Adorno: Negation as Theory and Method


By Christian Garland



“Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will one day appear in the messianic light”

Theodor Adorno (Minima Moralia)

“Dialectical theory (…) cannot offer the remedy. It cannot be positive. To be sure, the dialectical concept, in comprehending the given facts, transcends the given facts. This is the very token of its truth. It defines the historical possibilities, even necessities; but their realization can only be in the practise which responds to the theory”

Herbert Marcuse (One-Demensional Man)

“Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it”
Marx (Theses on Feuerbach)


Across the entire breadth of his work, Adorno does not at any point seek to reconcile philosophy with reality, or conversely, to explain reality by recourse to any form of ‘idealism’; instead, as arguably the most important ‘founder’ of Critical Theory, he attempts the reconstruction of Marx’s original project, which aimed at a dialectical supersession (aufheben) of these categories; minus it must be said, however Marx’s ‘positive’ belief that dialectical thought could comprise a system, in which truth was hypostatised into the supposedly provable ‘scientific’ theory of dialectical materialism. The aims of Adono’s Critical Theory as a method are closely tied to its broader political context, and the two cannot for obvious reasons, be readily separated. However, this essay should not be seen as an attempt at uncritically defending Adorno’s version of Critical Theory, since it goes without saying that any such effort is ultimately a misreading of the theoretical positions it would purportedly maintain, and a gift to those it would oppose. Neither is it our aim to present an overview of Adorno’s thought or that of Critical Theory-something that would require considerably larger scope than this essay; instead, we will aim to analyse Adorno’s negative dialectical method, as a basis for Critical Theory.


In the intervening decade since the demise of the USSR and the accompanying death of the ideology that supported it, all theoretical questions have apparently been answered, by no less than history itself in the wisdom of most observers. It is however, a dangerous tactic to employ a historical perspective whilst removing history from the field of vision. In engaging with Adorno, the historicity of his thought should not be overstated as a fatalistic belief in historical inevitability: the same goes for Marx himself. As Adorno was well aware “after all that has meanwhile been perpetrated with their help, the large historical categories are no longer above suspicion of fraud”(Jarvis, 1988), the twentieth century is in every sense here, history’s greatest proof of itself. There can be no question for Adorno, of attempting to separate the descriptive is from the normative ought, since to do so is to renounce the very purpose for genuine criticality.

Just as the emergence of Critical Theory paralleled the historical crisis of twentieth century ‘reason’, Horkheimer and Adorno attempted to retrieve the essential elements of truth contained in the Enlightenment project whilst subjecting them to an interrogative critique. The ‘essence of the ‘Concept of Enlightenment’ is contained in Horkheimer and Adorno’s statement that “In the most general sense progressive thought (reason) has always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty" (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1979). It was the aim of Enlightenment thought to remove the fetters on human reason for the purpose of removing them from human existence, and it is this effort, which underpins much of the foundational basis (substruktion) of the Frankfurt School project. Far from merely preserving as ossified monuments, the faded concepts of the past, the original project of Critical Theory was to update and refine these theoretical motifs, allying them to an ongoing reflexive analysis.

The past century, it has been contended, would have apparently refuted the notion of Enlightenment reason as truth. However instead of merely connoting this with the inexplicable tragedy of being, by adopting a shallow pseudo-Nietzschean nihilism, Critical Theory by contrast, refuses any such abandonment of the world to itself. From this perspective it can be viewed dialectically: both as negation at the level of thought, of the existing social order, and as an historical resolve to maintain the affirmation of humanity against all odds. It is the ‘Great Refusal’ that Marcuse would in turn define by revolutionary praxis, and which finds in Adorno the same polarising radicality by which every substantive question is afforded political meaning. Such a perspective is aimed at analysing the oppressive features of the epoch by uncovering the human possibilities, actual and potential contained within it. Adorno’s philosophy however, unceasingly refuses the unifying Hegelian totality it criticises, whether as theoretical model or future society. If we accept in some sense Hegel’s definition of reason as ‘truth contemplating itself in thought’ it is apparent for Adorno that such truth can only emerge in the negation of its false reconciling unity, we are left otherwise, with a concept that all too easily may be invoked as the means of serving its opposite:

“All attempts to get beyond idealism-claims of the type that thought constitutes, shapes,
or is identical with its objects-appear to run opposite risk of claiming access to
immediacy, to a transcendence which is just ‘given’. In such invocations as Hegel
himself forcefully pointed out, we are effectively invited to ‘have faith’ in some datum
or framework. Our knowledge of such ‘givens’ is mistakenly thought of as being purely
passive, and inquiry must simply halt before them (…). When thinking comes to a halt
with an abstract appeal to history or society, or socio-historical specificity, or any other
form of givenness, it might as well stop with God”(Jarvis, 1988).

