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


By Fabian Freyenhagen

How can we be deeply historical, but not restricted to just reproduce in thought what unfolds around us? How can we claim that our human potential is being systematically thwarted by our social world, before this potential has ever been realised? How can we restrict knowledge to be only of what is bad for us, without giving up the utopian impulse that this cannot be all there could be? These are central questions for Adorno, and they are the questions to which Henry Pickford’s review of my Adorno’s Practical Philosophy (henceforth ‘APP’) speaks. Before attempting a reply, let me begin by noting that I am very thankful for his engaging so generously and thoughtfully with my book.

In what follows, I shall concentrate mainly on textual matters—for it seems to me that Pickford’s critical comments concern, first and foremost, matters of interpretation—but the substantial issues raised by the above questions will not be far from the surface. From what I can tell, Pickford accepts that I am right to ascribe to Adorno the following theses:

(1) Humanity as not-yet-realised: the biological entities that self-designate as human beings have not yet, actually, realised their humanity; human beings are a life form still in the making (see APP, pp. 11, 237–9, with accompanying textual evidence).

(2) Capitalist society thwarts human potential: the fact that human beings have not realised their humanity yet is due to their social organisation, both past and present. In particular, their current social organisation in capitalist societies thwarts the realisation of their human potential, at the same time as having developed the technical means for realising it (see APP, pp. 2, 4–5, 28, 30–41, 239, with accompanying textual evidence).

In turn, Pickford insists, and I happily accept, that Adorno holds:

(3) Nature and history are dialectically intertwined (the idea of ‘natural history’): nature and history are neither completely separate from each other, nor identical, nor is one reducible to the other.[1]

Pickford thinks that (3) has certain implications for the kind of anthropology, if any, Adorno could be said to accept. He cannot accept an anthropology “according to which the human being can be characterised by some set of essential invariants”—he could not accept a “positive anthropology”. As first piece of evidence, Pickford shows that Horkheimer clearly rejected this kind of anthropology (building on Marx’s ‘Theses on Feuerbach’). This is, I accept, already some evidence for thinking that Adorno, who agreed with Horkheimer on so many matters and worked closely with him, rejects this kind of anthropology too. But Pickford also provides direct textual evidence from Adorno’s Negative Dialectics. There, Adorno goes as far as saying that “any anthropology” is “vetoed” (GS, 6:130/1973:124[2]; quoted by Pickford). One key reason for this rejection also connects to (3) above: insofar as nature and history are dialectically intertwined, “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”. We can formulate this thesis as follows:

(4) Everything is socially mediated: whatever material we encounter (even “first nature”) is shaped by our social context; indeed, even the way we encounter it, is so shaped (see notably the passage quoted by Pickford in footnote 5).

Insofar as “positive anthropology” requires immediate epistemic access to, and a pure concept of first nature, Adorno is rejecting it in rejecting the possibility of such immediate access. What (4) means is that any attempts at developing a “positive anthropology” would just end up describing the “congealed second nature, societal formation and deformation” (Pickford) as first nature, and thus as immutable. In short, instead of knowledge, any such attempts would produce false consciousness.

Is there any anthropology Adorno could accept? Pickford seems to allow for two candidates here:

(5) Negative anthropology: the study of what inhumanity is; what is bad for human beings.[3]

(6) Dialectical anthropology: the study of how first and second nature are dialectically intertwined at different historical moments and in different societies, where this includes understanding the former as historical and the latter as taking on the appearance of being invariant.

Pickford criticises the first of these (i.e. [5] above)—the one I accept in my book—as being either empty or as collapsing into a “positive anthropology”. As such, it cannot do the work I, on Pickford’s reading, require it to do: “provide ‘objective interests’ that then serve as norms according to which modern society can be justifiably criticised” and a “fixed normative standard”. A dialectical anthropology (i.e. [6] above) cannot do this either. It is a “thoroughly historicised and socially contextualised anthropology”—as such, it is in a certain sense no anthropology at all. Insofar as anthropology always deals in invariants (with “human beings as such”), it is rather what might be called (although Pickford does not use this term) ‘historical contextualism’. Put differently, Adorno would follow Marx and Engels’s famous dictum (from the German Ideology) that the only science they recognise is history. (‘Science’ here is understood in the broad sense of the German Wissenschaft, not narrowly to exclude the humanities.)

