What is Theodor Adorno’s Negative Dialectics?

Theodor Adorno’s Negative Dialectics proposes an alternative dialectical approach to Hegel’s, which seeks to overcome the limits of subjectivity through negation.

Nov 11, 2023By Moses May-Hobbs, BA Art History w/ Philosophy Concentration

theodor adorno negative dialectics


Theodor Adorno was a German philosopher best known for his cultural and political theory. Underlying these efforts is Adorno’s distinctive and often challenging philosophical outlook, which revises key elements of Hegelian and Marxist thought in its attempts to theorize materiality.


Adorno’s Negative Dialectics attempts to provide an alternative to Hegel: a dialectical philosophy that does not fall into the same traps as Hegel’s idealism. The aim is a philosophical one—Adorno thinks Hegel’s system goes awry in representing history—and, at the same time, a practical one. The project of Negative Dialectics is, above all, to find a philosophy that is suitable for the task of political organization in the modern world.


The Goal of Negative Dialectics: Adorno on Identity and Nonidentity 

adorno mural frankfurt becker
Justus Becker and Oğuz Şen, Mural of Adorno in Frankfurt, 2019, via Wikimedia Commons


Adorno defines his negative dialectics in contrast with Hegel’s positive system. This distinction, hard to express exhaustively in any simple formulation, largely comes down to Adorno’s avowed materialism and the implications it has for his conception of the subject.


For Hegel, Adorno argues, the subject is the point of unity, or identity, between particularities, or nonidentical concepts. If this, then, implies—to borrow Hegel’s own phrase—“the identity of identity and nonidentity,” Adorno wants to invert this formulation. For Adorno, the subject is a kind of limit, the horizon of idealist thought. Hegel’s system presents a barrier to materiality and to the particularities that characterize material or objectivity.

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The backdrop to these concerns is that Adorno is anxious about the possibility of a useful, meaningful, interesting contemporary philosophy. He sees Kant and Hegel’s idealism as not merely a philosophical misstep but as the mark of a philosophical tradition that is no longer possible—no longer relevant.


If philosophy is to find space for itself, particularly in the aftermath of World War II, it must change, and it must be able to grapple with the world beyond subjectivity. What is necessary, Adorno says, is to get from subjectivity to its overthrowal, to pursue a materialism outside of “constitutive subjectivity,” while nonetheless beginning from a philosophical standpoint.


hegel portrait schlesinger
Jakob Schlesinger, G. W. F. Hegel, 1831 via Google Arts & Culture


For philosophy to survive modernity, it has to be able to grapple with the particularities that Hegel’s system flattens. Adorno writes:


The matters of true philosophical interest at this point in history are those in which Hegel, agreeing with tradition, expressed his disinterest. They are nonconceptuality, individuality, and particularity—things which ever since Plato used to be dismissed as transitory and insignificant, and which Hegel labelled “lazy Existenz.” Philosophy’s theme would consist of the qualities it downgrades as contingent, as a quantité négligeable.
Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 1966


In order for this grappling to happen, Hegel’s formulation requires inversion. As such, Adorno asserts the nonidentity of identity and nonidentity, which is hardly a more straightforward maxim for philosophy than Hegel’s. Nonetheless, through its abstraction, Adorno aims at a pressing need for philosophy to address the particular. Beneath Adorno’s critiques of the long philosophical tradition leading up to and following Hegel is an urgency that is partly political. Materialism, after all, is also the label by which we distinguish Marx’s system from Hegel’s.


Adorno’s project, however, is shaped precisely by the limits of expression and perception. If the nonidentical and the particular are the contents of the objective, material world, Adorno acknowledges that our access to that world remains mediated by subjectivity. Rather than letting subjectivity dissolve the particularities of objects, Adorno attempts to reposition the subject as secondary to a material world and to devise a system for reaching objectivity through negation.


Adorno’s Critique of Bergson and Husserl

edmund husserl photograph 1910
Edmund Husserl in c. 1910, via Wikimedia Commons


Adorno’s negative approach is defined partly in opposition to what he sees as existing modern efforts to theorize the nonidentical, the particular, the material. In particular, he turns to Henri Bergson and Edmund Husserl and their attempts to carve out a space for philosophy outside the scope of orthodox metaphysics, and without the philosophical-historical baggage of dialectics.


Adorno criticizes Bergson for sliding straight back into what he seeks to escape: atemporal conceptuality. Adorno writes:


Every cognition including Bergson’s own needs the rationality he scorns, and needs it precisely at the moment of concretion. Absolutized duration, pure becoming, the pure act—these would recoil into the same timelessness which Bergson chides in metaphysics since Plato and Aristotle.
Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 1966


In short, the attempt to approach the temporal and material particularities of objects head-on fails outright. Bergson, by Adorno’s lights, has tried to simply ignore the central problem of idealism and run straight into it: the subject inevitably imposes conceptuality, and thus identity, on its objects of perception. This fundamental Kantian problem remains very real for Adorno; he does not think that the necessity of identity to the structure of thought can be ignored. Indeed, much of the long introduction to Negative Dialectics is spent expatiating the intractability of the problem.


Portrait of Henri Bergson, Henrie Manuel (date unkown), by George Grantham Bain Collection, via Library of Congress.


