Theodor W. Adorno: biography of this German philosopher

Theodor W. Adorno was one of the great German philosophers, a trainer of great thinkers such as Jürgen Habermas and a prominent figure of the German Institute for Social Research.

In addition to studying philosophy and sociology, he has always had a keen interest in musicology, gaining considerable notoriety by bringing these three disciplines together in some of his works.

Adorno’s life was not easy because, being of Jewish origin, he had to face anti-Semitic threats and Nazi persecution. Below, we’ll take a closer look at its history through a biography of Theodor W. Adorno to learn more about his career.

    Brief biography of Theodor W. Adorno

    Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno he was born on September 11, 1903 in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, Within a wealthy bourgeois family.

    His father, Oscar Alexander Wiesengrund was a Jewish-German wine merchant and his mother, Maria Calvelli-Adorno, was a Genoese lyric-soprano choir. From an early age he became interested in music because his sister Agatha, a talented pianist, and his mother were responsible for giving him extensive musical training in his childhood.

    academic training

    He attended the Kaiser Wilhelm Gymnasium, where he excelled as an excellent student. In his youth, he met Siegfried Kracauer, with whom he formed a close friendship, although he was fourteen years old. Together, they read the “Critique of Pure Reason” by Emmanuel Kant, an experience which greatly marked the young Adorno in his intellectual training.

    During the 1920s Adorno composed his first musical works. It was avant-garde, atonal chamber music. After graduating with merit from the Gymnasium, Theodor Adorno enrolled at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, an institution where he would study philosophy, sociology, psychology and music. In 1924, he obtained his title by presenting a dissertation on Edmund Husserl: “Die Transzendenz des Dinglichen und Noematischen in Husserls Phänomenologie”

    At the moment the young Adorno considered the possibility of devoting himself to music as a composer and of writing several musical criticisms. It was for this reason that in 1925 he traveled to Vienna where he studied composition with Alban Berg and spent time with other key composers of the Second Vienna School, such as Anton Webern and Arnold Schönberg.

    In essays on music, Adorno linked musical form to complex concepts drawn from philosophy. His musical works were not easy to read, with a very strong intellectual implication. The conceptual implications of the new music were not shared by the traditional Viennese schoolThis is why Adorno decided to return to Frankfurt and give up his musical career.

    However, before leaving Austria, Theodor Adorno had the opportunity to become intimate with other intellectuals outside of musical circles. He attended lectures by Karl Kraus, a famous Viennese satirist, and met Georg Lukács. The theory of the novel had an impact on Adorno while he was in college.

    Back in Frankfurt, he worked on his doctoral thesis under the supervision of Hans Cornelius. Later, in 1931, he obtained his “venia legendi”, a diploma which accredited him as a teacher with his work Kierkegaard: Konstruktion des Ästhetischen (Kierkegaard: construction of aesthetics)


    In 1932, he joined the German Institute for Social Research, an institution of Marxist inspiration. attached to the University of Frankfurt. Given their ideas and the fact that there were Jews in their ranks, the rise of the Nazi Party and the creation of the National Socialist regime meant that the institution was ultimately dismantled. The government withdrew its venia legendi from Adorno and, seeing his life in danger, ended up leaving the country.

    He first traveled to Paris, but as France approached a destination similar to what Germany had known, Adorno would eventually travel to Oxford, England. He would remain in the English city until 1938, moving to New York, city in which the German Institute of Social Investigation had installed its seat in exile.

    In 1941, he moved to California to continue to collaborate with another member of the Institute, Max Horkheimer., Writing “Dialectic of the Enlightenment. Philosophical fragments”.

      Return to Germany

      After the fall of the Third Reich and the end of World War II, Theodor W. Adorno returned to his homeland in 1949 with Horkheimer. In that same year he assumed the post of director of the Institute for Social Research, reestablished in Frankfurt.

      It was at this time that the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory was born, a philosophical current that would be of great importance in the minds of the twentieth century as important as Jürgen Habermas who would also be a disciple of Adorno.

      last years

      During the 1960s, he was dedicated to running the Institute, in addition to teaching at the University of Frankfurt. He took the opportunity to establish an intense relationship with avant-garde artists of the time., Such as writer Samuel Beckett, composer John Cage and filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni.

