Bernard E. Harcourt | Introduction to 7/13 on Negative Dialectics

By Bernard E. Harcourt

In Critique 7/13, we return to Adorno, but this time to the late Adorno of the Negative Dialectics (1966), in conversation with Martin Saar, Professor of Social Philosophy at the Goethe Universität Frankfurt am Main.

You will recall that we began Critique 13/13 with the early Adorno of “The Actuality of Philosophy” from 1931. In that essay, Adorno took as his point of departure a radical break in philosophy: contemporary philosophy, Adorno argued, could no longer aspire to understand the world in its totality. The actual could not be rendered fully rational. The systematic and total theories of earlier German Idealism were things of the past. “Philosophy,” Adorno suggested, “must learn to renounce the question of totality.”[1] Or, as Axel Honneth explained at Critique 2/13 introducing the 1931 text, Adorno argued “right at the beginning that all reality is not longer ‘rational’ or ‘reasonable,’ neither from the perspective of the participants nor from the perspective of the theoretical observer.”

You will also recall that, although Adorno urged philosophers to eschew totalities and focus on middle-level concepts (such as the commodity form or class), Adorno nevertheless retained confidence in dialectical reason. “Only dialectically, it seems to me, is philosophic interpretation possible,” Adorno wrote in 1931.[2] The dialectical method, Adorno maintained, remained the only possible way forward for a philosophy of interpretation.

The question this raised, naturally, was what Adorno meant by dialectic, especially in a context where he had embraced philosophy as a form of interpretation as opposed to science (Wissenschaft) which he viewed as a type of research.[3] What was the concept of dialectic that Adorno embraced given his more humble vision for philosophy?

The answer to this question was not crystal clear from Adorno’s essay in 1931. To be sure, Adorno’s discussion of the dialectic was entwined in the knotty relationship between theory and praxis. It arose as an object of investigation within the context of Adorno’s discussion of Marx’s Eleventh Thesis. It was connected, then, to the abolition of a given reality and it involved an interplay of political praxis and philosophic theory. As Honneth explained in his post for Critique 2/13, Adorno sums up “his description of what a ‘materialist’ cognition or knowledge is supposed to be by saying: ‘The point of interpretative philosophy is to construct keys, before which reality springs open’ – and he adds that such knowledge can initiate ‘praxis,’ obviously because it portrays reality in such a form or manner that it demands change or ‘abolition.’”

But Adorno’s discussion remained somewhat cryptic in 1931. Adorno himself followed it up immediately by acknowledging his inability to develop further, at least at the time, what exactly he had in mind. “I am clearly conscious of the impossibility of developing the program which I presented to you,” Adorno confessed.[4]

What then did Adorno mean, exactly, by saying that philosophical interpretation is only possible dialectically and what conception of dialectic does that entail?

It is fair to say that Adorno dedicated himself to this precise question over the course of the next decades and until the end of his life. Through years of exchange with Max Horkheimer and his life-long engagement with Hegel’s writings—from the drafting of the Dialectic of Enlightenment (early 1940s) to his Three Studies on Hegel (1963) and further on—this question was always present and at the forefront.

Adorno’s work Negative Dialectics, published in 1966, and his two essays “Critique” and “Resignation” from his final published work, Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, in 1969, offer perhaps the final and most complete answer.[5] In Critique 7/13, we return to Adorno’s final major writings on the dialectic—published just a few years before his Marginalia to Theory and Praxis that we read and discussed a year ago with Martin Saar at Praxis 7/13—in order to explore his answer and what we might call “the productivity of negativity.”

It may be presumptuous to offer a sketch in advance of our seminar, but let me outline here quickly some elements that Adorno develops in Negative Dialectics and in the two additional assigned essays, “Critique” and “Resignation,” as a way, at least, to begin the conversation and clarify some concepts.

