Society as Subject and Society as Object

by Theodor W. Adorno, 1969
excerpts from the introduction to The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology,
translated by Glyn Adey and David Frisby, 1976

Dialectics is not a method independent of its object, thus it cannot, unlike a deductive system, be represented as a for‑itself [Für sich]. It does not accede to the criterion of the definition but instead it criticizes it. What is more serious is that, after the irrevocable collapse of the Hegelian system, dialectics has forfeited the former, profoundly questionable, consciousness of philosophical certainty. The accusation of the positivists, namely that dialectics lacks a foundation upon which everything else might be constructed, is held against it even by currently predominant philosophy with the claim that it lacks άợχή. In its idealist version, dialectics ventured, through numerous mediations and, in fact, by virtue of Being's own non‑identity with Spirit, to present Being as perfectly identical with the latter. This was unsuccessful and consequently, in its present form, dialectics adopts a position towards the 'myth of total reason' no less polemical than Albert's scientism. Dialectics is unable to take its claim to truth as guaranteed, as it did in its idealist phase. For Hegel the dialectical movement was able, with difficulty, to consider itself to be a comprehensive explanatory principle — to be 'science.' For, in its first steps and positings, the thesis of identity was always present, a thesis which in the development of the analyses was neither corroborated nor explicated. Hegel described it with the metaphor of the circle. Such closedness, which necessarily implied that nothing remained essentially unrecognized or fortuitous outside dialectics, has been exploded along with its constraint and unambiguity. Dialectics does not possess a canon of thought which might regulate it. Nevertheless, it still has its raison d'être. In terms of society, the idea of an objective system‑in‑itself is not as illusory as it seemed to be after the collapse of idealism, and as positivism asserts. The notion of the great tradition of philosophy, which positivism considers to be outdated, is not indebted to the allegedly aesthetic qualities of intellectual achievements but rather to a content of experience which, because of its transcendence into individual consciousness would tempt me to hypostatize it as being absolute. Dialectics is able to legitimize itself by translating this content back into the experience from which it arose. But this is the experience of the mediation of all that is individual through the objective societal totality. In traditional dialectics, it was turned on its head with the thesis that antecedent objectivity — the object itself, understood as totality — was the subject. Albert objects that in my Tübingen paper there are merely hints at totality. Yet it is almost tautological to say that one cannot point to the concept of totality in the same manner as one can point to the facts, from which totality distances itself as a concept. 'And to this first, still quite abstract approximation, let us add a further qualification, namely the dependency of all individuals on the totality which they form. In such a totality, everyone is also dependent on everyone else. The whole survives only through the unity of the functions which its members fulfil. Each individual without exception must take some function on himself in order to prolong his existence; indeed, while his function lasts, he is taught to express his gratitude for it' (Adorno, "Society").


