Adorno, Theodor Wiesengrund
b. Sept. 11, 1903, Frankfurt am Main, Ger.
d. Aug. 6, 1969, Visp, Switz.
German philosopher who also wrote on sociology, psychology, and
musicology. [Note: This is a very American question. We could ask back:
Why should Philosophers not write on sociology and psychology?]
Adorno obtained a degree in philosophy from Johann Wolfgang Goethe
University in Frankfurt in 1924. His early writings, which emphasize
aesthetic development as important to historical evolution, reflect the
influence of Walter Benjamin's application of Marxism to cultural
criticism. After teaching two years at the University of Frankfurt, Adorno
immigrated to England in 1934 to escape the Nazi persecution of the Jews.
He taught at the University of Oxford for three years and then went to the
United States (1938), where he worked at Princeton (1938-41) and then was
codirector of the Research Project on Social Discrimination at the
University of California, Berkeley (1941-48). Adorno and his colleague Max
Horkheimer returned to the University of Frankfurt in 1949. There they
rebuilt the Institute for Social Research and revived the Frankfurt school
of critical theory, which contributed to the German intellectual revival
after World War II.
One of Adorno's themes was civilization's tendency to self-destruction, as
evinced by Fascism. In their widely influential book Dialektik der
Aufklärung (1947; Dialectic of Enlightenment), Adorno and Horkheimer
located this impulse in the concept of reason itself, which the
Enlightenment and modern scientific thought had transformed into an
irrational force that had come to dominate not only nature but humanity
itself. The rationalization of human society had ultimately led to Fascism
and other totalitarian regimes that represented a complete negation of
human freedom. Adorno concluded that rationalism offers little hope for
human emancipation, which might come instead from art and the prospects it
offers for preserving individual autonomy and happiness. Adorno's other
major publications are Philosophie der neuen Musik (1949; Philosophy of
Modern Music), The Authoritarian Personality (1950, with others), Negative
Dialektik (1966; Negative Dialectics), and Ästhetische Theorie (1970;
To cite this page:
"Adorno, Theodor Wiesengrund" Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
[Accessed January 2 2002].
On September 11, 1903, Theodor Ludwig Wiesengrund was born in Frankfurt am
Main. The son of a Jewish wine merchant, Oskar Wiesengrund, and a Catholic
from Corsica, Maria Calvelli-Adorno, Adorno adopted his mother's surname
during the late 1930's while in exile from Nazi Germany. Adorno began
studying music and philosophy at a young age. His mother was a
professional singer, and his aunt, who lived with the family, was an
accomplished pianist. As a teenager, Adorno studied Kant with a family
friend, Siegfried Kracauer, who later became a noted cultural critic and
film theorist in Weimar Germany. Adorno attended the University of
Frankfurt, where he took courses in philosophy, sociology, psychology and
music. At age 21, he submitted a critique of Husserl entitled, "The
Transcendence of the Real and the Noematic in Husserl's Phenomenology" as
his doctoral dissertation. From 1925-1928, Adorno studied music in Vienna
under Alban Berg with hopes of becoming a composer.
During the mid-to late 1920's, Adorno formed a network of acquaintances
with whom he would collaborate for the rest of his life. Through his
friend Max Horkheimer, Adorno met the members of the Institute for Social
Research and other leading thinkers of the day, including Leo Lowenthal,
Friedrich Pollack, Ernst Bloch, Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, Walter
Benjamin, and Herbert Marcuse. Adorno was an unofficial member of the
Institute, contributing articles to its journal. In 1931, Adorno assumed a
teaching position at the University of Frankfurt, but just two years later
was forced to resign by the Nazi regime. The Institute, under Horkheimer's
direction, immediately left Germany, settling briefly in Geneva and then
eventually in New York. Adorno, who was not officially employed by the
Institute, was left behind. He enrolled at Oxford as a means of leaving
By 1938, Horkheimer had arranged a job for Adorno working under Paul
Lazarsfeld at the Princeton Radio Project. Adorno reluctantly left Europe
at Horkheimer's urging. Adorno contributed to a number of Institute
projects; most notably, Adorno collaborated with Horkheimer on the book
Dialectic of Enlightenment, a classic text of critical theory, and Adorno
developed the F-scale, an analytic tool used to identify personality types
amenable to fascism. Despite Adorno's professional success, he was never
completely happy in the United States. In 1949, Adorno, Horkheimer and
Pollack returned to Frankfurt to reestablish the Institute. The next
twenty years were an amazingly prolific period for Adorno. He wrote dozens
of books, essays, and articles on a variety of topics. Perhaps two of the
most important books were Negative Dialectics (1966) and the posthumously
published Aesthetic Theory (1970).
