6. The Demystification of the Concept

All philosophy, even Hegel’s, is vulnerable to the general objection that it inevitably takes concepts as its material and so has prejudged any question in favor of idealism. No-one, not even an extreme empiricism, can drag the hard facts in by the hair and deliver them up like anatomical specimens or experiments in a physics lab; no-one can paste the individual things into a text, the way some kinds of painting entice us into thinking we might. But that argument, in its formal universality, takes a fetishistic view of the concept, much as the concept construes itself naively when on its home turf: as a self-sufficient totality over against which philosophy stands powerless. The truth is that all concepts, even philosophical ones, open up onto the non-conceptual, because they are themselves moments of reality, which requires their creation, mostly for purposes of mastering nature. However conceptual mediation appears to itself from the inside—the primacy it gives to its own sphere, without which, it is said, nothing can be known—this must not be confused with what such mediation is in itself. It gets this appearance of existing-in-itself from the movement that lifts it up out of reality, a reality into which it is all the same wedged. Philosophy has no choice but to operate with concepts: one can neither turn this into a virtue—the concept’s primacy—nor, conversely, critique this virtue and so issue a summary verdict on all philosophy. The insight, however, that philosophy’s conceptual character is, though inescapable, not absolute is communicated by the concept’s very texture and complexion; it is not a dogmatic, let alone a naïvely realistic proposition. Concepts like that of “being” at the beginning of Hegel’s Logic emphatically signify, in the first instance, the non-conceptual. In Emil Lask’s words, they mean beyond themselves. Their meaning includes the idea that they cannot make due with their own conceptuality, even though they enclose the non-conceptual, as their meaning, and so tend to assimilate it, thereby getting trapped in themselves. Their content is at once immanent, or mental, and ontic, or transcendent. They can break free of their fetishism if they become self-conscious about this. Philosophical reflection assures itself of the non-conceptual in the concept. If it did not, the concept would be, as Kant has it, empty, finally not even the concept of anything at all and so void. Philosophy pulls the blindfold from its eyes when it recognizes as much and puts paid to the autarky of the concept. The concept is concept even when if refers to being, but this cannot change the fact that it is woven into a non-conceptual whole; a concept once reified does nothing but seal itself off from that whole, though reification is of course what produces the concept as concept. The concept is a moment like any other in dialectical logic. There survives in the concept its mediation by the non-conceptual, by virtue of its strict and literal meaning, which for its part is the concept’s foundation. The concept has two characteristics at once: to refer to the non-conceptual, just as every definition of concepts in traditional epistemology ends up requiring non-conceptual, deictic moments; and, contrariwise, as an abstract unit, to distance from the ontic the onta gathered under it. To change conceptuality’s orientation, to turn it in the direction of the non-identical, is the hinge of negative dialectics. The non-conceptual helps constitute the concept; the identity compulsion that the concept carries with itself when undetained by such reflection should melt away in the face of this insight. The concept finds a way out of the appearance of self-identity as a unit of meaning when its takes stock of the meaning that is its own.

ADORNO, NEGATIVE DIALEKTIK (1966), pp. 23-24