In Negative Dialectics, Adorno begins at the very same place that he had left us in “The Actuality of Philosophy” in 1931: Philosophy today is beyond the heyday years when it believed it could systematize the world and transform it. The Hegelian enterprise has collapsed. The philosophical ambition of uniting and standing above all sciences has proved illusory. The idea that we could perfectly understand social reality, or that we could identify it as rational—in other words, the idea of a identity of the actual and the rational—was no longer imaginable. Philosophy has been cut to size. This was already true in 1931. But even though, back then, philosophy already felt “obsolete” for all these reasons, it has continued nonetheless to today. It has continues, in a chastened version, one in which the dialectic, “due for an accounting” Adorno says, remains at the very center.[6]

But not Hegel’s dialectic. Nor Plato’s. Adorno’s dialectic does not contain the moment of overcoming or positivity or constructivity. No, Adorno’s dialectic is a clash or a putting in contradiction that does not lead to something synthetic from that initial negation. It does not necessarily trigger progress.

Yet that does not diminish its importance or potential. Adorno sought, in his own words, “to free dialectics from such affirmative traits without reducing its determinacy.”[7]

Adorno called his conception of dialectics an “anti-system.”[8] Elsewhere, he described it as non-identity. Adorno explained his conception of the dialectic in these precise terms: “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. […] It indicates the untruth of identity, the fact that the concept does not exhaust the thing conceived.”[9]

In this sense, Adorno’s dialectic arises from the non-identity of words and things— the difference between les mots et les choses. “Dialectics is the consistent sense of nonidentity,” Adorno emphasized.[10]

And once Adorno had, in his way, undermined the Hegelian and Platonic dialectic, we are left with a far less systematic notion of contradiction. Rather than step-wise progressions, we face what Adorno calls “constellations.” It is through the study of constellations, turning them in different directions, looking at them from different sides, that we are able to make sense of the world and critique it. Adorno explained in Negative Dialectics, in a section entitled “Constellation”:

The unifying moment survives without a negation of negation, but also without delivering itself to abstraction as a supreme principle. It survives because there is no step-by-step progression from the concepts to a more general cover concept. Instead, the concepts enter into a constellation. The constellation illuminates the specific side of the object, the side which to a classifying procedure is either a matter of indifference or a burden.[11]

These purported matters of indifference are, Adorno maintained, the most important questions. They present the particularities about the world and the reality that surrounds us that matter the most, contra Hegel or Plato.[12] These particularities are the proper object of critique.

Adorno discusses this in his essay on “Critique” in 1969, where he emphasizes, there too, the negative dimension of critique. Adorno draws out the negative element of critique. Kant, he writes, is at his most formative at the moment of negative critique: “The influence of Kant’s main work was due to its negative results, and one of its most important parts, which dealt with pure thought’s transgressions of its own limits, was thoroughly negative.”[13] He refers to Kant there as “the all-destroyer.”[14] Hegel too, Adorno writes, highlighted the negative in critique: Hegel, in Adorno’s words, “in many passages equates thinking altogether with negativity and hence with critique.”[15]

In his discussion of critique, Adorno attacks the “positive” or “constructive” exigencies of critique. He refers to the demand for “constructive criticism” as “blather”: “the appeal to the positive.”[16] He is offended by the constant call for positivity, arguing that it undermines the power of critique:

One continually finds the word critique, if it is tolerated at all, accompanied by the word constructive. The insinuation is that only someone can practice critique who can propose something better than what is being criticized; Lessing derided this two hundred years ago in aesthetics. By making the positive a condition for it, critique is tamed from the very beginning and loses its vehemence.[17]

There follows a long diatribe against the “word positive”: a “gingerbread word,” “a magic charm,” dubious in fact.[18] The reason that the demand for the positive is so damning is that, in never being able to fulfill the promise of a better alternative, it undermines critique itself.[19] Adorno decries the anti-intellectualism that leads to mistrust of critique and submission to the status quo.

This, then, is what gives rise to Adorno’s conviction in the negative dialetic. Susan Buck-Morss, in her book The Origin of Negative Dialectics, summarizes the negative dialectic in the following terms:

Whereas Hegel saw negativity, the movement of the concept toward its “other,” as merely a moment in a larger process toward systematic completion, Adorno saw no possibility of an argument coming to rest in unequivocal synthesis. He made negativity the hallmark of his dialectical thought precisely because he believed Hegel had been wrong: reason and reality did not coincide. As with Kant, Adorno’s antinomies remained antinomial, but this was due to the limits of reality rather than reason. Nonreconciliatory thinking was compelled by objective conditions: because the contradictions of society could not be banished by means of thought, contradiction could not be banished within thought either.[20]

For those worried that the negativity of the negative dialectic may lead to passivity or complacency—as were many student protesters in the 1960s—Adorno offers a counterpoint: Critical thinking, Adorno argues, is more active and productive than action itself.

