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“Introduction to Negative Dialectics” Seminar Paper

Angela Davis

Platypus Review 138 | July-August 2021

Translators’ Preface

In the summer of 1967, Theodor Adorno offered a seminar to invite discussion on his recently published Negative Dialectics. Angela Davis, encouraged by Herbert Marcuse, was studying with Adorno in Frankfurt at this time and presented this paper at that seminar. The piece itself, according to Oskar Negt,[1] was well received and provoked an “informative discussion” between her and Adorno, who had agreed to supervise Davis’ doctoral research before she ultimately decided to return to the United States in order to join the political developments happening there at the time.[2] This essay, along with much of Davis’ work and correspondences, now resides in the Radcliffe Institute’s Schlesinger Library at Harvard University. We are grateful to Angela Davis for permission to translate and publish this text for the first time.   

Our translation aims to treat the essay as a historical document and to maintain a fidelity to Davis’ German, which the reader will note has a quality of foreignness to it. The reason for this textual opacity is twofold. The first can be explained biographically: Davis wrote the remarkably dense essay at the age of twenty-three years old in her second foreign language after French. Her German demonstrates a command of just how well-suited the language is to the construction of complex sentences with multiple clauses, a characteristic that proves as difficult as it is useful. The second reason is attributable to her close reading of Adorno’s style, which deliberately evades a totalizing, systematic elaboration of concepts. This approach, namely that of immanent critique, renders its object partial and unresolved so as to force the reader to reflect upon its incomplete status in relation to a philosophy that exists negatively, after its moment of realization had been missed.

Introduction to Negative Dialectics

If, in the end, the Hegelian system relates everything to the Absolute in which time is "erase[d],”[3] it nevertheless determines the path to truth, to absolute knowledge as a temporal development of differences and thus elevates the new, the alien, the not-yet-conceptual to a necessary component of the process of knowledge: as its moment. By contrast, the presently dominant scientific “frame of reference” ideology aims at a spatial, static order in which all facts are given their clearly defined place. Whereas for Hegel time is the condition, the medium as well as the constituens of truth, today thinking testifies to the inability to endure that which has not yet been apprehended. Nietzsche’s critique of causal thinking applies also to the administered world: “To derive something unknown from something familiar relieves, comforts, and satisfies, besides giving a feeling of power. With the unknown, one is confronted with danger, discomfort, and care; the first instinct is to abolish these painful states. First principle: any explanation is better than none.”[4] The reified consciousness stamps everything non-tautological as vertiginous [schwindelerregend] and thereby means to prove its untruth: that alone is true which comfortably agrees with the predetermined coordinates. Thinking in alternatives provides something “to hold on to,”[5] a calmness of a worldview and model, and the security of the previously established knowledge of decisions already made.

The simplifying determination through alternatives and "frames-of-reference" extinguishes the truth of the self-being [Selbstsein] of the objects, since all those moments which do not contribute to the satisfaction of the subject's need for security are eliminated.

The thought of the radical other appears negative because it represents an affront to “formal thinking” which makes “identity its law.”[6] Philosophical reflection reveals the inadequacy and falsehood of such a conception of knowledge. Hegel’s critique of “healthy common sense” also emphasizes the fear of the unknown as an essential moment—that is, of the truth of philosophical speculation—which undermines the absolute, fixed, finite knowledge of the understanding. The “relative identities of common sense” are “contingencies for philosophical reflection.”[7] The speculative resolution of the healthy common sense leads finally to the sublation [Aufhebung] of the differences between subject and object and ends in the “nullification of consciousness itself… in the night of pure reflection” that is the “noonday of life” for speculation.[8]

Negative dialectics does not search for a higher identity, a totalizing identity of identity and non-identity in which the latter disappears. Thought, which aspires to become knowledge, must accept a moment of blindness—“must throw itself to the object à fond perdu[9]—if it is not to end in delusion. The unknown, as the driving moment of knowledge, is not to be thought away. The vertiginous must be understood as an index veri, insofar as a resistance against the tendency to lock away knowledge in a circle of repetition is registered in it. The vertiginous can neither be established in a frame of reference nor sublated in absolute knowledge. It is the subjective reaction to that which refuses to be systematized.

