Adorno's Authoritarian Personality
A group of authors published a study on the Authoritarian Personality in 1950. Theodor W. Adorno was one of them. They combined Freud's idea that suppression of instincts during childhood can have adverse effects in later life with an explanation for the rise of fascism and anti-Semitism. The Authoritarian Personality is the relationship of the authoritarian structure of families at the core of authoritarian states that could turn prejudice into fascist action, such as what happened in Germany. The study employed the so-called F-scale or (pre)fascism scale, which structured the authoritarian personalities into several traits. Adorno's contribution is deeply rooted in his intellectual biography.
Keywords Adorno, Theodor; Authority; Authoritarian Personality; Critical Theory; F-scale; Frankfurt School; Immanent Criticism; Personality; Phenomenology; Structural Functionalism; Totalitarianism
The Frankfurt School
Theodor W. Adorno (1903–1969) was a leading member of the so-called Frankfurt School who proposed critical theory. Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Friedrich Pollock comprised the inner circle of that group. Horkheimer and Adorno were born into fairly wealthy bourgeoisie families and formed the intellectual core, while Pollock, son of a factory worker, stayed mostly busy with the finances and certain administrative tasks on which he and Horkheimer worked. After the Second World War, Horkheimer was left with little time for writing and the bulk of intellectual production was left to Adorno and offshoots of critical theory; the second and third generation of the Frankfurt School.
Both Horkheimer and Adorno had studied in the 1920s in Frankfurt under the Neo-Kantian scholar Hans Cornelius. Horkheimer, slightly older, became Cornelius's assistant and much of Adorno's work ever since that time was worked out in direct answer to problems introduced to Adorno by Horkheimer. The intellectual background of Adorno's writings as well as of the majority of the members of the Frankfurt School is clearly rooted in Hegel-Marxism. Given that most members of the Frankfurt School and Marxist circles at the time were descendants of rather wealthy families, it is often ironically remarked upon that social criticism was something that one must be able to afford.
Adorno wrote his dissertation in 1924, trying to prove that Husserl's Phenomenology is part of the positivist movement due to its roots in Greek philosophy. To become a full professor, German PhDs had to undergo (and still do) a second process after their dissertation which is called habilitation. Adorno had to enter two habilitation scripts since his first one was rejected by Cornelius.
Adorno biographers differ on the importance of this fact for his life's work. The most dominant interpretation sees Adorno's second habilitation on Kierkegaard in light of his last and unfinished book on aesthetic theory. It is widely considered that Adorno saw art as the one field that still allowed for escape and free thought, which could break the cage of total ideology that mass society and its culture-industry had lured the entirety of society into (Mueller-Doohm, 2003).
Another interpretation suggests that his rejected first habilitation on the concept of the unconscious in Kant and Freud foreshadowed the fundamental issues to which Adorno would later dedicate most of his work. Alexander Stingl goes so far as to suggest that Adorno's entire publishing career can be perceived as a continuous defense of his first habilitation, and thereby as a continuous defense against the authority of the hierarchy of the university (Stingl, 2009).
A central aspect of that first habilitation is Adorno's warning about the use of psychotherapy by the "wrong groups." The celebration of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy by a large group of people glossed over the danger that these techniques and the insight they offered into the human mind could also be used to manipulate society. The veiling or blinding that these techniques produced, for example, applied by the entertainment or advertisement industry, were addressed in his own writings, as well as in his famous 1944 co-production with Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment. The culture industry, under the guise of helping individualism, prestructures the world into decisions which are therefore no longer free and autonomous. The perfidy of the culture-industry and its manipulation is that the effect of the blinding is so total (totaler Verblendungszusammenhang) or can be called a total ideology, that people do not even realize this effect but instead celebrate the culture industry and its products as an agent of freedom and individual choice. This illusion has become so total that there is no escaping. The sole route of escape that Adorno and Horkheimer allowed for was either in some works of art and music — although Adorno was himself very selective in what he would allow to count as art; for example, he absolutely hated jazz. An intellectual route of escape was critical theory or its method of immanent criticism, which Adorno and Horkheimer would consider their "message in a bottle," which they would not live to see arrive. However, later generations would decipher and break the circle.
Adorno's cynicism is of course explained in his bearing witness to the horror of the Third Reich and his own fate as a refugee.
In 1950, a group of scholars from the University of California, Berkeley published The Authoritarian Personality, a study that Adorno helped create. The work is of course deeply influenced by Adorno's personal experiences, but also by his readings of Freud and his colleague and former member of the Frankfurt School, Erich Fromm.
During the Second World War, anti-Semitism was a subject of concern for the Jewish community in the United States, not only in regard to what was happening in the concentration camps in Nazi-Germany, but world-wide. Before 1933, German anti-Semitism was not the worst in Europe. Actually, German anti-Semitism was a relatively late development in Europe and many European Jews considered moving to Germany as a relatively safe territory. Additionally, anti-Semitism was felt to be on the rise in the United States, which had just experienced one of its worst financial crises and many angry people were looking for scapegoats.
Roosevelt's New Deal was not initially as popular as common history now paints it. Its critics went as far as calling it the Jew Deal, hoping to play on latent anti-Semitism (Feingold, 1995). A series of "Studies in Prejudice" sponsored by Horkheimer's committee was intended to uncover the roots of prejudices such as anti-Semitism, as well as its roots in the United States, while exposing how and why people move from internal sentiments of prejudice to outwardly acting on it. This project was lucrative and Horkheimer wrestled to get his friends involved. Adorno was actually a late addition; he was known for his lack of skill in empirical research and his distrust of the "American empirical orientation" in sociology, which came from his brief work on Paul Laszarsfeld's radio project; one of the first jobs Horkheimer could land for Adorno in the United States after he fled Germany via Britain.
The Authoritarian Personality
The subject matter of the Authoritarian Personality by Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson, and R. Nevitt Sanford was the relationship of the authoritarian structure of families as the core of authoritarian states that could turn prejudice into fascist action, such as what happened in Germany. The study employed the so called F-scale or...
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