Adorno’s critique of Hegel’s theodical philosophy of history in Negative Dialectics

“Our intellectual striving aims at realizing the conviction that what was intended by eternal wisdom, is actually accomplished in the domain of existent, active Spirit, as well as in that of mere Nature. Our mode of treating the subject is, in this aspect, a Theodicaea — a justification of the ways of God — which Leibnitz [sic] attempted metaphysically, in his method, i.e., in indefinite abstract categories — so that the ill that is found in the World may be comprehended, and the thinking Spirit reconciled with the fact of the existence of evil.”[1]

— Hegel, Introduction to The Philosophy of History

“The earthquake of Lisbon sufficed to cure Voltaire of the theodicy of Leibniz, and the visible disaster of the first nature was insignificant in comparison with the second, social one, which defies human imagination as it distills a real hell from human evil.”[2]

— Adorno, “After Auschwitz,” Negative Dialectics

It has often been remarked that the twentieth century saw an end to the time-honored genre of theodicy. The senseless destruction of world war, the systematic genocide of peoples, and the advent of nuclear weaponry — all these conspired to cast doubt on the theodical belief in God’s redemption of creation, as well as the congruent Enlightenment belief in the inherent perfectibility of man.[3] Of these horrific events, Auschwitz became the modern synecdoche for man’s capacity for moral evil. For the Frankfurt philosopher and critical theorist Theodor W. Adorno, it served to “cure” him of Hegel’s optimistic philosophy of history, perhaps the most grandiose of the philosophical theodicies. Moreover, the historical event of Auschwitz shattered his faith in Hegel’s logical (atemporal) correlate: the speculative reconciliation or amelioration of dialectical contradiction. The idea of a logical progress to the absolute fueled by the annihilation of non-identical (metaphysical) concepts and an historical progress built on similar (only physical) premises – in which the violent means of both are justified by the absolute telos they help facilitate – seemed to Adorno morally perverse. His opposition to the theodical logic of totality would thus structure much of the thought expressed in his later work, especially Negative Dialectics. Or so it will be argued.

Beyond fulfilling a merely hermeneutic duty, however, we shall bracket our exposition of Adorno’s critique of Hegel, framing some pertinent metacritical questions along the way. For instance, the following questions will be asked: How apt is Adorno’s criticism? Is it fair for him to accuse Hegel of failing to give a proper account of the suffering endured throughout history? Was it not Hegel, after all, who so famously described history as “the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of States, and the virtue of individuals have been victimized”?[4] Finally, is it valid to suggest that a methodological procedure used in determination (Hegel’s so-called “positive dialectic”) gives rise to the political logic of extermination?

These considerations will be borne in mind. For the moment, however, we might digress into a more proper exegesis of Adorno’s objections to the Hegelian theodicy. The criticisms which appear in Negative Dialectics, his theoretical masterpiece, can be seen to draw upon several distinct conceptual motifs. Each is oriented differently toward its object – i.e., the philosophical theodicy in light of Auschwitz – insofar as they set out from different metaphysical premises. Stated succinctly, Adorno’s criticisms can be understood as falling under the following general categories: 1) a “disintegral” critique of the dialectical logic of integration; 2) an apophatic critique of Hegel’s positive identification of the divine telos of history; 3) a critique of the totalizing logic inherent to universal histories; 4) and finally, an anamnestic critique of theodicy’s allegedly indifferent attitude to the victims of its realization.

Of course, these divisions should not be too rigidly upheld (or “hypostatized,” as Adorno would say). While such distinctions are useful in explicating Adorno’s position, it is important to note that these aspects commonly relate to the theodical framework which structures Hegel’s universal history. The first three are closely interrelated, together comprising what might be called an admonitory stance with regard to theodical metanarratives. They each aim to prevent Auschwitz from ever being repeated (Adorno’s “new categorical imperative”). Even the fourth is connected to this admonition, though it is ostensibly intended only to ensure proper respect in remembrance of the casualties of history. As such, some overlap between the aforementioned categories is to be expected. This should not deter us from adopting them into an interpretive apparatus. Rather, it should be accepted as indicative of the synthetic nature of Adorno’s project.

The general object of the subsequent investigation is thus what I will term “the ethics of theodicy.” This might be conceived as broadly encompassing the specific dimensions of Adorno’s critique alluded to earlier. While such a designation never appears explicitly in his later thought, it nonetheless underwrites his conception of a negative dialectic. It occupies the interstitial spaces, as it were, in the greater architectonic of the text. As will be demonstrated in the course of its unfolding, this feature will highlight some of the basic incongruities that lie between Adornian and Hegelian philosophy. Many of these will prove ultimately theological.

The Intellectual Backdrop to Negative Dialectics

Before proceeding further, however, a few remarks must be made regarding the broader context in which we locate this specific component of Adorno’s thought. One must abstract from the particular in order to glimpse the whole in which it appears. What was the general problematic at work in Negative Dialectics? What issues did Adorno hope to address in writing it?

A cursory overview quickly reveals that his undertaking possesses a distinctly Kantian flavor. Adorno states in his introduction that he is attempting to provide a critical rehabilitation of the Hegelian dialectic by limiting or removing its indefensible aspects, “just as Kant inquired into the possibility of metaphysics after the critique of rationalism [by Hume].”[5] So in much the same spirit as Kant had offered a rational critique of reason, Adorno endeavors to supply a cultured critique of culture, a dialectical critique of dialectics, etc. Out of these overarching objectives Adorno’s negative dialectic emerges as an allegory for his critical results, as well as his mode for presenting those results. Within this framework, the ethics of theodicy appear as part of his ongoing criticism of Hegel’s totalizing logic and the universal history it sanctions.

The titular object now properly situated, its role within the theoretical superstructure of the text may be evaluated with greater precision. Returning to the distinctions drawn earlier between the various aspects of Adorno’s (op)position, we can now advance on to an interpretation of the more subtle peculiarities of each.

The Tyranny of the Integral

Beginning with the first of the critical dimensions enumerated above (the “disintegral” critique), the essential question is asked: What is its specific nature? How does it relate to theodicy?

Simply put, Adorno’s opposition to integral logic stems from his fear that “identitarian” thinking invariably oppresses particular non-identities. This is carried out, he claims, under the banner of making the whole identical with itself. To Adorno, Auschwitz was in some sense the outcome of an ontological application of the speculative logic of integration, in which the non-identical is violently sheared off and subsumed in the name of identity. “Genocide is the absolute integration,” Adorno writes, with characteristic gloom. “It is on its way wherever men are leveled off – ‘polished off,’ as the German military called it – until one exterminates them literally, as deviations from the concept of their total nullity. Auschwitz confirmed the philosopheme of pure identity as death.”[6] Hegel’s name is nowhere to be found in the section from which this quote is taken, but the allusion is unmistakable. Its very absence should strike the reader as significant; it is as if Adorno pauses out of respect, hesitating to so immediately associate a noble mind (Hegel’s) with such barbarism.

