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What is the Negative Dialectic?

Adorno’s reevaluation of Hegel
Terry Pinkard
©Terry Pinkard 2018
A revised version of this paper will appear in
The Blackwell Companion to Adorno (eds. Espen Hammer and Peter Gordon)
It is much different from the earlier version online

“The enormous power of Hegel – that is the power which

impresses us so hugely today and, God knows, it is a power
that impresses me today to the point where am fully aware
that, of the ideas that I am presenting to you, there is not a
single one that is not contained, in tendency at least, in
Hegel’s philosophy.”
Theodor Adorno, Lectures on Negative Dialectics
(Adorno and Tiedemann 2008), p. 21.

Adorno’s thought on the whole is determined by what may look like a massive struggle or
even potential contradiction at its heart. Adorno is some sort of holist, so he believes that
one cannot understand social life – or even more generally, knowledge and subjectivity –
without understanding how the distinct elements function in the whole. Yet he also
seems to think that any attempt to be systematic in philosophy necessarily ends up
falsifying what it studies since it necessarily must try to cram too many individualities
into a premade system. So it seems, for Adorno, we must be systematic and anti-
systematic, holist and anti-holist, at the same time. Like any good dialectician, he wants
to mitigate those contradictions without opting for only one side of them, and that much
at least sounds vaguely, even if still very abstractly, Hegelian. However, if nothing else,
what he calls his “negative dialectic” is supposed to stand in contrast with Hegel’s own
proclaimed “affirmative” dialectic. Now, with selective citation, we could draw Adorno
close to Hegelian dialectic and with selective citation could show there to be a huge
break between them. The issue will have to be interpretive. How do we make sense of
what Adorno says about dialectic?

What is the question to which dialectic is the answer? Adorno’s general proposal as given
in his 1958 lectures, An Introduction to Dialectics, was that “dialectical thought… is
precisely thought’s attempt to recognize its limitations by recourse to the matter at issue
(die Sache) itself. How does thought succeed within its own thought determination in
doing justice to the matter at issue [die Sache]?” [(Adorno 2017), p. 3.] The issue is a
perennial in the tradition following Kant that takes on Kant’s basic argument to the effect

that reason (thought) has its limits beyond which it cannot go without ending up in a set
of basic contradictions (antinomies). These limits are the limits of sense-making itself
since to speak in contradictions is not to make sense at all.

Part of what fuels Adorno’s interest, as we might put it, is in distinguishing the limits of
thought from the limitations of thought (although Adorno himself does not make the
distinction as clearly). The limits of thought are those places in life where we stop
making sense to ourselves. Logic, for example, forms the limits of thought in that
whatever violates the rules of logic (or so the story goes) has not so much violated a
norm (or committed a foul in the language game) as it has stopped playing the game
altogether. Illogical thought is on that picture not really genuine thought at all, at least in
any really meaningful sense. Limitations, on the other hand, express contingent barriers
to thought. One may be limited in one’s thought simply because one lacks the
imagination to think otherwise, or has not had the right education, but not because what
one is trying to think simply cannot be thought. Limitations can be overcome. Limits

When we bang up against the limits of thought, it is easy to be enticed into the illusion
that the limit really is only a limitation and that there really is something on the other side
of the barrier – if only one could get to it or invent some new method to maneuver
around the impediment. One conclusion to draw from this is the kind of quietism often
attributed to Wittgenstein. On that picture, once we have recognized the limits of
thought, we have done all that philosophy can do, and the best one can do at that point is
to give up on uncovering any substantive philosophical or metaphysical point beyond
that. Adorno describes that as just saying “Halt, if you venture beyond this point, you will
be talking nonsense.”[(Adorno 2017), p. 62.] That was something like Wittgenstein’s
conclusion, at least in the Tractatus. We reach the limits of thought when we find that we
stop making sense if we transgress them, and it is better to acknowledge one’s limits than
continuing to bang one’s head against the metaphorical metaphysical wall.

This is part of the picture of mind and world that Hegel summarized under the heading
of “consciousness”: On the one side is the world and all its determinacies (the facts of the
world), and on the other side is thought or “consciousness” of that world which may or
may not match up with the way the world is. Once that picture is in place, the natural
worry is to move from ordinary concerns with whether one is getting it right in the things
one says about the natural and the social world to the more rarified philosophical
concern with whether one’s “consciousness” is in any way at all getting it right about
those things – to worry, that is, about whether there might be an insurmountable gap
between thought and being, consciousness and reality, that cannot be overcome and
which shows up to thought when it tries to think about itself and think about what
evidence it has for thinking it is not so condemned.

In the Hegelian system, opposed to the picture of “consciousness” is that of “thought” as

expressing the way the world really is in expressing what it is to think rationally at all. The
limits of thought are the limits of the world, and beyond the limits of the world there is
no unworldly beyond. There is only nothing. Meaningful thought is always this-worldly
(diesseits), not other-worldly (jenseits). Moreover, these are not simply two opposing
pictures (or “frameworks”) between which one might choose, arbitrarily or otherwise.
Hegel gives an extended argument for the conclusion that the first picture (that of
“consciousness”) must break down on its own terms and that it thus finds itself pushed
into the other view, that of “thought” but more particularly that of “self-consciousness.”1
That is, in trying to think through the a priori limits of thought and therefore of the world
itself, thought is pushed into thinking about itself and how it can give an account of these
limits and therefore its thinking these limits itself. This is, as Adorno says, dialectic itself.
Contrasting dialectical thought with other ways of thinking, Adorno says: “dialectical
thought… is expressly self-reflective in character. In other words, dialectical thought is
thought that sheds light on itself… rather than proceeding in a rigid and purblind
fashion.”[(Adorno 2017), p. 124.]

