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
5. Relation to Left-Wing Hegelianism
Adorno seems to have gotten some flack for his philosophy by people who claim that he is just a Hegelian boasting to be offering something new. Specifically, his whole “non-identity” thing is already accounted for within Hegel’s system. In this sense, speaking of a “negative dialectics” seems essentially redundant and superfluous. It also appears that this criticism is leveled at Adorno from a more ‘orthodox’ Marxist contingent with an anti-intellectual streak. One might assume this is something akin to making a worldview out of a surface reading of Marx’s 11th thesis on Feuerbach, culminating in a patent rejection of theory and embracing of practice. This is not hard to imagine – Adorno going on about Hegel and the importance of not resolving everything into unity, only to be met with the bored and impatient response of activists who tell him to drop it and join the revolution instead.
Adorno is not impressed. Practice needs theory in order to be effective. Without theory, practice is bound to fail. Theory can help us reflect upon the failings of past practice, and thereby improve practice in the future. Without this theoretical reflection, we are doomed to be stuck in whatever ineffective-practice-muck we are already in. Hey hey, ho ho, anti-intellectualism’s got to go!
Despite his disagreement with the ‘practice not theory’ position, Adorno indicates some sympathies. After all, academic philosophers incessantly claim that their ideas are New and hence worthy of specific attention, when by and large they are just born of the same cloth. And yet Adorno insists that origins do not totally determine the nature of things in the fullness of their qualities, trajectories and fates. Negative dialectics may be the close offspring of Hegel’s system, but that doesn’t make Adorno a Hegelian tout court.
Hegel and Marx both have their foibles. That doesn’t mean we have to trash everything they ever wrote. There’s a lot of good stuff in there! History has born out some challenges for the ideas of Hegel and Marx. We can use theory to reflect on those challenges, and to take Hegelian and Marxist ideas forward. It is not an all-or-nothing issue.
Adorno, T. W. (1973). Negative dialectics. Continuum.
Adorno, T. W. (2014). Lectures on negative dialectics: fragments of a lecture course 1965/1966. John Wiley & Sons.
Marx, K. (2005) “Theses on Feuerbach.” Marxists.org.
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