FABIAN FREYENHAGEN | Adorno’s Practical Philosophy: Living Less Wrongly | Cambridge University Press 2013


By Henry Pickford

Fabian Freyenhagen’s book is an extraordinary achievement, in that if offers a comprehensive account of Adorno’s thoughts on practical and moral philosophy with far greater clarity, consistency, textual grounding and extra-textual, elucidatory and rigorous argumentation than previous studies. Embracing Adorno’s own method in his ‘Essay as Form’, Freyenhagen draws from a large number of Adorno’s texts, chiefly from the post-war period, some published during his lifetime and some thereafter, and including material from an archived, as yet unpublished lecture course on moral philosophy, to weave a dense texture of mutually supporting references that results in a far more unified picture of Adorno’s ethical thought than one might have thought possible; it is a book from which I have learned a great deal. Together with Bernstein (2001) this study will continue to inform and provoke debate surrounding Adorno’s ethics and, with Freyenhagen (2014), his politics.

One of the chief merits of Freyenhagen’s book is to offer a substantive and compelling answer to the criticism made by Habermas and others that Adorno cannot account for the normative claims he makes because he cannot provide independent justificatory grounds for his critical judgements. Freyenhagen concedes that the normativity of Adorno’s claims is not justified by ultimate, independent grounds; rather, “justifications can be only of an internal and limited kind, not independent and extending all the way down” (p. 201). This explanatory rather than justificatory project can at best clarify and reassure an adherent of the normative practice or theory in question. According to Freyenhagen, Adorno adduces reasons why he cannot provide justificatory norms (norms such as the good life, or fully realised human potential): under present social conditions we cannot know such norms (what Freyenhagen calls Adorno’s “epistemic negativism”). Consequently, Freyenhagen argues in effect that Adorno’s account of the thwarting of human potential under capitalist conditions is explanatory—virtuously circular given minimal Aristotelian assumptions about human nature and “having a clearer and fuller grasp of the modern social reality” (p. 207; cf. pp. 228, 231, 236).

I am in broad agreement with his account, so my critical comments are intended to open a dialogue with Freyenhagen and hopefully clarify and develop further some aspects of his account, in particular relating to anthropology (his imputation of a “negative Aristotelianism” to Adorno) and epistemology (his account of Adorno’s “epistemic negativism”).

Philosophical Anthropology

At the end of his book Freyenhagen concludes that

Adorno proposes what might be called a philosophical anthropology—admittedly, an unusual one in that it is meant to be vindicated by making sense of the ills and wrongs of a particular social setting (our modern social world) […] and also unusual insofar as it is negativist, telling us only about inhumanity and postulating a yet-to-be-realized and yet-to-be-specified potential. Largely in virtue of this anthropology, Adorno is an objectivist, a realist, when it comes to normativity and ethics. (p. 253)

Drawing on Philippa Foot and Michael Thompson, Freyenhagen characterises Adorno’s philosophical anthropology as a “negative Aristotelianism” in that “natural goodness” or “natural normativity” is understood as the proper functioning of the species-form of which the individual is a member. There are well-known problems with neo-Aristotelian ethical theories of this stripe. For instance, if moral requirements are grounded on non-moral, indeed non-evaluative natural facts about the function(s) of the species human being, what are those facts and how are they determined? Generalising, one might reject any notion of human teleology as incompatible with our modern understanding of the natural world.

However, I want to bring into focus Freyenhagen’s motivation for invoking Aristotle here. It seems to him that the Aristotelian framework, even in its negativistic guise —viz. that “it is because the current social world blocks the realization of humanity that the good [proper functioning] is unavailable and unknown to us” (p. 239)—best explains the normativity upon which Adorno’s criticisms of modern society rely. If I understand his reasoning here, the Aristotelian framework—“the deeper rationale operative in Adorno’s thinking” (p. 232)—can provide “objective interests” that then serve as norms according to which modern society can be justifiably criticised. Freyenhagen articulates these “objective interests” as, minimally, what he calls “basic human functioning”, comprised of functions of “animal beings” and additional, minimal requirements specific to “our potential as human beings”:

To gain knowledge of the bad in this conception, we need to find out what is bad for us qua animal beings and what obstacles there are to the realization of our potential as human beings. To find this out, it is not always necessary to know what the realization of humanity (and thereby the good) substantially consists in. Rather, at least when it comes to the most extreme forms of the bad, it suffices to speak in terms of what people lack to achieve basic functioning (as differentiated from living well, where the latter involves the full realization of the human potential). […] we can know what a minimum level of human functioning is without knowing what the full realization of the human potential is, and life in our social world is so deformed and damaged that even this minimum level is impossible to attain (at least for the majority of people). […] Thus the key point is the idea that the bad or, at least, the worst can be cashed out in terms of shortfall not from the level of living well, but from the level of basic human functioning. Insofar as we can know what basic human functioning requires (and what a shortfall from it would involve) without having (positive) knowledge of the human potential, we can know the bad without knowing the good. And it is very plausible to think that we can know about basic human functioning without this further knowledge. For what is required for knowing the former is some basic understanding of our animal nature and of what is bad for us qua animals—such as lack of food and shelter, illness, and physical suffering. In fact, physical pain and suffering are good examples. In virtue of our animal nature, pain and suffering are bad for us; we have reason to avoid them. This objective interest is expressed in the direct reason-giving nature of our physical impulse against suffering. In other words, the force of the negativity of pain, while not being derived from desires, principles, or the faculty of reason, is expressive of our having objective interests in virtue of the kind of situated creatures we are. Hence, the Aristotelian conception accounts well for the badness and direct reason-giving aspect of suffering, to which Adorno is committed […]. [B]asic human functioning also requires at least a minimal level of actively choosing how to structure one’s life, of developing a sense of self with an extended life story, of having meaningful relationships with others, etc. (pp. 240–1)

The bifurcation between our general “animal being” and specifically human psychological and social characteristics itself suggests the hierarchy of kinds of function (themselves expressible in Thompson-style “natural-historical” or “life-form” judgements) of organisms that Aristotle presented in De Anima:

But life is spoken of in many ways, and we say that a thing lives if but one of the following is present—intellect, perception, movement, and rest in respect to place, and furthermore the movement involved in nutrition, and both decay and growth. (De Anima, 413a21–4)

[T]he soul is the principle of the things above mentioned and is determined by them—by the faculties of nutrition, perception, thought, and by movement. (413b12–13)[1]

Plants, animals and human beings share only the most basic functions—growth, self-maintenance, nutrition, while animals and humans share perception and locomotion, and only humans (and divinities) share the capacity of reason. Marx translated most of De Anima shortly before writing the 1844 Manuscripts, and one can hear echoes of Aristotle’s hierarchy of life functions in Marx’s critique of capitalism’s effects on the worker:

As a result, therefore, man (the worker) no longer feels himself to be freely active in any but his animal functions—eating, drinking, procreating, or at most in his dwelling and in dressing-up, etc.; and in his human functions he no longer feels himself to be anything but an animal. What is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal.

Certainly eating, drinking, procreating, etc., are also genuinely human functions. But in the abstraction which separates them from the sphere of all other human activity and turns them into sole and ultimate ends, they are animal. (Tucker 1978:74; cf. also 94–5)

Thus we might understand Freyenhagen’s invocation of “basic human functioning” along similar lines, comprising physical requirements for nutrition, self- and species-maintenance, say, along with the social-psychological requirements mentioned in the block quote above, that taken together would be a minimal conception of human nature and normatively proper human functioning.

The problem is that this view of philosophical anthropology, according to which the human being can be characterised by some set of essential invariants, was pursued in the pre-war period by thinkers such as Max Scheler and subjected to critique by Max Horkheimer throughout his career (see Horkheimer 1974, 1995), who claimed

There is no formula that defines the relationship among individuals, society, and nature for all time. Even if we are not justified in interpreting history as the unfolding of a consistent, unchanging human nature, the contrary and fatalistic formulation—that of a necessity that is independent of human beings and that governs the course of things—would be just as naïve. The dependence is neither one-dimensional nor always structured in the same way. Rather, social development necessitates that particular groups and personalities are better prepared for changes and reformation in social processes than others, who in their thought and action function chiefly as products of the given circumstances. (1995:153)[2]

For Horkheimer, because “the genesis of capabilities and of the labor of each human being is to be sought not in the individual human being but rather in the fate of the entire society”, “the meaning of all anthropological categories is changed in their very foundations concomitantly with great historical transformations” (1995: 170–1), such as the change from feudalism to early capitalism, or liberal to monopoly or state capitalism. Marx arguably presented this alternative model of a thoroughly historicised and socially contextualised anthropology in the sixth of his Theses on Feuerbach, when he wrote:

Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human essence. But the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations [das ensemble der gesellschaftlichen Verhältnisse]. (Tucker 1978:145)

Here any putative human nature or essence is dissolved into the historically contingent societal context.

What did Adorno think about philosophical anthropology? In Negative Dialectics he rejects any anthropology, including the most recent form, Heideggerian existentialism, which characterises the human being as essentially “open”, that is, turns indeterminacy into the positive element of anthropology:

We cannot say what man is. Man today is a function, unfree, regressing behind whatever is ascribed to him as invariant—except perhaps for the defenselessness and neediness in which some anthropologies wallow. He drags along with him as his social heritage the mutilations inflicted upon him over thousands of years. To decipher the human essence by the way it is now would sabotage its possibility. […]

That man is ‘open’ is an empty thesis […]. Existence is a moment. It is not the whole it was conceived against, the whole from which, severed, it seized the unfulfillable pretension of entirety as soon as it styled itself philosophy. That we cannot tell what man is does not establish a peculiarly majestic anthropology; it vetoes any anthropology. (Adorno 2005:124; echoed in Adorno & Gehlen 1974:228)

For Adorno this most recent form of anthropology replaces concrete determinate essential functions with abstract indeterminacies that are no less essential and invariant in their negativity or “openness”.  Hence they are just as idealistic and ahistorical as their positivist antecedents.