Despite his deliberate indirection in this passage, an explicit critique of Hegel’s “dialectics of identity” appears earlier in Negative Dialectics. In this way his name is kept further from Adorno’s reflections on Auschwitz. According to Adorno, “[i]dentity is the primal form of ideology. We relish it as adequacy to the thing it suppresses [non-identity]; adequacy has always been subjection to dominant purposes.”[7] By this Adorno directly challenges Hegel’s notion of speculative identity, which, as it is so famously phrased, is the conjoined “identity of identity and non-identity.”[8] Expressed symbolically, this amounts to “A = A & ~A.” Adorno finds such a formulation dubious, and not because it violates the Aristotelian law of non-contradiction. He understands by this operation the violent extirpation of difference in order to reassert essential sameness. The intellectual forms (the pure concepts or categories) appear as the Procrustean bed into which all empirical contents are brutally made to fit. That is to say, Adorno challenges the Hegelian conceit that objects of our experience conform to our subjective concepts. Rather, he suggests that the conceptual forms of cognition only comprehend their content insofar as they intellectually deform it.

Adorno’s charge is not altogether unfounded. Elsewhere in Hegel’s vast corpus, the dialectical process of sublation is described as a thoroughgoing, progressive nihilism which mediates its own negativity. It essentially harms the antinomical elements contained therein. In spite of its apparent evil, however, the holistic result [Resultat] justifies the suffering endured by the parts. Hegel writes that “[t]he wounds of the Spirit heal, and leave no scars behind.”[9] The theodical undertones of this sentiment should be obvious.

To Adorno, Hegel’s integral logic of identity is a sham, a sleight of hand which survives only because it is accepted as “adequate.” On the contrary, Adorno remarks, “[i]t is precisely the insatiable identity principle that perpetuates antagonism by suppressing contradiction. What tolerates nothing that is not like itself thwarts the reconcilement for which it mistakes itself.”[10] With this Adorno excoriates Hegel for his speculative hubris, reproaching him with the Kantian wisdom that his syntheses merely constitute the rational “dialectic of illusion.”[11] However, the synthetic reconciliation is not merely illusory. If it were, Adorno might not react so strongly against it. The illusion is far from benign, he argues. By masking the genuine antagonism which remains, that irreducible, ineliminable remainder, it actually exacerbates the conflict it purports to resolve. The original tensions remain, hidden beneath the integral veneer.[12] Officially unrecognized, the sides (identity and non-identity) quietly seethe in their incommensurability — until they boil over into open violence. Disillusioned by the synthetic identity which only served to mask non-identity, and unable to bring itself to accept qualitative difference (determination), identitarian thinking opts for extermination, carried out at the political level.

For Adorno, this is why Auschwitz, and genocide in general, represented “absolute integration.” Seen in this light, it is therefore unsurprising that Adorno would oppose to this his own “logic of disintegration,” or negative dialectics. In contrast to the integral logic of Hegelian metaphysics, this takes non-identity as its point of departure. The non-identity in objects is radicalized; it appears as the individuum ineffabile — the incommunicable core of things, indivisible by any logic. In other words, the motion of negative dialectics “does not tend to the identity in the difference between each object and its concept; instead, it is suspicious of all identity.”[13] Adorno thereby resurrects, in a certain sense, the noumenal category of Kantian epistemology, an effective limit to our powers of cognition. He maintains the thoroughly inaccessible character of the thing-in-itself, an eidetic object which proves utterly resistant to our attempts to render it definitively intelligible. Compared with Hegel’s procedure of speculative supersession, with its “both/and” grammar carried over from the Enlightenment, Adorno’s negative dialectic instead adopts a “neither/nor” model for the presentation of its concepts.


This grammar marks the exact point of Adorno’s philosophical divergence from Hegelianism. The reasons behind this split have often been interpreted as theological in nature, and not without good cause. And while we should be careful not to overstate its importance, it should nevertheless be accorded its proper due.

That Hegel began his philosophical education training to be a theologian is well known; the influence of Christianity on his thought is therefore to be expected. For Adorno, a close acquaintance of Walter Benjamin, Gershom Scholem, and Ernst Bloch, Jewish theology was to play a greater role. The Mosaic ban on graven images, the Bilderverbot, had a major bearing on Adorno’s philosophy of non-identity. Its proscription had given rise within Judaism to a highly developed negative (“apophatic”) theology, in which one is only allowed to attribute to God that which He is not. No less an authority than Maimonides had recommended this approach.[14] Christianity, for its part, has fewer qualms with representing the divine. The traditional argument is that the strict ban was lifted following God’s incarnation in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. As a result, the depiction and (positive) description of God’s identity were authorized under the new covenant.

Here the issue of theodicy reappears with full force. For while Hegel had characterized religion’s approach to the Absolute as essentially representational (in contrast to philosophy’s methodical rationalism),[15] his own system was likewise guilty of representing the Absolute, albeit rationally. In fact, he had largely mapped his own philosophical narrative along the lines of Christian mythology. The logical reclamation of the primordial identity of all antinomical concepts, as they had existed in the Absolute, is transposed onto his philosophy of history as the historical reclamation of the prelapsarian unity that had been lost after the Fall.[16] The original homogeneity between subject and object, spirit and nature, Creator and creation would be restored at the eschaton, or end of history, having come full circle. True to the tradition of Christianity and his own philosophy of identity, Hegel unflinchingly announces the ultimate telos of world history: “The destiny of the spiritual World, and…the final cause of the World at large, we allege to be the consciousness of its own freedom on the part of Spirit, and ipso facto, the reality of that freedom.”[17]

The teleological end of history thus identified, Hegel finds the source for his justification of the means employed in bringing it about. “[The realization of Spirit as Freedom is the] result,” Hegel writes, “at which the process of the World’s History has been continually aiming; and to which the sacrifices that have ever and anon been laid on the vast altar of the earth, through the long lapse of ages, have been offered.”[18] The tragic alienation of mankind from God, nature, and itself, the evils it had been made to endure, indeed the entire “panorama of sin and suffering that history unfolds”[19] — all these would be seen for what they are: moments necessary for the realization of the Absolute. The fundamental theodicy of Hegel’s philosophy of history is revealed by such sentiments. The line from the Exultet might be sung in anticipating the Paschal Spirit’s return, whose resurrection is to follow from Hegel’s “speculative Good Friday”[20]: “O felix culpa quae talem et tantum meruit habere redemptorem.” The final restitution (the apocatastasis) which will obtain is to surpass the unity enjoyed by man in the original creation, for it will have been achieved through the free activity of his will.

