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Adorno, Aesthetic Negativity, and the Problem of Idealism


One of Adorno’s most sweeping and frequent characterizations of his project in Aesthetic Theory has it that the “task that confronts aesthetics today” is an “emancipation from absolute idealism.”1 The context (and the phrase itself) makes it explicit that he means Hegel, but only in so far as Hegel represents the culmination and essence of modern philosophy itself, or what Adorno calls “identity thinking.” He means by this that reflection on art should be freed from an aspiration for any even potential reconciliationist relation with contemporary society, or any sort of role in the potential rationalization or justification of any reform of any basic aspect of late modernity, or freed even from any aspiration for an aesthetic comprehension of that society, as if it had some coherent structure available for comprehension. He especially means that any expression or portrayal of the suffering caused in modern societies—capitalist, bourgeois society—that calls such a society to account in its own terms is excluded. Those terms have become irredeemably degraded and corrupt. Modern bourgeois society is in itself, root and branch, “wrong,” “false,” and the problem of art has become what it must be in such a world. What it must be is “negative,” and any attempt to understand Adorno must begin and end with that claim. By contrast, Hegel, the paradigm of bourgeois philosophy, and his absolute idealism represent the epitome of what must be rejected. If this is how we are to begin to understand the task of modern art according to Adorno, we face the daunting challenge of understanding what he means by both terms: negative and idealism (Hegel’s idealism, for Adorno paradigmatic of philosophy itself).

And this in turn immediately raises the question: does it matter, beyond the issue of scholarly accuracy, if Adorno’s version of “Hegelian idealism” (and what it typifies) is incorrect, more in the way of a very broad-stroke textbook summary than a confrontation with the thing itself? In one sense the answer is obviously no. We could just let the name “Hegel” stand for whatever Adorno is after in his attack on “identity thinking,” and move on to the substance of what in his own voice Adorno wants to say about the issue mentioned in my title, the status of “the negative” in modern art. That, after all, is what is philosophically significant. But it would matter if Adorno’s position is framed in terms that are incomplete and unclear from the start, and if that problematic framing derives from how he understands his opposition to Hegel and to idealism. I once argued elsewhere that Adorno’s ethical position is compromised in something like this way by his reading of Kant.2 I want here to suggest something less critical, more in the way of trying to show how Hegel’s aesthetics could be of help in the completion and clarification of Adorno’s chief cluster of terms in his account of art in the present age: the negative, or negativity, or the nonidentical.3

To begin with the obvious: Hegel’s account of art in his lectures is tremendously important for Adorno. For one thing, Hegel was the decisive figure in shifting modern philosophical attention to art away from “aesthetics” to the philosophy of art. This meant a shift away from the paramount significance of the beautiful and a pretty thorough dismissal of the significance of the beauty of nature in particular. Adorno would disagree strongly with the latter aspect of Hegel’s position; but Hegel’s rejection of the empiricist focus on a distinctive sensual pleasure as the essence of aesthetic experience, and so a subjectivist priority to that experience over the artwork as the bearer of artistic meaning (both aspects of which were still prominent in Kant, whose position Adorno calls “castrated hedonism” [11]), represents a shift embraced by Adorno. (The role of Schiller in this story is obviously crucial as well.)4 It was also Hegel who, according to Adorno, first realized that the concept of art’s completion or end is internal to its concept, and who realized that something decisive for the possibility of all traditional art had happened, that art, as it had been, could no longer be a vehicle of truth, it had become a “thing of the past.” (For Adorno, Hegel was the first to recognize art’s “lost naiveté” in the modern world.) This also means that both Adorno and Hegel had a historicized conception of art. As Adorno put it, “art is what it has become,” and art can be “understood only by its laws of movement, not according to any set of invariants” (3). This already raises a problem that Hegel is in a better position to address. Art is what it has become. For whom? What has become? What “laws of movement?” And no “invariants” at all in what counts as art?

