Adorno’s Negative Dialectic

by Howard Williams

I have attempted in this book to outline positively the main features of Hegel's and Marx's dialectical method. This runs counter to the thesis of Theodor Adorno in his celebrated Negative Dialectics who argues that a genuinely dialectical method cannot be spelled out in a straightforward narrative form. To establish the identity of the dialectical method through such a narrative would, in his view, render the method impotent. What, at best, can be done to present the method is to identify some of the underlying concepts which are important in its use and then to advance a number of models in which these concepts are employed. According to Adorno, dialecticians may legitimately aspire to teach by example, but in trying to do more they risk the method being turned into a dogma. Above all, Adorno believes those who employ dialectic should attempt to avoid the platitudes and simplifications of the Marxism of the Stalinist era.

The key principle of dialectical thinking for Adorno is the principle of non-identity. By this principle Adorno means ‘that objects do not go into their concepts without leaving a remainder.’ [1] With this principle Adorno appears to be attacking both the philosophical basis of Hegel's dialectic and the dogmas of dialectical materialism. Common to both these approaches appears to be the assumption that in dialectic we have an exhaustive explanation of human experience. The dogmatist assumes that dialectic sums up all that can be rationally said of the world. Adorno takes such an approach to be antagonistic to a truly dialectical mode of procedure since for him the main impetus behind such a procedure is the recognition that our thinking can never fully encapsulate its object. It is the inherent incompleteness of our intellectual attempts to capture the essence of our experience which provides the continual stimulus for dialectical enquiry.

Insisting on this principle of non‑identity is not, however, a straightforward task since ‘the appearance of identity is inherent in thought itself.’ ‘To think is,’ as Adorno says, ‘to identify’. [2] The way out of this dilemma for those who want to think and write dialectically is to refrain from fully establishing the identity of objects. To attempt to encapsulate in full the nature of an object is, for Adorno, to undermine the dialectical process of thought. In place of such a positive philosophy of identification Adorno proposes negative dialectics. Negative dialectics he sees as a metaphilosophy which is parasitic on ordinary, non‑dialectical thought. The metaphilosophy points out the contradictions of ordinary thinking and hints at more enlightening ways of conceptualizing our experience.

But persuasive as Adorno’s criticisms of idealism and dialectical materialism are, his metaphilosophy in which he refuses to identify dialectic with anything in particular leaves us with nothing solid to grasp. Apparently, the conclusion we can draw from this is that without Adorno’s own complex, aphoristic speculation there cannot, it seems, be a negative dialectic. When we set to one side Adorno’s ornate style what is most striking about his critique of identity thinking is the sense of scepticism and aloofness which it imparts. Withdrawal from the world appears to be Adorno's answer to the dilemmas of modern life. He takes too far his thesis of non‑identity when he refuses to be clear about what he is doing. If dialectic is a riddle then it cannot be recommended to anyone as a form of thought. Adorno harks back to the suggestive, enigmatic dialectic of Heraclitus rather than moving forward to the more systematic dialectic of Hegel and Marx. I think it is worth the effort to go beyond Adorno. To show that there is something solid to grasp I have outlined and criticized Hegel’s metaphilosophy of dialectic and tried to derive from various examples of Marx’s analysis of capitalist society an account of his dialectical method. But I have not entirely rejected Adorno’s conclusions. I agree with Adorno and Sartre’s view (expressed in the Critique of Dialectical Reason) that existence is primary and that our way of comprehending the world should not be identified with the world. [3] As Adorno puts it, concepts do not fully contain their objects. I accept also Adorno's view that dialectic is a form of metaphilosophy which is parasitic upon ordinary thought. The best starting point for our attempts to comprehend the world is the given of ordinary experience and thought. Existence though has its own peculiar form. We cannot start simply with objects, sensations or theories since what is first given to us is given to us also in our language and its received ideas. Our existence is usually already structured by thought. But this ordinary thought operates with categories and concepts which are not brought into a fully systematic relation with each other. What the analyst attempts to do with the dialectical method is to bring these categories and concepts into a coherent form.

