Critical theory

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S015-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 28, 2020, from

6. Negative dialectics

In his Negative Dialectics (1966), Adorno tries to give a philosophical account of the kind of thinking that is constitutive of critical theory: a form of substantive reason which is however purely negative.

Both everyday thinking and science, he claims, proceed by subsuming particulars under general concepts. By doing this, however – by claiming that this (tree) is a tree and that that (tree) is (also) a tree – we are tacitly asserting an identity between the two individuals and between each individual and the concept. To engage in such ‘identity thinking’ is to be tacitly trying to make identical what is in fact in some sense different – no two trees are exactly alike. Using an identifying concept is a way of trying to crush or suppress difference. The appropriate form of resistance to this reprehensible project is to remain aware of ‘non-identity’; that is, of the ways in which instances are not identical with the concepts under which they are subsumed (and with each other). ‘Negative dialectics’ tacks back and forth between concept and instances, continually pointing out in what concrete ways they are not identical. Such a negative dialectics is a kind of cognition of the non-identical, although the process of moving back and forth negatively between concept and instance has no natural stopping point and will not ever result in some positive, detachable conclusion or new, more adequate concept.

Adorno rejected the usual standards of clarity and communicability for philosophical writing, seeing in them forms of repression, ways of preventing novel thoughts from being thought. He thus consciously wrote in an elusive, convoluted style, and claimed that (his) philosophy could not be summarized. This view makes good sense if one thinks of philosophy as essentially a concrete attempt to specify a ‘determinate negation’ that cannot in principle be turned into anything positive.

Citing this article:
Geuss, Raymond. Negative dialectics. Critical theory, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S015-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2020 Routledge.

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