Iain Macdonald

A random sampling of Adorno’s many references to Heidegger will likely leave the reader with a strong impression of his view. Yet it would be wrong to infer from the severity and unrelenting nature of his objections that his opposition to Heidegger is thoughtless or malicious. On the contrary, although it is harsh and persistent, it is philosophical at its core.

The critique of Heidegger spans the entirety of Adorno’s career, beginning in 1931 with his inaugural address, “The Actuality of Philosophy,” and returning in numerous texts, right up until his death in 1969. The core theses of the critique are laid out in detail in Jargon of Authenticity (1964) and in part one of Negative Dialectics (1966). The lecture course entitled Ontologie und Dialektik [Ontology and Dialectics], from 1960–1, is also of direct relevance. Other texts contain material of interest as well, such as the 1932 lecture on “The Idea of Natural-History” and the lecture course entitled Philosophische Terminologie [Philosophical Terminology], from 1962–3. There are scattered remarks in many other works.


Part of the difficulty of getting at the heart of Adorno’s critique of Heidegger is that it is quite varied in tone and substance. In general, three layers of criticism may be discerned in his writings. His position becomes clearer as we peel back these layers.

The first layer provides the rhetorical shell of the critique. Here, we find the remarks that openly mock or pour scorn on Heidegger’s language and approach. Adorno refers, for example, to Heidegger’s agrarianism1 and his “homely murmuring,” calling attention to a resemblance of some of his writings to “trusty folk art.”2 Adorno also compares Heidegger’s attempts “to think being without beings” (GA 14, 29/TB, 24) to the behavior of the obsessive compulsive, who must constantly wash his hands to keep from getting them dirty (OD, 102–3).3 We should also include under this heading the particular derision that Adorno reserves for Heideggerians who mimic their master’s way of speaking and thereby lapse into performative contradiction. This is the “jargon of authenticity” at its most pernicious and the critique is correspondingly unforgiving: “the stereotypes of the jargon seem to guarantee that one is not doing what, in fact, one is doing, namely, bleating with the herd; they seem to guarantee that one has achieved it all oneself as an unmistakably free person. The formal gesture of autonomy replaces the content of autonomy” (GS 6, 425/JA, 18). In other words, the question of whether or not one is free and “authentic” cannot be decided by the use of catchwords. This, however, is merely the first layer of criticism.

The second layer concerns fascism and Nazism. Adorno was well aware of Heidegger’s involvement with the Nazi party and cites Karl Löwith in this connection.4 Moreover, he suggests that Heidegger’s philosophy promotes emotional investment in something like the “National Socialist Volk -community” (GS 6, 463/JA, 76). Likewise, Adorno refers to Heidegger as belonging to a group of “Blubo friends” (i.e. “Blut und Boden” or “blood and soil” comrades) and Heideggerian jargon is said to be the philosophical continuation of “blood and soil” rhetoric (GS 6, 449, 480/JA, 55, 100). Elsewhere, he refers to Heidegger as an alter Kämpfer, or member of the old guard, a phrase that implies a commitment to National Socialism prior to 1933 (OD, 74). Perhaps most damningly, Adorno claims that Heidegger’s “philosophy is fascist to its innermost cells” (GS 19, 638). Some commentators take such references to be determining, subsuming Adorno’s critique of Heidegger under his critique of fascism.5 But this would be to stop short of the real substance of Adorno’s view, not least because such remarks are relatively marginal in the context of the overall critique.


The third and final layer of Adorno’s critique of Heidegger is composed of more substantial philosophical challenges to the thinking of being. Among these, the critique of abstraction is perhaps the most important because it is tied to two other essential components of Adorno’s reading of Heidegger: the legitimate need to which Heidegger’s thought responds, and the kind of thinking that should arise from the disappointment of that need.

It may seem strange at first that abstraction should be one of Adorno’s central criticisms. After all, in Being and Time, Heidegger argues explicitly that Dasein must be analyzed in its concreteness, that is, in its everydayness and according to its facticity and Jemeinigkeit—its concrete mineness. It was this approach that more or less briefly impressed Adorno’s future colleagues, Herbert Marcuse and, astonishingly, Max Horkheimer.6 As Adorno puts it in Jargon of Authenticity: around 1925 there was a perceptible need for a philosophy that responded to the “concretion of experience, thought, and comportment in the midst of a total situation that served an abstraction: exchange” (GS 6, 475/JA, 92). This “ontological need,” as he calls it, was quite real and valid: the new ontology’s enthusiastic reception “would be unintelligible if it did not meet an emphatic need, if it were not a sign of something missed” (GS 6, 69/ND, 61). Heidegger seemed to meet that need by offering, for example, a critique of inauthentic and impersonal social relations, as well as a philosophical approach, apparently interested in historicality, that might serve to ground social philosophy. However, for Adorno, Heidegger’s “treatment of relevant things relapsed into abstraction” (GS 6, 71/ND, 63).