Yet, although Adorno clearly acknowledges his attachment to Hegelian dialectic, he also
departs from it in crucial ways. As Peter Gordon has convincingly argued, the ways in
which Adorno registers his non-Hegelian approach concern have to do with how he
meshes Hegel’s dialectic with the criticisms of it coming from existentialist philosophies,
most importantly those of Kierkegaard and those of Heidegger and (to a lesser extent)
that of Sartre.[(Gordon 2016)] They concern his criticism of Hegel’s dialectic as a
philosophy of “identity” as opposed to his own “non-identity” philosophy, his concept of
“mimesis,” and what he came to call “the priority of the object.” Ultimately, Adorno
seems to affirm what themselves seem to be two opposed points of view: One is the
Hegelian conception of the absolute, the other is the Kierkegaardian-Heideggerian-
Sartrean view that holds that the reality of free subjectivity is in a non-trivial sense always
more than conceptual thought can accommodate. Adorno is in many ways the attempted
synthesis of Hegel and existential philosophy, of Hegel’s encyclopedic view of
philosophy and the “existential” idea that freedom means that life is always richer than
any philosophical theory and that “spontaneity” always escapes systematization.


If we are to contrast Hegel’s so-called affirmative dialectic with Adorno’s negative

dialectic, we have to begin, as Adorno himself does in his lectures, with the Hegelian
version. Hegel’s Logic describes itself as delineating the basics of intelligibility itself, or, to
put it in more colloquial terms than Hegel does, of making sense of things and making
sense of making sense. 2 Whereas older philosophies had by and large distinguished

metaphysics (as making sense of things) from logic (as making sense of making sense),
Hegel thought that both metaphysics and formal logic were together themselves part of
logic as a whole.

Simplifying Hegel’s discussion quite a bit, we could say that in order to make sense of
things, we must make judgments about them that fall into, roughly, three categories, the
first two of which Hegel called, for better or worse, those of “Being” and those of
“Essence.” In judgments of “Being” (in which we are concerned with individual existing
items), we make assertions about such items by pointing them out (“That one over
there”), classifying them (“This is blue”), making generalizations about them
(“American Robins live on average 1.7 years”) or counting them. Those kinds of
judgments of “Being” must be distinguished from judgments like “The tie only looks
green in the store but is blue in normal sunlight” and “Deficiency in vitamin D may cause
cognitive impairment in older adults,” in which we explain things by appeal to some
underlying condition that is not immediately apparent in the mere observation of them.
The underlying condition explains how the appearance is the way it is. Hegel calls these
judgments of “Essence.” If judgments of “Being” are responses to questions such as
“What’s that?” or “How many are there of them?”, judgments of “Essence” are responses
to questions like “Why did that happen?” or “Why does it seem like that?”

Not only do we engage in these types of judging activities, we also make judgments abut
whether we have really made sense at all when we do so. We typically do that in
judgments such as “What you just said does not follow from your premises,” or “This
makes no sense within the current standards of physics.” These judgments represent
what Hegel calls “the Concept.” “What is this and how many of them are there?” is
typically answered in one way that makes sense of things, whereas “Why does it look that
way?” or “Why did that happen?” are typically answered in another way. “How does that
follow?” is typically answered in neither of those two ways.

Now, Hegel does not represent these three ways of talking about things in the rather
loose way in which they have just been presented here. He takes himself to be speaking of
the matter at issue, the Sache, not just ways of talking, and when we make true judgments,
the matter at issue, the Sache, is as we say it is. Thus, Hegel begins his Logic with the
category of being – and not even that of something or another. What we say of “being” is
that it is “what is,” that is, not nothing. Or rather, when we think most abstractly of what
is, beyond that “is” is… nothing. That is the limit of thought. Hegel calls this, with all
irony, a “pure knowing” which takes itself not to be representing objects (it has, so he
says, “sublated all relation to an other and to mediation”). What happens is that this kind
of alleged pure knowing, which seems at first to make sense, turns out to be a mirage, to
not be really a knowing at all.3 It does not, cannot, distinguish its “pure” thought of

“being” from nothing. At the outset are the two putative thoughts of being and nothing,
but that thought itself is not really a logical thought. It looks like a thought, but it is in fact
itself a contradiction.4 It is a thought of the world as a whole in terms of the empty
concepts of being and nothing which is a thought from a standpoint that cannot be a
standpoint, since it would be a thought occupying a conceptual place outside of being
and nothing.5 Mystics may indeed claim to have such a thought, but they cannot make it
intelligible, and an unintelligible thought is a thought that cannot be thought. (Adorno
scathingly calls such views “Om-philosophies”, which substitute “om, om, om” for any
thought.[See (Adorno 2017), pp. 112-113.])

If logic is the paradigmatic way of making sense of making sense by delivering the ways in
which the limits of thought are revealed as the limits of making sense in general, then
Hegel’s Logic can indeed claim to be a logic. As a logic, Hegel’s Logic is concerned with
the form of thought, not with what things in particular there are (which is a matter of fact,
not of form), but it is also the form of the world, the substance of the world.6 Hegel
himself calls his Logic a matter of the form-determinations, the Formbestimmungen, of
thought when it is genuine, true thought, that is, the thought of what is.

