Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno (1903-1969)

German philosopher, sociologist, and essayist, member of the "Frankfurt School," a group of intellectuals working at the Institute for Social Research, loosely associated to the University of Frankfurt. Adorno's theories were much based on the writings of Hegel, Marx, and Freud. Central in his philosophy was the dialectic method of argumentation in which the thought proceeds by contradiction, a collision of ideas from thesis to antithesis. From the opposites a higher truth may be reached by synthesis, which leads to a new thesis and so on. However, Adorno did not believe that all contradictions can be solved and in Negative Dialektik (1966) he did not only reject utopian as the possibility of total reconciliation but all permanent concepts. Adorno's other major works include Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) and Aesthetic Theory (1970).

"The dual nature of artworks as autonomous structures and social phenomena results in oscillating criteria: Autonomous works provoke the verdict of social indifference and ultimately of being criminally reactionary; conversely, works that make socially univocal discursive judgments thereby negate art as well as themselves." (from Aesthetic Theory)
Theodor Ludwig Wiesengrund was born in Frankfurt-am-Main, the son of Oskar Wiesengrund, a successful Jewish wine merchant, and Maria Calvelli-Adorno, a Catholic of Corsican descent. Maria Calvelli-Adorno was a professional singer, who performed with her sister, a pianist. Adorno himself was trained in piano by Bernhard Sekles, who also taught the future composer Paul Hindemith (1895-1963). While attending secondary school, Adorno studied privately in 1918-19 with Siegfried Kracauer, a German historian, social critic, and friend of the family. In 1921 Adorno graduated from the Kaiser Wilhelm Gymnasium and entered the newly founded Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, receiving three years later his doctorate in philosophy in 1924. From 1925 to 1928 he studied music composition under Alban Berg in Vienna. In 1931 he became a lecturer at the University of Frankfurt. His thesis on Kierkegaard's aesthetic appeared in 1933.
Adorno worked informally from 1928 with the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute of Social Research). Its other influential members included Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), whom Adorno had met in 1922 in a seminar, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, Jürgen Habermas, and Erich Fromm. Max Horkheimer became director of the Instititute in January, 1931. From lectured there from 1929-32.
Adorno's friendship and intellectual collaboration with Horkheimer lasted through the following decades of his life. Adorno published articles in the Institute's journal, Zeitschrift für Social forschung, and he also edited the music journal Musikblätter des Anbruchs in the late 1920s. The Institute was founded to the study of Marxism, especially Marx's early writings, and political economy. Adorno's approach was more interdisciplinary and showed interest in wide range of subjects from Chaplin's films and Schönberg's atonal music to Freud's theories. In an article from 1938 ('Glosse über Sibelius') he dismissed the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius as a "Stravinsky against his own will. He is just less talentend." Behind the attack was Sibelius's association with Ständige Rat für Internationale Zusammenarbeit der Komponisten, established by Goebbels in 1934. Practically, Adorno accepted only the music of Schönberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern. He also assisted the writer Thomas Mann, who used Adorno's expertise in modern music in the novel Doktor Faustus (1949). Mann read the manuscript of Philosophie der neuen Musik (1949), a defence of Schönberg's twelve-tone system. Among Mann's other preparatory materials for the novel was Adorno's essays on Wagner, which were published under the title Versuch über Wagner in 1952, and Willi Reich's book Alban Berg. Mit Bergs eigenen Schriften und Beiträgen (1937), to which Adorno had contributed several essays.
During the era of Nazism, the Frankfurt School was exiled to New York City, where it continued to develop a critical theory of society, but returned home after World War II. The school's cultural criticism and eclectic theories of mass society influenced deeply the New left in the 1950s and 1960s. The Frankfurt School never produced a unitary social theory, but its members shared a critical view of modern capitalism, and rejected Soviet Communism and orthodox Marxism.
After the Nazis rose to power, Adorno first fled to Oxford. During this period he worked on a study of Husserl's phenomenology and idealism. In 1937 he married Gretel Karplus. Next year he joined other members of the Institute at Columbia University in New York. He worked with Paul Lazarsfeld, the founder of modern communications research, on the Princeton Radio Research for three years, and then moved to Los Angeles. In the United States Adorno wrote prolifically. His aphorisms, Minima Moralia, written during this period, were published in 1951. With Max Horkheimer he published Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), in which the writers saw that reason has become an instrument of totalitarian control. "Enlightenment behaves toward things as a dictator toward man. He knows them is so far as he can manipulate them." Much of the work is devoted to study of anti-Semitism, the actual reversion of enlightened civilization to barbarism, and the culture industry, in which enlightenment has found its ideological expression.