      Meanwhile, Adorno was equally critical and inspiring of youth protest movements. On many occasions they have found inspiration and motivation in their particular vision of Marxism and the rejection of reason as the ultimate end. However, after the events of May 1968 in France, Theodor W. Adorno criticized “shareholding”, that is to say the privilege of protest action over critical argument.. This made him the subject of student protests, including the taking of his own classroom.

      Perhaps a little fed up with so much tension, Adorno decides to take a well-deserved vacation in the summer of 1969 while mountaineering in Switzerland, where he suffers from arrhythmia attacks and palpitations. Although his medics advised him not to hike or exert any great effort, Adorno simply ignored them and decided to take a foray into the mountains, from which he would never recover. He died a few days later, on August 6, 1969 in Visp, Switzerland, from an acute myocardial infarction. He was 66 years old.

      When he died, Adorno was working on his aesthetic theory, A work of which he had already made two versions and was going to proceed with the final revision of the text. This posthumous work was published in 1970.

      Works of this philosopher

      Adorno never lost his interest in musicology. In fact, he was a prolific author of works related to this discipline.

      After having forged relations with the Viennese musical avant-garde and alternating with personalities such as Arnold Schönberg, Eduard Steuermann and Alban Berg, he published several important works in the field, such as Philosophy of New Music (1949)., Versuch über Wagner (1952), Dissonances. Music of a Managed World (1956), Mahler (1960) and Der getreue Korrepetitor (1963).

      But not only does he publish his own works in musicology, but he also helps other personalities in the field to compose his works. One case is that of Thomas Mann, who used Adorno’s advice for the musicological part of his novel Doctor Faustus (1947), which is in tune with the theses of the philosophy of new music.

      In the field of sociology, the two main themes of Adorno’s critical reflection are, on the one hand, the predominant tendencies of modern reality and, on the other hand, the utopian tension towards the dimension of another present. , reified and alienated. His dialectical-Hegelian and Marxist training led Adorno to consider denial as an important tool of criticism. of the society. In “Dialectics of the Enlightenment”, Adorno offers an analysis of modern mass society, drawn directly from his views on postwar American culture.

      Conceive a vision of his behavior contemporary man, degraded in the cultural industry of his time and a fervent supporter of the myth of scientific rationality, Of its origins in the Enlightenment from the 18th century to the present day. This theme will also be developed in other works such as Minimum Morality (1951), The Authoritarian Personality (1950), Negative Dialectics (1966) and Stichworte. Kritische Modelle (1969).

      In the Philosophical, he did a rereading of Hegel’s work in his Three Studies on Hegel (1963). He abandons the abstract intellectualism of the Enlightenment without rejecting the idealization of dialectical reason. Adorno’s intervention in this work is characterized by a repudiating phenomenology. Adorno criticizes culture in his interventions particularly focused on literature as art, collected mainly in Prismes. Cultural and Social Critique (1955) and in Notes on Literature, published in four volumes between 1958 and 1974.

      Shortly before his death, Adorno completed his aesthetic theory, although he had to do a review. In it, he reaffirmed the urgency, for art itself, of the link between criticism and utopia. Art can only be justified as a reminder of the sufferings accumulated over the course of history, which demand the saving of this “offended” life, making art a sort of act of redress for personal grievance.

      It should be noted that many of Theodor W. Adorno’s works are difficult to clearly encompass in the field of philosophy or sociology, as the boundaries between the two disciplines are very blurred in his thinking. He even touches on aspects of psychology, such as his collaboration with Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson and Sanford, who conducted fundamental research on the psychology of anti-Semitism, The Authoritarian Personality (1950). Adorno contributed to this work by developing scales for measuring fascist tendencies.

      He criticized positivist sociology in sociology (1956) in collaboration with Max Horkheimer. For Adorno, positivism had lost sight of social reality, Loss of focus on the basic needs of existence. In Soziologische Schriften (1972), Adorno insists on the need to apply the dialectical method to the knowledge of contemporary society.

      How to cite this article:

      • Ruiza, M., Fernández, T. and Tamaro, I. (2004). Biography of Theodor Adorno. In Biographies and Lives. The online biographical encyclopedia. Barcelona, ​​Spain). Retrieved from on July 15, 2020.
      • Adorno, Theodor (2009). Dissonances. Introduction to the sociology of music, Akal, Madrid.
      • Hernández Iraizoz, Daniel. (2013). Theodor Adorno, elements for a sociology of music. Sociological (Mexico), 28 (80), 123-154. Retrieved July 16, 2020 from

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