The rejection of the scientific procedure of frame-of-reference as well as of philosophical systematics in the traditional sense does not negate their respective intentions. The observation that the system as such inhibits knowledge does not thereby imply the abandonment of stringency as an element of truth, nor of objective criteria which the philosophical system believed it had secured in the abstract. Whereas the system looks to impose truth on the objects from above, negative dialectics aims at truth that is to be developed out of the objects themselves. The force generated and absorbed by the system is directed at the singular, concrete phenomenon. The impossibility, recognized by negative dialectics, to dogmatically assure its ability to fully grasp the truth of its objects is the real consequence of the thought that truth must be sought out in the concrete. Failing to recognize this and remaining in a fixed certainty, negative dialectics would make itself an accomplice to Hegel’s thesis that the concrete is spirit in itself. As philosophy, negative dialectics searches neither for axioms nor an ultimate ground; on principle, it does not look to complete itself. Negative dialectics lives in the constant realization that the object it tries to conceptualize does not disappear in the conceptus rei. By seeing through the hypostasis inherent in idealism and ontology, negative dialectics strives for a way of thinking that, by constant self-reflection, remains conscious of its conceptual nature and thus of its relation to the non-conceptual. Even formal logic is inconceivable without a “something,” even in the most abstract form, to which the propositions refer. Every philosophy that posits thinking as sovereign or that, by nature of its approach, implies the objective primacy of thinking obstructs its own access to truth. An example of such a philosophy is vulgar materialist epistemology, according to which thought merely reflects external reality and thereby absolutizes its concept.

The immersion in the non-conceptual in the object with the aim of drawing out its truth is made more difficult by the fact that thinking, as a "thinking of something", must in principle identify its object in order to be able to recognize it at all; the reduction of the particular to its—general—concept determines the character of thinking. Constantly identifying, thought must fix, immobilize, hypostatize, rob the object of its temporal truth. For thinking that knows there is no royal road to truth—aside from the untruth of hypostatization—the inner-dynamics of truth must necessarily appear fragile. Fragility in this sense is not synonymous with the dialectical-speculative concept of truth. According to this concept, truth constitutes itself as a break, an eternal break—broken by the necessary explication in the medium of time—and therein preserves its absolute essence and its timeless character. Truth is inherently fragile because it is inherently temporal. The conceptual representation of the object must therefore be thought of as divided against itself, and it is this division, as a movement that dissolves everything solid, that creates the vertiginous feeling in reified thinking, in thinking caught up "in the state of perfect indifference [of] security,"[10] that simply brings together truth and stasis as one. The static only enters dialectics as a moment, which otherwise would be absolute—and thus itself static—movement.

Even Kant, whose Critique of Pure Reason wanted to erect a “permanent residence,"[11] admits to a certain extent the fragile nature of truth: in the criticism of teleological judgment, Kant observes that "the particular, as such, contains something contingent. And yet reason requires that even the particular laws of nature be combined in a unified and hence lawful way… It is impossible to derive the particular laws, as regards what is contingent in them, a priori from universal ones [supplied by the understanding].”[12] However, through the concept of purposiveness, which functions as a regulative principle, a lawfulness is subordinated to contingency which is subjective, but ultimately just as necessary as if it were objective. By consistently upholding the primacy of the object, negative dialectics does not consider itself, as knowledge, to be covered a priori by any necessity—for the simple reason that, as Kant demonstrates, universality and necessity can only be justified by a subjective construction.

