Frank S. Hong | When Negation Is Not Negative Enough: A Review of Negative Dialectics

By Frank S. Hong*


The decadent international but individualistic capitalism, in the hands of which we found ourselves after the war, is not a success. It is not intelligent, it is not beautiful, it is not just, it is not virtuous – and it doesn’t deliver the goods. In short, we dislike it and we are beginning to despise it.” [1]


This is not a fashionable critique of neoliberalism. It was Keynes’ laments in his essay entitled “National Self-sufficiency,” published in 1933. Adorno must have shared the same sentiment when he gave his speech “The Actuality of Philosophy” in 1931—but the two had different underlying concerns. [2] Keynes’ reaction to the gloomy reality was to argue for national sufficiency and restrictions on free trade and free movement of capital. [3] Adorno sought to liquidate the old philosophy through what was emerging as critical theory. Both made bold moves, but their work was not simply a reversal of the prevailing practices in economics and philosophy.


In The Actuality of Philosophy, Adorno had already alluded to materialism and dialectics as the key to his critical enterprise. In fact, Adorno and Horkheimer planned to jointly write “a long essay together on the new open-ended form of the dialectic.” [4] This essay did not get written due to the turmoil of the war, and sfter the war, Dialektik der Aufklärung was a more urgent project to express Adorno and Horkheimer’s outrage at the barbarism of Auschwitz and horror in Hiroshima. In 1966, when Adorno finally published Negative Dialectics, he was the sole author. [5]


Adorno had no faith in metaphysics, [6] but to give his critical enterprise a solid foundation, he thought he had to settle his scores with all the metaphysicians prior to him—Kant and Hegel in particular. [7] Negative Dialectics was Adorno’s tour de force in “pure” [8] philosophy, and it aimed to liquidate the old way of philosophizing that had occupied the western mind for millennia.


In Negative Dialectics, Adorno, for the most part, takes flight from Hegel’s account of experience. For Hegel, experience is “dialectic movement of consciousness.” [9] Here, consciousness, the knowing subject, is the crucial actor. The subject engages with the object in a dynamic manner. That is, the subject self-corrects when the concepts in its stock become inconsistent with the objects. In this dynamic process known as experience, both the subject and the object are changed as the result of the engagement, testing, and correction. [10]


Adorno credits Hegel for granting philosophy “the right and the capacity to think substantively instead of being put off with the analysis of cognitive forms that were empty and, in an emphatic sense, null and void.” This Hegelian substantive philosophizing, according to Adorno, had the “primacy of the subject” as its “fundament and result.” [11] Through the subject’s primacy, Hegel was able to argue for the historical and dynamic nature of knowledge. [12]


It is on the subject’s primacy that Adorno parts company with Hegel. Adorno makes it abundantly clear: “The prevailing trend in epistemological reflection was to reduce objectivity more and more to the subject. This very tendency needs to be reversed.” [13] Adorno digs deeper: “The subject’s real impotence has its echo in its mental omnipotence. The ego principle imitates its negation. It is not true that the object is a subject, as idealism has been drilling into us for thousands of years, but it is true that the subject is an object. The primacy of subjectivity is a spiritualized continuation of Darwin’s struggle for existence. The suppression of nature for human ends is a mere natural relationship, which is why the supremacy of nature-controlling reason and its principle is a delusion.” [14]


What makes the subject so weak, or alternately, what produces “the object’s preponderance”? [15] Adorno pins the impotence of the subject on its failure in identity: “…the critique of identity is a groping for the preponderance of the object.” [16] Adorno claims that “due to the inequality inherent in the concept of mediation, the subject enters into the object altogether differently from the way the object enters into the subject. An object can be conceived only by a subject but always remain something other than the subject, whereas a subject by its very nature is from the outset an object as well. Not even as an idea can we conceive a subject that is not an object; but we can conceive an object that is not a subject.” [17]


What does Adorno mean by “mediation” (Vermittlung)? The text of Negative Dialectics does not give readers many clues to work with. Prior to mentioning “mediation” in the key section “The Object’s Preponderance,” Adorno has already criticized Hegel’s “synthesis” and “positive dialectic” and completed a major part, if not the entire build-up of his thesis on “negative dialectics.” Does he intend to use “mediation” to convey something that “dialectic” or “negative dialectic” does not connote? According to Brian O’Connor, although “mediation” is Hegelian in origin, Hegel uses it to explain a few features of his logic but not the subject-object interaction. [18] O’Conner attempts to link mediation to “immediacy” and uncover Adorno’s normative interest in the concept of mediation. I found O’Conner’s overall account of “mediation” unsatisfactory as it elides an obvious question: how subject-object mediation differs from subject-object dialectic.


