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Adorno – Lecture 9 on Negative Dialectics: “The Element of Speculation” (12/7/1965)

Despite Adorno’s materialism and his insistence on objects always being larger than their concepts, he also maintains that concepts and larger than their objects (see lecture 1). In other words, concepts cannot capture all that is contained in the object; and yet concepts cannot be completely filled by their objects either. There’s a kind of remainder in both cases.

The excess of the concept beyond its object can easily be understood as its zone of error. But it is also the part of the concept that extends beyond the bare reporting of facts. “Truth” should not be understood as contained entirely within the bare reality of empirical facts. Come on, we’re talking about the Frankfurt School here! This zone that goes beyond the object is not necessarily in error just because it goes beyond the object. It risks error, but it is also the zone of intellectual creativity that moves human understanding forward.

Speculation takes place here. And speculation is a crucial part of any decent philosophy, according to Adorno. The classic distinction between appearance and essence is a case in point. “Essence” is beyond immediate appearance. And essence, in the Hegelian sense of investigating the internal contradictions of a thing that are the forces behind its appearance, is a central element – if not the central element – of “immanent critique”, the signature methodology of the Frankfurt School. Adorno likes essence. Adorno likes speculation. Adorno may ‘put the object first’ but he does not end there. Make no mistake! Definitions are not the enemy. It is fixed definitions that are to be avoided. Conceptual thought is important; it just needs to be flexible and open is all.

Play, Art and Mimesis

Don’t be such a sourpuss about philosophy, Buzzkill McGee! Sure you should be serious about what you do, but you should also be playful! Philosophical thinking needs both elements. Be disciplined, but also dance around outside of your discipline. Get down with your non-conceptual self!

And do the mimesis thing more. Wait, what???

I am not sure how good these examples are, but…Do as Simon says. Pretend you are Batman. Really get into it, e.g. method acting. Be the ball. Watch the movie in 3D and care what happens. In other words, don’t just dance; let yourself identify with something other than yourself.

This identification with an Other is “mimesis” in Adorno’s lexicon. So not just mimesis as in mimicry, although I think that’s an honored option. The really key thing is getting the experience of identification with an Other. And in this sense, dancer may involve mimesis, depending on how “into it” and spontaneous you are.

Philosophy needs to use this element, and to use it wisely. It needs less identification of, more identification with. It needs to allow space for this aesthetic consciousness, and use it as part of generating insights about reality. No arbitrary claims according to whims though. No everyone-is-right mentality. Intuitions need to be evaluated. How to evaluate? Well, how do you assess the quality of a work of art? What is it trying to do? Does it do a good job? Is it relevant? Does it resonate? Does it “stand up” like Shakespeare’s Hamlet? Or does it fall on its face like Ernest Scared Stupid?


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 – Negative Dialectics: “Compulsory Substantiveness”

Negative Dialectics

  • Part Two: Negative Dialectics. Concepts and Categories

    • 2. Compulsory Substantiveness

Adorno, destroyer of philosopher worlds though he may be, is a materialist. Any idea must reference at some point in some way, something substantive, some sort of object. Ideas do not occur independent of sensation. Ideas are predicated on sensation.

Kant acknowledged the central place of sensation in our conceptual cognition. For him consciousness consists in the mutually dependent interaction of conceptual thought and sensual experience. And yet Kant preserves this transcendental empty thought capacity thing, this “transcendental apperception” as he calls it, which underlies all experience, sensation of course included. Hegel was more of a belligerent idealist, but Kant ultimately placed the subject before the object too. Speaking of the subject, Kant’s notion of experience as contained by the mind implies the relegation of sensation to the individual. Adorno indicates that this model does not pay the ontic/material world its due. If Kant put substantive things before ideas in his philosophy, then his thing about “transcendental apperception” would fall to pieces. The floaty idea force cannot be so omniscient if the ontic does not stem from it, but instead precedes it.

