6 (2003), Nr.3/September


L'art philosophique

About Adorno. Toward an assessment of Adorno's philosophical aesthetics on the occasion of the celebration of the 100th return of his birthday in September 2003. 20804 characters.



In German speaking countries the commemoration of Adorno's 100th birthday yielded a variety of new books, symposia, exhibitions, concerts, gatherings, reviews and newspaper articles. A first glance already reveals that for these countries a good deal of collective identity depends of the brillant and astonishing life, career and work of the person Adorno. Adorno was celebrated in a way as if he were still alive and central a figure to the Federal Republic of Germany 34 years after his death. To some degree this is due to the powerful marketing of Adorno's later years' exclusive publisher Suhrkamp Verlag, whose almost half century long CEO Siegfried Unseld who died a year ago served and still serves as a continuing symbol for the apparently unretrievable intellectual flourishing of post war Federal Republic of Germany.


I will try to do some steps in addressing the question whether Adorno provides with a still vital and significant tradition in philosophy and, more specifically, philosophical aesthetics.


Adorno studied with Hans Cornelius at Frankfurt University. Cornelius was a Neokantian liberal - if not a part of the political left of Neokantians - standing for historical reflection as well as for additionally extending philosophical work beyond elaborated systematic frameworks. Frankfurt University must have been an interesting place for intellectual work since it used to be among those universities that expressly welcomed Jewish scholars for the university's chairs and in consequence suffered a loss of a third of its professors in 1933 with Hitler's Machtergreifung. Also, as Adorno was a gifted child in the midth of Frankfurt's wealthy entrepreneurship he experienced a liberal bourgeois education and became very early part of Frankfurt's young philosophy and art world, especially the art worlds of literature and music. Equippped with broad literary and musical knowledge, the latter practiced as a musician and a critic, the Tripelbegabung Adorno - philosopher, critic, musician - lived a somewhat literary or bohemian life before and still after his decision to take on as a professional philosopher, a decision that he had deferred for some time.


Concerning philosophy these circumstances meant that he was open for all sorts of tendencies and would keep pace with traditional and as well undogmatic philosophizing - Neokantianism, with portions of Neohegelianism, more literary philosophy and criticism like Simmel's and the Neomarxism of Lukács and Bloch, with portions of negative theology. On the long term that perhaps necessarily had to result in a negative aesthetics of Bilderverbot (Jimenez 1997) against the background of Existenzphilosophie and Husserlian phenomenology – thereby refraining from the fundamental and founding ambitions of logical positivism and Heidegger's phenomenology respectively. The spectre of Marx hovering as a philosophical question mark above Western Europe after Russian Revolution had taken place, the philosophical years after 1918 were challenged by the question of the conditions of the possibility of philosophy's powers for real social and cultural change and renovation all the more so after metaphysics had broke down - as stated already by Marx and other young- or post-Hegelians – and the reforms of dawning 20th century could not prevent from the catastrophy of the World War One. There is no doubt that Frankfurt's liberalism made it impossible for Adorno to withdraw, even temporarily, into one of the philosophical ivory towers had they been philosophically so important and influential as the work of Husserl, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein proved to be. This was particularly the case when Adorno entered the circle of Horkheimer in 1927 who had been an assistant professor to Cornelius, had become Privatdozent in 1925 with a book on Kant's Kritik der Urteilskraft and advanced as Ordinarius for Sozialphilosophie as well as director of the Frankfurt Institut für Sozialforschung in 1930. Also Adorno began to contribute for Horkheimer's philosophically programmtic Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung from its start in 1932.


