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.
Adorno rejects the Hegelian principle that the second negation is an affirmation. Whoah! Hold on there! Okay back up…
Hegel’s dialectic is often crudely put as “thesis -> antithesis -> synthesis”. To translate this closer to Hegel’s actual terminology, as well as to his actual framework, we could denote this process instead as “affirmation -> negation -> negation of the negation (a.k.a. 2nd negation)”. Now, in basic arithmetic, when you multiply a negative number by another negative number, you get a positive number; this is somewhat the principle here as well. The second negation is an affirmation. Negation*negation = affirmation. This 2nd negation which is an affirmation, is sort of a synthesis, although it is not a neutral synthesis. It is sort of like if you start with “yin” and you add “yang” and you get “SUPERYIN(/yang).” In one sense it’s a synthesis, but in another sense, it’s lopsided.
We are dealing with opposites here, sort of. An example will make this a little clearer, I hope. Take the binary of day/night. First you have day, and then day develops into its negation, night. And then night develops in turn into its negation, day. In other words, the second negation is not just an affirmation; it is a return to affirmation. In the model thus described, there is an oscillation – day, night, day, night, day, night, ad infinitum. This is not quite Hegel’s dialectic either. Where’s the lopsided synthesis? Hold on! We’re getting there…
Here is a more complete example. What is pure consciousness? Obviously this is too big a question, but in a smaller sense, for argument’s sake, let’s says pure consciousness is pure cognitive awareness. It is like the faculty of thought, only without being filled with thoughts. It is the form of thought, without the contents of particular thoughts. This is the “in-itself” version of thought. It is thought, plain and simple. Like a master meditator on the needlepoint of loss of the ego. It is that split second which cannot even be perceived because even “perceiving” would require that the moment was an object, and there is no object, only the faculty of thinking.
Now, already it should be clear to you that this is essentially impossible. Thought is motion, or focus, or something at least, not just open space. It is not static, and it requires some kind of object or contents. Well so then thought, in order to be its fully thought-like self, requires non-thought in order to be thought. In being thought, it necessarily relies on its negation: the object of thought. Thought requires an object in order for thought to be thought. When thought reaches out toward its negation, this is the “for-another” version of thought. Thought exists in its extension beyond itself toward that which is not thought – the object of thought.
Thought doesn’t stop there though. It presses on, to reflect on its successful reflecting. Instead of just being aware of the object like a dog with a plastic bone in the grip of its determined jaws, thought moves on to recognize itself from a position of otherness, although this otherness is actually itself (obviously!). Um…okay so instead of a dog with a grip on a plastic bone, we move into something more akin to human awareness. I not only think of the plastic bone in the grip of my muzzle, I am also aware that I am holding onto a dog toy with my teeth. I think the object, and I also think myself thinking the object. I become self-conscious (and perhaps embarrassed).
And this is a path of development that Hegel sees as integral to everything, essentially. In logic, is sociality, in history, this path of development plays out again and again. It is not just a movement of oscillation between opposites, although it does involve that. It is not just a synthesis of opposites, although it does involve that too. It is a passing to a higher stage of development, higher as in the broadening of consciousness, not as in the top of a staircase. Eventually, all things lead to the apex, where all is contained in the Absolute. This is pure thought, pure being, pure knowledge. The parts (me and the dog toy) ascend through a dialectical process toward their ultimate unification in the whole (God?).
Critique and Conformity
It is commendable in Adorno’s assessment that Hegel calls out independent critical thought as an emancipated form of mind in relation to unthinkingly following the status quo. Independent critical thought is in fact that negation of herd conformity. Bravo for Hegel! Unfortunately, Hegel always puts in this pesky second negation. In this particular case, Hegel declares that the even greater, more complete, self-aware way of being is through assimilating into society as it is. Rather than unthinking conformity, we have thinking conformity. Criticizing and questioning the status quo is just the first negation: the “for-another” mode. We finally ascend to the “for-itself” when we decide to go with the flow again, regardless. With the greatest awareness then comes a knowingly conservative attitude.
Adorno will most certainly not pay a lot for this proverbial muffler. He admits some sympathy however. One of the perks of Hegel’s second negation in this instance is the insistence that the individual is intrinsically social. The fashionable capitalist notion of self-sufficiency and independence is a farce. It is an incomplete form. It is still in the “for-another” moment. Humanity really comes into its own when the individual finds her freedom within society, consciously integrated within the human community.
Here’s the rub: what form is this going to take? For Hegel, the whole always ends up with final priority over the individual, despite pretensions of an equitable reconciliation of opposites. Hegel acts like he gives universal and particular equal weight, but implicitly he places the universal out in front. And so with the political question of the individual and the community, the reconciliation of the two does not result in the community allowing the individual great personal freedom. No, it consists in the individual freely submitting to the community.
Positive Thinking after Auschwitz
Adorno insists that the second negation by no means should be assumed as the higher stage of development a priori. If this Hegelian picture was not already haunting, then let’s just translate it into directly political terms. It has been catastrophic in the modern era when large swaths of individuals decide to find their ‘true’ freedom in relinquishing their individuality to the horde. Groupthink is not a reliable judge; it is a holocaust waiting to happen.
He wants to get rid of the common “fetishizing” of the positive as well. For Hegel, there is the equation of the real with the rational. The way things are is how they’re meant to be, and how they are meant to be is good, hands down. Adorno doesn’t buy it. How can we possibly hold onto these sorts of ideas after the holocaust? How, in good conscience, can we claim that everything that happens is meaningful, rational, and good? Obviously these are rhetorical questions.
The Need for Negative Dialectics
Adorno repeatedly claims that his ideas are all contained in Hegel, or at least hinted at in basic form. So does it even make sense to talk about negative dialectics then? He says that it does, because there is such a need to toss out the deference to the second negation. Negative dialectics is necessarily critical. We cannot afford to just accept positivity or reconciliation with the whole. Independent critical thought is a crucial human good, and should not be subsumed or disregarded. It is imperative to keep critique going.
Adorno, T. W. (2014). Lectures on negative dialectics: fragments of a lecture course 1965/1966. John Wiley & Sons.
Hegel, G. W. F. (1969). Science of logic. Humanities Press.