What Would Be Different
Figures of Possibility in Adorno
Iain Macdonald




Ab esse ad posse valet, a posse ad esse non valet consequentia.

I don’t think I can give up on possibility, on the thought of possibility. Without it, we would be unable to think at all and indeed, in the strictest sense, nothing at all could even be said.
—Adorno to Arnold Gehlen1

Right Life

“What would be different has not as yet begun.”2 This is how Adorno describes the possibility of a redeemed life in relation to the suffering that stems, in this life, from the perpetuation of ancestral social injustices. This possibility raises a number of questions. One might wonder first of all what precisely would be different? Adorno mentions indications such as the satisfaction of material needs, the elimination of senseless suffering, the redemption of the hopes of the past, the happiness of unborn generations, a humanity that has never yet existed, freedom, peace, and reconciliation.

But how are we to articulate such possibilities without lapsing into a vague and naïve utopianism? The answer is far from obvious. The apparent pessimism of the often-quoted claim that “wrong life cannot be lived rightly”3 would seem to prevent us from gaining access to such a redeemed future.4 Indeed, Adorno elsewhere seems to imply that wrong life condemns us to remaining trapped in false consciousness: “If wrong life really cannot be lived rightly [richtiges Leben], then for that very reason there can be no correct consciousness [richtiges Bewußtsein] in it either.”5

It should be noted, however, that there is an ambiguity in the impossibility of “right life” and “correct consciousness.” Does Adorno mean that there is simply no way to escape wrong life, no really possible right life that would belie the apparent necessity of various forms of suffering and injustice? Or does he mean that the problem of wrong life cannot be solved by a consciousness that takes itself to be correct? In the latter case, Adorno would not necessarily be ruling out the possibility of right life. He would merely be saying that the alternative to wrong life is not to be found in “correct” life or consciousness, understood in terms of some norm of rectitude to which we must adjust.

The second line of interpretation is the more promising, not least because Adorno explicitly criticizes the notion of correction as rectification, as though a simple adjustment to some available, normatively charged model of existence could set everything right: “False opinion cannot be transcended through intellectual rectification alone but only in relation to reality” (where “reality” refers to concretely given material existence).6 The meaning of this statement begins to come into focus when we consider that tenacious adherence to theoretical correctives can all too easily cause us to lose sight of the evolving processes that underlie the realities that call for such correctives. The point would be to avoid fetishizing specific theoretical correctives, while continuing to infer from reality the patterns that inform its historical development—a development that may invalidate such correctives along the way. If right life is possible at all, it does not follow from our adherence to any singular vision but only from a renewable critical examination of a life that persists in its wrongness. This is one important way in which socialism failed in its historical incarnations, according to Adorno: it once set about establishing a practical corrective to the very real problem of structural social injustice but then effectively banned any serious renewal of theoretical reflection on the persistence of injustice, especially within the very institutions that were meant to set things right.7

No single “image” of right life can be a substitute for right life itself.8 It is in this sense that Adorno’s materialism can be said to be “imageless” and to participate in something akin to a ban on graven images.9 The adherence to correctives that become ends in themselves can lead to their becoming static images of a reality that has since moved on. In this respect, they become “photographs” that no longer correspond to the view they once depicted and “the content of such images [thereby] becomes a bulwark against reality.”10 Consequently, we are called upon to demolish such barriers: “The powers that be set up façades into which consciousness crashes. It must strive to break through them.”11

If this exhortation is not in vain, perhaps it is because the trouble with wrong life lies not so much with reality’s inherent and insurmountable wrongness but at least in part with the limitations placed on our capacity to get beyond the declining correctives to which false consciousness continues to cling. To frame the issue modally, and to return to our point of departure, the problem is the following: If we cannot limit ourselves to correctives taken as ends in themselves, then how should we conceive of possibilities of liberation and redemption, such as satisfying material needs and eliminating socially unnecessary suffering—or what Adorno sometimes calls “senseless suffering”?12 What is the status of such possibilities in respect of actuality and wrong life?

The expression “what would be different” refers to these possibilities, while guarding against the production of static images of redemption, for the “different” may also differ from what we currently take to be the way forwards. This insight structures the relation of history—that “fatal continuity”13 or “heinous continuum”14—to a redeemed life, a “right” life that is not merely “correct.” However, we need to better understand the relation of such possibilities to the actuality they inhabit. Of course, the question of right life cannot be reduced to mere metaphysical reflections on modal concepts, but neither can we dispense with a metaphysical typology of possibilities in our attempts to understand the processes by which they wax and wane as real or objective. Further questions arise: Can we be utopian without being “unrealistic”? And if so, where should the line be drawn that separates utopian thinking from unhinged fantasy?

