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; "Aesthetic Theory").


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 the country.
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 Thousand Wells."

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 collected edition.

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 diagnosis.

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 again.

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."

Frankfurt School

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 Horkheimer, Adorno

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.
The 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 social deviation.
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 with amorality.
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.


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