Adorno – Lecture 4 on Negative Dialectics: “Whether Philosophy is Possible Without System” (11/18/1965)

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. 

You’re Damned if You Do, You’re Damned if You Don’t

Adorno sees philosophy struggling at a fork in the road, choosing between hopeless and fruitless paths. One of these paths, the more “traditional” of the two, aims toward totalization, i.e. ‘system’. A philosophy with a system, in Adorno’s definition, is one that proclaims some sort of overall, encompassing structure that is rooted in some sort of starting place or absolute principle, and explicitly extends a rational structure or “architectonic” to incorporate all of existence. Examples might include Aristotle’s Prime Mover, Kant’s categories, Schopenhauer’s will, Hegel’s Being-in-itself, etc. This tendency is especially glaring in German Idealism, and while Hegel is the quintessential case, Adorno specifically highlights Fichte as a good example. Philosophies with a system are essentially obsolete though, and generally speaking, everyone knows it. The other path for philosophy is largely a result of the recently developed, wide recognition that system is a hopeless pursuit. Philosophies of this ilk reject the possibility of a legitimate system, which is good. But they fail to put anything strong in the place of system. In effect, they are weak, which is bad.

The Way Forward

While Adorno rejects the possibility of a legitimate totalizing system in philosophy, he also insists on the power of the philosophies that have tried to extend to everything in a structured way. He also indicates that philosophy is ridden with a very strong drive toward system that extends even beyond the more obvious thinkers like Aristotle, Spinoza, Hegel, etc. The drive toward system is so strong in fact, that many thinkers who ostensibly eschew systems unwittingly create latent systems – or least system-tendencies – within their own philosophies. Adorno points notably to phenomenologists and existentialists who he thinks display this tendency to a kind of disowned or buried system. He identifies Heidegger’s philosophy as being very similar to German Idealism in its totalizing nature, it is just that Heidegger’s language is so confusing that it is difficult to discern what he is doing underneath it. There is a sense of openness and fluidity, but there is a latent system underneath.

This is where negative dialectics comes in. Adorno says that the only realistic path open for philosophy is the one pointed to unwittingly by these ostensibly non-systematic philosophies: philosophy needs to own and honor its system-like qualities, and to use these qualities without all-encompassing, architectonic structures. Negative dialectics arrives with awareness of this condition. Negative dialectics includes the self-awareness of the larger movement of philosophy away from explicitly totalizing systems, yet preserving latent system or system properties. This awareness can help us to set free the power of system within philosophies that are no longer constrained by the hopeless pretension to system.

How Philosophy is Possible Without System

In architectonic philosophies, the structure of the philosophical system is determined by the first principle(s) of the philosophy and the logical relations that stem from it. Although nailed down in structure, these philosophies rely on thought in a kind of free-floating way, unchecked by material realities. Whatever thought structures thought thinks out of a philosophy’s principle of origin and structuring rules, are taken as legitimate and correct.

By contrast, negative dialectics is flexible and attuned to material reality. Negative dialectics does not aim to structure all claims in accordance with a self-generated logical shape. Instead, negative dialectics will have its structures determined by the “shape of whatever confronts it” (p. 39). Philosophical thought will be confronted by the material world, and will morph in relation to it. Instead of appropriating objects into a total philosophical system, identifying and subsuming them within a predetermined set of logical relations, negative dialectics will open up the object using the rigors of philosophical analysis. Instead of subsuming the particular within a single universal structure of thought, negative dialectics will look deeper into the particular, using the power of thought to open up its multiplicities. The direction is basically opposite.

This is how philosophy will be possible without system. The analytic power that systemic philosophies have will be preserved in negative dialectics, and so will the tendency to understand different ideas and things as interconnected. The key difference is that this analytic power will not seek to interpret everything as contained within a fixed, total, necessary structure. Instead, analysis will interpret whatever it exams by looking at its inner dynamics. What relations with other objects does the object in the spotlight lead us to discover, when we pry into its immanent, internal contradictions?

The Philosophers Have Only Interpreted the World…

Adorno concludes this lecture by poking at Marx’s famous 11th thesis on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” The basic thrust of the Marxian theory this quote expresses is that philosophy being a separate sphere from social and economic realities means that philosophy is an expression of the alienation of thought from real life; a split between thought and reality. This alienation will end once history brings humanity to the point where it can end the split between workers and capitalists; when labor is no longer alienated, so philosophy and life will no longer be alienated. As the Revolution will be the realization of this social unity in a classless society, so at the same time a revolution should take place in philosophy where people start really addressing social and economic life rather than abstract, ephemeral logical structures.

Personally, I have questions about the 11th thesis not so much concerning the Marxian theory it expresses, but rather concerning the surface nature of its expression. I have no idea what were Marx’s intentions regarding the surface meaning versus the theoretical meaning, but I think the surface meaning has greater and wider influence these days than the deeper meaning. Here is my biggest beef with the surface: The point of what is to change the world? Not that I decry having ideals and striving to realize them in the world. I am very much in support of this. But what is this alleged imperative to activism that is supposed to trump the tendency toward deep reflection? And is that really a helpful way to approach things? In desperate, clear, pragmatic circumstances I would argue it is – for an immediate solution to a temporary problem. But for long-standing social questions I have serious misgivings about this attitude. The 11th thesis is, in my mind, easily appropriated as an attractive gloss on anti-intellectualism, under the ardent banner of ‘100% certified Leftism’.

Whenever there is an impulse to say “stop thinking, just join the movement” we need to be very careful. Leftism is a multiplicity, a spectrum. “It” can involve many things, and some of its potentialities are, in my mind, very honorable, just, reasonable, liberatory, fair, compassionate, etc. But the Left is also just as inherently susceptible to authoritarian tendencies and gross miscalculations as is the Right. Having admirable ideals doesn’t exempt you from being an asshole. And translate this into terms of social or state power, and you can get…something like Stalinism. And you may find yourself saying “This is not my beautiful socialism!” And you may ask yourself “How did we get here?”

I am particularly fond of this Žižek clip titled “Don’t Act. Just Think” where he gets into this stuff.

But back to Adorno: Adorno’s critique is about the deeper theory. Marx’s argument embodied in the 11th thesis hinged on the notion that the Revolution was about to occur, and in fact it did not occur. The end of ‘philosophy’ was supposed to coincide with the end of class society. Class society has not ended. The global Communist revolution was not and is not about to occur. Even if we agree with Marx’s basic dialectic of thought/reality corresponding to the dialectic of class division – and I do not agree, but that’s another issue – philosophy’s end has not arrived yet, and may never come. Philosophy should continue.


Adorno, T. W. (2014). Lectures on negative dialectics: fragments of a lecture course 1965/1966. John Wiley & Sons.

Marx, K. (2005[1845]) “Theses on Feuerbach.”

Žižek, S. (2012) “Don’t Act. Just Think.” Youtube.

Jeremiah Morelock

Jeremiah Morelock

Jeremiah Morelock is a Doctoral Candidate and Teaching Fellow in the Department of Sociology at Boston College. He is also the Director of the Critical Theory Research Network. His research interests include critical theory, infectious disease, and discourse analysis; as well as epistemology, bureaucracy, age norms, and film and media studies. His recent work has appeared in Social Theory & Health.
Jeremiah Morelock

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