Rose claims that Adorno’s concept of reification is an original to his thought, and based in large part off of Marx’s distinction of use-value and exchange-value. Rose first speaks of the difference between the concept and object, a difference with which reification is intimately concerned. It is important to note that the German Begriff, translated as “concept,” has a second and equally prominent meaning that is the equivalent of the English idea of “property” in the sense of having a particular property. Adorno divides conceptual thinking into three forms: identity thinking, rational identity thinking, and non-identity thinking. Identity thinking consists of using a concept to pick out particulars in an object, and is the sort of thinking employed when one uses instrumental reason. Adorno is largely unconcerned with this form of thinking when he is speaking about reification. Rational identity thinking assumes that an object possesses all the properties of its concept, and therefore the object is idealized without examining its particulars. Adorno claims that society generally thinks of objects as being identical to their concepts. Non-identity thinking is practiced when it is realized that there is an unavoidable gulf between the object and the concept. The concept is taken as referring to what the object “would like to be,” its Platonic ideal, roughly. In example, the concept of an enlightened world does not include barbarity, but the real object, the actuality of the present enlightened world, does. This does mean that it is inaccurate to call our society an enlightened society, but instead that it is necessary to acknowledge the gap between concept and the object. Adorno says that an important tool of critical theory is to confront the object as it is with the concept of what it should be, instead of merely assuming the identity of object and concept.
Rational identity thinking and reified thinking are the same, because they make unlike objects the same. Adorno sees commodity exchange as involving the same principles. The only values naturally in things are their use-values. Their exchange-values, which often appear in our capitalist society as actually occurring in objects, are not truly within the object, but instead are part of a social relationship between people. This extends to labor, as well, which is a social relationship objectified by the reification of exchange. However, exchange-value is the only way that the relative value of an object can be expressed in a market economy. To say that something is reified is to say that the social relation appears as a property of the object, rather than something societal (and thus essentially arbitrary) that has no particular allegiance to the object itself. The object appears to have exchange-value because the labor used to produce it seems reified in the object. “Reified concepts describe social phenomena, the appearance of society, as if it has the properties to which the concepts refer” (47). A non-reified object is one in which the concept and the object are truly identical, an object that is considered as the sum of its properties without the incorporation of relationships external to the object. Adorno claims that the use-value of an object is non-reified. It is therefore the commodification of objects that reifies them.
Adorno’s distinction between different modes of thought is not an empirical one. If it were, it would itself be identity thinking. It is instead a formation based on the gap which it perceives. Adorno states that, “To want substance in cognition is to want Utopia.” The substance offered by rational identity thinking is the illusion that one thinks of the actual object, when one can only largely only conceptualize objects. It is only when a real object is viewed rigorously in relation to its concept that one can gain a view of it that possesses anything, because to not acknowledge the gap between an object’s rational identity and its actuality is to imply the intersection of the two, and thus misunderstand the nature of the object.