Theodor W. Adorno Biography

(German Philosopher, Sociologist, Psychologist and Composer)

Birthday: September 11, 1903 (Virgo)

Born In: Frankfurt, Germany

Theodor W. Adorno was a German sociologist, philosopher, psychologist, composer, and music critic. He was a notable member of the 'Frankfurt School' of critical theory. Adorno is widely regarded as one of the 20th century's most distinguished aesthetic thinkers and philosophers. He was also one of the century’s finest essayists. In his publications, such as 'Dialectic of Enlightenment' (1947), 'Minima Moralia' (1951), and 'Negative Dialectics' (1966), Adorno had criticized fascism and the culture industry, which heavily influenced the European New Left. He had challenged both Sir Karl Popper's philosophy of science and Martin Heidegger's philosophy of existence. A trained pianist, Adorno was a great advocate of Arnold Schoenberg's "twelve-tone technique." His commitment to avant-garde music served as the backdrop for many of his writings. His publications were initially rejected in English-speaking countries due to their inaccurate translations. However, better translations were released later, and a few of them were published posthumously. Adorno's writings facilitate the assessment of his work in epistemology and ethics and provide scope to his work in aesthetics and cultural theory.
Quick Facts

German Celebrities Born In September

Also Known As: Theodor Ludwig Wiesengrund, Theodor Wiesengrund-Adorno

Died At Age: 65


Spouse/Ex-: Gretel Adorno (m. 1937)

father: Oscar Alexander Wiesengrund

mother: Maria Calvelli-Adorno della Piana

Born Country: Germany

Quotes By Theodor W. Adorno Musicians

Died on: August 6, 1969

place of death: Visp, Switzerland

Notable Alumni: Merton College, Merton College, Oxford, Goethe University Frankfurt

City: Frankfurt, Germany

More Facts

education: Goethe University Frankfurt, Merton College, Merton College, Oxford

awards: Goethe Plaque of the City of Frankfurt

  • 1

    What are some key concepts in Theodor W. Adorno's critical theory?

    Some key concepts in Adorno's critical theory include the culture industry, negative dialectics, and the concept of non-identity.

  • 2

    How did Theodor W. Adorno view the role of art in society?

    Adorno believed that art had the potential to challenge and disrupt the status quo, offering a critical perspective on societal norms and values.

  • 3

    What was Theodor W. Adorno's critique of mass culture?

    Adorno criticized mass culture for promoting conformity, standardization, and the commodification of art, leading to a loss of individuality and critical thinking.

  • 4

    How did Theodor W. Adorno contribute to the Frankfurt School of critical theory?

    Adorno played a significant role in shaping the Frankfurt School's approach to analyzing culture, society, and politics through a critical lens, emphasizing the importance of social theory and philosophy.

  • 5

    What was Theodor W. Adorno's perspective on the relationship between reason and domination in society?

    Adorno argued that reason, when divorced from critical reflection and used to justify domination and oppression, could lead to totalitarianism and the suppression of individual freedom.