Adorno critiques Bergson and Husserl for their hubristic attempts to hurdle the limits of subjectivity and language. Their failure, which is to say their reliance on positive expression, is also a kind of linguistic failure; Adorno writes, “To be insisted upon, against both, would be the goal they pursue in vain: to counter Wittgenstein by uttering the unutterable.” (Adorno, ND)


Adorno, of course, also wants to somehow express or represent, if not utter, the unutterable, but the means he wishes to employ must be more oblique to their objective target. Indeed, Adorno’s excoriating remarks on Wittgenstein’svulgarity’ make it clear that he deems the effort to surpass the limits of expression to be crucial, perhaps even uniquely so, to the task of philosophy at large (a sentiment not, in fact, alien to Wittgenstein himself, given his “Lecture on Ethics”).


Adorno and the Kantian Problem

becker portrait immanuel kant
Johann Gottlieb Becker, Portrait of Immanuel Kant, 1768 via Wikimedia Commons


Despite the immediate inaccessibility of the material Ding an sich (thing in itself) to the subject, Adorno thinks that dialectics, when theorized apart from Hegel’s underlying positivity, presents a path to what Kant sees as permanently beyond our grasp.


The necessary revision to dialectics is its reframing as primarily negative, a tool by which apparent identity is constantly contradicted. As such, Adorno refers to his negative dialectics as “the consistent consciousness of nonidentity.”


Despite the pressures of conceptuality—the allure of imposing identity upon objects, of subjugating them into categories of thought, and flattening their particularities—the goal of thought, as Lambert Zuidervaart glosses Adorno’s project, “is to honour [objects] in their nonidentity, in their difference from what a restricted rationality declares them to be.”


Adorno strives towards what he calls a “cognitive utopia” in which thought improbably, even paradoxically, gets outside itself by affirming that thoughts and objects are not identical. Even Adorno seems uncertain of the possibility of getting there, firmer about the direction of travel than about achieving some telos of objectivity. Negation can seemingly avoid stumbling into falsehoods the way Bergson and Husserl do—at least by Adorno’s lights—but can it get us all the way to things in themselves? Is it possible to become so disenchanted, to borrow Adorno’s phrase, with concepts, that we really start to reckon with the material particularities that concepts flatten into sameness?


The actual possibility of this jump from conceptual negativity to objectivity lies necessarily beyond the scope of conventional philosophy. To borrow a more overtly Wittgensteinian framing, the objective, material world cannot be said, but can by degrees be expressed; some set of instructions can be passed between conscious subjects for building an escape route from subjectivity, even if the spoils of such an escape cannot themselves be communicated directly.


Adorno’s Dissolution of the Theory-Praxis Split

mayal portrait karl marx
John Jabez Edwin Mayal, Portrait of Karl Marx, c. 1875 via Wikimedia Commons.


The sheer abstraction of much of Negative Dialectics emerges as a source of anxiety for Adorno. Cognizant of the apparent gap between the discourse on the nonidentity of identity and nonidentity, and questions of radical political critique and practice, he takes time to justify his theoretical approach. This justification, however, goes beyond a straightforward apology for his own philosophizing.


Adorno unpicks the orthodox-Marxist split between theory and practice, suggesting that the insistent reminder that Marxist theory should be practically oriented had—in his contemporary political landscape—become paralyzing. Adorno writes:


The call for unity of theory and practice has irresistibly degraded theory to a servant’s role, removing the very traits it should have brought to that unity. The visa stamp of practice which we demand of all theory became a censor’s placet.
Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 1966


If theory cannot possess independence and be taken seriously in its own right, Adorno says, practice remains a kind of frantic busywork, forever more concerned with being underway than with being useful. After all, if usefulness is to have a metric that goes beyond sheer volume of activity; it needs theoretical aims.


Nonetheless, it is hard to feel that there is no distance between a goal like Adorno’s honoring of objects in themselves and the kinds of goals that political movements often more concretely center themselves around. The recognition of particularity, of objects untethered from their conceptual categorization, is much broader in its scope than any given political or ethical goal, at once more fundamental for Adorno and much farther away than what he calls the “crude” demands of political materialism.


adorno illustration
Illustration of Adorno, via Medium.


While certain strands of contemporary “Open Marxism” (most notably John Holloway’s political writing) mobilize negativity in the name of immediacy, this kind of negation seems to revolve around the idea that socialism exists as a direct inversion of the status quo.


Adorno, meanwhile, despite his sense of urgency, describes negative dialectics as a gradual and theoretical process that aims at something more subjectively basic than the transformation of specific institutions and systems.


While Adorno’s focus in Negative Dialectics is emphatically on the material world, his approach is nonetheless transcendental. The transcendence of subjectivity from within itself is necessary for the kind of politics Adorno desires, and so we remain a long way off. Worse still, whatever new practice might be discovered at the end of the long theoretical road is not readily expressible apart from that road. “Practice itself,” Adorno writes, “was an eminently theoretical concept.”

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By Moses May-HobbsBA Art History w/ Philosophy ConcentrationMoses May-Hobbs is a recent graduate of Cambridge University. His writing focuses on aesthetics, the philosophy of art, and film criticism. He is currently working as a contributing writer and editor, while writing in his spare time on the philosophy of language, perception, and affect.