That is, Adorno begins by theorizing about the fate of art in its contemporary location, and for Adorno that means modernism in the arts, primarily in literature and music. This means attention to an artistic crisis in which nothing about the purpose, nature, or social role of art could any longer be taken for granted. But this historicized approach raises an immediate problem addressed by Hegel, but rarely explicitly attended to by Adorno. If any of the questions just noted about art as such, its purpose, nature, or social function, are thoroughly historicized with “no invariants,” understood only by the “laws of its movement,” then we are in danger of a positivist reduction of art to whatever is taken to be art at a time. This would be immediately paradoxical, and that paradox should bring into clear focus the question: the laws of “what’s” movement? It would also open the door to all sorts of historical possibilities in which art would lose any of the distinctive boundary conditions that Adorno clearly wants to invoke. If anything goes, then fashion, costume jewelry, reality television, crude propaganda, and body piercing and tattooing could all have, could come to have, equal status as art. (Some think, of course, that this is just what has already happened. Some applaud the development; Adorno certainly would not.) It seems obvious that Adorno not only needs an account of art that would distinguish it from non-art and especially from pseudo-art, he also needs a distinction between what Hegel called “fine art” (schöne Kunst), or art in which the highest ambitions of art as such are manifest, and art works that qualify as art, but as poor or inferior art. Indeed, in the contemporary world, Adorno’s defense of high modernist art, what is now called “elite” art, is one of his most prominent and controversial positions. (He speaks quite easily of the difference between the “lower” arts and “pure art” [16].) All of this means he needs, and I think he implicitly presupposes, something like Hegel’s position on the possibility of a conceptual clarification of art as such, but one that admits wide, various historical inflections. In Hegel this amounts to the claim that all art is a sensible-affective modality of understanding the Absolute, and its historical manifestations represent the progressive realization of, and coming to self-consciousness about, its own concept. Adorno wants no part of this theory, of course. His charge is that Hegel’s “content aesthetics” (Inhaltsästhetik) recognized the negative potential of art, what Adorno calls the “otherness” of art, but Hegel misunderstood this otherness in representational and discursive terms (as a kind of conceptual lack) and regressed to a pre-aesthetic level, thereby unwittingly helping to transform art into “the ideology of domination” (7, 47). This is Adorno’s way of saying that Hegel understood art as a version of, but an inferior version of, philosophy, and thereby subjected it to the domain of affirmative, identity thinking. Yet Adorno also agrees with Hegel that what “art demands from its beholder is knowledge … The work wants its truth and untruth to be grasped” (15). What is obviously at stake is what is meant by “knowledge,” and what is at stake in that question is the status of the negative or the non-identical.5

So, Adorno’s own position also commits him to some sort of parallel Hegelian account of the logic of art as such on the one hand, and its unique historical manifestations in late modernity on the other, as a mode of “knowledge.” In the modern period at any rate, aesthetic negativity functions something like this logic, its very essence, and art’s contemporary self-negation, its embodiment of its own impossibility, is how he wants to understand its contemporary fate. This story subtends a broader narrative in which the development of aesthetic processes is said to correspond (korrespondiert) to social developments (5). This would appear to mean that Adorno accepts some sort of quasi-Hegelian narrative in which art succeeds in freeing itself from a function subservient to religion and politics, but achieves this autonomy at the moment when, because of “social development,” the emergence of the system and ethos of capitalism, art must also “turn against its own concept” (2). This is the moment when aesthetics turns into, as he puts it, “art’s necrology,” the moment when “the darkening of the world makes the irrationality of art rational: radically darkened art [die radikale verdunkelte Kunst]” (4, 19). This is the only appropriate response to “a radically darkened objectivity [verfintersterte Obkektivität]” (19).


But understanding any of this requires attention to a great deal more detail from Aesthetic Theory. We should begin with the many variations on the theme of aesthetic negativity that are at work in that book. The concept is polysemous in Adorno, even though there is an important family resemblance. I want to outline six different, occasionally overlapping, invocations of negation before turning back to the issue of idealism.

(i) Supervening many of these variations is a general notion familiar from the logic of predicate or propositional negation, although things will quickly get more complicated. This is the straightforward denial of some positive function or argument: a “not,” followed by a value or assertion, or location, whatever. So the first obvious sense of contemporary aesthetic negativity is that modernist art is the negation of traditional art in this sense of negation; not what art has been (affirmative “voluptuous,” beautiful, harmonious, humanist), even though still “art,” to return to the problem of the logic of art as such, on the one hand, and its historicity on the other. As he says, “nothing is more damaging to theoretical knowledge of modern art than its reduction to what it has in common with older periods” (19). (Adorno notes that there is such a commonality, but he does not explore what that is, and insists that modern art’s distinctness overwhelms any such trivial commonality.) All of our efforts must be directed to exfoliating its radical differences from the art of the past, not as a matter of style or content, but as a matter of art itself.

(ii) Second, Adorno notes that art, and here he seems to mean all art, stands in a negative relation to empirical social reality: that reality generates an objective need for art, a need that should be understood as a gap or lack, an insufficiency or dissatisfaction behind the necessity of art. “Art is the social antithesis of society, not directly deducible from it” (8). Or, as he puts it,

If thought is in any way to gain a relation to art it must be on the basis that something in reality, something back of the veil spun by the interplay of institutions and false needs, objectively demands art, and that it demands an art that speaks for what the veil hides. (18)

By and large here, Adorno means that it is objective “suffering” that demands a rejection by art of any assumption about the necessity or unavoidability of such suffering, although again this in an unprecedented way, not as in the humanism of Balzac or Dickens or the naturalistic depiction of suffering by Hardy or Dreiser. This becomes clearer when Adorno introduces the notion of “mimesis.”

(iii) Third, as we reach the more complexly dialectical level, art now stands in a negative relation to itself. This has a weaker meaning—art has lost its “self-evidence;” it can no longer rely on itself, on an inner confidence in what it is. Where that had been, there is now a gap, an absence, a doubt. But the stronger version is of an active resistance to itself, a fate expressed in several of the paradoxical or dialectical ways Adorno was so fond of.

