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.
Part Two: Negative Dialectics. Concepts and Categories
1. The Indissoluble “Something”
In Hegel, the ultimate truth of things, deep down, is an all-embracing consciousness, aware of itself as pure self-awareness. At the heart of reality, as well as its pinnacle and final frame, is this whatchamacallit: “being in and for itself”. There are no contents at this level of being, only form (albeit a form allegedly containing all contents). It is pure subject, no predicate; or at least, the predicate or object is contained in the subject. It is the viewer, empty other than the act of viewing, which of course by extension is empty (although also allegedly completely full).
In Heidegger, at the bottom of reality, before all of our concepts, impulses, understandings, etc. there is “Being.” Heidegger’s Being also contains no contents. It takes on the shape of an infinite logical regress. For there to be Being, there must be the layer of Being that contains this Being. There must be a potentiality or quality or condition of Beingness below Being, allowing Being to exist as an “it”, formless though this particular “it” – Being – is. And yet, any potentiality/quality/condition including “Beingness” is predicated on a further potentiality/quality/condition; in this case let’s call it “Beingnessness”. So the Being of Being is Beingness and the Being of Beingness is Beingnessness, ad infinitum. “Being” is an infinite regress into itself. It is a motion back behind itself. At least, I think that is what Heidegger was getting at, albeit in slightly different words??
Adorno Is Not Having It
Adorno thinks this Hegel/Heidegger empty Being stuff is all bunk. If there is some kind of final ground of reality, it is “something”. There are entities. Being does not equal nothingness. It is not an infinite regress or an embracing self-awareness, or any obscure notion of grand emptiness. We live in a world of stuff. If we erase all of the add-ons, we will come down to a “something”. Maybe we can’t say anything about it other than that, but it is something, not nothing. And there is not some sort of transcendental, absolute, logically complete version of this “something” either. That would be some kind of weird story we told ourselves about it. Something is not something to root a philosophy in, to extend axioms from and claim to encapsulate the nature of things. It is just…”something”. Leave it at that. And move on.
The history of philosophy has brought it to a place of necessary self-critique. Basic philosophy has put the concept first. Conceptual thought is treated as the house of knowledge in philosophy. Structures of concepts are built, or concepts are scattered haphazardly or according to our desires. Either way, it is concepts all the way down. But this is a flawed project. Finally, philosophy has come to recognize this, and has fallen into knowing aporia. Philosophy is floundering and needs to really look itself in the face – and by that I mean look itself in the concept – in order to have any hope of moving forward fruitfully. Adorno is happy (or maybe “melancholy”) to oblige. And his offering is negative dialectics.
In Adorno’s negative dialectics, the concept will critique itself. And there will be no ontology, no theory of Being or being in and for itself, etc. There will be no starting point, no proclamation of the root of reality. There will also be no anti-ontology. There will be no fixed proclamation of the absence of “being” or of the absence of the nature of “being”. That would be to make grandiose claims, and to put barriers up to the movement of thought. Adorno does not want to do that. Adorno does not want a total philosophy, even a total negative philosophy. Adorno wants to give entities their due, and to let philosophy be flexible and open.
Adorno, T. W. (1973). Negative dialectics. Continuum.
Hegel, G. W. F. (1977). Phenomenology of spirit. Oxford University Press.
Heidegger, M. (1992). History of the concept of time: Prolegomena. Indiana University Press.
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