Theodor W. Adorno

From New World Encyclopedia

Western Philosophy
Twentieth century
Name: Theodor Adorno
Birth: September 11, 1903 (Frankfurt, Germany)
Death: August 6, 1969 (Visp, Switzerland)
School/tradition: critical theory
Main interests
social theory, psychoanalysis, musicology, cultural studies
Notable ideas
The Culture Industry, the Authoritarian Personality, the negative dialectic, non-conformist conformist
Influences Influenced
Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Marx, Nietzsche, Weber, Freud, Husserl Jürgen Habermas

Theodor Ludwig Wiesengrund Adorno (September 11, 1903 – August 6, 1969) was a German philosopher who wrote widely in the areas of sociology, social psychology, aesthetics, musicology, and literary criticism. He was a member of the Frankfurt School along with Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Jürgen Habermas, and others. Similarly to other Western Marxists such as Georg Lukács, Adorno rejected a classical interpretation of Marxism as an economic determinist theory. He took issues of alienation and reification of early Marxist philosophy, and developed them into a critical theory and applied it into diverse cultural genres.

Facing the problems of the Holocaust by the Nazis and the mass murders under Stalin’s regime, Adorno raised the questions of why and how modern rationality gave birth to such barbarous acts of terror. In the Dialectic of Enlightenment, co-authored with Horkheimer, Adorno examined the notions of Enlightenment, modernity, and rationality, and argued that the Enlightenment had a self-destructive irrational element from its outset, and the barbarous states were a necessary outcome. The work was colored with a pessimistic tone, however, Adorno found hope in the liberating power of the arts and carried out an extensive criticism against mass culture. Habermas was critical of Adorno and tried to re-formulate the notion of rationality.


Early Frankfurt years

Theodor (or "Teddie") was born in Frankfurt as an only child to the wine merchant Oscar Alexander Wiesengrund (1870-1941, of Jewish descent, converted to Protestantism) and the Catholic singer Maria Barbara, born Calvelli-Adorno. It is the second half of this name that he later adopted as his surname (Wiesengrund was abbreviated to W.). His musically talented aunt Agathe also lived with the family. The young Adorno passionately engaged in four-handed piano playing. His childhood joy was increased by the family's annual summer sojourn in Amorbach. He attended the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gymnasium, where he proved to be a highly gifted student: At the exceptionally early age of 17, he graduated from the Gymnasium at the top of his class. In his free time he took private lessons in composition with Bernhard Sekles and read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason together with his friend, Siegfried Kracauer—14 years his elder. Later, he would proclaim that he owed more to these readings than to any of his academic teachers. At the University of Frankfurt (today's Johann Wolfgang Goethe Universität) he studied philosophy, musicology, psychology, and sociology. He completed his studies swiftly: By the end of 1924, he graduated with a dissertation on Edmund Husserl. (Jacques Derrida, whose criticism of the use of the notions of "immediacy" and "self-presence" in Western metaphysics may owe a debt to Adorno, also wrote his first thesis on Husserl.) Before his graduation, Adorno had already met with his most important intellectual collaborators, Max Horkheimer, and Walter Benjamin.

Vienna intermezzo

During his student years in Frankfurt, he had written a number of music critiques. He believed this would be his future profession. With this goal envisioned, he used his relationship to Alban Berg, who had made a name for himself with the opera, Wozzeck, to pursue studies in Vienna beginning in January, 1925. He also formed contacts with other greats of the Second Viennese School, namely Anton Webern and Arnold Schoenberg. His own musical compositions were shaped by the style of Berg and Schoenberg. Schoenberg’s revolutionary atonality particularly inspired the 22-year-old to pen philosophical observations on the new music, though they were not well received by its proponents. The disappointment over this caused him to cut back on his music critiques to enable his career as academic teacher and social researcher to flourish. He did, however, remain editor-in-chief of the “avant-garde” magazine Anbruch. His musicological writing already displayed his philosophical ambitions. Other lasting influences from Adorno's time in Vienna included Karl Kraus, whose lectures he attended with Alban Berg, and Georg Lukács whose Theory of the Novel had already enthused him while attending Gymnasium.

