Adorno – Lecture 8 on Negative Dialectics: “The Concept of Intellectual Experience” (12/2/1965)

In bodily experience, we encounter material objects or forces on the level of sensation. Sensation makes an impression upon us, and we respond – even if mostly internally at times – to the object. We experience the physical qualities of objects according to what and how our senses can register them, and hence they make an impression upon us. At the very least, this is a familiar intuitive description of bodily experience. By contrast, in intellectual experience, we encounter material and non-material objects on the level of concepts. In encountering the object, our concepts respond by allowing the object to impress itself upon them. Our concepts register these impressions in an open, flexible way. In these encounters, our concepts will adjust in whatever way they need to in order to allow space for the particularities of the object.

Infinity and Intellectual Experience

Adorno discusses his notion of intellectual experience in tandem with a discussion of ideas of infinity. Philosophers have often striven for their concepts to possess universal validity, and for their systems to extend to everything. This “everything” has included the infinite; Adorno specifically notes the Kant -> Hegel trajectory as guilty of this. Within these system philosophies, infinity is represented within a list of axioms. Some sort of interaction of logical statements is supposed to conceptually contain infinity. The irony is that infinity is shrunk to a very finite form: a few claims housed in language and logic.

Instead of this explicit infinity and implicit finitude, Adorno proposes we philosophize in a way that is explicitly finite and implicitly open to infinity. Philosophy should not rely on the branding of axioms and supposed iron-clad truths that aim to extend to infinity and capture it. Philosophy should find its contents according to the infinite diversity of objects, as it encounters them, i.e. through intellectual experience. This open philosophy that does not aspire to contain infinity is more infinite by virtue of not being limited by its own system. It is infinitely open.

Art and Intellectual Experience

Philosophy can learn from art. When encountering a work of art, a person experiences it in its particularity and its finitude. It makes a unique impression upon the viewer. Through interpretation, an intrinsically infinite number of associations, implications, connotations, and any other such types of meaning are possible. This way of experiencing and responding should be taken in by philosophers. We should cast off the search for security that finds a shallow satisfaction in the pretensions of universal truths and axioms. We have to be open in a way that allows for us to be in error. We have to see further, to take risks, to think dangerously. This is the kind of philosophy Adorno supports.


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


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.

Adorno – Lecture 6 on Negative Dialectics: “Being. Nothing. Concept.” (11/25/1965)

Adorno hammers in yet again that it is very important for theory to reflect on the failure of Marx’s predicted Revolution. He suggests one part of a possible explanation:  domination was maintained in the transitions to socialism attempted by Marxist-Leninist governments. This is not simply the claim that Communist leaders held on to positions of power and suppressed counter-revolutionary activity, which effectively turned away from ending human/human domination. That claim is obvious, and seems implicit in Adorno’s raising of the issue. Yet he goes further and frames it in terms of Marx’s dialectic.

For Marx, human/human domination developed along with human/nature domination. The forces of production – our tools and technologies – and our scientific knowledge rose within the same historical sweep as did class society, and of course capitalist development is the main culprit under scrutiny here. Yet when Marx theorized the end of class domination, he did not address the issue of ending the domination of nature. Correspondingly, Marxist-Leninist revolutions of the 20th century only addressed the issue of class domination, and left human/nature domination as it was. Without ending human/nature domination, however, human/human domination had to continue as well. The two run together.

Note on “Nature”

In this context, you should think about “nature” in a wide sense. Adorno is not talking about saving the trees and freeing Willy, although I imagine both of these things are relevant, and perhaps fit directly within the larger concept. Think of nature as the stuff of reality. Nature is phenomena, but not just material phenomena as distinct from mind. Nature is the world and its workings. So human/nature domination is maybe clearer if you just think of domination qua domination. Human/human domination would be people controlling other people, human/nature domination would be people controlling anything and everything.