If dialectic is a metaphilosophy it appears to follow that it cannot be something which is inherent in things. By definition it would appear that a metaphilosophy is not directly of the world. Things (i.e., external objects in the world) provide an impetus to this metaphilosophy but they never wholly provide its substance. In attempting to comprehend the world with the help of this metaphilosophy we come to know it only as the knowledge of ‘things’ as they affect the human senses and mind and as they are, in turn, shaped by human activity and purposes. (To speak of a knowledge of things not brought to our attention in this way is, I feel, to speak of a non-imaginable world). In Marx's dialectical method this subjective element pertaining to all knowledge is taken into account, but he appears to regard it not as indicating the limited nature of human knowledge but as testifying to its possible authenticity. Our knowledge of the world is always that of practically active human beings. But this is a knowledge of something which when initially encountered always lies beyond the wit and intelligence of the individual human being. Our thought is inevitably incommensurate with the reality it seeks to take in. We form our knowledge from our experience of things, not from those things in themselves. In recognizing that dialectic operates only at a metaphilosophical level we take it for granted that things may have an unpredictable logic of their own. Dialectical method does not provide a privileged intuition into the nature of the world. On the contrary, the dialectic method when employed most usefully affords an understanding of the world which captures its essence only at one particular historical juncture. The dialectical method feeds off what we experience of the world, it does not control that experience.

In this respect I agree with Adorno. However, his Negative Dialectics tries to avoid, rather than deal with, a difficulty which besets any attempt to outline the dialectical method. This difficulty is summed up in Spinoza’s famous dictum ‘all determination is negation’. Interestingly, this phrase is referred to in Volume 1 of Marx's Capital where he criticizes the vulgar economists who try to explain profit as a return for the abstinence of the capitalist. [4] These vulgar economists fail to see that any activity can from one point of view be regarded as abstinence whilst from another being seen as enjoyment. The abstinence of the capitalist in not deciding to spend his income is no doubt compensated for by the enjoyment received through maintaining and expanding the business through further investment. Doing anything has both a positive and negative significance. The risk that Adorno thinks is run by spelling out the dialectical method is similar in that it may, he fears, by exposing both its strengths and weaknesses, appear simply to be one philosophical method just like any other. In this respect Adorno appears to share Hegel’s view that dialectic represents the only appropriate method of enquiry. But to try to shield dialectical method from critical examination in refusing to stipulate what it is, does nothing to advance the claim that the method may often be the most appropriate one. The truth of Hegel’s claim about dialectic has to be tested by an examination not only of examples of the method’s use in practice but also through an analysis of the bare bones of the method itself. When this is done it becomes apparent, as Marx recognizes, that the dialectical method is not the one solely satisfactory method of enquiry in science or the humanities. Knowledge can be gained in a vast variety of ways: through observation, classification, experiment, play, repetition, and making mistakes; procedures which owe nothing to the dialectical method. Where the dialectical method does offer a unique contribution to our gaining understanding is possibly in the systematic presentation of the results of an enquiry. Its suggested rules, such as the unity of opposites, the true is the whole and difference within identity, provide us with the means with which to make sense of the most complex and confusing information given to us by our experience and understanding.


1.  Adorno, Negative Dialectics, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1972, p. 5; Negative Dialektik, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, p. 15.

2.  Ibid.

3.  ‘Marx's originality lies in the fact that, in opposition to Hegel, he demonstrates that history is in development, that being is irreducible to knowledge.’ J.-P. Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason, New Left Books, London, p. 23.

4.  Capital, p. 597; Das Kapital, p. 623.

SOURCE: Williams, Howard. Hegel, Heraclitus, and Marx’s Dialectic (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989), Chapter 9, Conclusion, pp. 220-223, 241 (extract).

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