Theodor W. Adorno

Retaining his intellectual roots in Hegel and Marx, the German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969) moved freely across diverse academic disciplines to probe into the nature of contemporary European culture and the predicament of modern man. He was a leading member of the influential intellectual movement known as the Frankfurt School.

Theodor W. Adorno was born in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, on September 11, 1903, as the only son of an upper middle class family. His father, Oskar Wiesengrund, was an assimilated Jewish merchant, and his mother, Maria Calvalli-Adorno, was a musically gifted person of Italian-Catholic descent. He adopted his mother's patronomic Adorno in the late 1930s.

An economically secure and artistically rich home environment were conducive to the development of his talents in both music and the humanities. While attending a gymnasium in Frankfurt, he was encouraged by his mother to take piano lessons. His mastery of the skills of piano playing deepened and sustained his interest in the philosophical as well as technical aspects of music.

At 17 Adorno enrolled at the Frankfurt University. Although his chief interest was in philosophy, he took courses in psychology, sociology, and music, and wrote a dissertation on Husserl's phenomenology. Impressed by the power and novelty of Wozzeck, Alban Berg's opera, Adorno decided to undertake a serious study of music. The two years that Adorno spent in Vienna among a group of innovative composers including Berg and Arnold Schoenberg provided him with a first-hand professional knowledge of contemporary music and led him even to attempt musical composition. But his gift was manifested in his consideration of the nature and genesis of the modern music, especially the atonal system of Schoenberg. In a number of articles Adorno propounded the view that Schoenberg had discarded the tonality which was bound up with the bourgeois phase of cultural development and therefore was not a universal or perennial form of music.

Upon his return to Frankfurt in 1925 Adorno wrote a Habilitationsschrift, the writing which qualifies a person for university appointment, dealing with the philosophical and psychological issues of that time in Germany. It was not approved. He was successful, however, with a writing on Soren Kierkegaard, sponsored by the theologian Paul Tillich. The chief contention of his Habilitationsschriftwas that Kierkegaard, having rejected Georg Hegel's grandiose systematization of philosophy, retreated into pure subjectivity of his soul unhinged from the concrete social reality.

Adorno became associated with the Institute for Social Research, which was established in 1923 as an affiliated body of the Frankfurt, but it was personal rather than formal because of his youth and student status. It was Max Horkheimer, eight years Adorno's senior, who introduced Adorno to other senior scholars there who were embarked on a variety of projects aimed at determining the social conditions of Europe. Although Marxist and progressive in outlook, the researchers at the Institute were concerned with intellectual work rather than direct political action. Together they constituted what came to be known as the Frankfurt School credited with the creation of the Critical Theory.

Adorno began teaching philosophy at his alma mater in 1931 but the seizure of political power by Hitler disrupted his academic career and eventually forced him into exile. He took refuge first at Oxford, England, between 1934 and 1937 and thereafter in the United States until his return to Germany in 1949 to resume teaching at the Frankfurt University. The sufferings of the Jews and the crimes of the Third Reich became two of the major concerns in his philosophical reflections to the end of his life.


Early Writing Career

Adorno's association with the Institute was marked by the inclusion of his article entitled "The Social Condition of Music" in the first issue of the Institute's official journal in 1932. His article entitled "Jazz" in the same journal in 1936 revealed his life-long prejudice against that form of music which he argued was devoid of any aesthetic value.

Of more lasting value is his article on "The Fetish Character of Music and the Regression of the Listeners" in the 1936 issue of the Institute's journal. Here Adorno makes the observation that the commercially oriented music industry manipulates the musical tastes of the listeners by seductive psychological methods. He points out how helplessly the listeners are seduced into accepting the arbitrary cuts and interruptions in radio broadcasting. He maintains that such cuts are made for commercial gains and at the expense of the integrity of the original composition and performance and in utter disregard for the intelligence of the listeners. This article is valuable because it contains his lines of arguments against the culture industry to be developed more fully in his later writings.

During his stay in the United States between 1937 and 1949 Adorno was engaged in a number of projects which the members of the Institute for Social Research conducted individually or collectively. Although Adorno was disappointed by the quantitative analysis of cultural phenomena which he undertook at Princeton, he played a leading role in a large collaborative project which resulted in the publication of the influential book Authoritarian Personality.