Art responds to the loss of its self-evidence not simply by concrete transformations of its procedures and comportments but by trying to pull itself free from its own concept as from a shackle: the fact that it is art. (16)

And even more paradoxically,

If all art is the secularization of transcendence, it participates in the dialectic of enlightenment. Art has confronted this dialectic with the aesthetic conception of antiart; indeed, without this element art is no longer thinkable. This implies nothing less than that art must go beyond its own concept in order to remain faithful to that concept. (29)


This dimension also has a weaker and stronger formulation. In one sense this self-opposition is perennial. The perennial [perennierende] revolt of art against art has its fundamentum in re. If it is essential to artworks that they be things, it is no less essential that they negate their own status as things, and thus art turns against art. The totally objectivated artwork would congeal into a mere thing, whereas if it altogether evaded objectivation it would regress to an impotently powerless subjective impulse and flounder in the empirical world. (175)

Such formulations clearly reflect the influence of Kant’s account of the constant, necessary role of innovation in the arts, and so the need for genius. But Adorno also thinks that something has happened “today” that makes the struggle of art against objectification, repetitiveness and staleness much more intense and critical.

The inner consistency through which artworks participate in truth also involves their untruth; in its most unguarded manifestations art has always revolted against this, and today this revolt has become art’s own law of movement. (169)

(iv) Fourth, as already indicated, such a negative relation to social reality should not be taken to mean that artworks bring to bear some standard of humaneness or justice or human flourishing on a historical reality, and, functioning as a social critique, point out social failures and try to inspire a reformist response. This would be a kind of Uncle Tom’s Cabin conception and it is one Adorno rejects. The reason for this brings us a bit closer to the critique of idealism, for Adorno rejects the idea of the application of some concept to an independent reality and, finding a gap between the concept and reality, then demanding or implying a demand that the gap be closed, that reality conform to the exogenously imported concept, that the concept and reality be “identical.” That is merely the critical variation of identity thinking, and, as we shall begin seeing in more detail, identity thinking is exactly what art must help us free ourselves from. Such a view is said to be subjectivist and so linked with the ideology of domination. By contrast, art’s relation to the self-negation of contemporary bourgeois society, its double bind demands, its inability to sustain and reproduce itself, is mimetic. By mimesis Adorno certainly does not mean anything imitative, copying or representational; he means something closer to embodying or sedimenting or assimilating. This is clearest in his discussions of Beckett.

The more total society becomes, the more completely it contracts to a unanimous system, and all the more do the artworks in which this experience is sedimented become the other of this society. If one applies the concept of abstraction in the vaguest possible sense, it signals the retreat from a world of which nothing remains except its caput mortuum. New art is as abstract as social relations have in truth become. (31)

And most clearly of all: “Because the spell of external reality over its subjects and their reactions has become absolute, the artwork can only oppose this spell by assimilating itself to it” (31).

It is clear from these and many other passages that mimesis is the most important and most elusive concept in Adorno’s aesthetic theory. The idea that there can be such a mimesis, “a mimesis of the hardened and alienated” (21), or what he calls “the nonconceptual affinity of the subjectively produced with its unposited other” (54), and that this “defines art as a form of knowledge and to that extent as ‘rational,’” would require a book length study to unpack. But for us the signal word in these formulations, what Adorno is trying most of all to avoid (the conceptual), is “nonconceptual.” As in so many philosophical positions, Adorno’s, it begins to be clear here, is determined by, and somewhat captured by, what he thinks he is avoiding: the “logic of the concept,” as it would be put by Hegel. There can be no “subject” dominating or devouring the object on modernist aesthetics, and that is its revolutionary potential, its noncomplicity with the ideology of domination. This is also where the common or commonsensical notion of predicate or propositional negation, the active negation of some positive, is no longer applicable. This “unposited other,” what Adorno calls the nonidentical, is not the result of the denial of identity. That would make it derivative, secondary, a result, what it has been since the classical metaphysical response to Parmenides, as in Plato’s Sophist. In modern life, it is the nonidentical that has priority, what on its own, as it is, that eludes, refuses conceptual identification, not what results from the denial of identity. More on this vexed notion in what follows.

This is all given more aesthetic substance in the (v) fifth variation of the theme of negativity, as Adorno variously describes a modernist work’s refusal to mean in any traditional sense, and so its reliance on indeterminacy, abstraction (in the visual art sense, not the cognitive sense), dissonance (which he calls “the seal of everything modern” [15]) and even “the irrational.” “Dissonance elicits from within the work that which vulgar sociology calls its social alienation” (15). Or more expansively,

The absurd, the category most refractory to interpretation, inheres in that spirit that is requisite to the interpretation of artworks. At the same time, the need of artworks for interpretation, their need for the production of their truth content, is the stigma of their constitutive insufficiency. Artworks do not achieve what is objectively sought in them. The zone of indeterminacy between the unreachable and what has been realized constitutes their enigma. (128)

Adorno certainly doesn’t mean to deny the possibility of interpretation, but, as he says enigmatically, “Rather, the darkness of the absurd is the old darkness of the new. This darkness must be interpreted, not replaced by the clarity of meaning” (27). Presumably, this involves some interpretation of this very uninterpretability of “the absurd” and of the unstable self-negations of modernist form, of the sort that Adorno himself provides of Baudelaire, Beckett, Proust, and Schoenberg. This would presumably tie the manifestation of such dissonance and abstraction and indeterminacy to the social realities assimilated mimetically in a modernist work and such an exfoliation of aesthetic modernist content, continually “outstripping” its own embodied concept of art, suggests that we might be on the verge of a kind of mythic repetition in modernism, forcing us to ask how one indeterminacy or dissonance can be determinately differentiated from another. Adorno certainly is aware of this issue and thinks he can answer it, but that answer depends on the resources left over from his critique of absolute idealism, the presumption of the absolute conceptual intelligibility of everything, Hegel’s Absolute.