I agree that Adorno does not hold a “positive anthropology” in the sense specified above. For one thing, it is not clear how such an anthropology would be compatible with thesis (1) above. If the human life form has not been realised and if this means we cannot know what it is (as Adorno thinks and anthropologists would have to think about a not-yet-realised humanity), then there can be no positive anthropology—at least not yet, for upon the realisation of humanity there perhaps could be. Moreover, if by positive anthropology is meant specifically that there is a human nature that is invariantly given in all human history (although perhaps instantiated differently in different historical periods), then Adorno would, indeed, have to deny (and does deny in holding thesis [1] above) that there could be any anthropology in that sense.

However, in my view, Pickford is too quick to dismiss “negative anthropology”. Adorno’s rejection of “any anthropology” is better read, I submit, as a rejection of positive anthropology only. As he writes pithily: “Every image of humanity is ideological, bar a negative” (GS, 8:67; translation mine and emphasis added; also quoted in APP, p. 243n.30). Even if—given (4) above—we cannot have immediate epistemic access to what is bad for human beings, Adorno clearly was committed to the thesis that we can gain some knowledge of it. This is, perhaps, most explicit in his 1963 lecture series on Problems of Moral Philosophy:

We may not know what absolute good is or the absolute norm, we may not even know what man is or the human or humanity—but what the inhuman is we know very well indeed. (Adorno 1996:261/2000:175; see also GS, 8:456)

We can gain knowledge of the inhuman by studying—to quote the passage from Negative Dialectics Pickford wants to use as evidence against my view—how the human being “drags along with him as his social heritage the mutilations inflicted upon him over thousands of years” (GS, 6:130/1973:124; quoted by Pickford). This would mean undertaking a historical study of the denial and absence of the human—to allude to another passage Pickford quotes (GS, 20.1: 263).[4] Negative anthropology would also mean studying social problems in our contemporary context, and explaining them as the thwarting of human potential (as “marks of mutilation”). In such studies, the appeal to what is bad about us would not—and perhaps could not—be immediate. It would be indirect. This is what I meant in the book when saying that Adorno’s anthropological claims are “postulates” of his theory, of the overall explanation of contemporary society (and its history) that Adorno offers (APP, p. 243).

This was not to say that these claims are synthetic a priori judgements of pure practical reason, like Kant’s postulates of freedom, the existence of an all-powerful, benevolent god, and immortality of the soul. Rather, the analogy is more restricted: we cannot have direct epistemic access to the existence of what the postulates are about or to the truth of these postulates (neither in Kant’s case, nor in the case of Adorno, as interpreted by me). Instead, postulates are vindicated indirectly: whatever direct vindication we can offer for theory as a whole or central elements within it,[5] extends to the postulates insofar as the latter need to hold for the former to hold. This is, in effect, what Adorno says in the pivotal passage of his 1964 discussion with Gehlen that plays a crucial role (as Pickford notes) in my book: he does not know what the human potential is positively, while he does know that there is one and that it is being thwarted (“crippled”), but he knows this only indirectly—specifically, he knows it indirectly from the existence and nature of various social problems, the explanation of which (one presumes, given that he does not say this explicitly) is not possible unless it were true that there is such a potential and it is being thwarted. (The key passage is quoted in APP on p. 2 and then again on p. 254.)

But how is ‘postulating’, making indirect knowledge claims about, a human potential compatible with the idea of natural history and the thesis about social mediation (i.e. [3] and [4] above)? To see how this can be, consider another thesis—one that Adorno does not hold:

(7) Everything is socially constructed: it is not just that all material and the ways we engage with material is socially mediated; rather, there is nothing beyond what is socially constituted.

Perhaps Foucault holds this thesis or at least some proponents of a Foucauldian view do. But Adorno does not subscribe to it. For one thing, (7) is incompatible with thesis (3) above, for it would reduce nature to history, rather than insisting on their dialectical intertwinement (and thereby their mutual non-reducibility). Indeed, it also seems incompatible with thesis (4) above, because it is unclear how we can meaningfully talk of something as being socially mediated, without thereby saying that it is, in some sense, also different from what it is mediated by. It may be that we cannot have immediate or direct access to whatever it is beyond its social mediation, but this does not mean that it is nothing but a social construct. For another thing, Adorno’s rejection of (7) is also clear from what he does explicitly say in his texts. Consider first the final sentence of a passage Pickford quotes, where Adorno and Horkheimer speak of

unassimilated features of a human being [as] 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. (Horkheimer & Adorno 2002:200, emphasis added)[6]