The fragility that philosophy has to face is not to be confused with relativism, for which objective truth is entirely obsolete. Relativism is the prototype of the groundless philosophy for fundamental ontology but cannot, however, be criticized with its categories. This would mean thinking in bad alternatives. There is also no middle path to be found between the two; dialectics immanently criticizes the two extremes. In an immanent criticism of relativism in particular, its groundlessness presents itself as all too well-founded. If every individual consciousness, as a monadological bearer of particular interests with its own opinions, is allowed to make an equal claim to truth, then that narrow-minded "indifference of security" of healthy common sense that Hegel criticizes in the Differenzschrift follows precisely. This indifference is a direct function of the particular interests which are taken to be true against the truth itself. Relativism hypostatizes a moment in a process which, in reality, also contains the mediating universal as a determinant. The relativism that speaks in favor of the particularism of opinions and interests is itself relative in relation to the laws that rule society and which, through their opacity, have become the secret absolute, the deus absconditus of relativism. The behavior of the individuals who have to assert themselves in the market is already determined by this. However, this in no way sanctions a higher degree of relativism, as it is found in Pareto and Manheim's thesis that the individual is conditioned by class, generation, status group, occupation, etc., as ultimately irreducible factors, as social realities. Objectivity does not arise, as Mannheim thought, from the summary of all perspectives but rather from insight into the laws, which in turn make those perspectives and points of view possible first and foremost: the laws of life in bourgeois society. The doctrine of relativism, which generally boils down to a confirmation of the existing, functions within bourgeois society as a kind of defense mechanism against the immanent destructiveness of the bourgeois concept of reason. This bourgeois concept not only dissolved medieval ontology, the form of reflection of the feudal order: its insight that the spontaneity of thought constitutes the order of the real also secretly contained the demand that freedom should be realized in a rationally organized society. The enchantment of private property, which in its immediacy is recognized as natural—that is, as it were, as an ontological reality [Seinsbestand]—prevents the sublation of bourgeois consciousness through a potentially more advanced consciousness contained in it. The individual is invariably determined by blind causal laws, while freedom is assigned to an intelligible sphere that does not allow any influence on the phenomenal world. Relativism and ontology are related to one another insofar as the latter assumes something solid as the primary, absolute origin, but which, by forgetting all intellectual mediations, constructs its first principle as a castle in the air; while the former, abstracting from all concrete mediations, makes relativity into a first principle and the free-floating into something solid.

Negative dialectics adopts, precisely in its most extreme consequences, the Hegelian concept of thinking as negativity, which constantly destroys immediacy by revealing it as appearance, as immediacy that has forgotten its mediation. If, however, the negative power of thinking is asserted as the universal principle of everything that exists, of the object as well as of the subject, it becomes exposed to the objection of hypostatizing itself as the immediate. This strength of thinking, which takes precedence in Hegel, is retained in negative dialectics, but only in the meaning of a moment. Precisely by its inclination to assert its absolute autonomy, thinking has a critical potential. Kant's concept of understanding as the structuring force of the world of appearances implicitly turns spontaneity into resistance against the power of the factual, of mere being. As soon as thinking is conceived as absolute, as soon as the existent becomes the example of spirit, its critical potential evaporates. According to Hegel, the individual, insofar as he is spirit, has to submit to social institutions as the higher form of himself.

This form of the dialectic in Hegel, which affirms domination, is already evident in the sphere of speculative logic. The primacy of the concept has the consequence that it exceeds its function as an instrument, as a means, and thus as a necessary moment of stability that is required if knowledge of the non-conceptual is to be possible. The concept becomes an end in itself when the non-conceptual is identified with the concept of the non-conceptual. Being can pass into nothing, since it is found as indefinite in the concept of the indefinite, as indefiniteness, and thus assimilates itself to empty thinking, nothingness, thinking of indeterminacy.[13] The tendency of thinking towards absolute autonomy can only be stopped by self-reflection, whereby subjectivity, trusting its own illusory stability, is condemned to be free-floating as long as it does not recognize that it is itself mediated by something objectively immediate.

Dialectics insists on the objectively immediate against any obligation to dynamics—mere movement without any measure for a judgment about this movement. It is against the combination of dynamics with absolute calm, with ontology. For this reason, the experience of immediacy without the conceptual apparatus cannot be completely denied and disqualified as an atavistic behavior. The truth of so-called primordial experience, the données immédiates, lies in the emphasis on the non-tautological character of knowledge. Absolutized, immediate experience gets cut off from knowledge just like the absolutized concept. Intuitive knowledge, claimed by a consciousness whose power essentially consists in conveying what is immediately given, would be just as illusory as intellectual intuition. The objectively solidified—the second immediacy produced by society—can only be released through the liberation of that which is subjectively solid.