The political climate of the university during the 1960's placed Adorno in
an awkward position. Activist student groups initially embraced his works
for what they perceived to be a rejection of bourgeois values, but became
infuriated by Adorno's reluctance to support sit-ins and demonstrations.
In the introduction to Negative Dialectics (1966), Adorno revealed the
incompatibility of his theory with political praxis. He claimed that
"praxis must be a response to a correct and indeed contemporary
interpretation of experience," an interpretation that was (and is always)
still awaited (O'Connor 54). Students condemned his theories as impotent
and outdated; they disrupted Adorno's lectures and humiliated him with
flowers and kisses. Embarrassment and distress at this sort of public
reception caused a strain on Adorno toward the end of his life. He died of
a heart attack in 1969.
A Few Key Terms in Adorno
AESTHETIC THEORY: Adorno asserts the "priority of the object in art," or
what is called a materialist aesthetic, in contrast to the idealist
aesthetic of Kant which privileges the subject over the object (Jarvis
99). For Kant, the experience of art is a product of the perceptions of
the subject. For Adorno, the art object and the aesthetic experience of
the art object contain a truth-content. Truth-content is a cognitive
content "which is not exhausted either by the subjective intentions of its
producers or by the subjective responses of its consumers," and that may
be revealed through analysis (Jarvis 98). Whereas Kant conceives of beauty
as a subjective experience, Adorno suggests that beauty mediates between
subject and object. Beauty is contained in the cognitive or truth-content
of works of art. As Adorno writes in Aesthetic Theory: "All beauty reveals
itself to persistent analysis" (69). But works of art "are not merely
inert objects, valued or known by the subject; rather, they have
themselves a subjective moment because they are themselves cognitive"
(Jarvis 96). It is in the shared experience of object and subject, the
joint analysis, that beauty is revealed.
CONSTELLATION: Adorno borrowed this term from Benjamin. It signifies "a
juxtaposed rather than integrated cluster of changing elements that resist
reduction to a common denominator, essential core, or generative first
principle" (Jay 14-15). This concept can be seen in Adorno's writing
style. Adorno seeks to enact a negative dialectic, in which concepts are
not reduced to categorical understandings. By preserving the contradictory
and irreconcilable differences of arguments and observations in his work,
Adorno maintains the tension between the universal and the particular,
between essentialism and nominalism.
CRITICAL THEORY: This is a descriptive term for the philosophical and
methodological bases underlying the type of sociology practiced by Adorno
and other members of the Frankfurt School. Critical theory is based on the
understanding of society as a dialectical entity, and the conviction that
"teaching about society can only be developed in the most tightly
integrated connection of disciplines; above all, economics, psychology,
history and philosophy" (O'Connor 7). It is perhaps easiest to understand
what critical theory is by articulating its opposite. During the sixties,
the two dominant sociological theories, critical theory and critical
rationalism, faced off in what is called the positivist dispute. Adorno's
book The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology is about this debate.
Whereas critical rationalism views society as a collection of autonomously
determined individuals, critical theory views society as a dialectical
totality in which each individual "is determined by its mediation within
that totality" (O'Connor 174). These two theories of sociology disagree
over the use of empirical research techniques. Critical rationalists
believe that identifying and analyzing the opinions of individuals within
a society leads to an understanding of the society; critical theorists
believe that empirical research techniques cannot give insight into
society because they will merely reflect the ideologies that society
imposes on individuals. Individuals do not choose ideology; ideology is
organically suffused into individuals by the society in which they mature.
NEGATIVE DIALECTICS: Adorno believes that the standard mode of human
understanding is identity thinking, which means that a particular object
is understood in terms of a universal concept. The meaning of an object is
grasped when it has been categorized, subsumed under a general concept
heading. In opposition to identity thinking, Adorno posits negative
dialectics, or non-identity thinking. He seeks to reveal the falseness of
claims of identity thinking by enacting a critical consciousness which
perceives that a concept cannot identify its true object. The critic will
"assess the relation between concept and object, between the set of
properties implied by the concept and the object's actuality" (Held 215).
The consciousness of non-identity thinking reconciles particular and
universal without reducing qualities to categories.
