Review: Brian O’Connor, Adorno’s Negative Dialectic (1)

O’Connor, Brian. Adorno’s Negative Dialectic: Philosophy and the Possibility of Critical Rationality. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004.


I did a very quick read of this book, which is a preposterous thing to do considering the difficulty of the subject matter. Furthermore, it is not fully comprehensible without a thorough grounding in Kant, Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger, the main philosophers we see Adorno confronting here. On multiple counts I am disqualified as a reviewer of this book.  But as Adorno’s importance is not restricted to specialists, it matters to get as much of Adorno’s perspective as possible beyond the bounds of a circumscribed coterie.

The premise of the book is promising.  Adorno seems to be doing traditional abstract philosophy, but critical theory aims at social critique. O’Connor’s rejoinder to questioning Adorno’s relevance is:

Adorno himself, however, urges us to think of his apparently theoretical work as intimately connected with the “concrete” aims of critical theory. In the preface to Negative Dialectics he writes: “[T]his largely abstract text seeks no less to serve authentic concretion than to explain the author’s concrete procedure” (ND 9–10/xix). But what can “concretion” amount to in a discussion of abstract philosophical problems? I suggest that the answer to this question is to understand the negative dialectic as the theoretical foundation of the sort of reflexivity—the critical stance—required by critical theory. In the negative dialectic we are offered ways by which, for instance, we might question “the given” or recognize distortions of experience. These theoretical issues are painstakingly developed by Adorno, but not because he wants to add one more theory of knowledge or experience or whatever to the history of philosophy. Rather, he wants to demonstrate that there are radical alternatives—supported by philosophy—to how we take our reality to be; that it makes sense, simply, to claim that reality is available to us in ways which go beyond appearances. This is both an abstract philosophical exercise and one which lays the foundations for the applied “concrete” critique of appearances—for critical theory itself. Philosophy, then, not only exemplifies the critical attitude, it also, in fact, demonstrates that it is possible.

The preface indicates great promise.

To examine Adorno’s negative dialectic on its own terms then, to treat it in its purely theoretical expression, is actually to carry through on Adorno’s idea of concretion. For that reason I think that it is important to consider Adorno’s negative dialectic in isolation from the sociological specifics of his critical theory. In this book I want to do just that. I will explore the structure of Adorno’s dialectic, its key concepts, and its historical influences. I will show also that Adorno’s philosophy, although sometimes flawed, contains concepts and arguments that are philosophically valuable.    In particular, I want to point out how Adorno’s philosophy offers us challenging ways of thinking about certain problems in epistemology and the philosophy of the subject, not necessarily because Adorno always has superior alternative theories within these areas of philosophy, but because his contributions in these areas remind us of what it is that philosophy is to do if it is to play a role in the development of critical rationality. It will become apparent, in this regard, that Adorno’s philosophy is a “transcendental” one, something which has not previously been appreciated. It is strongly committed, I will show, to a connection between experience and rationality, claiming no less than that philosophical positions that fail to recognize the structure of experience (as Adorno will describe it) will deprive themselves of the ability to express themselves rationally.

Adorno’s problem here is an account of experience, and a critical account of the philosophical theorization of experience.  This is vital project, for the capacity and the compromise of experience is key to Adorno’s philosophy.

However, it seems to me, that as the book proceeds, it becomes more of a pure comparative study, affirming Adorno’s unique contributions without fully endorsing him, and accounting for Adorno’s framework for engaging and the possible misreadings of Kant, Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger. I can’t comment on what is said here about Kant and Hegel, but the chapter on Husserl and Heidegger left me distinctly unsatisfied.


The preface is very promising, and to some extent O’Connor carries out his promise, but I sense a narrowing and anti-climax with the Husserl/Heidegger chapter, though Adorno’s engagement with his “competitors” is essential to understand, and also beyond the context of the German idealist philosophical milieu.