The intermediate Frankfurt years

After returning from Vienna, Adorno experienced another setback: After his dissertation supervisor Hans Cornelius and Cornelius' assistant Max Horkheimer voiced their concerns about Adorno's professorial thesis, a comprehensive philosophical-psychological treatise, he withdrew it in early 1928. Adorno took three more years before he received the venia legendi, after submitting the manuscript, Kierkegaard: Construction of the aesthetic (Kierkegaard: Konstruktion des Ästhetischen), to his new supervisor, Paul Tillich. The topic of Adorno's inaugural lecture was the Current Importance of Philosophy, a theme he considered programmatic throughout his life. In it, he questioned the concept of totality for the first time, anticipating his famous formula—directed against Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel—the whole is the untrue (from Minima Moralia). However, Adorno's credentials were revoked by the Nazis, along with those of all professors of non-Aryan descent, in 1933.

Among Adorno's first courses was a seminar on Benjamin's treatise The Origin of German Tragic Drama. His 1932 essay, "On the Social Situation of Music" (Zur gesellschaftlichen Lage der Musik), was Adorno's contribution to the first issue of Horkheimer's Zeitschrift für Sozialwissenschaft (Journal for Sociology); it wasn't until 1938 that he joined the Institute for Social Research.

Commuter between Berlin and Oxford (1934-1937)

Beginning in the late 1920s, during stays in Berlin, Adorno established close relations with Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch; Adorno had become acquainted with Bloch's first major work, Geist der Utopie, in 1921. Moreover, the German capital, Berlin, was also home of chemist Margarethe ("Gretel") Karplus (1902-1993), whom Adorno would marry in London in 1937. In 1934, fleeing from the Nazi regime, he emigrated to England, with hopes of obtaining a professorship at Oxford. Though Adorno was not appointed professor at Oxford, he undertook an indepth study of Husserl's philosophy as a postgraduate at Merton College. Adorno spent the summer holidays with his fiancée in Germany every year. In 1936, the Zeitschrift featured one of Adorno's most controversial texts, On Jazz (Über Jazz). It should be noted that "jazz" was frequently used to refer to all popular music at the time of Adorno's writing. This article was less an engagement with this style of music than a first polemic against the blooming entertainment and culture industry. Adorno believed the culture industry was a system by which society was controlled though a top-down creation of standardized culture that intensified the commodification of artistic expression. Extensive correspondence with Horkheimer, who was then living in exile in the United States, led to an offer of employment in America.

Émigré in the U.S. (1938-1949)

After visiting New York for the first time in 1937, he decided to resettle there. In Brussels, he bade his parents, who followed in 1939, farewell, and said goodbye to Benjamin in San Remo. Benjamin opted to remain in Europe, thus limiting their very rigorous future communication to letters. Shortly after Adorno's arrival in New York, Horkheimer's Institute for Social Research accepted him as an official member. He also served as musical consult on the Radio Project (also known as Lazarsfeld/Stanton Analysis Program) directed by the Austrian sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld at Princeton. Very soon, however, his attention shifted to direct collaboration with Horkheimer. They moved to Los Angeles together, where he taught for the following seven years and served as the co-director of a research unit at the University of California. Their collective work found its first major expression in the first edition of their book, Dialectic of Enlightenment (Dialektik der Aufklärung) in 1947. Faced with the unfolding events of the Holocaust, the work begins with the words:

Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity (2002 translation, 1).

Seit je hat Aufklärung im umfassendsten Sinn fortschreitenden Denkens das Ziel verfolgt, von den Menschen die Furcht zu nehmen und sie als Herren einzusetzen. Aber die vollends aufgeklärte Erde strahlt im Zeichen triumphalen Unheils (1947 German edition).