The writers note that the culture industry has created technological inventions that have made easy the control of the individual consciousness – radio "turns all participants into listeners and authoritatively subjects them into broadcast programs which are all exactly the same..." Ten years later Adorno returned to the theme in his essay 'Television and the Patterns of Mass Culture' (1954), in which he viewed pessimistically individuals possibility to resist the ubiquity of modern mass culture. In his essay 'Standort des Erzählers in Zeitgenössichen Roman' (1954) he followed the thoughts of Walter Benjamin, presented in 'Der Erzähler', and claimed that modern warfare has made it impossible for those who have participated in the war to return to old narrative patterns.
Anti-Semitism Adorno and Horkheimer trace among others to the urge for equality. Liberalism advocated right of man, allowed the Jews property, but the harmony of society turned against the liberal Jews in the form of the harmony of a national community. "If the masses accept the reactionary ticket which contains an anti-Semitic component they are obeying social mechanism in which the experiences of individual persons with individual Jews play no part. It has in fact been found that anti-Semitism has as much chance in areas where there are no Jews as it does, say, in Hollywood." Dialectic of Enlightenment was published when the end of Nazism was in sight. "If the arrogance of reason has led to barbarism, what is left?" he asked. In one of his post-war essays Adorno made his famous question, is it possible to write poetry after Auschwitz.
"Life in the late capitalist era is a constant initiation rite. Everyone must show that he wholly identifies himself with the power which is belaboring him. This occurs in the principle of jazz syncopation, which simultaneously derides stumbling and makes it a rule. The eunuch-like voice of the crooner on the radio, the heiress's smooth suitor, who falls into the swimming pool in his dinner jacket, are models for those who must become whatever the system wants. Everyone can be like this omnipotent society; everyone can be happy, if only he will capitulate fully and sacrifice his claim to happiness." (The Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1947)
Throughout his years in the U.S. Adorno had troubles with publishers who wanted to edit heavily his texts and in 1949 Adorno returned to Germany. He worked at the Institute of Social Research, becoming its director in 1959. Horkheimer, who continued as director of the Institute until 1958, spent a number of years teaching in the United States. From 1958 to 1969 Adorno was professor of philosophy and sociology at the University of Frankfurt. When Adorno's appointment was under discussion in 1956, one professor claimed that all a man needed in Frankfurt to make a career, was to be a protegé of Horkheimer and to be a Jew (from Martin Heidegger by R. Safranski, 1998). The most prominent thinker among the second generation members of the Institute was Jürgen Habermas, who studied with Adorno in the 1950s.
In 1963 Adorno received the Goethe Medal. His last years were, however, shadowed by a malicious debate about his activities in the 1930s. Adorno had published a book review in 1934 in a Nazi magazine and quoted Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi party minister of propaganda. Adorno admitted that the article had been a mistake. Attacks on him continued, sometimes with anti-Semitic undertones. His stature as a critical thinker was questioned among students, who occupied in 1968 the Institute of Sociology and Adorno called in the police. Adorno died of a heart attack on August 6, 1969 in Visp, near Zermatt, in Switzerland.
It was not until 1972, when the founding work of Critical Theory, Dialectic of Enlingtenment, was translated into English. His key essays on music began to appear in English in the 1970s in the journal Telos and later in New German Critique. Adorno's last great work, Aesthetic Theorie, which was left unfinished, appeared posthumously in 1970. Partially against the will of the translator, the publisher abandoned the massive spatial organization of the text, numbered the chapters, and added main headings and subheadings. A new translation more faithful to the original structure appeared in 1997.
