Theodor Adorno (1903-69) - Key Figures in Literary Theory

The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory - Gregory Castle 2007

Theodor Adorno (1903-69)
Key Figures in Literary Theory

A shudder in the loins engenders there

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower And Agamemnon dead.

W. B. Yeats, “Leda and the Swan”

Theodor Adorno (1903-69)

Theodor Adorno was born Theodor Ludwig Wiesengrund in Frankfurt, Germany, later taking on his mother’s maiden name. His father was a Jewish convert to Protestantism and his mother a Catholic, though it would be his Jewish background that would prove influential in later life. He was a highly gifted student, studying Kant and Husserl at an early age. He attended the University of Frankfurt, where he received the doctorate in philosophy in 1924. He was also a musician and composer. In the mid-1920s, he traveled to Vienna, where he studied with the composer Alban Berg and became a devotee of Arnold Schoenberg, the great Modernist composer whose work had influenced Berg and, according to some critics, inspired some of the innovations in Adorno’s philosophy.

Adorno began his academic career with a dissertation on the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, published in 1933. At this time, he was attached to the Institute for Social Research, which had been established ten years earlier. However, the Institute’s work was disrupted by the rise to power of Hitler’s National Socialist movement. Like so many other Jewish intellectuals at this time, Adorno went into exile, first at Oxford, later in the US. He was affiliated with Princeton University in the period 1938-41, then followed the Institute to Geneva and New York and finally to Los Angeles, where he became co-director with Max Horkheimer.

His first major publication, with Horkheimer, was Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), a penetrating critique of the Enlightenment tradition of philosophy and literature and its consequences for contemporary culture, including the rise of the “culture industry,” totalitarianism, and the commodification of art and AESTHETICS under capitalism. In 1958, he became the director of the Institute, and the ten years that followed, until his death in 1969, were the most productive of his career. In this period, he wrote his most important philosophical works, including Negative Dialectics (1966), Minima Moralia (1966), and Aesthetic Theory (1970). In these works, Adorno critiqued the German idealist tradition from Kant to Heidegger and offered a powerful new alternative to it, one that resisted ideological pressures and confronted the practical consequences that follow, or ought to follow, from the study of philosophy and critical theory. This confluence of theory and practice was made evident in 1969, when students influenced by him became involved in violent protest on the Frankfurt University campus against government emergency laws. During this tumultuous time, while vacationing in Switzerland, Adorno died of a heart attack after mountain climbing.


Adorno, Theodor. The Adorno Reader. Ed. Brian O'Connor. Oxford and Malden MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.

---- . Aesthetic Theory. Ed. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann and trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

---- . (with Max Horkheimer). The Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. John Cumming. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972.

---- . Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. Trans. E.F.N. Jephcott. London: Verso, 1974.

---- . Negative Dialectics. Trans. E.B. Ashton. New York: Seabury Press, 1973. . Prisms. Trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981.