Philosophy and the Non-Conceptual

Western philosophy has traditionally been harmonious with this general tendency to seek control. According to Adorno, philosophy intrinsically reaches beyond itself. It uses concepts in order to try to incorporate the non-conceptual into its conceptual structure. This is epitomized (as usual) in Hegel, where everything and its opposite are all accounted for within the grand dialectical structure that culminates in a single final point of total knowledge. However, philosophy as concepts incorporating the non-conceptual is a doomed enterprise. The non-conceptual can only be reached outside of conceptual thought. As soon as you conceptualize something, it ceases to be non-conceptual. Philosophy seeks to incorporate everything down to the last drop, and so it always reaches beyond what it has thus far assimilated. But there will always be aspects it cannot reach. There is always a remainder.

Hegel thinks he surmounted this, but he was messy and slipped up. To show this, Adorno references the early part in Hegel’s Science of Logic where he lays out the supposed equivalence of being and nothingness. Basically, Hegel’s argument is that pure being is indeterminate, i.e. it is not derived from some other force or logic. It is the pure starting point, and as such it can have nothing that determines it. But then Hegel claims that it possesses the quality of indeterminateness, which is nothingness. Hence being = nothingness. Here is where Adorno lays the smack down: Hegel makes a grammatical sleight of hand when he changes from “indeterminate” to “indeterminateness.” The latter is a general condition. It is conceptual. Hegel jumps the gun and just assumes he can frame pure being by means of a concept that describes it. This shows Hegel’s presumptiveness concerning the omniscience of conceptual thought. He does not justify it, he just does it. And it is out of this presumptuous starting place that the entire system of Hegel’s logic develops. Adorno further claims that this messiness is a general tendency throughout Hegel’s various dialectical maneuvers. He consistently shoves the non-conceptual under the rug, explained away as conceptual by referring to it in a conceptual way. He puts the horse inside the cart, sticks a fork in it, and washes, rinses and repeats ad infinitum!

Adorno is not fooled by such shenanigans.

You Know the Day Destroys the Night

Adorno says we are in this historic moment when the moment of practice has failed, and we need to return to theory, however philosophy is a set-up for failure. Trying to reach the non-conceptual using concepts, ha! We try to run. We try to hide. We need to face our current predicament. If we don’t, philosophy tends either to a) regress into formalism which it cannot defend, or b) collect a bunch of essentially random, arbitrary postulates that is cannot defend.

What we need is to break on through to the other side. Philosophy needs to be self-critical, reflecting conceptually on this endemic self-sabotage. The question is: will it work? Can self-reflecting conceptual thought break through the walls of conceptual thought?


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

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

Adorno – Lecture 5 on Negative Dialectics: “Theory and Practice” (11/23/1965)

The 5th lecture goes further into the topic that Adorno addressed at the end of the 4th lecture: the 11th of Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach:

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”

In my summary of the 4th lecture, I added in my own thoughts about there being a possible surface reading of the above statement, as well as a deeper theoretical reading. Obviously, there could hypothetically be many more readings, but I think looking at this in terms of the two readings I identify is useful. Anyway, I explained that I take issue with Marx’s quote on the grounds of the surface interpretation. I also explained that Adorno takes issue with the deeper theory. Here in the 5th lecture, Adorno takes issue on both levels.

The Revolution Will Not Be Actualized

With the 20th century arose some serious difficulties for The Revolution, namely a) the evident propensity for successful Communist revolutions to lead to despotic Communist regimes, and b) the invention of the atomic bomb. With these two things in mind, today The Revolution appears destined for failure, and likely catastrophe.

And yet, the idea that we just aren’t there yet – that in fact capitalism is predestined to subvert itself and bring about global utopia and so we should sit back and wait for it – is also bunk. Technological and scientific advancements are not all pressing workers into factories to develop class consciousness. In fact society is “growing” in techno-scientific capacities but these changes are simply not leading to the great polarization of classes that Marx envisioned. Revolution is not being brought closer with time. We are faced with a context where The Revolution is postponed indefinitely.

I will come back to this later.