Toward the end of the war Adorno and Horkheimer wrote Dialectic of Enlightenment published in Amsterdam in 1947. Defining enlightenment as demythologizing, the authors trace the process of taming of nature in Western civilization. The main thrust of the argument is that in the name of enlightenment a technological civilization which sets humans apart from nature has been developed and that such a civilization has become a cause of dehumanization and regimentation in modern society. They contend that the notion of reason is accepted in that civilization mainly in the sense of instrument for controlling nature, and subsequently people, rather than in the sense of enhancing human dignity and originality. In the new edition of the book published in 1969, shortly before Adorno's death, the authors declare that the enlightenment led to positivism and the identification of intelligence with what is hostile to spirit (Geistfeindschaft).


Return to Germany

After World War II many members of the Frankfort School remained in the United States or in Great Britain, but Horkheimer and Adorno returned to Germany. They were expected to provide intellectual leadership for postwar Germany. Horkheimer accepted the position of the Rector of the Frankfurt University and invited Adorno to join him. Adorno returned to Germany in 1949 although he spent a year in the United States in 1952.

Adorno lived up to what was expected of him by pouring out articles and books and by training a new generation of German scholars. His writings, voluminous as they were, however, did not contain many innovative ideas but rather restatement, in more elaborate forms and in a somewhat extravagant writing style, of the ideas which he had presented in his previous articles and books. But the true extent of his originality cannot be determined until the projected 23 volumes of his complete works are available.

In 1951 he published Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life consisting of articles which he wrote during the war. The most personal of his writings, the short essays in this book were written in an aphoristic style reminiscent of Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrick Nietzsche. The purpose of the book is to examine how "objective forces" determine even the most intimate and immediate experience of an individual in contemporary society.

The Negative Dialectics, published in 1966, is a sustained polemic against the dream of philosophers from Aristotle to Hegel to construct philosophical systems enclosing coherently arranged propositions and proofs. One of the most terse statements in the book is "Bluntly put, closed systems are bound to fail." As this statement indicates, his aim in this book is to vindicate the vitality and intractability of reason.

Prisms, another major work published in 1967, contains essays on a wide range of topics from Thorstein Veblen to Franz Kafka. However, the main theme running throughout the book is the gradual decomposition of culture under the impact of instrumental reason. In this book and in Aesthetic Theory, his last major work unfinished at the time of his death in 1969 but edited and published posthumously, Adorno advances the thesis that the integrity of creative works lies in the autonomous acts of the artists who are at once submerged under and yet triumphant over social forces.

A persistent critic of positivism in philosophy and sociology and a bitter foe of commercialism and dehumanization promoted by the culture industry, Adorno championed individual dignity and creativity in an age increasingly menaced by what he regarded as mindless standardization and abject conformity. At a time when many academic philosophers were weary of dealing with large questions for fear of violating the canon of rigorous philosophical reasoning, Adorno boldly asserted that the function of philosophy is to make sense out of the totality of human experience.

Adorno, who was hailed as one of the ideological godfathers of the New Left Movement in the 1960s because of his indictment of both capitalism and communism, was criticized and humiliated by his former followers for his opposition to violent social activism. He was once forced out of his lecture room by female students at the Frankfurt University.


Further Reading on Theodor W. Adorno

Theodor Adorno has the reputation of being one of the most obscure writers of this century. Virtually all of his translators into English seek the readers' forbearance for the inadequacy of their translations. The Suhrkamp Verlag, a German publisher, has embarked on the publication of his complete works in 23 volumes under the editorship of Rolf Tiedemann. David Held, Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas (1980) and Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950 (1973) are useful guides to the Frankfurt School and contain valuable information on Adorno's role in the movement. Martin Jay, Adorno (1984) contains a brief biography of Adorno followed by expositions of his major ideas. Friedemann Grenz, Adornos Philosophie in Grundbegriffen (Suhrkamp Verlag, 1974) offers a clear and authoritative interpretation of Adorno's philosophy.


Additional Biography Sources

Hohendahl, Peter Uwe, Prismatic thought: Theodor W. Adorno, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

Jay, Martin, Adorno, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Reijen, Willem van, Adorno: an introduction, Philadelphia: Pennbridge Books, 1992.