This post is part of my ongoing blogging project called “Critical Theory Down to Earth.” In these posts I provide summaries of and brief reflections on writings throughout the wider critical theory landscape.
Disclaimer: It is very difficult to be “down to earth” when discussing Adorno’s critique of Hegel. So be forewarned, this particular summary may be a bit abstract and confusing to the uninitiated reader. Consider consulting lecture 1 and/or lecture 2 for assistance if you get bogged down. Enjoy!
Adorno is obviously very invested in negative dialectics. Why? He defends its importance in terms of its assistance to critical thought. He insists on the importance of tirelessly questioning and seeking insight, not being content to accept apparent truths let thinking coast along gleefully in a bubble of preconceptions. People often accept concepts as true without checking them against their contents. Concepts arise in particular times and places, under particular circumstances, or at least sets of circumstances. Then people take these concepts as if they are universal, and continue to apply the concepts in other times and places, without really checking to see to what extent they fit. Adorno claims negative dialectics can help people guard against the tendency to be lazy with and misled by their concepts in this way.
Adorno poses the question of whether negative dialectics is possible in reference to his enormous respect for and debt to Hegel’s philosophical system. In Hegel’s dialectic, the negative has an honored place. And in fact Hegel’s system is so comprehensive, that any challenge to the system is already articulated, accepted, and submerged within the system. Hegel’s dialectic neutralizes all adversaries by accepting them. Moreover, regarding the first point, negation is accounted for in Hegel’s system, and in fact is a huge part of it. So then, if Adorno in already contained within Hegel, is it meaningless to talk about “negative dialectics”? The answer to this will be determined by whether Adorno’s system really differs from Hegel’s enough to warrant the different name.
Hegel’s principle of “determinate negation” is very important for Adorno. Try not to slam your computer shut just yet, I am going to try to explain this term. In my summary of Adorno’s lecture 2 on negative dialectics, I briskly outlined Hegel’s dialectic. In this description, I painted the progression from an initial affirmation through to the 2nd negation (the process that can be crudely referred to as thesis -> antithesis -> synthesis) as an inherent process in…well in everything. It is just the logic of Spirit, what can I say? But there was something I left out, or at least minimized, which is important now. This inherent, perpetual process is not led from outside, as if on a cajoling leash (yes, again with the dog references). No, it is internal. The initial affirmation not only passes into its negation, it notably splits itself into itself and its negation. It’s not like the original in-itself version vanishes. In the for-another mode, it is this subject that was the in-itself before, that finds its object in the other. Oh this has not gotten any better, has it!
Okay, take the day/night example, but in logical terms, rather than in terms of time. It is possible to think “night” on its own terms. Night has qualities. It is dark. We might call this understanding “night-in-itself”. The thing is though, night in itself is an empty idea. It exists, but it has no substance.
Q: Why would we even think of night without the corresponding/negating concept of day?
A: We wouldn’t.
Night makes no logical sense unless it is posed in opposition to day. Its meaning is so wrapped up in this binary relationship that the concept of night could not ‘exist’ (at least not in the same way) without the concept of day. Not only is there a relationship of co-dependence between night and day, but the concept of night contains the concept of day, as its negation, already within it.
A little more on that last point: Night is the opposite of day. The concept “night” importantly contains an opposition to its negation, “day”. Out of pure concept of night, the night-in-itself, we necessarily get the binary concept of night/day. We might call this “night-for another”. In this example, night not only inherently passes into its negation, day, it also already contains day within itself. Night contains its opposite. Day, night’s negation, is determined by night of necessity. This is the principle of determinate negation, basically.
Adorno likes this stage of the dialectic. The A confronts the not-A as its necessary negation, that implicitly exists within the logic of the A. When you look at A, really look at A, you find not-A as well; and moreover you find A and not-A in a relationship of contradiction. Adorno wants to encourage this kind of thinking through his negative dialectic. Look within A, and discover its internal contradictions! Let the object and the concept meet and duke it out. Nobody wins, but it’s not about winning. It’s about how you play the game of dialectics. Keep on doing this, and your thinking will not become complacent.
We should not assume, however, that negativity is a good thing absolutely, in all cases, by definition. Adorno does not want us to just reject things mindlessly. His is not a philosophy of nihilism in that way. He wants us to dedicatedly examine our own concepts. Further, he insists that the positive and the negative are both aspects of the dialectic. It’s not all about negativity. How could it be, when negativity’s determinate negation would be positivity? Negativity and positivity need one another, and we need them both. Up to this point, Adorno is still in step with Hegel.
More Hating on the Negation of the Negation
The key place where he differs – and Adorno claims this is the difference that makes the difference, that makes “negative dialectics” possible – as discussed in lecture 2, is in reference to Hegel’s all-important, all-encompassing reconciliation stage of the 2nd negation. Adorno hates this second negation fetishism. In Adorno’s estimation, Hegel makes the 2nd negation out to be more and better this it is. Hegel has this idea that the 2nd negation preserves the in-itself and the for-another moments within a higher, all-embracing for-itself moment; but Adorno says this is not the case. The 2nd negation only sort of preserves the in-itself and for-another moments, or the initial affirmation and its determinate negation. The rest of the story is that it perverts them both. It does them both “violence”. You cannot have your day and eat it too. The state of opposition in the for-another moment, contains a certain integrity of the opposing sides. This is irreducible. When you try to integrate them again, you destroy their autonomy, along with the qualities they had in their own separate (but related) spheres. Falsehood, for example, is what it is. It is not falsely false. It is just false. Let it be false, in opposition to truth. Keep that moment alive!
On another level, Adorno portrays the 2nd negation as uncreative and thus unimpressive and largely unnecessary. It is really just an overlay on the for-another moment. The for-itself moment is an expression of the determinate negation. It is a reflecting on the determinate negation. It does not actually generate anything new. The action is contained in the for-another moment, in determinate negation. The supposed negation of the negation is just the acknowledgement of that action. The 2nd negation claims all the credit, when the first negation did all the work.
Adorno, T. W. (1973). Negative dialectics. Continuum.
Adorno, T. W. (2014). Lectures on negative dialectics: fragments of a lecture course 1965/1966. John Wiley & Sons.
Baeza, Natalia. (2015) “The problem of determinate negation in negative dialectics.” Academia.edu.
Hegel, G. W. F. (1969). Science of logic. Humanities Press.