Adorno might insist that “residues”—or, more precisely, the substrates on which social mediation gets to work and of which the “residues” are the remainder—might not be immediately accessible to us, but it is clear that he rejects that everything is socially constructed. There is something that enters into the process of social mediation and there is also something that even survives this process, albeit possibly in damaged form. Consider also the following passage from Negative Dialectics that Pickford could well have chosen to make some of his points (rather than, or in addition to, the earlier text ‘Theses on Need’, never published in Adorno’s lifetime quoted by Pickford):

Needs are not invariant and undeducible, and neither do they guarantee their satisfaction. […] Be they ever so tangible, needs that are heteronomously produced participate in ideology. Northing real, of course, can be neatly peeled out of its ideological shell if the critique itself is not to succumb to ideology; to the ideology of simple natural life. Real needs can objectively be ideologies without entitling us to deny them. For in the needs of even the people who are covered, who are administered, there reacts something in regard to which they are not fully covered—a surplus of their subjective share, which the system has not wholly mastered. (GS, 6:99/1973:92)

Adorno speaks here of needs, not human nature, but the two are often related (and perhaps cannot but be related). What he says seems like grist on Pickford’s mills: “Needs are not invariant” is evidence of Adorno’s rejection of invariants; and Adorno’s claim that we cannot neatly peel what human beings really need from the “ideological shell” of what they take themselves to need in the current social context, is evidence that “there is no immediate epistemic access to, no pure concept of first nature”. But what is important for our purposes here is something Pickford does not discuss: that there is something that is “not fully covered”; that even when social mediation is at its most extreme—when what we feel we need is objectively ideology—what is being mediated is not just socially constructed. In other words, we can ascribe to Adorno the following thesis:

(8) Substrates enter social constitution processes and remain as residues: there are substrates on which social mediation gets to work and this leave some residues that social constitution processes do not reach (or, at any rate, have not yet reached).

Thesis (8) is compatible with (4) insofar as our knowledge of any substrate or residues may not be immediate or direct, but is possible only via the social mediated forms—the social manifestations—of the residue in question. Thesis (8) is compatible with thesis (3) insofar as these substrates and residues are also not to be thought of as historical invariants. Rather, for Adorno they would have arisen and then evolved historically—they are the products of natural history (both in the usual sense of things that would be exhibited in a natural history museum and in his technical sense of dialectical intertwinement of nature and history). Vis-à-vis the contemporary social context, they have an element of invariability (and they are nature in this sense, not just a moment of current history); but this does not mean that they have not historically evolved and changed over time. They are neither just a historical product of our time or an empty placeholder for what historically varies (for that would be to dissolve nature into history); nor are they something that is fixed for all time (for that would be to petrify nature and rob it of its history).

The key point is that all of this is compatible with Aristotelianism, both generally and particularly the negative Aristotelianism I ascribe to Adorno. Aristotelians need not deny that life forms arise historically, develop, and can even disappear again. In that sense, life forms for them need not be invariants either. What Aristotelians insist on—most clearly perhaps Michael Thompson (2008)—is that judgements about life-forms have a certain logical form.[7] The judgements are in a certain sense timeless, and as such, different from empirical judgements. The statement “Cats have four legs” is an example of these sui generis judgements about a life-form; it is not an empirical generalisation (for it might be that, because of some freak accident, the vast majority of cats at a given time are born with three legs, but this would not by itself change the life form; it would mean the life form is instantiated in a pathological form in the generation(s) in question). This formal aspect of judgements about life forms might make people think that the contents of those judgements is about invariants, but that would be to conclude too quickly. The explication of a life form has a specific temporality to it, but this does not mean that what is being explicated (the life form) is thereby understood as having always existed and being invariable.[8]

It helps to recognise what negative anthropology makes possible for Adorno—and, also, what is neither made possible nor meant to be made possible by it. Negative anthropology makes possible the claim that some societies—notably modern capitalist societies—are worse for human beings than other societies in terms of human objective interests (claims of the sort expressed in thesis [2] above). Such claims are different from the relativist claim that each society constitutes/constructs human beings differently from another (claims of the sort related to thesis [7] above, which I argued is not endorsed by Adorno). Invoking objective interests is not to say that we can have immediate access to them or that we can judge them infallibly in all social contexts (or even ever infallibly). To invoke them is to signal that we are not in the relativist game. It is not accidental that Adorno’s claim about knowing what inhumanity is, comes in the context of discussing briefly and rejecting relativism. Indeed, insofar as one can vindicate the idea of objective interests (in Adorno’s case by way of explanatory success of the overall theory which includes appeal to and postulating of such interests), then one is also vindicated in rejecting relativism. This does not mean that objective interests can simply be appealed to as “fixed normative standpoints” and it especially does not mean that they can be appealed to as such standard as part of a justification that extends all the way down.