Having argued against Hegel’s “synthesis” and positive dialectic,” Adorno goes on to attack his presupposition of, and faith in positivity. “Down to the vernacular of praising men who are positive, and ultimately in the homicidal phrase of ‘positive force’, a fetish is made of the positive-in-itself.” [19] Hegel’s Idealistic dialectics, according to Adorno, came close to the breakthrough, i.e. “a sense of negativity of the dialectic logic,” by way of the concept of “synthesis.” [20] Synthesis is the epistemological instrument of Hegel’s dialectics that is used to achieve the identity of subject and object. [21] “In Hegel’s Logic, when he deals with Becoming, the synthesis of the first triad, he waits until Being and Nothingness have been equated as wholly empty and indefinite before he pays attention to the difference indicated by the fact that the two concepts’ literal linguistic meanings are absolutely contrary … it is not until their synthesis identifies them with each other that the moments will be nonidentical. This is where the claim of their identity contains that restlessness, that inward shudder, which Hegel calls Becoming.” [22]


“The decisive break with Hegel” is that Adorno does not believe identity or positivity can be achieved by negation or negation of negation. “To define identity as the correspondence of the thing-in-itself to its concept is hubris,” and he continues: “but the ideal of identity must not simply be discarded. Living in the rebuke that the thing is not identical with the concept is the concept’s longing to become identical with the thing. This is how the sense of nonidentity contains identity.” Let’s not forget that it was Hegel who first articulated “Identity of nonidentity and identity” in his introduction to Logic. [23] Indeed, Adorno follows him down the alley: “The supposition of identity is indeed the ideological element of pure thought, all the way down to formal logic; but hidden in it is also the truth moment of ideology, the pledge that there should be no contradiction, no antagonism. In the simple identifying judgment, the pragmatist, nature-controlling element already joins with a utopian element. ‘A’ is to be what it is not yet.” [24] Now Adorno makes it clear that negation in negative dialectic is not a method to be applied to the reality. It is not a step in the negation of negation that leads to positivity. Rather, negation is inherent in the reality.


“To negate a negation does not bring about its reversal. It proves, rather, that the negation was not negative enough. What is negated is negative until it has passed.” Adorno rejects “negation of a negation is something positive” on the ground that this can only “be upheld by those presupposes positivity from the beginning.” [25]


To say that Adorno vigorously debated with his predecessors is an understatement. In asserting his views, he was unyielding. In the preface, he wrote, “to use the strength of the subject to break through the fallacy of constitutive subjectivity – this is what the author felt to be his task ever since he came to trust his own mental impulse; now he did not want to put it off any longer. Stringently to transcend the official separation of pure philosophy and the substantive or formally scientific realm was one of his determining motives.” [26]


Strikingly, as determined as Adorno was to destroy the crumbling house of philosophy, he kept checking back with the old masters. His epistemology on the subject-object, in the final analysis, fails to break away from the fundamental assumption of the difference between the subject and object. In this regard, it is worth noting that while Adorno made references to Henri Bergson on several occasions, he never referenced A. R. Whitehead, whose process philosophy was much more radical and thorough in terms of overturning the dualism of subject and object. [27]


After developing concepts and categories of negative dialectics in Part Two, Adorno moves on to elaborate “models of negative dialectics” in Part Three. This is not meant to “elucidate” concepts with “examples”; rather this is Adorno bringing negative dialectics into the realm of reality, [28] which roughly corresponds to the old categories of philosophy of ethics and philosophy of history.


History has not been kind to Adorno’s critical enterprise. In 1960s when Negative Dialectics was written, the world was, according to Richard Rorty, divided into “a rich, relatively free, reasonably democratic, nobly selfish and greedy, and very short-sighted First World; a Second World run by ruthless and cynical oligarchies and a starving, desperate Third World.” [29] Today, we read Keynes’ 1933 descriptions with a sense of déjà vu. Keynes’ motherland is withdrawing from the EU; the Trump administration wants a wall along the border with Mexico; America and China, after 40-years of globalization together, are flirting with “decoupling”; and the global threat of mutual destruction by nuclear weapons has been eclipsed by climate change, which a substantial part of the world community does not acknowledge. If Adorno’s teachings have any bearing, it seems to be that the negation has not been negative enough. Miseries have simply changed their guises and delivery addresses, and human emancipation [30] remains a distant and elusive dream.


What is to be done? Should we continue on the path of Adorno’s philosophy? Or should we confront “thugs” [31] wherever we find them at the level of social and political institutions, without caring too much for philosophy? Adorno was right in granting preeminence to the object. But the object never comes in a neatly wrapped package. A critical theorist’s role is not to attach labels—leave this task to well-meaning columnists such as George Will or David Brooks—but rather to see particulars in a new light and to create new “constellations” [32] of particulars such that the prevailing practice can no longer stand under the “gaze.” To achieve this new powerful way of gazing, a truly liberating epistemology is needed. The new reality—technological, financial, political and geopolitical—emerging in the wake of China’s “rise” provides the world an opportunity to revisit the metaphysical categories of the subject and the object, which are absent from Chinese epistemology. (Or to put it differently, the dualism of subject and object has never been an itch for the Chinese mind to scratch.)