Childhood & Early Life
Adorno was born Theodor Ludwig Wiesengrund, on September 11, 1903, in Frankfurt, Germany, to Oscar Alexander Wiesengrund (1870–1946) and Maria Calvelli-Adorno della Piana (1865–1952). He had no siblings.
Adorno grew up with an interest in music, due to his mother and aunts, and could play Beethoven's pieces on the piano at the age of 12 years.
From ‘Deutschherren Middle School,’ Adorno was transferred to the 'Kaiser-Wilhelm Gymnasium' (1913–1921). Before he had graduated, Adorno was already under the influence of Georg Lukács's 'The Theory of the Novel' and Ernst Bloch's 'The Spirit of Utopia.' However, he was also disgusted with the idea of nationalism prevalent during World War I.
Adorno studied music composition at the 'Hoch Conservatory' and simultaneously took private lessons with composers Bernhard Sekles and Eduard Jung. He left the gymnasium to study philosophy, sociology, and psychology at the 'Johann Wolfgang Goethe University' in Frankfurt, where he continued his readings with his friend Siegfried Kracauer, a literary editor at 'Frankfurter Zeitung.'
Along with Kracauer, Adorno began writing concert reviews and composed music pieces for notable journals such as the 'Zeitschrift für Musik,' the 'Neue Blätter für Kunst und Literatur', and the 'Musikblätter des Anbruch.' It marked the beginning of Adorno's rise as a prominent music critic.
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Adorno emerged as an avant-garde music expert and a prolific critic who commented on the fall of musical modernity. In 1923, he termed composer Igor Stravinsky's book 'The Soldier's Tale' a "dismal Bohemian prank." The following year, he received his doctorate degree for studying German philosopher Edmund Husserl's works, under the guidance of German neo-Kantian philosopher Hans Cornelius. By then, Adorno was already acquainted with his most important intellectual collaborators, Max Horkheimer and Walter Benjamin.
In 1924, Adorno met Viennese composer Alban Berg at the premiere of his work 'Three Fragments from Wozzeck' in Frankfurt. Since then, the two maintained a life-long friendship, and Adorno called Berg "my master and teacher."
When Adorno moved to Vienna in February 1925, he closely observed the musical culture there and continued learning the piano with Eduard Steuermann.
In December 1926, while Adorno was preparing for the habilitation, his 'Two Pieces for String Quartet,' op. 2, was performed in Vienna. Following his piano pieces in strict "twelve-tone technique" and the 'Six Bagatelles for Voice and Piano,' op. 6, songs, Adorno showed his habilitation manuscript, titled 'The Concept of the Unconscious in the Transcendental Theory of the Psyche,' to Cornelius (November 1927).
In the manuscript, Adorno focused on the epistemological status of the unconscious, which opposed the theory of Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud. Cornelius thought that the manuscript lacked dimensions. Hence, he asked Adorno to withdraw.
Adorno then published several opera and concert reviews in the decade. From 1928 to 1930, Adorno became a notable figure among the editorial committee of the journal 'Musikblätter des Anbruch.'
The journal flourished with Adorno's essays 'Night Music,' 'On Twelve-Tone Technique,' and 'Reaction and Progress.' He later submitted a habilitation titled 'The Construction of the Aesthetic.'
Adorno's inaugural lecture at the 'Institute for Social Research,' titled 'The Actuality of Philosophy,' stirred a scandal, as he had challenged philosophy's capability of comprehending reality. Despite the fact that he was not a member of the institute, its journal still published many of his essays.
As Adorno emerged as a social theorist, he was forced to abandon the concepts of "value-free" sociology.
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In 1934, Adorno had begun working on a Mark Twain-inspired Singspiel, which he, however, never completed. By the time he had fled Germany, Adorno had written over 100 opera reviews and 50 music composition critiques.
Adorno moved to England in 1934, in the wake of the ‘Nazi’ oppression of the Jews. Eventually, Adorno's 'Reich Chamber of Literature' membership application was denied. He then left for 15 years of exile.
Adorno failed to transfer his habilitation to the 'University of Vienna' and hence moved to Britain. With the assistance of the 'Academic Assistance Council,' he enrolled at 'Merton College,' Oxford, in June 1934.
He taught at the 'University of Oxford' and then went to America in 1938. At ‘Oxford,’ Adorno had published 'The Form of the Phonograph Record,' 'Crisis of Music Criticism,' 'On Jazz' for the 'Institute's Zeitschrift,' and 'Farewell to Jazz' for 'Europäische Revue.'
To Adorno's disappointment, his works on the sociology of music were again rejected by the 'Zeitschrift.' Hence, he focused on his book of aphorisms and eventually published 'Minima Moralia.'
In the US, he worked at 'Princeton' (1938–1941) and became the co-director of the 'Research Project on Social Discrimination' at the 'University of California, Berkeley’ (1941–1948).
Under the guidance of British philosopher Gilbert Ryle, Adorno studied a persuasive critique of Husserl's epistemology. By that time, he had proposals from the 'Institute for Social Research.'