This relapse is perhaps most evident in Heidegger’s approach to history and the philosophical tradition, as outlined, for example, in his so-called deconstructive readings of Western metaphysics. In the 1920s, Heidegger at first called for a “recursion” (Rückgang) to the tradition that would appropriate the relation to being concealed within it (GA 24, 31/BP, 23). In later years, this recursion undergoes a transformation into the “step back” (der Schritt zurück), by which the engagement with the tradition aims not at something that has already been thought but rather at “something that has not been thought, from which thought receives its essential space” (GA 11, 57/ID, 48). As Heidegger puts it, “the step back goes from what is unthought [vom Ungedachten], from the difference [between being and beings], into what remains to be thought [in das zu-Denkende]” (GA 11, 59/ID, 50).

The step back is therefore not merely a critical-interpretive gesture. At root, it is a step away from any thinking that primarily treats of beings or of being in terms of beings. But it is also a step toward a new way of thinking, one that addresses being itself as event (Ereignis). Of course, thought must “prepare” for the step back “in view of” beings as they are now, that is, as technologically determined and reduced to mere functionality (GA 11, 60/ID, 51). Nevertheless, the step back is most essentially a “step out of technology and technological description and interpretation of the age, into the essence of modern technology, which remains to be thought” (GA 11, 61/ID, 52). Hence, for Heidegger, the step back cannot be directly critical of social and scientific etiolations of experience, which are at best mere symptoms and incitements. It is the openness of being in its relation to the human being that must be grasped—not the sociohistorical arrangements of beings that occur within that openness.

Consequently, the task of thinking being cannot surrender to “the dialectical mediation of the movement of absolute spirit and of the historical process of production” (GA 14, 70/TB, 56), that is, Hegel, Marx, and the sociohistorical interests motivating their philosophies. Indeed, Heidegger will even say that Marx’s call to transform the world tacitly depends upon the possibility of an adequate interpretation not of existing actuality, but of what a world is in general—the hidden possibility of world, as opposed to social relations among things in the world.7

If Heidegger’s thought was appealing in the 1920s because it seemed concrete and developed a critique of inauthenticity that was rooted in Dasein’s everydayness, then increasingly it shed the appearance of this concretion and everydayness for a history of being that openly rejected as insufficiently thoughtful the social and practical problems of alienation and the historical relations of production—whence the relapse into abstraction. For Heidegger the only history that philosophy can legitimately concern itself with is one that “does not consist in the happenings and deeds of the world,” nor “in the cultural achievements of human beings” (GA 13, 61–2/DT, 79), all of which take place only as a mere mode of ἀληθεύειν, of “rendering beings manifest” (GA 9, 340/PA, 259). Strictly speaking, thinking must penetrate beyond history, into historicality and its temporal conditions, that is, into the very possibility of metaphysical questioning—and ultimately into ἀλήθεια, that is, the play of concealment and unconcealment itself.

Thus, in Adorno’s view, Heidegger is more concerned with primordial possibility than with the real possibility of emancipation, which is suppressed by existing conditions. Moreover, it seems clear that for Heidegger the possibility of an other beginning for thinking remains indefinitely blocked by metaphysical prejudices that we cannot seem to escape: “The age of the ‘systems’ has past. The age that would elaborate the essential form of beings from out of the truth of beyng [Seyn] has not yet come” (GA 65, 5/CP2, 6). Consequently, the retreat into primordiality entails a projection of the corrective to metaphysical prejudice onto a distant future, effectively detached from the present. For Heidegger, we can only strive to awaken “a readiness in man for a possibility whose contour remains obscure, whose coming remains uncertain,” all the while living in equal uncertainty about “whether world civilization will soon be abruptly destroyed or whether it will be stabilized for a long time [in a monotonous sequence of changing fashions]” (GA 14, 75/TB, 60).

To this sort of talk, Adorno responds with a charge of willful indifference to existing suffering: “A new beginning [Neubeginn] at an alleged zero point is the mask of intense forgetting—sympathy with barbarism is not extrinsic to it” (GS 6, 79/ND, 71). The question is this: is the uncertain promise of a transition to a new age not tantamount to allowing the existing world to follow its wicked course untrammeled, perhaps to catastrophe? The more we look to the primordial origin or to the uncertain future, the more we turn a blind eye to contemporary barbarism. But what is this intense forgetting of which Adorno speaks? This question can be answered in two parts.