O’Connor begins chapter 1 by insisting that Adorno’s epistemology is driven by goal-directed normativity, how we ought to think in order to think what ought to be, and that philosophy should address and account for wrong states of being. Adorno’s metacritique of epistemology is not merely destructive, it points toward the ought. The key is Adorno’s account of the subject-object relation. O’Connor also insists, as he does in the beginning, that Adorno’s is a transcendental philosophy.

O’Connor begins his substantive treatment with Adorno’s inaugural lecture “The Actuality of Philosophy” and his engagement with Lukács.  In the former, Adorno takes on (1) Heidegger, (2) Marburg Neokantianism (formalism), (3) irrationalism, (4) positivism.

O’Connor then summarizes Lukacs’ view of reification. And:

Lukács sees it as especially revealing that philosophy has failed to accommodate a positive concept of matter within its systems. He believes that this problem is most clearly discovered in Kantian epistemology (HCC 114). Kant had regarded the thing-in-itself as representative of the limits of human knowledge, and concerned himself mainly with phenomena. But Lukács argues that Kant had to promote the duality between phenomena and noumenon in order to avoid the undermining factor of matter. Since phenomena are the ultimate contents of knowledge, as such, Kant transcended the real contribution of matter and thus could make claims for the creativity of the knowing subject with even greater force. The problem of matter arises simply because of philosophy’s claims to totality (something that we have seen Adorno too criticize). Kant’s philosophy, according to Lukács, is designed to prove the priority and centrality of the subject. But it cannot, however, claim that it creates the object entirely, for the matter of every object precedes any possible interpretation. There is therefore an irreducible givenness that stands over the claims of subjective idealism. Acknowledgement of this givenness, claims Lukács, tends to threaten idealism with its own collapse. For if  “rationalism”—Lukács’s term for the totalistic ambition of philosophy—cannot account for irrational matter then it must be a “register, an account, as well ordered as possible of facts which are no longer linked rationally and so can no longer be made systematic even though the forms of their components are themselves rational” (HCC 118). In other words, rationalism is merely a system of schematization in which again prejudicially atomized pieces of reality are ordered.

Lukács argues that the subjectivist aim of rationalist philosophy has its origins in modern society. Kant’s creative epistemological subject resembles the ideal of the bourgeois individual …… [p.11]

And so on.  O’Connor claims that Adorno differs from Lukács in not being centered around class, but with experience (12). This is not clear to me, but otherwise so far so good. Now we are ready for chapter 1, on the role of German idealism in negative dialectics.

Adorno is not a relativist.

The negative dialectic contains the following two elements, which together are constitutive of a transcendental philosophy: first, it identifies the conditions for the possibility of experience; and second, it holds, further, that philosophy cannot be coherent if it denies or excludes any of the conditions identified as the conditions for the possibility of experience. [15]

Crucially, Adorno is engaged with Kant and Hegel, but also with the imperative to rescue the “nonconceptual”, sidelined in the philosophical tradition. Key concepts here are identity and mediation. For Adorno, Kant provides resources for overcoming subjective idealism and for constructing a critical materialism. (20) O’Connor ends up pointing out a key weakness of Kant: “he shows that we require external objects, but he does not show that there need be any correspondence between these objects and our representation of them.” (24) O’Connor then links Antinomy and Transcendental Argument, distinguishing internal from external antinomies and linking the internal to immanent critique (26).  There is also an influence from Hegel. O’Connor says: “… for Hegel antinomy provokes deeper dialectical progression, whereas for Adorno antinomy concludes with the undermining of antimaterialist epistemology.” (27)

Section 2 of chapter 1 deals with the influence of Hegel. The dialectic of experience and reason is key here (30). Note also the sterility of skepticism. But negativity drives thought forward. (33) Adorno dissents from identity thinking, and thus an exclusive focus on the progress toward Absolute Knowledge. O’Connor pinpoints and criticizes the anti-materialist basis of Hegel’s idealism, in connection with a consideration of experience (34).  But mostly he outlines Hegel’s perspective in the Phenomenology, including the master-slave dialectic. Then: “The structure of knowledge turns out to be also about the structure of relation to an other.” (41) Adorno seems to follow this notion, even psychologizing and moralizing it. (42)

O’Connor uses what he needs of Hegel for this book, but I would not consider this an exhaustive treatment of Adorno’s critique of Hegel. We shall see what happens as O’Connor moves on to the structure of Adorno’s epistemology and the preponderance of the object in chapter 2.