UTOPIA: The concept of utopia represents potential. In Adorno's work,
utopia's "perennial aim is to resist the liquidation of the possibility of
really new experience" (Jarvis 222). This is evident in Adorno's
discussion of utopia in relation to art in Aesthetic Theory. What is "new"
is only one concretized potential that by its manifestation indicates the
existence of the other potentials that have not been realized. Adorno uses
the metaphor of a child sitting at a piano "searching for a chord never
previously heard. This chord, however, was always there; the possible
combinations are limited and actually everything that can be played on it
is implicitly given in the keyboard. The new is the longing for the new,
not the new itself" (Hullot-Kentor 32). Utopia is the negation of what
exists, so that a certain utopia depends upon utopia not actually
existing. Once utopia is captured, it can no longer be utopia.
Thinking Hard, Listening Deeply
LA Times, August 25
ESSAYS ON MUSIC, By Theodor W. Adorno,
Edited by Richard Leppert, Translated by Susan H. Gillespie and others,
University of California Press: 744 pp., $34.95
By ADAM KIRSCH, Adam Kirsch is the author of the book of poems "The
Given that whole careers are devoted to elucidating the thought of Theodor
W. Adorno, an interested neophyte reader might well approach his work with
trepidation. The ideal reader of his essays on music would have a thorough
knowledge of the classical repertoire since Bach and philosophy since Kant
as well as Adorno's other work, which runs to 20 volumes in the German
Yet this new selection of Adorno's "Essays on Music," edited with great
skill by Richard Leppert, is designed to be accessible to the serious
general reader, who will be amply rewarded if he approaches the book with
patience. For even at his most abstract and theoretical, Adorno's writing
is always oriented toward real life. Like Marx, he seeks to understand the
world in order to change it.
Born in Germany in 1903, Theodor Wiesengrund--he adopted his mother's
maiden name later in life--grew up in one of those Jewish households that
revered German culture. As a young man he studied composition in Vienna,
immersing himself in the challenging work of Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg
and the Second Viennese School. Though he continued to compose
avocationally throughout his life, Adorno turned to scholarship, and by
1932 he was associated with the Institute for Social Research in
Frankfurt. Along with Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse and Max Horkheimer,
Adorno would become one of the powerful minds of the Frankfurt School,
where critical theory--a sophisticated application of Marxist thought to
cultural and social practices--was born.
With Hitler's rise to power, the institute left Germany in 1934 for New
York, where it became associated with Columbia University. Adorno went to
London. By 1938, he too had immigrated to America, living first in New
York and then, from 1941 to 1949, in Los Angeles, where he joined Thomas
Mann and Schoenberg in the local galaxy of German emigres. Unlike those
two, however, Adorno returned to Germany after the war, settling in
Frankfurt by 1953 and remaining there until his death in 1969.
Adorno's time in Los Angeles was tremendously important for his
development: "I believe 90 percent of all I've published [since returning
to Germany]," he wrote in 1957, "was written in America." To give an idea
of the range of Adorno's interests, his Los Angeles period produced not
only major philosophical works such as "Dialectic of Enlightenment," but
also a book on composing for films and a monograph analyzing the Los
Angeles Times astrology column. At the same time, he gave crucial
assistance to Mann in the writing of "Doctor Faustus."
The paradox of Hollywood in the 1940s--Schoenberg on the one hand, Louis
B. Mayer on the other--is writ large in "Essays on Music." Most of these
pieces, which span his entire career, fall into two categories: those
dealing with popular music, which Adorno treats as a commodity churned out
by the "culture industry," and those dealing with serious, or "classical"
music, which has a genuine spiritual and social function.
Adorno regards music from a Marxist point of view: Culture is the
superstructure built on the foundation of economics, and inevitably it
reflects the injustice and alienation of society under capitalism. But the
focus of Adorno's analysis is not, as in classic Marxism, the proletariat:
It is the thinking individual.