So, on the one hand there is the positing of human nature or essence, understood as either determinate functions (a certain kind of Aristotelianism) or essential indeterminacy (Heideggerian existentialism), and on the other the rejection of anthropology in favour of changing constellations of societal relations. By invoking “basic human functioning” Freyenhagen appears to favour the former, yet when he writes “the conception of the bad and inhumanity derives from the successful analysis and critique of our social world, not from a metaphysical or teleological account of human nature” (p. 244) he seems to favour the latter.

As early as 1944, Adorno contemplated developing a dialectical anthropology. If we understand “negative anthropology” narrowly and contextually as the denial of traditional anthropology’s metaphysical assumption of an historically invariable human nature, then “dialectical anthropology”, as in Horkheimer’s earlier essay quoted above, “would then be concerned with historically determined human beings and groups of human beings instead of with man as such, and would seek to understand their existence and development not as isolated individuals but rather as integral parts of the life of society” (Horkheimer 1995:161, trans. modified), and dialectical anthropology entails negative anthropology narrowly and contextually construed. The ‘Notes and Sketches’ appended to Dialectic of Enlightenment, the authors announce, “relate to a dialectical anthropology” (2002a: xix).[3] In his lecture course Introduction to Negative Dialectics in 1965, Adorno suggested that the question of why the proletarian revolution did not and could not happen belonged to “a dialectical anthropology which is assuredly no small part of the problem of philosophy in our time” (2008:46). And in 1969, in his very positive review of Ulrich Sonnemann’s book Negative Anthropologie he writes:

What the human being is rightfully becomes a negative determination of this [orthodox] conception of anthropology; humanity [das Humane] may be uncovered solely ‘from its denial and absence’. (Adorno, GS vol. 20.1:263, trans. mine)[4]

Although Adorno never, as far as I know, fully worked out a dialectical anthropology, we can sketch out a possible reconstruction based on some of his writings. First, there is no immediate epistemic access to, no pure concept of first nature, including our own: first nature is always mediated through second nature—culture, economy, society. Adorno makes this claim in relation to human needs in his ‘Theses on Need’ from 1942, when he writes:

Need is a social category; nature as ‘drive’ is contained within it. But the social and natural moments of need cannot be split up into secondary and primary in order to set up some sort of ranking of satisfactions. Hunger, when understood as a natural category, can be sated by the grasshoppers and mosquito-cakes eaten by many uncivilized peoples. To satisfy the concrete hunger of civilized peoples, however, implies that what they have to eat does not disgust them; in this disgust and its opposite is reflected the whole of history. So it goes with each need. Each drive is so socially mediated that its natural side never appears immediately, but always only as socially produced. The appeal to nature in relation to this or that need is always merely the mask of denial and domination. (2017:103)[5]

Even physical disgust is not a natural invariant, but rather must be understood through the historically variable, social mediation of nature. Generalising then, “basic human functioning” includingqua animal beings”, must be understood as historically mediated. For example, in his valuable and nuanced discussion of the role of senseless suffering as an immediate index of the bad, Freyenhagen concludes:

Given Adorno’s suspicion of our common beliefs and values, what he means by senseless suffering would be determined with reference to our objective interests as creatures with a certain potential. (p. 149)

But the lesson here is that “objective interests” are likewise historically mediated, and cannot provide the fixed normative standpoint Freyenhagen seems to suggest here. Similarly, in explicating Adorno’s ethics of immediate, bodily response to suffering, Freyenhagen appeals to Rousseau’s conception of natural compassion (la pitíe naturelle) as an “innate repugnance of seeing a fellow-creature suffer” (Rousseau) and “a natural reaction, one that is not rationalized” (p. 149). But in his early essay against positivist philosophical anthropology Horkheimer takes as one of his examples the transformation of sympathy under bourgeois conditions:

Economic development has progressed to a point where even successful advancement within society is contingent on the ability to show interest in the concerns of others. In a free market economy, other things being equal, the salesman who shows such concern for his customers has a distinct advantage over his competitor. Besides the participation of the bourgeoisie in the government, each citizen is bound by the necessities of taking pains for customers, of showing them what is to their advantage, and of guessing and influencing their inclinations. These exigencies counteract purely selfish dispositions and develop the capacity for compassion toward others. This interpersonal understanding, which even in its more sublime manifestations bears the mark of its relationship with trade and commerce, is not equivalent to the spontaneous feeling of unity in prebourgeois forms of community or to unconditional solidarity. Nevertheless, bourgeois commerce in conjunction with egoism has nurtured its own negation: altruism. Classes that were left behind in economic development—for example, a segment of the farmers in certain parts of a country—appear to the more refined, bourgeois consciousness as emotional cripples, not least because of their concern with themselves. (Horkheimer 1995:172–3)

