Theodor W. Adorno

born on 11/9/1903 in Frankfurt am Main, Hessen, Germany

died on 6/8/1969 in Visp, VS, Switzerland

Theodor W. Adorno

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Western Philosophy
20th century philosophy
Max Horkheimer (front left), Theodor Adorno (front right), and Jürgen Habermas (in the background, right), in 1965 in Heidelberg.
Theodor W. Adorno
Birth {{{birth}}}
School/tradition critical theory · marxism
Main interests social theory  · sociology  · psychoanalysis  · epistemology  · aesthetics  · musicology  · literary theory · mass media
Notable ideas Culture industry  · Dialetics of Enlightenment  · Authoritarian Personality  · Negative Dialectics
Influenced by Immanuel Kant  · Georg Hegel  · Soren Kierkegaard  · Friedrich Nietzsche  · Edmund Husserl  · Ludwig Wittgenstein  · Karl Marx  · Sigmund Freud  · Georg Lukács  · Ernst Bloch  · Karl Korsh  · Max Weber  · Georg Simmel  · Émile Durkheim  · Marcel Mauss  · Max Horkheimer  · Walter Benjamin  · Arnold Schoenberg  · Alban Berg  · Charles Baudelaire  · Marcel Proust  · Franz Kafka  · Berthold Brecht  · Siegfried Karakauer  · Thomas Mann
Influenced Jürgen Habermas  · Peter Dews  · Slavoj Zizek  · Herbert Marcuse  · Umberto Eco · Edward W. Said  · John Zerzan  · Michael Jackson  · Fredric Jameson  · Marshall Berman  · Max Horkheimer  · Gunter Anders  · Jacques Lacan  · Jean-Michel Berthelot  · Luigi Nono  · Karlheinz Stockhausen  · Domenico Losurdo  · Zygmunt Bauman

Theodor Ludwig Wiesengrund Adorno (September 11, 1903 – August 6, 1969) was a German-born international intellectual, sociologist, philosopher, musicologist, and composer. He was a member of the Frankfurt School along with Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Jürgen Habermas, and others. He was also the Music Director of the Radio Project from 1937 to 1941, in the U.S.

Already as a young music critic and amateur sociologist, Adorno was primarily a philosophical thinker. The label social philosopher emphasizes the socially critical aspect of his philosophical thinking, which from 1945 onwards took an intellectually prominent position in the critical theory of the Frankfurt School.


The early Frankfurt years

Theodor (or "Teddie") was born in Frankfurt as an only child to the wealthy wine merchant Oscar Alexander Wiesengrund (1870–1941, of Jewish descent, converted to Protestantism) and the Catholic singer Maria Barbara, born Calvelli-Adorno. It was the second half of this name that he adopted as his surname upon becoming a naturalized American citizen in the 1930s ("Wiesengrund" was abbreviated to "W"). His musically talented aunt Agathe also lived with the family. The young Adorno passionately engaged the piano; he especially liked four-handed playing because, he later wrote, the need for coordination increased his skill and appreciation.[1] His childhood joy was increased by the family's annual summer sojourn in Amorbach. He attended the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gymnasium where he proved to be a highly gifted student: at the exceptionally early age of 17 he graduated from the Gymnasium at the top of his class. In his free time he took private lessons in composition with Bernhard Sekles and read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason together with his friend Siegfried Kracauer — 14 years his elder — on Saturday afternoons. Later he would proclaim that he owed more to these readings than to any of his academic teachers. At the University of Frankfurt (today's Johann Wolfgang Goethe Universität) he studied philosophy, musicology, psychology and sociology. There he wrote his first academic work, a review of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire. He completed his studies swiftly: by the end of 1924 he graduated with a dissertation on Edmund Husserl. Before his graduation, Adorno had already met with his most important intellectual collaborators, Max Horkheimer and Walter Benjamin.