So, chapter 2:

Close analysis of what Adorno has to say on the matter reveals that mediation is no vague cover term for relations between subject and object (although it might seem that way at times thanks to Adorno’s allusive way of presenting it). Rather, mediation can be specified as the structure of meaningful experience. Now given that Adorno thinks of  experience in contemporary life as “withered,” he means by mediation the structure of possible experience, that is, the structure of nonreified experience. Current experience cannot be characterized as mediation in this sense.

Adorno’s thoughts on the basic elements of meaningful experience very discernibly share a distinctive characteristic of the Kantian and Hegelian views of experience (a characteristic that has been examined in the previous chapter): namely, that experience takes place only where judgment occurs. Experience is not mere awareness: it is understanding. To appreciate fully what Adorno’s account of the possibility of experience is attempting to establish, then, it is crucial that we follow his account of judgment. Indeed we can already infer from “The Actuality of Philosophy” that Adorno was effectively pointing to the deficiency of contemporary philosophy’s understanding of judgments. For instance, irrationalism abandons concepts and employs only the object component of judgment in its leap into experience, whereas Neo-Kantianism and logical positivism conversely are accused of emphasizing conceptual frameworks at the expense of particularity or objects, and hence of misconstruing the meaning-bearing relation of concept and object in judgment. But what make for Adorno’s distinctive account of judgment are his views on what meaning that structure can produce. A judgment—as the structure of nonreified experience—must be able to express our experience of particularity, and the nonidentity of our concepts with the object. It must encapsulate the reciprocatory character of unreduced experience.

This is what I’m reading the book for.  And here’s where I’m wondering what O’Connor or even Adorno will say about experience in addition to the critique of philosophies which inadequately account for reduced and reduced experience. What is “experience”, after all? I don’t think I have a full answer, but as we shall see, O’Connor proceeds to address the question of the adequation of philosophy in this regard.

Adorno insists on the subject-object model, and his central concern is mediation. The question, of course, is what is the “object”, and this what is the nonconceptual? (50)  O’Connor claims that while Adorno’s position could be targeted as that of “naive realism”, it is emphatically not that. I’m not happy with this, but the argument is for the active role of the subject, not its exclusion. Well, OK, but in the end that is still vague, and we need to see its application in all areas of endeavor and knowledge.  I find this argument (51) quite irritating, but the fault seems to be Adorno’s, not O’Connor’s. O’Connor sums it up this way: naive realism “gives epistemological validation to the reified world.” I would say, what aspects of the world are we talking about?

This priority cannot be analogous to the role objects play in naive realism: objects are not simply some self-constituted authority for the content of experience. Rather, the priority of the object must be established within the mediated structure—the structure of reciprocity—which the naive view simply does not recognize. For that reason Adorno argues for this priority without, as he sees it, hypostatizing the object. To hypostatize the object would obviously be incompatible with the idea of mediated objects and would also plainly exclude the possibility of a critical subject. [52]

Not faulting O’Connor, but I see here the characteristic failure of the Frankfurters to have anything useful to say about the natural sciences, and therefore I find their unqualified generalizations dubious. Of course, one could say something about mediation in this sphere as well, but none of them have ever had anything useful to say about it. And hence the internal critique of German idealist philosophy is not enough.  Still, that’s what’s going on here.

