Dave Harris: Notes on the Introduction to Adorno, T  (1973)  Negative Dialectics, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

I am fully aware of the stupidity of what I am about to try to do. No-one summarises Adorno -- the text deliberately resists such a vulgar effort. You are supposed to read Adorno and begin a process of thought and self-reflection, using the text and its poetry as a kind of stimulus. God knows why I am even attempting a summary here. I suppose I hope it might persuade or encourage you to have a look yourself one day. If you do, you are in for a severe challenge -- if the English doesn't put you off , the frequent use of Latin or Greek will. Is it worth it in the end -- only you can tell.

Meanwhile, let us forget our philosophical reservations and get on with it. This is what I think some of it might mean...

'The name of dialectics says no more, to begin with, than that objects do not go into their concepts without leaving a remainder, that they come to contradict the traditional norm of adequacy'  (page 5). This and other contradictions are not essential ones, however. They are used simply to indicate the untruth of identity – ‘contradiction’ means non-identity. There is so much pressure towards identity, and striving for it that we need the dialectic and negativity. In a way, however, this is a familiar feature of our own consciousness -- first there is a drive towards identity, then a recognition of its impossibility. However, this is not just a ‘cogitative law: It is real'  (page 6).

We need to emphasise the particular and the substantive rather than the universal and conceptual. This is the reversal of most philosophy, of course. Even Husserl’s conception of essences were still somehow intuited from particulars, just like the old universal concepts, still grounded in subjectivity, and thus still reductionist: concepts remain as subjective reconciliations with objectivity. We need to go beyond such concepts, but this causes problems because you can only ever do this with new concepts. However, this supply of new concepts indicates an interesting presupposition -- that there must be some totality. However, this is not simply a matter of adding concepts together. There is a necessary antagonism between reality and thought, and this is the object of genuine mental experience. Any philosophy which tries to overcome such antagonism is flawed, and this includes idealist subjectivism and social objectivism. There is always an ineffable portion of reality  (page 11).

There can be no philosophy without concepts. Even empiricism is forced to use them, and on the other hand the most 'pure' concepts have a non-conceptual referent (turning on the control of nature).  Concepts only seem independent  [of political and historical processes], and this apparent independence runs the risk of turning into fetishism. We need to dereify (page 12), that is to recapture the relations between concepts and the non-conceptual whole which constitutes them. Reflection is needed to do this, a process of 'disenchantment of the concept' [ a ref to Weber here].

We  need to immerse ourselves in heterogeneity, relinquishing both our sense of self and any attempt to confine reality to our concepts.  We should seek infinity rather than codification, and a diversity for objects, rather than seeing them as 'a mirror in which to re-read  [themselves]'  (page 13). We need to attempt a full experience of reality, rather than one mediated through existing categories. Philosophical categories should be seen only as a method, as a technology, rather as in Deweyian pragmatism [irony here]. They should never be dominant: we should play with them instead. Philosophy therefore resembles art in its cogency and playfulness, but it is not an imitation of art: it is not intuitive and it does not yearn for reconciliation [between subject and object, thought and reality] only to fail  (page 15). Philosophy is speculative, and should not stick to safe ground. It should be modest rather than attempt to be profound. Philosophical speculation is a main source of resistance to the status quo, a barrier erected by power.

Why is presentation [including writing style?] so important?  Identity thinking aims at mimesis, and it is our duty to prevent subjective experience from degenerating into a mere world view or science. Negativity keeps philosophy free from 'both the positivity of science and the contingency of dilettantism'  (page 19). Thought is negation, and resistance, and a good deal of effort is actually needed to positivise it, even though there are tendencies inherent in thought which lead that way -- [Kantian?] judgment, for example. Thought can do violence to objects in attempting to synthesise them, but there is a potential in objects too, and philosophy should expose this, and thus hope to restore the damage done by objectification. 

The aim or telos of philosophy is anti-systemic, enshrining a 'freedom to interpret phenomena with which it joins unarmed issue'  (page 20).[is Adorno arguing for some kind of value free philosophy here? Nothing as silly, probably-- an open exploratory encounter instead?]. ‘System' is important as a concept to grasp how heterogeneous things are rendered alike in advanced capitalism, and in this sense the notion of system does order things in order to get on with interpretation. However, a system can also be a scholar's substitute for power  (page 20). This reflects on the success of maths and science. 