For Adorno, reason is not simply the theoretical catchall, beyond which the scope of critical enquiry must end but the self-defining standard by which it must itself be judged. By refusing the imposed limits ‘the given’ as finality, dialectical thought finds its application in Adorno as a critical method-and not as a positive system. In any attempt to critically comprehend the world however, the claims of theory to fully reveal itself as truth without the constant awareness of its own limitations, are bound to fall back into the same one-dimensionality, they would criticise. By taking “the whole as the false” Adorno’s negative dialectical method aims to free itself from any closed totality including its own containment as ideology: the opposite from the most vulgarly mistaken charge against Critical Theory that it is ‘totalitarian’ in its implications.

Adorno defines philosophical idealism as any “philosophy which tries to base such notions as reality or truth on analysis of consciousness”, and which consequently would assume a free-floating analytic detachment from their subject. Against the metaphysical abstraction of traditional philosophical inquiry, is posited the notion of ‘immanent critique’ aimed at incising the protective defences such positions retreat behind. It should also be clarified that a statement such as this explicitly reveals the ‘political implications’ it holds: no less than the transformation of the world toward something better, the defining feature of Adorno’s thought, and indeed that of Critical Theory. It is the emancipatory quality of the negative that continues the project of Marx, and which stands diametrically opposed to the ‘Orthodox’ tradition that would claim to monopolise that task as its own historical privilege. Adorno’s theory situates itself as being at odds with reality, whilst openly acknowledging the normative criterion on which such a position is based: that is the desire to change the world as it is into what it might yet be: between ‘ought’ and ‘is’ thought must interpose itself as critique.

The method of auto-critique used by Adorno can be seen as the exact opposite of that unchanging dogma of invulnerability, assuming a chiliastic faith that characterises the entire current of thought known as ‘Orthodox Marxism’. This finds its most forceful expression in Lenin’s unshakable belief that Marxism and the materialist method comprised the pure science capable of uncovering the truths of history, and to which all other critical accounts were inferior. Marx’s own comment that he was definitely “not a Marxist” assumes here a prophetic sound. Since the original Frankfurt School project aimed at avoiding the fate of theoretical caricature that would go under the name of Marxism-Leninism-and by definition this means all variants of Orthodox Marxism-it made a special effort to re-examine the ontological depths of Marx’s thought. This may be understood as the attempt at investigating that dimension of his work (most obviously, but not exclusively the ‘early writings’), which has a recognisably philosophical texture. In the 1844 Paris Manuscripts Marx gives his most important account of alienation and subjectivity, whilst making it clear as in other ‘early writings’ that such categories are not employed in their ‘idealist’ sense, but as theoretical means of ‘illuminating’ reality, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin.

If theory must endeavour to uncover truth, then it can only do so by resolution to ‘a ruthless critique of everything existing’, as long as this is deliberately ignored by means of a resort to repetition of the same presumptive tautology it can only continue to fail. In his ironic inversion of Hegel’s maxim ‘Das Wahre ist das Ganze’-‘the Whole is the True’, into its opposite, we are left with possibly Adorno’s most succinct expression of his philosophy: the whole comprehended as totality is false as long as it claims to be as such: since there can be no closed totality, this must be avoided in turn by the recurrence of dialectical negativity. In this sense we find a definition of ‘freedom’ as thought-if nothing else-estranged by its absence from the present. A further explanation is given by Lukacs, although it goes without saying that his ultimate theoretical conclusions were not shared by Adorno:

“The contemplative stance adopted towards a process mechanically conforming
to fixed laws and enacted independently of man’s consciousness and impervious
to human intervention, i.e. a perfectly closed system must likewise transform
the basic categories of man’s immediate attitude to the world: it reduces space
and time to a common denominator and degrades time to the dimension of space”(Georg Lukacs, HCC available at

