The Good, the Bad, and the Normative: The Problem of Negativity in Adorno’s Philosophy

Theodor W. Adorno is known for his deeply negative views of the modern world. According to him, the evils of modernity (such as the Shoa) have not been accidental to the way we structure our lives and think about the world around us. Rather, these evils have been intimately connected with the modern society and rationality. Although Adorno offers no hope for a definite remedy, he places his trust in doing philosophy, and he does philosophy in form of uncompromising critique, both of modern society and of the dominant traditions of thought within it. Yet, it is often said that Adorno’s philosophy is too negative, that his critical project tends to undermine itself. By subjecting everything to critique, Adorno seems to leave himself without a vantage point from which his critique could be justified. In this lecture, I reconstruct and defend Adorno’s philosophy – arguing that it contains a negativist ethics (an ethics based solely on a conception of the bad), which can be vindicated, once we have gained a proper understanding of what it is to account for normativity. (Freyenhagen)

Fabian Freyenhagen is a Reader in Philosophy at the University of Essex, having previously taught at the Universities of Sheffield (where he completed his PhD) and Cambridge. His book Adorno’s Practical Philosophy: Living Less Wrongly will appear later this year with Cambridge University Press. Apart from work on Adorno, he has published on the philosophy of Kant and Hegel as well as on contemporary political philosophy. He has co-edited two books, Disputing the Political: Habermas and Rawls, with Gordon Finlayson; and The Legacy of John Rawls, with Thom Brooks. He is Co-Investigator in a major research grant, the Essex Autonomy Project, and has also published in this area.

Introduction: Hans Sluga, Professor of Philosophy, UC Berkeley