In Adorno’s mind, this was nothing short of idolatry. The promise of a future utopia was for him a hollow consolation, fetishism at its worst. Though Hegel had by no means advocated the outcomes which Adorno claimed to inexorably result from his speculative logic of identity, he had already committed the cardinal sin of negative theology: he had tried to comprehend the incomprehensible, to speak the name of God (the Tetragrammaton). Hegel’s emphatic injunction in the Philosophy of History, that we must strive to know God and the divine economy of Providence, is fundamentally misguided. At best, Hegel’s speculation about the progress of freedom through history can be regarded as a theologoumenon, but never anything positively proximate to God’s kingdom.[21] Seyla Benhabib, commenting on Adorno’s objection, concisely summarized its theological grounds: “[T]he end of the ‘natural sinfulness of humanity’…cannot be stated discursively…Like the God of the Jewish tradition that must not be named but evoked, the utopian transcendence of the history of reason cannot be named but only reinvoked.”[22]

In Negative Dialectics, Adorno alternatively proposes an “imageless materialism.” In contrast to the idealist Identitatsphilosophie, which relies heavily upon the productive imagination, “[t]he materialist longing to grasp the thing aims at the opposite: it is only in the absence of images that the full object could be conceived. Such absence concurs with the theological ban on images.” Adorno is unembarrassed in admitting to this concordance. Theology, the wizened dwarf of Benjamin’s allegory, is indeed pulling the strings of historical materialism.[23] More specifically, however, Adorno applies this apophatic logic against utopian representation. “Materialism,” he writes, “brought [the image] ban into secular form by not permitting Utopia to be positively pictured; this is the substance of its negativity. At its most materialistic, materialism comes to agree with theology.”[24] In this assertion, Adorno has recourse to the consummately negative critical program of the Marxist tradition,[25] the so-called “radical critique of everything existing.” His appeal finds ample support therein. Had not Marx and Engels already rebuked Fourier for such positive fantasies? And was it not this very issue which had provoked Marx to criticize Lassalle’s conciliatory Gotha Program?

The materialist inversion of the Hegelian theodicy is not limited to a mere ban on utopian speculation. It is also, I propose, is at the heart of what J.M. Bernstein has dubbed Adorno’s “negative theodicy.” Bernstein correctly locates this feature in Adorno’s treatment of Auschwitz, which serves as its symbolic exemplar.[26] This conclusion is not reached immediately, however. Instead, it gradually develops out of Bernstein’s analysis of the “After Auschwitz” fragment in Negative Dialectics. His initial observations match the general thrust of our argument. He writes that “Adorno thinks that any philosophical theodicy, that is, any attempt to demonstrate how despite and in the light of the existence of evil we are at home in the world, is ‘refuted’ by Auschwitz.”[27] This line, written in immediate reference to Adorno’s remarks on Voltaire’s reaction to Lisbon, highlights the way that the unspeakable horror of an empirical event (Auschwitz) had uprooted his faith in elaborate rational systems of justification, just as it had for the French philosophe.

But the subtlety of Adorno’s contention is not lost on Bernstein. From this point, he proceeds into a more detailed account of Adorno’s critique of the rationale of theodicy and the traditional form of metaphysics in general. Reviewing the famous “Meditations on Metaphysics” section, Bernstein notes that “[m]ore than an anti-theodicy, …[“After Auschwitz”] supplies a negative theodicy. Adorno thus focuses directly on how the absolute negativity of Auschwitz…paralyzes our ability to go on operating with the mechanism of metaphysical supervenience.”[28] Bernstein here captures the apophatic essence of Adorno’s thesis. For Adorno does not oppose metaphysical thinking as such, but rather the old Western philosophical project of “affirmative metaphysics,” which assumes the form of identity thinking, in its Hegelian variation. This refers to the speculative attempt to rationalize historical or material content through the dialectical application of our intellectual concepts. The positive metaphysical categorization of such contents can be thought analogically equivalent to “naming” them, an act clearly prohibited by apophatic logic. Adorno instead implores philosophy to adopt an ethical commitment to non-identity, to non-conceptuality, to the remainder, or “quantité négligeable.”[29]

Adorno does not delude himself to the impossibility of escaping conceptuality, since it perdures in our very acts of thought[30] and the structures of our language. The latter, especially, retains its Kabbalistic character, the “inherited…hope of the [N]ame.”[31] But this is not the substance of Adorno’s claim regarding Auschwitz. Rather, as Bernstein suggests, this is revealed once it “is seen as a negative theodicy, [that is,] Auschwitz’s ‘construal’ as a ‘real hell’ that is the apotheosis of identity thinking.”[32] Auschwitz, qua negative theodicy, is the empirical truth of the Bilderverbot, or the rational form of negative dialectics in general. Irrespective of our cognitive and linguistic propensity to assign conceptual properties to objects of our experience, we can no longer in good faith believe that this subsumptive act exhausts their objective content. In short, the authority of naming – its divinizing power – cannot be philosophically upheld after Auschwitz. Adorno, betraying his intellectual affinity to Weber, refers to this historical development as the “disenchantment of the concept.” We come to realize that the conceptual apparatus of the human understanding does not proffer absolute knowledge, as Hegel had hoped, but only its “semblance” [Schein].[33]

The Totalizing Logic of Universal History

Implicit to Adorno’s interpretation of Auschwitz is his polemic against Hegelian universal history. He asserts that “[u]niversal history must be construed and denied. After the catastrophes that have happened, and in view of the catastrophes to come, it would be cynical to say that a plan for a better world is manifested in history and unites it.”[34] Auschwitz can be thought as only the most severe of the calamities that have shaped human history. For Adorno, the frantic search to find meaning in such an event, the attempt to integrate it into the grand narrative of Reason’s triumphant march through history — these suggest only naïve optimism, unsupportable by any honest accounting of the past. “A dreadful German tradition,” he scolds, “equates profound thoughts with thoughts ready to swear by the theodicy of death and evil.”[35] Part of the task of Negative Dialectics, then, is to dispel this fiction of its aura of profundity.

Adorno’s opposition to universal history can be understood to consist of both rational (a priori) and empirical (a posteriori) components. Following the traditional distinction, the former refers to the logical form of universal history, while the latter involves its historical content. An evaluation of the formal side will demonstrate the necessary connection between theodicy and universal history, ascertaining that Adorno’s criticism of Hegel’s universal history eo ipso constitutes a criticism of theodicy. In so doing, it will simultaneously point out the totalizing nature of theodical speculation. The material side of Adorno’s critique, which appears more explicitly in his writings, provides the empirical evidence underwriting his general suspicion of universal histories.

(α) Form
Let us begin by examining the respective logical forms of universal history and theodicy. It can quickly be seen that theodicy is nothing but a special variant of universal history in general. For what else is theodicy besides a universal history in which the universal organizing principle is “the greatest good,” “Reason,” or “freedom”? Certainly, there could be other universal principles which determine particular series of events. (Schopenhauer’s “worst of all possible worlds” comes to mind). Theodicy is thus a specific genre of universal history.

