What Would Be Different
Figures of Possibility in Adorno
Iain Macdonald





The form of actuality excludes the possibility of those actions that seem imminent in Marx. Only a liar would act today as though one could change the world tomorrow.
—Adorno, as reported by Ralf Dahrendorf1

Negative dialectic penetrates its hardened objects through possibility—the possibility of which the objects’ actuality has cheated them, yet which gazes out of each one.

Between Two Possibilities

As we have seen, an Adornian critique of Hegel’s theory of actuality leads towards a reorganization of the Hegelian typology of possibilities. Specifically, Adorno’s thought requires us to make room for non-formal blocked possibilities. For Hegel, the totality of existing circumstances is seen as coextensive with and exhaustive of the conditions of future actuality, whereas for Adorno current actuality is by and large not merely a totality of conditions of possibility but also a sum of self-perpetuating conditions of impossibility that come together to block possibilities of emancipation. Essentially, blocked possibilities, while inhering in existing actuality in the manner of real possibilities, are nevertheless neither actualized nor immediately actualizable, to the extent that they are systematically kept at bay by existing actuality’s prevailing possibilities of self-reproduction. Adornian blocked possibilities may therefore be said, somewhat paradoxically, to bear features of both formal and real possibilities on Hegel’s use of these terms. It is precisely this ambiguity that suggests a need for a more fine-grained typology of possibilities.

In this regard, Jay Bernstein aptly remarks that, for Adorno, “lodged somewhere between logical and actual possibility,” there is something that is “neither fully actual nor fully non-actual.”3 This is an important insight into Adorno’s concept of possibility, and one that merits further development. The trouble is that Adorno nowhere provides a full-fledged or even a detailed sketch of a theory of possibility. Happily, as we have begun to see, his views can be reconstructed on the basis of various remarks but also—and perhaps more productively—by following a recurrent theme in his thought: the nature-history dialectic. The advantage of this approach is twofold: It provides a relatively stable conceptual framework within which Adorno’s concept of possibility can be situated, and it allows us to see it at work in different aspects and periods of his thought. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to say that the nature-history dialectic is central to Adorno’s thought from the beginning right up until the very end of his career. One could even say that this dialectic provides a kind of template for his philosophical-sociological-aesthetic project and so comes to play the role of a structural motif in his writings: in the relation of myth to reason, society to individual, and practice to theory, as well as in the peculiar transcendence of the artwork vis-à-vis the history of art.

Following a general presentation of the nature-history dialectic, this chapter describes society and art as figures of it. Accordingly, Adorno’s concept of society unfolds on the basis of its apparently natural heteronomous command over the individual, along with its attendant though suppressed possibilities of autonomy and radical historical transformation. Art, in contrast, follows the opposite course: the historical dynamism of autonomous art takes the upper hand (at least on the plane of aesthetic semblance) over the real, over existing art and what has come to seem natural in the history of art. Ultimately, we shall see that society and art are not merely distinct instantiations of the nature-history dialectic but together form another version of it, with society as a figure of nature in need of ruthless historical critique, and art as a figure of history that has become a refuge for the precondition and universal objective of that critique: autonomy. Within this movement, the notion of blocked possibility comes to play a central and critical role.


Adorno’s 1932 paper “The Idea of Nature-History,” published posthumously, is at once challenging and elliptical, presenting the reader with various puzzles and problems of interpretation.4 In the first instance, the concepts of nature and history he presents are somewhat unusual and synthetic, bringing together elements from Hegel, Marx, Lukács, and Benjamin, in combination with features of Adorno’s criticisms of Heidegger and of what has come to be called the myth of the given.

We can perhaps cut to the heart of the matter via Hegel’s conception of second nature and the recurrent threat of its degradation into a sort of “spiritual mechanism.”5 This is arguably the most basic historical and theoretical point of reference for understanding Adorno’s approach to the dialectic of nature and history.

