Adorno, Theodor Wiesengrund (1903–69)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD001-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved February 29, 2024, from

1. Life

Theodor Wiesengrund-Adorno (Wiesengrund, his father’s name, shrank to the initial W. during his exile in California in 1943) was born in 1903 in Frankfurt. From his mother and sister the young Adorno derived his lifelong passion for music. Near the end of the First World War, Adorno began spending his Saturday afternoons studying Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason with the social critic and film theorist Siegfried Kracauer. Under Kracauer’s guidance, Adorno came to experience the first Critique not as mere epistemology, but ‘as a kind of coded text from which the historical situation of spirit could be read’ (1992: vol. 2, 58). This method of reading and thinking, entwining epistemology with social physiognomy, became the constitutive gesture of Adorno’s philosophy.

After completing a dissertation on Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology, Adorno received his doctorate from the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in 1924. In the following year, he travelled to Vienna to study composition with Alban Berg and involve himself with the circle of composers and musicians gathered around Arnold Schoenberg. His Vienna interlude was to have a lasting impact; not only did he become a leading advocate of the ‘new music’, but his philosophical style can be traced to the ‘atonal’ compositional techniques of Schoenberg and Berg.

Returning to his studies in Frankfurt, Adorno took his habilitation with a thesis published as Kierkegaard: Konstruktion des Ästhetischen (Kierkegaard: The Construction of the Aesthetic) (1933). In this difficult work, three themes that were to remain decisive emerge: (1) the criticism of existentialism as betraying its desire for concreteness by transforming existential elements into abstract categories, such as that of subjectivity in Kierkegaard (Adorno continued to make an analogous criticism of Heidegger’s notion of ‘being’); (2) a reading of the social world as reified, that is, a world in which institutions indifferent to the claims of subjectivity dominate over persons; (3) the attempt to provide a historical and materialist concretization of theological ideas.

Adorno fled Hitler’s Germany in 1934 to Merton College, Oxford. During his three and a half years in England, Adorno wrote articles for the house journal of the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research), which was then under the direction of his friend Max Horkheimer (see Frankfurt School), and worked on a book on Husserl, which was eventually published in 1956. Adorno spent the war years in the USA. During that time he collaborated with Horkheimer on Dialektik der Aufklärung (Dialectic of Enlightenment) (1947), often regarded (not altogether accurately) as the statement of first-generation critical theory (see Critical theory).

After the war, Adorno returned to Frankfurt to help rebuild the Institute. Over the next twenty years he produced a stream of works of musical and literary criticism, social theory and philosophy. His 1957 article ‘Sociology and Empirical Research’ is now regarded as the initiator of the ‘positivist dispute’ that raged in Germany in the 1960s, with Adorno and Karl Popper as the main combatants. Adorno’s two major philosophical works, Negative Dialektik (Negative Dialectics) (1966) and Ästhetische Theorie (Aesthetic Theory) (1970), were written during this period, the latter published a year after Adorno’s death.

Citing this article:
Bernstein, J.M.. Life. Adorno, Theodor Wiesengrund (1903–69), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD001-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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