Horkheimer’s dialectical presentation of sympathy cannot be divided into natural elements, on the one hand, and societal (de)formations, on the other; as he later concludes:

The attempt to conceive of human beings either as a fixed or as an evolving unity is futile […]. Human characteristics are inextricably linked to the course of history, and history itself is in no way marked by a uniform will. Like the object of anthropological studies, even history itself represents no autonomous entity. (1995:175)

Secondly, this dialectical account entails that anthropology, the “image of man” (Menschenbild), is liable to the dialectic of nature and history that Adorno laid out in his 1932 lecture Die Idee der Natur-Geschichte, whose goal is “to dialectically overcome the usual antithesis of nature and history […] pushing these concepts to a point where they are mediated in their apparent difference” (2006:252–3). By ‘nature’ Adorno means “what has always been, what as fatefully arranged predetermined being underlies history and appears in history; it is substance in history” (ibid.) and is likened to myth, the ever-same. By contrast, ‘history’ is characterised as “the occurrence of the qualitatively new; it is a movement that does not play itself out in mere identity, mere reproduction of what has always been, but rather one in which the new occurs” (ibid). Adorno then charts a dialectical movement between these two moments. In the movement from history to nature, social conventions (Lukács’s second nature) become petrified, come to appear as natural, immutable, eternal. In the movement from nature to history the reverse occurs: what has hitherto been taken to be immutable nature is revealed to be transient, contingent, alterable. Thus:

Whenever something historical arises, it refers back to something natural that passes away within it. Likewise the reverse: whenever ‘second nature’ appears, whenever the world of convention approaches, it can be deciphered through the fact that its meaning is precisely shown to be transience. (Adorno 2006:264)[6]

In the context of anthropology, this means that what appears to be most clearly immutable human nature, basic human functioning, can in the right circumstances be shown to be a historically conditioned “ensemble of social relations”, while the historically conditioned “ensemble of social relations” can appear to be immutable nature; and, following Horkheimer, both history and nature themselves will upon closer analysis reveal various tendencies and countertendencies. We might understand the following analysis of individuality from the ‘Notes and Sketches’ of Dialectic of Enlightenment as an instance of dialectical anthropology:

The decay of individuality today not only teaches us to regard that category as historical but also raises doubts concerning its positive nature […]. The tendency toward human emancipation emerged under the aegis of individuality but at the same time was the result of the very mechanism from which humanity was to be emancipated. In the autonomy and uniqueness of the individual, the resistance to the blind, repressive power of the irrational whole was crystallized. But that resistance was made historically possible only by the blindness and irrationality of the autonomous and unique individual. Conversely, however, that which, as particularistic, was absolutely opposed to the whole remains perniciously and opaquely attached to the existing order. The radical individual, unassimilated features of a human being are always both at once: residues not fully encompassed by the prevailing system and still happily surviving, and marks of the mutilation inflicted on its members by that system. (2002a:200)

More specifically in our discussion, any positive characterisation of human nature, human function, should be read dialectically as both the imprint of specific historical societal relations and as a specific capacity with the potentiality to transcend its historical disfigurement. Put another way, if Freyenhagen’s “negative Aristotelian” anthropology maintains merely an abstract, wholly indeterminate “potentiality” then it risks Adorno’s charge of empty abstraction and idealism, while if it provides determinate specification as in “basic human functioning”, it risks Adorno’s rejection of any positive anthropology as congealed second nature, societal formation and deformation. A solution to this problem would be to deploy the conceptual relation determinable–determinate. But I shall come to this point obliquely, by means of my second set of critical comments, on epistemic negativism.

Epistemic Negativism

A crucial premise in Freyenhagen’s overall argument concerning Adorno’s normativity is what he calls Adorno’s “epistemic negativism”—“we cannot know what the good life is prior to the realization of its social conditions” (p. 4). Freyenhagen grants that Adorno is a utopian thinker only insofar as he is an anti-positivist about the status quo:

I am not […] denying that his thinking is utopian in the sense that he holds on to the possibility that things could be different. What I am denying is that he can tell us how things would then be—what utopia would consist in positively speaking (that is, other than the avoidance of the bads he can identify). (p. 20)

We need not appeal to or know the good (or the right) [that is, “reconcilation” or “utopia”] to account for the normativity inherent in Adorno’s critical theory and ethical claims. (p. 210)

Freyenhagen thus draws a strict contrast between, on the one hand, knowing that things can be different and, on the other hand, knowing the determinate specific state or characteristics that would constitute utopia or the good life, and presents textual evidence supporting the claim that Adorno denies the latter, from the “ban on images” (Bilderverbot) to the totalising character of contemporary ideology.[7] Because of epistemic negativism, then, Freyenhagen holds that Adorno must assume a “negative Aristotelianism” (unrealised potential of the species human being) to provide normative explanation (weaker than wholly independent justificatory grounds) for his critical claims.

