4 Ideas by Theodor Adorno That Changed the World

Theodor Adorno contributed enormously to different aspects of philosophy during his tenure as one of the foremost thinkers of the 20th century. Here are 4 of his most influential ideas.

Aug 2, 2022By David Sinor, BA Political Philosophy

theodor adorno mural philosophy ideas


Theodor Adorno was raised and educated in Post-war Germany, among other monolithic figures of philosophy. He participated in and taught the social reforms that helped craft the strong democracy that is Germany today. Adorno was a mentor, a scholar, an activist, and many more things to the people around him. His ideas helped craft an understanding not only for the people of his own time but for the people who came decades after his writing and most likely for those in coming decades as well. In this article we will explore some of the most important concepts he worked on throughout his career.


Theodor Adorno: Right Place, Right Time

artists father cezanne
The Artist’s Father by Paul Cezanne, 1866, via National Gallery Archive


Theodor Adorno was in a place where his struggle gave him an intimate understanding of society’s failures and how we interact with each other, which can turn incredibly bleak. World War II affected him in many ways, but he was able to learn from it and postulate a philosophy that could help Germany deal with and grow from the struggles it had in the post-war setting.


During much of the time in which his writing was seeing popularity in Germany, it saw less acknowledgement in English-speaking countries due to arguably poor translations. With his affiliation with the Frankfurt School in Germany and being a member of the first generation of scholars to belong to the thought of Critical Theory, he saw much acknowledgment of his work in his home country. Later in the 1990s and after his work has seen more reception in the broader academic world. Theodor Adorno was a wide-ranging thinker, with much of his pursuits of study falling under different categories, ranging from epistemology and ethics, to aesthetics and cultural theory.


Building Upon His Predecessors

social triumph besnard
Social Triumph by Albert Besnard, 1886, via National Gallery Archive


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The Frankfurt School built its name from its study of social aspects of philosophy. Their critique method of the aspects of society came from their reading and understanding of Karl Marx. Many philosophers and scholars of the Frankfurt School held varying opinions on Marxism and its varying levels of truth. Many of them also compared Marx with the moral philosopher Immanuel Kant. Taking bits and pieces from Marx’s work, and explaining why they left other ideas behind, was at the center of The Frankfurt School’s method. Theodor Adorno is included in this list of philosophers. While he was considered a radical at the time, he held many ideas of philosophers of ages past, and worked on bringing back and explaining their ideas.


Theodor Adorno had many predecessors and mentors in his study. His obsession with psychoanalysis after reading and studying Sigmund Freud’s work became a large inspiration for his own work later on. In his reading of Kierkegaard and Husserl, he was able to find inspiration and create an explanation of dialectic temptation between both Ontology and Empiricism that could work for a new age in Germany. All of these people in his past, along with his love of music and research, helped him form a new dialectic that was called Negative Dialectic. His later work on Culture Theory left an impact for philosophers to study for many generations to come. The four main ideas of Theodor Adorno have also changed how the west sees itself since the 1960s.


One of the other most famous predecessors to Adorno was someone who held strongly opposing views, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger was also in Germany before and during the second World War, in which he sided with the Nazis, often producing works that helped justify their actions within ethics and social understanding. This is one of the many reasons that Adorno’s work and that of the Frankfurt School were so important. Even though Heidegger had more press and a better reputation at the time, the critical arguments from the Frankfurt School ended up leading to better solutions in the post-war environment and to the Europe we know today.


1. Negative Dialectics: A look at Dominant Culture

plato hegel marx
Collage of Plato, Hegel and Marx.


Dialectics is a concept that stems as far back as Socrates. It denotes the process of reasoning out truths through argumentation between two subjects regarding the various objects of discussion. The notion of a dialectic was famously employed by Immanuel Kant. Adorno found refuge in the work and understanding of Hegel, yet unlike Hegel, he did not believe that this difference created a positive idealism from dialectics but instead a negative one.


Theodor Adorno stated that this is due to Hegel’s attempt to establish materialism from his dialectics. This establishment of genuine and concrete experience through Negative Dialectics is better understood as an attempt to understand that the end goal of dialectics is not always positive. His attempt wasn’t to bring the discussions that were occurring throughout Germany during this time to an end, but to keep a constant dialogue open, so that it could be reconstructed based on the changing social fabric over and over again.


His understanding of the problem that was facing Germany in the 1960s was that a culture was becoming too dominant. This problem of rigidity, which was already on the rise, was being fed like a flame by the increasingly important film and culture industry that was quelling any possibility of a dialogue. According to Adorno, this new dominant culture was filling the void created by a lack of happiness and workers’ rights with an ever-increasing list of consumable products.


