The introduction to Negative Dialectics begins

Philosophy, which once seemed outmoded, remains alive because the moment of its realization was missed. The summary judgement that it had merely interpreted the world is itself crippled by resignation before reality, and becomes a defeatism of reason after the transformation of the world failed.

This seems like a very important claim, about what philosophy can achieve and have as its goal, given that it has already found its highest expression: in a failed revolution!

So let's only ask about philosophical aesthetics: does coming after Marxism entail anything about the limits of aesthetics, not as a social movement, but as reason or thought? Could it e.g. mean that aesthetic theory cannot really generate any new insights, only destroy old ideals of beauty?

  • An interesting book: Title: The flight into inwardness : an exposition and critique of Herbert Marcuse's theory of liberative aesthetics, Author Lukes, Timothy J., 1950- Publisher:Susquehanna University Press ;Pub date:c1985.
    – Gordon
    Mar 23, 2018 at 12:43

2 Answers 2


Marcuse sees a vital role remaining to aesthetics. It has not lost its revolutionary power, 'crippled by [philosophy's] resignation before reality'.

Specifically dismissing the deterministic idea that art merely reflects society, Marcuse observes that art "opens a new dimension of experience" (7). Although not stated, this concern with liberating human sensitivity through art is unquestionably connected to Marx's own insistence, in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, on the "emancipation of the senses" and on the unfolding richness of the "subjective human sensibility". By relating this sensory liberation to the pleasure principle, however, Marcuse interprets art as much more than a process of aesthetic refinement leading to human wholeness. Rather, Marcuse sees art as an explosive force giving rise to another reason, another sensibility, capable of subverting the dominant consciousness. Thus, art simultaneously enhances our perception of things and causes us to come into conflict with them. This process involves what Marcuse labels "the hidden categorical imperative of art": art's realization lies outside of itself, even though the conception of art goes beyond all else (57). In contradistinction to orthodox Marxists, Marcuse contends that the political potential of art resides in the aesthetic form, supposedly autonomous, but not in any tendentious content that would restrict art to "reality" while forcing the artist to "record" it. (David Craven, review of H. Marcuse, 'The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics', Theory and Society, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Jan., 1982), pp. 109-10.)

There is no suggestion here that aesthetic theory cannot 'generate any new insights, only destroy old ideals of beauty' : and Marcuse was writing long after Adorno's 1966 Negative Dialectics.

  • Essential analysis: Title: The minimal self : psychic survival in troubled timesAuthor Lasch, Christopher. Publisher:W.W. Norton,Pub date:c1984. See Chapter 7. It would be helpful to have read Marcuse's "Eros and Civilization" first. Here an American has done a fine critique.
    – Gordon
    Mar 23, 2018 at 13:25
  • If Marx came back today, he would be sure to study our present situation: google.com/amp/s/theconversation.com/amp/… We have Fritz Haber for nitrogen, but what about phosphorus? Oddly, the Guggenheims turned bat guano into an extraordinary art collection, but what trouble and misery it caused in Chile. || We are in new territory now.
    – Gordon
    Mar 23, 2018 at 13:47

Aesthetics, for Adorno, is the only way to come out of and stand in relief to ideological thinking. Adorno's high regard for aesthetics, as a mode of philosophy by which could rectify subjectivity's domination of the object and emulate a new way to relate to objectivity, cannot be understated. If you're talking about modern art being negative - and thus critiquing traditional positive art, I don't think this shows the limits of Aesthetics. Modern art sees the destructiveness of positive art, in that it denies historical suffering and particularity. Modern art speaks for particularity and what has historically been repressed.

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