Adorno develops a bold vision of critical thought as something that is more productive and active than practice. Thought that is merely submissive to practice, he argues, atrophies: “thinking, as a mere instrument of activist actions, atrophies like all instrumental reason.”[21] By contrast, critical thinking creates possibilities and leaves lasting traces. “Whatever has once been thought can be suppressed, forgotten, can vanish,” Adorno notes. “But it cannot be denied that something of it survives.”[22]

In so far as thought leaves a residual, Adorno argues, it is more productive than action alone. “Open thinking points beyond itself,” Adorno adds. “For its part a comportment, a form of praxis, it is more akin to transformative praxis than a comportment that is compliant for the sake of praxis.”[23]

Thinking is not resignation, it is the opposite. Adorno concludes: “Thought is happiness, even where it defines unhappiness: by enunciating it. By this alone happiness reaches into the universal unhappiness. Whoever does not let it atrophy has not resigned.”[24]

What is the productivity of the negativity, then? What is this power of critical thought? Surely it is not in being “constructive.” Not in proposing alternatives, nor setting out substitute models or replacement concepts. No, it cannot simply be in being constructive.

To the contrary, the positive aspect of negativity and critique is the deconstruction and destruction. As Buck-Morss writes: “Adorno considered that his task as a philosopher was to undermine the already tottering frame of bourgeois idealism by exposing the contradictions which riddled its categories and, following their inherent logic, push them to the point where the categories were made to self-destruct. It was this goal, the accomplishment of a liquidation of idealism from within, which Adorno had in mind when he formulated the current demands of philosophy as necessitating a ‘logic of disintegration.’”[25]

Our challenge, today, is to explore the productivity of negativity. I hope you will join Martin Saar and me in that conversation.

Welcome to 7/13!


[1] Adorno, “The Actuality of Philosophy,” Telos at 127/Chapter at 32.

[2] Telos 129/Chapter at 34.

[3] Recall what he wrote about philosophy and interpretation in 1931: “philosophy persistently and with the claim of truth, must proceed interpretively without ever possessing a sure key to interpretation; nothing more is given to it than fleeting, disappearing traces within the riddle figures of that which exists and their astonishing entwinings. The history of philosophy is nothing other than the history of such entwinings. Thus it reaches so few ‘results.’ It must always begin anew and therefore cannot do without the least thread which earlier times have spun, and through which the lineature is perhaps completed which could transform the ciphers into a text.” (Telos 126/Chapter at 31).

[4] Telos129/Chapter at 34.

[5] Adorno published only two other books after Negative Dialectics, namely Berg. Der Meister des kleinsten Übergangs (“Alban Berg: Master of the Smallest Link”) in 1968; and Stichworte. Kritische Modelle 2 (“Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords,” Columbia University Press) in 1969. The latter contains the two essays on “Critique” and “Resignation” that we read for this session.

[6] Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 4.

[7] ND xix.

[8] ND xx.

[9] ND 5.

[10] ND 5.

[11] ND 162.

[12] ND 8.

[13] Adorno, “Critique,” 282.

[14] C 282.

[15] C 282.

[16] C 287.

[17] C 287.

[18] C 287.

[19] Adorno explains: “Again and again the demand for positive proposals proves unfulfillable, and for that reason critique is all the more comfortably defamed. […] The craving for the positive is a screen-image of the destructive instinct working under a thin veil. […] This should be opposed by the idea, in a variation of a famous proposition of Spinoza, that the false, once determinately known and precisely expressed, is already an index of what is right and better.” C 287-288.

[20] Susan Buck-Morss, The Origin of Negative Dialectics, 63.

[21] C 292.

[22] C 293.

[23] C 293.

[24] C 293.

[25] Buck-Morss, 64.