In this influential book, Adorno and Horkheimer outline civilization's tendency towards self-destruction. They argue that the concept of reason was transformed into an irrational force by the Enlightenment. As a consequence, reason came to dominate not only nature, but also humanity itself. It is this rationalization of humanity that was identified as the primary cause of fascism and other totalitarian regimes. Consequently, Adorno did not consider rationalism a path towards human emancipation. For that, he looked toward the arts.

After 1945, he ceased to work as a composer. By taking this step he conformed to his own famous maxim: "Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric" (Nach Auschwitz noch ein Gedicht zu schreiben ist barbarisch). (Adorno was, however, to retract this statement later, saying that "Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as the tortured have to scream… hence, it may have been wrong to say that no poem could be written after Auschwitz.") He was entrusted with the honorable task to advise Thomas Mann on the musicological details of his novel, Doktor Faustus. Apart from that, he worked on his "philosophy of the new music" (Philosophie der neuen Musik) in the 1940s, and on Hanns Eisler's Composing for the Films. He also contributed "qualitative interpretations" to the studies of anti-semitic prejudice performed by multiple research institutes in the U.S. that uncovered the authoritarian character of test persons through indirect questions.

Late Frankfurt years (1949-1969)

After World War II, Adorno, who had been homesick, did not hesitate long before returning to Germany. Due to Horkheimer's influence, he was given a professorship in Frankfurt in 1949/1950, allowing him to continue his academic career after a prolonged hiatus. This culminated in a position as double Ordinarius (of philosophy and of sociology). In the Institute, which was affiliated with the university, Adorno's leadership status became ever more and more apparent, while Horkheimer, who was eight years older, gradually stepped back, leaving his younger friend the sole directorship in 1958/1959. His collection of aphorisms, Minima Moralia, led to greater prominence in post-war Germany when it was released by the newly founded publishing house of Peter Suhrkamp. It purported a "sad science" under the impression of Fascism, Stalinism, and Culture Industry, which seemingly offered no alternative: "Wrong life cannot be lived rightly" (Es gibt kein richtiges Leben im falschen). The work raised Adorno to the level of a foundational intellectual figure in the West German republic, after a last attempt to get him involved in research in the U.S. failed in 1953.

Here a list of his multifaceted accomplishments:

  • In 1952, he participated in a group experiment, revealing residual National Socialist attitudes among the recently democratized Germans (commented on critically by Peter R. Hofstätter).
  • From 1954 onwards, he taught musicology in the summer academies in Kranichstein.
  • Numerous radio debates (among others with Ernst Bloch, Elias Canetti, and Arnold Gehlen)
  • Numerous lectures in Berlin and around Europe (Paris, Vienna, Italy, at the "documenta" in Kassel in 1959, in Czechoslovakia in 1968)
  • Release of Walter Benjamin's letters and writings
  • In 1961, he initiated the positivism debate (Positivismusstreit) at a meeting of the German Sociological Association in Tübingen.
  • In 1964, he headed the 15th sociology conference, Max Weber and Sociology Today, and in 1968, he headed the 16th sociology conference, Late Capitalism or Industrial Society.
Adorno Monument in Frankfurt (desk, chair, lamp, carpet and other utilities like the metronome of his working room).

Final years (1967-1969)