So, (vi) we arrive at the sixth and decisive variation on the theme of negativity. Adorno’s views here about Hegel as the epitome of the identity thinking inherent in the Enlightenment domination of nature and in capitalism’s establishment of manifold relations of domination and oppression in a class-stratified society are among the most well-known aspects of his philosophy, and his view both inherits a “finitist” criticism of, negation of, Hegelian rationalism begun by Schelling and intensified by Kierkegaard, and it anticipates a great deal of twentieth-century European thought, most prominently and ironically by Adorno’s nemesis, Heidegger. Here are some of his formulations:6

As the negation of the absolute idea, content can no longer be identified with reason as it is postulated by idealism; content has become the critique of the omnipotence of reason, and it can therefore no longer be reasonable according to the norms set by discursive thought. (27)

To restate the obvious, this all depends on what one means by the claim for the “omnipotence of reason.” And “Perhaps nowhere else is the desiccation of everything not totally ruled by the subject more apparent, nowhere else is the dark shadow of idealism more obvious, than in aesthetics” (62). Finally, “The new wants nonidentity, yet intention reduces it to identity; modern art constantly works at the Münchhausean trick of carrying out the identification of the nonidentical” (23).

Adorno here is especially, but not at all exclusively, thinking of the aesthetic availability of sensuous particularity in its particularity, as in the experience of natural beauty, or the negation of any conceptual satisfaction. And he is not naively proposing any sort of crude nominalist realism. He makes clear in Negative Dialectics that Hegel is at least right that “the particular itself is unthinkable without the moment of the universal.”7 Or in Aesthetic Theory, “Art cannot be conceived without this immanently idealistic element, that is, without the objective mediation of all art through spirit; this sets a limit to dull-minded doctrines of aesthetic realism just as those elements encompassed in the name of realism are a constant reminder that art is no twin of idealism” (91).

But just as obviously, for Adorno this “identification of the nonidentical,” as it is uniquely possible for art, is not what Hegel famously meant by the conceptual comprehension of the nonidentical in his account of the moments of the self-negation and reintegration of the moments of the Concept.8 But this should be enough, if only barely, to begin to appreciate how decisively Adorno’s project is shaped by his own negation of what he thinks Hegel’s system purported, catastrophically, to be able to do.9 (This is not a version of propositional negation because Adorno takes his claim to be an expression and embodiment of idealism’s own systematic incoherence.) It is at this point that, because of this negative dependence on Hegel, it matters a great deal that Adorno has misidentified the heart and soul of Hegel’s Absolute Idealism.


This idealism in German Idealism, at least the thread that travels from Kant, through Fichte to Hegel (Schelling’s “idealism” is another issue), has three components. The first is the claim that a priori knowledge of the world, the ordinary spatio-temporal world, as well as “objects” and practices in it like art, religion, and the state, is possible; knowledge about that world, but achieved independently of empirical experience. Idealism in this sense is primarily a critique of empiricism (not of empirical knowledge, although it is sometimes confused with such a critique; empiricism is itself an a priori position, intended to explicate what any possible knowing amounts to). Although it might sound strange to say that Adorno also holds that there is a priori knowledge, we have already seen that his view depends on claims about identity, nonidentity, negativity, and the nature of traditional and modern art that are hardly empirical claims and can only be understood as philosophical, that is, a priori claims. The second component is where all the interpretive controversies begin. It is the claim that this a priori knowledge, while in some sense to be specified, ultimately about the world that exists independent of thought, consists in thinking’s or reason’s knowledge of itself; thinking’s determination of thinking or, as Hegel designates, a “science of pure thinking.”10 This is where Adorno decisively parts company, but we need to explore what this claim might mean. It is understandable, but also quite false, to think that these two components can only be jointly claimed if either (a) objects of knowledge depend for their existence on being thought, or (b) if access to objects requires some sort of mind-imposed unification of sensory elements, resulting in a “subject-mediated” product, and appearance, not the thing as it is in itself. And Adorno often talks this way about idealism as the philosophy of domination, Herrschaft. There are many versions of this existential dependence, or subject-mediated interpretation of German Idealism in the extent literature. This view no doubt stems from the understandable but false inference that if such a conceptual structure is not derived from experience, it must be contributed by, or “imposed by,” us. This must be so, if objects depend for their experientiability on such “mind-imposed” unity, or, in a different tack, in what is known as “objective idealism,” if what there is is, in some sense or other, “really” a concept. (On this view, the idealism in Hegelian idealism refers to the ideal, nonsensible or noetic true nature of reality itself.)