Whereas the rise of China has been exhaustively analyzed from the Western point of view, little theorizing has been done to interpret China’s practices from the perspective of Chinese epistemology. Doing so—telling a familiar story from the “other’s” perspective—could be an important experiment in critical theory.




[[1]] Keynes, John Maynard., National Self-Sufficiency, The New Statesman and Nation, July 15, 1933. This essay was published simultaneously in Britain and in the Yale Review in America. (The Yale Review, June 1933, 22(4), 755-769)

[2] Adorno, Theodor W., “The Actuality of Philosophy.” Telos 1997, No. 31 (1997): 120-133. This was Adorno’s inaugural speech on May 7, 1931 delivered to the philosophy faculty of the University of Frankfurt where he taught until 1933.

[3] This was very radical for a leading economist from England, a country that was willing to bring trade to far corners of the global, through gunboat diplomacy if necessary. Keynes was acutely aware of his profound change in orientation, hence his soul-searching in this essay.

[4] Buck-Morss, Susan., The Origin of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and the Frankfurt Institute, (New York: The Free Press, 1977), at 68.

[5] Ibid. at 68.

[6] Snow, Benjamin., “Introduction to Adorno’s ‘The Actuality of Philosophy’.” Telos 1997, No. 31 (1997): 117, 113-119.

[7] According to E. B. Ashton, the translator of Negative Dialectics, in order to follow Adorno’s line of thought from detail to detail, “you need to know Kant near-perfectly, Hegel perfectly, and Marx-Engels viscerally – not just ‘by heart’… you do not need to know Heidegger.” Adorno, Theodor W., Negative Dialectics, (New York: Continuum, 2007), at xii-xiii.

[8] Adorno, supra note 7, at xx.

[9] Hegel, G. W. F., Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), at 55, cf. O’Conner, Brian, Adorno, (Routledge, 2013), at 62.

[10] Hegel, supra note 9, at 54, cf. O’Conner, Brian, Adorno, (Routledge, 2013), at 62.

[11] Adorno, supra note 7, at 7.

[12] O’Conner, Brian., Adorno’s Negative Dialectic: Philosophy and the Possibility of Critical Rationality, (The MIT Press, 2004), at 31.

[13] Adorno, supra note 7, at 176.

[14] Id. at 179.

[15] The 2007 English edition of Negative Dialectics used “preponderance”. Other commentators used “primacy” or “priority”.

[16] Adorno, supra note 7, at 183.

[17] Id. at183.

[18] O’Conner, Brian., Adorno, (Routledge, 2013), at 66-70; see also O’Conner, supra note 12, at 19.

[19] Adorno, supra note 7, at 159.

[20] Id. at 156.

[21] Id. at 156.

[22] Id. at 157.

[23] Id. at 7.

[24] Id. at 149-150.

[25] Id. at 160.

[26] Id. at xx.

[27] Whitehead draws ideas from Bergson. My preliminary research indicates that there has been very little scholarly work comparing Adorno’s epistemology and Whitehead’s process philosophy.

[28] Adorno, supra note 7, at xx.

[29] Rorty, Richard. Thugs and Theorists, Political Theory, Volume 15, Issue 4, 1987, at 564.

[30] Honneth, Axel., “Is There An Emancipatory Interest? An Attempt to Answer

Critical            Theory’s Most Fundamental Question” European Journal of Philosophy, 2017;

25: at 905-920.

[31] Rorty, supra note 29, at 567

[32] Constellation is a metaphor Adorno used in his 1931 speech and further developed

in Negative Dialectics (supra note 7, at 162 – 166). “Cognition of the object in its

constellation is cognition of the process stored in the object. As a constellation,

theoretical thought circles the concept it would like to unseal, hoping that it may fly

open like the lock of a well-guarded safe-deposit box: in response, not to a single key

or a single number, but to a combination of numbers.” (Adorno, supra note 7, at 163;

italics is this author’s. This seems to be very close to Whitehead’s process view. But

Adorno’s attention to the process was so deeply rooted in the dualism of subject and

object that his epistemology was fundamentally different from Whitehead’s.) Buck-

Morss noted that Adorno had some misgivings on this metaphor and suggested “a less

astrological and scientifically more current expression: … trial combinations…” Buck-

Morss, supra note 4, Note 84, at 254; Buck-Morss also traced the source of

“constellation” to the opening chapter of Benjamin’s Trauerspiel study. Buck-Morss,

supra note 4, at 90.



*Frank S. Hong, LLM Candidate, 2020, Columbia Law School