The sterility of knowledge, which does not break through the barrier of subjectivity, which does not experience the vertigo of the object, can only be corrected through the primacy of the object. “Surrendering oneself to the object” means the loss of the absolute validity of subjectivity in favor of the truth of the object. The thesis of the priority of the object must, of course, not be used in an indiscriminate manner, because that "priority of the object," as it is hypostatized by the ethos of scientific rationality, which declares the subject to be a "disruption factor" insofar as it is unobjective, is directly opposed to dialectics. In contrast to science, which only knows the subject as an exchangeable entity that fulfills no other function than that of a neutral vessel in which truth is supposedly received, dialectical cognition demands an "increase in subjectivity."[14] The vessel is actually a preconceived method; the subject, deprived of all special characteristics, becomes itself a method. This idea of scientific experience has its social correlate in the meaning of the subject as an arbitrarily exchangeable factor; provided that they are adequately educated, every individual should be able to produce truth. Science is democratic; it does not require any special privileges. The predetermined being of scientific truth, the fact that “reason has insight only into what it itself produces according to its own plan,"[15] means a mutilation of the idea of experience. In general, the same process presents itself as one of the progressive integration of the individual, who in fact only experiences what can be tolerated and enclosed by the static dynamics of society.

The privileged character of philosophical experience is thus negatively evoked by society; “[o]nly a mind which it has not entirely molded can withstand it.”[16] The capacity for philosophical experience is contingent in relation to the social totality—a stroke of luck. Just as individuals are, as it were, the irritations of society whose individuality is not entirely determined by the objective order of things, and just as individuals who are therefore open to real experience represent irrational sprinkles in the structure of society, thus the thesis that philosophical experience requires more than just the epistemological derivatives “receptivity” and “understanding”—namely the "qualitative subject" and not its "transcendental residue,"[17] measured against the standards of social and scientific rationality—is irrational. The contingent nature of this privilege—even the privilege itself—is canceled out [aufgehoben] by the objectivity that philosophical experience gains in representation. The index of its truth is not only that the subject, by consistently speaking its own, as it were, non-everyday language, speaks the forgotten better language of all, but also that philosophical experience makes visible how in a better general state, the privileged experience itself could become general. The "freedom to the object" would be supplemented by what is for the time being viewed as "too objective," according to the objective order of things. Only the destruction of the hypostatization of method, of pre-formed objectivity, would allow the individual to grasp objective truth in the medium of his own, particular, subjective experience.

Only something similar has the power to recognize something similar. The knowledge of qualities presupposes a subject who, as radically one, subjects his thinking to a kind of quantifying subsumption and thus applies the dominion over the object to himself. The knowledge of qualities, on the other hand, presupposes that the subject, insofar as it is able to surrender itself to the object, transforms this relationship to the object into specific subjective ways to react. It has to bring its imagination, its ability to associate, into play. Abstract or quantitative subjectivity, whether it is the pure "I think that must be capable of accompanying all my presentations" or the passive, empirical events in a collecting vessel, cannot develop the specific psychological ways to react that are necessary to conceive objective qualities. This is not the same as regression to prescientific-animistic stages. Qualities are objectively present beneath the surface of the quantified object; in view of the quantitative over-determination, it is not so much the qualities that represent a projection in the animistic sense as the universal quantifying procedures which are an expression of subjective, nature-dominating rationality. Exchange value, the prototype of quantification, obscures the use value of goods, but without use value, exchange could not become concrete. On the other hand, the qualities that are ignored and veiled by spatiotemporal determinations can only be perceived in the medium of their spatiotemporal determination. The mimetic element of knowledge does not exclude the rational, and the rational does not exclude the mimetic. The classificatory function of quantification is constantly corrected, controlled, and critically changed by the mimetic elements of subjective experience. Knowledge becomes a process of differentiation.

The affinity of subject and object has never been entirely given up, not even in subjective idealism. According to Kant, the imagination plays a decisive role in the genesis of knowledge: there is need of “a pure imagination, as a basic power of the human soul which underlies a priori all cognition,”[18] of a productive imagination, which alone, because it is intellectual and sensual at the same time, can provide the schema, i.e. mediate between categories and the world of phenomena. Without a remnant of mimetic ability, without the "blind but indispensable function of the soul without which we would have no cognition whatsoever, but of which we are conscious only very rarely,"[19] intuitions could not even be subsumed under concepts.