2. The Culture Industry: 21st Century introspection

theodor adorno mural
Mural of Theodor Adorno, 2019.


The Frankfurt School’s scholars often focused on the philosophical writings of Karl Marx and Immanuel Kant. Theodor Adorno though went further into Critical Social Theory and focused on the Culture Industry, a term that he used to describe the capitalistic stream of radio, news, advertising, and other mass media that was propagating a culture of consumption across the Western world. Like many of the socialist Marxist thinkers of his time, and colleagues of The Frankfurt School, he found inherent problems with the growing commodification of life.


Adorno had a particular love for music. With his release of Dialectics of Enlightenment, he also wrote a short essay entitled On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening. In both of these works Adorno discusses the issue that the commodification of art, while it means that its value would increase through mass-media consumption, takes away from its inherent ‘uselessness’ that makes it truly valuable. Art is supposed to be an end in itself, and its introduction into the mainstream as a product meant that it was no longer “useless” but a commodity to be sold as efficiently as possible.


3. The Frankfurt School and the Modern European Union

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European Union Floor, 2008.


Much of the way that The Frankfurt School is looked at is through the lens of Marxism. While there are no socialist countries in the modern western world, understanding the impact the Frankfurt School had post-World War II is important.


This collective of academics formed their arguments not based on how the world should be, but based on the actual social issues in their contemporary environment. At the time The Frankfurt School first started and well into the Post War Period, which Theodor Adorno heavily influenced, Fascism was impacting all of Europe. While The Europe of today does not look quite like the Communist Utopia that The Frankfurt School might have idealized, it also does not look like the Dictatorships that forced societies’ worst instincts to the forefront, either.


The founders of The European Union took the arguments of The Frankfurt School to heart and have limited capitalism within their societies in a way that ensures the health and, more importantly, the happiness of their citizens. Critical approaches are often observed as being negative and not productive regarding finding solutions to the problems that they point out; however, as we can see, this has not always been the case.


4. Mental Health and the Study of Psychoanalysis

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Society Ball by George Bellows, ca. 1907, via National Gallery Archive


Theodor Adorno had many intellectual inspirations throughout his life, and mentioned many of them in letters and in his published academic work. Among those was Sigmund Freud. After reading Freud’s work, his obsession with psychoanalysis was born, along with many disagreements with other colleagues within The Frankfurt School.


Adorno brought up several ideas to the forefront of philosophy and sociology that connected back to psychology. He went so far as to say that sociology would never be able to completely or accurately understand societies if it did not understand the mental health of the people that they encompass. Adorno put significant stress on the importance of needing to understand the psychological drives that society has, and thought that this would eventually lead to an understanding of the cohesion of a repressed people. Specifically, he felt that psychological understanding would explain how repressed people can act against their own moral principles and commit atrocities that are against fundamental human interests.


In Post-War Germany this was part of a huge discussion, as people were trying to cope with what had happened in their nation. Rebuilding would be and was one of the most difficult things to ever happen, but making efforts to ensure that nothing like the Holocaust would ever happen again were important; and members of The Frankfurt School were determined to find an answer to these difficult questions.


Theodor Adorno: An Influencer of Societies, Now and Into the Future

theodor adorno grave
Theodor Adorno’s Grave, 2019.


Theodor Adorno and the entirety of The Frankfurt School had a huge impact on Europe as a whole, but Adorno held a special place as a key thinker of the late 50s and early 60s. Adorno was a public figure throughout Europe. He was not only producing work that criticized those in power during World War II, but helped to provide insight if not answers to the new problems faced by society. He began going on the radio and television, participating in debates and round tables where his ideas were front and center.


The Frankfurt School was at the center of much of what happened when it came to post-war development and ensuring despots did not ever again secure a foothold in Europe. These four ideas of Theodor Adorno’s helped with the popularization of The Frankfurt School’s ideas, and his reputation and the power of his insight will hopefully keep the ghost of Fascism away for decades to come. Even if we don’t recognize these philosophers, we still know their arguments well, as they have embedded themselves in the culture and changed our shared vocabulary.


Throughout all of his inspirations and influences, Adorno never lost his love for music. It was always at the forefront in his life and the center of his philosophical works. He may be known as a philosopher and a sociologist, but to Theodor Adorno himself, he was always a musician.

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By David SinorBA Political PhilosophyDavid is a contributing writer, originally from Florida. After receiving his degree in Political Philosophy he spent 5 years in Hawaii serving in the Navy. Aboard his submarine, he ran his ship’s library in his free time. He is currently pursuing a postgrad degree at Arizona State University. He has had a life-long love of philosophy that he takes with him into all his endeavors.