In the bourgeois 19th century, this individual, or "subject," was in a
heroic phase of struggle, hoping to reconcile individual freedom and
social justice. Music, especially that of Beethoven, expressed this humane
aspiration and marks a high point in the world's spiritual history. The
corruption of capitalism had not yet permanently divided the artist from
the ordinary listener. In the 20th century, the rise of monopoly
capitalism and mass culture has "colonized" the subject, turning the
individual into an interchangeable unit within an oppressive economic and
cultural system. As a result, serious music--that which expresses and
confronts the human predicament--is condemned to be difficult,
rebarbative, the pursuit of a few; while "light music," really a form of
mass distraction and false consciousness, seeps into the subjectivity of
almost everyone else. The analysis of the New Music of Schoenberg and the
critique of popular music forms such as jazz are two parts of a single
Adorno's essays on serious composers are the more difficult, since they
assume an extensive knowledge of European music, and are frequently
extravagantly theoretical and metaphorical. His thesis, however, becomes
clear: Music is at bottom an expressive art, analogous to language, though
it does not speak in concepts or specifics. Rather, in a semi-mystical
sense, "music tends toward pure naming, the absolute unity of object and
sign." But from Beethoven to Schoenberg, composers increasingly felt that
what they had to express--the growing alienation of the individual in
society--was at odds with the musical language they inherited. Tonality
and traditional form became inadequate to the mounting sense of crisis
produced by capitalism.
The composers Adorno admires confronted this disparity head-on and
addressed it either through parody--as did Mahler and, to a lesser extent,
Weill--or through a complete break with musical tradition, a la
Schoenberg, for whom Adorno has immense admiration. This new music earns
respect because it faces our true situation:
"Nobody really believes in the 'culture' any more, the backbone of spirit
[Geist] has been broken, and anyone who pays no attention to this and acts
as though nothing had happened, must crawl like an insect, not walk
upright. The only authentic artworks produced today are those that in
their inner organization measure themselves by the fullest experience of
horror." But as T.S. Eliot wrote, "human kind cannot bear very much
reality." Most listeners want only to be distracted and entertained, and
so they flee from music that offers a full experience of horror. The most
authentic music is, almost necessarily, the least popular. Music is
"tolerated as the private activity of specialists" but is prevented from
becoming the liberating force that Adorno believes it can and should be.
As long as society remains sick, music will be sick. As Adorno movingly
says, "the idea that music today could save itself with its own powers has
something absurd about it, while at the same time it can scarcely be saved
otherwise than with its own powers." But though serious music is
shriveling, popular music is spreading like a cancer, its fecundity a
proof of its morbidity. It is in his discussion of popular music that most
readers will take issue; indeed, even Leppert is notably apologetic about
some of Adorno's conclusions. But it is exactly here that his critical
intellect becomes most passionate and exhilarating, and no one who reads
these essays attentively will ever look at popular culture the same way
For Adorno, popular music is anti-music, a product shoved down the throats
of passive consumers by a culture industry devoted to profit. It is not
just a substitute for good music but a drug, a poison: "Regressive, too,
is the role which contemporary mass music plays in the psychological
household of its victims. They are not merely turned away from more
important music, but they are confirmed in their neurotic stupidity.... "
Whereas art music is demanding and enlightening, pop music is formulaic
and soothingly familiar: "The composition hears for the listener." At the
heart of this Marxist analysis is the idea that such music is an opiate
for the masses, encouraging a false and unjustified pleasure in the midst
of actual despair and alienation. Enjoying jazz is a form of false
consciousness: "The illusion of a social preference for light music as
against serious is based on that passivity of the masses which makes the
consumption of light music contradict the objective interest of those who
consume it." The passion of this critique leads Adorno into penetrating,
detailed analysis of the way pop music is produced, sold and heard.
Writing in the 1930s and 1940s, he comes up with an analysis of
"plugging"--the selling of hit songs--that uncannily describes the Britney
Spears phenomenon. He convincingly explains the phenomenon of
"corniness"--the mockery of the trends of the recent past, familiar to any
watcher of "That '70s Show"--as a form of self-hatred: "[L]ikes that have
been enforced upon listeners provoke revenge the moment the pressure is
relaxed. They compensate for their 'guilt' in having condoned the
worthless by making fun of it."
This analysis is bound to provoke resistance. Adorno neglects the
important category of irony, so central to our dealings with mass culture,
which allows us simultaneously to use and reject the inferior products
that surround us. He also refuses to see any gradations in popular
culture--what appears to us as the wit of the Gershwins, the liberating
improvisation of Louis Armstrong or the authentic testimony of Billie
Holiday vanishes for Adorno into a thick slab of pablum.