While Adorno often does seem to maintain such an austere epistemic negativism, his writings also exhibit frequent appeals to what a changed social world, and a changed humanity, would look like. To take just one example, in his conversation with Gehlen that bookends Freyenhagen’s study, Adorno suggests a “thought experiment”:

When one imagines: a society in which exchange occurs no more, that is, that people receive goods through the market no more, but rather production occurs in accordance with the needs of people, then this element of absolute comparability and thereby the levelling element would fall away and one could imagine that the qualitative and with it all the elements of form that appear covered over by contemporary society would reproduce and restore themselves at higher levels […]. The deformation [Entformung] is rather […] a phenomenon of bourgeois society […] I would say: precisely in the idea [Vorstellung] of a world in which there is no more levelling through exchange—this idea seems to me to be something completely understandable [Vollziehbares] […]. The idea [Idee] of a really—according to its own substance—liberated society […] that production occurs in accordance with the needs of people. Then, admittedly in an altered societal organisation, it would cease to be the case that the needs are produced by the apparatus. (Adorno & Gehlen 1974: 236–9, trans. mine)

Two points should be emphasised. First, Adorno here does claim that one can imagine or conceive of an improved or changed society, contrary to some of Adorno’s stronger negativist claims upon which Freyenhagen relies. And secondly, Adorno prioritises societal structure and relations, suggesting that he holds a dialectical anthropology rather than a wholly negative anthropology. And indeed earlier in the discussion he states:

First of all the human being is to an infinitely greater degree [in einem unendlich viel weiterem Maß] an historical being, namely a being that is formed through historical conditions and societal relations, than the naïve view accepts, which so to speak contents itself in thinking that over very long expanses of time people have not really changed in their physiological constitution [Beschaffenheit] […]. But in reality the human being, to its very psyche, is formed by history, and that means is formed essentially by society. (Adorno & Gehlen 1974:228, trans. mine)

We should not think the above quotation an isolated case of Adorno’s invoking or describing utopia or the good life. In Negative Dialectics he asserts that “the utopia of knowledge would be to discover the conceptless with concepts, without making it equal to them” (2005:10; trans. modified)[8] and exhorts his readers to “try to live in such a way that one may believe oneself to have been a good animal” (2005:299) And he recollects childhood experiences of fulfilled moments as hopeful anticipations of non-reductive conceptual experience, where “fulfilling this hope alone would fulfill the concept of the concept” (2005:373). Let us consider more closely a few passages in which Adorno discusses reconciliation, utopia:

A consciousness for which intuition and concept, image and sign would be one and the same—if such a consciousness ever existed—cannot be magically restored; and its restitution would constitute a regression to chaos. Such a consciousness is conceivable only as the completion of the process of mediation, as utopia, conceived by idealist philosophy ever since Kant under the name of intellectual intuition, something that broke down whenever actual knowledge appealed to it. (1991:6)

Were speculation concerning the state of reconciliation allowed, then it would be impossible to conceive that state as either the undifferentiated unity of subject and object or their hostile antithesis: rather it would be the communication of what is differentiated. Only then would the concept of communication, as an objective concept, come into its own. The present concept is so shameful because it betrays what is best—the potential for agreement between human beings and things—to the idea of imparting information between subjects according to the exigencies of subjective reason. In its proper place, even epistemologically, the relationship of subject and object would lie in a peace achieved between human beings as well as between them and their Other. Peace is the state of differentiation without domination, with the differentiated participating in each other. (1998:247)

Whoever presents an image of the right conditions, in order to answer the objection that he does not know what he wants, cannot disregard that supremacy [which extends] also over him. Even if his imagination were capable of representing everything as radically different, it would still remain chained to him and his present time as static points of reference, and everything would be askew. (2005:352, trans. emended; quoted by Freyenhagen, p. 10)

Adorno’s seems to claim both that one can experience intimations of reconciliation, utopia, the good life, and that a determinate image or determinate knowledge of such things is impossible because linked with the substantive negativism of contemporary social and economic reality. And the intimations or anticipations are linked often to childhood experiences or to concepts—like intellectual intuition—from German idealism. The  “thought-models” (Denkmodelle) of Negative Dialectics, I would like to suggest, operate in a similar fashion. Such constructed thought-models submit concepts—such as Kant’s concept of freedom, or Hegel’s concept of progress—to a two-way differential critique in which present conditions are shown to contradict the reigning ideology’s invocation of the concept, and—rather than being discarded for not representing reality—the ideology is taken ‘at its word’, as the as yet unfulfilled promise of its realisation:

What dissolves the fetish [of irrevocability of what exists] is the insight that things are not simply so and not otherwise, that they have come to be under certain conditions. Their becoming vanishes and dwells within the things; it can no more be stabilized [stillstellen] in their concept than it can be split off from its results and forgotten. Similar to this becoming is temporal experience. It is when things in being are read as a text of their becoming that idealistic and materialistic dialectics intersect. But while idealism sees in the inner history of immediacy its vindication as a stage of the concept, materialism makes that inner history the measure, not just of the untruth of concepts, but even more of the untruth of what is immediately existent. The means employed in negative dialectic for the penetration of its hardened objects is possibility—the possibility of which their actuality has cheated the objects and which nonetheless gazes out from each one. (2005:52, trans. emended)

As I understand this passage, thought-models criticise the apparent self-sufficiency and immediacy of objects by revealing their historical-conceptual mediatedness (idealism) and their historical-materialist mediatedness in social labour (materialism), but they also show that their concept is not yet true in its “emphatic” (Adorno) or  “normative” sense. This normative sense, I want to suggest, is the normative claim of the past—preeminently the hopes anchored in happy experiences of a privileged childhood or enshrined in key concepts of German Idealism—upon us, today, by which we can measure the untruth of the whole. Hence the alternative title of Negative Dialektik: “a logics of disintegration” (Logik des Zerfalls).[9]  This suggests two ways in which critique is exacted: on the one hand, immanent ideology critique operates dialectically by exposing mediations in the genesis and meaning of concepts; on the other hand, those concepts are upheld as a transcendent norm by which to criticise reigning conditions. At the conclusion of §98 of Minima Moralia, entitled “Legacy” (Vermächtnis), in which Adorno acknowledges Benjamin as an inspiration for this conception of what could be called “saving critique” (rettende Kritik), he invokes the task “to think at the same time dialectically and undialectically”, which in §46 he calls the “morality of thinking”:

Nothing less is asked of the thinker today than that he should be at every moment both within things [Sachen] and outside them […] a model [Schema] of knowledge which wishes to be more than either verification or speculation.

Similarly, in his programmatic ‘Cultural Criticism and Society’, after delineating the shortcomings of both immanent and transcendent forms of critique, Adorno stipulates:

The dialectical critic of culture must both participate in culture and not participate. Only then does he do justice to his object and to himself. (1983: 33)[10]

Laudably, Freyenhagen acknowledges this “saving critique” in his excellent chapter on Adorno’s critique of moral philosophy, chiefly of Kantian moral theory, when in a footnote he writes:

What is interesting about Adorno’s criticisms of Kant’s moral philosophy is that he wants to rescue something from this theory even where he criticizes it. This is true also about the fact of reason and conscience, which according to Adorno, is not just (internalized) “heteronomous coercion” but also contains a moment of universality, which gestures to “the idea of a solidarity transcending the divergent individual interests” (ND 282). (p. 119n.34)

Late essays such as ‘Free Time’ and ‘Gloss on Personality’ (from Critical Models) invoke emphatic concepts of freedom unyoked to labour, and Kantian personality, in similar critical practices. A passage from Minima Moralia brings together both large issues raised in this review, Adorno’s dialectical anthropology and his twofold “saving critique”:

The practical orders of life, while purporting to benefit man, serve in a profit economy to stunt human qualities, and the further they spread the more they sever everything tender. For tenderness between people is nothing other than awareness of the possibility of relations without purpose, a solace still glimpsed by those embroiled in purposes; a legacy of old privileges promising a privilege-free condition. The abolition of privilege by bourgeois reason finally abolishes this promise too. (Minima Moralia §20 [Adorno 1978:40–1])

In this example of dialectical anthropology, Adorno derives the stunting of the human quality of tenderness from the late capitalist ensemble of relations, while also locating its emergence in earlier social conditions of privilege. But while lamenting its disappearance he also saves and invokes the tacit utopian, “privelige-free condition” silently promised by the past.

This doubled critical practice, I suggest, complicates but does not negate Freyenhagen’s epistemic negativism.[11] Freyenhagen is correct that Adorno’s invocation of these norms, often from German idealism, lack the specificity of blueprints. But they are not epistemically vacuous either, and in the later pages of his book Freyenhagen seems to soften his negativism in that he calls these norms or ideals “underdetermined” (p. 215) or “indeterminate” (pp. 226, 227). The conceptual relation determinable-determinate, introduced by the logician W. E. Johnson and developed by A. N. Prior, can prove useful here. Coloured/red and red/chartreuse stand in the determinable/determinate relation, where the latter term has a more determinate extension within the extension of the former term. In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein teaches us that expecting, imagining and similar mental acts are directed not towards a determinate content, but rather to a determinable—something in principle liable to further determination—as for instance when he writes:

I see someone pointing a gun and say “I expect a report”. The shot is fired.—Well, that was what you expected; so did that report somehow already exist in your expectation? (§442)

The red which you imagine is surely not the same (not the same thing) as the red which you see in front of you; so how can you say that it is what you imagined? (§443) (Wittgenstein 1958:137–8)

According to Wittgenstein, with certain psychological attitudes like expecting, remembering, and imagining, the object or referent that eventually fulfils the attitude as it were determines the content of the original attitude’s relatum. He seems to conclude that “[i]t is in language that an expectation and its fulfillment make contact” (§ 445): the object acknowledged (or conversely, refused acknowledgement) as the expectation’s fulfilment as it were fixes the determinate content of the expectation.