The most central metaphysical distinction in this regard is no doubt the one that separates “formal (or abstract) possibility” from “real possibility,” on Hegel’s use of these terms. This distinction can be summarized rapidly while leaving to one side, for the moment, the question of how it unfolds dialectically. (The next chapter provides more detail.)


According to Hegel, formal possibility contains a number of determinations. It refers, for example, to that which is thinkable without contradiction, considered entirely independently of whatever may or may not be the case (e.g., unicorns or “the sultan may become the pope”15). But it can also refer to contingent actuality, understood as that which could also have been otherwise (e.g., the number of species of parrot16). And most importantly for present purposes, it contains the “ought” (Sollen) or that which ought to be actual but is powerless in the face of actuality and what actuality in fact produces (e.g., the claim that society ought to be organized differently).

The ought assumes various forms in Hegel. In its full-fledged modal form—in the sense of being explicitly related to actuality, possibility, and necessity—the ought is a special case of non-being or non-actuality: it names that which is non-actual in the mode of merely purported actualizability.17 Hence it is included in the broad category of formal possibility, within which there are several specific determinations, including the Kantian ought: acting in accordance with the moral law. Hegel’s critique of Kantian morality is well known and can be summarized as an attack against the idea that complete fitness or conformity of finite human willing to the moral law is in fact unattainable. For Kant, morality as it is lived can only take the form of a “progression unto infinity towards that complete fitness.”18 Indeed, Kant thinks that this requires us to postulate the immortality of the soul, for it is only on this basis that such a progression would not be in vain. Hegel repeatedly subjects these claims to strenuous criticism because they contain “the contradiction of a task that remains a task and yet which must be fulfilled, of a morality that no longer has to correspond to an actual consciousness.”19 Moral duty is thereby reduced to “something non-actual,”20 or to what Hegel elsewhere calls an “impotent”21 and “perennial”22 ought.

The criticism of Kantian morality is merely one version of Hegel’s critique of the ought, but it encapsulates and exemplifies the general problem. For Hegel, the ought names a renunciation of actuality in the form of clinging to something that actuality cannot produce. Or to put it another way, the ought is the result of a restriction that we cannot transcend. It therefore applies to any situation in which some possible state of affairs is considered desirable or even necessary but cannot be brought about. In short, the ought is the possible, but under the shadow of the impossible. It is for this reason that Hegel includes it in the category of formal possibility, wherein the focus is on the mere form of the possible because the question of actualization has been suspended or indefinitely postponed.

Real possibility, on the other hand, is that which does not abstract away from real actuality but takes it as its criterion and content. What is really (not merely formally) possible is circumscribed by the concrete inner determinations of real actuality, as Hegel puts it: the sum total of real circumstances that are at the same time the real conditions for the further development of actuality. Whereas formal possibility is a capacious category, real possibility is confining. Hegel’s approach here takes actuality to refer to a totality of circumstances that are simultaneously the conditions of future actuality. Thus, if it is really possible for an acorn to grow into an oak, the reason is that all of the circumstances-conditions obtain in which this will occur and an oak tree will be the inevitable result. Strictly speaking, no real possibilities (possibilities that correspond to real circumstances qua conditions) go unactualized.

Hegel’s view is as simple as it is extreme: from a metaphysical point of view, non-real possibilities are merely formal and so have no claim on actuality. This may be fairly uncontroversial as regards unicorns, but Hegel goes further. For him, it makes no sense to use the category of what merely ought to be as a criterion by which actuality may be judged. On the contrary, he suggests that such attempts are entirely misguided and fail to grasp how possibility is related to real actuality and to the absolute. Philosophy “deals only with the idea—which is not so impotent that it merely ought to be, yet is not actual—and further with an actuality in relation to which . . . objects, institutions, and states of affairs are only the superficial outer shell.”23 In other words, philosophically speaking, how a state of affairs develops is never a question of how it ought to develop but of what actuality really contains in the form of real possibilities. “What is actual can act; something announces its actuality by what it produces.”24 In other words, the actual is that which is in fact at work within history (up to and including reason and the idea itself, according to Hegel), although we may not recognize it at first.

