Theodor Adorno

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2563

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....

(The entire section contains 2563 words.)

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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 In 1941, Adorno moved to Los Angeles and continued to write prolifically, although most of his manuscripts remained unpublished until after his return to Germany in 1949.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 reflects social tendencies but also serves as the last preserve of individual subjectivity in the face of historical forms that threaten to crush it. A dialectical critique of art, Adorno argues, “takes seriously the principle that it is not ideology in itself which is untrue but rather its pretention to correspond to reality.”

In a widely read essay entitled “On Commitment,” Adorno argued that Bertolt Brecht’s plays are fundamentally flawed, both aesthetically and politically, by the author’s heavy-handed political didacticism and oversimplified presentation of such realities of the contemporary world as capitalism, fascism, or communism. Even more destructive are Brecht’s tendencies to “preach to the converted” and to distort “the real social problems discussed in his epic drama in order to prove a thesis.” Echoing Friedrich Engel’s injunction (in a letter to Ferdinand LaSalle, May 8, 1859) that “the more the author’s views are concealed the better for the work of art,” Adorno goes on to say that “the gravest charge against commitment is that even right intentions go wrong when they are noticed, and still more so, when they then try to conceal themselves.” Critics of Adorno have pointed out that his treatment of “committed” writing is often narrow and one-sided; in attacking polemics, Adorno himself turns polemicist.

In this same essay attacking the theory and practice of “committed” literature in the works of Brecht and Jean-Paul Sartre, Adorno praises Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett as true models of a critical, revolutionary art. Instead of the artificially reconciled and positive outlook of the directly “political,” Beckett’s “dissonant” (exhibiting a state of unresolved tension) and “negative” art refuses to pacify and console.

Kafka’s prose and Beckett’s plays … have an effect by comparison with which the officially committed works look like pantomimes. … By dismantling appearance, they explode from within the art which committed proclamation subjugates from without, and hence only in appearance. The inescapability of their work compels the change of attitude which committed works merely demand.

Adorno believed that Beckett was the one truly outstanding literary figure to emerge after World War II, and he even intended to dedicate Aesthetic Theory—published posthumously—to the author.

In a 1959 essay on Beckett’s Fin de partie (1957; Endgame, 1958), Adorno describes the play as a continuation of Kafka’s relentless reminder of the death of personality in the contemporary world; still, this abandonment of selfhood had now advanced further. In Adorno’s view, Beckett’s work is not ahistorically “existential” but powerfully suggestive of the absence of the self.

Instead of excluding the temporal from existence, … [Beckett] subtracts that which time—the historical trend—is in reality preparing to annul. He extends the trajectory of the subject’s liquidation to the point where it shrinks to the here-and-now. … History is excluded because it has dried up the power of consciousness to conceive history: the power of memory … All that appears of history is its result, its decline.

Adorno writes that in Beckett’s art “all that remains of freedom is the impotent and ridiculous reflex of empty decisions.”

Equally pessimistic is Adorno’s famous statement on the place of art in the modern world: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” He meant that even art that is “dissonant” is inadequate, because it contains hopeful language and imagery that have the power to elicit aesthetic enjoyment. The horror vanishes; the sound of despair becomes a “hideous affirmation.” Yet the work of Beckett (and Arnold Schoenberg) provides a glimpse of hope by its capacity to express even the slightest of contemporary society’s horrors. In Adorno’s view, as long as their discordant sounds are heard and appreciated, their artistic power will enable them to keep alive the possibility of a “consonant” utopia in their honest acknowledgment of its absence.