That society does not allow itself to be nailed down as a fact actually only testifies to the existence of mediation. This implies that the facts are neither final nor impenetrable, even though the prevailing sociology regards them as such in accordance with the model of sense data found in earlier epistemology. In them there appears that which they are not. Not the least significant of the differences between the positivist and dialectical conceptions is that positivism, following Schlick's maxim, will only allow appearance to be valid, whilst dialectics will not allow itself to be robbed of the distinction between essence and appearance. For its part, it is a societal law that decisive structures of the social process, such as that of the inequality of the alleged equivalency of exchange, cannot become apparent without the intervention of theory. Dialectical thought counters the suspicion of what Nietzsche termed nether‑worldly [hinterweltlerisch] with the assertion that concealed essence is non‑essence. Dialectical thought, irreconcilable with the philosophical tradition, affirms this non‑essence, not because of its power but instead it criticizes its contradiction of 'what is appearing' [Erscheinendes] and, ultimately, its contradiction of the real life of human beings. One must adhere to Hegel's statement that essence must appear. Totality is not an affirmative but rather a critical category. Dialectical critique seeks to salvage or help to establish what does not obey totality, what opposes it or what first forms itself as the potential of a not yet existent individuation. The interpretation of facts is directed towards totality, without the interpretation itself being a fact. There is nothing socially factual which would not have its place in that totality. It is pre‑established for all individual subjects since they obey its 'contrainte' even in themselves and even in their monadological constitution and here in particular, conceptualize totality. To this extent, totality is what is most real. Since it is the sum of individuals' social relations which screen themselves off from individuals, it is also illusion — ideology. A liberated mankind would by no means be a totality. Their being‑in‑themselves is just as much their subjugation as it deceives them about itself as the true societal substratum. This certainly does not fulfil the desideratum of a logical analysis of the concept of totality, as the analysis of something free from contradiction, which Albert uses against Habermas, for the analysis terminates in the objective contradiction of totality. But the analysis should protect recourse to totality from the accusation of decisionistic arbitrariness. Habermas, no more than any other dialectician, disputes the possibility of an explication of totality; he simply disputes its verifiability according to the criterion of facts which is transcended through the movement towards the category of totality. Nevertheless, it is not separate from the facts but is immanent to them as their mediation. Formulated provocatively, totality is society as a thing‑in‑itself, with all the guilt of reification. But it is precisely because this thing‑in‑itself is not yet the total societal subject — nor is it yet freedom, but rather extends nature in a heteronomous manner — that an indissoluble moment is objective to it such as Durkheim, though somewhat one-sidedly, declared to be the essence of the social as such. To this extent it is also 'factual.' The concept of facticity, which the positivistic view guards as its final substratum, is a function of the same society about which scientistic sociology, insistent upon this opaque substratum, promises to remain silent. The absolute separation of fact and society is an artificial product of reflection which must be derived from, and refuted through, a second reflection.

In a footnote, Albert writes the following:

'Habermas quotes in this context Adorno's reference to the untestability of the dependence of each social phenomenon "upon the totality". The quotation stems from a context in which Adorno, with reference to Hegel, asserts that refutation is only fruitful as immanent critique; see Adorno, "On the Logic of the Social Sciences", pp. 113f. Here the meaning of Popper's comments on the problem of the critical test is roughly reversed through "further reflection". It seems to me that the untestability of Adorno's assertion is basically linked with the fact that neither the concept of totality used, nor the nature of the dependence asserted, is clarified to any degree. Presumably, there is nothing more behind it than the idea that somehow everything is linked with everything else. To what extent any view could gain a methodical advantage from such an idea would really have to be demonstrated. In this matter, verbal exhortations of totality ought not to suffice.'

