Towards a ‘“negative” universal history’ : the interpretation and construction of history in the philosophy of Theodor W. Adorno

Feely, Jessica (2021) Towards a ‘“negative” universal history’ : the interpretation and construction of history in the philosophy of Theodor W. Adorno. (PhD thesis), Kingston University, .


The guiding premise of this thesis is that Adorno’s concept of history offers a critical means for the philosophical comprehension of the historical present. It seeks to expound the concept of history that emerges from Adorno’s thought with a view to articulating its criticality for our own time in the wake of subsequent theoretical attempts to conceptualise history. I argue that although Adorno never articulates a ‘world history’, his conception of the structure of the historical process, particularly in his later works, begins to offer a way of critiquing history in a global sense. The first part of the work examines the discrete yet interrelated philosophical methods that Adorno utilises to interpret history. The second part consists in a reconstruction of the concepts totality and ‘“negative” universal history’. This takes place through an examination of the interrelation between Adorno’s sociological and philosophical thought and a consideration of the theoretical possibilities and limitations that derive from Adorno’s construal of the negative universal in relation to postcolonial theory. The first chapter extracts from Dialectic of Enlightenment a theorisation of the formation of time-consciousness and sacrifice in the historical process. The second chapter contends that the significance of Adorno’s development of the concept natural history rests on a reinterpretation of the nature-history and natural history-social history distinctions that allows for a critique of the ideological fallacy that derives from understandings of history in which history is viewed either as separate from nature, or collapsed into it entirely. The third chapter explores Adorno’s re-working in Negative Dialectics of Hegel’s tripartite division of the concept in Science of Logic and assesses its implications for the philosophical interpretation of history. Chapter four argues that Adorno’s concept of the false social totality is underpinned by a conception of historical time in which the latter is constituted by heterogeneous, divergent temporalities that are unified in an ongoing process of totalisation. I claim that the historical process could lead to new configurations between subject and object and explore this in relation to the idea of the Gesamtsubjekt. Chapter five reconstructs Adorno’s idea of ‘“negative” universal history’ in the light of postcolonial theory. I argue that despite Adorno’sdisplacement of considerations of the world-historical in favour of an examination of society as a false totality, the idea of a ‘“negative” universal history’ could be substantiated via a development of Adorno’s concept and critique of integration.

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