My sense is that Pickford, despite (approvingly, it seems) noting that my Adorno rejects such justifications, falls back into understanding my ascription of negative Aristotelianism and objective interests in foundationalist terms. (Consider, in particular, the formulation of the aim Pickford ascribes to me: “provide ‘objective interests’ that then serve as norms according to which modern society can be justifiably criticised” [my emphasis].) To be clear: for a foundationalist project, negative Aristotelianism will not do; the key point is that negative Aristotelianism is not meant to succeed as such a project, for it rejects foundationalism as impossible. The thought is not that the negative Aristotelianism is an element in addition to Adorno’s critical theory, so that the latter can appeal to the former to ground its normative criteria (whether in something non-moral or otherwise). The thought is, instead, that his critical theory itself is negative Aristotelian; and that whatever is identified in the theory as the wrong forms of life that ought to be resisted is thereby a (defeasible and fallibilist) claim about what is objectively wrong for us as the members of the human life-form.

These sorts of claim are not easily read off social reality, and—I insisted in my interpretation and defence of Adorno’s theory—depend on the theory as a whole and its explanatory success. In making the negative Aristotelianism explicit, we can see that Adorno is in the game of making claims about objective interests, rather than in the game of saying ‘this society construes individuals in this way; I would, however, like us to be construed differently instead—perhaps because of my idiosyncratic, European mandarin tastes’. Adorno might not always succeed in the game of making claims about objective interests, but it is important to note that this is the game he is engaged in (see also Freyenhagen 2017a:864).

Before addressing Pickford’s second critical comment—which is the related, but also somewhat different topic of Adorno’s epistemic negativism—there is one more issue in respect of (Aristotelian) anthropology I would like to discuss. One other role unearthing Adorno’s negative Aristotelianism has in my account is to explicate, and help defend, his otherwise rather puzzling claims about physical impulses, and how they can be (at least on occasion) better guides to acting morally than setting reflection in motion and appealing to principles. Aristotelians can recognise bodily reactions as expressive of rationality, and as sometimes more expressive of rationality than the outcomes of conscious deliberation (see APP, p. 235; see also ch. 7 and Freyenhagen 2017a). This provides more meat to the bones of the substantive notion of rationality in play in Adorno’s theory (what Horkheimer refers to as “objective reason”).

Pickford, however, expresses scepticism as to whether there is such a thing as the physical abhorrence to suffering to which Adorno (and Horkheimer) could lay claim. He supports this evidence with a passage from Horkheimer. I would like to make two points in reply. The first one is that the passage in question is insufficient qua evidence. What Pickford claims is that Horkheimer rejects that there is such a thing as Rousseau’s “innate repugnance of seeing a fellow-creature suffer”. Instead, whatever sympathy towards others (and altruistic behaviour) there is, will depend on and vary with the particular socio-historical context. The passage from Horkheimer is then meant to show this—specifically how sympathy has been transformed under bourgeois conditions. The quoted passage is of great interest, but I think Pickford is wrong in reading it as he does. Horkheimer does speak about a particular, historically specific form of sympathy and altruism that capitalism (eventually) generates. But he is not saying that this bourgeois sympathy is a transformation of “the spontaneous feeling of unity in pre-bourgeois forms of community or unconditioned solidarity”, but that it is different from them (“not equivalent”). Saying something is different is not committing to its being the transformation of something that came before it—if anything, the story Horkheimer tells about bourgeois sympathy is one about how it was generated out of egoism. Moreover, it is noteworthy that Horkheimer speaks here of “unconditioned solidarity” (as different from bourgeois sympathy). If anything, this mention would lend support to his holding onto something like what I ascribed to Adorno too, namely, the aforementioned “repugnance of seeing a fellow-creatures suffer”. Perhaps, Pickford’s point here is merely the one he already made earlier (this is suggested by how he goes on after quoting Horkheimer): even if unconditional solidarity is different from bourgeois sympathy, it cannot provide an eternal, fixed normative standpoint for critical theory.