‘Time degraded to the dimension of space’ is Lukacs’s evocation of life determined according to the dead time of capital, but also serves as a striking description of the theoretical problematic of both Hegelian and Materialist methods in resisting a spurious mythology of immediacy, and which Adorno more than anyone else was determined, above all else to resist. As would be later noted: “If ontology exists it will define the ‘false condition’ in which freedom has no place”: the continual difficulty to articulate and re-define this relation must be recognised by any subsequent attempt to continue such an undertaking. The reality of reification tends toward defining even the attempt to overcome it, according to Adorno, since consciousness is necessarily formed by the experience of such a reality. Whilst refusing any over-simplified account of the relation between thought and reality, Adorno gives an explanation of the ‘non-identical’ as being the method by which thought can truthfully comprehend itself. Throughout Dialectic of Enlightenment Horkheimer and Adorno set out to undermine every form of reconciliation with the existing social order by means of dialectical negativity; similarly, in his other writings, Adorno defines Critical Theory’s refusal of any accommodation to the present as both its own work and that of a recurrent moment interrupting the continuum of history.

Adorno rejects any first principle that might assume the status of absolute certainty, including of course the ‘unknowable’ realm inhabited by analytic philosophy. Just as the false certainty of any theory is bound by a refusal to admit a normative standpoint, theoretical efforts which situate themselves in opposition, must avoid their own retrogression into ideology, by ascribing a sense of infallibility to their concepts. ‘Marxism’ is itself the most immediately appropriate example: conflating critical reason with belief in its own scientific truth, the sum of which led toward its complete reversal. The development of Marxism into a closed totality of thought-present to some extent, it must be said in some of Marx’s own formulations-can be seen as the prefiguration of the social order that under this title assumed the same character whilst all the time claiming to be the embodiment of something entirely different.

Adorno’s Critical Theory refuses to limit its scope to traditional positivistic empiricism with the same determination it rejects the framework of traditional epistemology. Once again, this should be clarified: it is not a straightforward ‘rejection’ as such of either method, but an attempt at offsetting the insufficiencies inherent in both. The philosophical character of Adorno is counterposed by his insistence that all ontology must exist in a social and historical (and by qualification, political) context. Just as his social theory demands that all ‘verifiable’ social facts cannot lose sight of the implicit meta-critique their findings suggest. Adorno’s Critical Theory gives way here, in a further sense, to the openly hostile relation it has toward the traditional academic ‘division of knowledge’ bound as this is by accepted disciplinary conventions, not to mention its highly dubious claims to ‘impartiality’. Analogous to his critique of philosophy in its accepted form, as offering merely an uncommitted description of the world, circumscribed by the language, truth and logic of the present; Adorno is equally critical of the classical sociological inheritance seeing in the continuing emphasis on quantifying the social world by means of apparently ‘provable’ empirical data, a refusal to critically engage at the level of theory; similar to the claims of Marxism become ‘Diamat’ ideology, sociology seems too often to share a belief in the purity of ‘value-free’ social science.

Adorno, perhaps more than any other ‘founder’ of Critical Theory remains most closely associated with the original aims of that project. At every turn he aims to uncover the meanings lurking in the most apparently harmless sources, just as he maintained that only a theory capable of recognising its own practical shortcomings could retain any claim to truth. For Adorno, even among Critical Theorists, there is more at stake in style than the mere nuance of an author’s voice; ‘concepts’ as they exist-that is, without critical engagement- serve to functionally mask reality, diffusing the potential for its critical understanding. In attempting to communicate the concept, the theorist must convey their ‘subjective’ perspective in the quality of the text: there is not, Adorno maintains, the possibility for honestly conveying it by other means. In bold contrast with both analytic philosophy, and empirical sociology (as for political science), and the impassive dead-end of Postmodernism, Adorno emphasises the importance of a negative style, seeing in the inflections and contours of language itself, the same struggle to articulate meaning and substance theoretical concepts themselves must display. The stultifying onus on purely ‘scientific’ language employed so often within traditional disciplines can be seen in their stylistic poverty, most obviously visible in the specialised singularity of the concepts they use, overlaid by the repetition of formalised procedural structures that otherwise require a minimum of original thought. In contrast Postmodern theory claims an undue radicalism by dint of its unending proclamation that there is nothing radical left to say.

