Theodor W. Adorno Essay

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Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno (1903–1969) was a German music theorist, literary critic, philosopher, social psychologist, and sociologist. Born in Frankfurt to a family of musicians, Adorno started to write as a music critic at a very early age. His name is, however, primarily linked to the Frankfurt school, the group of intellectuals working within the framework of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, of which he is considered to be one of the central exponents. The essays he wrote in the 1930s in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, the main organ of the institute, combine formal music analysis with a sociological critique.

With Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, Adorno, together with other members of the institute, migrated to the United States, first to New York and then to California. During these years Adorno collaborated with philosopher and sociologist Max Horkheimer, with whom he wrote the influential Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944). In this book, written after the advent of Nazism and their experience of American mass society, the authors developed a harsh critique of Western rationality by arguing that the latter, far from realizing the Enlightenment’s promise of emancipation, had turned into a radical form of domination. In so doing, they suggested that the entire Western Enlightenment was ultimately based on an instrumental concept of reason and domination over nature that could result in the opposite of reason—that is, myth and barbarism. Adorno returned to Frankfurt in 1949 and contributed to reopening the Institute for Social Research.

Although Adorno would try, in particular in his later Negative Dialectics (1966), to investigate the way in which rationality could escape the dialectic of Enlightenment, thus avoiding the nightmare of total domination, his work remained devoted to critiquing late capitalist societies. In particular, Adorno’s writings on mass culture contain a powerful critique of the way in which culture and other everyday practices can become the vehicle of ideological forms of domination.

Adorno also promoted and took part in empirical studies, which was in line with the multidisciplinary character of the Frankfurt school research program. One of the most prominent works of Adorno’s in this field is the collaborative Authoritarian Personality (1950). This study combines insights from psychoanalysis with sociological research in an attempt to provide an explanation for the rise of authoritarianism.

Due to the importance he gave to factors such as culture and psychology, Adorno, like other exponents of the Frankfurt school, exercised an important function in the renewal of Western Marxism, as well as in the opening of new fields of investigation into the sociology of culture.


  1. Adorno,Theodor W. 1966. Negative Dialectics. London: Routledge, 1990.
  2. The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, edited by J. M. Bernstein. London: Routledge, 1991.
  3. The Adorno Reader, edited by Brian O’Connor. Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell, 2000.
  4. Essays on Music. Berkley: University of California Press, 2002.
  5. Adorno,Theodor W., Betty Aron,William Morrow, Maria Hertz Levinson, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel J. Levinson, and R. Nevitt Sanford. 1950. The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Norton, 1969.
  6. Adorno,Theodor W., and Max Horkheimer. 1944. Dialectic of Enlightenment. London:Verso, 1997.

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