On Hegel’s view, second nature appears most prominently in the form of ethical life (Sittlichkeit), the tissue of largely unconscious habits of communal living that takes the form of a system of culture, religion, and laws to which the individual is assimilated and which provides the dynamic basis for self- and community-actualization. However, as Christoph Menke has argued, the self-actualization of spirit in ethical life carries with it a risk of which Hegel is well aware, namely, that of the unconscious reification and replication of pre-given universal forms or the “lapse” of ethical life into a kind of spiritual mechanism: “Because spirit is, by its very concept, the reality of freedom, its self-generation as (second) nature is an act of self-dissimulation or self-inversion: spirit appears to itself like or as nature; it inverts or perverts itself into nature.”6 This inversion or perversion of spirit consists essentially in a momentary break in spirit’s power of continuous self-actualization. Absolute spirit, or the power to establish the truth of ethical life, can fall into rote behavior and blind obedience, thereby degenerating into mere finite spirit. Instead of engendering and dynamically animating second nature, overcoming its internal contradictions as these become evident, individuals adhere blindly to their precious social and cultural forms and lapse into patterns that resemble those of mechanistic first nature.7 In this way, possibility and actualization are constrained by the apparent necessity of affirmative being, that is, the sheer authority of the merely extant. For Hegel, of course, spirit cannot help overcoming itself, cannot help giving itself its own salutary potentialities, which appear in the experience of ethical life, although individuals may well misinterpret the latter’s content. Spirit will liberate itself from this predicament simply because it can, because that is its power of self-actualization. Thus, succumbing to the familiarity of second nature—allowing it to become a heteronomous force—remains a possible station, but no more than a station, on the way to the ultimate destination of rational self-critique and the social actualization of the forms described in the Philosophy of Right. Or so the story goes, according to Hegel. This moment of inversion or perversion forms a good basis for understanding Adorno’s use of the term “nature.”

On Adorno’s view, “nature” refers to anything (a belief, custom, law, commandment, principle, and so on) that purportedly refers us to a necessary, permanent substratum of ultimate and immutable sense informing history. This use of the term is therefore not reducible to the sensuous, material nature studied by natural science; it is a higher-order term that encompasses not only the notion of a constituent domain of matter governed by law but any pre-given or allegedly a priori foundation. It is what Antigone refers to as “the unwritten and unfailing statutes given us by the gods. For their life is not of today or yesterday, but for all time, and no one knows when they were first put forth.”8 In 1932, Adorno describes nature as “what has always been, what as fatefully arranged pre-given being underlies history and appears within history; it is what is substantial within history.”9 In other words, “nature” refers to that which passes itself off as necessary, even if it is second nature that is really at issue. Nature is the life of spirit in the degraded form of spiritual mechanism. This merely apparent, second-natural necessity pawning itself off as absolutely necessary is, in general, the only form of necessity that is really of interest to Adorno.

In contrast, “history” is described as “a movement that does not play itself out in pure identity, in the pure reproduction of what has always been, but is one in which the new occurs and gains its true character through what appears in it as new.”10 In other words, history, as the emergence of the new, is non-identical with respect to the apparent laws of so-called archaic, eternal nature. It occurs, for example, in the experience that belies the past or defeats expectations, urging us on to self-correction. Thus, interestingly, history does not merely refer to the past but also to the new; and as the new, it is that which “makes history,” as it were, by breaking with archaic nature and time-honored concepts that turn out to be contingent—even false—in spite of their venerability. As such, history implies both radical transience (the downfall of the ever-same) and transition (the emergence of the new), which properly occur in the moment of liberation from nature as ideology. In this way, Adorno echoes Marx’s sardonic comment that classical political economy presents us with the ridiculous portrait of history dressed up as nature, as though “there has been history, but now there is no longer any.”11

Adorno illustrates the dialectical movement from history to nature through reference to Lukács’s concept of second nature. Essentially, the thought here is that the world in which we live is a world of conventions that collectively constitute a second nature, as in Hegel’s use of the term. For Lukács and Adorno, however, the focus is decidedly on the fact that this world has been thoroughly alienated from its historical conditions of emergence, and so appears to us as “what has always been” or, alternatively, as embodying natural necessity—for example, in the form of apparently inescapable ancestral injustices and their more modern forms, such as the distinction between those who own the means of production and those who can only sell their labor power. The critical point is that historically produced laws take on the appearance of inescapability by becoming detached from their genesis, thereby coming to act as heteronomous forces. Adorno here insists, in a very Benjaminian way, on the “charnel-house” or “ossuary” of the present, quoting Lukács, who says that second nature, the world of petrified conventions, is “a charnel-house of long-dead interiorities; this second nature could only be brought to life—if this were possible—by the metaphysical act of reawakening the souls which, in an early or ideal existence, created or preserved it; it can never be animated by another interiority.”12 (As Hegel puts it, “A shape of life has grown old and it cannot be rejuvenated.”)13 Through reference to Lukács, then, Adorno stresses that such a second nature is not merely habit qua spiritual mechanism (say, a system of unquestioned, time-honored traditions) but also—and thereby—something dead that nevertheless persists and longs for an impossible resurrection.14