But there is clearly a question to be answered, and it amounts to the third dimension of idealism: how the first two components could possibly be true (that objective a priori knowledge is possible, and that what pure reason knows in such knowledge is “itself,” thinking itself), if the standard versions of the third component are not true too. The most important watchword for Hegel’s Logic, once we realize that no form of “object dependence on subject” is at stake in that project (an extremely widespread general view of what idealism must be to count as idealism), is exactly the word Adorno baptizes as central, but Hegel means it in a sense diametrically opposed to what Adorno thinks he means. For Hegel, we are not talking about any dependence but about an “identity” (a “speculative identity” to be sure, and so not what Adorno means by his invocation of the term) between the forms of pure thinking and the forms of being, an identity compatible with maintaining a difference between anyone thinking and anything thought about. Here is Hegel’s summary formulation:

The older metaphysics had in this respect a higher concept of thinking than now passes as the accepted opinion. For it presupposed as its principle that only what is known of things and in things by thought is really true [wahrhaft Wahre] in them, that is, what is known in them not in their immediacy but as first elevated to the form of thinking, as things of thought. This metaphysics thus held that thinking and the determination of thinking are not something alien to the subject matters, but are rather their essence, or that the things and the thinking of them agree in and for themselves (also our language expresses a kinship between them); that thinking in its immanent determinations, and the true nature of things, are one and the same content. (SL, 21.29)

In summary: a science of logic is a science of pure thinking. Pure thinking’s object is, and only is, itself. But this “object” is not a nature, an object. As noted above, the Logic has nothing to do with “the mind” as a substance or thing. As in so many cases, Hegel is following both Aristotle and Kant here, for whom the claim that the “I think” must be able to accompany all my representations is a logical point, expresses the form of thought, and is not a claim about how the mind actually operates. If that were the case, and Hegel were making a claim about the mind’s nature, knowledge would be limited by its “instrument,” something Hegel had been vigorously denying since the Introduction to the Phenomenology. In knowing itself, what pure thought knows is the possible intelligibility, the knowability, of anything that is. But the intelligibility of anything is just what it is to be that thing, the answer to the “what is it” (tode ti) question definitive of many sciences since Aristotle. So in knowing itself, thought knows of all things, what it is to be anything. Again, as for Aristotle, the task of metaphysics is not to say of any particular thing what it is. That is the task of the individual sciences. It is to determine what must be true of anything at all, such that what it is in particular can be determined by the special sciences (what in scholasticism were called the transcendentalia). Or: it is to know what is necessarily presupposed in any such specification. Put another way, the task of metaphysics is to understand what it is to say of anything what it is.

This result could easily be misinterpreted. The absolute idea, expressed in Hegel’s terms as the identity of logic and metaphysics, could be understood as some sort of direct inference from the logical structure of thought. The basic form of rendering intelligible, one might reason, is the one place categorical judgment, S is P. This simply requires, if to be is to be intelligible, that the world be structured as substances and properties. This is how Adorno seems to understand the basic claim. (Heidegger makes the same claim, that metaphysics has always been a subjectivist impositionism.) But that would be dogmatism and would be rejected by Hegel. The characteristic and necessary features of judgment must be derived with a claim to necessity from the simplest, most immediate manifestation of any contentful thought, “Being!” the first moment of the being logic and the book itself. This internal derivation of more complex conceptual moments in order for thought to be rightly onto objects, and the kind of necessity claimed, is what answers in Hegel to Kant’s insistence on a transcendental deduction of the objectivity of the categories. While it is always possible to suspect that in any such derivation, we are specifying only “what we must think” or even “must believe,” in order to judge rightly that something is the case, such a suspicion is arbitrary if there is no reason to suspect such parochialism, as if thinking were a kind of species-characteristic capacity. The radicality of Hegel’s presuppositionless beginning and the necessity of the derivation is supposed to eliminate such a suspicion from the outset, and the self-negating and self-correcting derivation is supposed to preserve such purity. He realizes that the avoidance of any such parochialism, the establishment of pure thinking just as such as the “truth” of being, will disappoint anyone used to a more substantive or “furniture of the universe”11 version of metaphysics. But that is not Hegel’s project.