Detached from the transcendental-logical context and transferred to the level of the individual, the results of productive imagination, in the sense of the capacity to differentiate, are not a priori necessary, because they are not the product of a synthesis of categorical form and pure manifold. The consequence of this contingency, however, is an increase in critical power to confront the predetermined categories with their untruth. The faculty of differentiation as a faculty of the concrete individual separates the fate of the individual in his dialectical entanglement with the universal. Because the individual is mediated through supra-individual moments, without which he would cease to be an individual, he is not only contingent. Without a moment of reflection, through which the individual articulates his condition and realizes himself, he would be incapable of asserting himself against the universal: his individuality would be entirely undetermined. Analogously, there are ideas, associations, fantasies without the objectifying strength of reflection, and without power in the face of strictly rational knowledge. Therein lies the fatality of Bergson’s strict dualism between intuitive and rational knowledge. The particularity of the individual, with his specific diagnostic function, his faculty of differentiation, is, in the critical sense—measured in the tension between the supra-individual and the rational—the expression of the wish to overcome the contradiction between the universal and the individual. This overcoming would not totally annihilate the universal, but indeed reconcile it with the particular. In opposition to the ‘extorted reconciliation’ of the Hegelian universal, negative dialectics attempts to individuate knowledge, whereby the function of objectifying the qualitative aspect of the particular falls to the universal.

With its aspiration to individuate, knowledge has to abdicate itself from the traditional concept of method to avoid falling back on the deceptive principle of prima philosophia. “[The] method must constantly do violence to unfamiliar things, though it exists only so that they may be known. It must model the other after itself. This is the original contradiction in the construction of freedom from contradiction in the philosophy of origins.”[20] The intention of Hegel’s “true method of philosophical science” as the “consciousness of the form of the inner self-movement of the content of logic”[21] is to move beyond the necessary contradiction between method and things. Method and content are in dialectical speculation only insofar as they’re identical, as the dialectical movement of self-contradiction is fixed as an ontological determination; the inner self-movement of content remains the projection of the self-movement of form. Consequently, according to Hegel’s concept of method, as he formulates it at the end of Logic: method “is soul and substance, and nothing is conceived and known in its truth unless completely subjugated to the method; it is the method proper to each and every fact because its activity is the concept.”[22] Negative dialectics, which does not set its own movement as the determination of things, cannot evade the methodological reflection of its relationship to its concrete execution. Its relationship to the social totality is methodical. Insofar as this really appears in the analysis of phenomenon, the misunderstanding is emphasized, not the congruence. Negative dialectics proceeds negatively, to show that the illusory character of unmediated particularity is, in fact, something truly socially mediated, but to its disadvantage. Simultaneously, its relationship to the Universal is negative. Thus mediation through the universal is the last end of the exchange; far from it, to express the inner qualities of the single phenomenon is the compulsion to achieve identity through suppression. The objectivity in which the particular is captured is neither the true objectivity (i.e. true universality) nor the truth of the particular.

Philosophical experience cannot claim to be in possession of the particular in its pure objectivity, that is, as a non-identity, provided that it cannot also be grasped as an expression of the whole, nor can it bind together the whole. Precisely because it knows that the individual phenomenon extends into other layers of meaning than those that are imposed on it by the force of the universal, philosophy in particular must recognize its telos without being allowed to fall into the illusion that it can directly ascertain the particular. For this reason, the philosophical experience of the particular is not a-methodical, but methodical. To observe concrete phenomena methodologically (i.e., in accordance with the rules of formal logic) means to violate the rules in the form of contradiction. Since the concrete in its particularity is not merely divorced in the sense of a deviation from the social totality, it is crucially incommensurable, unassimilable, and non-identical with the latter. It indicates the antagonistic character of social reality. The compulsion, through which negative dialectics is methodically bound, is a compulsion against compulsion, which is both a hindrance and a potential of the identity between method and things: a hindrance, insofar as it itself is the product of the suppression of the particular. Negative dialectics does not critique through this non-identity of method and content, but is presupposed by it. Negative dialectics stands as a compulsion against compulsion itself under the condition of compulsion. This is also the only way to the true identity of method and content, insofar as it isn’t defined by a resistant submission, but rather is directed against the universal, always accompanied by the utopian promise that someday the latent layers of the particular will be graspable. The real work of philosophy, of concrete analysis of particular phenomena, should as much as possible dissolve the method in the interest of the priority of concrete objects. “The precedence of the matter shows as a necessary insufficiency of the method.” Method is indispensable, but at the same time should be imperceptible, the way Hegel claimed concepts worked, namely as “pure observation.”