In 1935, while at ‘Oxford,’ Adorno lost his aunt Agathe and Berg. Till the end of his life, Adorno continued to work on completing Berg's incomplete opera 'Lulu.'
In September 1937, Adorno began working on the 'Princeton Radio Project,' under Austrian sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld as the director. Soon after he settled in New York, Adorno and Lazarsfeld began exploring the impact of broadcast music.
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Three months later, Adorno presented a memorandum on the project's topic, 'Music in Radio,' which the other members of the project received positively. He later published 'The Radio Symphony,' 'A Social Critique of Radio Music,' and 'On Popular Music,' and got a permanent post at the ‘Institute for Social Research.’
Adorno and Horkheimer then began working on 'Dialectic of Enlightenment,' which was eventually published by the Amsterdam publisher ‘Querido Verlag.’ The two, along with the Nevitt Sanford-led ‘Public Opinion Study Group' and the 'American Jewish Committee,' started studying antisemitism and authoritarianism.
In 1949, Adorno returned to the 'University of Frankfurt' and co-founded the 'Institute for Social Research.' He also revived the 'Frankfurt School' of critical theory.
Adorno released 'The Authoritarian Personality' (1950), a collection of influential works that describe psychological fascist traits. He also published an expanded version of 'Philosophy of New Music.'
In 1951, Adorno continued working on his next essay, 'Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda.' He joined the 'Darmstadt Summer Courses for New Music' in Kranichstein and stayed with them from 1951 to 1958.
By 1952, Adorno went back to Santa Monica to find prospects at the 'Hacker Foundation.' He also participated in a group experiment that revealed the residual 'National Socialist' attitudes of the newly democratized Germans.
Back in Frankfurt, Adorno resumed his academic duties and simultaneously completed three essays (1952 to 1954): 'Notes on Kafka,' 'Valéry Proust Museum,' and an essay on Schoenberg after the composer's death. The writings are available in Adorno's 1955 collection 'Prisms.'
Adorno's next two influential essays were 'The Meaning of Working through the Past' (1959) and 'Education after Auschwitz' (1966). Throughout those 2 decades, he made several appearances on radio and in newspapers.
In addition to a series of notes on Beethoven (which remained incomplete and was published posthumously), he had published 'Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy' (1960) as well. In 1961, he returned to Kranichstein and coined the term "musique informelle."
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In 1963, the 'German Sociological Society' elected Adorno as their new chairman, and he eventually led the conferences on 'Max Weber and Sociology' (1964) and 'Late Capitalism or Industrial Society' (1968).
Karl Popper and Adorno triggered a debate at the 14th ‘German Sociology Conference' in Berlin, which was published as the 'Positivist Dispute in German Sociology' in 1961. He published 'The Jargon of Authenticity' in 1964. He also completed 'Negative Dialectics' in 1966, after 7 years of work.
In 1968, Adorno heavily criticized the students' disruption of university life. Later, in September, he traveled to Vienna to release 'Alban Berg: Master of the Smallest Link.'
Back in Frankfurt, Adorno began writing the introduction to a collection of Rudolf Borchardt's poems. In June 1969, he finished 'Catchwords: Critical Models.' In 1968–1969, he used his sabbatical leave from the university to complete his book on aesthetics.
Upon his return to Germany, Adorno played a crucial role in shaping the political culture of West Germany. For 20 years in Germany, until his death in 1969, he continued to work for the ‘Federal Republic’ and its intellectual foundations, taught at 'Frankfurt University' and the 'Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music,' and supported critical sociology.
Family, Personal Life & Death
Adorno's Catholic mother was a professional singer from Corsica, while his Jew-turned-Protestant father had a wine-export business.
Adorno's father had close ties with 'Karplus & Herzberger' in Berlin. He was married to Margarete (or Gretel), the oldest daughter of the Karplus family, on September 8, 1937.
Adorno died of a heart attack on August 6, 1969, in Visp, Switzerland.
Facts About Theodor W. Adorno

Adorno was known for his quirky habit of chain-smoking while working, often surrounded by piles of books and papers in his cluttered office.

Despite being a renowned philosopher and sociologist, Adorno had a playful side and enjoyed listening to jazz music, a genre he initially criticized but later came to appreciate for its complexity and innovation.

Adorno had a fascination with astrology and occasionally consulted horoscopes, believing that they offered insights into human behavior and societal trends.

In his spare time, Adorno enjoyed taking long walks in nature, finding solace and inspiration in the beauty of the outdoors.

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