In 1966, extraparliamentary opposition (Außerparlamentarische Opposition; APO) formed against the grand coalition of Germany's two major parties CDU/Christian Social Union of Bavaria and Social Democratic Party of Germany, directed primarily against the planned Notstandgesetze (emergency laws). Adorno was an outspoken critic of these policies, which he displayed by his participation in an event organized by the action committee, Demokratie im Notstand ("Democracy in a State of Emergency"). When the student Benno Ohnesorg was shot by a police officer at a demonstration against a visit by the Shah of Iran, the left-wing APO became increasingly radicalized, and the universities became a place of unrest. To a considerable extent, it was students of Adorno who represented the spirit of revolt thus executing an interpreted "praxis" from "Critical Theory." The leading figures of the Frankfurt School were not prepared, despite empathizing with the students' causes, to support their activism. Moreover, it is said that Adorno asked for the help of police to remove the students that had occupied the Frankfurt Institute in fear of vandalism. Therefore, Adorno in particular became a target of student action. On the other side of the spectrum, the right-wing accused him of providing the intellectual basis for leftist violence. In 1969, the disturbances in his lecture hall, most famously as female students occupied his speaker's podium bare-breasted, increased to an extent that Adorno discontinued his lecture series. In a letter to Samuel Beckett, he wrote: "The feeling of suddenly being attacked as a reactionary at least has a surprising note."

Adorno became increasingly exhausted and fed up with the situation on campus. His biographer, Stefan-Müller Doohm, contends that he was convinced the attacks by the students were directed against his theories as well as his person and that he feared that the current political situation may lead to totalitarianism. He left with his wife on a vacation to Switzerland. Despite warnings by his doctor, he attempted to ascend a 3,000 meter high mountain, resulting in heart palpitations. The same day, he and his wife drove to the nearby town Visp, where he suffered heart palpitations once again. He was brought to the town's clinic. In the morning of the following day, August 6, he died of a heart attack.


Adorno and other Frankfurt School theorists developed the theory of alienation in the philosophy of Karl Marx and applied it to social cultural contexts. They were critical of the mechanical interpretation of Marxism as a “scientific theory,” which was presented by the “authorized” theorists of the Soviet Union. Adorno argued that advanced capitalism is different from early capitalism and so Marxist theory applicable to early capitalism does not apply to advanced capitalism. Furthermore, he asserted that “reification” or “commoditization” of human life should be the primary issue for Marxism.

Adorno was to a great extent influenced by Walter Benjamin's application of Karl Marx's thought. Adorno, along with other major Frankfurt School theorists such as Horkheimer and Marcuse, argued that advanced capitalism was able to contain or liquidate the forces that would bring about its collapse and that the revolutionary moment, when it would have been possible to transform it into socialism, had passed. Adorno argued that capitalism had become more entrenched through its attack on the objective basis of revolutionary consciousness and through liquidation of the individualism that had been the basis of critical consciousness.

Adorno's works focused on art, literature, and music as key areas of sensuous, indirect critique of the established culture and petrified modes of thought. The argument, which is complex and dialectic, dominates his Aesthetic Theory, Philosophy of New Music, and many other works.

The culture industry is seen as an arena in which critical tendencies or potentialities were eliminated. He argued that the culture industry, which produced and circulated cultural commodities through the mass media, manipulated the population. Popular culture was identified as a reason why people become passive; the easy pleasures available through consumption of popular culture made people docile and content, no matter how terrible their economic circumstances. The differences among cultural goods make them appear different, but they are in fact just variations on the same theme. Adorno conceptualizes this phenomenon, pseudo-individualization and the always-the-same. Adorno saw this mass-produced culture as a danger to the more difficult high arts. Culture industries cultivate false needs; that is, needs created and satisfied by capitalism. True needs, in contrast, are freedom, creativity, or genuine happiness. Some, however, criticized Adorno’s high esteem of the high arts as cultural elitism.

Some of the work on mass culture Adorno undertook together with Horkheimer. His work heavily influenced intellectual discourse on popular culture and scholarly popular culture studies. At the time Adorno began writing, there was a tremendous unease among many intellectuals as to the results of mass culture and mass production on the character of individuals within a nation. By exploring the mechanisms for the creation of mass culture, Adorno presented a framework which gave specific terms to what had been a more general concern.

At the time, this was considered important because of the role which the state took in cultural production; Adorno's analysis allowed for a critique of mass culture from the left which balanced the critique of popular culture from the right. From both perspectives—left and right—the nature of cultural production was felt to be at the root of social and moral problems resulting from the consumption of culture. However, while the critique from the right emphasized moral degeneracy ascribed to sexual and racial influences within popular culture, Adorno approached the problem from a social, historical, political, and economic perspective.

