Theodor W. Adorno


Universal History

The concept of universal history, a concept whose validity inspired Hegelian philosophy in similar fashion as that of the mathematical natural sciences had inspired the Kantian one, became the more problematical the closer the unified world came to being a total process. On the one hand, a positivistically advancing historical science has splintered the conception of totality and unbroken continuity. The advantage which constructive philosophy enjoyed over that science was the dubious one of knowing less detail, an advantage easy enough to enter as “sovereign distance” on the credit side of the ledger; at the same time, of course, there was less fear of saying essential things, the things that are outlined at a distance only. On the other hand, advanced philosophy was bound to note the understanding between universal history and ideology, and the discontinuous character of blighted life.

Hegel himself had conceived universal history as unified merely on account of its contradictions. The materialistic turnabout in dialectics cast the weightiest accent on insight into the discontinuity of what is not comfortingly held together by any unity of spirit and concept. Yet discontinuity and universal history must be conceived together. To strike out the latter as a relic of metaphysical superstition would spiritually consolidate pure facticity as the only thing to be known and therefore to be accepted; it would do this exactly in the manner in which sovereignty, aligning facts in the order of the total march of One Spirit, used to confirm them as the utterances of that spirit.

Universal history must be construed and denied. After the catastrophes that have happened, and in view of the catastrophes to come, it would be cynical to say that a plan for a better world is manifested in history and unites it. Not to be denied for that reason, however, is the unity that cements the discontinuous, chaotically splintered moments and phases of history—the unity of the control of nature, progressing to rule over men, and finally to that over men’s inner nature. No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb. It ends in the total menace which organized mankind poses to organized men, in the epitome of discontinuity. It is the horror that verifies Hegel and stands him on his head. If he transfigured the totality of historic suffering into the positivity of the self-realizing absolute, the One and All that keeps rolling on to this day—with occasional breathing spells—would teleologically be the absolute of suffering.

History is the unity of continuity and discontinuity. Society stays alive, not despite its antagonism, but by means of it; the profit interest and thus the class relationship make up the objective motor of the production process which the life of all men hangs by, and the primacy of which has its vanishing point in the death of all. This also implies the reconciling side of the irreconcilable; since nothing else permits men to live, not even a changed life would be possible without it. What historically made this possibility may as well destroy it. The world spirit, a worthy object of definition, would have to be defined as permanent catastrophe. Under the all-subjugating identity principle, whatever does not enter into identity, whatever eludes rational planning in the realm of means, turns into frightening retribution for the calamity which identity brought on the nonidentical. There is hardly another way to interpret history philosophically without enchanting it into an idea.

SOURCE: Adorno, Theodor W. Negative Dialectics, translated by E.B. Ashton (New York: The Seabury Press, 1973), pp. 319-320. From Part 3: II: World-spirit and Natural History: An Excursion to Hegel.


The concept of universal history, whose validity inspired the Hegelian philosophy very much as the mathematical natural sciences did likewise for the Kantian one, became all the more problematic, the more the unified world approaches a total process. For one thing, positivistically progressing historical science disassembled the conception of the total and unbroken continuity. The philosophical construction had the dubious advantage over it of a less detailed knowledge, which it easily enough entered into the ledger as a sovereign distance for itself; to be sure also less fear, of saying what is essential, which is outlined only from a distance. On the other hand advanced philosophy had to be aware of the understanding between universal history and ideology and the despoiled life as discontinuous.

Hegel himself had conceived of universal history as unitary [einheitlich] merely by virtue of its contradictions. The materialistic reversal of dialectics put the heaviest accent on the insight into the discontinuity of what is not consolingly held together by any unity of the Mind and concept. Discontinuity and universal history however are to be thought together. To cancel out this latter as a remainder of metaphysical superstition, would intellectually consolidate mere facticity as the only thing to be cognized and therefore accepted, in the same fashion that sovereignty once marshaled the facts into the total forwards march of the One Mind, confirming them as its utterances.

Universal history is to be construed and denied. The assertion that an all-encompassing world-plan for the better manifests itself in history would be, after the catastrophes and in view of those yet to come, cynical. This however is not a reason to deny the unity which welds together the discontinuous, chaotically fragmented moments and phases of history, that of the domination of nature, progressing into domination over human beings and ultimately over internalized nature. No universal history leads from savagery to humanity, but one indeed from the slingshot to the H-bomb. It culminates in the total threat of organized humanity against organized human beings, in the epitome of discontinuity. Hegel is thereby verified by the horror and stood on his head. If he transfigured the totality of historical suffering into positivity of the self-realizing absolute, then the One and the whole, which to this day, with breathing-spells, keeps rolling on, would teleologically be absolute suffering.

History is the unity of continuity and discontinuity. Society stays alive not in spite of its antagonism but by means of it; the profit-motive, and thereby the class relationship, objectively comprise the motor of the process of production on which everyone's life depends and whose primacy has its vanishing-point in the death of all. This implies also what is reconciling in the irreconcilable; because it alone allows human beings to live, without it there would not even be the possibility of a different life. What historically created that possibility, can destroy it just as easily. The world-spirit, a worthy object of definition, could be defined as permanent catastrophe. Under the identity principle which yokes everyone, what does not pass over into identity and which escapes from the grasp of planned rationality in the realm of the means, turns into that which provokes fear, retribution for that woe, which the non-identical experiences through identity. History could scarcely be philosophically interpreted otherwise, without enchanting it into an idea.


SOURCE: Adorno, Theodor W. Negative Dialectics, translated by Dennis Redmond, 2001. Footnote 5 omitted; boldface added on this web page.


Adorno on ‘Negative’ Universal History

On Theodor W. Adorno's Negative Dialectics: Outline, Quotes, Notes

Theodor W. Adorno & Critical Theory Study Guide

The Frankfurt School: Philosophy in Relation to Social Theory, Cultural Theory, Science, and Interdisciplinary Research.
Phase 1: Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse in the 1930s.
Study Group Syllabus


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