One way of thinking of this would be the familiar form often attributed to Hegel of
starting with a unity, then having the unity fall apart, then restoring the unity in some
kind of “higher” or “more developed” form. (Something like this picture underlies the
still common but false attribution to Hegel of the triad of “thesis/antithesis/synthesis.”)
The problem is, as Hegel tries to make clear, that at the very outset, thought is fractured.
What seems clear and sensible at the first, that being, just on its own apart from what
particular things there are, is to be distinguished from nothing, turns out itself not to be
clear, and in fact to be a form of nonsense until it is integrated into a larger whole, that of
coming-to-be: “This motionless simplicity is being, yet no longer for itself but rather it is
as [a] determination of the whole.”[(Hegel 1969a), p. 113.] What we have is a whole,
grasped in thought, of coming to be and passing away, of some being going into nothing
and nothing coming to be something, or just “becoming” in general. The world as a
whole is that of things coming to be and vanishing. That this is a conception of existing
objects with qualitative and quantitative features follows from the attempt to state the
very idea of the world as a whole, which seems to require a standpoint outside of the
whole, which is itself nonsensical on its own terms. (Adorno even lightheartedly
compares the beginning of Hegel’s Logic to Beethoven’s music.7)

At the end of the story the “concept” itself (as “Idea,” the “unity of objectivity and
subjectivity”) is required to give an account of how it makes sense of itself as having
made sense of things and of itself. In thinking about things and in thinking about
thinking, thinking – more concretely, thinking agents occupying a particular place in
social space – gives an account of itself as giving that type of account. It is thought’s

capacity to make these judgments by being just the kind of activity that exercises those
powers, that is, by being what it is by bringing itself under the concept of itself. Hegel
called that the “absolute Idea,” which expresses the “true infinity” of concepts inasmuch
as it expresses the self-bounding nature of the conceptual.8 It is affirmative in that the
dialectic ends with its own account of how it gives all those accounts and why that shape
of accounts was necessary. The concept of “thought thinking of the world” turns out to
be bedrock, the point at which when we avoid falling into the illusion that if we tried, we
could dig deeper, only to find that our spade is turned since, if we try to dig deeper, we
find not something new and deeper but only that we have gone beyond the limits of
sense itself.9


Adorno thinks this conception of dialectic is both inviting and misleading. At the end of
such a dialectic, in Adorno’s view, the system closes itself off (into thought thinking
thought), whereas Adorno thinks that any dialectic that took its own “negative” activity
seriously would have to be open, not closed.10 Adorno famously identifies this turn in
Hegel’s thought as lying in what he diagnoses as “identity thinking.”

The concept of “identity thought” itself has an obvious and long history in the
development of and reaction to German idealism, and Adorno’s ideas have their place
there.11 Schelling called his first system that of absolute identity. One of Schelling’s core
ideas was that if we were to find a place for human subjectivity in nature, then our
concept of nature would have to be redrawn away from the concept of nature that was at
home in post-Newtonian physics. To that end, Schelling argued that all analysis of
knowledge must come to a stopping point where the basic matters at issue – the Sachen –
could no longer be grasped discursively, in fact-stating sentences, but only give grasped
as they were in their internal relations with other such basic matters. Moreover, Schelling
argued that such basic matters had to be unavailable to empirical observation, and the
world itself, including self-consciousness, would be built out of them, or, as he put it, “If
there were not an absolute limit to knowledge… something that fetters and binds us in
knowledge, and that , in the course of knowing never once becomes an object precisely
because it is the principle of all knowledge… there is an ultimate of some sort, from
which all knowledge begins, and beyond which there is no knowledge.”[(Schelling and
Heath 1978), p. 16.] That ultimate would be the “absolute” itself in its identity with itself.

For Schelling, the starting point of all reflection has to be that of the identity of mind and
world, that is, the thought that being is intelligible, that the most basic thought (that of
the absolute) is one with the content of the absolute. However, this basic identity
shatters immediately on reflection.12 In studying the form of the world as manifested in
the ultimate components of the world, philosophy on Schelling’s construction seeks to

build back up to the original identity by way of an a priori study of subjectivity and of
nature. This amounts to making philosophy into “nothing other than the natural history
of our mind” [See (Schelling 1988), p. 30.] (although “nature” here is taken in
Schelling’s romantic sense, not in the sense in which any contemporary naturalist would
take it).

In a nutshell, Schelling developed his schema along these lines: The original being of
things is itself an infinite ideality (an “identity”) that destabilizes itself (into “non-
identity”) and then pushes itself back into a restabilization of itself (an “indifference
point”) by virtue of generating new structures out of itself. From the original forces, for
example, of heat and combustion, the original “identity” then pushes itself further apart
into energy and matter, which then stabilizes around the idea of a cosmos of things held
together by universal gravitation. The dynamic involved in the original identity of the
world seeking to re-establish that identity by stabilizing around an indifference point (for
example, of energy and matter) pushes itself ever onward to a world of magnetism and
electricity, then to chemical relatednesss and the creation of new substances, and then to
life and finally to that of reflective subjectivity itself. In such reflective subjectivity, the
universe comes to be conscious of its own activities, and the final “indifference point” is
reached. This final indifference point is the divine itself thinking about its own creation
from out of its nature, and with it, the story ends in an intellectual intuition of the
absolute – the form of the world – in which thought and being are united, and the world
is intelligible (although not discursively).

In the “Preface” to his Phenomenology, Hegel famously and sarcastically referred to this
conception of an intellectually intuited absolute identity as the “night in which all cows
are black,” or, in other words, something that in effect says nothing and thus is a form of
nonsense. There are of course lots of things that can be said of Schelling’s philosophy of
absolute identity, but what is crucial here is Adorno’s surprising assertion that something
like it underlies much, if not all, of modern thought.13 Schelling’s point was that the
activity on the part of representing the world – the representing itself – had to be
distinguished from the representations that were made. Ultimately, the identity of
content between thought and reality was to be found in the representing activity itself
which was in turn the form of the world, the natural order. Although the representing
activity may succeed or fail in its attempts to represent the empirical world, the activity
itself cannot represent itself in any straightforward way. All modern philosophy is driven
back, so Adorno seems to think, to something like this view, namely, to the idea that at
the end of the day, the original identity of representing activity and being has set the
terms of the debate.