Concerning aesthetics at that time Adorno did not and would even later only to a certain extent appropriate philosophical aesthetics as it had been developed over the 19th and the beginning 20th centuries. This can be seen from the fact that he neither discussed historical work of aestheticians like Schasler and Croce nor took notice of the quarrel between the psychological aestheticians and the Neokantians on the one side and the fundamentalists on the other. Apart from Marxism in its more narrow sense Simmel's turn to sociology in philosophy and aesthetics, the Simmel-related transformation in Lukács's aesthetics and philosophy in the 1910s and in the philosophy of music in Bloch's Spirit of Utopia of 1918, it rather was Benjamin's theoretically advanced literary criticism besides Cassirer's philosophy of culture and the Frankfurt Horkheimer-competitor Mannheim's sociology of knowledge - as influential on Adorno as they all might have been anyway – that set path for a sociological philosophy that dissolved or at least rearranged traditional philosophical topics and disciplines like aesthetics. That encouraged Adorno to continue to think apart from philosophically immanent roads. With sociological philosophy I understand a philosophy that, like the psychological philosophy of Brentano, Wundt and Freud, emerged from the need of a transformation of philosophy into the Geistes- and Kulturwissenschaften under the auspices of empirical methods and scientific progress with persisting in philosophical penetration and comprehension of the observations scientifically gained. This is characteristic for the founding fathers Durkheim and Weber and reaches to the times of Lévi-Strauss, Bourdieu, Luhmann and Habermas.


More important for some time than the fate of philosophy in twentieth century with regards to young Adorno' aesthetic thought are his well known ambitions to become a composer. He, who must have had an excellent education as pianist since his then well known recital pianist aunt lived in young Adorno's household, encountered composition lectures already in 1919, but only seriously considered to become a composer for a short time after having made his PhD in 1924 the time when he went to Vienna for studying with Berg, the important member of Schönberg's Vienna School of New Music. Theoretical aesthetic work could have only interested him from that time on, from the time when he started to professionalize critical work he had begun in the years when he studied philosophy and musicology. It is important to note that at the time when he became collaborator and short time inofficial leader of Vienna's influential musicological and critical magazine Anbruch he already had another approach to critique: Ideologiekritik. Consequentely the efforts during the next years were centered in achieving a form of critique/criticism that was able to amalgate the tasks of criticizing developments in avantgarde music and equally being critical of broad musical production with industrial standards in the ideological sense as it had to be analysed by sociological instruments. That meant to relativize, as Marx put it, the necessary appearance of aesthetic quality and freedom with the business of capitalist society and lift - by sociological critique and aesthetic criticism - the suppression forced upon us by opium-like art products.


The association of the two notions of critique - music criticism and the post-Kantian critique, i. e. the critique of ideology – should philosophically convincingly only later be performed with Adorno's post-war Philosophie der neuen Musik. In this manifesto Adorno opposed to Schönberg and Strawinski on the premises of the Dialektik der Aufklärung he had written with Horkheimer in the last years of World War II. The Dialektik der Aufklärung is based upon an interpretation of Hegel's concept of Aufklärung as developed in the Phänomenologie des Geistes. There Aufklärung is concerned with modern society being in a state of alienation to is to be sublated by reflective education. Before Horkheimer and Adorno this idea had already prompted Marx to reverse Aufklärung from the head to the feet in engaging with working man's material work and economic effects in historical materialism whereas Aufklärung considered as primarily mental development was theorized by Hegel and before him by Cartesian rationalism and British empiricism intellectual  movements both being sceptical against heteronomous religious belief and thereby preparing way for the philosophical currents in prerevolutionary French Enlightenment that Hegel sought to complete. Horkheimer and Adorno recognized the immediate social effects of Naturbeherrschung not only by material work seen from Marx's labour class point of view but also in bureaucratic administration, in science including social research and, most importantly, in cultural industry and the mass media. Aware of the fact of the holocaust from which they could manage to escape they succeeded in generalizing the concept of Naturbeherrschung. Domination of nature IS enlightenment. But its dialectics, its conflicts and developments, do not necessarily lead to moral progress in humanity as Hegel was convinced of. Contrarily enlightenment constantly is in danger to relapse into the very barbarity and stupidity it always tries to overcome but showed to have been reproduced by enlightenment's own rationality and technological means in the forms of war and bureaucracy. Art already in the Dialektik der Aufklärung could be seen as a form of both  resistance and potential, since mimesis as the main sensitive faculty beyond the exigencies of self-preservation ascends to cultivating humanity by reintroducing with art the archaic-biological and the magical imitative remnants of the earlier stages of man over alienating bourgeois-technological domination (Früchtl 1998).


