(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Theodor Adorno was one of the principal figures in the Frankfurt School of Marxist social philosophy that flourished between 1923 and 1970. Dismayed by the sudden rise of capitalism in Germany after World War I, the Frankfurt thinkers rejected both metaphysics and scientific rationalism in focusing on understanding how capitalism worked in modern society. The school’s founders included Max Horkheimer, director for a while of the movement’s Institute for Social Research and collaborator with Adorno on the important book Dialektik der Aufklärung (1947; Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1972).

The school soon abandoned class analysis in favor of the study of culture and authority, and although its members deplored the fragmentation of learning in the universities and attempted to fuse sociology and philosophy, they usually specialized themselves. Adorno, for example, was a brilliant musicologist and student of culture. Adorno’s Marxism was cooled by the events in Russia during the 1930’s and tempered by such non-Marxist influences as philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. The institute relocated in the 1930’s to New York, where Horkheimer and Adorno continued writing despite Adorno’s deep antipathy to the United States. In 1950, Herbert Marcuse stayed on in the United States, but Horkheimer and Adorno returned to Frankfurt, Horkheimer as the university rector and Adorno as a chaired...

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Negative Dialectics

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Informing Negative Dialectics throughout is the linking of the subject-object dichotomy in Hegel’s idealism with the Enlightenment’s subjection of nature through reason, the theme of Adorno and Horkheimer’s early work Dialectic of Enlightenment. The contemptuous epithet “bourgeois idealism” suggests the complicity of society with science: The mind (subject) shapes nature (object) to produce what Adorno perceives as a monstrous technocracy that refutes Marx’s hope for a beneficent evolution in the “relations of productivity.”

Philosophy lives on, Adorno says in the introduction to his work, because it failed to achieve the mission Marx assigned it of changing the world. The old systems, or “conceptual shells,” linger like “relics,” and Hegel’s dialectic is due for an overhaul. Hegel’s idealism envisioned the objective world as somehow identical to, or constituted by, thought; but Adorno avers that “dialectics says no more . . . than that objects do not go into their concepts without leaving a remainder,” and it is this remainder, the “untruth of identity,” that enables dialectics: “[Negative] [d]ialectics is the consistent sense of nonidentity.” Negative dialectics reveals its affinity with Jacques Derrida’s celebrated notion of différance when Adorno asserts: “What we differentiate will appear divergent, dissonant, negative for just as long as the structure of our consciousness obliges it to...

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Models of Negative Dialectical Thought

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Part 2 offers models of negative dialectical thinking. The essay “Freedom” becomes a dialogue with Kant on free will, a “metacritique” of Kant’s Kritik der praktischen Vernunft (1788; The Critique of Practical Reason, 1873). Kant taught that reason, working through its servant will, created reality, “untrammeled by the material,” in Adorno’s words. Adorno admits that freedom demands “full theoretical consciousness,” but, always attentive to the role of the object, insists that something more is needed, “something physical which consciousness does not exhaust,” and he finds this in the spontaneity that he identifies as the “part of action that differs from the pure consciousness.” In this spontaneity lies the arbitrariness that enables reason’s escape from the subject’s passivity. Adorno refers twice to the fact that in Kant’s ethics, “the dogmatic doctrine of free will is coupled with the urge to punish harshly, irrespective of empirical conditions,” a result that to Adorno reveals the repressiveness of Kant’s understanding of freedom as obedience. These reflections lead Adorno to what is always murkiest in his thinking: a sudden transition from metaphysics to ideology. Statements such as “In their inmost core, the theses of determinism and freedom coincide” and “surely it is only in a free society that the individuals would be [metaphysically] free” offer all the intuitive certainty of declarations about the mystery of the Holy Trinity.

Adorno’s Influence

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

The impact of Negative Dialectics cannot be assessed apart from a general consideration of Adorno’s influence. Many of his left-wing critics in the 1960’s judged that Adorno’s negative dialectics had fragmented the Frankfurt School’s original effort to construct a critical theory. One of his most sympathetic students, Martin Jay, admits that “a lengthy journey through the thicket of Adorno’s prose does give the impression of passing the same landmarks with uncomfortable frequency.” Even though Jay concedes that Adorno may have been an “ambitious failure,” he urges that he be given the benefit of the doubt.

In 1998, however, two substantial, largely favorable, and well-written studies of Adorno appeared: Simon Jarvis’s Adorno: A Critical Introduction and Eric L. Krakauer’s The Disposition of the Subject: Reading Adorno’s Dialectic of Technology. These penetrating commentaries reveal the power of Adorno’s works to stimulate minds decades after his death. Krakauer’s explication of the dialectic of technology draws heavily on Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, which contains ideas that were widely disseminated and could be sensed frequently in the polemics of the 1980’s and 1990’s. Among Adorno’s successors, Jürgen Habermas is a significant figure whose work was touched by Adorno.


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Buck-Morss, Susan. The Origin of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and the Frankfurt Institute. New York: Free Press, 1977. Traces Theodor Adorno’s intellectual development and outlines his major theories. Emphasizes the influence of Walter Benjamin on his thought.

Hohendahl, Peter Uwe. Prismatic Thought: Theodor W. Adorno. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995. A wide-ranging introduction to Adorno and his work, with emphasis on his aesthetic writings. Includes chapters providing biographical context on Adorno’s exile to the United States during World War II and his return to West Germany in the 1950’s, as well as on his writings on literature, mass culture, sociology and philosophy of art, and language. An epilogue summarizes Adorno’s place in contemporary criticism.

Huhn, Tom, and Lambert Zuidervaart, eds. The Semblance of Subjectivity: Essays in Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997. Twelve essays exemplify a broad range of approaches to Adorno’s writings on aesthetics. Includes selective bibliographies of English translations of Adorno’s work and of articles and books in English on Adorno and his relation to critical theory.

Jameson, Fredric. Late Marxism: Adorno, or, The Persistence of the...

(The entire section is 548 words.)