Now we move on to the priority of the object. Here, Adorno’s critique of subject-centered philosophy is on target. Adorno is quoted briefly using natural science as an example. I would have liked to see more on this. O’Connor focuses on Adorno’s transcendental strategy (54). And we are tantalized again with the promise of the book:

Adorno argues that the irrationalism of contemporary society, which penetrates (as Lukács put it) into philosophy, has failed to carry through on the implications of what experience can entail. Reified philosophy—reified intellectual life, for that matter—deprives us of the capacity to articulate the complex dynamics of experience. Developing a line of thought from Hegel’s dialectic Adorno suggests that the contemporary understanding of experience is in an arrested condition, a condition in which it cannot realize the implications of the idea of experience. This arrested condition is a state of irrationality in that it consists of incompatible tendencies: in essence, we cannot argue that the object must have independence in experience yet also proffer methodologies that ultimately rest on some form of subjectivism or reification. [55-6]

I agree with most of the subsequent treatment, but note that Adorno applies his perspective also to logic:

“Something”—as a cogitatively indispensable substrate of any concept, including the concept of Being—is the utmost abstraction of the subject-matter that is not identical with thinking, an abstraction not to be abolished by any further thought process. Without “something” there is no thinkable formal logic, and there is no way to cleanse this logic of its metalogical rudiment. The supposition of an absolute form, of “something at large” that might enable our thinking to shake off that subject-matter, is illusionary. Constitutive for the form of “subject-matter at large” is the substantive experience of subject-matter. (ND 139/135)   [58]

I am familiar with comparable statements Adorno makes in his critique of Husserl. As to the nature of logic, I would say that there is a needed triangulation to be made: subjectivity – logic – objective reality. I’ll bring this up again when we get to the Husserl / Heidegger chapter.

Historical sedimentation is the alternative path from immediacy (59). The truth of idealism, though, is that objects are articulated through concepts. (60) But then there’s the accounting for nonidentity. Here he critically draws on Kant. (61ff) Note Adorno’s take on Kant, Hegel, judgment, identity, predication (66).

There is more than epistemology to consider.

Adorno believes that the nonidentical moment of experience is a product of our physical engagement with the world, an engagement that takes the form of feeling, emotion, suffering, and the like. This element—which Adorno terms alternatively our somatic or sensory experience (the next chapter)—brings us, in fact, to an engagement with the sheer particularity of things, which no complex of concepts can. Although our epistemic activities can be expressed as the labor of conceptualization, our experience goes further in that conceptualization by itself cannot account for particularity simply because concepts are, for Adorno at least, expressive of universalizable properties of an individual. And for Adorno the ultimate concern in all of this is the possibility that unreduced experience—unreifed rational relations between individuals—might be possible.  [69]


Chapter 3: the role of subjectivity:

Here O’Connor explains how for Adorno the subject can be distinguished as an active agent from the object, while not being a separated and opposed entity. The subject is also objective, part of the objective world, as I would put it. It both actively contributes to the appropriation of the object but also interacts with and emerges from the objective world. This is what gets elaborated in this chapter.

But there’s not just experience in general, there’s experience as historically situated in contemporary capitalist society, in which critical consciousness tends to get neutralized. (74-5)

“. . . Adorno attempts to locate the negative moment in experience—the dialectical moment—at which consciousness is compelled by its own rationality to revise itself, and to do so by reference to the object. In this regard dialectic must therefore be understood as a moment of rationally motivated experience . . . ” [75]

Here’s the problem:

Purely as a reaction to the determinist model, gratuitous and incoherent philosophies of freedom have been proposed. What needs to be considered, however, is a model of experience in which the subject might be seen to engage with the object without either being reduced to the object or radically choosing its own mode of experience in a Sartrean manner. Adorno believes that without a theory of experience that makes the mediation of subject and object crucial we end up with one of two equally one-sided accounts of experience: either one in which the subject accepts its immersion in its environment as wholly constitutive of itself, and thus (uncritically) takes its experience to be natural, or one that offers the illusion of a subject not engaged in its environment. [76]

And here’s where Adorno confronts Hegel.