On Adorno’s view, Hegel’s sarcasm about Schelling’s identity-philosophy was on target,

but Hegel ended up in much the same boat himself. Hegel’s system also rested on the

conception that to be is to be intelligible, but Adorno objects that at best this is only
partly true, and mostly it is self-deceptive. What drives identity-thinking is the
philosophical view that one requires a comprehensive conception of the world – the
world as a whole, as a totality – which on the representationalist view requires one to
have a standpoint outside of the world in order to judge the world as a whole. This is
clearly impossible, but it remains a temptation to indulge in some sort of thinking like
that.14 On Adorno’s account, Hegel simply drew the proper conclusion from identity-
thinking, namely, to see that one had to develop a point of view from within the world
that nonetheless would adequately grasp the world as a whole, and that doing just that
required all the conceptual acrobatics of Hegel’s dialectic. What it did not do, however, is
question the status of identity-thinking itself. That questioning is one of the main points
of a negative dialectic.15


Hegel’s affirmative dialectic is the expression of the idea that to be is to be intelligible. 16

Adorno’s negative dialectic denies that being is fully intelligible. A negative dialectic
would thus never really end at all but would always find itself confronted with something
that is necessary for it but not graspable by thought. The system of thought thus
determines itself “negatively” against what limits its own account of itself. But what
would that be?

Adorno tries several ways to make this point. At first, he tries to make a point that puts
his negative dialectic on the side of Kant versus Hegel vis-à-vis the concept of the
infinite.17 The very concept of the infinite contains some very familiar paradoxes: Series
that have no beginnings but must have beginnings, things that are infinitely divisible yet
have to be built out of ultimate simples, the infinite hotel which is always fully booked
but always has one more room in it, etc.18 The infinite of course can never be given in a
sensible intuition; the infinite is that which can never be traversed. Hegel’s response to
those problems was to agree but also to point out that that the infinite could indeed be
comprehended but only in thought and never in finite experience. Hegel thought we
could coherently think of the infinite, but it was a sad joke to think we could intuit it.19
Adorno picks up on this theme (siding with Kant), but he does not pursue it, and it
seems unlikely that this rather abstract suggestion is his main criticism of the Hegelian

The second and deeper reason lies, so Peter Gordon has argued, in his confrontation of
Hegelian thought with that of the existentialist philosophers. Adorno’s point is not
irrationalist, as if Hegel were saying that to be is to be intelligible, and the irrationalist
retorts with “to be is to be unintelligible.” Adorno’s point is that we are always enmeshed
in the “view from here,” an account from where we are at this time, this place, which

changes as the temporal horizon in it moves changes. That much would be admitted by
everybody. Nor is Adorno’s point equivalent to the now often repeated bromide about
being on Neurath’s boat where we have to make repairs while at sea. (Isn’t there a port
somewhere? Who is giving the orders on the boat? Where is it going?) Nor should it be
reduced to Hamlet’s familiar admonition, “There are more things in heaven and earth,
Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” None of those would be dialectical.

The negative dialectic, like Hegel’s dialectic, must move in terms of “determinate
negation” and, put more ambitiously, philosophy, as negative dialectic, must, as Adorno
says, thereby use the concept to go beyond the concept, to affirm the “priority of the
object.”21 Now, in its more global use in Hegel’s system, a determinate negation involves
the way that some basic way of thinking or some important social shape of human life
itself breaks down such that what succeeds the breakdown has the determinate shape it
does by virtue of the way the breakdown occurred and how in those very determinate
circumstances only certain possibilities opened up. The authority of the successor is what
it is by virtue of the determinate way it is required by the breakdown of the authority it
succeeds. This occurs abstractly in the Logic (as one shape of thought generates its own
paradoxes and requires another determinate shape to make it good), and it occurs more
concretely in the history of human social and political life.

On the one hand, it would be tempting for some to take Adorno’s point in a somewhat
pedestrian way, as a restatement of something like Frege’s dictum that at the basis of any
account of thought, there must be a distinction between thought and its object, for
otherwise there could not be any possible truth to thought. If taken in that way, Adorno’s
speaking of thought and its “other” would simply look like obfuscatory language to
characterize a far more humdrum thought. The pedestrian sense, however, is not
Adorno’s aim. The “other” of the concept is not just the “object” that would make the
thought true. It is the other that the thought encounters of what it is that would
undermine thought’s claim to truth, and this encounter proceeds out of some form of
necessity even though it is not in the more narrow sense a logical necessity. How does
that work?

The quick answer requires some unpacking. For Hegel, the various stages of his dialectic
in the Logic have to do with, as we noted, “being,” “essence,” and “concept.”22 It is crucial
for Hegel’s treatment that what propels us from one stage to another (from being, to
essence, to concept) is some type of incoherence or contradiction found in an earlier
stage which requires the formation of a more adequate way of stating the matter (such as
the way in which the initial concepts of “being” and “nothing” only make sense in a larger
whole of “becoming”). The kind of self-reflexive concept of the concept at the end of the
Logic then gives us an account (if Hegel is right) of how we can make judgments about

the world as a whole without having to assume a viewpoint that stands outside of the

Adorno’s alternative is crucially indebted to Heidegger (and to Kierkegaard). 23 For

Heidegger, Dasein (“existence,” his name for the kind of being that is a problem for itself)
is, by virtue of having its being a problem to itself, committed to understanding the
meaning of being as a whole and not just the meaning of the particular beings it
encounters in its world. However, it cannot uncover the meaning of being as a whole
since, as finite existence, it cannot comprehend the infinite (the meaning of being as a
whole), and as being-towards-death, it understands (in its not fully conceptualized
moods such as anxiety) that the meaning of its being is “nothing.” Since Dasein cannot
comprehend the meaning of being (the “totality”), it thus necessarily fails in its most
basic task. Yet, in what might seem paradoxical, as Katherine Withy has put it, it is exactly
in coming to understand its necessary failure to uncover the meaning of being that Dasein
succeeds in achieving its genuine meaning, so that its own success can only consist in the
eminent (or “excellent,” “singled out,” ausgezeichnet) mode of failure that is “authentic
existence.”24 When Dasein succeeds in comprehending itself, it fails, and its “singled out”
failure just is its success in grasping what Dasein is.