Adorno, again along with the other principal thinkers of the Frankfurt school, attacked positivism in the social sciences and in philosophy. He was particularly harsh on approaches that claimed to be scientific and quantitative, although the collective Frankfurt School work, The Authoritarian Personality. that appeared under Adorno's name was one of the most influential empirical studies in the social sciences in America for decades after its publication in 1950.

Dialectic of Enlightenment

In the Dialectic of Enlightenment, co-authored with Max Horkheimer, Adorno critically examined the notions of modernity, rationality, and the Enlightenment by extending his criticism to modern civilization rooted in antiquity. The work was the major philosophical treatise of the Frankfurt School. In it, Adorno argued that the ultimate cause of alienation did not lie in the contradiction within capitalist forms of economy or the anti-enlightenment myth of totalitarianism, but that the ultimate cause of alienation lay in the idea of the Enlightenment itself.

He asserted that the ideal of the Enlightenment was to liberate human beings from the bondage and dominion of magic, myth, and other irrational forces that caused fear and terror in people. In other words, to be enlightened meant the liberation from these irrational factors of domination. Rationality, in contrast to irrational myths and notions of magic, was thought to be the key element in order to gain control of irrational factors, stimulate progress, and rationalize civilization.

Modern civilization was, thus, built as a result of the pursuit of the ideal of the Enlightenment. Modern western civilization, however, which was supposed to be the manifestation of such rationality, gave birth to barbarous acts of terror such as Nazism and the mass murders committed by Stalin. Adorno, as well as other intellectuals, wondered how such barbarous states could arise within the context of modernity built upon the ideals of the Enlightenment.

Adono did not see these totalitarian acts of terror as being inconsistent with the Enlightenment, and as a regression to rationality based on myth and magic. He argued that these irrational elements existed within the ideas of the Enlightenment itself.

Concept of Enlightenment

The Enlightenment generally meant the idea of progress in the eighteenth century, with which the bourgeoisie liberated themselves from the constraints of medieval feudalism. Adorno, borrowing the ideas of Max Weber, redefined the idea of the Enlightenment as the liberation of the world from myths, and extended it as a universal principle that guided the development of human civilization.

Destiny of Enlightenment

Adorno argued that the essence of the Enlightenment was humankind’s desire to dominate nature. He identified that in this process, instrumental rationality established man as the subject of dominion and transformed nature into the mere object of domination. But, the Enlightenment (domination of nature) resulted in the domination of the natural element that exists within the self in the form of morality. This consequently gave birth to society as the “second nature,” and brought about the subjugation of man by others, and finally led man to be subjugated by the society that was established.

Adorno further argued that the Enlightenment had inherent barbarous elements within it, and illustrated this point using the Greek myth, The Odyssey. For Adorno, the Enlightenment had an element that led to its self-destruction, and consequently brought about the madness of Nazism and Stalinism.

The work, which was written with a pessimistic tone, was, in a sense, a self criticism of reason and of critical theory. After this work, Horkheimer kept silent and Adorno found a trace of hope in the arts. Adorno later reflected on the philosophic methodology of his critical cultural theory and presented it in the "Negative Dialectic."

Minima Moralia

Adorno's Minima Moralia, an important text of Critical Theory, was written during World War II, while the author lived as an exile in America. It was originally written for the fiftieth birthday of Max Horkheimer, co-author of Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment.