Vienna intermezzo

During his student years in Frankfurt Adorno had written a number of music critiques. He believed composition and music criticism would be his future profession. With this goal envisioned, he used his relationship to Alban Berg to pursue studies in Vienna beginning in January, 1925. He also formed contacts with other greats of the Viennese School, Anton Webern and Arnold Schoenberg. Berg complimented Adorno's Two Pieces for String Quartet Op. 2 to Schoenberg, writing that "in its seriousness and concision and above all in the uncompromising purity of its whole structure, it may be described as belonging to Schoenberg's school (and to no other!)" [2] Schoenbergs revolutionary atonality particularly inspired the 22-year-old to pen philosophical observations on the new music, though they were not well received by its proponents. The disappointment over this caused him to cut back on his music critiques to enable his career as academic teacher and social researcher to flourish. He did however remain editor-in-chief of the avant-garde magazine Anbruch. His musicological writing already displayed his philosophical ambitions. Other lasting influences from Adorno's time in Vienna included Karl Kraus, whose lectures he attended with Alban Berg, and Georg Lukács whose Theory of the Novel had already enthused him while attending Gymnasium and whose History and Class Consciousness he had reviewed a year previously.[3]

The intermediate Frankfurt years

After returning from Vienna, Adorno experienced another setback. After his dissertation supervisor Hans Cornelius and Cornelius' assistant Max Horkheimer had voiced their concerns about Adorno's professorial thesis—a comprehensive philosophical-psychological treatise—he withdrew it in early 1928. Adorno took three more years before he received the venia legendi, after submitting the manuscript Kierkegaard: Konstruktion des Ästhetischen ("Construction of the Aesthetic") to his new supervisor, Paul Tillich. The topic of Adorno's inaugural lecture was the Current Importance of Philosophy, a theme he considered programmatic throughout his life. In it, he questioned the concept of totality for the first time, anticipating his famous formula (directed against Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel) that the whole is the untrue (from Minima Moralia). However, Adorno's credential was revoked by the Nazis, along with those of all professors of non-Aryan descent, in 1933.

Among Adorno's first courses was a seminar on Benjamin's treatise The Origin of German Tragic Drama. His 1932 essay Zur gesellschaftlichen Lage der Musik ("On the Social Situation of Music") was Adorno's contribution to the first issues of Horkheimer's Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung ("Journal for Social Research") [4] ; it wasn't until 1938 that he joined the Institute for Social Research.

Commuter between Berlin and Oxford (1934-1937)

Beginning in the late 1920s during stays in Berlin, Adorno established close relations with Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch; Adorno had become acquainted with Bloch's first major work, Geist der Utopie, in 1921. Moreover, the German capital, Berlin, was also home of chemist Margarethe ('Gretel') Karplus (1902-1993), whom Adorno would marry in London in 1937. In 1934, fleeing from the Nazi regime, he emigrated to England, with hopes of obtaining a professorship at Oxford. Though Adorno was not appointed professor at Oxford, he undertook an in depth study of Husserl's philosophy as a postgraduate at Merton College. Adorno spent the summer holidays with his fiancée in Germany every year. In 1936, the Zeitschrift featured one of Adorno's most controversial texts, "On Jazz" ("Über Jazz"). It should be noted that "jazz" was frequently used to refer to all popular music at the time of Adorno's writing. This article was less an engagement with this style of music than a first polemic against the blooming entertainment and culture industry. Adorno believed the culture industry was a system by which society was controlled though a top-down creation of standardized culture that intensified the commodification of artistic expression. Extensive correspondence with Horkheimer, who was then living in exile in the United States, led to an offer of employment in America.

Émigré in the USA (1938-1949)

After visiting New York for the first time in 1937 he decided to resettle there. In Brussels he bade his parents, who followed in 1939, farewell, and said goodbye to Benjamin in Sanremo. Benjamin opted to remain in Europe, thus limiting their very rigorous future communication to letters. Adorno's relocation was enabled under an arrangement whereby part of his time was committed to the Institute for Social Research, which was then resettled at Columbia University, and the remainder as musical director on the 'Radio Project' (also known as Lazarsfeld/Stanton Analysis Programme) directed by the Austrian sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld at Princeton University. [5] That arrangement lasted until 1941. Very soon, however, his attention shifted to direct collaboration with Horkheimer. They moved to Los Angeles together, where he taught for the following seven years and served as the co-director of a research unit at the University of California. Their collective work found its first major expression in the first edition of their book Dialectic of Enlightenment (Dialektik der Aufklärung) in 1947. Faced with the unfolding events of the Holocaust, the work begins with the words:

'In the most general sense of progressive thought, the Enlightenment has always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty. Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.'[6]

In this book, which was virtually ignored until republished in 1969, Adorno and Horkheimer posit a dynamic within civilization that tends towards self-destruction. They argue that the concept of reason was transformed into an irrational force by the Enlightenment. As a consequence, reason came to dominate not only nature, but also humanity itself. It is this rationalization of humanity that was identified as the primary cause of Fascism and other totalitarian regimes. Consequently, Adorno did not consider rationalism a path towards human emancipation. For that, he looked toward the arts.