Against this background one can understand better Adorno's severe opposition of good Schönberg with bad Strawinsky as he drew it in his Philosophie der neuen Musik. Music and art in general came to play the key role to preserve an enlightenment that would remain capable of resisting capitalism's darkening powers of cultural industry. Justified or not Adorno related Strawinsky to aesthetic reaction or at least restauration because of his archaism, neoclassicism and occupation with popular music in rhythms and instrumentation whereas Schönberg could be seen as protector of musical evolution in liberating music from the tonal system that had ruled for more than three centuries. In Adorno's perspective Schönberg achieved staying in the realm of the true quitting rules that jeopardize the expressive cry of the subject in front of the possibility of its liquidation. Along a history of bourgeois mind of technological and scientific domination of nature, the unchaining of subject in consequence and its threatening dissolution instead of its sublation in classless society, the history of music reveals the advantage of autonomous creations salvaging the subject from its destruction. This can be artistically achieved by taking into account the social and historical preconditions of aesthetic semblance usually taken as natural and immediate. There is no beautiful semblance as originary because aesthetic material - melodies, genres, forms, acoustic environments, listening attitudes - is more or less intentionally preformed. That confronts the composer with the necessity to reflect upon the historical state of consciousness – a categoric imperative to be absolutely modern, as Adorno put it with Rimbaud - in aesthetically and exemplarily exposing the dynamic relationship of alienated material and composing subject.


It is obvious that the arts in general thereby cannot be subject to the dialectics of Hegel's Lectures on Aesthetics, not even to the dialectics of Hegel's philosophy of history as conceived in the Phänomenologie des Geistes. Art aspires to a dialectics of semblance, possible at any point of historical time. That means again, in here following Christoph Menke's account of Adorno's aesthetics as rooted in his Kierkegaard book of 1933, that the aesthetic as situated in the dimension of images and fiction is a place for truth. On the one hand the mere appearance of art is not absolute and neutral - hence the possibility of criticism - , on the other the right of semblance is to be uphold against all artful manipulation which even opens the possibility of a turn against art itself. Art works intrinsically set in motion a dialectics by means of a (modern!) art that breaks semblances in the form of fragments or enigmas. But the dialectics of semblance can only be achieved when art works are concerned with truth in different ways. It is not only obvious that this framework allows to criticize art works and even entire art forms - jazz or pop music for instance whose potential Adorno was not able to recognize (Zuidervaart 1998) -beyond the usual forms of art criticism within a socially aware critique of high art as mere ideological appearance. In so doing Adorno could use an individual, non-identical particularity of aesthetic experience that loses aesthetic autonomy - as it had been increasingly established in the course of the twentieth century – and, as the Philosophie der neuen Musik has it, confront the psychanalytical regression of R. Wagner's high art vis à vis the classical imperative of unique form upon variety. Moreover such a dialectics of semblance - dissolution of semblance in art, the turn of semblance into truth - can be worked out theoretically if not systematically as Adorno did in his posthumous Ästhetische Theorie of 1970. In this work various opposite terms like Totalität/Moment, Konstruktion/Mimesis, Sinn/Buchstabe, Geist/Material, and Prozeß/Objektivität help to reformulate a kind of dialectic motion between the sembling unity of the art work and semblance as immediate moment within this unity. Art advances toward evolving into a medium of truthn - be it a truth-in-denial as set forward by its fragmentary, enigmatic, abstract, incomplete forms. (Menke 1998)


Adorno's aesthetics itself suffices this theory of art as an object to some extent. First of all, in endeavouring after a development of aesthetic categories and doing art criticism at the same time, the Ästhetische Theorie concedes the same rights to art and philosophy as working on the same level (Jung 1995). The Aesthetic Theory being fragmentary itself because of Adorno's untimely death raises the question if the author would have been able or even willing to strip of the fragmentary character or skin of the textual body as we know it (Schneider 1996). Only for this reason, by the way, it is time for a critical edition of the book. The mimetic and paratactic order of its parts (Zima 1995) even more suggests that Adorno secretly played with the consideration of philosophy as an art in its own right and at the same time not withdrawing from philosophy and its sociologically and aesthetically critical businesses. The question whether the Aesthetic Theory offers a model for theory as aesthetic has yet to be addressed. Adorno himself at least was contradictory on this point, and to translate aesthetic truths into discursive language makes it difficult to adhere to such an understanding (Eagleton 1990).