The book takes its title from Magna Moralia, Aristotle's classic work of ethics. As Adorno writes in the introduction, the "sorrowful knowledge" (a pun on Nietzsche's "The Joyful Knowledge") with which the book is concerned is "the teaching of the good life," a central theme of both the Greek and Hebrew sources of Western philosophy. Today, Adorno maintains, a good, honest life is no longer possible, because we live in an inhuman society. "Life does not live," declares the book's opening epigram. Adorno illustrates this in a series of short reflections and aphorisms into which the book is broken, moving from everyday experiences to disturbing insights on general tendencies of late industrial society. Topics considered include the subversive nature of toys, the desolation of the family, the ingenuousnesses of being genuine, the decay of conversation, the rise of occultism, and the history of tact. Adorno shows how the smallest changes in everyday behavior stands in relation to the most catastrophic events of the twentieth century.

The book acknowledges its roots in the "damaged life" of its author, one of many intellectuals driven into exile by fascism, who, according to Adorno, are "mutilated without exception." But as one of its aphorisms reads, "The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass." So, as splinters left over from the smashed mirror of philosophy, the book's fragments try to illuminate clues as to humanity's descent into inhumanity in their immediate surroundings. A kind of post-philosophy working against the "untrue whole" of philosophy proper, Minima Moralia holds fast to the Judeo-Christian-Enlightenment vision of redemption, which it calls the only valid viewpoint with which to engage a deeply troubled world. By bringing the "Messianic light" of criticism on a landscape of consummate negativity, Adorno attempts to "project negatively an image of utopia."

Adorno's sociological methods

Because Adorno believed that sociology needs to be self-reflective and self-critical, he believed that the language the sociologist uses, like the language of the ordinary person, is a political construct in large measure that uses, often unreflectingly, concepts installed by dominant classes and social structures (such as our notion of "deviance" which includes both genuinely deviant individual and "hustlers" operating below social norms because they lack the capital to operate above).

Thus, Adorno felt that the men at the top of the Institute (and they were all men) needed to be the source primarily of theories for evaluation and empirical testing, as well as people who would process the "facts" discovered…including revising theories that were found to be false. For example, in essays published in Germany on Adorno's return from the U.S., and reprinted in the Critical Models essays collection, Adorno praised the egalitarianism and openness of U.S. society based on his sojourn in New York and the Los Angeles area between 1935 and 1955. Prior to going to the U.S., and as shown in his rather infamous essay "On Jazz," Adorno seems to have thought that the U.S. was a cultural wasteland in which people's minds and responses were formed by what he, rather nastily, called "the music of slaves."

Finally, some criticisms of Adorno come from those who feel forced to read his works, or the casual reader who expects to find a neutral commentator, usually on music issues. To some extent the problem is one of background: Many have noted Adorno had little sympathy for readers without his extensive “mitteleuropäische” (“Middle-European”) cultural background, which involved a thorough knowledge of German philosophy, the history of literature and music, as well as the ability to argue from "first principles."

One example of the clash of intellectual culture and Adorno's methods can be found in Paul Lazarsfeld, the American sociologist for whom Adorno worked in the middle 1930s, after fleeing Hitler.

As Rolf Wiggershaus recounts in The Frankfurt School, Its History, Theories and Political Significance (MIT 1995):

Lazarsfeld was the director of a project, funded and inspired by David Sarnoff (the head of RCA), to discover both the sort of music that listeners of radio liked and ways to improve their "taste," so that RCA could profitably air more classical music… Sarnoff was, it appears, genuinely concerned with the low level of taste in this era of "Especially for You" and other forgotten hits, but needed assurance that RCA could viably air opera on Saturday afternoons. Lazarsfeld, however, had trouble both with the prose style of the work Adorno handed in and what Lazarsfeld thought was Adorno's habit of "jumping to conclusions" without being willing to do the scut work of collecting data.

Adorno, however, rather than being arrogant, seems to have had a depressive personality, and Rolf Wiggershaus tells an anecdote which doesn't fit the image formed of an arrogant pedant: He noted that the typists at the Radio Research Project liked and understood what Adorno was saying about the actual effect of modern media. They may have responded to comments similar to that found in Dialectic of Enlightenment, written by Adorno with his close associate Max Horkheimer, that it appeared that movie-goers were less enthralled with the content even of "blockbusters" of the era, films that are now lauded by Hollywood mavens as "art," than by the air-conditioned comfort of the theaters. An observation reflected in movie business at the time by the expression that one found a good place to sell popcorn and built a theater around it.