And on another level, what’s the deal with this ‘duration’ = ‘importance’ thing? Come on, people! Just because something is temporary does not make it unworthy of concern. Sensations come and go, sure. But by what authority does that make them less real than allegedly “eternal ideas” which are without substance in of themselves? Seriously!

Philosophy needs substance. It needs stuff. It needs objects, material, the ontic. Philosophy makes no sense without reference to the material world, even if it is a seemingly distant relation. Let’s look at the stuff that we find within space and time, and put that as primary. The abstract categories of space and time, these larger-than-life forms can listen and learn.


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

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

Adorno – Negative Dialectics: “The Indissoluble ‘Something'”

Negative Dialectics

  • Part Two: Negative Dialectics. Concepts and Categories

    • 1. The Indissoluble “Something”

In Hegel, the ultimate truth of things, deep down, is an all-embracing consciousness, aware of itself as pure self-awareness. At the heart of reality, as well as its pinnacle and final frame, is this whatchamacallit: “being in and for itself”. There are no contents at this level of being, only form (albeit a form allegedly containing all contents). It is pure subject, no predicate; or at least, the predicate or object is contained in the subject. It is the viewer, empty other than the act of viewing, which of course by extension is empty (although also allegedly completely full).

In Heidegger, at the bottom of reality, before all of our concepts, impulses, understandings, etc. there is “Being.” Heidegger’s Being also contains no contents. It takes on the shape of an infinite logical regress. For there to be Being, there must be the layer of Being that contains this Being. There must be a potentiality or quality or condition of Beingness below Being, allowing Being to exist as an “it”, formless though this particular “it” – Being – is. And yet, any potentiality/quality/condition including “Beingness” is predicated on a further potentiality/quality/condition; in this case let’s call it “Beingnessness”. So the Being of Being is Beingness and the Being of Beingness is Beingnessness, ad infinitum. “Being” is an infinite regress into itself. It is a motion back behind itself. At least, I think that is what Heidegger was getting at, albeit in slightly different words??

Adorno Is Not Having It

Adorno thinks this Hegel/Heidegger empty Being stuff is all bunk. If there is some kind of final ground of reality, it is “something”. There are entities. Being does not equal nothingness. It is not an infinite regress or an embracing self-awareness, or any obscure notion of grand emptiness. We live in a world of stuff. If we erase all of the add-ons, we will come down to a “something”. Maybe we can’t say anything about it other than that, but it is something, not nothing. And there is not some sort of transcendental, absolute, logically complete version of this “something” either. That would be some kind of weird story we told ourselves about it. Something is not something to root a philosophy in, to extend axioms from and claim to encapsulate the nature of things. It is just…”something”. Leave it at that. And move on.

The history of philosophy has brought it to a place of necessary self-critique. Basic philosophy has put the concept first. Conceptual thought is treated as the house of knowledge in philosophy. Structures of concepts are built, or concepts are scattered haphazardly or according to our desires. Either way, it is concepts all the way down. But this is a flawed project. Finally, philosophy has come to recognize this, and has fallen into knowing aporia. Philosophy is floundering and needs to really look itself in the face – and by that I mean look itself in the concept – in order to have any hope of moving forward fruitfully. Adorno is happy (or maybe “melancholy”) to oblige. And his offering is negative dialectics.

In Adorno’s negative dialectics, the concept will critique itself. And there will be no ontology, no theory of Being or being in and for itself, etc. There will be no starting point, no proclamation of the root of reality. There will also be no anti-ontology. There will be no fixed proclamation of the absence of “being” or of the absence of the nature of “being”. That would be to make grandiose claims, and to put barriers up to the movement of thought. Adorno does not want to do that. Adorno does not want a total philosophy, even a total negative philosophy. Adorno wants to give entities their due, and to let philosophy be flexible and open.


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

Hegel, G. W. F. (1977). Phenomenology of spirit. Oxford University Press.

Heidegger, M. (1992). History of the concept of time: Prolegomena. Indiana University Press.

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.”