In his discussion of the modern novel, Adorno argues that traditional bourgeois realism is no longer a historically viable option. Only the type of fragmentation of personality and narrative “standpoint” that appears, for example, in the works of such writers as Marcel Proust, James Joyce, or Robert Musil could adequately represent the extent of individual alienation, torment, and impotence in contemporary life. Telling a traditional realistic story from a single narrative perspective would nullify collective guilt and suggest that the individual still has independent meaning and power in society. On the other hand, modern novelists who disjointedly interrupt narration present it from multiple perspectives, reveal the power of objects in the unconscious of thoughts of powerless “characters,” and construct the whole through associational logic of the parts are more “truthful” in their representation of contemporary life, according to Adorno. Yet these novelists’ techniques must serve to demonstrate, in a potentially critical way, the disintegration of individual subjectivity.

One legacy of Adorno’s (and the Frankfurt School’s) critique of modern culture is that it enriched and challenged traditional Marxist criticism and better equipped it to assess both the modernist revolt and the crisis of liberal bourgeois society in the postwar era. In contemporary Western culture, in which traditional art is reduced to what Adorno and Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment call “the culture industry,” that is, to a form of mere entertainment, Adorno points out that artists are obliged to create works that demand intellectual activity of themselves and of the audience.

In stressing the need for formal preoccupations and self-reflectiveness in both art and criticism, in rejecting the classical notion of organic unity, romantic subjectivity, or realist “reflection,” and in emphasizing the fragmentary, ephemeral, and relativist nature of “truth” (although remaining primarily rooted in the Austro-German cultural tradition), Adorno eventually came to accept much of what the modernist revolt had attempted to achieve.


Adorno was among the first philosophers and critics to propose a consistent theory of popular culture and to analyze the various aspects and functions of the modern cultural market, mass cultural consumption, and what he and Horkheimer called the “culture industry” (the task of which is to supply the cultural market with products specifically designed to induce a state of relaxation or escape). In essays written as early as 1941, Adorno describes the need of the masses for distraction as both a product and a result of the existing capitalist economy.

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, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Adorno. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2004. This entry in the Cambridge Companion to Philosophy series is an excellent resource for students of Adorno’s philosophy.

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 Dialectic. New York: Verso, 1990. Detailed readings of three major works by Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Negative Dialectic, and Aesthetic Theory, documenting their contributions to contemporary Marxism and exploring Adorno’s emphasis on late capitalism as a total system within the forms of culture.

Jameson, Fredric, ed. Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971. Jameson’s first chapter, “T. W. Adorno, or, Historical Tropes,” analyzes Adorno’s dialectical method and pessimistic critique of modern culture, chiefly with reference to his Philosophy of Modern Music.

Jarvis, Simon. Adorno: A Critical Introduction. New York: Routledge, 1998. Surveys the development of Adorno’s thought and sketches the intellectual and institutional contexts from which it emerged. Offers explications of Adorno’s work as a critic of society and culture, of his aesthetic theory, and of his work on epistemology and metaphysics.

Jay, Martin. Adorno. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984. A lucid introduction to Adorno’s work, beginning with his key images of the force field and his extension of Benjamin’s concept of constellation. These metaphors are then used to map five major areas of Adorno’s intellectual concerns: Marxism, aesthetic modernism, cultural conservatism, Judaism, and deconstructionism.

Krakauer, Eric L. The Disposition of the Subject: Reading Adorno’s Dialectic of Technology. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1998. This work draws on Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment to explain the dialectic of technology.

Lichtheim, George. From Marx to Hegel. New York: Herder and Herder, 1971. Analyzes the German intellectual tradition and historical status of Marxism. His chapter on Adorno provides biographical and historical context and briefly surveys his major writings.

Lunn, Eugene. Marxism and Modernism: An Historical Study of Lukács, Brecht, Benjamin, and Adorno. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982. A comparative study of the treatment of Marxism and modernism in the writings of four important theoreticians of Marxist aesthetics, focusing on the period from 1920 to 1950. Contains six useful bibliographies on Marxism; on modernism; on the Brecht-Lucács and Benjamin-Adorno debates; on works by or about each of the four authors; and a general listing of key works on German and European social, political, and cultural history.

Bibliography updated by William Nelles

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