In keeping with the original interdisciplinary formulations of Critical Theory, Adorno’s thought maintains an open-ended dynamic -a position that is understandably greeted with some hostility by critics. This is due in part to what is perceived as a weakness or evasion by those who argue that by refusing accepted categories of academic discourse, it cannot be judged by them, and would it seems, apparently escape criticism altogether. Rather than uncovering the ‘ideological’ nature of Critical Theory, this accusation reveals its own complicity towards the world as it exists. For Adorno, the criticism of philosophy from the perspective of social theory is reversible, in that socio-political assumptions must themselves be subjected to the meta-critique contained in the philosophical moment: in this sense Adorno’s theory resists spatial limitation by one or another disciplinary boundary.

For Adorno, Hegel’s dialectic represents above all, a method, a means toward understanding the dynamics of the social world that is reflected back in thought. According to the original Hegelian formulation, reason appears as the driving force of human history, its appearance marking the shape of events, as it defines their historical substance. It was Hegel’s belief that it is according to ‘mind’ or ‘spirit’ that the world was formed, moving via historically reconciled synthesis to higher forms: the appearance of reason is at the same time the evolution of consciousness toward self-knowledge. The original project of Marx was of course, to reverse this perspective into a ‘materialist’ theory in which the social world defines and shapes the content of ‘the idea’. Critical Theory, and Adorno’s version especially, further developed this project but with the qualified objection that it could not be taken as a positive system, and that the ‘puppet called historical materialism’, as Benjamin put it, must be recognised and rejected for the impostor it was. Adorno’s oft-quoted remark that his thought was schooled in the Hegelian method but rejected its conclusions of the unifying whole, applies equally well to the relation it holds to ‘Marxism’, that is, it rejects every tendency this has towards a ‘positive’ unity, just as it resolutely refuses that version of materialism that in its existence as a closed theoretical totality, itself reverts into a kind of mythology. Against such tendencies, a key component of the original Frankfurt School project, which finds a particular strength in Adorno, is the recognition that in spite of the Enlightenment precept that recognised the world as viewed from the standpoint of human consciousness; this perspective had all but extinguished the last traces of itself. The recognition of Hegel’s dialectical method along with the rejection of it as a system was an essential aspect of Critical Theory in its original form and which Adorno gave special precedence to. This is method in bold contrast to positivism, which would lay claim to the objective ability of demonstrating the truth claims of any theory by reference to ‘provable’ facts: Adorno’s ‘Negative Dialectics’ are in every sense a refusal to accept such an apparently ‘scientific’ premise. Just as the Frankfurt School tradition has sometimes-rightly or wrongly-been referred to as ‘Marxist-Humanism’, this bears some similarity with the description of the likes of The German Ideology or the 1844 Manuscripts as being either overly ‘philosophical’ or simply ‘utopian’. It is however the absolute refusal for reconciliation, for accommodation, that Adorno’s theory consistently resists, just as it maintains an unbroken hostility to the reality it attempts to criticise, situating its commitment to analysing ‘that which is’ in the dialectical moment of the negative. Like Marx before them, the Frankfurt School remained ‘enemies’ of utopia for the sake of its realisation. In his refusal of any ‘given’ transcendental first principles, Adorno described his thought using Benjamin’s concept of the ‘constellation’, that is, mapping the moment of truth between different places in the ‘universe of discourse’, to paraphrase Marcuse. It is Adorno’s contention that thought cannot uncover the truth if it depends on straightforward generative first principles, or privileges its own foundational premises as being ‘beyond’ question. It is the recognition that the cognitive and normative structure of any theory must continually engage with itself as much as its subject for it to have any substantive meaning, that Adorno repeatedly stresses. It is the imperfection of thought, that is, the problematic of working outside a unifying objective whole that defines ‘the negative’ in the moment of truth it uncovers: “Posited positively, as given or as unavoidable amidst given things, freedom turns directly into unfreedom” (Adorno, 1973).