The “negative” in the negative dialectic is thus at first based on this Heideggerian idea of
the impossibility of comprehending the whole. For Adorno, subjectivity is always defined
on all sides by its contrast with other ways of thinking and living. It is “finite” in the
Hegelian sense in that its own intelligibility depends on its contrast with something other
than it. All modes of thinking are constrained by the thinker’s past, the thinkers are
absorbed in the requirements of thought in their day, and they project themselves into a
future that will stand in contrast to them (as their “negation”). Any and all attempts at
understanding the whole from within the whole are doomed to failure because of this
finitude. Moreover, this Heideggerian way of posing the issue also licenses Adorno, or so
he claims, from any and all charges of the kind of self-contradiction found in those who
claim everything is relative. For Hegel, the conceptual is boundless, infinite, whereas for
Adorno it is fully bounded by the contingencies of human existence in time.

However, that can only be the negative dialectic in its most general form. Adorno is no
committed Heideggerian, even when he admits that “Heidegger arrived at the limits of
the dialectical insight into the non-identity in identity.”25 For Heidegger, the limits were
just the limits, beyond which no real sense-making was possible, whereas for Adorno, the
negative dialectician, arriving at those limits was an invitation to see the limits as only
limitations and to go further to devise new ways of making sense, with no guarantee that
what seemed like only a limitation would not turn out in fact to be a limit. That
movement – reaching the limits, coming to understand them as limitations, making sense
of them in a new way – was unending, not susceptible in principle to any kind of “final”

reflection (to thought making sense of itself as thought), and in particular to the kind of
finality claimed by Hegel and which governs, implicitly, all modern philosophy.

Adorno’s third reason for a negative as opposed to a more purely Hegelian dialectic is
itself, interestingly, partly Hegelian. In the Phenomenology and then later in the series of
lectures on the philosophy of history, religion, art and on the history of philosophy itself,
Hegel displayed the inherent tensions in the ways in which any given form of human life
shapes itself around a certain conception of the absolute not merely abstractly but
concretely in all its various ways of embodying those thoughts (in family life, politics,
religion, art, economies and the like). Those shapings embody tensions and
contradictions within themselves that, however pressure-laden they are, do not appear to
be fatal until practice has shown them to be in fact unbearable. At that point, those
people can no longer be those people, the shape of life falls apart in various ways (and
sometimes collapses altogether), and it is succeeded by some other shape that has
gathered itself out of the ruins of the old life and made something new with whatever it
was that still worked in it. Adorno thought that this is in fact what had happened to
Hegel’s own nineteenth century bourgeois society. The horrors of the twentieth century
were the direct developments of the failures of the nineteenth, but none of which were
really visible in Hegel’s own day (or which became visible only with the twenty-twenty
hindsight of the twenty-first century). Those failures show how Hegel’s conceptual
system was thus confronted not with a new concept internal to its own development but
with social realities that showed its falsity as an account of the whole. Hegel’s
representative, constitutional, civil state gave way ultimately to Hitler’s Nazism, not as a
logical consequence but as the way in which the kind of industrialized bourgeois society
that was the first proximate realization of the Hegelian conception was “negated” by the
various totalitarian, dictatorial, and administered bureaucracies of the twentieth century.
This, more than anything else, seemed to be what Adorno meant by the “priority of the
object”: The openness of the dialectic to new developments that outstrip the powers of a
priori thought to encompass the whole. And that opens up a practical dimension of the
dialectic that Adorno thinks is effectively excluded by the (merely) affirmative dialectic.

More needs to be said. But maybe that was what Hegel meant by the dialectic all along.
Near the end of his life, Hegel received a note from a student, Christian Weisse, which
contained the following remark:

You yourself, honored teacher, once orally indicated to me that you were
totally convinced of the necessity of further progress and newer
embodiments of the world-spirit, which would go further than the
completed embodiment of science that you yourself had brought about.
But you were not able to give me any further account of this.[ (Hegel and
Hoffmeister 1961), vol. 3, p. 261, #603, Weisse to Hegel, July 11, 1829.]

We do not have Hegel’s own reply to this student’s request for a clarification. (It was
probably given in person.)

Adorno, however, seems to think Hegel could have had no real reply, and that is the final
part of his argument for the negative dialectic.

Hegelians are not completely unconvinced.


Adorno, Theodor W. (1966), Negative Dialektik ((Frankfurt a.M.): Suhrkamp) 406 p.

