Adorno – Negative Dialectics: “Cogitative Self-Reflection”

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

    • 8. Cogitative Self-Reflection

Sooner or later, philosophers discover that philosophy itself is problematic.

In true Hegelian style Adorno speaks about this development as if he were outside it, while also embodying what he describes in the structure of his thought. He is observer and observed in the same moment. In acting out the philosophy he describes, he is also Hegelian in projecting a sense of inevitability on the development he articulates. But whereas Hegel sees the final historical triumph of reason in the creation of a final, total philosophical system; Adorno sees a historically specific failure of reason, along with its self-subversion (i.e. reason’s generation of reason’s negation).

Imagine Enlightenment thought as a version of Pac Man. He gobbles up everything it can find – ghosts, pellets, etc. – until nothing is even left of the game but Pan Man himself. He has eaten everything, and so now contains everything in the game (in his Pac stomach). This might seem like Pac Man has attained his fullest actualization, than Pac Man has become universal and completed his mission for all eternity; that everything for him was leading to this one perfect crowning moment. Unfortunately for Pac Man this is not the case. It was never just about the ghosts, or just about the pellets. For Pac Man, eating everything is his modus operandi. He cannot exist without eating. He must move onward, and the only way to do this is to eat the only thing remaining: himself.

Consider this dialectic of Pac Man’s consumption: he seeks out these objects – these ghosts and pellets – wanting to absorb them into himself. He wants to conquer and contain them. However, in this act of consumption, his claim of them is also his annihilation of them. This does not really pose a problem for Pac Man, so long as his purpose is the devour and remove from play these various consumable elements. However, this devouring desire reaches a problematic apex indeed when Pac Man the subject finally looks upon himself as object – as mouth and as food. He can only devour himself. He must devour himself.

Like Pac Man, Enlightenment thought seeks to conquer and control objects by subsuming them into concepts and systems. In so doing, it destroys its objects as it conquers them. It destroys them because it is inherently both limited and solipsistic. The concept can never ‘truly’ contain its object, and so the concept always observes its own reflection as applied to the object, rather than the object in a complete form. Concepts, always pointing to the universal, necessarily overlook the particularity of the object within the act of naming the object as within the universal. In its attempt to overcome itself and connect to the object, reason actually reinforces its alienation from the object.

If self-consciousness signals a kind of milestone in development, the advanced, self-conscious philosophies of people like Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger, which attempt to descend to the depths of ‘pure’ reason or Being, only end up that much further away from the empirical and social world in which philosophy actually garners its relevance. Magisterial labyrinths of concepts attempt to reach a Final foundation (or at least a Final and conclusive emptiness) and to somehow relate everything else to it. But these webs of prose, while brilliant, involve the subject in a painstaking hyper-analysis of  relations of concepts. And in so doing, they remove the subject even further from the object buried underneath the awesome stack of tangles and structures.

But this Enlightenment reason is destructive in another sense too. It disenchants. It penetrates, evaluates, pulls apart, sifts, catalogs, and discards. Eventually, this force must become self-reflective and in doing so, apply this sort of violence of rationality to itself. The Enlightenment rips itself open and tears itself down. The Enlightenment sees through the illusion of its own promises. The concept is revealed as limited and alienating, the object as unobtainable through reason. In doing so, philosophy discovers non-identity, and in a sense transitions into it from the focus on identity and the search for it. The disunity between concept and object is highlighted, rather than a unity between the two alleged.

The Utopian Element

At this point Adorno calls attention to a “utopian element” intrinsic in the whole identity vs. nonidentity drama. Things get a little bit weird here, if they were not weird already.

My guess is that Adorno’s discussion of utopia in relation to philosophy, is actually intended to point to the social and empirical.

I will briefly frame this claim a some more:

In Adorno’s philosophy, the theoretical and the social and empirical essentially shift together, taking on consonant shapes that are mutually reflective. Adorno’s Marxist base (pun intended) would suggest that he holds the social-empirical to be primary, the theoretical-cultural acting as its representative and expression. The project of immanent critique might also point to this position. However, Adorno posits no such deterministic claims. It is possible, and arguably legitimate, to read this into his thought, but personally I prefer to err on the side of his descriptive characterization of the mirroring development of the two spheres, the social and the theoretical. 

That said, at many moments in his writing, Adorno appears to be more concerned with either the theoretical and culture or the social and empirical. In this case, his discussion of “utopia” is ostensibly focused on theory and the relation of concepts; but I cannot see why he would point to this if it were not for its reflection of the social. This is important to note because it is difficult to make sense of his discussion of the “utopian element” without this implicit reference as the source of its main import. Accordingly, in the following interpretation, I make the reference explicit despite the fact that here Adorno left it unsaid.

Essentially, Western philosophy, going back even to ancient Greece, contains this preoccupation with the concept owning the object. It is a search for finality, for unifying alienated parts. Less a legitimate description of a unity that has been achieved, it is a call for a unity in the future. It is a reaching out from what is toward what could be; out from an alienated and contradictory what-is to a unified and reconciled what-could-be. From actuality to potentiality. And it is not only a longing, it is also a faith that this utopia in thought is possible. Consider this element in philosophy as a reflection of an element in the social and empirical world. We live in a society of social alienation and social antagonisms, and we push onward toward a perfect society where alienation and antagonisms are overcome. Humanity is constitutionally driven toward achieving a perfect society. Just as philosophy cannot purge itself of its utopian element, so humanity is similarly committed in a political sense.


Adorno’s concern with the political is closer to explicit as he shifts the discussion from pure reason to the concept of freedom. Calling a person “free” involves pointing beyond the person to a universal concept: “freedom.” In pointing beyond the individual, we miss the individual. The freedom of the individual is not contained in the universal concept of freedom.

This is not to say that the concept of freedom is meaningless. Adorno insists that the concept of freedom needs to be honored in its own freedom. Attempts to delineate, define, and circumscribe it do not do it justice. They do not present it in its fullness. They stunt it. “The individual is both more and less than his general definition” (151).


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

Jeremiah Morelock

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