Within Hegel’s typology of possibilities, it is difficult to find room for a real possibility that would correspond to the claim that “what would be different has not as yet begun” except to place it in the category of the ought. To speak of inexistent, wished-for, but perpetually unactualized states of affairs is to remain at the level of formal possibility; and to cling to the hope that they should come about—if the circumstances of actualization are not at hand—is to become mired in unreality. For this reason, Hegel’s categorization of the ought under the heading of formal possibility provides one of the key battlegrounds for understanding the Adornian alternative. Indeed, the status of “what would be different” will be decided partly on the basis of a struggle over the validity of the Hegelian critique of the ought: Might there be a subset of oughts that can be considered real and not merely formal possibilities?

On Adorno’s view, Hegel’s approach is a “slap in the face” to possibility:25

According to Hegel’s distinction between abstract [i.e., formal] and real possibility, only something that has become actual is, in fact, possible. This kind of philosophy sides with the big guns. It adopts the verdict of a reality that constantly buries what could be different.26

Or to put things the other way around, the unachieved right life is no merely formal possibility. According to Adorno, it is a real albeit socially suppressed possibility. The central modal category is therefore not actuality understood as a totality of circumstances-conditions, as it is for Hegel, but rather blocked possibility. As Adorno puts it in relation to the dialectic of theory and practice:

The possibility of right practice presupposes the full and undiminished consciousness of the blockage of practice. If we immediately set about judging a thought by the criterion of its possible actualization [and thereby disqualify thoughts that are not immediately actualizable], then we place fetters on the productive force of thinking. In all likelihood, the only thought that can be made practical is the thought that is not restricted in advance by the practice to which it is meant to be immediately applicable. I would tend to think that the relation of theory and practice is really that dialectical.27

Thus, the blocked possibility of right life cannot be said to be a full-fledged real possibility in Hegel’s use of the term, since the circumstances-conditions of actuality have not produced it and do not seem on the point of producing it. Yet, for Adorno, right life is not for that reason a vain hope or a mere ought. Rather, it should be understood as a real possibility that has been “cheated” of its actuality.28 In other words, it is a real ought—to coin a phrase—that contests its status as mere formal possibility. However, this line of reasoning requires a reworking of the boundaries of the modal categories at issue.

The Ought beyond the Image

To summarize: Right life is conceivable provided we renounce static images of redemption, but Hegel’s typology of possibilities deprives us of a dialectically cogent way of talking about such blocked possibilities, that is, those historically developed yet sadly suppressed, liberating potentialities by which society can and ought to transform itself. For example, how should we understand the call to end socially unnecessary suffering, such as hunger in an age of hitherto unthinkable wealth?

Adorno’s thought is an attempt to answer such questions. In fact, it is one of his chief aims to encourage us to face up to blocked possibilities and to lay claim to their status as real, in spite of what actuality in fact produces. In due course and in order to provide a fuller picture of Adorno’s view, we shall have to take a number of other considerations into account. However, for the moment, it can be said that “blocked possibility” designates a real possibility of progress that is currently obstructed by various social mechanisms and patterns of thinking—including certain approaches to metaphysical thinking. It is a redemptive possibility hobbled and shunted into unreality by real actuality. It is the possibility of saying that actuality is not what it gives itself to be and of discovering that the only criterion by which it can be judged and transformed is, paradoxically, that which it has not yet, but may yet, become.

Adorno is neither the only nor the first thinker to suggest that an enabling perspective on the “potential of what would be different” is worth developing, both theoretically and practically.29 It could easily be shown that Marx, for example, already paved the way for this sort of reflection, and versions of it can be traced back to figures such as Kant (and his notion of perpetual peace), among several others. But perhaps the best approach to the issue is to lay out a few more immediate counter-examples to the view that will be defended in these pages. If Adorno offers us an alternative to Hegel, then how does he differ from other alternatives to Hegel?

If what we are after is the possibility of the world being remade according to better principles than those which now govern it (which, for Adorno, are principles such as structural social injustices, fear, need, and suffering), then perhaps we should first look to theories that stress historically untapped powers to define and effect radical social change. In this regard, the writings of Georg Lukács and Ernst Bloch—and Adorno’s refusal to align himself with either of these figures’ views—provide us with a means of taking a first measure of his own concept of possibility.30


1. Theodor W. Adorno, Correspondence with Arnold Gehlen, December 2, 1960, Theodor W. Adorno Archive, Frankfurt am Main, TWAA Br 0453. Compare Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (London: Routledge, 1973), 106; Theodor W. Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Rolf Tiedemann et al., 20 vols. (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1970–1986), 6:112. Existing translations of foreign-language texts have been cited where possible and tacitly emended where necessary. All other translations are my own.

2. See Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 145; GS, 6:148.

3. Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott (London: Verso, 1978), § 18, 39; GS, 4:43. Adorno says, “Es gibt kein richtiges Leben im falschen.” I retain Jephcott’s translation, but a more literal alternative is “There is no correct life in the one that is false.”