--- (2017), An introduction to dialectics (1958) (English edition. edn.; Cambridge,
UK ; Malden, MA: Polity Press) xiv, 329 pages.
Adorno, Theodor W. and Tiedemann, Rolf (1998), Beethoven : the philosophy of
music : fragments and texts (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press) xii, 268
--- (2008), Lectures on negative dialectics: fragments of a lecture course 1965/1966
(Cambridge: Polity) xix, 267 p.
Adorno, Theodor W., Adorno, Gretel, and Tiedeman, Rolf (1997), Aesthetic theory
(Theory and history of literature; Minneapolis, Minn.: University of
Minnesota Press) xxi, 383 p.
Demmerling, Christoph (1994), Sprache und Verdinglichung : Wittgenstein, Adorno
und das Projekt einer kritischen Theorie (1. Aufl. edn., Suhrkamp Taschenbuch
Wissenschaft; Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp) 178 p.
Foot, Philippa (2001), Natural goodness (Oxford: Clarendon).
Gordon, Peter Eli (2013), '“The Artwork Beyond Itself: Adorno, Beethoven, and Late
Style”', in Peter Eli Gordon and John P. McCormick (eds.), Weimar thought :
a contested legacy (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 77-98.
--- (2016), Adorno and existence (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University
Press) xiv, 256 pages.
Hammer, Espen (2006), Adorno and the political (Thinking the political; London;
New York, NY: Routledge) viii, 205 p.
--- (2015), Adorno's modernism : art, experience, and catastrophe (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press) xii, 228 pages.
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1969a), Wissenschaft der Logik I, eds Eva
Moldenhauer and Karl Markus Michel, 20 vols. (Theorie-Werkausgabe, 5;
Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp).

--- (1969b), Wissenschaft der Logik II, eds Eva Moldenhauer and Karl Markus Michel,
20 vols. (Theorie-Werkausgabe, 6; Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp).
--- (1969c), Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften I, eds Eva Moldenhauer
and Karl Markus Michel, 20 vols. (Theorie-Werkausgabe, 8; Frankfurt a. M.:
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich and Hoffmeister, Johannes (1961), Briefe von und
an Hegel, 4 vols. ([2. unveränderte Aufl.] edn.; Hamburg,: Felix Meiner).
Moore, A. W. (2002), The infinite (2nd edn.; London; New York: Routledge) xxi,
268 p.
--- (2012), The Evolution of Modern Metaphysics : Making Sense of Things (The
evolution of modern philosophy; New York: Cambridge University Press) xxi,
668 p.
O'Connor, Brian (2013), Adorno (Routledge philosophers; Abingdon, Oxon ; New
York: Routledge) xv, 219 p.
Pinkard, Terry (2012), Hegel's Naturalism: Mind, Nature, and the Final Ends of Life
(Oxford University Press) 240.
--- (2019), '“Forms of Thought, Forms of Life”', in Jakub and Berg Mácha,
Alexander (ed.), Wittgenstein and Hegel: Reevaluation of Difference (Berlin: De
Pinkard, Terry P. (2017a), '“Hegel's Phenomenology and Logic: an overview”', in Karl
Ameriks (ed.), The Cambridge companion to German idealism (Cambridge ;
New York: Cambridge University Press), 227-47.
--- (2017b), Does history make sense? : Hegel on the historical shapes of justice
(Cambridge, Massachusetts ; London, England: Harvard University Press) 272
Pippin, Robert (2018), Hegel’s ‘Realm of Shadows’: Logic as Metaphysics in the Science
of Logic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
Pippin, Robert B. (2005), The persistence of subjectivity : on the Kantian aftermath
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) viii, 369 p.
Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von (1988), Ideas for a philosophy of nature as
introduction to the study of this science, 1797 (Texts in German philosophy;
Cambridge Cambridgeshire; New York: Cambridge University Press) xxv, 294
Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von and Heath, Peter Lauchlan (1978), System of
transcendental idealism (1800) (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia)
xxxvi, 248 p.
Thompson, Michael (2008), Life and action : elementary structures of practice and
practical thought (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press) vi, 223 p.
--- (2013), 'Forms of nature: ‘first’, ‘second’, ‘living’, ‘rational’ and ‘phronetic’', in
Gunnar Hindrichs and Axel Honneth (eds.), Freiheit : Stuttgarter Hegel-
Kongress 2011 (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann), 701-35.

Withy, Katherine (2015), Heidegger on being uncanny (Cambridge, Massachusetts:

Harvard University Press) vi, 250 pages.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1953), Philosophical investigations = Philosophische
Untersuchungen (New York: Macmillan) x, x, 232, 32 p.

A short version of my own version of how that argument goes is in Terry P. Pinkard,
'“Hegel's Phenomenology and Logic: An Overview”', in Karl Ameriks (ed.), The Cambridge
Companion to German Idealism (Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press,
2017a), 227-47.
This way of putting the matter in terms of “making sense” is lifted from A. W. Moore,
The Evolution of Modern Metaphysics : Making Sense of Things (The Evolution of Modern
Philosophy; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012) xxi, 668 p.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Wissenschaft Der Logik I, eds Eva Moldenhauer and
Karl Markus Michel, 20 vols. (Theorie-Werkausgabe, 5; Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp,
1969a)., p. 68: Pure knowing, thus joined up with this unity, has sublated every relation to
an other and to mediation; it is without distinction and as thus without distinction it
ceases to be knowing; what is present is only simple immediacy.
Ibid., p. 113: “It contradicts itself in itself, because it unites in itself what is opposed.
Such a unification destroys itself./ This result is a having-vanished (Verschwundensein),
but not as nothing; if it were so, it would be only a relapse into one of the already sublated
determinations and not the result of nothing and of being. It is the unity of being and
nothing that has become motionless simplicity. But this motionless simplicity is being,
yet no longer for itself but as [a] determination of the whole.
Ibid., p. 75: “It contradicts itself in itself, because it unites in itself what is opposed. Such
a unification destroys itself./ This result is a having-vanished (Verschwundensein), but not
as nothing; if it were so, it would be only a relapse into one of the already sublated
determinations and not the result of nothing and of being. It is the unity of being and
nothing that has become motionless simplicity. But this motionless simplicity is being,
yet no longer for itself but as [the] determination of the whole.“ (this is different from
Adorno’s disparagement of “standpoint philosophies” in Theodor W. Adorno and Rolf
Tiedemann, Lectures on Negative Dialectics: Fragments of a Lecture Course 1965/1966
(Cambridge: Polity, 2008) xix, 267 p., p. 10.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Wissenschaft Der Logik Ii, eds Eva Moldenhauer and
Karl Markus Michel, 20 vols. (Theorie-Werkausgabe, 6; Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp,
1969b)., p. 550: “More exactly, the absolute idea itself has only this for its content,
namely that the form-determination is its own completed totality, the pure concept.”
For example: “With no less stringency the paradox of the tour de force in Beethoven’s
work could be presented: that out of nothing something develops, the aesthetically
incarnate test of the first steps of Hegel’s logic.” Theodor W. Adorno, Gretel Adorno,