My suggestion is to modify, or augment, Freyenhagen’s anthropology and epistemic negativism, which are closely intertwined because according to Adorno “we cannot know what human potential and good is because this world realizes the bad and suppresses this potential” (pp. 4–5). The utopian content, the promise vouchsafed to later generations by the ideals fashioned during the liberal era of capitalism as well as the fulfilled potential of human flourishing, should be viewed as determinables whose determination, because mediated through contemporary societal conditions that in their badness constitute “substantive negativism”, must remain in abeyance. But specifying these contents as determinables allows us to hope for those things that Adorno urged us to hope for—reconciliation of mind and nature, subject and object, autonomy, the rational organisation of society for human needs rather than exchange, and so on—while acknowledging that their ultimate, determinate realisation is beyond our current knowledge. In another passage from Minima Moralia Adorno writes:

In the end hope, wrested from reality by negating it, is the only form in which truth appears. Without hope, the idea of truth would be scarcely even thinkable. (1978:98)[12]

Invited: 30 July 2015. Received: 5 July 2017.


[1] Regarding the different powers of the soul and their hierarchical organisation in organisms, see Polansky (2007:188–222, 534–45).

[2] For a helpful historical overview of Critical Theory’s engagement with philosophical anthropology, see Johannssen (2013).

[3] Likewise Adorno’s sketches from the 1940s, collected posthumously under the title ‘Indviduum und Gesellschaft’, including one section of notes entitled ‘Die neue Anthropologie’ in Adorno (2003).

[4] Cf. Sonnemann’s concluding judgement in his study, “dass die Menschen bei ihrem besten Willen nicht ausdenken können, was sie sind, weil aus ihnen wird, was sie denken” (1969:324).

[5] “There is absolutely nothing between heaven and earth—or rather on earth—which is not mediated by society […]. This applies even to society’s apparently most extreme antithesis, nature and the concept of nature, which is mediated essentially by the need to control nature, and therefore by social need” (Adorno 2002b:64–5).

[6] That is, “it is possible to comprehend historical being in its most extreme historical determinacy, where it is most historical, as natural being […] [and] to comprehend nature as a historical being where it seems to rest most deeply in itself as nature” (2006:260).

[7] Moreover, Adorno also sometimes claims that under current, late or monopoly capitalism, people are aware of ideology, know that it is false, but maintain the status quo because of their impotence in the face of overwhelming societal-economic power.

[8] “[…] the confident utopian belief that it ought after all to be possible to obtain access to that which is not already shaped in advance, staged or reified […]. [T]he concept of philosophy is itself the contradictory effort to say, through mediation and contextualization, what cannot be said hic et nunc; to that extent philosophy contains an inner contradiction, that is, it is inwardly dialectical in itself […] utopia of cognition […] if it might be possible to grasp the non-conceptual not by means of some allegedly superior non-conceptual methods, but by unlocking the non-conceptual by means of the concept, and the self-criticism of concepts—without reducing what has been comprehended, the non-conceptual, to concepts by main force” (Adorno 2008:74).

[9] Benjamin’s practice of “dialectical images” underlies Adorno’s thinking here, though I cannot demonstrate that within this short review essay. The failed realisation of philosophy (e.g. the Kantian concept of autonomy, the Hegelian concept of rational society, the Marxian idea of proletarian revolution, etc.) is first and foremost the disappointment of the previous generation(s), for whom we were their hopes; we are those for whose arrival the past longed. The present generation is the future for the past that hoped for reason’s realisation. We disappointed their expectations, we failed to fulfill their normative claims upon us. This is of course a Benjaminian, a theological, thought: “Then our coming was expected on the earth. Then, like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak messianic power, a power on which the past has a claim” (Historico-Philosophical Thesis II). Adorno, I think, secularises Benjamin in his chosen method in Negative Dialectics and later essays, in the construction of “thought-models” and “critical models”. Cf. Freyenhagen: “Indeed, Adorno claims that metaphysical longing does not aim just at abolishing existing suffering, but also at revoking the irrevocably past suffering” (p. 146). This would also be the start of an extended gloss on the phrase Adorno quoted and attributed to Grabbe: “For nothing but despair [Verzweiflung] can save us” (Adorno & Gehlen 1974:251).