First, Adorno acknowledges—even appreciates, to some extent—that being (Sein) refers to an insufficiency of beings, that is, that the current organization of beings is false, and that another way of thinking is not only logically possible, but indicated by the existing order, however faintly or negatively. Indeed, Adorno will even say that the being of beings “reminds us” of an essential fact: that “any being whatever is more than it is” (GS 6, 109/ND, 102), and that it is the proper task of language to name this nonidentical “more” or hidden potentiality in things. But for Adorno this potentiality is precisely in things, which means: in the way things are socially determined (e.g. Marx names surplus value as the hidden origin of exploitation and the objective impetus to emancipation). By contrast, Heidegger “blurs the distinction between the ‘more’ for which language gropes and the being-in-itself of this more” (GS 6, 421/JA, 12). In other words, Heidegger treats this “more” not as a contextually determined social problem—whereby an emancipatory potential is suppressed by existing material and historical relations—but rather as inherent to being itself beyond any particular historical organization of things (e.g. the refusal, withdrawal, etc. proper to being). Thus for Adorno, emancipatory potential requires the rigorous determination of existing conditions and, ultimately, a refinement of the entwinement of subject and object in concrete society, whereas “Heidegger seeks to hold on to the pointing-beyond-itself, and to leave behind, as rubble, that beyond which it points [i.e. beings]” (GS 6, 109/ND, 102). Essentially, what Heidegger forgets is the fact that all “thinking is bound to beings” (GS 6, 110n/ND, 103n). To the extent that the concreteness of the “more” is “forgotten” in the thinking of being, the world is left to its vices—while awaiting, perhaps forever, a reorganization of beings from out of the truth of beyng.

Second, the accusation of an “intense forgetting” of beings is reinforced by Adorno in the claim that Heidegger “ontologizes the ontic” and thereby reifies states of affairs that cannot be reified. For example, he castigates Heidegger for normalizing anxiety (Angst): “categories such as anxiety—of which, at the very least, we cannot stipulate that they must be everlasting—are transfigured into constituents of being” (GS 6, 125/ND, 119). Similarly, thrownness (Geworfenheit) and the structures of Dasein more generally “drown out intimations of objective negativity [i.e. of an emancipatory ‘more’] through the message of an implicit and essential order of things [Ordnung an sich], up to the most abstract order, that of the structures of being” (GS 6, 96/ND, 89). The problem, put succinctly, is that “the categories of the jargon [i.e. primarily the existentiales of Being and Time] are happily put on display, as though they were not abstracted from generated and transitory situations, but rather belonged to the essence of the human being as inalienable possibility. The human being is the ideology of dehumanization” (GS 6, 452/JA, 59). That is, what is socially constructed and ought to be surmountable is instead presented as fundamental and ineluctable (e.g. anxiety, curiosity, idle talk, and even death, insofar as one is defined by such terms). As such, “suffering, evil, and death are to be accepted, not to be changed. The public is being made to rehearse a balancing act: they are being prepared to see their nothingness as being; to revere avoidable or at least corrigible distress as what is most human in the image of the human; to respect authority on the basis of innate human insufficiency” (GS 6, 456–7/JA, 67). Here again, the criticism is that Heidegger has gone to great lengths to forget beings and the suffering of the human being in particular. He renders fixed that which is fluid, and natural that which is social—and thereby robs us of the possibility of changing our sorry lot by projecting this possibility onto an uncertain and unclear other beginning beyond metaphysical prejudices, from which, for the foreseeable future, we can only “prepare” to break free.

Thus the main line of the critique of Heidegger amounts to this: the jargon “wants to be immediately concrete without sliding into mere facticity and is thereby forced into secret abstraction” (GS 6, 475/ JA, 92–3). The ontological need to speak of relevant things beyond the academicism and formalism of traditional metaphysics, while quite legitimate, is disappointed by Heidegger’s thought, which demands of us that we look away from the specific problems that assail us, toward the general possibility of the openness of being. The charge of abstraction thereby rests on four interrelated points: history is eclipsed by historicality and temporality; the talk of hidden origins and of overcoming metaphysics disregards the pressing problems of today; the “more” of the being of beings is hypostatized; and the structures of Dasein unduly fix and normalize aspects of existence.

By contrast, for Adorno, the ontological need is to be met by determining and naming the “more” that is implied by the systematic, socially constructed features of wrong life. It is in this sense that “dialectics is the ontology of the wrong state of things” (GS 6, 22/ND, 11): the only true ontology would be one that describes not what is, but rather what ought not to be and the real possibility of its overcoming.


