Adorno, Theodor and Freud

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Any serious history of the Frankfurt School requires that a major role be accorded to Freud's significance in the development of critical theory. Freudian thought played a central role in the works of Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer, and, more recently, Jürgen Habermas. But none was more influenced by Freud than Theodor Adorno. In a sense, Adorno was an orthodox Freudian. He supported instinct theory (Triebtheorie ), in contrast with the "revisionism" of Erich Fromm and Karen Horney, who faulted Freud for biological determinism, and in contrast with the sociological reductionism of Talcott Parsons, who wanted to integrate psychoanalysis into a more comprehensive theory of "social action." Yet Adorno also parted ways from Freud in his belief that Freud tended to collapse external reality into a psychological universe. Even here, however, Adorno remained surprisingly well disposed toward Freud. Though he viewed Freud's psychological atomism as mistaken because it minimized the importance of social factors, he considered it to be profoundly correct in that, under advanced capitalism, humans are reduced to isolated monads. In a sense, Freud was right even when he was wrong.

Though Marxism too played a crucial role in the development of Adorno's thought, the main features of his version of critical theory can be said to be Freudian. Adorno did not lose sight of the fact that every object is the product of history and that the subject plays an active role in the acquisition of knowledge. This idea clearly fits well with psychoanalytic thought, which, while inheriting some principles of nineteenth-century empiricism and materialism, is fully hermeneutic in its clinical application and adheres to a nonpositivist conception of truth.

Far from presupposing a neutral, knowing, analyst, psychoanalysis requires the analyst actively to intervene and holds that objectivity is attainable only inter-subjectively. Similarly, in the methodology of critical theory, the object is observed from an immanent, interior viewpoint, not from a transcendent perspective like the one adopted by the sociology of knowledge. This is precisely the point of view of psychoanalysis, which aims to make conscious the social determinants of individual pathologies by seeking those determinants not in the external world but rather through the imprint that they leave on the mental and emotional life of the patient.

Finally, a fundamental principle of critical theory is the principle of nonidentitythe view that, under present social conditions, no synthesis can unite subject and object, particular and universal, the individual's aspirations to happiness and the imperatives of society. This principle of critical theory closely corresponds with Freud's idea of an insurmountable conflict between desire and fulfillment, between the demands of instinct and the requirements of civilization. The foregoing affinities show that both Adorno's critique of culture and his theory of personality owe much to Freudian thought.

Adorno's critique was based on two psychoanalytic categories: identification and projection. Through identification, the individual internalizes the father, his symbolic substitutes, and, in the final analysis, society as a whole. In projection, the individual projects onto the external world impulses, emotions, and ideas. Neither of these mechanisms is intrinsically pathological. Identification is essential for an individual's social integration; projection is necessary for the individual's acquisition of knowledge, which arises from assimilating sense data, analyzing it through internal reflection, and transforming it into ideas about external reality.

However, all of this changes in the present state of capitalism or, more generally, in industrialized society. Whereas in earlier stages of social development, identification allowed individuals a margin of autonomy, inasmuch as socialization was achieved through the family and could produce free individuals, now it is directly accomplished by the social order, by industrialized society, and in accordance with other specialized demands aimed at producing social consensus.

Similarly, Projection has ceased to be an instrument for producing useful knowledge of reality because the same demands for conformity that directly subordinate the individual to the group have rendered superfluous the process of inner reflection through which facts about the world are processed. In consequence, modern humans project only resentment, destructive instincts, and inner emptiness, converting the world into a paranoiac social order filled with hostile institutions.

In short, in the case of genuine identification, the subject internalizes a social model that creates greater autonomy, while with false identification, typical of advanced capitalism, individuality is effaced. Likewise, with real projection, the subject can acquire knowledge about reality by processing sense data, while with false projection, the subject perceives a illusory reality portraying his inner emptiness.

Another field that Adorno investigated with help from Freud was the theory of personality. He elaborated his ideas in a work he authored with several colleagues, The Authoritarian Personality (1950), an empirical study that attempted to explain the correlation between personality structure and viewpoints concerning social and political problems. The hypothesis was that subjects with an authoritarian personality structure, as measured using psychoanalytic variables, are more likely to profess reactionary political ideas, while nonauthoritarian subjects are more likely to hold liberal views. To the great surprise of the authors, the expected correlation did not materialize, because many authoritarian individuals were liberal and many nonauthoritarian individuals were reactionary.

Adorno proposed two possible explanations for this anomaly. One was that the sociological environment, a "general cultural environment," shapes everyone in it, independently of individual personality structures, requiring all to embrace the values of the established order. Adorno's other explanation, the orthodox psychoanalytic perspective, was that liberal or conservative authoritarian individuals imperfectly identify with their fathers, in consequence of which their behavior is at once submissive yet rebellious, obedient to authority yet hostile. One is left with either false liberals, whose progressive views are negated by deep-seated destructive tendencies, or faithless conservatives, who are intrinsically fascist rather than genuine supporters of the status quo, which in American society includes freedom of choice and equal opportunity. The reverse is true of nonauthoritarian individuals. In these individuals, the oedipal conflict resulted in an accommodating attitude toward authority. These individuals are liberal in aspiring to authentic change yet conservative in wanting to defend what is best in the American tradition.

The two components of Adorno's theorythe critique of culture and the theory of personalityare transparently complementary. His critique of culture focused on advanced, postindustrial society and its mechanisms for stabilizing and reproducing itself on the cultural and psychological levels. Similarly, at the core of his theory of personality is the kind of human being that postindustrial society needs and creates in order to perpetuate itself. Adorno linked these components using conceptual tools borrowed from Freud. Perhaps in the early twenty-first century, with Adorno's exclusive reference to Freud, such analyses appear anachronistic in terms of contemporary analytic thought, but even so they show the impressive and continual fecundity of psychoanalysis for better understanding modern and postmodern society.

Sergio Paulo Rouanet

See also: Marcuse, Herbert; Marxism and psychoanalysis; Politics and psychoanalysis


Adorno, Theodor. (1973). Negative dialectics (E. B. Ashton, Trans.). New York: Seabury Press.

Adorno, Theodor, with Frankel-Brunswick, Else, Levinson, Daniel J.; and Sanford, R. Nevitt. (1950). The authoritarian personality. New York: Harper and Row.

Horkheimer, Max, and Adorno, Theodor. (1972). Dialectic of enlightenment (John Cumming, Trans.). New York: Continuum.