Sartre’s program of existentialism has intentions which, to a certain point, run parallel to negative dialectics: he tries to dispense with the transcendental and declares war on the generalizations and idealistic tendencies of philosophy through their direct confrontations with concrete human existence. Subjective freedom and inalienable, absolute spontaneity are proclaimed to be the defining force in human existence. Freedom manifests itself in the decision, in the specific objective environment where the subject is situated, meaning it gives “every event in the world can be revealed to me only as an opportunity (an opportunity made use of, lacked, neglected, etc.).”[23] Events, or situations, are merely conditional opportunities for decisions, for the exercise of freedom. The decision itself is, on the other hand, constitutive of the situation, meaning the situation gains meaning for the individual only when he is concretely engaged in it. As such there is no qualitative difference between differing concrete circumstances. Every conceivable situation is nothing more than an instance for the operation of an unchanging, ontological, determination, determined by the consciousness of the unmediated given. The allegedly concrete determinations get mixed up in even those idealistic essences, against which Sartre polemicizes. His conception remains formal because the ‘situation’ is only a prototype, an idea of all possible situations that conform to a general conceptual schema and its general consequences.

Sartre’s concrete individual is the model of the transcendental subject that can only follow its own rules, and so the real existing power relations are doubled. “The absolute subject cannot get out of its entanglements: the bonds it would have to tear, the bonds of dominion, are as one with the principle of absolute subjectivity.”[24] The potential of determinate resistance in the individual is thwarted through the claim that resistance in the form of a freedom of decision will always be achieved: the individual constitutes thereby an external reality, which is always chosen. The concept of bad faith implies that the individual can, at best, choose a predetermined alternative. The question of the effectiveness of the alternative itself never comes up.

If subjectivity, understood as the individual ability to grasp the particularity of an object, is given particular significance, the danger of falling into total objectlessness arises, as is the case with Sartre, or confusing differentiated knowledge with arbitrary projections of the subject. This can only be avoided by the constant struggle to allow the object to dictate the direction. The spontaneity of the subject must become a struggle to decipher the selfhood of the object. The archaic, magical power of names achieves this height through a nearly unmediated identity; it is in the most emphatic sense the expression of the object. Because of its fetishized nature, it cannot provide philosophy the answer it searches after. “Unity before and after the separation is not the same. Through separation, identity and non-identity crystalized their roles, without once thinking of themselves as unified.”[25] Philosophy cannot renounce the aspiration of calling objects by their name; instead of the unmediated name, not broken by reflection, it employs constellations of exact concepts in order to name and to recognize one another, in order to escape the delusion of the name: the aura of immediate identity with the object.