and Rolf Tiedeman, Aesthetic Theory (Theory and History of Literature; Minneapolis,
Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1997) xxi, 383 p., p.107; or, in Theodor W.
Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann, Beethoven : The Philosophy of Music : Fragments and Texts
(Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998) xii, 268 p., where he says that
Beethoven’s music is Hegelian philosophy but is more true. (p. 14)
For example, see Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Enzyklopädie Der Philosophischen
Wissenschaften I, eds Eva Moldenhauer and Karl Markus Michel, 20 vols. (Theorie-
Werkausgabe, 8; Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1969c)., §214: “The Idea may be grasped as
reason; (and this is the genuine philosophical meaning of reason), further as subject-
object… because the Idea contains all the relations of the intellect, but contains them in
their infinite self-return and identity-within-themselves.”
Another way is to think of this is to see it as another version of what Wittgenstein was
trying to argue about rule-following, namely, that any genuine conception of rule-
following already operates with an idea of our understanding things behind which we
cannot go any further. (And thus all attempts at explaining it in terms that do not make
reference to understanding, such as dispositions, are beside the point, since they will be
employing the conception of understanding itself in trying to make that point. The
“activity” of understanding – or, in Hegelian terms, of subjectivity – is basic to our other
concepts. “Thought comprehending itself” would be the Hegelian equivalent (more or
less) to the Wittgensteinian “understanding” here. There is nothing deeper than that by
which we could explain the sense that thought carries. Hegel takes that to push us into a
conception of “pure being” to get the Logic going; Wittgenstein thinks that we have to
concede something like the activity of understanding itself as basic, for example when he
says (in an often cited remark) that “If language is to be a means of communication there
must be agreement not only in definitions but also (queer as this may sound) in
judgments.” Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations = Philosophische
Untersuchungen (New York: Macmillan, 1953) x, x, 232, 32 p. ¶242. The equally often
cited remark about our spade being turned is at ¶217. The metaphor of the spade is
slightly misleading, since it leads us to think that maybe we just need better tools for
digging through the bedrock, as if there was something deeper to be found.
For example: “The ensuing movement is itself so determined out of the matter that it
possesses the character of truth even if the absolute, as an all-embracing totality, can
never be given to us. This would the concept of an open dialectic – in contrast to the
closed dialectic of idealism.” Theodor W. Adorno, An Introduction to Dialectics (1958)
(English edition. edn.; Cambridge, UK ; Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017) xiv, 329 pages.,
p. 21.
It is sometimes attributed to Adorno that identity-thinking consists in believing that in
characterizing an object, one thinks one has exhaustively characterized it, but since the
object is always “more” than its characterizations, identity-thinking necessarily
mischaracterizes objects. That would attribute too lean a thesis to Adorno (which at its

limits would also reduce to triviality, as if one were saying that in asserting that a ball is
white, one thought one had asserted everything that could be said of the ball, which is
clearly false). Brian O’Connor claims the following about it: “It is, rather, identity
thinking which attempts to control experience by the deployment of rules that have
authority in advance of what we contingently face in reality.” Brian O'connor, Adorno
(Routledge Philosophers; Abingdon, Oxon ; New York: Routledge, 2013) xv, 219 p., p.
144; and: “The category of nonidentity seems to be another name for the notion of
excluded otherness, the retrieval of which is an essential feature of post-structuralist
theory.” Ibid.(p. 194). In his glossary for the book, O’Connor also characterizes “identity”
for Adorno in the following way: “A misunderstanding of the relationship between
subject and object in which the concepts or systems of concepts of a subject (person,
philosopher, scientist, etc.) are taken to be identical with the object.” Espen Hammer
sees it in the following way: “According to Adorno, the most fundamental form of
ideology, serving perhaps as a kind of meta-theory of ideology, is identity itself, the
mindless and objectified repetition of sameness without any reflection or attempt at
authorization. Inscribed in the concept itself is the primal illusion of the identity between
it and the thing itself in the absence of the subject’s individual experience.” Espen
Hammer, Adorno and the Political (Thinking the Political; London; New York, NY:
Routledge, 2006) viii, 205 p., p. 87. In another place, Hammer expresses some
exasperation over the slipperiness of Adorno’s conception of identity: “On other
interpretations, it is ‘identity thinking,’ which rather puzzlingly seems to suggest that
identification, or the creation or ascertaining of identities (whether numerical or
qualitative), including perhaps even predication and synthesis, is not only ‘wrong' or
‘inadequate but destructive in some insidious sense to be referred to in accounting for
such phenomena as corporate capitalism or even me Holocaust.” Espen Hammer,
Adorno's Modernism : Art, Experience, and Catastrophe (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2015) xii, 228 pages., p. 33.
See Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Von Schelling, Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature as
Introduction to the Study of This Science, 1797 (Texts in German Philosophy; Cambridge
Cambridgeshire; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988) xxv, 294 p. pp. 10-11:
“As soon as man sets himself in opposition to the external world, then… reflection first
begins; he separates from now on what nature had always united, separates the object
from the intuition” and thus philosophy “proceeds from that original divorce to unite
once more, through freedom, what was originally and necessarily united in the human
mind, i.e., forever to cancel out that separation.”
“Substantial (inhaltliches) philosophizing since Schelling was grounded in the thesis of
identity.” Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialektik ((Frankfurt a.M.): Suhrkamp, 1966)
406 p., p. 83.
This kind of affinity between Adorno’s and some parts of Wittgenstein’s thought has
been drawn out in Christoph Demmerling, Sprache Und Verdinglichung : Wittgenstein,