So Adorno has formulated a claim about what is unavailable for conceptual articulation, only mimetically manifest aesthetically. But he has framed his account as a negation of an understanding of conceptual articulation that has missed the actual account of such conceptuality in idealism, one that is not subject to his criticisms. For one thing, Hegel’s claim for an identity of thought and being holds only for what he calls “pure thinking,” what is a priori necessary for any thinking at all to bear truth value. These involve nonempirical concepts like finitude, substance and property, essence and appearance, causality and so forth, not mass or velocity or the State or the family. There is no presumed “conceptual identity” between concept and reality for such concepts, just a standard, defeasible and often historically indexed claim of truth. Again, the task of identity theory or pure thinking is not to say of anything what it is; it is to say what is necessary for anything at all, such that any “what is it” question could have some purchase. This is completely compatible with empirical discovery, empirical falsehood, or even some mismatch between a concept in the philosophy of spirit, like the bourgeois nuclear family, and what is actually necessary for a historical form of ethical life to be an ethical form, a content that matches its own concept. Hegel is quite clear that the transition from the theory of pure thinking to the Realphilosophie is not a deduction and that it requires attention to the physical and biological sciences of the day, as well as to concrete historical actuality. In fact, as Adorno knows well, it was Hegel who first gave to philosophy as a task proper to it the task of a historical diagnosis, one’s own time comprehended in thought. That sort of historical thought is not a component of identity theory, the science of pure thinking. And any such normative assessment of any such historical form, such as Adorno’s interrogation of the culture industry, must be informed by something more than the internal insufficiencies of that form’s own self-articulation if the significance of those insufficiencies are to be understood, a larger framework that can ground any claim about unnecessary and unjustified human suffering.

More importantly for our present topic, appreciating the proper “place” of art in Hegel’s Encyclopedia account reveals not only that Hegel has not assimilated art and the experience of art to the discursive norms of philosophical conceptuality, it makes clear how important that difference is, as well as reminding us, by contrast, that Adorno’s “abstract negation” of what he regards as conceptual identity theory leaves his position threatened with an appeal to a vague indeterminacy or unassimability that threatens to turn all modernist art into a single repeated “consciousness of plight” of “inarticulable suffering so much more serious than Hegel could have imagined as to be approachable at all only by notions of irrationality and untruth” (Nöten, 19). (Again, what Adorno wants to say is that it is “conceptualized” suffering [Leiden] that is “mute and without consequence” [19], but as we have been seeing throughout, that depends on what “conceptualized” amounts to.) For one thing, to say about Mozart and classicism in general, as Adorno does,

the polemical element [of his operas] is central in the power by which the music sets itself at a distance that mutely condemns the impoverishment and falsity of that from which it distances itself. In Mozart form acquires the power of that distancing as determinate negation; the reconciliation that it realizes is painfully sweet because reality to date has refused it, (177)

represents a concession in his own voice that it is this sort of protest that must be “mute” and there is no indication why merely “setting itself at a distance” should provide anything like a determinate negation of reality (or mimetic embodiment of reality’s own self-negation). It seems quintessentially indeterminate; mere “distance.”

For another, that there can be a logic, reason, in the irrational is familiar to us now from Freud, and it is dogmatic to insist by definition that this assumption must falsify by “conceptualizing” the content of suffering. In this context, Adorno’s claim against Hegel is: “Hegel’s aesthetics does not resolve the question of how it is possible to speak of spirit as a determination of the artwork without hypostatizing its objectivity as absolute identity” (91). And it is true that Hegel famously says such things as,

Now, in this its freedom alone is fine art truly art, and it only fulfils its supreme task when it has placed itself in the same sphere as religion and philosophy, and when it is simply one way of bringing to our minds and expressing the Divine, the deepest interests of mankind, and the most comprehensive truths of the spirit.12

But “in the same sphere” only echoes what Adorno himself had said, that what “art demands from its beholder is knowledge … The work wants its truth and untruth to be grasped” (15). Adorno’s frontal attack on Hegel, understood as Adorno understands him, fails to make contact with Hegel’s position. Here is a full statement of Hegel’s understanding of the issue:

For the beauty of art does in fact appear in a form which is expressly opposed to thought and which thought is compelled to destroy in order to pursue its own characteristic activity. This idea hangs together with the view that the real in general, the life of nature and spirit, is marred and killed by comprehension; that instead of being brought nearer to us by conceptual thinking, it is all the more removed from us, with the result that, by using thinking as a means of grasping what the live phenomenon is, man defeats his own purpose. (A, 12)

But Hegel is well aware of this possible interpretation of his project and takes pains to differentiate himself from it, especially with regard to art. This passage is important enough to quote in full.

And even if works of art are not thought or the Concept, but a development of the Concept out of itself, a shift of the Concept from its own ground to that of sense, still the power of the thinking spirit lies in being able not only to grasp itself in its proper form as thinking, but to know itself again just as much when it has surrendered its proper form to feeling and sense, to comprehend itself in its opposite, because it changes into thoughts what has been estranged and so reverts to itself. And in this preoccupation with its opposite the thinking spirit is not false to itself at all as if it were forgetting and abandoning itself thereby, nor is it so powerless as to be unable to grasp what is different from itself; on the contrary, it comprehends both itself and its opposite. (A, 13)