4. A number of approaches to Adorno’s “negativism” are evidenced in the literature. See Michael Theunissen, “Negativität bei Adorno,” in Adorno-Konferenz 1983, ed. Ludwig von Friedeburg and Jürgen Habermas (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1983); James Gordon Finlayson, “Adorno on the Ethical and the Ineffable,” European Journal of Philosophy 10, no. 1 (2002): 1–25; Fabian Freyenhagen, Adorno’s Practical Philosophy: Living Less Wrongly (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); and James Gordon Finlayson, “Hegel, Adorno and the Origins of Immanent Criticism,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 22, no. 6 (2014): 1142–1166.

5. Theodor W. Adorno, “Opinion Delusion Society,” in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 120; GS, 10.2:591.

6. Adorno, “Opinion Delusion Society,” 120; GS, 10.2:591–592.

7. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 204; GS, 6:204.

8. Adorno, Minima Moralia, § 6, 26; GS, 4:27.

9. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 204–207; GS, 6:204–207. See also Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), 18; Max Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Alfred Schmidt and Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, 19 vols. (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer Verlag, 1985–1996), 5:46. See also the exchange between Bloch and Adorno on this question: Ernst Bloch and Theodor W. Adorno, “Something’s Missing: A Discussion between Ernst Bloch and Theodor W. Adorno on the Contradictions of Utopian Longing,” in The Utopian Function of Art and Literature: Selected Essays, by Ernst Bloch, trans. Jack Zipes and Frank Mecklenburg (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988), 10–14; Rainer Traub and Harald Wieser, eds., Gespräche mit Ernst Bloch (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1975), 68–73.

10. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 205; GS, 6:205. The expression “theory based on images” (Abbildtheorie) alludes to Engels’s or Lenin’s “copy theory” of consciousness. However, in the present context, it is clear that Adorno is not limiting himself to such references but is attacking any theory that mistakes an “image” for objectivity.

11. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 17; GS, 6:29.

12. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 203; GS, 6:203.

13. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 144; GS, 6:147.

14. Theodor W. Adorno, “Aldous Huxley and Utopia,” in Prisms, trans. Samuel Weber and Shierry Weber (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981), 117; GS, 10.1:122.

15. G. W. F. Hegel, The Encyclopaedia Logic: Part I of the Encyclopaedia of Philosophical Sciences, with the Zusätze, trans. T. F. Geraets, W. A. Suchting, and H. S. Harris (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1991), § 143, Zusatz, 216; G. W. F. Hegel, Werke, ed. Eva Moldenhauer and Karl Markus Michel, 20 vols. (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1969–1971), 8:283.

16. G. W. F. Hegel, The Science of Logic, trans. George di Giovanni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 605, 716; W, 6:375, 524.

17. Hegel occasionally refers to the ought in a more generic and less critical manner, e.g., to characterize the moment in becoming in which something encounters a restriction placed on its development, which it has (or “ought”) to transcend for it to become what it is. See Hegel, Science of Logic, 103–108; W, 5:142–148.

18. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, trans. Lewis White Beck (New York: Macmillan, 1956), 126–127; Werke in zwölf Bänden, 12 vols. (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1977), 7:252.

19. G. W. F. Hegel, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 369; W, 3:447 (emphasis added).

20. Hegel, Phenomenology, 369; W, 3:447.

21. Hegel, Science of Logic, 596; W, 6:363.

22. Hegel, Science of Logic, 113; W, 5:155.

23. Hegel, Encyclopaedia Logic, § 6, 30; Werke, 8:49.

24. Hegel, Science of Logic, 482; W, 6:208.

25. Bloch and Adorno, “Something’s Missing,” 6; Traub and Wieser, Gespräche mit Ernst Bloch, 64.

26. Theodor W. Adorno, “The Experiential Content of Hegel’s Philosophy,” in Hegel: Three Studies, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993), 83; GS, 5:320.

27. Theodor W. Adorno, Lectures on Negative Dialectics, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008), 54; Vorlesung über Negative Dialektik, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2003), 84.

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

29. Theodor W. Adorno, “Why Still Philosophy,” in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 16; GS, 10.2:472.

30. For an overview of the relation of Lukács and Bloch to Adorno, see Hans-Ernst Schiller, “Tod und Utopie: Ernst Bloch, Georg Lukács,” in Adorno-Handbuch: Leben—Werk—Wirkung, ed. Richard Klein, Johann Kreuzer, and Stefan Müller-Doohm (Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung und Carl Ernst Poeschel Verlag, 2011).