In general it is time to ask for the significance of Adorno's philosophical aesthetics if one does not want to give way to becoming addicted to the drug APP (Adorno's philosophical prose) some of us German speaking people experienced more or less extensively. First of all, is it still possible to participate in an Adornean energy drawn from a philosophy of history that allowed for fighting for a Moderne as epoche, as special moment, as guarantee of progress sticking with all ideals of modern times at once? Certainly not. Can we still take for granted phenomena like dissonance as symbols for our time (Schneider 1996) a time that builds halls for industrially shaping car sounds and performing high art contemporary music? How can we stick with Adorno in ascribing to art a vanguard function of protest and resistance (Jung 1995, Hauskeller 1998) at a time when art has lost the avantgarde condition? Can we preserve Adorno's critical intention in rereading and reactuating his Ästhetische Theorie with for instance Lyotard's aesthetics of the sublime (Welsch 1990)? Does Adorno's assertion of silent non-identical natural beauty in contrast to artistic beauty - perhaps to be interpreted as Derrida's alterity (Schneider 1996) - force us to dispense with a concept of historical progress with modern art altogether?


We have lost the capacities of a (modern) philosophy of history, thereby postmodern, post-metanarrative thought being a late confirmation of this loss. But that does not necessarily force us to abandon the idea of a progressing organisation of aesthetic material that enables artists to keep distance to ideology and refuse the all embracing needs of the market (Liessmann 1992). Besides, art may not be the only medium but only one of the suitable media for a critique of ideology, being as dense as to be elucidated and interpreted by philosophy (Wiesing 1992). Hence the business of a philosophy of art including criticism in general and in particular. Again, truth plays a central role in art although it never will be grasped conceptually as already the young Hegelians knew who emphasized nature, chance, dream and ambiguity (Zima 1995) and as might be compared with Kant's quasi truth value of aesthetic judgments.


I cannot enter a discussion of the status of Adorno's philosophy not to speak of his sociological work that was the underpinning of his critique of ideology. I will only name some topics. It is obvious that the dialectics of semblance - which can be compared with the concept of aura that Benjamin shaped for the philosophy of art - means an invisible confrontation with phenomenology, a philosophy that perhaps took and takes appearances or phenomena all too quickly as the exclusive door for the move to what had used to be things themselves as essences forgetting individually and personally contingent epiphenomena that surround phenomena not simply as contingent entitites but betray qualities that turn out to be essential in a quite different way, qualities that the arts are prepared to present and turn out in a more superior way. Here I feel compelled to speak out a methodological doubt. As undoubted as Adorno's capabilities of minute observation and sensitive experience had been it is not clear to me whether his theory and his kind of theory laden observation was all too narrowly restricted to an enlightened Hegelianism, a  Hegelianism that was enhanced to be sure with an astonishing array of 19th and 20th century philosophers, literates and motives. As open, reversed (Marx) and based on empirical evidence Adorno's Philosophe of objektiver Geist may have been - can we still take it for valid? That brings me to another issue, the issue of the subject. Unextricably linked with bourgeois individualism Adorno himself might be considered as probably the last subject. Literate, artistically gifted and articulate an intellectual as he was Adorno as an individual downright embodied the subject, a subject that was then historically in danger as he knew too well. This fact or circumstance he succeeded to analyze - to no surprise - in his work to a large extent, especially in his philosophy of art. But if the subject has undergone its death we can with Adorno merely redraw the traces of the sicknesses that lead to its death and prevent us from its precipitate resurrection Adorno would possibly withdrawn from himself.


Here of course I refer to times that set in during the mid 1960ies in France and were not observed by Adorno. Adorno, who may have admired Sartre's media performance despite his anti-Sartrean Beckett stance, in general had little academic connection with post WWII France one of the rare performances being his 1961 lectures at the Collège de France. At this occasion he exposed his critique of Heidegger's ontology that would be included into his Negative Dialektik. His own ontology of the nonidentical exposed therein was so exclusively destined to be the counterpoint of Heidegger's that he could not see that there were other ontologies, e. g. the one emerging in the 1950ies and 1960ies within the aesthetics of analytical philosophy. Of course we will not reproach Adorno with ignoring 1968 Nelson Goodman's ontology of art in Languages of Art. But if Adorno shall become a permanent part of the international aesthetic discours we cannot but discuss what Adorno' aesthetics did, could or cannot take into consideration. To these desiderata also belong a re/construction af the Kant-Humean framework, the status of the aesthetic in the wake of aestheticization, of the anaesthetic, of disgust, aesthetic ideology, the socialisation of criticism, ontological and metaphysical art theory.