Heidegger never responded directly to Adorno’s critiques. However, in a 1969 interview with Richard Wisser (just a few weeks after Adorno’s death), he answers the charge that his thought was unconcerned with “concrete society and all its various responsibilities and worries, troubles and hopes” (MHIG, 69). He must certainly have had Adorno in mind. His response, which is very brief, is that such critiques are simple misunderstandings: “the openness of being needs human beings and, inversely, . . . the human being is human only insofar as he stands in the openness of being” (ibid.). The social aspect of Wisser’s question is passed over in silence. But in off-the-record remarks to Wisser, Heidegger was more direct—and severe. To the question whether philosophy has a social mission, he replied, somewhat curtly: “No! I see none!”8 Further prompting by Wisser was met with great reserve. In the same informal discussion, he also wondered aloud about “the kind of man” who would seek to “bring him down” as he thought Adorno had (FI, 283).9

Heidegger’s correspondence with Ernst Jünger shows that Adorno’s name and views were known to him at least as early as 1966 and quite possibly long before.10 As to whether he had read Adorno or whether the critique had merely been reported to him, there is one crystal clear indication, again recorded by Wisser in 1969: “I have read nothing by him. Hermann Mörchen once tried to talk me into reading him. I never did” (283–4). Nevertheless, Heidegger questions Adorno’s credentials and suggests to Wisser that he was merely a sociologist, not a philosopher (284).


Although Adorno’s critique of Heidegger takes on many aspects of his thought, at least two important limitations should be mentioned here.

First, Adorno’s critique nearly always focuses on Being and Time or the stakes of fundamental ontology (he had a first edition of Being and Time that he annotated quite heavily in places). He does not pay careful attention to the fact that Heidegger dropped the term “fundamental ontology” and substantially modified his approach after Being and Time. However, he does note the shifts from Dasein to being (Sein), and from being to beyng (Seyn) and to the typographical crossing out of the word being (OD, 71–2).

Second, Adorno fails to follow up on specific points of intersection between his thought and Heidegger’s, even to dispel the illusion of compatibility; rather, he flatly denies all compatibility (GS 19, 638). Nevertheless, certain points of intersection do suggest themselves: for example, their special appreciation of the poet Paul Celan and their interest in defending the priority of possibility over actuality (against a longstanding metaphysical tradition). More generally, it is a pity that Adorno did not pursue reflections such as the following, from a 1949 letter to Horkheimer: “I’ve been thinking a lot about Heidegger and will send you . . . a few more notes. In the meantime, his Holzwege [Off the Beaten Track] has appeared (he is in favor of occasional paths [Holzwege] in a way that’s not very different from our own), but I’ve not quite got around to it, am too deep into Kant and Aristotle.”11

Notes and References

1 For example, see Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophische Terminologie, 2 vols (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1973), 1, 154–64.

2 Theodor W. Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, 20 vols (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1997), 6, 44, hereafter cited as GS/Theodor W. Adorno, The Jargon of Authenticity, trans. Knut Tarnowski and Frederic Will (London/Evanston: Routledge and Kegan Paul/Northwestern University Press, 1973), 53, hereafter cited as JA. Please note that translations from the German have been tacitly emended where necessary throughout this article.

3 I sometimes quote writings of Heidegger’s that Adorno may not or could not have known when these contain succinct formulations of the themes that are the objects of his criticisms. In any case, any reconstruction of the main line of the critique requires reference to passages and contexts other than those Adorno cites directly.

4 Adorno, GS 6, 135–136n/Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (London: Routledge, 1973), 130n, hereafter cited as ND.

5 See Fredric Jameson, Late Marxism: Adorno, or the Persistence of the Dialectic (London: Verso, 1990), 9.

6 Horkheimer met Heidegger while on a study trip to Freiburg in 1921, when Heidegger was still Edmund Husserl’s assistant. Marcuse went to Freiburg in 1928 in order to study with Heidegger, but abandoned this plan in 1932 due to a lack of support from Heidegger and the darkening political context. See Rolf Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School, trans. Michael Robertson (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994), 102–4 and 45, respectively.

7 Richard Wisser (ed.), Martin Heidegger im Gespräch (Freiburg und München: Verlag Karl Alber,1970), 68–9, herafter cited as MHIG.

8 Richard Wisser, “Das Fernseh-Interview,” in ed. Günther Neske, Erinnerung an Martin Heidegger (Pfullingen: Verlag Günther Neske, 1977), 260, hereafter cited as FI.

9 Worthy of note is that Heidegger openly laid claim to Siegfried Landshut, editor of the first German edition of Marx’s early writings, as a pupil of his (FI, 276). The evidence suggests that Heidegger knew these writings very well.

10 Ernst Jünger and Martin Heidegger, Briefe 1949–1975, ed. Günter Figal and Simone Maier (Stuttgart/Frankfurt am Main: Klett-Cotta/Vittorio Klostermann, 2008), 58.

11 Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Briefwechsel, 4 vols (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2003–6), 3, 351.

Iain Macdonald - Heidegger and Adorno
Original PDF version.