Clearly Adorno believes that Hegel’s theory possesses some of the essential elements, but that the system within which the elements are located—with its idealist teleology—actually threatens to undermine their ability to explain experience, contrary to what seemed to have been promised in the introduction to the Phenomenology. As he sees it, Hegel oscillates “between the most profound insight and the collapse of that insight” (ND 161/160). What that really means, for Adorno, is that Hegel may indeed have a potent arsenal of philosophical concepts and insights. However, the reality of Hegel’s texts is that these concepts and insights are ultimately subordinated to the needs of Hegel’s architectonic. Hegel strives to assemble the encyclopaedia of concepts in a logical and quasi-deductive system. But by so doing, Adorno argues, he actually undermines the negativity—the insight into the moment of nonidentity—in his philosophy. [77]

Hegel is seen as ultimately assimilated everything to identity & ultimately eclipses negativity in favor of positivity (78-9).  This is unacceptable for a materialist epistemology.  Particularity is occluded.

The materialist subject includes physicality. The subject is somatic. The subject cannot be posited as an entity separate from the object. (84) Here Adorno opposes the idealist tradition. (Fichte’s intellectual intuition, for example.)

Now I think all this is terrific and important, but consider also that the rebellion against the idealist tradition does not yield a total, adequate, philosophical picture: in some ways it mirrors idealism and affirms materialism not with positive content, but negatively by way of the critique of idealism (and here we can throw in positivism, too).  If we’re going to take Adorno further today, we have to criticize contemporary ideologization, including ideologization of the natural and behavioral sciences, not just with negative dialectic, but taking into account positive knowledge too along with its misappropriation.

Adorno criticizes how sensation, which is the linchpin of epistemology, is processed into empiricism, i.e. subjectivism (87-8). O’Connor elaborates, deploying also a more refined understanding of empiricism, but also in consideration at what’s at stake for Adorno. (See p. 90: somatic vs mental states . . . and mediation.)

There is an interesting appendix to this chapter: an Adornian alternative to the dichotomy of physicalism and dualism (93). Here he references Thomas Nagel (see esp. p. 96) and John Searle (see esp. p. 97). So there is a world outside German idealism, after all.  See for yourself how O’Connor characterizes the difficulties Nagel and Searle have with their philosophies of mind and what Adorno might contribute.

Now from here, the book changes for me in what it has to offer. Chapter 4 is about the critique of Kant, and of course it’s no surprise Kant gets a whole chapter to himself as well as substantial treatment throughout the book. From his adolescence on, Adorno is more thoroughly saturated with the study of Kant than with any other philosopher. And his philosophical development in university was significantly molded by his neo-Kantian mentor Hans Cornelius. (103) This chapter details Adorno’s early work in this regard.

Central to this chapter is the critique of Kantian subjectivity, and the conflict between empirical and constitutive subjectivity (112), the latter of which Adorno deposes. I’m no Kant scholar but I do appreciate the value of this analysis.

If I read again more carefully, I may see something I’ve missed, but notwithstanding the merits of the analysis of Kant, which I won’t presume to judge, I lose what most interested me in this whole project, the question of reduced and unreduced experience. What we have at this point, it seems, is the analysis of the philosophies which are inadequate to account for experience as Adorno seeks to do. But the quality of actual experience–reified experience or its alternative–seems to disappear. I suppose this could be a topic for a sequel to the book.

I’m not complaining about the Kant chapter, but in the chapter on Husserl and Heidegger, I balk at the limitations of the analysis and even more so at an inadequate confrontation on O’Connor’s part of the deeply alienated and ideologically distorted philosophical constructs of Husserl and Heidegger, which are glaringly symptomatic of the crisis of capitalist culture in the looming horror of the 20th century.


Originally posted on R. Dumain’s blog Studies in a Dying Culture on December 7th, 2012.
Adorno, critical theory, epistemology, existentialism, German philosophy, Hegel, Heidegger, Husserl, idealism, ideology, Kant, Lukacs, Marxism, reviews.

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