[10] Note also that Adorno requires precisely the same simultaneous immanent-and-transcendent, inside-and-outside, immersion-and-judgement, in the aesthetic experience of authentic (high modernist) artworks. See e.g. ‘vers une musique informelle’, in GS 16:505. We can understand Adorno’s conception of negative dialectic in a similar fashion. Whereas Hegelian dialectic conceives itself as singular totality, positing dialectic and the non-dialectical within identity, negative dialectic sets itself in a dialectical relationship to the non-dialectical, by continually ascertaining the relationship of non-identity between what purports to be a unity and totality and its other, thereby emphasising “the preponderance of the object”, so as “to change the direction of conceptuality, to give a turn toward non-identity, [which] is the hinge of negative dialectics” (Adorno 2005:12). On this point see Sommer (2016:172–82).

[11] Note as well that it fits well with his overall claim that Adorno’s normativity is explanatory, without invoking wholly independent justificatory grounds, for the explanatory norms are inherent in one’s personal history (happy childhood memories) or conceptual traditions (e.g. concepts from German Idealism).

[12] And in one of his final essays, ‘Resignation’, Adorno defined “the emphatic concept of thinking” as “prior to any particular content, the force of resistance” (Adorno 1998:293).


Adorno, T. W. (1970), Gesammelte Schriften, 20 vols., ed. R. Tiedemann (Frankfurt a/M: Suhrkamp). [GS]

——— (1978), Minima Moralia, trans. and ed. E. Jephcott (London: Verso).

——— (1983), Prisms, trans. and ed. S. Weber (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).

——— (1991), Notes to Litetature, vol. 1, trans. and ed. S. Weber Nicholsen (New York: Columbia University Press).

——— (1998), Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. and ed. H. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press).

——— (2002a), Dialectic of Enlightenment, ed. G. Schmid Noerr, trans. E. Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press).

——— (2002b), Introduction to Sociology, ed. C. Gödde, trans. E. Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press).

——— (2003), ‘Individuum und Gesellschaft. Entwürfe und Skizzen’, in Frankfurter Adorno Blätter VIII, ed. R. Tiedemann (Munich: edition text + kritik), pp. 60–94.

——— (2005), Negative Dialectics, trans. and ed. E. Ashton (New York: Continuum).

——— (2006), ‘The Idea of Natural-History’, in R. Hullot-Kentor (ed.), Things Beyond Resemblance: Collected Essays on Theodor W. Adorno (New York: Columbia University Press), pp. 252–70.

——— (2008), Lectures on Negative Dialectics, ed. R. Tiedemann, trans. R. Livingstone (Cambridge: Polity Press).

——— (2017), ‘Theses on Need’, trans. and ed. M. Shuster & I. Macdonald, Adorno Studies 1 (2017): 101–4.

Adorno, T. W. & A. Gehlen (1974), ‘Ist die Soziologie eine Wissenschaft vom Menschen? Ein Streitgespräch’, in F. Grenz, Adornos Philosophie in Grundbegriffen (Frankfurt a/M: Suhrkamp), pp. 224–52.

Bernstein, J. (2001), Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Freyenhagen, F. (2014), ‘Adorno’s Politics: Theory and Praxis in Germany’s 1960s’, Philosophy and Social Criticism 40: 867–93.

Horkheimer, M. (1974), ‘The Concept of Man’, in M. Horkheimer, Critique of Instrumental Rationality (New York: Seabury Press), 1–33.

——— (1995), ‘Remarks on Philosophical Anthropology,” in Between Philosophy and Social Science: Selected Early Writings (Cambridge: MIT Press), pp. 151–76.

Johannssen, D. (2013), ‘Toward a Negative Anthropology: Critical Theory’s Altercations with Philosophical Anthropology’, Anthropology & Materialism 1: 1–14.

Polansky, R. (2007), Aristotle’s De Anima (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Sommer, M. (2016), Das Konzept einer Negativen Dialektik (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck).

Sonnemann, U. (1969), Negative Anthropologie. Vorstudien zur Sabotage des Schicksals (Hamburg: Rowohlt).

Tucker, R. (ed.) (1978), The Marx-Engels Reader (New York: Norton).

Wittgenstein, L. (1958), Philosophical Investigations, trans. and ed. G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell).

© Henry W. Pickford, 2017.

Henry Pickford is Associate Professor of German and Philosophy at Duke University, USA. He works in philosophy and literature, primarily within the German tradition. Areas of interest include German Idealism, Marx, Wittgenstein, and Frankfurt School Critical Theory. He has edited and translated two collections of essays by Adorno published together as Critical Models (Columbia UP, 1998, 2005). Pickford’s latest book is Thinking with Tolstoy and Wittgenstein: Expression, Emotion, and Art (Northwestern UP 2016). Together with Gordon Finlayson he is currently working on a monograph entitled Adorno: A Critical Life.