Negative Dialectics (1973) stepped outside standard Marxist framework. Adorno criticized Karl Popper and Martin Heidegger of positing an object independent of the subject, when the object is in fact subjectively defined. He stated that there is no absolute starting point in metaphysics and epistemology - the false search for 'primacy' leads totalitarian forms of thought. To avoid fallacy of the ultimate 'identity,' Adorno presented his principle of 'negative dialectics,' in which all theories are systematically negated and concepts are constantly reformed to fit the object. Heidegger was Adorno's target in The Jargon of Authenticity (1964), in which he attacked the language of existentialist thinkers. They did not meet after 1945, and in public Heidegger never addressed a single word to Adorno. Heidegger's main work was Being and Time (1927). In the 1930s he had joined the Nazi Party. Crossing back and forth ideological boundaries, a number of intellectuals have hailed both Adorno and Heidegger as major aesthetic theorists and cultural critics. Adorno himself dismissed Heidegger as "the advocate of the unfullfilment of life", but they had much in common in their diagnosis of the modern age. Thus it is not totally inconceivable that Herbert Marcuse (1898-1978), who had been Heidegger's student, was also closely associated with the Frankfurt School. In 1932 Adorno reviewed Marcuse's study Ontology and the Theory of Historicity, noting that with it he departed decisively from Heidegger's public teaching.
In the difficult and aphoristic work Aesthetic Theory Adorno started from his theorem that there is no philosophical first principle. "A general theory of the aesthetically concrete would necessarily let slip what interested it in object in the first place." The concept of art refuses definition if one doesn't accept alternatives between trivial universality and arbitrary judgments. From this point of view Adorno rejects the archaic definition of aesthetics as the theory of the beautiful: the concept of beauty is inadequate to the full content of the aesthetic. Following Hegelian idea of art as a product of history, Adorno sees modern art scarcely possible unless it does experiment. More than being up to date modern art tends to oppose the ruling Zeitgeist – arts seeks refuge in its own negation, and nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore. "The cheap aestheticism of short-winded politics is reciprocal with the faltering of aesthetic power. Recommending jazz and rock-and-roll instead of Beethoven does not demolish the affirmative lie of culture but rather furnishes barbarism and the profit interest of the culture industry with subterfuge. The allegedly vital and uncorrupted nature of such products is synthetically processed but precisely those powers that are supposedly the target of the Great Refusal: These products are the truly corrupt."
For further reading: The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research 1923–1950 by Martin Jay (1973); The Origin of the Negative Dialectics by Susan Buck-Morss (1977); Melancholy Science: An Introduction to the Thought of Theodor W. Adorno by Gillian Rose (1979); Adorno by Martin Jay (1984); Late Marxism: Adorno, Or, the Persistence of the Dialectic by Fredric Jameson (1990); Ohne Mitleid by Konrad Paul Liessmann (1991); Adorno: An Introduction by Willem Van Reijen (1991); The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories and Political Significance by Rolf Wiggershaus (1994); Theodor W. Adorno, Dialektik des Aporetischen by Martin Asiain (1996); The Semblance of Subjectivity: Essays in Adorno's Aesthetic Theory, ed. by Tom Huhn and Lambert Zuidervaart (1997); Exact Imagination, Late Work: On Adorno's Aesthetics by Shierry Weber Nicholsen (1997); The Actuality of Adorno: Critical Essays on Adorno and the Postmodern, ed. by Max Pensky (1997); Prismatic Thought: Theodor W. Adorno by Peter Uwe Hohendahl (1997); Adorno on Music by Robert W. Witkin (1998); Adorno: A Critical Introduction by Simon Jarvis (1998); Adorno's Philosophy of Modern Music by Christopher J. Dennis (1998); Adorno, Culture and Feminism, ed. by Maggie O'Neill (1999); Adorno's Nietzschean Narrative by Karin Bauer (1999); Perseverance Without Doctrine: Adorno, Self-Critique, and the Ends of Academic Theology by Mattias Martinson (2000); Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics by J. M. Bernstein (2001); Rethinking the Communicative Turn: Adorno, Habermas, and the Problem of Communicative Freedom by Martin Morris (2001); Theodor W Adorno: An Introduction by Matt F. Connell (2001); Adorno: A Critical Reader, ed by Nigel C. Gibson and Andrew Rubin (2001) - For further information: Theodor Adorno (from the Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers by John Lechte) - Theorists and Critics - Theodor Adorno (links) -