This sort of claim can seem as densely dialectical and so opaque as anything in Adorno, but Hegel is struggling to say that the presence of conceptual determinacy in an artwork does not transform the work into an instance of a concept, or imply that it is fully articulable conceptually, as if translatable. Hegel here means to say clearly that art is both other than, even the opposite of, conceptual thinking, even while he resists consigning it to indeterminate strangeness. Only in its otherness to pure thinking, its being only a sensible-affective modality of understanding spirit, does it accomplish something essential to the Concept that the Concept cannot accomplish, and that is, exactly as Adorno would have it, the reliance on a sensible dimension of communal self-knowledge that is not articulable conceptually, but is rendered intelligible in some way in art, articulable by criticism as its inner logos. If, say, a critic is able also to draw our attention to the author’s or composer’s or director’s control of the formal organization of the work, then we cannot but appreciate how such a narrative form itself intimates a purposiveness, points to such formal features and not others, and so manifests that the aesthetic object bears a conception of itself, a source of unity and ultimately interpretive meaning. It can seem odd to say that artworks are in this sense “self-conscious,” or embody an awareness of themselves, but this is just an elliptical way of saying that the maker is self-conscious (perhaps in an intuitive, distinctly aesthetic way) of the point of the determinate form. That point in mass culture art may simply be, “to create funny situations,” or “to scare the audience in a way they will enjoy,” but it can clearly be more aesthetically ambitious; for example, to help us understand something more perspicuously, like the distinct forms of suffering inflicted on people in late capitalism. This all corresponds to our own implicit awareness in experiencing an aesthetic object that aesthetic attending is what we are doing. “Implicitly aware” also requires a lot of philosophical unpacking, but there is a natural sense of something like such potential attentiveness becoming explicit when we find ourselves asking why the formal features of the work are as they are. But such aesthetic attending already embodies a norm. It can be done well, or it can be done lazily, sloppily, indifferently, in a biased way, or self-righteously. None of this detracts from the sensible-affective power of the work, something that relies on, but is not reducible to, its reflective form.13 This way of understanding art, and not its reduction to an instance of philosophy, is what Hegel means when he claims, “For since thinking is the essence and Concept of spirit, the spirit in the last resort is only satisfied when it has permeated all products of its activity with thought too and so only then has made them genuinely its own” (A, 13).

He means “made them its own” in their distinct aesthetic modality. And this modality, despite what Hegel says about the so-called end of art, is indispensable to philosophy. For it is this modality which distinctly embodies spirit’s restless felt dissatisfaction with itself and so its self-negation over historical time. Hegel in the Phenomenology invokes terms that could have been written by Adorno, had he understood the notion of the “pure I” as a logical term, not a psychological or subjective one, as when Hegel extolls “the tremendous power of the negative … the energy of thinking, of the pure I,” and when he goes on, in an even more Adorno-esque way,

Death, if that is what we wish to call that non-actuality, is the most fearful thing of all, and to keep and hold fast to what is dead requires only the greatest force. Powerless beauty detests the understanding because the understanding expects of her what she cannot do. However, the life of spirit is not a life that is fearing death and austerely saving itself from ruin; rather, it bears death calmly, and in death, it sustains itself. Spirit only wins its truth by finding its feet in its absolute disruption. Spirit is not this power which, as the positive, avoids looking at the negative, as is the case when we say of something that it is nothing, or that it is false, and then, being done with it, go off on our own way on to something else. No, spirit is this power only by looking the negative in the face and lingering with it.14

This invocation of the centrality of the notion of self-negation in Hegel opens onto innumerable and unmanageable questions, but it clearly bears on his understanding of art, which plays an indispensable role, indeed, paradoxically, a central role in Hegel’s understanding of the task of reflective thought today. For example,

Nowadays the task before us consists not so much in purifying the individual of the sensuously immediate and in making him into a thinking substance which has itself been subjected to thought; it consists instead in doing the very opposite. It consists in actualizing and spiritually animating the universal through the sublation of fixed and determinate thoughts. However, it is much more difficult to set fixed thoughts into fluid motion than it is to bring sensuous existence into such fluidity.15

The sort of charge here made against Adorno, that he is basically throwing the baby of aesthetic determinacy out with the bathwater of a misguided version of hyper-conceptualism that is no part of Hegelian idealism, does not absolve Hegel of serious limitations in his theory of art. Hegel did not properly understand, for example, the way in which traditional aesthetic form, like realist narration, or lyrical expressivism, could be both invoked and suspended by the dominant modernist trope in its relation to bourgeois culture. (Hegel’s somewhat hysterical reaction to the celebration of irony in figures like Schlegel is the chief case in point.) But, I would want to argue, there are resources both in Hegel’s conceptual and historical-diagnostic approach to build on in formulating such an extension, and this in a way that does not run afoul of the genuine and distinctive aesthetic autonomy that Adorno is rightly worried about in an age of consumption frenzy and the culture industry.

A somewhat different version of this essay will appear in my Philosophy by Other Means: The Arts in Philosophy and Philosophy in the Arts (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2021).


