Adorno – Lecture 6 on Negative Dialectics: “Being. Nothing. Concept.” (11/25/1965)

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. 

Adorno hammers in yet again that it is very important for theory to reflect on the failure of Marx’s predicted Revolution. He suggests one part of a possible explanation:  domination was maintained in the transitions to socialism attempted by Marxist-Leninist governments. This is not simply the claim that Communist leaders held on to positions of power and suppressed counter-revolutionary activity, which effectively turned away from ending human/human domination. That claim is obvious, and seems implicit in Adorno’s raising of the issue. Yet he goes further and frames it in terms of Marx’s dialectic.

For Marx, human/human domination developed along with human/nature domination. The forces of production – our tools and technologies – and our scientific knowledge rose within the same historical sweep as did class society, and of course capitalist development is the main culprit under scrutiny here. Yet when Marx theorized the end of class domination, he did not address the issue of ending the domination of nature. Correspondingly, Marxist-Leninist revolutions of the 20th century only addressed the issue of class domination, and left human/nature domination as it was. Without ending human/nature domination, however, human/human domination had to continue as well. The two run together.

Note on “Nature”

In this context, you should think about “nature” in a wide sense. Adorno is not talking about saving the trees and freeing Willy, although I imagine both of these things are relevant, and perhaps fit directly within the larger concept. Think of nature as the stuff of reality. Nature is phenomena, but not just material phenomena as distinct from mind. Nature is the world and its workings. So human/nature domination is maybe clearer if you just think of domination qua domination. Human/human domination would be people controlling other people, human/nature domination would be people controlling anything and everything.

Philosophy and the Non-Conceptual

Western philosophy has traditionally been harmonious with this general tendency to seek control. According to Adorno, philosophy intrinsically reaches beyond itself. It uses concepts in order to try to incorporate the non-conceptual into its conceptual structure. This is epitomized (as usual) in Hegel, where everything and its opposite are all accounted for within the grand dialectical structure that culminates in a single final point of total knowledge. However, philosophy as concepts incorporating the non-conceptual is a doomed enterprise. The non-conceptual can only be reached outside of conceptual thought. As soon as you conceptualize something, it ceases to be non-conceptual. Philosophy seeks to incorporate everything down to the last drop, and so it always reaches beyond what it has thus far assimilated. But there will always be aspects it cannot reach. There is always a remainder.

Hegel thinks he surmounted this, but he was messy and slipped up. To show this, Adorno references the early part in Hegel’s Science of Logic where he lays out the supposed equivalence of being and nothingness. Basically, Hegel’s argument is that pure being is indeterminate, i.e. it is not derived from some other force or logic. It is the pure starting point, and as such it can have nothing that determines it. But then Hegel claims that it possesses the quality of indeterminateness, which is nothingness. Hence being = nothingness. Here is where Adorno lays the smack down: Hegel makes a grammatical sleight of hand when he changes from “indeterminate” to “indeterminateness.” The latter is a general condition. It is conceptual. Hegel jumps the gun and just assumes he can frame pure being by means of a concept that describes it. This shows Hegel’s presumptiveness concerning the omniscience of conceptual thought. He does not justify it, he just does it. And it is out of this presumptuous starting place that the entire system of Hegel’s logic develops. Adorno further claims that this messiness is a general tendency throughout Hegel’s various dialectical maneuvers. He consistently shoves the non-conceptual under the rug, explained away as conceptual by referring to it in a conceptual way. He puts the horse inside the cart, sticks a fork in it, and washes, rinses and repeats ad infinitum!

Adorno is not fooled by such shenanigans.

You Know the Day Destroys the Night

Adorno says we are in this historic moment when the moment of practice has failed, and we need to return to theory, however philosophy is a set-up for failure. Trying to reach the non-conceptual using concepts, ha! We try to run. We try to hide. We need to face our current predicament. If we don’t, philosophy tends either to a) regress into formalism which it cannot defend, or b) collect a bunch of essentially random, arbitrary postulates that is cannot defend.

What we need is to break on through to the other side. Philosophy needs to be self-critical, reflecting conceptually on this endemic self-sabotage. The question is: will it work? Can self-reflecting conceptual thought break through the walls of conceptual thought?


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

Hegel, G. W. F. (1969[1831]). Science of logic. Humanities Press.

Jeremiah Morelock

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