Adorno – Lecture 8 on Negative Dialectics: “The Concept of Intellectual Experience” (12/2/1965)

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. 

In bodily experience, we encounter material objects or forces on the level of sensation. Sensation makes an impression upon us, and we respond – even if mostly internally at times – to the object. We experience the physical qualities of objects according to what and how our senses can register them, and hence they make an impression upon us. At the very least, this is a familiar intuitive description of bodily experience. By contrast, in intellectual experience, we encounter material and non-material objects on the level of concepts. In encountering the object, our concepts respond by allowing the object to impress itself upon them. Our concepts register these impressions in an open, flexible way. In these encounters, our concepts will adjust in whatever way they need to in order to allow space for the particularities of the object.

Infinity and Intellectual Experience

Adorno discusses his notion of intellectual experience in tandem with a discussion of ideas of infinity. Philosophers have often striven for their concepts to possess universal validity, and for their systems to extend to everything. This “everything” has included the infinite; Adorno specifically notes the Kant -> Hegel trajectory as guilty of this. Within these system philosophies, infinity is represented within a list of axioms. Some sort of interaction of logical statements is supposed to conceptually contain infinity. The irony is that infinity is shrunk to a very finite form: a few claims housed in language and logic.

Instead of this explicit infinity and implicit finitude, Adorno proposes we philosophize in a way that is explicitly finite and implicitly open to infinity. Philosophy should not rely on the branding of axioms and supposed iron-clad truths that aim to extend to infinity and capture it. Philosophy should find its contents according to the infinite diversity of objects, as it encounters them, i.e. through intellectual experience. This open philosophy that does not aspire to contain infinity is more infinite by virtue of not being limited by its own system. It is infinitely open.

Art and Intellectual Experience

Philosophy can learn from art. When encountering a work of art, a person experiences it in its particularity and its finitude. It makes a unique impression upon the viewer. Through interpretation, an intrinsically infinite number of associations, implications, connotations, and any other such types of meaning are possible. This way of experiencing and responding should be taken in by philosophers. We should cast off the search for security that finds a shallow satisfaction in the pretensions of universal truths and axioms. We have to be open in a way that allows for us to be in error. We have to see further, to take risks, to think dangerously. This is the kind of philosophy Adorno supports.


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

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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