*Adorno, Theodor W.

Theodor Adorno

Theodor Adorno



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Adorno, Theodor W.

German, 1903–1969
Theodor Ludwig Adorno Wiesengrund, the son of a Jewish merchant and an Italian singer, became famous as a philosopher and aesthetic theorist, not only for his many essays on literature and art, but chiefly for the critical theory he developed together with Max Horkheimer at the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research. His most famous work, written with Horkheimer during the years of exile in America, is the Dialektik der Aufklärung (1947;
Dialectic of Enlightenment), which tackles the question of how the horror of National Spcialism could have happened in a highly civilized country. In answering this question Horkheimer and Adorno provide a general critique of the modern age and capitalism, which reaches far beyond the narrow historical context of World War II to examine how Enlightenment thought made way for positivist philosophy as a”myth” of reality. With the resulting disintegration of reality into isolated facts, Western rationalism reaches its limit. This terminal state of affairs has had a destructive effect on the Western world itself.
In this work, and in his second, pessimistically tinged philosophical work, the Negative Dialektik (1966; Negative Dialectics), Adorno stands in opposition to his more optimistic colleague Ernst Bloch, whose Das Prinzip Hoffnung (1953; The Principle of Hope) he dismissed as naive. In what is known as the positivism dispute, Adorno also accused conventional philosophy (Karl Popper and Martin Heidegger) of positing an object independent of the subject, when the object is in fact subjectively defined and equally arbitrary. This, according to Adorno, obscures the real interrelations between individual and society, subject and object, essence and appearance. He therefore calls for a fundamental redefinition of the evaluating subject in society and art. In consequence, the posthumously published Ästhetische Theorie (1970; Aesthetic Theory) refers mainly to the concept of art in the context of the modern age, a bias that is also apparent in the subjects of his many essays on art and literature produced from 1930 onward.
Both Adorno’s style of philosophy and his critique of social systems, based on the theories of Hegel, Marx, and Freud, are shaped by his predominant dialectic mode of thought. In historical reality and therefore also in philosophical thought, Adorno sees contradictions that cannot be resolved. These contradictions also give art a dual character: on the one hand art is socially determined, yet on the other the work of art is autonomous and independent of the social conditions that produced it. According to Adorno, we should not seek to resolve this contradiction but rather should accept it as it is, using the work of art as a means to achieve knowledge. He therefore criticizes the rigid, dogmatic conception of realism in art (as represented by Georg Lukács and Marxist aesthetics), which assumes that art’s only function is to reflect social injustices. On the other hand, Adorno declares himself in favor of an art of protest, an art that refuses to endorse existing social conditions. His essays give new form to the concept of the avant-garde.
Especially in the period following World War II, after his return in 1949 from exile in America, Adorno produced some of his most important writings on art and literature, written in his distinctive dialectic-artistic style; these works can themselves be considered as avant-garde works of art.
An impressive example of Adorno’s artistic style of writing is provided by the manifesto-like “Der Essay als Form” (“The Essay as Form”), first published in the Noten zur Literatur I (Notes to Literature) in 1958. Here, following his earlier theories, according to which the increasing power of science had led to the demythologization of the world and of thought, Adorno accords particular importance to the essay form, as it avoids both absolute concepts and strict definitions. According to Adorno, the essay as a genre comes close to being a form of art, operating in the sphere of unmediated thought, where the different logical stages have not yet been separated from one another. As Adorno notes at the beginning of his essay, the essay as a form has been accorded less recognition than it deserves, precisely because of its position halfway between art and the objectivizing sciences. Although the neglect of the essay form had also been lamented by Lukács, Adorno sees this neglect as the logical consequence of an overemphasis on the scientific method of discovering truth. In this work, Adorno describes the way perceiving subject organizes concepts within the essay form by comparing it with the behavior of a traveler who finds himself in a foreign land with no formal education and has to view concepts in their experiential context in order to understand them. Formal philosophy, by contrast, gets out a grammar book and dictionary, losing sight of the broader context which is created by the essay. The essay, with its provocative, skeptical outlook, treats science and the concepts of formal philosophy “in a systematically unsystematic way.” Therefore, although the essay by definition cannot claim to achieve completeness or objective truth, it does succeed, through the very negation of these claims, in coming close to the truth of the matter. Thus the essay’s “art-like quality” consists in this “awareness of the non-identity of representation and object.” For Adorno this also means that the concepts used in the essay are related to theory, although the essay itself is not, as Lukács assumed, derived from theory. Adorno agrees with Max Bense that the essay is “the critical form par excellence” and therefore also a tool for the critique of ideology. It is precisely because the essay can also incorporate untruth, and because it includes its own negation, that it does not conform to rigid, hierarchical ideological schemes. This means, finally, that the essay is an anachronistic form, caught between an omnipotent science and the last remnants of a philosophy retreating into abstract realms.