At the start of the twenty first century, no less than when Adorno was still alive, we are confronted by a world of seemingly inexplicable events beyond our reach, and in which all foundational claims seem at the very least doubtful. This might of course be termed Postmodernity, however recognition that we are in an epoch (whatever one chooses to call it) beyond the assumed certainties of the past, in no way means the affective impasse, that is accepted, if not demanded as logically inevitable by so many of those who identify their thought with, or in relation to, such a description of the present. What are claimed as the limits of human possibility, that historically frame such concepts as ‘reason’ or ‘knowledge’, can be seen, when viewed from a critical perspective as being in fact their further ideological appropriation. If for example ‘reason’ is now an obsolete concept according to capitalist Postmodernity, then it is by its own historical standard: It is not in this sense the meaninglessness of the concept measured by exposure to reality, but the meaninglessness of reality exposed to the concept. Accordingly, the historical limits of any social system do indeed exist, as Marx himself was adamant to point out, although against the more predictive ‘positive’ claims of his theory, a critical distance must be assumed. As Adorno and Horkheimer as well as Marcuse pointed out, the ‘technological rationality’ of the system is the same ‘instrumentalization’ of reason which reduces it at the level of theory, to the merely descriptive or justificatory recognition of the present. Reason as the critical category of thought by which truth recognises itself, can only re-emerge in the moment of rupture, with the ‘given’ or to use Adorno’s term for it, displacement. Conversely, in their persistent claims that concepts such as this are mere Meta-narratives, Postmodern thought explicitly reveals its own compromise with the world it claims to criticise. This kind of thinking, displays what Marcuse would define as ‘One Dimensionality’, by attempting to disarm all critiques of the social world as it exists, it limits both thought and historical possibilities to within the orbit of existing reality.

The ‘instrumental rationality’ of advanced capitalism in which historical possibilities are arrested and turned into their opposite, remains a recurring theme in all of Adorno’s work. The limitation of such possibilities, contra Postmodernism is the result of a definite historical form of society that separates the accomplishments of technological and material progress from their human potential. As Adorno noted on more than one occasion, technological capabilities as they presently exist, within the ‘iron cage’ of instrumental reason, exhibit a reified social relation to human beings, apparently determining their own arbitrary trajectory quite independent of human intervention. As such, the progressive elimination of toil and in fact ‘labour’ through automation, as a basic condition for a qualitative transformation of the social world, moves further away from reality the more this becomes a concrete possibility. Douglas Kellner describes the material process of instrumentalization well:

“It is a form of progress in that it produces new technologies and modes
of information which have a potentially beneficial impact on human life
Yet it is a system of domination in that it forfeits many of these
Potentialities by employing new technologies primarily as a continued
imposition of commodification and wage labour which exacerbates
class inequalities while intensifying misery and suffering for millions
of people” (Kellner, 1989).

Reification can be seen to take the form of thought estranged from recognising itself in reflective engagement with its object, as the elimination of critical distance. Thus even in Lukacs there appears a hypostatising of the proletariat, in which we find “the indirect as direct” as Adorno says, such a belief in ‘pure immediacy’ freezes into ideology, as a new form of epistemological closure in which critique is lost in the positive suppression of the non-identical.


In accentuating the gap between that which is and that which might yet be, Adorno’s Critical Theory aims to uncover the contradictions and imposed limits of such categories as ‘reason’ and ‘freedom’ become instrumental categories pf domination: it is in the refusal to fix a positive endpoint to its analysis that Adorno’s theory maintains an emancipatory quality. Adorno has been criticised by many who have a theoretical affinity with him, for a perceived ‘nihilism’ toward transformative social praxis: that is, his reluctance to theorise ‘means’ by which Critical Theory could effectively alter anything more than individual consciousness at an immediate historical level’. Whilst his lack of ‘active’ political engagement may well be seen as a weakness, he never claimed that thought could magically create revolution over night, any more than could a group of intellectuals, or even a mass movement;- no matter how much they may wish they could:

“The uncompromisingly critical thinker, who neither subordinates
his conscience nor permits himself to be terrorized into action, is
in truth the one who does not give up….Open thinking points
beyond itself. For its part, such thinking takes a position as a
figuration of praxis which is more closely related to a praxis
truly involved in change than in a position of mere obedience
for the sake of praxis” (Jay, 1984).

It should also be noted that the political positions that can be drawn from the likes of Minima Moralia and Prisms are unequivocal, even if their exact political form is not. For Adorno, it remains the task of Critical Theory to accentuate the gap between the actual and the possible, to uncover the emancipatory moment in the non-identical; in his own words truth is glimpsed in the indeterminate negation of what is false. It is this point at which Adorno’s thought is situated: against the ‘given’, against the ‘unchangeable reality’ of the world as it is with the commitment to the possibility of what it might be, maintaining always a position of total critique, whilst “holding out all the time, for the possibility of something better” (Adorno, 1999).


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Adorno, Theodor Negative Dialectics (1966) (Continuum) also used (Seabury Press 1973)
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Jarvis, Simon (1988) Adorno: A Critical Introduction (Polity)

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