Initially, bourgeois reason smashes feudalism, but it then encounters chaos, and reason must be used conservatively, against emancipation. Reason escapes even that goal eventually, and becomes a thing in itself, something apparently natural, apparently coterminous with thought itself.  [This is one example of a more general figure in Adorno’s work -- the ‘dialectic of genesis and validity', page 21]. Such reason tries to overcome its inherent antinomies by eliminating all qualitative referents -- but then it loses its object. In this way, identity prevails and objectivity, in the sense of adequacy to the object, is lost too. Mere pedantic classifications, of axioms and definitions and so on, ensue: 'pedantry [is] the main feature of the ontology of the bourgeois spirit'  (page 22). Such elaborations, classifications and systematisations serve as a precaution against doubt, and express a paranoid zeal to incorporate everything.

The idea of a system turns into a matter of control. The rage against the victim of such control is a projection of our own drives and fears. Human beings need reason and must rationalise [if they cannot do the real thing]. Thus ingenious ways are found to denounce the other as evil [presumably, Nazi anti-Semitism was the referent here?] There is an equivalent when we consider social processes too. The drive towards systems leads to a bureaucratic administration of advanced capitalism, but this can never control reality and thus crises of the system are produced  [which are rationalised as threats from outsiders again?]. Such systems here are engaged in a fruitless quest for some Archimedian point [outside the social formation itself] at which opposites can be unified or reconciled. This is nonsense, but is better than mere classifications, which involve a completely naive view of concepts as totally equal to the objects.

Idealism also features antinomies. Thought appears capable of synthesising everything, having infinite applicability, and leaving nothing outside the realm of ideas. Yet the very idea of a system implies a boundary, beyond which thought stops thinking. Again, there is an echo of bourgeois society here, which colonises everything, but once totality is achieved bourgeois society must end  [because it depends on some non-bourgeois elements to dominate and control and to define itself against?]. Both systems exhibit constant tension between dynamism and stasis. Idealist systems, like Hegel's, are forced into some unhappy compromise -- they appear dynamic, but in reality 'each single definition in [Hegel's system] was already preconceived', and each phenomenon is always and only just ‘a case’ to its concept  (page 27).  [This reminds me very much of a discussion on ideology by Althusser [see file], which stresses the 'mirror-like' nature of ideology, where concepts can only reflect objects and vice-versa. Ironically, the concept of the social formation in the work of Althusser and Balibar was seen in the same way, as a mere 'combinatory', reflecting a limited number of moves instead of offering a proper discovery of history]. By contrast, negation is vital if we are to grasp the particulars, the bits which transcend the system  (page 28). This is a way to break out of metaphysics, even if it involves an inconceivable totality. 

Immersion in particularity leads to the freedom to break the hold of the object, without having to back into abstract concepts. We need a thought model to guide us here  -- and negative dialectics is 'an ensemble of analyses of thought models'  (page 29). Philosophy does need to intervene, to attribute to objects 'what is waiting in the objects themselves.… to speak'. It is like the project of the early Encyclopaedists, before they were harnessed to institutional reason and forced to systematise; it is like mundane experience before it becomes academicised; it is like the activities of the [amateur] homme des lettres, before being specialised. It is a matter of argument, not the application of a technique [or method], 'which robots can learn and copy'  (page 30).  [As an example of how important it is not to be stuck by having to apply a approach consistently, Adorno argues that Idealism would be improved by combining it with naive empiricism: according to some critics, of course, such a combination arises anyway, at the moment at which idealism wants to apply itself to actual social situations]. Theory should not be used as some sort of discipline with which to constrain experience. Indeed non-identity should lead to negativity, a celebration of the 'abundance of ways [in which a subject can] react'  (page 31). Indeed, critical self-reflection [resisting identity thinking] is crucial. In this way, theory and experience should be allowed to interact -- the critics of unregulated experience and systematic theory have something in common. 

Would such philosophising be groundless, or vertiginous? These are already features of modern culture, recognised as such in poetry for example [and these days, in post-modernist critique]. The bureaucratisation of thought is so widespread that anything else seems to threaten us with vertigo. Philosophy must resist the choice between these given alternatives, both of which involve coercion and a coarsening of consciousness. 