“Shoot First, Ask Questions Later”

Adorno insists there is no clear and distinct binary between theory and practice. This alone, of course, is not a particularly revolutionary statement within Marxist theory, wherein the dialectical relationship between theory and practice is a very common topic. Yet the surface reading of Marx’s 11th thesis on Feuerbach indicates a clear distinction and even opposition between the two; and Adorno’s lecture makes evident that he was concerned about the sort anti-intellectual activist trends I was referring to regarding my objection to the 11th thesis. I don’t usually put block quotes in these summaries, but I make an exception this time:

…there is a very great risk that the idea of practice will lead to a shackling of theory. By this I mean that ideas of all sorts are restricted by the insistence on the question ‘Yes, but what must I do in practice? What can I do with this idea?’ Or even, ‘If you think in this way, you will stand in the way of some possible practice or other.’ It is always happening that when you address the enormous barriers facing every conceivable political intervention stemming from the relations of production and the social institutions built around them – that when you address this, you instantly receive the reply ‘Yes, but…’, an objection that I regard as one of the greatest dangers in intellectual life. (p. 49 italics added)

Elsewhere he describes “the renunciation of theory and the view that all we need to do is to wade in with our fists and there will be no more need for thought” as “fascist,” and further asserts “it would be grossly unjust to Marx to impute such views to him” (p. 47). At the same time, Adorno indicates a suspicion that Marx leaned towards wanting people to shut up about philosophy and become revolutionary activists instead. It is hard for me to imagine that if Marx felt this way, that the surface reading is somehow completely off the mark. Even if Marx didn’t intend to express this sort of anti-intellectual, “move it or lose it” idea in the quote in question, it seems fair enough to believe that the sentiment may have slipped through. But this is somewhat beside the point…

Adorno sees Marx’s ambivalence on the issue of theory vis-à-vis practice to be important to understand, and not just because it is a more appropriate understanding of the ideas of Marx himself. It is also important because it points to an antinomy that has not been resolved in philosophy or in political history. And at the present moment (literally meaning the 1960s, but I would argue also the 2010s), the issue deserves serious meditation.

Brief Digression on Wishful Thinking

Levi R. Bryant (2009) astutely coined the term “Normative Fallacy” to refer to deriving an is principle from an ought principle. In his words: “The Normative Fallacy occurs…when someone attempts to argue that something is not the case or is the case based on a set of ideological, ethical, moral, political, or other normative commitments.”

This is an epidemic tendency when action-oriented people meet theoretical critics. It is also very common in Marxist objections to poststructuralism/postmodernism.

In the block quote from Adorno that I included above, he gives three examples of practice-minded retorts to theoretical criticisms. The third example – if you think in this way, you will stand in the way of some possible practice or other – is specifically relevant to to the problem of “Normative Fallacy” that Bryant articulates.

A person can be passionate about social change, and committed to making maximum impact in minimal time; but what if no roads lead to Rome? You always have the option of throwing away the map, picking the road that is lit up the nicest, or is shortest, or has the best rest stops, etc., and telling yourself it is the correct road because it is the one you want to take. I cannot argue with that. But it will not take you to Rome. Just because something feels morally right, does not mean that it is real.

Attempting to beat a reasoned argument with a practical conviction is like trying to slice an apple with an orange: it doesn’t work. It is actually impractical. An objection to my argument might be: Why bother trying to slice the apple when the orange is your real concern? Just ignore the apple and let it be oranges all the way down! Adorno has something to say about this…

Stop! Self-Criticism Time!

We need to stop and think. Theories about practice today need to take into account more than just Marx’s observations about capitalism a century ago. They need to take into account how the world has changed. As I indicated earlier, Adorno insists – Hegelian-Marxist that he is – that theory and practice are not in different dimensions that fail to touch. For him, theory and practice are and ought to be interrelated, each influencing and involving the other.

The fact that the revolution will not be actualized needs to be grappled with. We need to understand this, theorize it, and use these understandings to aid informed practice. Philosophy needs to be self-critical, not just shrink away from practice and doodle around with architectonics as if the world does not concern theory. Shrinking will not help us. Neither, however, will practice qua practice, as if theory does not concern the world. We need to soberly (or drunkenly, either way) reflect upon the obstacles to good practice that recent history has revealed and that the present presents.


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

Bryant, L. R. (2009) “The Normative Fallacy.” Larval Subjects.

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

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.