Moreover, theodicy analytically implies totality. That is to say, it presumes an eye toward the totality of events — the temporal unfolding of particulars and the universal schematic by which they are unfolded. The latter of these categories (the universality of the schematic) is explicitly favored by theodicy, as it is revealed to be the locus of God’s omnibenevolent will, or Providence. For here the theodician finds his answer to the skeptic’s complaint that he has witnessed all sorts of evil, seemingly devoid of meaning or greater purpose. “This or that particular appearance of evil,” replies the theodician, “is just that: an appearance, nothing more. The greater good of God’s universal plan has simply not yet been disclosed; once it has, it will be seen what role these particular moments played in its realization.” The apparent accidence of their emergence, as per the haphazard metaphysics of contingency, would be exposed as illusory as soon as universal history comes on the scene. Each moment would be seen as occupying a necessary place in the totalizing unity of the Absolute, organized according to the final cause.

Needless to say, Adorno is uncomfortable with the totalizing nature of the theodical narrative and of Hegel’s philosophical system in general. This illustrates his suspicion that any philosophy making claims to totality (which would naturally favor universality over particularity) automatically lends itself to totalitarian thinking, in the political sense. Specifically, this consists in the artificial raising of one particular to the status of the universal, which then becomes privileged at the expense of all other particularities. Adorno relates this by way of an analogy: “A mind [Geist, ‘Spirit’] that is to be a totality is nonsense. It resembles the political parties in the singular which made their appearance in the twentieth century, tolerating no other party beside them — the parties whose names grin in totalitarian states as allegories of the direct power of the particular.”[36] Totality, both philosophically and politically, is thus the conceit of the particular that masquerades as the universal, which retains its potency only by suppressing and dominating competing particularities. Hegel’s logical prejudices led him to “blithely dismiss the individual experience of the prevailing universal as an unreconciled evil.” To Adorno, this thinking lends itself “to the role of defending power from an allegedly higher vantage point.”[37]

Hegel’s politics are hardly an uncommon target of criticism. His politico-ethical treatise The Philosophy of Right (1822) has been roundly condemned — some interpreting as an apology for the absolutist Prussian monarchy of his day, while others have taken it as a defense of state authority in general. Many thinkers, from Marx onward, have indeed developed their political philosophies in specific opposition to the Hegelian position. Their appraisals are far from baseless. Hegel quite often appears as a political conservative. His various descriptions of the State – equated with the spirit of the people,[38] the objective incarnation of Rousseau’s general will, “the rational in and for itself” – are bound to strike readers as dangerous, especially in light of the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century. The metaphysical basis of Hegel’s political reasoning is often overlooked, however.[39] But its importance is unmistakable; he defines the State as “the particular self-consciousness when this has been raised to its universality .”[40] Adorno correctly pinpoints the logical origin of this political thesis in Hegel’s philosophical tendency to “side with [the intellectual category of] the universal.”[41] Here we can locate the crux of Adorno’s concern with the particular, a concern which appears to possess an essentially ethical (rather than epistemic) character.

Having abstracted from an analytic quality of theodicy (totality) to more broadly explore Adorno’s reaction against it, we may pass on to the specifically historical (a posteriori) element of his objection. One feature, which similarly includes formal and material aspects, has been and will for the moment remain excluded, since it claims an additional quality that distinguishes it from universal history in general. This feature, already discerned in the introduction to this essay, belongs to the “anamnestic” critique. It merits separate discussion under its own heading. For now, we may examine the empirical side of Adorno’s critique of the Hegelian theodicy as it generally relates to politics and history.

(β) Content
The material side of Adorno’s critique provides empirical evidence against universal history. Temporally unfolded, we can see that the Hegelian theodicy presents itself as the progress of Reason through history. Human freedom is set up as the endpoint toward which the all human history is inevitably moving. Adorno understands this to be a reversion to the Enlightenment doctrine of the perfectibility of man. Bernstein has economically referred to this objection as his “dialectic of enlightenment thesis.” Against the myth of progress, Adorno is unremittingly Marxist. He identifies two principal consequences of Hegel’s theodicy. At the least, it breeds complacency amongst its believers; at its worst, it mercilessly tramples anything perceived as impeding its realization.

Both reactions are anathema to Adorno. In the former instance, which might be seen as analogous to the logic of late capitalism, freedom is annihilated through passivity: subjects automatically identify with the reified whole, “buying into” the Enlightenment myth of progress. The revolutionary spirit is effectively neutered in accepting the reassurance that the end is in sight. Here Adorno’s position parallels that of his mentor, Walter Benjamin, whose influence on this aspect of his thought is obvious. Benjamin’s final treatise, his renowned “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” describes the failure of the German Social-Democratic movement in identifying with this myth.[42] Benjamin’s critique cuts to the heart of the matter, attacking positive theodicy as such. For Benjamin, as for Adorno, the error lies in the focus on how good everything will be, rather than on how evil things have been, and how evil they remain.[43] The liberal ideology of political gradualism, founded on the notion of an historical progress, effectively placates those who should have no rational interest in upholding the status quo. Without the sense of moral outrage provoked by the memory of past injustices, the masses faithfully wait for things to improve.[44]

Adorno, following Benjamin’s lead, rejected the vague assurance of an historical progress that would redeem the injustices of the past. He exhibited remarkably similar sentiments shortly after reading the “Theses,” in his 1947 collaboration with Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment. In a fragment, sardonically entitled “Le Prix du Progrès,”Adorno compares the theodical justification of human suffering to the cool nonchalance of medical apologia for vivisection. The misery, torture, and death to which the animal is submitted are callously written off as the price that must be paid for continued progress. But this excuse is only the most thoughtless casuistry. If the myth of progress contained even the slightest truth, Adorno writes, then “the obscure workings of the world’s divine governance would at least for once be justified.”[45] Since it is not, mankind is left to suffer under the aegis of an empty promise.

Surveying the empirical inventory of world history, Adorno is at his most caustic: “No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb.”[46] The bitterness of this statement would seem to suggest Adorno’s Schopenhauerian sympathies, implying that universal history has not entailed the progress of human freedom but rather the progress of its implements of destruction. One can find this thesis presaged in his earlier work, Minima Moralia:

Had Hegel’s philosophy of history embraced this age, Hitler’s robot-bombs would have found their place beside the early death of Alexander and similar images, as one of the empirically selected facts by which the state of the world-spirit [Weltgeist] manifests itself directly in symbols. Like Fascism itself, the robots career without a subject. Like it they combine the utmost technical perfection with total blindness. And like it they arouse mortal terror and are wholly futile. – “I have seen the world-spirit,” not on horseback but on wings and without a head, and that refutes, at the same stroke, Hegel’s philosophy of history.[47]

Hegel’s oft-quoted 1806 remark, written in reference to Napoleon, is here plainly parodied by Adorno. The heroic conqueror on horseback is terrifyingly replaced by the visageless V-2 rocket. A progress of sorts can be charted between these particulars, to be sure, but it hardly tells the tale of an increased humanitarianism. Instead, it quite literally relates the inhuman march of history toward Armageddon.