This pessimistic but aesthetically productive analysis of the state of the essay form in the late 20th century seems to have inspired Adorno to produce many of his essays in the Notes on Literature. The title of this work in itself (which could equally be translated as “notes for literature”) indicates that Adorno accords poetic language a central significance, viewing literature in terms of musical composition. Most of the essays consider the role of language in society and in the modern age. In his essay “Zum Klassizismus von Goethes Iphigenie” (1974; On the classicism of Goethe’s Iphigenia), for example, Adorno recognizes the redemptive power of language as a medium of truth and appeasement in Goethe’s classical work. Language helps unravel the entanglement of barbarism and civilization. “Language becomes the representative of order and at the same time produces order from freedom, from subjectivity,” is Adorno’s verdict on Goethe’s treatment of the Iphigenia story. Here, Adorno turns against the traditional view that Goethe’s work “denied the power of negativity and fabricated a spurious harmony.”
He quotes directly from the text to show that Orestes “by dint of his stark antithesis to the myth, threatens to fall victim to it.” In this way, according to Adorno, Goethe’s play prophesies the transition from Enlightenment to mythology. This farsighted and controversial critique of the Enlightenment through the interpretation of Goethe’s Iphigenia can succeed only because Adorno presents it in the form of the essay, which can incorporate antithetical elements and in which a dialectical method of argumentation can be deployed to the full.
The contradictions which, according to Adorno, arise from the fact that language simultaneously represents and creates order, are becoming ever more acute as the modern age progresses. Just as the possibility of order seems to be increasingly elusive, so the utopia of language is disappearing in the representation of this impossibility. For this reason, as Adorno describes in his essay on Beckett (“Versuch, das Endspiel zu verstehen” [1961; “Attempt to Understand Endgame”]), the language of modern art is now no more than a differential of silence. The failure of language, which Beckett expresses in a number of ways, is interpreted by Adorno as the crisis of an existential terror which is literally lost for words. Beckett’s existentialism gives expression to the catastrophe of the modern age, by reducing the drama (Endgame) to silent gestures. The organized meaninglessness that characterizes Beckett’s work is apparent in the fact that the play has neither beginning, end, nor dramatic progression in between. Instead the whole drama is composed using techniques of reversal and negation. For Adorno this is a dramatic depiction of the final stage in the historical disintegration of subjectivity. The suffering of the figures in the play, and that of the reader who recognizes this existential finality, become for Adorno the measure of human awareness.
The foundation for Adorno’s detailed and reflective analyses of many other literary texts can be found in his view that the disinterested contemplation of art is the only honest form of historical contemplation. Eichendorff, Heine, Balzac, Valéry, Proust, Thomas Mann, Dickens, George, Hochhuth, and Wedekind are just a few examples of the many authors and subjects Adorno considered in his essays. In refusing to give itself over to superficial beauty, art—and especially the art and literature of the modern age— was taking the guilt of the world upon itself. Thus for Adorno the modern work of art takes the empty place of Christ, a view demonstrated with particular clarity in his essay on Hölderlin’s poetry (“Parataxis,” 1965). In this way art fulfills the task of depicting the negative aspects of the world as it is.
Adorno’s dialectic procedure in the essayistic description of his objects brings him close to the methods of some of his colleagues from the Frankfurt School, especially Walter Benjamin. Adorno also quotes Max Bense with approval. However, a feature that is uniquely characteristic of Adorno as a philosopher and ideological critic is the inversion of all relations that had previously been viewed as static, a product of his
“negative dialectic” mode of thought. In this way he turns away from conventional, formal philosophy on the one hand, while at the same time reworking its conclusions in his own artistic-essayistic style of thinking and writing. Even Adorno’s famous doctrine that after Auschwitz no more poems could be written is no rigid dogmatism, but the point of departure for a process of reflection which really does view its object from all sides.
For Adorno this process is a prerequisite, not only for the essay as a literary form, but also for his entire philosophical undertaking.
translated by Susan Mackervoy


Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno. Born 11 September 1903 in Frankfurt-on-Main. Studied at the University of Frankfurt, Ph.D., 1924; studied music composition under Alban Berg, from 1925; postgraduate studies in Frankfurt. Associated with the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research), Frankfurt, from 1928. Editor, Anbruch (Beginning) music journal, Vienna. Fled Nazi regime to Oxford, 1934, then to New York and Los Angeles, 1938. Married Gretel Karplus, 1937. Head of music study, Institute Office of Radio Research, Princeton, New Jersey, 1938–41, and in California, 1941–49; returned to Frankfurt, 1949; assistant director, 1950–55, codirector, 1955–58, and director, 1958–69, Institute for Social Research, Frankfurt; professor of philosophy and sociology, University of Frankfurt, 1958–69.


Arnold Schoenberg Medal, 1954;
Critics’ Prize for Literature, 1959; Goethe Medal, 1963. Died (of a heart attack) in Visp, near Zermatt, Switzerland, 6 August 1969.

Selected Writings

Essays and Related Prose
Kierkegaard, Konstruktion des Ästhetischen, 1933; as Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic, edited and translated by Robert Hullot-Kentor, 1989
Philosophische Fragmente, with Max Horkheimer, 1944; as Dialektik der Aufklärung:
Philosophische Fragmente, 1947; as Dialectic of Enlightenment, translated by John Cumming, 1972
Minima Moralia: Reflextonen aus dem beschädigten Leben (aphorisms), 1951; as Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, translated by E.F.N.Jephcott, 1974
Versuch über Wagner, 1952; as In Search of Wagner, translated by Rodney Livingstone, 1981
Prismen: Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft, 1955; as Prisms, translated by Samuel and Shierry Weber, 1967
Noten zur Literatur, 4 vols., 1958–74; as Notes to Literature, vols. 1–2, edited by Rolf Tiedemann, translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen, 1991–92.
Klangfiguren: Musikalische Schriften I, 1959
Einleitung in die Musiksoziologie, 1962,; as Introduction to the Sociology of Music, translated by E.B.Ashton, 1976
Quasi una fantasia: Musikalische Schriften II, 1963; as Quasi una fantasia: Essays on Modern Music, translated by Rodney Livingstone, 1992
Eingriffe: Neun kritische Modelle, 1963
Moments musicaux: Neu gedruckte Aufsätze 1928–1962, 1964
Negative Dialektik, 1966; as Negative Dialectics, translated by E.B.Ashton, 1973
Drei Studien zu Hegel, 1966; as Hegel: Three Studies, translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen, 1993
Ohne Leitbild: Parva Aesthetica, 1967
Impromptus: Zweite Folge neu gedruckter musikalischer Aufsätze, 1968
Nervenpunkte der Neuen Musik, 1969
Stichworte: Kritische Modelle 2, 1969
Über Walter Benjamin, edited by Rolf Tiedemann, 1970; revised edition, 1990
Ästhetische Theorie, edited by Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann, 1970; as Aesthetic Theory, translated by C.Lenhardt, 1984
Aufsätze zur Gesellschaftstheorie und Methodologie, 1970
Die musikalischen Monographien, 1971
Kritik: Kleine Schriften zur Gesellschaft, edited by Rolf Tiedemann, 1971
Aufsätze zur Literatur des 20. Jahrhunderts, vol. 1: Versuch, das Endspiel zu verstehen;
vol. 2: Zur Dialektik des Engagements, 1973
Vorlesung zur Einleitung in die Erkenntnistheorie, 1973
Vorlesung zur Einleitung in die Soziologie hielt, 1973
Vorlesungen zur Ästhetik, 1967–68, 1973
The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, edited by J.M.Bernstein, 1991
The Stars Come Down to Earth and Other Essays on the Irrational in Culture, edited by Stephen Crook, 1994