A few things are worthy of note here. First, there is in Lukács the suggestion of an all-too-necessary moment of progress being impeded by a situation in which petrified forms continue to hold sway. On this basis, picking up on Lukács’s mention of the unfulfilled need for a “metaphysical act,” Adorno says that we are seemingly faced with a “metaphysical possibility,” that is, a possibility that is essentially unavailable to us as long as these forms persist. But he quickly moves to criticize this view, asserting that the becoming-natural of historical forms of ethical life (such as the initially positive emergence of humanistic bourgeois values that ended up serving the economic interests of the few) does not necessarily lead us into an impasse: history can bring about a breakthrough of the new.15 On a related point, it is worth underscoring that Adorno insists on the riddle- or cipher-character of second nature, which suggests the chance of discovering something new—or at least the promise of something new—within the ossified forms of the old. In this way, he points to the conversion of the first moment of the nature-history dialectic (history becoming nature) into its second moment: the movement from nature to history or from merely apparent necessity to the possibility of the new.

At this point things become somewhat more tortuous, as Adorno’s point of reference—Benjamin’s book on the German mourning play—is somewhat gestural. However, it is at least clear that for Adorno the return movement of the dialectic, from nature to history, consists in the discovery that “nature itself proves to be transient nature [vergängliche Natur], history.”16 By this statement, Adorno means to draw attention to the fact we can analyze and diagnose enigmatic features of life that appear to guide us in the manner of natural laws, so as to show us that what seems immutable and unequivocal is, in fact, a riddle that calls for its solution, which in turn will lead to its overcoming through determinate, dialectical negation.17 Thus, the suffering of the world (its vanity, its passions, its pains, and so on), though understood in a very visceral, natural sense, is seen not as a senseless subjection to abstract natural laws but as decipherable according to its historical determinants. What is first taken to be the expression of ineluctable nature is revealed to be contingent and surmountable—hence the emphasis on transience. As Adorno says elsewhere, half-quoting Nietzsche: “Woe says: pass.”18 The horizon of suffering is its overcoming.

All of this sounds fairly straightforwardly dialectical in a sense at least broadly compatible with Hegel’s views on second nature and determinate negation. Second nature, once it recollects its historicality or its having become second nature, can liberate itself from the stranglehold of immutability and give rise to a structural transformation of ethical life. Strangely, though, Adorno’s presentation of the issues, which relies so heavily on Benjamin, neglects, for whatever reason, several important aspects of the book on the mourning play that support claims he will make later in his career. More specifically, he downplays somewhat the notion of blockage (the persistence of nature, the obstruction of historical potentials) that will later prove to be so important.19 Why precisely he does so is unclear, but the result is an uncharacteristic air of optimism. In any case, at least two aspects of Benjamin’s text are worthy of mention in view of later developments.

First, while Benjamin certainly stresses transience,20 and does so on the basis of the Baroque period’s constant reminders of the ephemeral nature of human existence, he is ultimately more interested in the relation between the mourning play and the effective, historical impasse it illustrates, in the sense that the works analyzed contain no real, immediate, and immanent possibility of transcendence. Thus, mere transience slips into a kind of repetition, impotence, or hopelessness:

Whereas the Middle Ages present the futility of world events and the transience of the creature as stations on the road to salvation, the German mourning play is taken up entirely with the hopelessness of the earthly condition. Such redemption as it knows resides in the depths of this destiny itself rather than in the fulfillment of a divine plan of salvation. The rejection of the eschatology of the religious dramas is characteristic of the new drama throughout Europe; nevertheless, the rash flight into a nature deprived of grace is specifically German.21

Of course, this hopelessness is not an ultimate form—it is historically produced and therefore not immutable—but the moment of transcendence that would redeem it appears out of reach from within the period itself. It is this central characteristic that so interests Benjamin.22 Thus, to the extent that transcendence appears, it is given only negatively, in the spiritual shape of blocked or deferred transcendence. Thus, we must see the mourning play as the reflection of a struggle to come to terms with the immanence of this vale of tears and so with the constant postponement of transcendence, which is depicted in countless ways—for example, in the Lutheran view that dead souls perhaps sleep until the Day of Judgment.23 First a world of pain, then an indeterminate but protracted period of insensible waiting: suffering and then nothing until the End of Days. But the point is this: Benjamin is more interested in the mourning play as the unconscious, unintentional representation of this situation of blockage than he is in the period’s obsession with the vanity of existence or transience.24 To put it succinctly, transience is only one component of the movement from nature to history, the other of which is blockage; and the two come together in a kind of melancholy impotence that Benjamin describes in detail.25