Finally, the theodical faith in the universal progression of history both creates and facilitates the development of Fascism. Adorno does not mince words: “[W]hat society worships in the world spirit is itself, the omnipotence of its own coercion.”[48] World spirit would seem to be the narcissistic fetish of society’s power to dominate that which stands in its way. A central thesis of Frankfurt School critical theory is thus formulated: Enlightenment liberalism, with its principle of social improvement through history, naturally begets the totalitarian logic of Fascism. This was already described as falling under “The Tyranny of the Integral.” For those national polities that did not directly fall under its shadow, the confident belief in the steady progress of mankind did little to save them from the havoc it wrought. Benjamin had already noticed this: “One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm. The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge — unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.”[49]

Suffering and Memory

On our anamnestic duty after Auschwitz, Adorno is unequivocal:

After Auschwitz, our feelings resist any claim of the positivity of existence as sanctimonious, as wronging the victims; they balk at squeezing any kind of sense, however bleached, out of the victims’ fate. And these feelings do have an objective side after events that make a mockery of the construction of immanence as endowed with a meaning radiated by an affirmatively posited transcendence.[50]

It should be noted from the first that Adorno’s insights in this passage are purely descriptive. He does not prescribe how we ought to remember the victims, how we ideally ought to view their suffering — his remarks here are limited to describing our emotional reality. But the reader should make no mistake; his intuition was correct. Adorno is at some level speaking out of the guilt he believes to have inherited from the history of philosophy: “[A] sense of shame bids philosophy not to repress…that its history shows amazingly few indications of the sufferings of humankind.”[51] The same sentiment is at this point phrased in the form of an injunction.

Philosophy has historically walled itself up behind a stubborn optimism which holds that, in spite of the evil which plagues the world, the good will ultimately prevail. But Adorno rejects the theodical justification for human suffering, which refuses to grant evil an independent ontological status. Hegel, taking up the mantle left by Leibniz, saw evil as a momentary appearance subordinated to the triumph of the good. He comforted us by holding that the anguish and torment endured in life exist only in the service of a higher purpose. But such comfort is rendered obscene after Auschwitz; the memory of its victims persists, haunting our every attempt to make sense of it. Adorno insists that suffering is primordial, physical. To metaphysically account for it, filing it under the logical category of Necessity, would seem outrageous. “The smallest trace of senseless suffering in the empirical world,” Adorno writes, “belies all the identitarian philosophy that would talk us out of that suffering.”[52]

And so Adorno articulates the unspoken “shame” of Hegelian philosophy: “Like the immanence of fate, the world spirit drips with suffering and fallibility. As total immanence is blown up into essentiality, the negativity of the world spirit becomes an accidental trifle.” He calls for an unblinking honesty in confronting the evils of the world. Dialecticizing Hegelian optimism against its pessimist antipode, Schopenhauer’s philosophy, Adorno writes that “to experience the world spirit as a whole means to experience its negativity. This was the point of Schopenhauer’s critique of the official optimism — a critique which remained as obsessive, however, as the Hegelian theodicy of ‘this world.’”[53] Philosophy needs not resign itself to such “obsessive” pessimism, but it should not deceive itself as to the real negativity of existence. For, as Adorno reminds us, “[t]he need to let suffering speak is a condition of all truth.”[54]

There is an acute tension underlying Adorno’s “Meditations on Metaphysics,” the final fragmentary sequence in Negative Dialectics. On the one hand, he ardently denies the possibility that we might find any sort of retrospective edification in Auschwitz. The age-old hope for positive transcendence is blighted by such an event. Adorno saw Auschwitz as an empirical argument for the Bilderverbot. For insisting that men and women went to the ovens out of divine necessity would be the worst imaginable blasphemy. Theodicy after Auschwitz can indeed seem only a vulgar fairy-tale — a leftover from a bygone age in which such optimism was not utterly absurd. Here we may sympathize with the reason behind Adorno’s much-ridiculed statement that “[t]o write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”[55] For traditional poetry is essentially chthonic; it seeks to imbue its objects with the holiness of purpose and meaning. This goes doubly for tragic poetry, which portrays mankind’s wretched lot as following from fateful inevitability. The cathartic result of tragedy can in no way be thought to apply to Auschwitz. Adorno was quite attuned, as well, to the importance that tragedy held for the philosophical histories of Schelling and Hegel, as a site in which freedom and necessity coincide in Fate.

On the other hand, however, Negative Dialectics includes an important retraction. “Perennial suffering,” Adorno writes, “has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems.”[56] Were Adorno to argue any other way, it is unlikely that he should have been able to say anything regarding Auschwitz at all. He is immensely preoccupied with providing a philosophical account for it. Since he is convinced that viewing Auschwitz as having some positive result is an injustice to its victims, however, he is unable to follow the theodicy carved out by Hegel’s universal history. The philosophical expression of suffering, of which Auschwitz is just the most extreme example, must refrain from depicting the sufferers as martyrs. There was no martyrdom at Auschwitz. To claim otherwise would be to deny its true horror — that there was no higher cause or nobler purpose, only senseless bloodshed. Adorno advocated a nihilism which would not annihilate itself into positivity, a perpetually self-consummating skepticism. Jean-François Lyotard, evaluating Adorno’s interpretation of Auschwitz, thus asked the question: “Is the anonym ‘Auschwitz’ a model of negative dialectics?” Lyotard’s question is raised at one moment only to be answered positively in the next. His conclusion captures all the bitterness toward theodicy intended by Adorno: “We wanted the progress of the mind, we got its shit.”[57]

Philosophy and literature cannot turn away from the filth, violence, and sadistic cruelty of Auschwitz; nor can it act as if these things only paved the way for something better. The only way to preserve hope is to see the world in all its hopelessness, and demand it to be different. This sentiment is itself expressive of Adorno’s conception of negative dialectic, as he writes that “[i]t lies in the definition of negative dialectics that it will not come to rest in itself, as if it were total. This is its form of hope.”[58]

Pour Hegel

It is difficult not to feel at least somewhat sympathetic with Adorno’s critique of the Hegelian theodicy. Yet the critical lens must be reflected back onto Negative Dialectics — this despite all the anticipatory gestures, the theoretical distanciations, the careful articulations. For Hegel’s system is far from being the toothless, lumbering old giant its detractors would like it to be. Its negativity can easily be unleashed on those who would take issue with its methods or conclusions. And, taking Susan Buck-Morss to be correct in her judgment that Adorno essentially launched a Kantian and materialist critique of Hegel (via Lukács), we might stage a reversal in (re)turning to Hegel for a defense of his universal history.

This is not to suggest that Adorno was grossly unfair to the Hegelian system. As is well known, his relationship to Hegel’s philosophy is highly nuanced. Nevertheless, we might look back to the metacritical questions posed in the introduction to determine the extent to which Adorno provides an adequate criticism of Hegelianism. And while it will not seek to provide a blind apology for his philosophical history, this section may in some sense be understood as an attempt to mount a defense of Hegel’s thought against “its cultured despisers” (Schleiermacher).