After 1945 he ceased to work as a composer. By taking this step he conformed to his own famous maxim: 'To still write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric'[7]. He later retracted this statement, saying that: 'Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as the tortured have to scream... hence it may have been wrong to say that no poem could be written after Auschwitz.' He was consulted at length by Thomas Mann on the musicological details of the latter's novel Doktor Faustus. Apart from that, he worked on his 'philosophy of the new music' (Philosophie der neuen Musik) in the 1940s, and on Hanns Eisler's Composing for the films. He also contributed 'qualitative interpretations' to the Studies in Prejudice performed by multiple research institutes in the US that uncovered the authoritarian character of test persons through indirect questions.

Late Frankfurt years (1949-1969)

After the war, Adorno, who had been homesick, did not hesitate long before returning to Germany. Due to Horkheimer's influence he was given a professorship in Frankfurt in 1949/1950, allowing him to continue his academic career after a prolonged hiatus. This culminated in a position as double Ordinarius (of philosophy and of sociology). In the Institute, which was affiliated with the university, Adorno's leadership status became ever more and more apparent, while Horkheimer, who was eight years older, gradually stepped back, leaving his younger friend the sole directorship in 1958/1959. His collection of aphorisms, Minima Moralia, led to greater prominence in post-war Germany when it was released by the newly founded publishing house of Peter Suhrkamp. It proposed a 'melancholy science' against the dark background of Fascism, Stalinism and Culture Industry, which seemingly offered no political or economic alternatives: "Wrong life cannot be lived rightly" (Es gibt kein richtiges Leben im falschen).[8] The work raised Adorno to the level of a foundational intellectual figure in the West German republic, after a last attempt to get him involved in research in the USA failed in 1953.

Here is a list of his multifaceted accomplishments:

  • In 1952 he participated in a group experiment, revealing residual National Socialist attitudes among the recently democratized Germans (commented on critically by Peter R. Hofstätter).
  • From 1954 onwards, he taught musicology in the summer academies in Kranichstein in Darmstadt.
  • Numerous radio debates (among others with Ernst Bloch, Elias Canetti and Arnold Gehlen)
  • Numerous lectures in Berlin and around Europe (Paris, Vienna, Italy, at the 'documenta' in Kassel in 1959, in Czechoslovakia in 1968)
  • Release of Walter Benjamin's letters and writings
  • In 1961 he initiated the positivism debate (Positivismusstreit) at a meeting of the German Sociological Association in Tübingen.
  • 1963-1967, he was Chairman of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Soziologie.
    • In his capacity, he headed 1964 the 15th sociology conference, Max Weber and Sociology Today and in 1968 he headed the 16th sociology conference, Late Capitalism or Industrial Society.

Final years (1967-1969)

In 1966 extraparliamentary opposition (APO) formed against the grand coalition of Germany's two major parties CDU/CSU and SPD, directed primarily against the planned Notstandgesetze (emergency laws). Adorno was an outspoken critic of these policies, which he displayed by his participation in an event organized by the action committee Demokratie im Notstand ("Democracy in a State of Emergency"). When the student Benno Ohnesorg was shot by a police officer at a demonstration against a visit by the Shah of Iran, the left-wing APO became increasingly radicalized, and the universities became a place of unrest. To a considerable extent it was students of Adorno who interpreted a theory of revolt, thus executing a 'praxis' from 'Critical Theory'. It is said that Adorno asked for the help of police to remove the students that had occupied the Frankfurt Institute in fear of vandalism. Therefore Adorno in particular became a target of student action. He sharply criticised the anti-intellectual trend in the 60's Left, which he called a "pseudo-activity" attempting to overcome the separation of theory and praxis but getting caught up in its own publicity; he argued instead for "open thinking": "beyond all specialised and particular content, thinking is actually and above all the force of resistance" [9] On the other side of the spectrum, the right accused him of providing the intellectual basis for leftist violence. In 1969 the disturbances in his lecture hall, most famously as female students occupied his speaker's podium bare-breasted, increased to an extent that Adorno discontinued his lecture series. In a letter to Samuel Beckett, he wrote: "The feeling of suddenly being attacked as a reactionary at least has a surprising note."

