Theodor Adorno

 (front left), Theodor Adorno (front right), and  in the background, right, in  at
Max Horkheimer (front left), Theodor Adorno (front right), and Jürgen Habermas in the background, right, in 1965 at Heidelberg

Theodor Ludwig Wiesengrund Adorno (September 11, 1903August 6, 1969) was a German sociologist, philosopher, musicologist and composer. He was a member of the Frankfurt School along with Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Jürgen Habermas and others. He was also the Music Director of the Radio Project.

Already as a young music critic and unordained sociologist, Theodor W. Adorno was primarily a philosophical thinker. As a composer he was unable to step out from under the shadow of his teacher Alban Berg. The label 'social philosopher' emphasizes the socially critical aspect of his philosophical thinking, which from 1945 onwards took an intellectually prominent position in the critical theory of the Frankfurt School.



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 Agatha also lived with the family. Young Theodor 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 low 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 Bernard Sekles and read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason together with his friend Siegfried Kracauer - 14 years his elder - on Saturday afternoons. 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. In the meantime he 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 Viennese School, namely to Anton von Webern and Arnold Schoenberg. Especially Schoenberg’s revolutionary atonality inspired the 22-year-old to pen philosophical observations on the new music, which however were not well received by its protagonists. 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

Back from Vienna, Adorno was not spared another failure: after his dissertation supervisor Hans Cornelius and his assistant Max Horkheimer voiced their concerns about his professorial thesis, a comprehensive philosophical-psychological treatise, he withdrew it in early 1928. It would take him three more years until he received the venia legendi (which was revoked by the Nazis, together with those of all professors of non-Aryan descent, in 1933) with the manuscript Kierkegaard: Construction of the aesthetic (Kierkegaard: Konstruktion des Ästhetischen), that he submitted to Paul Tillich. The topic of his 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). Among his 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 Sozialkunde ("journal for sociology"); it wasn't until 1938 that he joined the Institute for Social Research.

Commuter between Berlin and Oxford (1934-1937)

Since the late 1920s during stays in Berlin, Adorno had established closer relations with Walter Benjamin and also with Ernst Bloch, with whose first major work Geist der Utopie he had already become acquainted in 1921. The German capital held an even greater attraction to him due to the presence of chemist Margarethe ('Gretel') Karplus (1902-1993), whom he would marry in London in 1937. In 1934, fleeing from the Nazi regime, he emigrated to England to regain his professor status in Oxford, which never happened however, but as a postgraduate there, he undertook an in depth study of Hegel's philosophy. He could not resist spending 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"). This was less an engagement with this style of music than a first polemic against the blooming entertainment and culture industry, a system by which he believed society was controlled by a top-down creation of standardized culture to intensify commodification. Intense epistolary contact with Horkheimer, who was living in American exile, led to an offer of an interesting and profitable employment on the other side of the Atlantic.

Émigré in the USA (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 arriving in New York, Horkheimer's Institute for Social Research accepted Adorno as an official member. His first job was directing the 'Radio Project' together with the Austrian sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld. He also took up a post at Princeton University between 1938 and 1941. 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 he spent as the co-director of a research unit at the University of California. Their collective 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)

It was published in 1947. 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 a 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 Ausschwitz 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 in [anti-semitic] Prejudice performed by multiple research institutes in the US that uncovered the authoritarian character of test persons through indirect questions.

Late Frankfurt Years (1949-1969)

After the war, 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." [1] ( (Es gibt kein richtiges Leben im falschen) Despite his pessimistic stance, 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 USA failed in 1953.

Here a list of his multifaceted accomplishments:

Final Act (1967-1969)

In 1966 extraparliamentary opposition (APO) formed against the grand coalition of Germany's two major parties CDU/CSU and SPD, directed primarily against the planned emergency laws (Notstandsgesetze). 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 drawing 'practical' consequences from 'Critical Theory'. The leading figures of the Frankfurt School were not prepared, despite empathizing with the students' causes, to support their activism. Therefore Adorno in particular became a target of student action. On the other side of the spectrum, the right accused him of providing the intellectual basis for leftist violence. In 1969 the disturbances in his lecture hall increased to an extent that Adorno discontinued his lecture series.

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 was to a great extent influenced by Walter Benjamin's application of Karl Marx's thought. Unlike Marx, however, Adorno did not consider capitalism on the verge of collapse. Instead he argued that capitalism had become more entrenched through its attack on the objective basis of revolutionary consciousness. Additionally, Adorno focused on culture rather than economics as Marx did. He argued that critical theory must maintain a certain standard. On this ground Adorno attacked many approaches commonly used in social studies. He was particularly harsh on approaches that claimed to be scientific and quantitative.

He is probably best known for his critique of mass culture in contemporary societies. He argued that the culture industry manipulated the masses. 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. It is culture industries that produce standardized cultural goods like factories. There are differences between the cultural goods that make them appear different, but they are in fact just variations of the same theme. Adorno called this phenomenon pseudo- individualization. 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 of the work on mass culture Adorno undertook together with Max 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. In both arguments the nature of cultural production was felt to be at the root of social and moral problems resulting from the consumption of culture. Where as the critique from the right emphasized moral degeneracy ascribed to sexual and racial influences within popular culture, Adorno located the problem not with the content, but with the objective realities of the production of mass culture and its effects, e.g. as a form of reverse psychology.

