Negative Dialectics and the Fate of Critical Theory

  • Philip Walsh
Part of the Renewing Philosophy book series (REP)


The conceptions of skepticism that emerge from the nineteenth-century play into the debates surrounding the significance of critical theory in two primary ways: First, in the epistemological concerns with the possibilities of philosophy which arise from German idealism; second in connection between skepticism and nihilism developed by Nietzsche. While Dialectic of Enlightenment pursues the Nietzschean track out of Kant’s critical philosophy Adorno’s Negative Dialectics returns to the epistemological nexus of Hegel’s critique of Kant. In this chapter, I am concerned primarily with the relationship between Adorno and the German idealists. The terms of this focus on Adorno’s Hegelianism will be situated relative to two other themes: first, the relationship of the whole first generation of critical theorists to Hegel’s philosophy; second, the mediation of their interpretation of Hegel by Lukács, whose revamping of Marxism through the application of key Hegelian categories was pivotal to the development of critical theory.


Critical Theory German Idealism Negative Dialectic Reflexive Critique Commodity Form 
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  1. 4.
    For an account of the idealism/materialism problem in “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” see Andrew Arato and Paul Breines, The Young Lukács and the Origins of Western Marxism (New York: Seabury Press, 1979), pp. 121–3.Google Scholar
  2. 5.
    For one of the best accounts of the relationship between Marx’s theory of value and his theory of the commodity, see Robert L. Heilbroner, Marxism: For and Against (New York: Norton, 1980), pp. 93–140.Google Scholar
  3. 7.
    The literature on Lukács’s use of the concept of reification is complex and voluminous. For a critical account that situates the issue with reference to Adorno, see Rose A, The Melancholy Science, pp. 27–51. For more sympathetic expositions of the specifically Lukácsian use of the concept, see Bernstein, The Philosophy of the Novel, pp. 5–10 and Arato and Breines, The Young Lukács and the Origins of Western Marxism, pp. 113–41. For an interesting recent account, defending the contemporary relevance of the concept, see Timothy Bewes, Reification, or The Anxieties of Late Capitalism (London: Verso, 2002).Google Scholar
  4. 18.
    Heidegger draws attention to the supposed ‘mystification’ inherent in the concept of reification in explicating what “we are to understand positively when we think of the unreified being of the subject, the soul, the consciousness, the spirit, the person” (Heidegger , Being and Time, trans. by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (Oxford: Blackwell, 1962), p. 72. See also Goldmann, Lukács and Heidegger: Towards a New Philosophy, pp. 19–21.Google Scholar
  5. 23.
    Which is not to deny that philosophy cannot fill a critical role in understanding the evolution of society and its own position as a cultural form within that evolution. Mannheim gave the sociology of knowledge a conservative dimension by burdening its historicist element with an unreflective and functionalist relativism. I would argue that the most valuable element of Horkheimer’s somewhat contested legacy to contemporary critical theory is to point the way to a sociology of knowledge that could remain both critical and sociological, but the point cannot be pursued further here. For some recent reflections on Horkheimer’s legacy see Seyla Benhabib, Wolfgang Bonss, John McCole (eds.), On Max Horkheimer: New Perspectives (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993).Google Scholar
  6. 24.
    See Buck-Morss, The Origins of Negative Dialectics, pp. 66–8. Cf. Howard Caygill, Walter Benjamin: The Colour of Experience (London: Routledge, 1998), pp. 34–52.Google Scholar
  7. 30.
    Simon Jarvis, Adorno: A Critical Introduction (London: Routledge, 1998), p. 155.Google Scholar
  8. 39.
    Theodor W. Adorno, Against Epistemology, trans. by Willis Domingo (Oxford: Blackwell, 1982), pp. 3–4.Google Scholar
  9. 45.
    Theodor W. Adorno et al. (ed.), The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology (New York: Harper and Row, 1976), p. 69.Google Scholar

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© Philip Walsh 2005

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  • Philip Walsh

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