Adorno, Theodor Wiesengrund (1903–69)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD001-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved February 29, 2024, from

4. Nonidentity and negative dialectics

Enlightened reason is premised on a false inference: because some false beliefs (myths, superstitutions and the like) are subjective projections, then the medium of those projections (sensory images, language, social practices and history) must themselves be systematic sources of error. Complete independence from these mediums is thus taken to be a condition for true knowledge. This drive for independence is most fully elaborated in the writings of the German Idealists, above all Kant and Fichte, where the autonomy of reason and the meaning-independence of concepts become explicitly identified with the spontaneity of the ‘transcendental’ subject. Unknown to itself, this subject and the philosophical concept of system it subtends are still in the throe of the drive to self-preservation, their abstract conceptuality still harbouring both fear and rage against their objects. The conception of idealism as rationalized rage is Adorno’s appropriation and transformation of Nietzsche’s notion of ressentiment. Idealist rage is directed at anything that refuses to fit or, in Adorno’s terminology, is nonidentical with the demands of autonomous reason. Because the autonomy of reason is secured through the meaning-independence of concepts from concrete experience and its mediums, then what is incommensurable with this reason is whatever is irredeemably particular and contingent. The goal of Adorno’s philosophy is the ‘rescue’ of nonidentity – the thing in itself in its concrete, historically mediated sensuous particularity.

Adorno’s method of rescue is the use of dialectic. The point of dialectical analysis is to demonstrate that the rationalized concept of an object does not exhaust the thing conceived. It attains this end by showing that what were conceived to be extrinsic encumbrances on reason (sensory images and so on) that could be stripped away in its attainment of autonomy are in fact the necessary mediations through which knowing subjects come into relation to objects known. Adorno borrowed this conception of dialectic from Hegel. Adorno construes his dialectic as ‘negative’, in opposition to Hegel, because, on the one hand, he believes that Hegel’s ‘system’ collapses back into the kind of identity thinking that dialectic opposes; and, on the other hand, because he believes that dialectical analysis only works under conditions in which the mediations it elaborates are systematically, in theory and in practice, denied.

Because an alternative conception of reason is not currently available, despite being a real historical possibility, Adorno’s philosophy is utopian. Cognitively and practically, utopia is conceived of by Adorno ‘as above identity and above contradiction; it would be a togetherness of diversity’ ([1966] 1973: 150). An image of such ‘togetherness of diversity’ is provided by modernist works of art.

Citing this article:
Bernstein, J.M.. Nonidentity and negative dialectics. Adorno, Theodor Wiesengrund (1903–69), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD001-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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