1.  Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 165. There are two English translations of Aesthetic Theory; this is the more recent. The first is a translation by Christian Lenhardt (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984). I have mostly relied on Hullot-Kentor’s translation, hereafter cited in the text followed by the page number.
2.  Robert Pippin, “Negative Ethics: Adorno on the Falseness of Bourgeois Life,” in The Persistence of Subjectivity: The Kantian Aftermath (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 98-120.
3.  It is true that Adorno sounds very much more sympathetic to Hegel in a work like Hegel: Three Studies, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994), but his remarks there have the status of backhanded compliments, “rescuing,” as he puts it, the implicit “truth” from Hegel’s own “untruth.” This is because he persists in thinking that Hegel’s claim in absolute idealism for an identity between thinking and being is a subjectivistic imposition, a denial of the reality of whatever cannot be thought (by bourgeois philosophy). That it is the whole point of absolute idealism to avoid such an interpretation is not something that can be shown here. I will try a brief sketch of the issue in Section III below. Beyond that, one can only say, in the usual scholarly escape clause, see my Hegel’s Realm of Shadows: Logic as Metaphysics in “The Science of Logic” (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2019).
4.  Hegel is widely known as having offered a “content” aesthetic theory, as opposed to a Kantian “subjective” theory, a division any “dialectical” thinker would obviously dispute. Hegel certainly does dispute it, but Adorno often does seem inclined towards such an “object-priority” approach. For a valuable summary of the role of Kant and Hegel in Aesthetic Theory, see Eva Geulen, “Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory,” in A Companion to Adorno, ed. Peter E. Gordon, Espen Hammer, and Max Pensky (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2020), 400-01.
5.  For an account that connects this problem, and several other versions of it, to Hegel’s original critique of Kantian formalism and the concept-intuition issue, see J. M. Bernstein, “Negative Dialectic as Fate: Adorno and Hegel,” in The Cambridge Companion to Adorno, ed. Tom Huhn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), esp. 36 and 40.
6.  Several of the theses obviously touch on the issue of skepticism as a kind of self-negation, a self-limitation. Compare with Terry Pinkard: “The ‘negative’ in the negative dialectic is thus at first based on this Heideggerian idea of the impossibility of comprehending the whole.” See Pinkard, “What is Negative Dialectics?: Adorno’s Reevaluation of Hegel,” in A Companion to Adorno, ed. Peter E. Gordon, Espen Hammer, and Max Pensky (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2020), 466. For more on the existentialist influence on Adorno, and so the “Kierkegaardean” unconceptualizability of individual existence, see Peter E. Gordon, Adorno and Existence (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).
7.  Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics (New York: Seabury Press, 1973), 322; 328.
8.  This is related to a theme larger than can be considered here: the status of nature in Adorno’s aesthetic theory, and therewith all the controversies about the possibility of a “re-enchanted nature,” or, as in Jürgen Habermas’ critique, a “magically invoked ‘mindfulness of nature in the subject in whose fulfillment the unacknowledged truth of all culture lies hidden.’” See Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, trans. Frederick G. Lawrence (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987), 117-18. Habermas is quoting Max Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007), 40.
9.  Adorno certainly does not think that critical philosophy must be, as philosophy, an example of identity thinking, and he maintains that philosophy, rightly understood, retains a priority over art. This is something Geulen points out in “Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory.” “Even though he did not call his book ‘philosophical Aesthetics’, in the idealist tradition, but, rather, ‘aesthetic theory,’ the supremacy of philosophy that says (discursively) what art says by not saying it (cf. AT 99) appears to be fully intact in Adorno” (403). She also notes that for all of his hope for a philosophical theory, this aspiration is something “Adorno denied just as often as he insisted on it” (404). See also Peter Uwe Hohendahl, The Fleeting Promise of Art: Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory Revisited (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2013). Hohendahl writes: “More than once, Adorno states that aesthetic experience must lead to and become philosophy, thereby shifting the truth content to philosophy” (22). But Hohendahl also reminds us that such a priority has everything to do with how we regard the possibilities of contemporary philosophy. For, according to Hohendahl, Adorno also “calls into question the time-honored priority of philosophy as the most appropriate locus for aesthetic reflection. This is so for two reasons, the first of which has already been mentioned. It has to do with the limitations of the conceptual language of philosophy. Because of its abstract nature it cannot overcome the distance between itself and the artwork. The second reason has to do with the institutional place of philosophy. As an academic discipline, Adorno believes, philosophy has lost its privileged position as the final arbiter among the disciplines—a position it had enjoyed since the late eighteenth century… Philosophy’s increasing lack of relevance outside the university has affected art criticism as well. Adorno’s literary criticism, for example, was not written for the academy” (154-55).
10.  Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Science of Logic, trans. George di Giovanni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). Hereafter cited in the text as SL, followed by the page number.
11.  I mean the attempt by pure reason to discover the “really real,” those objective structures and unobservable, necessary objects without which a world could not coherently be a world; such as Platonic Ideas, scholastic universals, Cartesian res cogitans and res extensa, Leibnizean monads, Spinoza’s substance and modes and attributes, Fregean thoughts and so forth.
12.  Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, vol. 1, trans. T.M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 7. Hereafter cited in the text as A, followed by the page number.
13.  For fuller discussions of these points, see my After the Beautiful: Hegel and the Philosophy of Pictorial Modernism (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2014), and my chapter “Prologue: Film and Philosophy,” in The Philosophical Hitchcock: “Vertigo” and the Anxieties of Unknowingness (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 1-11.
14.  Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. Terry Pinkard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 20.
15.  Hegel, Phenomenology, 21.
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