However, the 'untestability' does not reside in the fact that no plausible reason can be given for recourse to totality, but rather that totality, unlike the individual social phenomena to which Albert's criterion of testability is limited, is not factual. To the objection that behind the concept of totality there lies nothing more than the triviality that everything is linked with everything else, one should reply that the bad abstraction of that statement 'is not so much the sign of feeble thinking as it is that of a shabby permanency in the constitution of society itself: that of exchange. The first, objective abstraction takes place; not so much in the scientific account of it, as in the universal development of the exchange system itself, which happens independently of the qualitative attitudes of producer and consumer, of the mode of production, even of need, which the social mechanism tends to satisfy as a kind of secondary by‑product. A humanity classified as a network of consumers, the human beings who actually have the needs, has been socially preformed beyond anything which one might naïvely imagine, and this not only by the technical level of productive forces but just as much by the economic relationships themselves in which they function. The abstraction of exchange value is a priori allied with the domination of the general over the particular, of society over its captive membership. It is not at all a socially neutral phenomenon as the logistics of reduction, of uniformity of work time pretend. The domination of men over men is realized through the reduction of men to agents and bearers of commodity exchange. The concrete form of the total system requires everyone to respect the law of exchange if he does not wish to be destroyed, irrespective of whether profit is his subjective motivation or not.' The crucial difference between the dialectical and the positivistic view of totality is that the dialectical concept of totality is intended 'objectively', namely, for the understanding of every social individual observation, whilst positivistic systems theories wish, in an uncontradictory manner, to incorporate observations in a logical continuum, simply through the selection of categories as general as possible. In so doing, they do not recognize the highest structural concepts as the precondition for the states of affairs subsumed under them. If positivism denigrates this concept of totality as mythological, pre‑scientific residue then it mythologizes science in its assiduous struggle against mythology. Its instrumental character, or rather its orientation towards the primacy of available methods instead of towards reality and its interest, inhibits insights which affect both scientific procedure and its object. The core of the critique of positivism is that it shuts itself off from both the experience of the blindly dominating totality and the driving desire that it should ultimately become something else. It contents itself with the senseless ruins which remain after the liquidation of idealism, without interpreting, for their part, both liquidation and what is liquidated, and rendering them true. Instead, positivism is concerned with the disparate, with the subjectivistically interpreted datum and the associated pure thought forms of the human subject. Contemporary scientism unites these now fragmented moments of knowledge in a manner as external as that of the earlier philosophy of reflection which, for this reason, deserved to be criticized by speculative dialectics. Dialectics also contains the opposite of idealistic hubris. It abolishes the illusion of a somehow natural‑transcendental dignity of the individual subject and becomes conscious of it in its forms of thought as something societal in itself. To this extent, dialectics is 'more realistic' than scientism with all its 'criteria of meaning.'

But since society is made up of human subjects and is constituted through their functional connection, its recognition through living, unreduced subjects is far more commensurable with 'reality itself' than in the natural sciences which are compelled, by the alien nature of a non‑human object, to situate objectivity entirely within the categorial mechanism, in abstract subjectivity. Freyer has drawn attention to this. The distinction between the nomothetic and idiographic, made by the south‑west German neo‑Kantian school, can be left out of consideration all the more readily since an unabbreviated theory of society cannot forego the laws of its structural movement. The commensurability of the object — society — with the knowing subject exists just as much as it does not exist. This too is difficult to combine with discursive logic. Society is both intelligible and unintelligible. It is intelligible in so far as the condition of exchange, which is objectively decisive, itself implies an abstraction and, in terms of its own objectivity, a subjective act. In it the human subject truly recognizes himself. In terms of the philosophy of science, this explains why Weberian sociology concentrates upon the concept of rationality. In rationality, regardless of whether consciously or unconsciously, Weber sought what was identical in subject and object, namely that which would permit something akin to knowledge of the object [Sache], instead of its splintering into data and its processing. Yet the objective rationality of society, namely that of exchange, continues to distance itself through its dynamics, from the model of logical reason. Consequently, society — what has been made independent — is, in turn, no longer intelligible; only the law of becoming independent is intelligible. Unintelligibility does not simply signify something essential in its structure but also the ideology by means of which it arms itself against the critique of its irrationality. Since rationality or spirit has separated itself as a partial moment from the living human subjects and has contended itself with rationalization, it moves forward towards something opposed to the subjects. The aspect of objectivity as unchangeability, which it thus assumes, is then mirrored in the reification of the knowing consciousness. The contradiction in the concept of society as intelligible and unintelligible is the driving force of rational critique, which extends to society and its type of rationality, namely the particular. If Popper seeks the essence of criticism in the fact that progressive knowledge abolishes its own logical contradictions, then his own ideal becomes criticism of the object if the contradiction has its own recognizable location in it, and not merely in the knowledge of it. Consciousness which does not blind itself to the antagonistic nature of society, nor to society's immanent contradiction of rationality and irrationality, must proceed to the critique of society without μετάβασις είς άλλο γέυος, without means other than rational ones.


