Adorno – Negative Dialectics: “Compulsory Substantiveness”

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. 

Negative Dialectics

  • Part Two: Negative Dialectics. Concepts and Categories

    • 2. Compulsory Substantiveness

Adorno, destroyer of philosopher worlds though he may be, is a materialist. Any idea must reference at some point in some way, something substantive, some sort of object. Ideas do not occur independent of sensation. Ideas are predicated on sensation.

Kant acknowledged the central place of sensation in our conceptual cognition. For him consciousness consists in the mutually dependent interaction of conceptual thought and sensual experience. And yet Kant preserves this transcendental empty thought capacity thing, this “transcendental apperception” as he calls it, which underlies all experience, sensation of course included. Hegel was more of a belligerent idealist, but Kant ultimately placed the subject before the object too. Speaking of the subject, Kant’s notion of experience as contained by the mind implies the relegation of sensation to the individual. Adorno indicates that this model does not pay the ontic/material world its due. If Kant put substantive things before ideas in his philosophy, then his thing about “transcendental apperception” would fall to pieces. The floaty idea force cannot be so omniscient if the ontic does not stem from it, but instead precedes it.

And on another level, what’s the deal with this ‘duration’ = ‘importance’ thing? Come on, people! Just because something is temporary does not make it unworthy of concern. Sensations come and go, sure. But by what authority does that make them less real than allegedly “eternal ideas” which are without substance in of themselves? Seriously!

Philosophy needs substance. It needs stuff. It needs objects, material, the ontic. Philosophy makes no sense without reference to the material world, even if it is a seemingly distant relation. Let’s look at the stuff that we find within space and time, and put that as primary. The abstract categories of space and time, these larger-than-life forms can listen and learn.


Adorno, T. W. (1973). Negative dialectics. Continuum.

Kant, I. (1998 [1781]). Critique of pure reason. Cambridge University Press.

Jeremiah Morelock

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