Other writings:

works on philosophy, sociology, and musicology.
Collected works edition: Gesammelte Schriften, edited by Rolf Tiedemann, 22 vols., 1973–80.


Görtzen, R., “Theodor W.Adorno: Vorläufige Bibliographie seiner Schriften und der Sekundärliteratur,” in Adorno-Konferenz 1983, edited by Ludwig von Friedeburg and Jürgen Habermas, Frankfurt-on-Main: Suhrkamp, 1983:404–71
Pettazzi, Carlo, “Kommentierte Bibliographie zu Theodor W. Adorno,” in Theodor W.Adorno, edited by Heinz Ludwig Arnold, Munich: Text+Kritik, 1977:176–91
Schultz, Klaus, “Vorläufige Bibliographie der Schriften,” in Theodor W.Adorno zum Gedächtnis, edited by Hermann Schweppenhäuser, Frankfurt-on-Main: Suhrkamp, 1971:177–239

Further Reading

Alway, Joan, Critical Theory and Political Possibilities: Conceptions of Emancipatory
Politics in the Works of Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, and Habermas, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1995
Asiain, Martin, Theodor W.Adorno, Dialektik des Aporetischen: Untersuchungen zur Rolle der Kunst in der Philosophie Theodor W.Adornos, Fribourg: Alber, 1996
Bernstein, J.M., The Fate of Art: Aesthetic Alienation from Kant to Derrida and Adorno, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, and Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992
Bronner, Stephen Eric, Of Critical Theory and Its Theorists, Oxford and Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1994
Buck-Morss, Susan, The Origin of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt Institute, New York: Free Press, 1977
Cook, Deborah, The Culture Industry Revisited: Theodor W. Adorno on Mass Culture, Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996
Hohendahl, Peter Uwe, Prismatic Thought: Theodor W.Adorno, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995
Jameson, Frederic, Late Marxism: Adorno, or, the Persistence of the Dialectic, London and New York: Verso, 1990
Liessmann, Konrad Paul, Ohne Mitleid: Zum Begriff der Distanz als ästhetische Kategorie mit ständiger Rücksicht auf Theodor W. Adorno, Vienna: Passagen, 1991
Rose, Gillian, The Melancholy Science: An Introduction to the Thought of Theodor W.Adorno, London: Macmillan, and New York: Columbia University Press, 1978
Stamps, Judith, Unthinking Modernity: Innis, McLuhan and the Frankfurt School, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995
Tar, Zoltan, The Frankfurt School: The Critical Theories of Max Horkheimer and Theodor W.Adorno, New York: Wiley, 1977
Zimmermann, Norbert, Der ästhetische Augenblick: Theodor W. Adornos Theorie der
Zeitstruktur von Kunst und ästhetischer Erfahrung, Frankfurt-on-Main and New York: Lang, 1989
Zuidervaart, Lambert, Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory: The Redemption of Illusion, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1991

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