A desire for system and order in philosophy comes from the same impulse as does magic [a theme developed in the contributions to the Positivist Dispute -- see file]. An emphasis on the framework or on categories misses the whole point of content. As a result, philosophy cannot be easily expounded [or taught or reduced to some nice simple points]. The refusal to categorise is a liberation of philosophy from idealism, especially Hegel's, and a rejection of identity thinking, including an identitarian ontology. Systems of 'first philosophy' can save themselves from accusations of groundlessness, but only by admitting that the primitive terms used are not secure, or at least not immediately, not until the final step is taken. [This seems to be a version of the slightly more familiar post-modernist critique of foundationalism]. The truth is fragile, and it can easily be lost rather than guaranteed by a system: 'no unreflective banality can remain true'  (page 35). The point is still to try to grasp the truth, but there is no way to it through some agreed banality as the base. [That is, no simple agreed first step, or basic agreement about facts]. 

Dialectics also opposes relativism --'the twin of absolutism'  (page 34). Relativism is to be criticised by recognising it as a limited form of consciousness, which began as bourgeois individualism (page 36).  [It also permits what Adorno has called 'repressive egalitarianism', the insistence that every opinion is as good as any other. Marcuse has a similar concept--'malicious egalitarianism'-- where the requirement that everyone must be treated equally means that no inequalities can be rectified].  The smug insistence that all thought must be conditioned by material factors 'disdains' the mind and its ability to transcend such factors. It implies that material things are the only ones that matter, and is thus reductionist. It is also an abstraction, indifferent to the actual contents of thought [some of which might be materially conditioned, and others might not be].  It also fails to grasp how a social context might produce both material conditions and thought: 'Knowledge of the whole makes perspectives binding' (page 37), just as the so-called 'laws'  of the economic system act as a kind of background to 'individual'  decisions. Finally, and paradoxically, relativism itself  'obeys the objective law of social production under private ownership' (page 37), although it is not self reflective enough to understand this. A definite anti-intellectualism accompanies relativism, based on fear that Reason, once liberated, would break the entire system, hence reason must be limited. In this sense, relativism is always reactionary, since sophists can always be found to serve the 'more powerful interests''  (page 37). [This whole paragraph advances some criticisms of great interest to current debates about ‘post-modernism’, of course, and summarises quite nicely most of those made more recently by Habermas – see Dews 1987).

Excessive abstraction, involving a reduction to general concepts, loses concreteness, and thus staves off opposition to the system  (directed principally at Hegel -- this is a departure from other Critical Theorists, principally Marcuse, who thought the Hegelian scheme might still serve to guide CT --see file),   (pages 37-39). The same goes with philosophies trying to develop categories based on originary or primary experience, as does Phenomenology -- these categories just seem to be somehow immediate. Both primary experience and abstract concepts are better seen as poles or moments  [in a dialectical process]. Apparent invariants, 'peeled out' from variables  [and this curious phrase is also found in Marx's Grundrisse], are derived only from substances which happen to be at hand and which will change. However, this is disguised, as invariants become 'stabilised in transcendence, they become ideology'  (page 40). Ideology is a form of identity thinking 'justified by the world'  (page 40).

Experience needs more subjectivity, unconstrained, and not restricted to those few who possess some agreed method  [the real elitists?]. Such lack of constraint is not available to all, however -- some remained crippled by mass culture (page 41). Only a stroke of luck keeps some out of this crippling force. They might become intellectuals, able to speak on behalf of the rest. However, direct communication between intellectuals and others is not necessarily possible --'the truth is objective not plausible'  (page 42). Further, no one can fully grasp it. There is no reason for intellectuals to bask in some elitist pride, since all of us are contaminated 'by existence and ultimately by the class relationship'. Insights arise as ‘chances’, the relations between the individual and universal are 'accidental'  (page 42). Further there is a danger of attempting to pursue a method or system --a system ‘promises the liberation of the individual, but only if he succumbs to it'  (page 42).[exactly what Althusser is famous for saying, of course -- see file].

Science eliminates qualities. Rationality has become a matter of quantification. Abstraction triumphs over discrimination. However, discrimination is needed first, before unification into higher orders can proceed. This is hidden under one aspect of quantification, the reduction of the individual knower to a 'logical universal'.  This is assisted by the division of labour [into mental and manual? Into academic specialism?]  (page 44). Anything qualitative is taboo, and dismissed as mere subjectivity. We need discrimination now to find it what it is that escapes the concept in the object, instead of the quantified version of discrimination. This turns into a matter of classifying, the differences between species, for example, but on reflection the basis for this must be irrational and accidental  -- another example of a kind of subjective decisionism before science can take place. Such quantifiable discrimination leads to individuals becoming 'unconsciously imitative’  (page 46). Subjectivity does need correction, but by self-reflection, not by imposing uniformity. 