Is Adorno's aesthetics as part of a philosophical and “critical theory of society” - as was the title of the program of the Frankfurt School - a still vital and significant tradition in philosophy and, more specifically, philosophical aesthetics? In looking at the activities that were so characteristic for Adorno as philosopher - discussing with composers at Darmstadt, directing a social research company, keeping pace with social and cultural developments, assimilating recent artistic developments to philosophical and critical theory - the answer has to be: no. However as long as we do not focus upon the parts the Adorno phenomenon consisted of we will not be able to detect similar phenomena in later times, perhaps Barthes, even Jameson (Zuidervaart 1998) or Zizek. Benjamin, to whom Adorno's originality owes so much, is another intellectual and thereby philosophical phenomenon – it gives all the more rise to the desire of elaborating a concept of philosophy that includes non-, trans-, multiacademic philosophizing (we don't have it, the concept). For my part I keep admiring Adorno's critical sensibility although I personally don't know what to do with it - perhaps searching for my own - , how to implement it: this unique gaze for the detail that discloses a world. Besides I wonder how we could reactivate criticism/critique without THE subject and at the same time not withdrawing from a subjectivity that remains the reference point for sensing and articulating the Grauen. A topic closely linked to this problem of subjectivity is how not to fall victim to conspiration theories in the internet age and at the same time staying aware of and achieving resistance to an almost pervasive cultural industry that increasingly comes under pressure from the political right even in the USA (Zuidervaart 1998). At least concerning the needs of the arts themselves today Adorno's basic intention appears to be astonishingly appropriate.





Eagleton, Terry (1990): The Ideology of the Aesthetic, Oxford-UK/Cambridge-MA: Basil Blackwell


Früchtl, Josef (1998): Adorno and Mimesis, in: Michael Kelly (Hg.), Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, Bd. 1, New York-NY/Oxford-E: Oxford University Press, 23-25


Hauskeller, Michael (1998): Was ist Kunst? Positionen der Ästhetik von Platon bis Adanto, = bsr 1254, München: C. H. Beck


Jung, Werner (1995): Von der Mimesis zur Simulation. Eine Einführung in die Geschichte der Ästhetik, Hamburg: Junius


Liessmann, Konrad P. (1993): Philosophie der modernen Kunst. Eine Einführung, Wien: WUV Universitäts-Verlag


Menke, Christoph (1998): Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno, in: Nida-Rümelin, Julian/Betzler, Monika (Hg.), Ästhetik und Kunstphilosophie von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart, = Kröners Taschenausgabe 375, Stuttgart: Alfred Kröner, 5-15


Schneider, Norbert (1996): Geschichte der Ästhetik von der Aufklärung bis zur Postmoderne. Eine paradigmatische Einführung, = UB 9457, Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam jun.


Welsch, Wolfgang (1990): Adornos Ästhetik: eine implizite Ästhetik des Erhabenen, in: Ästhetisches Denken, = UB 8681, Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam Jr., 114-156


Wiesing, Lambert (1992): Th. W. Adorno: Kunst als Ideologiekritik <Kommentar>, in: ders. (Hg.) (1992): Philosophische Ästhetik, = Aschendorffs philosophische Textreihe Kurs 7, Münster: Aschendorff, 232f.


Zima, Peter (1995): Literarische Ästhetik. Methoden und Modelle der Literaturwissenschaft, = UTB 1590, 2. Aufl., Tübingen/Basel: Francke


Zuidervaart, Lambert (1998): Adorno, Theodor Wiesengrund, in: Michael Kelly (Hg.), Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, Bd. 1, New York-NY/Oxford-E: Oxford University Press, 16-20



Peter Mahr © 2003


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