One biographer on Adorno, Stefan-Müller Doohm, contends that he was convinced the attacks by the students were directed against his theories as well as his person and that he feared that the current political situation might lead to totalitarianism. He left with his wife on a vacation to Switzerland. Despite warnings by his doctor, he attempted to ascend a 3,000 meter high mountain, resulting in heart palpitations. The same day, he and his wife drove to the nearby town Visp, where he suffered heart palpitations once again. He was brought to the town's clinic. In the morning of the following day, August 6, he died of a heart attack.


Adorno was chiefly influenced by Max Weber's critique of disenchantment, Georg Lukacs's Hegelian interpretation of Marxism, as well as Walter Benjamin's philosophy of history, although Weber's influence has until recently been underestimated. Adorno, along with the other major Frankfurt School theorists Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse, argued that advanced capitalism had managed to contain or liquidate the forces that would bring about its collapse and that the revolutionary moment, when it would have been possible to transform it into socialism, had passed. As he put it at the beginning of his Negative Dialectics (1966), philosophy is still necessary because the time to realise it was missed. Adorno argued that capitalism had become more entrenched through its attack on the objective basis of revolutionary consciousness and through liquidation of the individualism that had been the basis of critical consciousness.

Whilst Adorno's work focuses on art, literature and music as key areas of sensual, indirect critique of the established culture and modes of thought, there is also a strand of distinctly political utopianism evident in his reflections especially on history. The argument, which is complex and dialectic, dominates his Aesthetic Theory, Philosophy of New Music and many other works.

Adorno saw the culture industry as an arena in which critical tendencies or potentialities were eliminated. He argued that the culture industry, which produced and circulated cultural commodities through the mass media, manipulated the population. Popular culture was identified as a reason why people become passive; the easy pleasures available through consumption of popular culture made people docile and content, no matter how terrible their economic circumstances. The differences among cultural goods make them appear different, but they are in fact just variations on the same theme. He wrote that "the same thing is offered to everybody by the standardised production of consumption goods" but this is concealed under "the manipulation of taste and the official culture's pretense of individualism". [10] Adorno conceptualised this phenomenon as pseudo-individualization and the always-the-same. He saw this mass-produced culture as a danger to the more difficult high arts. Culture industries cultivate false needs; that is, needs created and satisfied by capitalism. True needs, in contrast, are freedom, creativity, and genuine happiness. But the subtle dialectician was also able to say that the problem with capitalism was that it blurred the line between false and true needs altogether.

The work of Adorno and Horkheimer heavily influenced intellectual discourse on popular culture and scholarly popular culture studies. At the time Adorno began writing, there was a tremendous unease among many intellectuals as to the results of mass culture and mass production on the character of individuals within a nation. By exploring the mechanisms for the creation of mass culture, Adorno presented a framework which gave specific terms to what had been a more general concern.

At the time this was considered important because of the role which the state took in cultural production; Adorno's analysis allowed for a critique of mass culture from the left which balanced the critique of popular culture from the right. From both perspectives — left and right — the nature of cultural production was felt to be at the root of social and moral problems resulting from the consumption of culture. However, while the critique from the right emphasized moral degeneracy ascribed to sexual and racial influences within popular culture, Adorno located the problem not with the content, but with the objective realities of the production of mass culture and its effects, e.g. as a form of reverse psychology.

Many aspects of Adorno's work are relevant today and have been developed in many strands of contemporary critical theory, media theory, and sociology. Thinkers influenced by Adorno believe that today's society has evolved in a direction foreseen by him, especially in regard to the past (Auschwitz), morals or the Culture Industry. The latter has become a particularly productive, yet highly contested term in cultural studies. Many of Adorno's reflections on aesthetics and music have only just begun to be debated, as a collection of essays on the subject, many of which had not previously been translated into English, has only recently been collected and published as Essays on Music.

His work on the culture industry has been criticized by such writers as Christian Bethune, who point out both that Adorno's critique is not based on a thorough knowledge of popular cultural forms, but also that it has an "end of history" tone to it. Taking Adorno's critique of popular music to its logical conclusion, one would have to conclude that Blues or rocknroll, jazz, rap or punk, were also simply one hundred percent commercial inventions for profit, with no contradictions within them.