The validity of knowledge, and not only of natural laws, is certainly largely independent of its origin. In Tübingen the two symposiasts were united in their critique of the sociology of knowledge and of Pareto's sociologism. Marx's theory opposes it. The study of ideology, of false consciousness, of socially necessary illusion would be nonsense without the concept of true consciousness and objective truth. Nevertheless, genesis and validity cannot be separated without contradiction. Objective validity preserves the moment of its emergence and this moment permanently affects it. No matter how unassailable logic is, the process of abstraction which removes it from attack is that of the controlling will. It excludes and disqualifies what it controls. In this dimension logic is 'untrue'; its unassailability is itself the intellectualized societal taboo. Its illusory nature is manifested in the contradictions encountered by reason in its objects. In the distancing of the subject from the object, which realizes the history of the mind, the subject gave way to the real superiority of objectivity. Its domination was that of the weaker over the stronger. Perhaps in no other way would the self‑assertion of the human species have been possible. The process of scientific objectivation would certainly not have been possible. But the more the subject seized for itself the aims of the object, the more it, in turn, unconsciously rendered itself an object. This is the prehistory of the reification of consciousness. What scientism simply assumes to be progress was always, at the same time, a sacrifice. What in the object does not correspond to the ideal of a 'pure' subject for‑itself, alienated from its own living experience, slips through the net. To this extent, advancing consciousness was accompanied by the shadow of false consciousness. Subjectivity has in itself eradicated what does not yield to the unambiguousness and identity of its claim to domination. Subjectivity, which is really always object, has reduced itself no less than its object. One should also recall the moments which are lost in scientific methodology's curtailment of objectivity, and similarly the loss of the spontaneity of knowledge inflicted by the subject upon himself in order to master his own restricted achievements. Carnap, one of the most radical positivists, once characterized as a stroke of good luck the fact that the laws of logic and of pure mathematics apply to reality. A mode of thought, whose entire pathos lies in its enlightened state, refers at this central point to an irrational—mythical—concept, such as that of the stroke of luck, simply in order to avoid an insight which, in fact, shakes the positivistic position; namely, that the supposed lucky circumstance is not really one at all but rather the product of the ideal of objectivity based on the domination of nature or, as Habermas puts it, the 'pragmatistic' ideal of objectivity. The rationality of reality, registered with relief by Carnap, is simply the mirroring of subjective ratio. The epistemological metacritique denies the validity of the Kantian claim to the subjective a priori but affirms Kant's view to the extent that his epistemology, intent on establishing validity, describes the genesis of scientistic reason in a highly adequate manner. What to him, as a remarkable consequence of scientistic reification, seems to be the strength of subjective form which constitutes reality is, in truth, the summa of the historical process in which subjectivity — liberating itself from nature and thus objectivating itself — emerged as the total master of nature, forgot the relationship of domination and, thus blinded, re‑interpreted this relationship as the creation of that ruled by the ruler. Genesis and validity must certainly be critically distinguished in the individual cognitive acts and disciplines. But in the realm of so‑called constitutional problems they are inseparably united, no matter how much this may be repugnant to discursive logic. Since scientistic truth desires to be the whole truth it is not the whole truth. It is governed by the same ratio which would never have been formed other than through science. It is capable of criticism of its own concept and in sociology can characterize in concrete terms what escapes science — society.


The concept of society, which is specifically bourgeois and anti-feudal, implies the notion of an association of free and independent human subjects for the sake of the  possibility of a better life and, consequently, the critique of natural societal relations. The hardening of bourgeois society into something impenetrably and inevitably natural is its immanent regression. Something of the opposing intention was expressed in the social contract theories. No matter how little these theories were historically correct, they penetratingly remind society of the concept of the unity of individuals, whose conscious ultimately postulates their reason, freedom and equality. In a grand manner, the unity of the critique of scientific and meta‑scientific sense is revealed in the work of Marx. It is called the critique of political economy since it attempts to derive the whole that is to be criticized in terms of its right to existence from exchange, commodity form and its immanent 'logical' contradictory nature. The assertion of the equivalence of what is exchanged, the basis of all exchange, is repudiated by its consequences. As the principle of exchange, by virtue of its immanent dynamics, extends to the living labours of human beings it changes compulsively into objective inequality, namely that of social classes. Forcibly stated, the contradiction is that exchange takes place justly and unjustly. Logical critique and the emphatically practical critique that society must be changed simply to prevent a relapse into barbarism are moments of the same movement of the concept.