This leads me to the second, and perhaps more important, point: whatever might be true of Horkheimer, in the book I provide extensive textual evidence for the fact that, for Adorno, an archaic “repugnance of seeing a fellow-creatures suffer” survives in us in the form of a physical impulse, and that it is of great importance to his negativist ethics (see APP, notably ch. 7; see also ch. 5 and the appendix). Indeed, he explicitly says that it is in this “unvarnished materialistic motive only that morality survives” (GS, 6:358/1973:365; quoted in APP, pp. 150, 204). One issue this raises is whether Adorno might actually hold only a qualified version of thesis (4) above. (And perhaps his statements where he seems to endorse [4] in an unqualified way [see Pickford, footnote 5] are only exaggerations or true for the most part.) Maybe, what he is committed to, is the following modified version of (4):

Everything is historically mediated, but not everything is socially mediated by our current historical context—or at least not mediated to the point of being defaced or fully governed by it.

In particular, Adorno could be read as suggesting in some passages that something from an earlier layer of our natural history can sometimes break though the social veil, and do so relatively untouched by this veil. Thus, when he highlights how certain physical impulses are crucial for moral conduct (more so than principle-based rationalisations) in the form of the sense of solidarity with what Brecht called “tormentable bodies”, he also speaks of these impulses as “archaic” and “preceding the ego” (GS, 6:221/1973:221–2) and as “naked physical fear” (GS, 6:281/1973:286). He claims that their truth lies exactly in being impulses, not what they are about, which could be expressed by way of principles or values (GS, 6:281/1973:285). If anything, reflection, or rationalisation, endangers them and their truth (see also APP, ch. 7). In this way, the repugnance at seeing a fellow-creature suffer is historically mediated insofar as it is something that developed in the course of human natural history—perhaps as part of “the social heritage the mutilations inflicted upon [human beings] over thousands of years” (to pick up a formulation Adorno uses in Negative Dialectics; quoted already above and by Pickford). And this repugnance seems to be one of these “unassimilated features of a human being’s […] residues not fully encompassed by the prevailing system and still happily surviving” (to return to this also already quoted passage). In short, it seems to be part of Adorno’s dialectical anthropology that something pre-dating our current social world persists in it and, at least sometimes, can exert an influence in it, which, moreover, is an important counterbalance to this world and the bourgeois coldness it tends to generate.

Let me now turn to the second major issue Pickford raises. He accepts that Adorno holds the following thesis:

(9) Epistemic Negativism: we cannot know what the good life is prior to the realisation of its social conditions or what (cognitive and/or social) utopia would consist in positively speaking (that is, other than the avoidance of the bads and cognitive dystopias we can identify).

He also acknowledges that my interpretation allows for a utopian moment in Adorno—the commitment that things could be different (Pickford quotes APP, p. 20). However, Pickford thinks that Adorno sometimes breaks with this “austere epistemic negativism” by describing utopia and the good life. He argues that any defensible interpretation needs to be mindful of both these moments, the negativism and these descriptions.

In one sense, I agree. Still, crucially, in the sense I agree there is no tension here between these two moments, for the descriptions of utopia and the good life that Adorno offers are negative descriptions and as such compatible with, rather than “contrary to some of Adorno’s stronger negativist claims upon which Freyenhagen relies”. As formulated above and in the book, epistemic negativism does not exclude saying: ‘We know XYZ is bad for human beings, perhaps even an example of inhumanity, and this means that whatever utopia or the good life or a free society consists in, XYZ will have to be excluded from it.’ The passages Pickford refers to and quotes can be read to fits this.

The first passage Pickford quotes is about the bads involved in economic exchange and states that these bads would be no longer in a free society, built as that society would have to be not on economic exchange—it would avoid its “deformation”; it would be a world “in which there is no more levelling through exchange”; one where production occurs not to further the runaway dynamic of capitalist surplus-value maximisation which satisfies human needs at most as by-products and creates false ones to fuel its dynamics, but occurring “in accordance with needs of people” (quoted by Pickford from Adorno’s discussion with Gehlen in 1965). Given the acquaintance people have with the bads, it is unsurprising that Adorno thinks it would be “understandable” that we should avoid them.

This statement should, I think, be understood wholly negatively—as an instance of saying ‘whatever liberated society involves, it does not involve this bad, or that one, or this third one our history of suffering and current damaged life has acquainted us with’. There is a clear commitment that things could be otherwise, but that utopian moment is exhausted in saying how they would not be—there is (and can be) no positive description of how they would be like (nor need there be; see APP, ch. 8).

