Adorno – Lecture 9 on Negative Dialectics: “The Element of Speculation” (12/7/1965)

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.

Despite Adorno’s materialism and his insistence on objects always being larger than their concepts, he also maintains that concepts and larger than their objects (see lecture 1). In other words, concepts cannot capture all that is contained in the object; and yet concepts cannot be completely filled by their objects either. There’s a kind of remainder in both cases.

The excess of the concept beyond its object can easily be understood as its zone of error. But it is also the part of the concept that extends beyond the bare reporting of facts. “Truth” should not be understood as contained entirely within the bare reality of empirical facts. Come on, we’re talking about the Frankfurt School here! This zone that goes beyond the object is not necessarily in error just because it goes beyond the object. It risks error, but it is also the zone of intellectual creativity that moves human understanding forward.

Speculation takes place here. And speculation is a crucial part of any decent philosophy, according to Adorno. The classic distinction between appearance and essence is a case in point. “Essence” is beyond immediate appearance. And essence, in the Hegelian sense of investigating the internal contradictions of a thing that are the forces behind its appearance, is a central element – if not the central element – of “immanent critique”, the signature methodology of the Frankfurt School. Adorno likes essence. Adorno likes speculation. Adorno may ‘put the object first’ but he does not end there. Make no mistake! Definitions are not the enemy. It is fixed definitions that are to be avoided. Conceptual thought is important; it just needs to be flexible and open is all.

Play, Art and Mimesis

Don’t be such a sourpuss about philosophy, Buzzkill McGee! Sure you should be serious about what you do, but you should also be playful! Philosophical thinking needs both elements. Be disciplined, but also dance around outside of your discipline. Get down with your non-conceptual self!

And do the mimesis thing more. Wait, what???

I am not sure how good these examples are, but…Do as Simon says. Pretend you are Batman. Really get into it, e.g. method acting. Be the ball. Watch the movie in 3D and care what happens. In other words, don’t just dance; let yourself identify with something other than yourself.

This identification with an Other is “mimesis” in Adorno’s lexicon. So not just mimesis as in mimicry, although I think that’s an honored option. The really key thing is getting the experience of identification with an Other. And in this sense, dancer may involve mimesis, depending on how “into it” and spontaneous you are.

Philosophy needs to use this element, and to use it wisely. It needs less identification of, more identification with. It needs to allow space for this aesthetic consciousness, and use it as part of generating insights about reality. No arbitrary claims according to whims though. No everyone-is-right mentality. Intuitions need to be evaluated. How to evaluate? Well, how do you assess the quality of a work of art? What is it trying to do? Does it do a good job? Is it relevant? Does it resonate? Does it “stand up” like Shakespeare’s Hamlet? Or does it fall on its face like Ernest Scared Stupid?


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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