The concept is not the radical other of the object, as it might appear to be when it is confused with its name. Also, the particular is, as Hegel showed, already conceptually mediated before the attempt to capture it from the concept. The Ταδε τι is itself a universal concept, which is supposed to express the singular existence of the here and now: that “this” can also denote a “not-this.” Hegel's critique of sense certainty accordingly comes to the conclusion that if each individual can be designated by a general concept, then the truth of the res singularis must be that of its mediation through the universal. Whatever unmediated being can be in the here and now, is so in the medium of consciousness.[26] Mediation becomes the “remainder after accomplished subtraction.”[27] Contra Hegel’s treatment, we must remember that particularity can replace the non-particular. Conceptual mediation of the Ταδε τι is not to be confused with its reduction to a universal (conceptus communis). It is, rather, “the point of attack for conceiving its non­conceptual side,” because the graspable mediation, which the single phenomenon in itself is, i.e. the manifestation of an aspect of its non-identity, is its “implicit history.”[28] Non-identity is, therefore, not only an unmediated, final substrate of mediation, but rather the becoming of the thing under specific historical conditions. In contrast to the idealist dialectic, which understands immediacy as a transitory moment within a process, the completion of which is the speculative concept, negative dialectics, as one with the materialist dialectic, uses this temporal mediation in order to demarcate the inadequacy of the concept. What is mediated through the labor of thought or the objective activity of social labor, does not come to a definitive conclusion in the concept or in the product of labor, but rather remains crucially as an ensemble of unrealized possibilities: “The means employed in negative dialectics for the penetration of its hardened objects is possibility—the possibility of which their reality has cheated the objects and which is nonetheless visible in each one.”[29] Even with utmost precision the concept is not capable of determining the object altogether in its inner historicity. For this reason representation is a crucial element in philosophy. Only through reflection of the deficiency of concepts is philosophy able to correct their inclination towards stasis. The antidote against the stasis of objects is conceived of through incessant self-reflection, objectified in constellations of concepts, whose selfhood they should express—therein lies the only possibility to name an object in the process of its being-known.

The “sedimented history” of the singular phenomenon is its mediation and communication in the concrete historical process. Rationally and empirically oriented directions of philosophy rejected such knowledge that had not radically abandoned such historical elements. Descartes advocated the conviction that the external authority of tradition, which is manifested in customs as well as in generally accepted, unquestioned scientific views, can only be dissolved by what is immediately present to the mind in clear and distinct thoughts. Bacon’s empirical method is not far from this. Evidence is no longer purely an event in thought, but is rather ascribed to the unmediated presently observable facts, which, like with the Cartesian ego, are absolutely split off from their historical references. The Idols, which limit knowledge in the same way customs limited Descartes’ observations, investigations, and opinions, must be destroyed, in the interest of validity of empirical research.

A critique of this type of absolute traditionlessness does not equate to an unreflective confirmation of tradition. Tradition, affirmatively received, is incongruent with the promise of the knowledge of truth. But the abstract negation of tradition fails to recognize the factual roles traditional-moments play in knowledge. In Kant’s apparently ahistorical epistemology a trace of the historicity of knowledge is preserved, albeit in a highly formal guise. The transcendental apperception, whose “principle is the supreme one in the whole of human cognition,”[30] as the epitome of form, is dependent on the synthesis of the transcendental power of imagination as the production of ideas which are not immediately present in thought. The dependence of transcendental apperception on time gives it an extremely sublimated historicity. Knowledge is not just formally mediated through history. It is precisely the mediation of its content, the moment of tradition, that makes it possible for knowledge to penetrate the “implicit history” of the present. The uncritical resignation of tradition does not protect thought from irrationality, but paves the way for it, by ignoring the concrete affinity between thinking and its object.

“However, while tradition is subjectively broken or ideologically corrupted, history objectively continues to have power over everything that is and into which it has infiltrated. That the world has been added together from that which is merely given, without the depth of what has become, that positivistic dogma...is as illusory as the authoritarian appeal to tradition.”[31] History, which is objectively present in the here and now, asserts itself as a compulsion over the subject, who cannot see through the semblance of solidity and historicity of what is immediately given. An uncritical stance towards history—to see its abstract negation as its affirmation—bestows upon the traditional a falsely transcendental status; it becomes constitutive for knowledge, without being seen through. “Recurrences become tradition solely through that which unrelentingly falls short,”[32] that is, in the determinate negation of tradition. Philosophy is the preservation of tradition through its negation, the preservation of philosophical text is the medium of the critic, who measures against her own intentions. Without the traditional moment in philosophical experience, interpretation, understood as the unlocking of an immanent meaning, which simultaneously reveals that which is immediately present in the object of interpretation, would become impossible.