Music and Adorno’s theoretical framework

Adorno's theoretical method is closely related to his understanding of music and Arnold Schoenberg and other contemporary composer's atonal (less so "twelve-tone") techniques (Adorno had studied composition for several years with Alban Berg), which challenged the hierarchical nature of traditional tonality in composition. For even if "the whole is untrue," for Adorno we retain the ability to form partial critical conceptions and submit them to a test as we progress towards a "higher" awareness. This role of a critical consciousness was a common concern in the Second Viennese School prior to the Second World War, and demanded that composers relate to the traditions more as a canon of taboos rather than as a canon of masterpieces that should be imitated. For the composer (poet, artist, philosopher) of this era, every work of art or thought was thus likely to be shocking or difficult to understand. Only through its "corrosive unacceptability" to the commercially-defined sensibilities of the middle class could new art hope to challenge dominant cultural assumptions.

Adorno's followers argue that he seems to have managed the very idea that one can abandon totality while still being able to rank artistic and ethical phenomena on a tentative scale, not because he was a sentimentalist about this ability but because he saw the drive towards totality (whether the Stalinist or Fascist totality of his time, or globalization of the market today) as derivative of the ability to make ethical and artistic judgment, which, following Kant, Adorno thought part of being human. Thus his method (better: anti-method) was to use language and its "big" concepts tentatively and musically, partly to see if they "sound right" and fit the data. For example, his question in The Authoritarian Personality. This and other works written during his sojourn in California was whether American Fundamentalist authoritarianism could be spoken of as having a relationship to Continental Fascism without sounding a false note in terms of the partial totality of a "theory" that American authoritarians might bring about a different but equally or more pernicious form of Fascism in the U.S.

Adorno was concerned that a genuine sociology retain a commitment to truth including the willingness to self-apply. Today, his life can be read as a protest against what he would call the "reification" of political polls and spin as well as a culture that in being aggressively "anti" high culture, seems every year to make more and more cultural artifacts of less and less quality that are consumed with some disgust by their "fans," viewed as objects themselves.

Adorno and his critics

Critiques of Adorno's theories include other Marxists. Other critics include Ralf Dahrendorf and Karl Popper, positivist philosophers, neoconservatives, and many students frustrated by Adorno's style. Many Marxists accuse the Critical Theorists of claiming the intellectual heritage of Karl Marx without feeling the obligation to apply theory for political action.

Marxist criticisms

According to Horst Müller's Kritik der kritischen Theorie ("Critique of Critical Theory"), Adorno posits totality as an automatic system. This is consistent with Adorno's idea of society as a self-regulating system, from which one must escape (but from which nobody CAN escape). For him it was existent, but inhuman, while Müller argues against the existence of such a system. In his argument, he claims that Critical Theory provides no practical solution for societal change. He concludes that Jürgen Habermas, in particular, and the Frankfurt School, in general, misconstrue Marx.

Georg Lukacs, a Marxist philosopher, infamously described Adorno as having taken up residence in the "Grand Hotel Abyss," in his 1962 preface to The Theory of the Novel. This was understood to mean that Lukacs (who at the time supported "socialist realism" and in general the Marxism of the East German regime) associated Adorno with a dated proto-Marxism, that indulged in despair, despite a comfortable bourgeois lifestyle.

A considerable part of the leading German intelligentsia, including Adorno, have taken up residence in the "Grand Hotel Abyss" which I described in connection with my critique of Schopenhauer as "a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered" (Georg Lukács, Preface to the Theory of the Novel, 1962).