The social totality is what links the subject and object as something substantive. Idealism simply misunderstands this, and sees the links between subject and object as direct: the subject masters or contains the object in thought. This language is not accidental, and shows that 'coercion is inherent in philosophy'. Of course some form of discipline is needed, to prevent regression into mere licence, but philosophy should be adequate to the substantive issue, and the idealist turn shows that it isn't .

Existentialism sets out to be critical of the fetishism of philosophy. There are political variants belonging to both left and right, according to how the underlying decisionism is conceived. Thus Sartre saw decisionism as the last refuge of the authentic against the tyranny of the party or bureaucracy. Making a decision therefore became absolute for Sartre, and the social conditions in which it took place were seen as merely settings. However, authentic, heroic decisions are never really possible, since social constraints are always too much. The whole position overstresses subjectivity as the source of substantial being. Inevitably, this leads to a need to borrow back concepts from other sciences [this is always needed with formal sciences  -- the substance returns behind philosophy’s back, as Adorno puts it. Elsewhere, he refers to this as the 'return of the repressed'].This is a example of the obsessions which dog abstract and formal systems. The concept 'Man' , as in Lukacs, falls into the same difficulty: this concept is ‘ideological because its pure form dictates the invariant of the possible answer, even if the invariant  [claims to be something dynamic like]... historicity'  (page 51). [What I think this means is that abstract philosophies using abstract concepts like 'Being', or 'Man' end in circularity, positing certain characteristics of the concept in the first place, only to 'discover’ them at the end of the analysis. The same point is made against Hegel's concepts in the section above. Adorno uses another one of his suggestive, but gnomic, quotes to reinforce this point: 'They illustrate Existenz the concept by Existenz the condition' (page 51).]

Language shows the possibilities of breaking out of these limits to cognition. [This leads to some remarks about the presentation of philosophy, a defence for deliberately elusive language.  True to form, it relies heavily on Greek terms at crucial moments!] To dissolve fetishised cognition, one needs to read things as a 'text of their becoming', a process where idealist and materialist dialectics concur. This is quite unlike the usual view: Idealism sees the process of becoming as an indication of the concept, but materialism sees only the untruth of concepts and of the apparent immediacy. We can only stress possibilities, and these are not easily expressed: whenever we use words we risk identity thinking. We need to think in terms of describing ‘constellations’, rather than simple objects which can be captured by single words or concepts. 

Philosophy is now positivised and ahistorical. [In Nazi Germany, and perhaps in modern popular culture?] history has become superstition. But a sense of history and tradition is vital to philosophy: there simply is no chance of being able to start again from some new objectification [or foundation?]  (page 54). All knowledge is unconscious remembrance, usually mistakenly located in the activities of the synthesising ego, but found really in cultural tradition. 

Philosophy depends on texts, so it is a linguistic activity not a scientific method. It is fashionable now to condemn rhetoric, but it finds its expression only in [is essential to?] language. It has been corrupted by its use for persuasive purposes, and there has been an attempt to abolish it, discipline it in the name of logic, the Enlightenment, or scientism. Dialectics fully embraces the importance of language in thought  [including rhetoric?] and wants to resuscitate the link between philosophy and language in its full sense, rather than replacing it with a special language [an argument continued against positivism in the Positivist Dispute]. A dialectical approach uses rhetoric to get at the crucial issue of consent, to pursue unconstrained argument. It may be Utopian, but it helps to see Utopia as blocked off by possibilities rather than by the immediate reality itself  [as some kind of insurmountable natural obstacle?]. 

In conclusion, we need to celebrate the negative as essential to philosophy and critique. The usual view insists that proper theory is one which helps us explain immediate existing reality, but Adorno’s view is expressed in opposition, and in a characteristically poetic form: thought that is as far away from reality as possible is closest to 'the inextinguishable colour'. Philosophy is the 'prism in which this colour is caught'.  (page 57).


Adorno T (et al) (eds) (1976) The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology, London: Heinemann

Dews P (1987) Logics of Disintegration. Post-Structuralist Thought and the Claims of Critical Theory, London: Verso

more notes on Adorno and other social theorists