Selected works:
  • Kierkegaard: Konstruktion des Äeshetischen, 1933 (rev. 1962, 1966) - Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic (transl. by R. Hullot-Kentor, 1989)
  • Dialektik der Aufklärung: Philosophische Fragmente, 1947/1990 (with M. Horkheimer) - Dialectic of Enlightenment (transl. by John Cumming, 1973; Edmund Jephcott, 2002) - Valistuksen dialektiikka (suom. Veikko Pietilä, 2008)
  • Philosophie der neuen Musik, 1949 - Philosophy of Modern Music (transl. by Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Blomster, 1973) / Philosophy of New Music (transl. by R. Hullot-Kentor, 2006)
  • The Authoritarian Personality, 1950 (with Else Frankel-Brunswik, Daniel J. Levinson, R. Nevitt Sanford)
  • Minima Moralia: Reflexionen aus dem beschädigen Leben, 1951 - Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (transl. by E.F.N. Jephcott, 1974)
  • Versuch über Wagner, 1952 - In Search of Wagner (transl. by R. Livingstone, 1981)
  • Prismen, 1955 - Prisms (transl. by Samuel Weber and Shierry Weber, 1967)
  • Soziologische Exkurse, 1956 - Aspects of Sociology (transl. by John Viertel, 1973)
  • Dissonanzen: Musik in der verwalteten Welt, 1956
  • Zur Metakritik der Erkenntnistheorie, 1956 - Against Epistemology: A Metacritique (transl. by Willis Domingo, 1982)
  • Drei Studien zu Hegel, 1957, 1963 - Hegel: Three Studies (transl. by S. Weber Nicholsen)
  • Noten zur Literature, 1958-1974 (4 vols., ed. by R. Tiedemann) - Notes to Literature (2 vols., transl. by Shierry Weber Nicholsen, 1991-1992)
  • Klangfiguren: Musikalische Schriften I, 1959
  • Mahler: Eine Musikalische Physiognomik, 1960 (rev. ed. 1963) - Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy (transl. by E. Jephcott, 1988)
  • Einleitung in die Musiksoziologie, 1962 - Introduction to the Sociology of Music (transl. by E. B. Ashton, 1976)
  • Sociologica II, 1962 (with M. Horkheimer)
  • Eingriffe: Neun kritische Modelle, 1963
  • Der getreue Korrepetitor, 1963
  • Quasi una Fantasia: Musikalisch Schriften II, 1963 - Quasi Una Fantasia: Essays on Modern Music (transl. by Rodney Livingstone, 1992)
  • Moments musicaux, 1964
  • Jargon der Eigentlichkeit, 1964 - The Jargon of Authenticity (transl. by Knut Tarnowski and Frederic Will, 1973)
  • Negative Dialektik, 1966/1992 - Negative Dialectics (transl. by E.B. Ashton, 1973)
  • Ohne Leitbild: Parva Aesthetica, 1967
  • Impromptus: Zweite Folge neu gedruckter musikalischer Aufsätze, 1968
  • Berg: Der Meister des kleinsten Übergans, 1968 - Alban Berg: Master of the Smallest Link (transl. by Juliane Brand and Christopher Hailey, 1991)
  • Komposition für den Film, 1969 (with Hans Eisler) - Composing for the Films (published in 1947 under Hans Eisler's name alone)
  • Stichworte: Kritische Modelle 2, 1969
  • Nervenpunkte der Neuen Musik, 1969
  • Der Positivismusstreit in der deutchen Soziologie, 1969 (with Hans Albert et al.) - The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology (tr. by Glyn Adeley and David Frisby, 1976)
  • Aufsätze zur Gesellschaftstheorie und Methodologie, 1970
  • Erziehung zur Mündigkeit, 1970
  • Äeshetische Theorie, 1970 - Aestehetic Theory (transl. by C. Lehhardt in 1984; new translation by Robert Hullot-Kentor 1997, ed. by Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann) - Esteettinen teoria (suom. Arto Kuorikoski, 2006)
  • Über Walter Benjamin, 1970
  • Gesammelte Schriften, 1970-1986 (20 vols., ed. by Rolf Tiedemann)
  • Kritik, 1971
  • Die musikalische Monographien, 1971
  • Philosophische Terminologie, 1973-74 (2 vols.)
  • The Culture Industry, 1991 (ed. by J.M. Bernstein)
  • Adorno: The Stars Down to Earth and Other Essays on the Irrational in Culture, 1994 (ed. by Stephen Crook)
  • Briefwechsel: 1928-1940, 1994 (ed. by Henri Lonitz) - The Complete Correspondence 1928-1940: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin 1999 (tr. by Nicholas Walker)
  • The Adorno Reader, 2000 (ed. by Brian O'Connor)
  • Briefwechsel: 1943-1955, 2002 - Correspondence: 1943-1955 by Theodor W. Adorno, Thomas Mann (tr. in 2002)


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