To some extent, this seems simply a bias in favor of the German high
culture in which he was raised. But even Adorno's approach to serious
music raises some questions: His idea of musical progress seems to imply
that every composer must contain and advance upon every previous composer,
a technological conception that certainly does not hold true for, say,
literature. Yet to read Adorno dialectically--to respond actively, rather
than consume passively--is to remain true to the rational, liberating
impulse of his work. As he says about difficult music, Adorno's writing
"demands the work and effort of listening, the force of attention and
memory, actually love."
group of researchers associated with the Institute for Social Research in
Frankfurt am Main, Ger., who applied Marxism to a radical
interdisciplinary social theory. The Institute for Social Research
(Institut für Sozialforschung) was founded by Carl Grünberg in 1923 as an
adjunct of the University of Frankfurt; it was the first Marxist-oriented
research centre affiliated with a major German university. Max Horkheimer
took over as director in 1930 and recruited many talented theorists,
including T.W. Adorno, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, and Walter Benjamin.
The members of the Frankfurt School tried to develop a theory of society
that was based on Marxism and Hegelian philosophy but which also utilized
the insights of psychoanalysis, sociology, existential philosophy, and
other disciplines. They used basic Marxist concepts to analyze the social
relations within capitalist economic systems. This approach, which became
known as "critical theory," yielded influential critiques of large
corporations and monopolies, the role of technology, the industrialization
of culture, and the decline of the individual within capitalist society.
Fascism and authoritarianism were also prominent subjects of study. Much
of this research was published in the institute's journal, Zeitschrift für
Sozialforschung (1932-41; "Journal for Social Research").
Most of the institute's scholars were forced to leave Germany after Adolf
Hitler's accession to power (1933), and many found refuge in the United
States. The Institute for Social Research thus became affiliated with
Columbia University until 1949, when it returned to Frankfurt. In the
1950s the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School diverged in several
intellectual directions. Most of them disavowed orthodox Marxism, though
they remained deeply critical of capitalism. Marcuse's critique of what he
perceived as capitalism's increasing control of all aspects of social life
enjoyed unexpected influence in the 1960s among the younger generation.
Jürgen Habermas emerged as the most prominent member of the Frankfurt
School in the postwar decades, however. He tried to open critical theory
to developments in analytic philosophy and linguistic analysis,
structuralism, and hermeneutics.
To cite this page:
"Frankfurt School" Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
[Accessed January 2 2002].
Dialectic of Enlightenment by Max
This celebrated work is the keystone of the thought of the Frankfurt
School. It is a wide-ranging philosophical and psychological critique of
the Western categories of reason and nature, from Homer to Nietzsche. "A
classic of twentieth-century thought". -- Times Literary Supplement
Beyond one's imagination, the consequences of enlightenment and modernity
were visualized by Adorno and Horkheimer in a brilliant piece named
"Dialectic of enlightenment". It is a handy volume , rich in content and
weaved with lengthy sentences. It was an outcome of shock given by the
Nazi forces. Nevertheless a thought about direct results of extreme
reasoning, radical socialization and discovery of motives behind
humanity's retrogression instead of progressive civilization.
The urge to reach the technological zenith started in that crucial period.
Demonstration of destruction of masses with atom bomb was yet to kick off.
But the terror started shaking the two intellectuals. Again and again they
questioned themselves. Conclusion was insight - social freedom is
inseparable from the enlightened thought.
need for enlightenment was to create a civil society with rationalized
idea grows in individuals and institutions. Not just the rational
consciousness. What was needed that time is to desperate fear from fate.
But with modern science , commerce and politics, it end in a fear of
Enlightenment is as equally destructive as that of romanticism. The self
of enlightened being itself comes in to life only when it surrender to its
enemy. It refuses to transcend the false absolute in reality. The book is
clearly classified in to five simple segmental chapters which deal with
the metamorphosis of modernity. It is a critical study with myth is
already an enlightenment and enlightenment reverts to mythology as the
basic premises. For the authors, Homerian odyssey is the main target to
show the dialectic of myth and enlightenment. Odyssey was accused as the
earliest representative testimonies of western bourgeois civilization.
Kant, Sade and Nietzsche were not spared. Adorno and Horkheimer show how
the submission of everything natural to the autocratic subject finally
culminates in the mastery of the blindly objective and natural. Kant and
Sade's idea were branded 'bourgeois thought' and accused of morality mixed
First chapter deals with how myth is already an enlightenment. Second one
shows the reverse of enlightenment to mythology. Third, projects the
submission of subject which makes the object a master. Fourth, "culture
industry" brings out the process where enlightenment is ideaogized. Fifth
chapter traces the movement of humanity to barbarism.
It is a thorough trashing of enlightenment. They understand that extreme
enlightened self is as dangerous as that of fully radiant earth which
radiates disaster triumphant.