Positivist criticisms

Positivist philosophers accuse Adorno of theorizing without submitting his theories to empirical tests, basing their critique on Karl Popper's revision of Logical Positivism in which Popper substituted "falsifiability" as a criterion of scientificity for the original "verifiability" criterion of meaning proposed by A.J. Ayer and other early Logical Positivists. In particular, interpreters of Karl Popper apply the test of "falsifiability" to Adorno's thought and find that he was elusive when presented with contrary evidence. Robert Kurz, author of the book Schwarzbuch Kapitalismus (trans. The Black Book of Capitalism) follows Adorno's line of thought.

Neoconservative criticism

Drawing on the Positivist critique, neoconservatives also deride Adorno as a theorist unwilling to submit to experimental falsification, and, they see in his complexity of thought a resource for the "politically correct" to provide long-winded justifications for unworthy and opaque schemes of social engineering.

However, a more intricate criticism is offered by the followers of Leo Strauss, who also believe in a hermeneutics of culture, and often echo many of Adorno's criticisms of accessibility and art. Their critique rests on the anti-capitalist nature of Adorno's orientation, arguing that, while, mass culture may consist of “bread and circuses,” that these are essential for social function and their removal or reduction in importance as "useful lies," would threaten the continued operation of the market and society, as well as higher philosophical truth.

Adorno's responses to his critics

Adorno's defenders reply to his positivist and neoconservative critics by pointing to his extensive numerical and empirical research, notably the "F-scale" in his work on Fascist tendencies in individual personalities in The Authoritarian Personality. And in fact, quantitative research using questionnaires and other tools of the modern sociologist was in full use at Adorno's Institute for Social Research.

Adorno also argued that the authoritarian personality would, of course, use culture and its consumption to exert social control, but that such control is inherently degrading to those who are subjected to it, and instead such personalities would project their own fear of loss of control on to society as a whole.

However, as a pioneer of a self-reflexive sociology who prefigured Bourdieu's ability to factor in the effect of reflection on the societal object, Adorno realized that some criticism (including deliberate disruption of his classes in the 1960s) could never be answered in a dialogue between equals if, as he seems to have believed, what the naive ethnographers or sociologists think of a human essence is always changing over time.

Adorno translated into English

While even German readers can find Adorno's work difficult to understand, an additional problem for English readers is that his German idiom is particularly difficult to translate into English. A similar difficulty of translation is true of Hegel, Heidegger, and a number of other German philosophers and poets. As a result, some early translators tended toward over-literalness. In recent years, Edmund Jephcott and Stanford University Press have published new translations of some of Adorno's lectures and books, including Introduction to Sociology, Problems of Moral Philosophy, and his transcribed lectures on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason and Aristotle's Metaphysics. These fresh translations are less literal in their rendering of German sentences and words, and are more accessible to English readers.

Major Works

  • Philosophy of Modern Music (1949)
  • The Authoritarian Personality (et al. 1950). New York: Harper.
  • Negative Dialectics (1966), Translation:
    • Negative Dialectics (1990), tr. E.B.Ashton, London, Routledge.
  • Prisms (1967)
  • Aesthetic Theory (1970)
  • Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944 with Horkheimer). Translations:
    • Dialectic of Enlightenment (1973), Trans. John Cumming. New York: Continuum.
    • Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. (2002), Ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford, Cal.:Stanford University Press.
  • Minima Moralia (1974). Translation:
    • Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (1978), tr. E.F.N.Jephcott, London, Verso.
  • Against Epistemology: A Metacritique; Studies in Husserl and the Phenomenological Antinomies (1983).
  • Critical Models: interventions and catchwords (1998).
  • Metaphysics: Concept and Problems (2000).
  • Kant's 'Critique of Pure Reason' (2001).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Habermas, J. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures. Translated by F.G.Lawrence. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1978.
  • Held, D. Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1980.
  • Jarvis, S. Adorno: a Critical Introduction. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1980.
  • Rasmussen, D. (ed.) The Handbook of Critical Theory. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

External links

All links retrieved April 30, 2023.

General philosophy sources


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