Adorno, again along with the other principal thinkers of the Frankfurt school, attacked positivism in the social sciences and in philosophy. He was particularly harsh on approaches that claimed to be scientific and quantitative, although the collective work The Authoritarian Personality that appeared partly under Adorno's name was an influential empirical study in the social sciences in America after its publication in 1950.

Adorno's work in the years before his death was shaped by the idea of "negative dialectics", set out especially in his book of that title. A key notion in the work of the Frankfurt School since Dialectic of Enlightenment had been the idea of thought becoming an instrument of domination that subsumes all objects under the control of the (dominant) subject, especially through the notion of identity, i.e. of identifying as real in nature and society only that which harmonized or fit with dominant concepts, and regarding as unreal or non-existent everything that did not. Adorno's "negative dialectics" was an attempt to articulate a non-dominating thought that would recognize its limitations and accept the non-identity and reality of that which could not be subsumed under the subject's concepts. Indeed, Adorno sought to ground the critical bite of his sociological work in his critique of identity, which he took to be a reification in thought of the commodity form or exchange relation which always presumes a false identity between different things. The potential to criticise arises from the gap between the concept and the object, which can never go into the former without remainder. This gap, this non-identity in identity, was the secret to a critique of both material life and conceptual reflection.

Adorno and his critics

Critiques of Adorno's theories include other Marxists. Other critics include Ralf Dahrendorf and Karl Popper, positivist philosophers, neoconservatives, and many students frustrated by Adorno's style. Many Marxists accuse the Critical Theorists of claiming the intellectual heritage of Karl Marx without feeling the obligation to apply theory for political action.

Marxist criticisms

According to Horst Müller's Kritik der kritischen Theorie ("Critique of Critical Theory"), Adorno posits totality as an automatic system. This is consistent with Adorno's idea of society as a self-regulating system, from which one must escape (but from which nobody can escape). For him it was existent, but inhuman. Müller argues against the existence of such a system and claims that Critical Theory provides no practical solution for societal change. He concludes that Jürgen Habermas, in particular, and the Frankfurt School in general, misconstrue Marx.

Georg Lukacs, a Marxist philosopher, infamously described Adorno as having taken up residence in the 'Grand Hotel Abyss', in his 1962 preface to The Theory of the Novel. This was understood to mean that Lukacs (who at the time supported "socialist realism" and in general the Marxism of the East German regime) associated Adorno with a dated proto-Marxism, that indulged in despair, despite a comfortable bourgeois lifestyle.

Positivist criticisms

Positivist philosophers accuse Adorno of theorizing without submitting his theories to empirical tests, basing their critique on Karl Popper's revision of Logical Positivism in which Popper substituted "falsifiability" as a criterion of scientificity for the original "verifiability" criterion of meaning proposed by A.J. Ayer and other early Logical Positivists. In particular, interpreters of Karl Popper apply the test of "falsifiability" to Adorno's thought and find that he was elusive when presented with contrary evidence.

Conservative criticism

Drawing on the Positivist critique, conservatives also deride Adorno as a theorist unwilling to submit to experimental verification.

However, a more intricate criticism is offered by the followers of Leo Strauss, who also believe in a hermeneutics of culture, and often echo many of Adorno's criticisms of accessibility and art. Their critique rests on the anti-capitalist nature of Adorno's orientation, arguing that while mass culture may consist of bread and circuses, these are essential for social function and their removal or reduction in importance as "useful lies" would threaten the continued operation of the market and society, as well as higher philosophical truth.

Adorno's responses to his critics

Adorno's defenders reply to his positivist and conservative critics by pointing to his extensive numerical and empirical research, notably the "F-scale" in his work on Fascist tendencies in individual personalities in The Authoritarian Personality. And in fact, quantitative research using questionnaires and other tools of the modern sociologist was in full use at Adorno's Institute for Social Research.

Adorno also argued that the authoritarian personality would, of course, use culture and its consumption to exert social control, but that such control is inherently degrading to those who are subjected to it, and instead such personalities would project their own fear of loss of control on to society as a whole.