The consequent ban on tradition further implies an iconoclastic relationship to language as the product and manifestation of tradition, which for this very reason preserves the possibility of transcending an immediate present. The current positivistic assertion that every metaphysical problem—those which cannot be solved by the natural sciences—can be attributed to the incorrect use of language assumes an ideal concept of language and grasps it as merely an instrument whose signifying process is totally separated from any emphatic linguistic representation. The effort to free language from all traditional elements, and thereby divest it of its rhetorical character, would render language (in an extreme case) a mere system of signs. Such a dubious relationship to objects is characteristic of the attempt to ban traditional meaning-values from language; in an attempt to bring itself closer to them, it creates an unbridgeable gap between the two.

Through the history of philosophy, rhetoric has been seen as an art of persuasion, the ability to influence the mind by means of mere words, regardless of their truth or validity. Gorgias shows that rhetoric has been far more capable of convincing the ignorant than the experienced. By grasping rhetoric as an essential moment in representation, negative dialectics accentuates its critical difference from reality, from that which exists; it uses rhetoric in order to express a meaning that lies hidden beneath the surface of the immediate, given the secret affinity of language to things. “In philosophy, rhetoric represents that which cannot be thought except in language.”[33] But unlike the orator or the demagogue, it does not claim the unmediated reality of what it expresses, which in so doing would condemn itself to ideology. The persuasive character of rhetoric negates itself in the fact that it is mediated through the truth, not through the reality of what is communicated. As rhetoric, language transcends its merely signifying function, in order to be a concrete expression of the historical mediation of thought. Through language, negative dialectics tries to break out of the dilemma of knowledge and mimesis. The affinity of language to that which it signifies is able to break free from the compulsion of repetition, of sameness. The unknown and the unexperienced, held concretely as a possibility and expressed with the aid of rhetoric, opens up thinking to a utopian dimension. |P

Translated by Dane Thomas and Andrew Christopher Green.


[1] https://www.ethecon.org/ethecon/jaehrliche-preisverleihungen/preisverleihung-2011/grusswort-prof-dr-dr-hc-oskar-negt/

[2] Angela Davis: An Autobiography, International Publishers, 1988, p. 145.

[3] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. Terry Pinkard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 462.

[4] Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Twilight of the Idols,” in The Portable Nietzsche,ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Penguin, 1976), 497.

[5] Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton. (New York: The Seabury Press, 1973), 33.

[6] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Science of Logic, trans. George di Giovanni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 745.

[7] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Difference Between Fichte’s and Schelling’s System of Philosophy, trans. H.S. Harris and Walter Cerf. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1977), 99.

[8] Ibid., 103.

[9] Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton. (New York: The Seabury Press, 1973), 33.

[10] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Difference Between Fichte’s and Schelling’s System of Philosophy, trans. H.S. Harris and Walter Cerf. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1977), 100.

[11] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Cambridge: Hackett, 1996), 664.

[12] Ibid., 287.

[13] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Science of Logic, trans. George di Giovanni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 66-67.

[14]  Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton. (New York: The Seabury Press, 1973), 48.

[15] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Cambridge: Hackett, 1996), 19.

[16] Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton. (New York: The Seabury Press, 1973), 41.

[17] Ibid., 44.

[18] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Cambridge: Hackett, 1996), 170.

[19] Ibid., 130.

[20] Theodor Adorno, Against Epistemology: A Metacritique trans. Willis Domingo (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1982), 12.

[21] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Science of Logic, trans. George di Giovanni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 33.

[22] Ibid., 737.

[23] Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Washington Square Press,1993), 556.

[24] Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton. (New York: The Seabury Press, 1973), 50.

[25] Karl Heinz Haag, “Das Unwiederholbare,” in Zeugnisse. Theodor W. Adorno zum 60. Geburtstag. Im Auftrag des Instituts für Sozialforschung., ed. Max Horkheimer (Frankfurt: Europäische Verlagsanstalt,

1963), 160.

[26] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 81-86.

[27] Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton. (New York: The Seabury Press, 1973), 52.

[28] Ibid., 52.

[29] Ibid., 52.

[30] Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Paul Guyer and Allen Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 248.

[31]  Theodor Adorno, “Thesen über Tradition,” in Ohne Leitbild. Para Aesthetica. (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1967), 33-34.

[32] Ibid., 41.

[33] Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton. (New York: The Seabury Press, 1973), 55.

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