At first glance, the confidence and swagger of Hegelian philosophy can be off-putting. Its resolute optimism seems to leave no room for entertaining the notion that things will not turn out for the best — that somehow wickedness might hold say over the world. But nothing could be further from the truth. Hegel is intimately aware of the evil that appears throughout history. Take this passage from the introduction to The Philosophy of History:

When we look at this display of passions, and the consequences of their violence; the Unreason which is associated not only with them, but even (rather we might say especially) with good designs and righteous aims; when we see the evil, the vice, the ruin that has befallen the most flourishing kingdoms which the mind of man ever created; we can scarce avoid being filled with sorrow at this universal taint of corruption: and, since this decay is not the work of mere Nature, but of the Human Will — a moral embitterment — a revolt of the Good Spirit (if it have a place within us) may well be the result of our reflections. Without rhetorical exaggeration, a simply truthful combination of the miseries that have overwhelmed the noblest of nations and polities, and the finest exemplars of private virtue — forms a picture of most fearful aspect, and excites emotions of the profoundest and most hopeless sadness, counterbalanced by no consolatory result. We endure in beholding it a mental torture, allowing no defence or escape but the consideration that what has happened could not be otherwise; that it is a fatality which no intervention could alter.[59]

These are not the opinions of a man who casually dismisses the negativity of history. Hegel would never think of denying its potency. He even goes so far as to assert that discord is constitutive of history itself, an essential sine qua non for its existence: “The History of the World is not the theatre of happiness. Periods of happiness are blank pages in it, for they are periods of harmony — periods when the antithesis is in abeyance.”[60]

Hegel thus shares in the philanthropist’s lament over the miserable condition of world history. But he is undeterred by its persistence. Instead, the fact of suffering only hardens his resolve to combat it. Neiman points out that for Hegel “[b]oth progress and Providence are read into evidence that seems to refute them. Evidence against them is not at issue, for nothing is easier to offer.”[61] The cynical complaints offered by a Bayle or a Voltaire slide harmlessly off of the Hegelian theodicy, for they only confirm what Hegel knows already.

Moreover, to surrender to the iniquity of the world, proclaiming evil’s omnipotence, is to partake in that evil. Hegel thus warns strongly against resignation: “In contemplating the fate which virtue, morality, even piety experience in history, we must not fall into the Litany of Lamentations, that the good and pious often — or for the most part — fare ill in the world, while the evil-disposed and wicked prosper.”[62] The outcome of such fatalistic thinking is complicity: “[A]t last we draw back from the intolerable disgust with which these sorrowful reflections threaten us, into the more agreeable environment of our individual life — the Present formed by our private aims and interests. In short we retreat into the selfishness that stands on the quiet shore, and thence enjoys in safety the distant spectacle of ‘wrecks confusedly hurled.’”[63]

Indeed, many of the rebukes made throughout the introduction to The Philosophy of History seem applicable to Adorno. Hegel scorns the vanity of the consciousness which bitterly bemoans the sorry state of the world. Such a spirit is content to retreat into its “gloomy emotions and thoughtful reflections,” maintaining the distance of a comfortable indignation. “[I]t is not the interest of such sentimentalities,” Hegel contends, “really to rise above those depressing emotions; and to solve the enigmas of Providence which the considerations that occasioned them, present. It is essential to their character to find a gloomy satisfaction in the empty and fruitless sublimities of that negative result.”[64] This is a neat bit of psychology, and one immediately can see how uncannily it seems to describe Adorno’s outlook. For his unwillingness to accept any positive speculation into his philosophy, coupled with his insistence upon the negative, can easily be read as theoretically noncommittal. There is a deep sense in which Adornian philosophy leaves its adherents politically impotent. They are rather left with a sort of armchair cynicism, believing they might simply clear their consciences by virtue of their objection alone.[65] While it should by no means prostrate itself before the Marxist fetish of praxis, critical theory should take seriously Lukács’ reproach that its intellectuals, following Adorno, “have taken up residence in the ‘Grand Hotel Abyss’…a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity.”[66]

Beyond a simple reliance on the rejoinders Hegel might have offered to Adorno, we may look to metacritical sources that are not wholly immanent to Hegel’s philosophy. The wealth of secondary (extrinsic) literature may likewise aid us in this task. On an empirical note, as well, the accuracy of Adorno’s argument against the speculative logic of totality as leading to political totalitarianism appears historically questionable. This point was recently made by Slavoj Žižek, who noticed the great irony in Adorno’s company in this assertion. “Among the numerous platitudes proposed by Karl Popper,” he quips, “one idea stands out as more inane than the rest: that of an inherent link between philosophical ‘totalism’ (‘strong’ philosophy striving to grasp the Absolute) and political totalitarianism — the idea that a thought which aims at the Absolute thereby lays the foundation for totalitarian dominion.” The paradox is not yet apparent. He continues: “It is easy to mock this idea as an exemplary case of the inherent imbecility of analytical philosophy, of its inferiority to the dialectical (and/or hermeneutical) tradition — however, do not Adorno and Horkheimer, the two great opponents of the Popperian orientation, put forward what ultimately amounts to the same claim in their Dialectics of Enlightenment?” Žižek cites the empirical fact that most totalitarian regimes have been built upon relativist (and not absolutist) philosophies.[67]

Such an empirical oversight leads us to question further the aptness of Adorno’s rational equation of Hegel’s determinative logic with Nazism’s exterminative politics. The thrust of Adorno’s argument on this point is centered on his critique of identitarian thinking and its logic of integration. To project this methodology directly onto the Fascist political system must surely seem overwrought. This is even more the case with the suggestion that the latter is some sort of necessary byproduct of the former. But we should not discount the possibility of its truth too hastily, of course. For Hegel himself reads the integral quality of his (atemporal) logic into the events of history. It is thus not utterly fantastic to imply that there is a danger lurking in the speculative logic of integration. It must, however, be seriously qualified.

Conclusion (Determinatio/Negatio)

A common objection to Hegelian philosophy is its all-encompassing nature. Seeming criticisms of its doctrines are all too easily absorbed into the smooth modulations of its dialectic. Adorno’s critique, despite his fervent protestations, cannot resist its inevitable sublation.

A reconciliation of Adorno’s opposition with the Hegelian position must be delicately performed, however. It cannot be simply digested and thereby integrated into its organic unity, as one of Hegel’s favorite analogies runs. Adorno’s contribution to philosophy may indeed be a thoroughly negative moment in its history, but the tenor of its insights should be regarded as an essential precautionary warning to any positive speculation to come. The depth of its moral outrage, the nobility of its purpose — these must not be coldly written off. To do so would merely confirm the callous attitude of which he accuses Hegelianism.

The negation of the negativity of Adorno’s critique of theodicy must therefore proceed with the greatest possible respect. This reflexive move is indeed necessary if we are not to fall prey to hopelessness and one-sided skepticism. The result which might be brought about is well worth such an effort, for the only position which may be conscionably adopted in light of the evils of Auschwitz is that of temperance.