However, as a pioneer of a self-reflexive sociology who prefigured Bourdieu's ability to factor in the effect of reflection on the societal object, Adorno realized that some criticism (including deliberate disruption of his classes in the 1960s) could never be answered in a dialogue between equals if, as he seems to have believed, what the naive ethnographer or sociologists thinks of a human essence is always changing over time.

Adorno's sociological methods

Because Adorno believed that sociology needs to be self-reflective and self-critical, he believed that the language the sociologist uses, like the language of the ordinary person, is a political construct in large measure that uses, often unreflectingly, concepts installed by dominant classes and social structures (such as our notion of "deviance" which includes both genuinely deviant individual and "hustlers" operating below social norms because they lack the capital to operate above: for an analysis of this phenomenon, cf. Pierre Bourdieu's book The Weight of the World).

Thus Adorno felt that those at the top of the Institute needed to be the source primarily of theories for evaluation and empirical testing, as well as people who would process the "facts" discovered...including revising theories that were found to be false. For example, in essays published in Germany on Adorno's return from the USA, and reprinted in the Critical Models essays collection (ISBN 0-231-07635-5), Adorno praised the egalitarianism and openness of US society based on his sojourn in New York and the Los Angeles area between 1935 and 1955. Prior to going to the USA, and as shown in his rather infamous essay "On Jazz", Adorno seems to have thought that the USA was a cultural wasteland in which people's minds and responses were formed by what he called "the music of slaves".

One example of the clash of intellectual culture and Adorno's methods can be found in Paul Lazarsfeld, the American (and Americanized) sociologist for whom Adorno worked in the middle 1930s after fleeing Hitler.

As Rolf Wiggershaus recounts in The Frankfurt School, Its History, Theories and Political Significance (MIT 1995):

Lazarsfeld was the director of a project, funded and inspired by David Sarnoff (the head of RCA), to discover both the sort of music that listeners of radio liked and ways to improve their "taste", so that RCA could profitably air more classical music...Sarnoff was, it appears, genuinely concerned with the low level of taste in this era of "Especially for You" and other forgotten hits, but needed assurance that RCA could viably air opera on Saturday afternoons. Lazarsfeld, however, had trouble both with the prose style of the work Adorno handed in and what Lazarsfeld thought was Adorno's habit of "jumping to conclusions" without being willing to do the scut work of collecting data.

Adorno, however, rather than being arrogant, seems to have had a depressive personality, and Rolf Wiggershaus tells an anecdote which doesn't fit the image formed of an arrogant pedant: he noted that the typists at the Radio Research Project liked and understood what Adorno was saying about the actual effect of modern media. They may have responded to comments similar to that found in Dialectic of Enlightenment, written by Adorno with his close associate Max Horkheimer, that it appeared that movie-goers were less enthralled with the content even of "blockbusters" of the era, films that are now lauded by Hollywood mavens as "art", than by the air-conditioned comfort of the theatersan observation reflected in movie business at the time by the expression that one found a good place to sell popcorn and built a theatre around it.

Adorno translated into English

While even German readers can find Adorno's work difficult to understand, an additional problem for English readers is that his German idiom is particularly difficult to translate into English. A similar difficulty of translation is true of Hegel, Heidegger, and a number of other German philosophers and poets. As a result, some early translators tended toward over-literalness. In recent years, Edmund Jephcott and Stanford University Press have published new translations of some of Adorno's lectures and books, including Introduction to Sociology, Problems of Moral Philosophy and his transcribed lectures on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason and Aristotle's "Metaphysics", and a new translation of the Dialectic of Enlightenment. Professor Henry Pickford, of the University of Colorado at Boulder, has translated many of Adorno's works such as The meaning of Working Through the Past. A new translation has also appeared of the Philosophy of New Music by Robert Hullot-Kentor, from University of Minnesota Press, and of the correspondence with Alban Berg, Towards a Theory of Musical Reproduction, and the letters to Adorno's parents, all by Wieland Hoban and published by Polity Press. These fresh translations are less literal in their rendering of German sentences and words, and are more accessible to English readers.

Adorno and Music Theory

See also: Critical Theory, New musicology.

