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Adorno, Theodor W.


ADORNO, THEODOR W. (1903–1969), German philosopher, sociologist, composer. As a sociologist (in conjunction with Max *Horkheimer et al.) he developed the Critical Theory of society (the so-called Frankfurt School project) and published treatises in the fields of literary and cultural criticism. As a composer he produced over 30 musical works in various genres.

After completing his academic studies in philosophy, psychology, sociology, and musical sciences in Frankfurt/Main in 1925, Adorno took composition lessons with Alban Berg in Vienna – an education he had begun (with Bernhard Sekles) when he was still a high school student. Alongside his studies with Berg he also published numerous musical reviews. In 1931 he qualified as a university professor in philosophy and took up a chair in philosophy at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe Universität of Frankfurt/Main. During this time Adorno was most strongly influenced by Walter *Benjamin and particularly by his notion that language preserves historical truth. When the National Socialists came to power, he was deprived of his chair. Adorno had always considered his Jewish descent (his father was Jewish and Adorno's last name was Wiesengrund-Adorno until his mid-forties) to be unimportant but the race laws introduced by the Nazis made him into an outsider. This turning point in his life and his personal experience of having an outsider status in society generated a politically accentuated intellectualism. In the period 1934–49 he lived as an emigré – initially in England (Oxford) and then in the United States (New York and Los Angeles). During this period he wrote major philosophical and sociological works, most of which were published after his return to Germany (October 1949): The Philosophy of Modern Music (1949), Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), The Authoritarian Personality (1950), Minima Moralia (1951), and Against Epistemology: Meta-Critique – Studies in Husserl and the Phenomenological Antinomics (1956).

Teaching philosophy and sociology in the 1960s, Adorno made a name for himself not only as an extremely successful university lecturer and public intellectual but also as the director of the Institute of Social Research in Frankfurt, gaining fame for such publications as What Does It Mean: Working Up the Past (1959) and Education after Auschwitz (1967).

Adorno's critical stance towards the world and the negativism of his social criticism resulted from his personal experience of sustained horror: Exposure to the monstrous cruelty of the Nazi genocide was the guiding moral force behind his philosophical theory of society and its ultimate source. His intellectuality resided in his ability to maintain the tension between opposing phenomena instead of synthesizing or harmonizing the differences. The individual experience of acknowledging the uniqueness of the Other crystallized into a fundamental concept which Adorno brought to bear in seeking a decent social order: "living one's difference without fear."

In the 1960s Adorno published a volume on Gustav Mahler (1960), three volumes of Notes on Literature (1965–68), and his main philosophical opus, Negative Dialectics (1968). During this decade he was given the German Critics' Award for Literature and for his 60th birthday the city of Frankfurt/Main bestowed the Goethe Medal on him. His Aesthetic Theory was published posthumously. In addition to a large number of letters he exchanged with contemporaries, his Complete Works comprise his musical compositions, 20 volumes of collected writings, and the equally comprehensive posthumous writings (Suhrkamp Verlag).


M. Jay, Adorno (1984); S. Müller-Doohm, Adorno. A Biography, trans. R.Livingstone (2005).

[Stefan Müller-Doohm (2nd ed.)]

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