Not only does such a reading have the advantage of avoiding an unnecessary tension with other textual passages where Adorno presents his “austere epistemic negativism”; it has an additional advantage: Adorno’s statements are even more implausible than they will strike many people already anyway, if they are understood as positive descriptions. Someone could reasonably say:

So, Herr Adorno, economic production and consumption would be organised without economic exchange—without the market—and yet such a society would be a free one, and not one that is deeply unjust or problematic as previous, non-market class societies have been or the bureaucratised nightmares of nominally existing socialism? If you are offering me a positive description here, then I am seriously unimpressed by the lack of detail of how this will actually look like (and work). And, by the way, which needs are the real ones? And what would producing in accordance with them involve? And even if I might understand what it means to say that “there is no more levelling through exchange”, I do not know or understand what there would be instead of it, while you promised me a positive description.

Contrast this with someone complaining—still complaining but less indignantly—as follows:

OK, Herr Adorno, so you tell me that a free society would avoid all of these concrete bads you enumerated. I might be persuaded by your theory as a whole that they are genuine bads that are unavoidable in our current social world. But you have not told me what will take their place and how it is even possible to combine avoidance of all of them, given that avoiding them might pull in different directions. And I know you have principled reasons for why you think a positive alternative cannot be anticipated by theory or imagination prior to its realisation and from within a delusional society. And I also know that you can explain to me why I crave it anyway, but I cannot help but crave it and I am not sure I am willing to take the risks involved in pressing for something I know about only in terms of what it avoids.

As for the other passages which Pickford quotes, I think they either should be read negativistically (as indicated for the first one above) or they are actually about other matters and compatible with epistemic negativism for other reasons. They all express Adorno’s utopian commitment, but, I submit, in a way that stays within the strictures of his negativism.

One set of passages concern mainly epistemology, specifically the utopia of cognition. The way I read them, they are about the bads of “identity thinking” and idealism: of reducing the non-conceptual to the conceptual, involving, as this does, “domination” and “force” (see Pickford, footnote 8). When positive terms appear in these statements, they are either taken back in the same breadth (such as when Adorno claims that what is required would be a consciousness in which intuition and concept would not be separate, but then goes on to say that this would either be “regression into chaos” or “intellectual intuition, […] something that broke down whenever actual knowledge appealed to it” (Pickford quotes from ‘Essay as Form’); or characterised in a way that shows they are (in our current social and epistemic context) just placeholders for avoiding some bad or other (notably, peace is really the absence of domination).

There is one passage from Negative Dialectics about trying “to live in such a way that one may believe oneself to have been a good animal” (quoted by Pickford). This passage, I think, is actually not about a free society and utopia, but rather refers to living less wrongly in our current wrong world (see APP, pp. 171–3). Specifically, it refers to the Rousseau point about “innate repugnance of seeing a fellow-creature suffer” already discussed above, and as such can be accounted for negativistically. (It also relates to the bifurcation typical of the Aristotelian approach between what we share with other animals and what is specific about human beings and human goodness; see APP, pp. 240–1.)

Finally, there is another passage from Negative Dialectics which Pickford quotes. However, as he is aware, this one is a clear example of “austere epistemic negativism”. It warns us that trying to present an image of the right conditions would end up reproducing in it the wrong ones, so that “everything would be askew” (quoted in APP, p. 10).

There are other passages, which Pickford does not refer to or quote, but which can be and sometimes have been read as incompatible with Adorno’s negativism. I discuss some of them in the book (APP, pp. 14n.29, 21n.41, 39, 222), arguing again that they need not be read in this way. But, ultimately, there is always another line of defence: sometimes Adorno might have stridden beyond the strictures of his own view, be carried away to say something which is not actually compatible with his view overall. The question is what the overwhelming tendency of his work is—and I submit that it is negativist and for good reasons.

Beyond my disagreement about specific passages, I also think that Pickford presents Adorno too much as an immanent critic, in the sense of measuring the existing reality against its promises. Adorno does use this strategy of critique, but he is adamant that it cannot stand on its own against the wrong world, in part because this world might maintain itself without making promises; in part because realising the bourgeois promises is not by itself sufficient for the good life and a free society, but at most a necessary step of transition (for example because its promise to meet all our needs involves reference to false needs it produced, which should still be satisfied in some sense, but only so as to rid us of them); and in part because tools like immanent critique should not be conceived in isolation, but require embeddedness in critical theory as a broader whole, including notably the prior ethical orientation towards the abolition of domination, want and injustice (see APP, pp. 13–15; see also Freyenhagen 2017a, b).