Adorno's theoretical method is closely related to his understanding of music and Arnold Schoenberg and other contemporary composers' atonal (less so "twelve-tone") techniques (Adorno had studied composition for several years with Alban Berg), which challenged the hierarchical nature of traditional tonality in composition. For even if "the whole is untrue", for Adorno we retain the ability to form partial critical conceptions and submit them to a test as we progress towards a "higher" awareness. This role of a critical consciousness was a common concern in the Second Viennese School prior to the Second World War, and demanded that composers relate to the traditions more as a canon of taboos rather than as a canon of masterpieces that should be imitated. For the composer (poet, artist, philosopher) of this era, every work of art or thought was thus likely to be shocking or difficult to understand. Only through its "corrosive unacceptability" to the commercially-defined sensibilities of the middle class could new art hope to challenge dominant cultural assumptions.

Adorno's followers argue that he seems to have managed the very idea that one can abandon tonality while still being able to rank artistic and ethical phenomena on a tentative scale, not because he was a sentimentalist about this ability but because he saw the drive towards totality (whether the Stalinist or Fascist totality of his time) as derivative of the ability to make ethical and artistic judgement, which, following Kant, Adorno thought part of being human. Thus his method (better: anti-method) was to use language and its "big" concepts tentatively and musically, partly to see if they "sound right" and fit the data.

Adorno was concerned that a genuine sociology retain a commitment to truth including the willingness to self-apply. Today, his life can be read as a protest against what he would call the "reification" of political polls and spin as well as a culture that in being aggressively "anti" high culture, seems every year to make more and more cultural artifacts of less and less quality that are consumed with some disgust by their "fans", viewed as objects themselves.

Select bibliography (by publication in English)

  • Composing for the Films (1947 with Hanns Eisler), New York: Oxford University Press. Recent reprints: London & Atlantic Highlands: Athlone, 2005. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 2006 (ed. Johannes C. Gall, with a noteworthy bilingual DVD)
  • Philosophy of Modern Music (1949)
  • The Authoritarian Personality (et al. 1950). New York: Harper.
  • Negative Dialectics. Translated by E.B. Ashton, London: Routledge, 1973 (Published in German in 1966)
  • Prisms (1967)
  • Aesthetic Theory (Published in German in 1970)
  • Dialektik der Aufklärung (1944 with Horkheimer). Translations:
    • Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. John Cumming. New York: Continuum, 1973.
    • Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford, Cal.:Stanford University Press, 2002.
  • Minima Moralia (1974)
  • The Actuality of Philosophy. Telos 31 (Spring 1977). New York: Telos Press.
  • Against Epistemology: A Metacritique; Studies in Husserl and the Phenomenological Antinomies (1983).
  • Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic (1989).
  • Notes to Literature: Volume One (1991).
  • Notes to Literature: Volume Two (1992).
  • Critical Theory Since Plato (1992).
  • Hegel: Three Studies (1993).
  • Beethoven: The Philosophy of Music (1998).
  • Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords (1998).
  • Metaphysics: Concept and Problems (2000).
  • Kant's 'Critique of Pure Reason' (2001).


  1. See his 1933 essay, "Vierhändig, noch einmal," reprinted in Adorno, Impromptus (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1968), 142-45.
  2. Cited by Reinhard Schulz (trans. Susan Marie Praeder) in notes for Leipzig Streichquartett: "Adorno & Eisler Works for String Quartet", 1996
  3. Melissa Ursula Dawn Goldsmith, "Adorno on Strauss, Mahler, and Berg" (master's thesis, Smith College, 1995), 32-34. ETD Individuals
  4. Blomster, Wes (1978). "Introduction to Adorno Essays". Telos (35): 123.
  5. Letter from Adorno to Benjamin, November 27, 1937 in "The Complete Correspondence 1928-1940", Polity Press, 1999
  6. Dialectic of Enlightenment, tr.John Cumming, Verso ed.London 1979 p.3. = 'Seit je hat Aufklärung im umfassendsten Sinn fortschreitenden Denkens das Ziel verfolgt, von den Menschen die Furcht zu nehmen und sie als Herren einzusetzen. Aber die vollends aufgeklärte Erde strahlt im Zeichen triumphalen Unheils.' German ed.Querido, Amsterdam,1947 reprinted S.Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main,1969 p.1
  7. German:'Nach Auschwitz noch ein Gedicht zu schreiben ist barbarisch')
  8. Quotes: Theodor W. Adorno
  9. Adorno, Theodor (1969). "Resignation". Telos (35): 165168.
  10. Adorno, Theodor (1938), "On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening", The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, Blackwell

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