A second, related aspect of the treatment of the mourning play that Adorno neglects concerns its difference with respect to ancient tragedy. The key point here is that in ancient tragedy the hero is a hinge figure, according to Benjamin, and the drama plays out a historical crisis point or catastrophe that transforms history. The tragic sacrifice is “at once a first and a final sacrifice.”26 In other words, Janus-faced, “the tragic death has a dual significance: it invalidates the ancient rights of the Olympians, and it offers up the hero to the unknown god as the first fruits of a new harvest of humanity.”27 We might think here of Orestes and the transformation of the Erinyes in Aeschylus or of the Hegelian reading of Sophocles’s Antigone. In any event, this process amounts to “the undermining of an ancient body of law in the linguistic constitution of the renewed community.”28 Something is discovered to be awry in the seemingly eternal constancy of divine law, which causes this law to undergo a transformation. It is here that transience takes on its true importance: the so-called natural order is revealed to be historical insofar as its apparent necessity is shown to be shot through with contingency and urgency. “What has always been” suddenly becomes “what can and must be otherwise.” Benjamin notably describes this as similar to the legal situation described by the verdict non liquet (it is not clear): the judicial declaration that a case has not been proven or cannot be decided, which Benjamin understands emphatically as the acknowledgment of a fateful lacuna—the insufficiency or structural inapplicability of existing laws—that announces a need for transformation, however this actually plays itself out.29

We can certainly see how such situations would have a certain appeal for Benjamin and Adorno. The non liquet evokes, with some dialectical pressure, the image of a contradiction between law and life that fuels, or might fuel, determinate negation. However, crucially, this remedy is not available in the mourning play. Instead of playing out the redemption of the flawed whole, there is just an inexorable movement towards melancholy on the way to death. As Benjamin puts it, “These are not so much plays that cause mourning, as plays through which mournfulness finds satisfaction: plays for the mournful.”30 The era is one in which there is effectively no real possibility of inner-historical redemption, so historical events take on a fateful character. Second nature becomes a spiritual mechanism that succeeds in masquerading as eternal nature or what is taken to be divine creation. It is here that the Benjaminian concept of nature-history reveals what is perhaps its most important aspect:

[Fate] is not rooted in factual inevitability. The core of the notion of fate is, rather, the conviction that guilt (which in this context always means creaturely guilt [kreatürliche Schuld]—in Christian terms, original sin—not moral transgression on the part of the agent), however fleeting its appearance, unleashes causality as the instrument of the irresistibly unfolding fatalities. Fate is the entelechy of events within the field of guilt.31


1. Ralf Dahrendorf, “Remarks on the Discussion of the Papers by Karl R. Popper and Theodor W. Adorno,” in Adorno, The Positivist Dispute, 129; “Anmerkung zur Diskussion der Referate von Karl R. Popper und Theodor W. Adorno,” in Der Positivismusstreit in der deutschen Soziologie (Darmstadt: Hermann Luchterhand Verlag, 1969), 151.

2. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 52; GS, 6:62.

3. Jay M. Bernstein, Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 418, 435. See also Deborah Cook, “From the Actual to the Possible: Nonidentity Thinking,” Constellations 12, no. 1 (2005): 21–35; and Deborah Cook, “Open Thinking: Adorno’s Exact Imagination,” Philosophy and Social Criticism 44, no. 8 (2018): 805–821.

4. See Tom Whyman, “Understanding Adorno on ‘Natural-History,’International Journal of Philosophical Studies 24, no. 4 (2016): 452–472.

5. See Hegel, Science of Logic, 631; W, 6:410.

6. Christoph Menke, “Hegel’s Theory of Second Nature: The ‘Lapse’ of Spirit,” Symposium 17, no. 1 (2013): 41.

7. Compare Alfred Schmidt, The Concept of Nature in Marx, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: New Left Books, 1971), 43; Alfred Schmidt, Der Begriff der Natur in der Lehre von Marx, 4th rev. and corr. ed. (Hamburg: Europäische Verlagsanstalt, 1993), 37.

8. Sophocles, Sophocles: Plays. Antigone, trans. R. C. Jebb (London: Bristol Classical Press, 2004), 454–457. Hegel occasionally refers to these lines. See, e.g., Hegel, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, 261; Elements of the Philosophy of Right, § 144, Zusatz, 189; W, 3:322 and 7:294, respectively.

9. Theodor W. Adorno, “The Idea of Natural-History,” in Things beyond Resemblance: Collected Essays on Theodor W. Adorno, ed. and trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 253; GS, 1:346. I translate Naturgeschichte as “nature-history” and not as “natural-history” to underscore that what Adorno has in mind is not a history qualified by nature but rather the dialectical interrelation of the two moments of nature and history.

10. Adorno, “The Idea of Natural-History,” 253; GS, 1:346.

11. Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, in Marx–Engels Collected Works, trans. Frida Knight (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1976), 6:174; Marx and Engels, MEW, 4:139.