Finally, two comments on Pickford’s intriguing alternative—or perhaps complementary—framing of Adorno’s ideas in terms of the conceptual relation of determinable-determinate. First, I agree that there is something indeterminate or underdetermined about what, for Adorno, we can know about a free society and the good life. Saying that a free society will have to avoid certain concrete evils underdetermines what it will be like. For example, it might be that different social worlds could be so structured as to prevent another Auschwitz form happening, so this negative prescription (Adorno’s new categorical imperative) cannot distinguish between them, cannot determine which of the two we should rather bring about. Similarly, to say that such a society won’t be a marketised one is to leave underdetermined how production and consumption will be coordinated instead. Part of my thinking here is that for Adorno the good life and good society is more than just the absence of certain evils (somewhat like the WHO conceptualising health as more than just the absence of disease). In that sense, our knowledge about what bads to avoid leave the good underdetermined or perhaps even indeterminate.

Still, and this is the second comment, I am not sure whether this relationship is well-captured in terms of framing it in terms of determinable-determinate. For one thing, it would have to be adapted from the Wittgensteinian context, where, I take it, the point is one about language and meaning in general (as less determinate and more open than often thought of), rather than about a particular social context. After all, the reason we cannot know what the good life or society is for Adorno is not to do with the fact that we can never once and for all fix meaning; but it has to do, at least in good part, with the particular society we live in, its wrongness and illusion-inducing nature.

Perhaps more importantly, determinateness is of particular importance for Adorno’s thinking—the determinate has at least normative priority (and possibly logical priority) over what is determinable for him. He opposes the abstractness of identity thinking and various forms of ethics (notably Kant’s), and insists on the centrality of the particular and its determinateness. Indeed, one of the key aspects of negativism is that we can avoid empty abstractions when it comes to bads and our knowledge thereof, and can appeal to determinates. It brings with it an indexicality to concrete experiences and events—most notably in Adorno’s new categorical imperative, which, unlike Kant’s ‘old’ one, does not refer to abstract principles or values (which, I take it, would be determinables), but to a specific historical context and set of events (to determinates), and refers to the experiences and events in a way that is very specific (using the place name Auschwitz rather than terms like the Holocaust; see APP, ch. 5). Adorno is saying that it is because of concrete bads to which we can point in their determinateness that a different social world is required. And that it is from attending to these concrete bads in their determinateness that we can gain ethical guidance.

There is another reason why framing Adorno’s theory in terms of the bads we know and the good we cannot know seems to me more apt than framing it in terms of determinable-determinate. One of the (dialectical) battles he was fighting was to combat the relentless demand for providing positive alternatives, a demand typical (for him) of the particular social world we live in and what is wrong with it and sustains it. Insisting that we cannot know anything positive about the alternative, but also do not need to do so, is an important move in this dialectic. It might be a matter of emphasis only—but emphasis can matter a lot.

None of this is to deny a role for hope. As noted above, I insist on a utopian moment in Adorno’s work, on his commitment to the possibility that things could be otherwise (even if we cannot say anything positive about how they would be). It is just that this moment is, on my reading, compatible with, even feeding on his negativism. The final quote which Pickford deploys shows traces of this: for Adorno says not only that hope “is the only form in which truth appears” and a condition of thinking the idea of truth, he also says that hope “is wrested from reality by negating it” (Adorno 1951; quoted by Pickford, emphasis mine).

Received: 19 December 2017.


[1] For a helpful recent discussion of Adorno’s idea of natural history, see Whyman (2016).

[2] Adorno’s Negative Dialektik (1966) is cited in the Gesammelten Schriften editions of (1970), followed by the citation of the translation (Adorno 1973).

[3] Strictly speaking, Pickford operates with three notions of ‘negative anthropology’ in his text: (1) “narrowly and contextually” understood negative anthropology as the “denial of traditional anthropology’s metaphysical assumption of an historically invariable human nature”; (2) Sonnemann’s notion of negative anthropology, according to which (in Adorno’s words as quoted by Pickford): “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’”; and (3) my “negative Aristotelian anthropology”. In the main text, I am referring to (3), which includes (1) and (2) to a certain extent: (3) involves rejecting the traditional anthropological approach of starting with a metaphysical account of human nature (APP, p. 244), and thereby (1); and (3) is about uncovering the denial and absence of humanity, although (perhaps unlike Sonnemann) it does not claim that this suffices to give us a positive account of humanity prior to its realisation.