[1] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. The Philosophy of History. Translated and introduced by J. Sibree, prefaced by Charles Hegel and with a second introduction by C.J. Friedrich. (Dover Publications, Inc. New York, NY: 2004). Pg. 15.

[2] Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno. Negative Dialectics. Translated by E.B. Ashton. (Continuum. New York, NY: 1973). Pg. 361.

[3] See the general discussion of this problem in chapter IV (entitled “Homeless”) in Susan Neiman, Evil in Modern Thought: an Alternative History of Philosophy. (Princeton University Press. Princeton, NJ: 2002). Pgs. 250-267.

[4] Hegel, The Philosophy of History. Pg. 21.

[5] Adorno, Negative Dialectics. Pg. 4.

[6] Ibid., pg. 362.

[7] Ibid., pg. 148.

[8] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. The Science of Logic. Translated by A.V. Miller, with a foreword by J.N. Findlay. (Humanity Books. Amherst, NY: 1969). Pg. 74.

[9] Georg Wilhelm Freidrich Hegel. The Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A.V. Miller, with a foreword and commentary by J.N. Findlay. (Oxford University Press. New York, NY: 1977). Pg. 407, §669.

[10] Adorno, Negative Dialectics. Pgs. 142-143.

[11] Ibid., pgs. 180-183.

[12] One can see this line of Adorno’s thought prefigured in earlier works. Take this line from his 1947 text Minima Moralia: “Negative philosophy, dissolving everything, dissolves even the dissolvent. But the new form in which it claims to suspend and preserve [the Hegelian Aufhebung, or sublation] both, dissolved and dissolvent, can never emerge in a pure state from an antagonistic society. As long as domination reproduces itself, the old quality reappears unrefined in the dissolving of the dissolvent: in a radical sense no leap is made at all.” Theodor Wiesen-grund Adorno. Minima Moralia. Translated by E.F.N. Jephcott. (Verso. New York, NY: 1987). Pg. 245, §152.

[13] Adorno, Negative Dialectics. Pg. 145.

[14] Moses Maimonides. Guide for the Perplexed. Translated by M. Friedländer, introduced by David Taffel. (Barnes & Noble. New York, NY: 2004). Pgs. 150-153.

[15] Miller’s translation of Vorstellungen as “picture-thoughts” is notoriously poor. The more appropriate choice is “representations.” Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit. Pg. 321, §527.

[16] Hegel explicitly appeals to the story of the Fall as the mythological correlate to the logical procession of concepts to and from the Absolute. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. The Encyclopaedia Logic (with the Zusätze). Translated, introduced, and annotated by T.F. Geraets, W.A. Suchting, and H.S. Harris. (Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. Indianapolis, IN: 1991). Pgs. 61-63, §24, Remark 3.

[17] Hegel, The Philosophy of History. Pg. 19.

[18] Ibid., pg. 19.

[19] Ibid., pg. 22.

[20] “Thereby [the pure concept] must re-establish for philosophy the Idea of absolute freedom and along with it the absolute Passion, the speculative Good Friday in place of the historic Good Friday. Good Friday must be speculatively re-established in the whole truth and harshness of its Godforsakenness.” Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Faith and Knowledge, or the Reflective Philosophy of Subjectivity in the complete range of its forms as Kantian, Jacobian, and Fichtean Philosophy. Translated by Walter Cerf and H.S. Harris. (State University of New York Press. Albany, NY: 1977). Pgs. 190-191.

[21] “Like freedom, the intelligible character as a subjective possibility is a thing that comes to be, not a thing that is. It would be a betrayal to incorporate it in existence by description, even by the most cautious description. In the right condition, as in the Jewish theologoumenon, all things would differ only a little from the way they are; but not even the least can be conceived now as it would be then. Despite this, we cannot discuss the intelligible character as hovering abstractly above things in being; we can talk of it only insofar as it keeps arising in reality, in the guilty context of things as they are, brought about by that context.” Adorno, Negative Dialectics. Pgs. 298-299.

[22] Seyla Benhabib. Critique, Norm, and Utopia: A Study of the Foundations of Critical Theory. (Columbia University Press. New York, NY: 1986). Pgs. 169-170.

[23] Walter Benjamin. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” From Illuminations, translated by Harry Zohn, introduced by Hannah Arendt. (Schocken Books. New York, NY: 1968). Pg. 253.

[24] Adorno, Negative Dialectics. Pg. 207.

[25] “Marx and Engels were enemies of Utopia for the sake of its realization.” Ibid., pg. 322.

[26] See the chapter “Auschwitz as Negative Theodicy” in Bernstein’s Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics. J.M. Bernstein. Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics. (Cambridge University Press. New York, NY: 2001). Pgs. 372-384.

[27] Ibid., pg. 376.

[28] Ibid., pg. 383.

[29] It is important to note that Adorno qualifies his identification of “The Concern of Philosophy” as historically contingent: “The matters of true philosophical interest at this point in history are those in which Hegel, agreeing with the tradition, expressed his disinterest. They are nonconceptuality, individuality, and particularity — things which ever since Plato used to be dismissed as transitory and insignificant, and which Hegel labeled ‘lazy Existenz.’ Philosophy’s theme would consist of the qualities it downgrades as contingent, as a quantité négligeable.” Adorno, Negative Dialectics. Pg. 8.

[30] “To think is to identify. Conceptual order is content to screen what thinking seeks to comprehend.” Ibid., Pg. 5.

[31] “[T]he words we use will remain concepts.” Ibid., pg. 53.

[32] Bernstein, Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics. Pg. 385.

[33] Adorno, Negative Dialectics. Pg. 11.

[34] Ibid., pg. 320.

[35] Ibid., pg. 17.

[36] Ibid., pg. 199.

[37] Ibid., pgs. 307-308.

[38] Hegel, The Philosophy of History. Pg. 50.

[39] A superb analysis of the logical basis of The Philosophy of Right is provided by the legendary Dieter Henrich, whose lecture “On the Logic of Negativity and its Application” demonstrates the roots of Hegel’s political philo-sophy in his earlier metaphysical work, The Science of Logic. Dieter Henrich. “The Logic of Negation and its Application.” From a collection of his lectures in Between Kant and Hegel: Lectures on German Idealism, edited by David S. Pacini. (Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA: 2003). Pgs. 327-329.

[40] “The state is the actuality of the substantial will, an actuality which it possesses in the particular self-consciousness when this has been raised to its universality; as such, it is the rational in and for itself.” Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. The Philosophy of Right. Translated by H.B. Nisbet, edited by Allen Wood. (Cambridge University Press. New York, NY: 1991). Pg. 275, §258.

[41] Adorno, Negative Dialectics. Pg. 326.