12. Georg Lukács, The Theory of the Novel: A Historico-Philosophical Essay on the Forms of Great Epic Literature (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971), 64; Georg Lukács, Die Theorie des Romans: Ein geschichtsphilosophischer Versuch über die Formen der großen Epik (Darmstadt: Hermann Luchterhand Verlag, 1971), 55.

13. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, preface, 23; W, 7:28. Compare Hegel, Science of Logic, 8; W, 5:15.

14. On this point, see also Adorno, Minima Moralia, § 14, 34; GS, 4:37.

15. Adorno, “The Idea of Natural-History,” 262; GS, 1:357.

16. Adorno, “The Idea of Natural-History,” 262; GS, 1:358.

17. In “The Idea of Natural-History,” Adorno refers to the riddle-like nature of experience, but he makes more extensive use of this Benjaminian concept in the earlier paper “The Actuality of Philosophy.” See, e.g., Theodor W. Adorno, “The Actuality of Philosophy,” in The Adorno Reader, ed. Brian O’Connor, trans. Benjamin Snow (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 31–32; GS, 1:335.

18. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 203; GS, 6:203. The allusion is to Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and No One, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1961), 244, 333; Friedrich Nietzsche, Kritische Studienausgabe, 15 vols. (Munich: dtv/de Gruyter, 1988), 4:286, 404.

19. The notion of blockage, in the form of the persistence of the current state of affairs, is more present in “The Actuality of Philosophy” but is almost reduced to the status of a methodological problem: with the correct form of dialectical critique, the blockage can be more or less directly overcome. For example, “Authentic philosophical interpretation does not aim for a fixed meaning that lies ready behind the question, but suddenly and instantaneously lights up [the riddle with which it is confronted], consuming it at the same time.” This would seem to be a far more orthodox Hegelian view of determinate negation than is found in later writings, which emphasize the obstructive character of reality’s riddles. See Adorno, “The Actuality of Philosophy,” 31–32; GS, 1:335. For a more developed version of these issues, see in particular Adorno, History and Freedom, 120–121, 127–128; Zur Lehre von der Geschichte, 173–174, 184.

20. See, e.g., Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (London: Verso, 1998), 223–224; Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Rolf Tiedemann et al., 7 vols. (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1972–1989), 1.1:397–398. Except in references to the published translation, this work will be referred to as The Origin of the German Mourning Play.

21. Benjamin, Origin of German Tragic Drama, 81; BGS, 1.1:260.

22. Kafka is claimed to have said, “Oh, [there is] plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope—but not for us.” Quoted in Walter Benjamin, “Franz Kafka: On the Tenth Anniversary of His Death,” in Selected Writings, ed. Michael W. Jennings and Howard Eiland (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 2.2:798; BGS, 2.2:414. See also Max Brod, Franz Kafka: A Biography, trans. G. Humphreys Roberts and Richard Winston (New York: Schocken Books, 1960), 75; Max Brod, Franz Kafka: Eine Biographie, in Über Franz Kafka (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Bücherei, 1966), 71.

23. “I am inclined to agree with your opinion that the souls of the just are asleep and that they do not know where they are, up to the Day of Judgement. . . . But I do not dare affirm that this is true for all souls in general, because of the ecstasy of Paul and the ascension of Elijah and Moses (who certainly did not appear as phantoms on Mount Tabor). Who knows how God deals with departed souls? . . . I think the same thing about condemned souls. . . . It is most probable, however, that, with few exceptions, all [departed souls] sleep without feeling.” See Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, ed. Helmut T. Lehmann and Jaroslav Pelikan, 55 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955–1986), 48:360–361; Martin Luther, D. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe—Briefwechsel (Weimar: Verlag Hermann Böhlaus Nachfolger, 1931), 2:422.

24. Compare Theodor W. Adorno, “Progress,” in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 155; GS, 10.2:631.

25. See Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, 151–157; BGS, 1.1:329–334. See also Howard Caygill, Walter Benjamin: The Colour of Experience (London: Routledge, 1998), 53–54.

26. Benjamin, Origin of German Tragic Drama, 106; BGS, 1.1:285.

27. Benjamin, Origin of German Tragic Drama, 107; BGS, 1.1:285–286.

28. Benjamin, Origin of German Tragic Drama, 115; BGS, 1.1:294.

29. Benjamin, Origin of German Tragic Drama, 116–117; BGS, 1.1:296.

30. Benjamin, Origin of German Tragic Drama, 119; BGS, 1.1:298.

31. Benjamin, Origin of German Tragic Drama, 129; BGS, 1.1:308.