[4] If this is meant by, or compatible with, dialectical anthropology, then Pickford and I are in agreement as to Adorno’s commitment to it. Still, I would insist that it thereby allows us to learn something about our “objective interests”, namely, those we have in avoiding certain things and state of affairs.

[5] In Kant’s case, the direct vindication is supposed to be a “justification all the way down”, indeed a priori and apodictic; in Adorno’s case, it would be—at least I argued this in the book and Pickford seems to agree—not all the way down, but one about best explanation (along with negative arguments why nothing more is possible). In this context, I may be permitted to remark that the latter, explanatory, vindication is not “weaker” than the former, justificatory one. If Adorno is correct, then a justificatory vindication all the way down is not just unavailable but impossible—as such, it cannot be stronger (or weaker) than what is available and possible.

[6] Strictly speaking, “residues” should be in square brackets in the translation because it is an addition by Jephcott to render the German phrase more idiomatic in English; Horkheimer and Adorno literally just say “that which has not been fully encompassed by the prevailing system”. But nothing really hangs on this here.

[7] To add a further terminological complication, Thompson (2008) calls this form “natural historical judgements”, whereby he means something different from the usual sense of things that would be exhibited in a natural history museum and Adorno’s technical sense of dialectical intertwinement of nature and history. To avoid confusion, I won’t use Thompson’s notion of “natural historical” in the main text.

[8] A clarification is in order here. I just emphasised the formal aspect of Aristotelian judgements about the life form in order to make a point about the way this element might be misunderstood to imply a certain kind of invariability. In emphasising this, I am, however, not saying that the negative anthropology I ascribe to Adorno is merely formal. It is substantive in virtue of the determinateness of the inhuman about which we can and do acquire knowledge for Adorno, and which constrains, but also underdetermines, what humanity (positively) consists in (see the discussion of epistemic negativism in the main text below). In the book, I describe this negativist substantive knowledge in terms of our knowing about basic human functioning (APP, esp. ch. 9), that is, the avoidance of certain evils (distinguished from human flourishing, the realisation of the human good). The postulates that are part of Adorno’s overall theory include also some formal aspects—Adorno seems to think that explanation of the concrete bads we encounter requires postulating that the human potential, whatever it positively and concretely is, has a certain coherence and structure to it, rather than being simply completely indeterminate and open. But, as I emphasise again later on in the main text, the postulates are fuelled by concrete bads, and thereby involve substantive knowledge of the inhuman.


Adorno, T. W. (1951), Minima Moralia (Frankfurt a.M: Suhrkamp).

——— (1966), Negative Dialektik (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp).

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

——— (1973), Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul). See alternative trans: http://www.efn.org/~dredmond/ndtrans.html

——— (1996), Probleme der Moralphilosophie (1963), ed. T. Schröder (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp).

——— (2000), Problems of Moral Philosophy, trans. R. Livingstone (Cambridge: Polity Press).

Freyenhagen, F. (2017a), ‘A Whole Lot of Misery: Adorno’s Negative Aristotelianism—Replies to Allen, Celikates, and O’Connor’, European Journal of Philosophy 25: 861–74.

——— (2017b), ‘Was ist orthodoxe Kritischen Theorie?’, Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie 65(3): 456–69.

Horkheimer, M. & T. W. Adorno (2002), Dialectic of Enlightenment, ed. G. Schmid Noerr & trans. E. Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press).

Thompson, M. (2008), Life and Action: Elementary Structures of Practice and Practical Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

Whyman, T. (2016). ‘Understanding Adorno on Natural-History’, International Journal of Philosophical Studies 24(4): 452–72.

© Fabian Freyenhagen, 2018.

Fabian Freyenhagen is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Essex and is co-director of The Essex Autonomy Project. His research concentrates on Critical Theory, ethics, political philosopy and philosophy of psychiatry. He has published, among other publications, in journals such as JOURNAL OF APPLIED PHILOSOPHY, PHILOSOPHY & SOCIAL CRITICISMPROCEEDINGS OF THE ARISTOTELIAN SOCIETY, INQUIRY and KANTIAN REVIEW.