Theodor Adorno

(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Adorno, one of the major figures in the Frankfurt School of Marxist social philosophy, attempted to fuse philosophy and sociology in his writings. He developed a negative dialectic designed to advance philosophical materialism.

Early Life

Theodor Adorno was born Theodor Wiesengrund in 1903 in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. His mother, the daughter of a German singer and a French army officer (whose Corsican and originally Genoese ancestry accounts for the name Adorno, the name by which Theodor was known after his emigration from Germany), was a talented singer from whom he inherited a love of music; his father was a successful wine merchant of Jewish extraction. While attending secondary school, Adorno studied privately with Siegfried Kracauer, the German historian and social critic. From 1925 to 1928, he studied music with Alban Berg and Eduard Steuermann in Vienna. Returning to the University of Frankfurt in 1928, Adorno wrote his qualifying paper on the aesthetics of philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.

In 1931, he became a lecturer at the university, where he became involved with the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research) and published numerous articles in its journal, Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung. The institute was established by a group of radical Marxist scholars whose goal was to assess modern society through an interdisciplinary study of its cultural and philosophical phenomena. Soon after Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, the institute moved to the United States; Adorno officially joined in 1938, when he moved to New York City. In 1941, Adorno moved to Los Angeles and continued to write prolifically, although most of his manuscripts remained unpublished until after his return to Germany in 1949. While in Los Angeles, he renewed his acquaintance with composer Arnold Schoenberg and assisted Thomas Mann with the musical sections of his novel Doktor Faustus (1947; Doctor Faustus, 1948). He became assistant director of the Institute for Social Research in 1950 and codirector, with Max Horkheimer, in 1955. He continued to teach and publish numerous essays and books until his death in Visp, Switzerland, in 1969.

Life’s Work

Adorno’s work is difficult to codify or systematize, as Negative Dialectics, one of his major philosophical works, reveals. The self-contradictory term “negative dialectics” is meant to affirm the idea and value of an ultimate synthesis, while negating its existence in individual instances. Adorno argues that every theory about the world, as it is formed, tends to become reified by the mind and to be invested with the prestige and permanency of an object, thus effacing the very dialectical process from which it emerged. It is this optical illusion of the substantiality of thought that negative dialectics attempts to dispel.

Adorno’s negative dialectics is not Marxist dialectical materialism in the conventional sense of the term. Reviving Karl Marx’s “materialist” critique of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Adorno, as well as his colleagues at the Institute for Social Research, believed that there was no ontological primacy of spirit over matter and no logical priority of the thinking subject over the material object. Consequently, they sought a principle that would legitimize both the intellectual comprehension of the world and its radical critique; they also relentlessly attacked the opposition between culture as a superior sphere of human endeavor and material existence as a lesser aspect of the human condition.

The goals and methods of the institute (later known as the Frankfurt School), as well as the historical situation out of which it arose, are important factors to consider in any discussion of Adorno’s work. Under the directorship of Max Horkheimer, Adorno’s longtime colleague and collaborator, the institute’s theorists focused on the interdisciplinary nature of “social research.” This social research, however, is not to be confused with sociology or Geisteswissenschaft (cultural sciences) as practiced in German universities, which fostered a tradition of treating intellectual history in a social vacuum. Rather, Adorno and fellow members of the Frankfurt School devoted themselves to what became known as kritische Theorie, or critical theory.

Using the dialectical method, critical theory’s practitioners engaged in a dialogue with both other schools of Marxist thought and with a changing historical situation (the success of the Russian revolution and socialism’s advance eastward). The two poles of critical theory’s dialectic (as opposed to Hegel’s dialectic between subject and object, or mind and matter, based on the primacy of the absolute subject) were praxis (more specifically, the relation of theory to praxis) and reason (Vernunft, or an appreciation of the dialectical relations beneath surface appearances). Praxis, in the sense in which it is used here, has been defined as “a kind of self-creating action, which differed from the externally motivated behavior produced by forces outside man’s control. … One of the earmarks of praxis, as opposed to mere action, was its being informed by theoretical considerations.” One of the institute’s major tasks was to explore how the social and cultural order could be transformed through praxis.

Adorno, who shared the interdisciplinary goals and methods of the Institute for Social Research, investigated literature and many other cultural forms in his role as a critic of modern culture:

The task of criticism must not be so much to search for the particular interest-groups to which cultural phenomena are to be assigned, but rather to decipher the general social tendencies which are expressed in these phenomena and through which the most powerful interests realize themselves. Cultural criticism must become social physiognomy.

What distinguishes Adorno’s sociology of art from its more orthodox Marxist counterparts (the theory of Georg Lukács, for example) is its refusal to reduce cultural phenomena to an ideological vehicle of class interests. In Adorno’s view, art not only expresses and...

(The entire section is 2563 words.)