place to go towards greater freedom is through social change. Once the rational society is finally brought to fruition, philosophy will cease entirely to be alienated from social reality. Philosophy as such will cease to exist.

Social thought that aims at transformation and liberation in the material world (rather than in speculative philosophy) comes out of real social struggles. These social struggles are brought to fruition through the development of capitalism with its inequalities and internal contradictions. The market economy ultimately drives social change under capitalism. In this particular transformation, capitalism creates a class of dispossessed who become activated to seek liberation. This dynamic – the economy as prime mover of society – is peculiar to capitalism, however. The economy is not a priori the base of society as such, and in a rational society, the economy would no longer have this kind of leading power. Instead, the economy would be intentionally catered to the fulfilling of human wants and needs. The political system would no longer grow out of the economy’s self-propelling processes. Instead, the economy would be governed by the people, in service to human values.

This looking toward the future comes with seeing the present as a moment in history. The larger arc of history is understood as the location of truth, rather than in science for example, which is always specifically rooted in the dynamics of the present reality. Because philosophy seeks freedom in abstraction split off from social reality, it also fails to really address the historicity of the present. The present is left to fend for itself. Because bourgeois philosophy is only true as a set of thoughts abstracted from social reality, it is limited in its truth value. Similarly, because science seeks proof through examining the present, it too fails to look into future possibilities, and hence is limited in its truth content. By contrast, critical theory looks into the present reality, but does not limit its truth to the present. Because critical theory looks beyond the present, towards the potentialities of the future social world, it is able to access a more complete type of truth than either science or philosophy is focused on. This future orientation requires a leap beyond the immediate facts, and so necessarily involves “phantasy.” Seeing what could be – not just what is – is the defining feature of critical theory’s claim to seeing a greater form of truth.



Marcuse, Herbert. (1996 [1937]). “Philosophy and Critical Theory.” Negations: Essays in critical theory. Boston: Beacon Press.