[42] “Social Democratic theory, and even more its practice, has been formed by a conception of progress which did not adhere to reality but made dogmatic claims. Progress as pictured in the minds of Social Democrats was, first of all, the progress of mankind itself (and not just advances in men’s ability and knowledge). Secondly, it was something boundless, in keeping with the infinite perfectibility of mankind. Thirdly, progress was regarded as irresistible, something that automatically pursued a straight or spiral course. Each of these predicates is controversial and open to criticism. However, when the chips are down, criticism must penetrate beyond these predicates and focus on something that they have in common. The concept of the historical progress of mankind cannot be sundered from the concept of its progression through a homogenous, empty time. A critique of the concept of such a progression must be the basis of any criticism of the concept of progress itself.” Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Pg. 260, Thesis XIII.

[43] Adorno’s messianic feelings tended toward Gnosticism or Kabbalism, as he reveals in the following passage: “[T]he created world is radically evil, and its negation is the chance of another world that is not yet.” Adorno, Negative Dialectics. Pg. 381.

[44] “Nothing has corrupted the German working class so much as the notion that it was moving with the current. It regarded technological developments as the fall of the stream with which it thought it was moving. From there it was but a step to the illusion that the factory work which was supposed to tend toward technological progress constituted a political achievement…Social Democracy thought fit to assign to the working class the role of the redeemer of future generations, in this way cutting the sinews of its greatest strength. This training made the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren.” Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy.” Pgs. 258-259, Thesis XI.

[45] Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno. The Dialectic of Enlightenment. Translated by Edmund Jephcott, edited by Gunzelin Schmid Noerr. (Stanford University Press. New York, NY: 2002). Pg. 191.

[46] Adorno, Negative Dialectics. Pg. 320.

[47] Adorno, Minima Moralia. Pg. 55, §33.

[48] Adorno, Negative Dialectics. Pg. 316.

[49] Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Pg. 257, Thesis VIII.

[50] Adorno, Negative Dialectics. Pg. 361.

[51] Ibid., pg. 153.

[52] Ibid., pg. 203.

[53] Ibid., pg. 305.

[54] Ibid., pg. 17.

[55] Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno. “Cultural Criticism and Society.” From Prisms, translated by Samuel and Shierry Weber. (Neville Spearman. London, England: 1967). Pg. 34.

[56] Adorno, Negative Dialectics. Pg. 362.

[57] Jean-François Lyotard. The Differend: Phrases in Dispute. Translated by Georges Van Den Abbeele. (Univers-ity of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis, MN: 1988). Pg. 91, §154.

[58] Adorno, Negative Dialectics. Pg. 406.

[59] Hegel, The Philosophy of History. Pgs. 20-21.

[60] Ibid., pgs. 26-27.

[61] Neiman, Evil in Modern Thought. Pg. 99.

[62] Hegel, The Philosophy of History. Pg. 34.

[63] Ibid., pg. 21.

[64] Ibid., pg. 21.

[65] See the final section, entitled “Finale.” Adorno, Minima Moralia. Pg. 247, §153.

[66] Georg Lukács. The Theory of the Novel: A historico-philosophical essay on the forms of great epic literature. Translated by Anna Bostock. (MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1975). Pg. 22.

[67] Slavoj Žižek. The Indivisible Remainder: On Schelling and Related Matters. (Verso. New York, NY: 1996). Pg. 5.


Adorno, Theodor Wiesengrund. Minima Moralia. Translated by E.F.N. Jephcott.

(Verso. New York, NY: 1987).

Adorno, Theodor Wiesengrund. Negative Dialectics. Translated by E.B. Ashton.

(Continuum. New York, NY: 1973).

Adorno, Theodor Wiesengrund. Prisms. Translated by Samuel and Shierry Weber.

(Neville Spearman. London, England: 1967).

Benhabib, Seyla. Critique, Norm, and Utopia: A Study of the Foundations of Critical

Theory. (Columbia University Press. New York, NY: 1986).

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Translated by Harry Zohn, introduced by Hannah

Arendt. (Schocken Books. New York, NY: 1968).

Bernstein, J.M. Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics. (Cambridge University Press.

New York, NY: 2001).

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Faith and Knowledge, or the Reflective Philosophy of

Subjectivity in the complete range of its forms as Kantian, Jacobian, and Fichtean Philosophy. Translated by Walter Cerf and H.S. Harris. (State University of New York Press. Albany, NY: 1977).

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A.V. Miller,

with a foreword and commentary by J.N. Findlay. (Oxford University Press. New York, NY: 1977).

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. The Philosophy of History. Translated and introduced

by J. Sibree, prefaced by Charles Hegel and with a second introduction by C.J. Friedrich. (Dover Publications, Inc. New York, NY: 2004).

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. The Science of Logic. Translated by A.V. Miller, with

a foreword by J.N. Findlay. (Humanity Books. Amherst, NY: 1969).

Henrich, Dieter. Between Kant and Hegel: Lectures on German Idealism. Edited by

David S. Pacini. (Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA: 2003).

Horkheimer, Max and Adorno, Theodor W. The Dialectic of Enlightenment. Translated

by Edmund Jephcott, edited by Gunzelin Schmid Noerr. (Stanford University Press. New York, NY: 2002).

Lukács, Georg. The Theory of the Novel: A historico-philosophical essay on the forms of

great epic literature. Translated by Anna Bostock. (MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1975).

Maimonides, Moses. Guide for the Perplexed. Translated by M. Friedländer, introduced

by David Taffel. (Barnes & Noble. New York, NY: 2004).

Neiman, Susan. Evil in Modern Thought: an Alternative History of Philosophy.

(Princeton University Press. Princeton, NJ: 2002).

Žižek, Slavoj. The Indivisible Remainder: On Schelling and Related Matters. (Verso.

New York, NY: 1996).

Such a tidy appellation should not for this reason (lack of explicit reference) be seen as a purely academic invention. That is to say, it is not some scholastic plaything or hermeneutic fantasy, imposed from without. This disclamation does not imply, however, that it is somehow “more” than an interpretive schematism. It should rather be regarded as immanent to Adorno’s criticism of Hegel. The fact that such sentiments would remain only implicit is unsurprising; Adorno is, after all, quite famous for his subtle insinuations.

“O happy fault that merited such and so great a Redeemer.”

“The Price of Progress.” — Fr.

5 thoughts on “Adorno’s critique of Hegel’s theodical philosophy of history in Negative Dialectics

  1. Since writing this paper, my views have changed quite a bit. Though I no doubt appreciate Hegel’s brilliance and his undeniable importance to the development of dialectical thought, Adorno’s dissatisfaction with the present and his concomitant critique of the totality and universal history hold. Hegel, while fully aware of the violence and evil that have appeared throughout history, callously understands it all to have been “necessary.” This is the root of his conservatism.

    • Well, it’s “necessary” insofar as it is retroactively understood as a progression of the dialectic. Considering Zizek’s reading of Hegel, the Absolute is less of a telos to be achieved and progressed to than the movement of spirit across time; the progression of the Absolute changes as history is reinterpreted an experienced, and as events become “necessary” as the structure of those changes become evermore understood.

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