Adorno Und Das Projekt Einer Kritischen Theorie (1. Aufl. edn., Suhrkamp Taschenbuch
Wissenschaft; Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1994) 178 p. For a way of seeing
Wittgenstein in light of Hegelian thought (and vice versa), see Terry Pinkard, '“Forms of
Thought, Forms of Life”', in Jakub and Berg Mácha, Alexander (ed.), Wittgenstein and
Hegel: Reevaluation of Difference (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2019).
Adorno and Tiedemann, Lectures on Negative Dialectics: Fragments of a Lecture Course
1965/1966., p. 6: “A rather meagre, formal definition is that it sets out to be a dialectics
not of identity but of non-identity. We are concerned here with a philosophical project
that does not presuppose the identity of being and thought, nor does it culminate in that
identity. Instead it will attempt to articulate the very opposite, namely the divergence of
concept and thing, subject and object, and their unreconciled state.”
For an elaboration and defense of the Hegelian version of the claim that to be is to be
intelligible, see Robert Pippin, Hegel’s ‘Realm of Shadows’: Logic as Metaphysics in the
Science of Logic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018).
See the discussion of the infinite in Adorno and Tiedemann, Lectures on Negative
Dialectics: Fragments of a Lecture Course 1965/1966., pp.77-78: Adorno says that we can
see “… the difference between my project and traditional philosophy by reflecting on the
concept of the infinite.”
See the discussion in A. W. Moore, The Infinite (2nd edn.; London; New York:
Routledge, 2002) xxi, 268 p. Moore’s own conclusion is more Wittgensteinian to the
effect that speaking of the infinite leads to nonsense of a sort. He notes “we are shown
that the truly infinite exists, though in fact (as we are bound to say) it does not,” which is
not quite Wittgenstein’s own view in that “we have not tried to put into words anything
that is shown. What we have tried to put into words is what it is for somebody to be
shown it.” (pp. 198, 191)
Hegel thought that other ways of dealing with thinking about the absolute, such as art
and religion, also do indeed seek the infinite, but they fail more or less for the simple
reason that the infinite can only be conceptually, and not aesthetically or ritualistically,
Adorno says: “You cannot rely upon the thought that the whole is the true because the
infinite whole is not something which is ever given, at least to the finite subject, or in
other words, because not everything which is can be resolved into the pure
determinations of thought.” Adorno, An Introduction to Dialectics (1958)., pp. 20-21.
Robert Pippin conjectures that this way of putting things is, for Adorno, the typical
“bourgeois” or Kantian way of seeking freedom and self-sufficiency. He has also argued
that Adorno’s interpretation of Kant is very flawed – he conflates causal and practical
necessity, and he remains nonetheless strangely committed to a Kantian picture without
fully realizing how that picture itself drives one more toward a Hegelian conception. See
Robert Pippin, “Negative Ethics: Adorno on the Falseness of Bourgeois Life” in Robert B.

Pippin, The Persistence of Subjectivity : On the Kantian Aftermath (Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press, 2005) viii, 369 p., pp. 98-120.
Adorno, Negative Dialektik., p. 25.
This matter of the concept’s reflection on what it means to judge and infer correctly
also extends, controversially to say the least, to the concept of life as going better or
worse in ways that are relative to the various species in question. The unity of concept
and reality, which Hegel, following the terms of his day, calls the “Idea” (Idee) is that of
fact-stating evaluations, a way in which “is” and “ought” come together in judgments
about life, thought and action. (This way of taking “fact-stating” evaluations is drawn
from Philippa Foot, Natural Goodness (Oxford: Clarendon, 2001).) The relation
between Hegel’s dialectical logic and his concept of life is also covered in Terry Pinkard,
Hegel's Naturalism: Mind, Nature, and the Final Ends of Life (Oxford University Press,
2012) 240, Terry P. Pinkard, Does History Make Sense? : Hegel on the Historical Shapes of
Justice (Cambridge, Massachusetts ; London, England: Harvard University Press, 2017b)
272 pages. For related discussions, see Michael Thompson, Life and Action : Elementary
Structures of Practice and Practical Thought (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press,
2008) vi, 223 p.; Michael Thompson, 'Forms of Nature: ‘First’, ‘Second’, ‘Living’,
‘Rational’ and ‘Phronetic’', in Gunnar Hindrichs and Axel Honneth (eds.), Freiheit :
Stuttgarter Hegel-Kongress 2011 (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 2013), 701-
35, Pippin, Hegel’s ‘Realm of Shadows’: Logic as Metaphysics in the Science of Logic.
Peter Gordon’s argument is to the effect that in the last analysis, Kierkegaard is playing
the staring role in the development, which lands Adorno in his theology-which-isn’t-a-
theology. Peter Eli Gordon, Adorno and Existence (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard
University Press, 2016) xiv, 256 pages.
Katherine Withy, Heidegger on Being Uncanny (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard
University Press, 2015) vi, 250 pages. Peter Gordon argues for a similar point vis-à-vis
Adorno in Peter Eli Gordon, '“The Artwork Beyond Itself: Adorno, Beethoven, and Late
Style”', in Peter Eli Gordon and John P. Mccormick (eds.), Weimar Thought : A Contested
Legacy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), 77-98.
Adorno, Negative Dialektik., p. 198. [Heidegger gelangt bis an die Grenze der
dialektischen Einsicht in die Nichtidentität in der Identität. ]