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Theodor Adorno

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Adorno (front right) and Horkheimer (front left); Habermas in back, right. Heidelberg, 1964Enlarge

Adorno (front right) and Horkheimer (front left); Habermas in back, right. Heidelberg, 1964

Theodor Ludwig Wiesengrund Adorno (September 11, 1903August 6, 1969) was a German 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.

Already as a young music critic and unordained sociologist, Theodor W. Adorno was primarily a philosophical thinker. As a composer he was unable to step out from under the shadow of his teacher Alban Berg. 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.

Table of contents
1 Biography
2 Theory
3 Select Bibliography (by publication in English)
4 External links


Early Frankfurt Years

Theodor (or 'Teddie') was born in Frankfurt as an only child to the wine merchant Oscar Alexander Wiesengrund (1870-1941, of Jewish descent, converted to Protestantism) and the Catholic singer Maria Barbara, born Cavelli-Adorno. It is the second half of this name that he later adopted as his surname (Wiesengrund was abbreviated to W). His musically talented aunt Agatha also lived with the family. Young Theodor passionately engaged in four-handed piano playing. 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 low 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 Bernard 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. He completed his studies swiftly: by the end of 1924 he graduated with a dissertation on Edmund Husserl. In the meantime he had already met with his most important intellectual collaborators, Max Horkheimer and Walter Benjamin.

Vienna Intermezzo

During his student years in Frankfurt he had written a number of music critiques. He believed this would be his future profession. With this goal envisioned, he used his relationship to Alban Berg with whose opera Wozzeck he had made a name for himself, to pursue studies in Vienna, beginning in January, 1925. He also formed contacts with other greats of the Vienna School, namely to Anton von Webern and Arnold Schönberg. Especially Schönberg’s revolutionary atonality inspired the 22-year-old to pen philosophical observations on the new music, which however were not well received by its protagonists. 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.

The Intermediate Frankfurt Years

Back from Vienna, Adorno was not spared another failure: after his dissertation supervisor Hans Cornelius and his assistant Max Horkheimer voiced their concerns about his professorial thesis, a comprehensive philosophical-psychological treatise, he withdrew it in early 1928. It would take him three more years until he received the venia legendi (which was revoked in 1933) with the manuscript Kierkegaard: Construction of the aesthetic (Kierkegaard: Konstruktion des Ästhetischen), that he submitted to Paul Tillich. The topic of his 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 – the whole is the untrue (from Minima Moralia). Among his first courses was a seminar on Benjamin's treatise The Origin of German Tragic Drama. His 1932 essay "On the Social Situation of Music" ("Zur gesellschaftlichen Lage der Musik") was Adorno's contribution to the first issue of Horkheimer's Zeitschrift für Sozialkunde ("journal for sociology"); it wasn't until 1938 that he joined the Institute for Social Research.

Commuter between Berlin and Oxford (1934-1937)

Since the late 1920s during stays in Berlin, Adorno had established closer relations with Walter Benjamin and also with Ernst Bloch, with whose first major work Geist der Utopie he had already become acquainted in 1921. The German capital held an even greater attraction to him due to the presence of chemist Margarethe ('Gretel') Karplus (1902-1993), whom he would marry in London in 1937. In 1934, fleeing from the Nazi regime, he emigrated to England to regain his professor status in Oxford, which never happened however, but as a postgraduate there, he undertook an in depth study of Hegel's philosophy. He could not resist spending 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"). This was less an engagement with this style of music than a first polemic against the blooming entertainment and culture industry, a system by which he believed society was controlled by a top-down creation of standardized culture to intensify commodification. Intense epistolary contact with Horkheimer, who was living in American exile, led to an offer of an interesting and profitable employment on the other side of the Atlantic.

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 San Remo. Benjamin opted to remain in Europe, thus limiting their very rigorous future communication to letters. Shortly after arriving in New York, Horkheimer's Institute for Social Research accepted Adorno as an official member. His first job was directing the 'Radio Project' together with the Austrian sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld. He also took up a post at Princeton University between 1938 and 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 he spent as the co-director of a research unit at the University of California. Their collective found its first major expression in the first edition of their essay collection Dialectic of Enlightenment (Dialektik der Aufklärung) in 1944. Faced with the unfolding events of the Holocaust, the work begins with the words:

"In the most general sense of progressive thought, the Enlighteníment has always aimed at liberating men from fear and estabílishing their sovereignty. Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant." (Adorno/Horkheimer, 1973)

"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." (Adorno/Horkheimer, 1947)

It was published in 1947. In this influential book, Adorno and Horkheimer outline civilization's tendency 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 a 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: "writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric" (Nach Ausschwitz noch ein Gedicht zu schreiben ist barbarisch). He was entrusted with the honorable task to advise Thomas Mann on the musicological details of his novel Dr. 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 interpretationss' to the Studies in [anti-semitic] 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 purported a 'sad science' under the impression of Fascism, Stalinism and Culture Industry, which seemingly offered no alternative: "Wrong life cannot be lived rightly." [1] (Es gibt kein richtiges Leben im falschen) Despite his pessimistic stance, 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 a list of his multifaceted accomplishments:

Final Act (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 emergency laws (Notstandsgesetze). Adorno was an outspoken critic of these politics, 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 represented the spirit of revolt thus drawing 'practical' consequences from 'Critical Theory'. The leading figures of the Frankfurt School were not prepared, despite empathizing with the students' causes, to support their activism. Therefore Adorno in particular became a target of student action. 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 increased to an extent that Adorno discontinued his lecture series.

Adorno became increasingly exhausted and fed up with the situation on campus. His biographer 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 may 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 to a great extent influenced by Walter Benjamin's application of Karl Marx's thought. Unlike Marx, however, Adorno did not consider capitalism on the verge of collapse. Instead he shows that capitalism has become more entrenched. Additionally, Adorno focused on culture rather than economics as Marx did. He argued that critical theory must maintain a certain standard. On this ground Adorno attacked many approaches commonly used in social studies. He was particularly harsh on approaches that claimed to be scientific and quantitative.

He is probably best known for his critique of mass culture in contemporary societies. He argued that culture industries manipulated the masses. 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. It is culture industries that produce standardized cultural goods like factories. There are differences between the cultural goods that make them appear different, but they are in fact just variations of the same theme. Adorno called this phenomenon pseudo- individualization. Adorno 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 or genuine happiness. Some of the work on mass culture Adorno undertook together with Max Horkheimer.

Despite a certain timeliness of Adorno's work, many aspects of it are relevant today and have been developed in many strands of contemporary critical theory. 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 his reflections on 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, have only recently been collected and published as Essays on Music.

Critiques of Adorno's theories come primarily from Marxists. Other critics include Ralf Dahrendorf and Karl Raimund Popper and positivist philosophers. Many Marxists accuse the Critical Theorists of claiming the intellectual heritage of Karl Marx without feeling the obligation to apply theory for political action.

According to Heiner 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. For him it was existent, but inhuman, while Müller argues against the existence of such a system. In his argument, he 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.

See also: Critical Theory, New musicology.

Select Bibliography (by publication in English)

External links

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