Many aspects of Adorno's work are relevant today and have been developed in many strands of contemporary critical theory, media theory, and sociology. Thinkers influenced by Adorno believe that today's society has evolved in a direction foreseen by him, especially in regard to the past (Auschwitz), morals or the Culture Industry. The latter has become a particularly productive, yet highly contested term in cultural studies. Many of his reflections on music have only just begun to be debated, as a collection of essays on the subject, many of which had not previously been translated into English, have only recently been collected and published as Essays on Music.

Adorno and his critics

Marxist criticisms

Critiques of Adorno's theories come include others of a Marxists. Other critics include Ralf Dahrendorf and Karl Raimund 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.

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. 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.

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" for the original "verifiability" criterion of meaning proposed by Alfred Jules Ayer and other early Logical Positivists. In particular, interpreters of Karl Popper apply the test of "falsifiability" to Adorno's thought and they find that he was elusive when presented with contrary evidence.

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 reponses 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, The Authoritarian Personality (cf. Adorno et al., The Authoritarian Personality: an abridged English translation was published by Norton in 1983). 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 were subjected to it, and instead such personalities would project their own fear of loss of control on to society as a whole.

Adorno's sociological methods

Because Adorno felt that sociology need to self-apply, 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 don't have the capital to operate above: for an analysis of this phenomenon, cf. Pierre Bourdieu's book The Weight of the World). In other words, Marx and Engels were concerned with physical dark Satanic mills whereas Adorno's concern was with mental monstrosities.

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 USA, and reprinted in Critical Models, Adorno praised the egalitarianism and openness of US society based on his sojourn in New York and the Los Angeles area between 1935 and 1955. Prior to going to the USA, and as shown in his rather infamous essay "On Jazz", Adorno seems to have thought that the USA was a cultural wasteland in which people's minds and responses were formed by what he, rather nastily, called "the music of slaves".

Finally, a 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 Middle Europe cultural baggage, baggage which involved a thorough knowledge of Immanuel Kant, 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 (and Americanized) 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 been a bit of a depressive sort, and Rolf Wiggershaus tells an anecdote which doesn't fit the image formed of an arrogant, German 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 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 theatre around it.

Adorno translated into English

One minor reason why Adorno is "hard" may be that early translations of his works were rushed and of poor quality. However, in recent years, Edmund Jephcott and Stanford University Press have been releasing new translations of the late Adorno's lectures and books, including Introduction to Sociology, Problems of Moral Philosophy and his book on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.

These new translations show Adorno to be far more engaging than previously thought as they have departed from a literal, one for one translation from German, which unavoidably gave their English a ponderous air.

Adorno and his theoretical framework

Adorno's theoretical method is closely related to his understanding of music and his friend Alban Berg use of twelve-tone techniques, which were aimed at dethroning the primacy of traditional tonality in composition. For even if "the whole is untrue", for Adorno we retain the ability to form partial conceptions and submit them to a test as we progress towards a "higher" awareness. This role of progressive artistic improvement was one which was prevalent in the Second Viennese School prior to the Second World War, and was an essential component of the doctrine that art should be, at first, shocking or difficult to understand, because it is only through the "corrosive unacceptability" to the middle class of new art that the dominant cultural assumptions may be challenged.

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 judgement, which, following Kant, Adorno thought part of being human. Thus his 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 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 US.

This method could be applied in contemporary politics and sociology by questioning the phrase "Islamo-Fascism". It's an attempt of course to alert the West to an open-ended and frightening possibility. But to question it, you'd need Adorno's prolixity, emulated by the late Edward Said, because you have to test the language against the phenomena. just as Adorno submitted his theories about the relationship between authoritarianism and the occult view of life in The Stars Down To Earth.

Many people, in short, feel that Adorno's style was that of the worst and most disconnected German pedant, like the German in the old joke, who when asked to write about camels locks himself in his study for eight years and writes The Idea of the Camel as Derived from the Pure Theory of the Ego. But Adorno's constant engagement with jazz (which was, it must be admitted, limited to American popular songs made for white audiences and was for this reason very flawed), his study of Los Angeles astrology and in general his engagement with phenomena which for a man of his disposition were often troubling, paints the picture of a profoundly honest man.

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.

See also: Critical Theory, New musicology.

Select bibliography (by publication in English)

  • Philosophy of Modern Music (1949)
  • Negative Dialectics (1966)
  • Prisms (1967)
  • Aesthetic Theory (1970)
  • Dialektik der Aufklärung (1944 with Horkheimer). Translations:
    • Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. John Cumming. New York: Continuum, 1973.
    • Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford, Cal.:Stanford University Press, 2002.
  • Minima Moralia (1974)

External links


Online works by Adorno

de:Theodor W. Adorno es:Theodor Adorno fr:Theodor W. Adorno it:Theodor Adorno nl:Theodor Adorno ja:テオドール・アドルノ no:Theodor Adorno pl:Theodor Adorno pt:Theodor Adorno sk:Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno fi:Theodor Adorno sv:Theodor Adorno


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