Positivism regards sociology as one science among others and, since Comte, has considered that the proven methods of older science, in particular of natural science, can be transferred to sociology. The actual pseudos is concealed here. For sociology has a dual character. In it, the subject of all knowledge — society, the bearer of logical generality — is at the same time the object. Society is subjective because it refers back to the human beings who create it, and its organizational principles too refer back to subjective consciousness and its most general form of abstraction — logic, something essentially subjective. Society is objective because, on account of its underlying structure, it cannot perceive its own subjectivity, because it does not possess a total subject and through its organization it thwarts the installation of such a subject. But such a dual character modifies the relationship of social‑scientific knowledge with its object; positivism does not take this into account. It simply treats society, potentially the self‑determining subject, as if it were an object, and could be determined from outside. It literally objectivates what, for its part, causes objectivation and what can provide an explanation for objectivation. Such a substitution of society as object for society as subject constitutes the reified consciousness of sociology. It is not recognized that by recourse to the subject as something estranged from itself and objectively confronting the researcher, the subject implied, in other words the very object of sociology, becomes another. Certainly the change through the orientation of knowledge possesses its fundamentum in re. The development within society, moves, for its part, towards reification; this provides a reified consciousness of society with its adaequatio. But truth demands that this quid pro quo also be included. Society as subject and society as object are the same and yet not the same. The objectivating acts of science eliminate that in society by means of which it is not only an object, and the shadow of this falls upon all scientistic objectivity. For a doctrine whose supreme norm is the lack of contradiction it is most difficult to perceive this. Here lies the innermost difference between a critical theory of society and what is commonly known as sociology. Despite all the experience of reification, and in the very expression of this experience, critical theory is orientated towards the idea of society as subject, whilst sociology accepts reification, repeats it in its methods and thereby loses the perspective in which society and its law would first reveal themselves.


History mediates between the phenomenon and its content which requires interpretation. The essential which appears in the phenomenon is that whereby it became what it is, what was silenced in it and what, in painful stultification, releases that which yet becomes. ... [The critical theory of society] is only peripherally concerned with the ends‑means‑relation subjectively carried out by actors. It is more concerned with the laws realized through and against such intentions. Interpretation is the opposite of the subjective meaning endowment on the part of the knowing subject or of the social actor. The concept of such meaning endowment leads to an affirmative fallacy that the social process and social order are reconciled with the subject and justified as something intelligible by the subject or belonging to the subject. A dialectical concept of meaning would not be a correlate of Weber's meaningful understanding but rather the societal essence which shapes appearances, appears in them and conceals itself in them. It is not a general law, understood in the usually scientistic sense, which determines the phenomena. Its model would be Marx's law of crisis — even if it has become so obscured as to be unrecognizable — which was deduced from the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Its modifications, for their part, should also be derived from it. The efforts to ward off or postpone the system immanent tendency are already prescribed within the system. It is by no means certain that this is possible indefinitely or whether such efforts enact the law of crisis against their own will. The writing on the wall suggests a slow inflationary collapse. ... Society is a system in the sense of a synthesis of an atomized plurality, in the sense of a real yet abstract assemblage of what is in no way immediately or 'organically' united. The exchange relationship largely endows the system with a mechanical character. It is objectively forced onto its elements, as implied by the concept of an organism — the model which resembles a celestial teleology through which each organ would receive its function in the whole and would derive its meaning from the latter. The context which perpetuates life simultaneously destroys it, and consequently already possesses in itself the lethal impulse towards which its dynamic is propelled.

A New Institute for Social Research