Literary and Critical Theory Theodor Adorno
Alex Thomson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0062


Theodor W. Adorno (b. 11 September 1903–d. 6 August 1969) was one of the leading European philosophers of the 20th century. He made original contributions across a range of fields, including aesthetics, moral philosophy, and social theory, and wrote widely on the history of modern philosophy. A pianist and composer, and an accomplished prose stylist, he also published extensively on music and literature. These individual achievements must be viewed alongside Adorno’s leading role in the development of critical theory in Germany from the 1930s to the 1960s, via his contribution to the interdisciplinary Institute for Social Research. Associated with the Institute in the 1930s, he was pivotal to its intellectual development after its return to Frankfurt in 1950 from wartime exile in the United States. This is crucial to understanding Adorno’s intellectual trajectory, given that he published relatively few substantial philosophical works in his lifetime, choosing instead to publish most of his writing in the form of essays, often of considerable length. A pioneer of the interdisciplinary study of culture and society, Adorno’s work is deliberately nonsystematic, and his thinking manifests itself in an enormous body of written work on diverse topics, including polemical engagements with contemporary philosophers; interventions in sociological debates; the historical criticism and retrieval of German philosophy, particularly the work of Kant and Hegel; art criticism; and literary essays. These publication decisions were partly contingent on circumstances, and partly driven by the author’s sense of the intimate connection between the form of expression of thought and its meaning, and his aim to give a primacy to the object. They are also in part the product of a conscious decision to play a role as a public intellectual in the new Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), such as taking part in nearly 160 radio broadcasts. In recent years, the posthumous publication of his lecture courses has also revealed Adorno’s gifts as a university teacher. This bibliography is restricted to materials available in English, and inevitably reflects the evolution of Adorno’s reception in the Anglophone world. For several decades this has been intertwined with larger debates over the intellectual and political legacy of critical theory. It is only since the late 1990s that a substantial independent body of scholarship on Adorno has become available, following the translation of almost all of his own published work. This bibliography reflects the ongoing importance of the earlier debates, but also the significance of more recent studies for understanding Adorno’s idiosyncratic philosophical project. The volume of Adorno’s own publications and the subsequent critical commentary necessitate a highly selective approach.

General Overviews

Adorno is an extremely challenging writer because of his concern for form and his range of cultural and intellectual reference. Although his thought is essayistic and anti-systematic, he insists on the interconnection of topics in philosophy and cultural analysis that are often treated in distinct fields. Similarly, he emphasizes the mediation of individual subjectivity and the categories of philosophical thinking within the totality of the concrete social and historical world. For anyone seeking to focus on a particular area of Adorno’s thought, it will be helpful to gain a sense of the work as a whole. Moreover, because of his conception of the task of philosophy as immanent critique, it is important to contextualize his work in relation to its immediate historical context, the intellectual traditions on which it draws, and the specific works of art or philosophy with which it is engaged. Zuidervaart 2015 is a short and reliable overview. Although differing in their emphases, Hohendahl 1995 and Schweppenhäuser 2009 are both very clear and accessible while devoting space to all aspects of Adorno’s work. O’Connor 2013 is a rigorously argued introduction to central areas of Adorno’s thinking, with an emphasis on his philosophical work, reflecting more recent tendencies in the secondary literature. Huhn 2004 and Cook 2014 are both thorough and wide-ranging collections of essays; each aims to cover the full range of Adorno’s interests, the latter more telegraphically. Jarvis 1998 is more detailed than the other overviews listed, and also devotes more space to social theory and the legacy of Marxism to critical theory; it is also more interpretative, rethinking the contemporary relevance of Adorno’s work. Hullot-Kentor 2012 and Rose 2014 are more specialized studies—the former arguing strongly for a renewal of Adorno’s project, and the latter more critical. Both are particularly valuable for their close attention to questions of form and style.

  • Cook, Deborah, ed. Adorno: Key Concepts. London: Routledge, 2014.

    This is an accessible overview written by a distinguished team of contributors and featuring short chapters on different areas of Adorno’s thought. It is a republication of a book originally published by Acumen in 2008.

  • Hohendahl, Peter Uwe. Prismatic Thought: Theodor W. Adorno. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

    A stylish introduction to Adorno, with a helpful emphasis on his writings on literature and aesthetics.

  • Huhn, Tom, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Adorno. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    Excellent collection of essays covering many aspects of Adorno’s thought, reflecting the increasing sophistication and breadth of the secondary literature in the 1990s. Individual essays offer critically informed overviews of specific topics; the whole functions very effectively as a sophisticated introduction.

  • Hullot-Kentor, Robert. Things beyond Resemblance: Collected Essays on Theodor W. Adorno. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.

    This book collects a series of influential essays written by a distinguished translator of Adorno’s works and first published between 1984 and 2006. Many of the essays examine the difficulties of reading and responding to specific texts, and are particularly helpful in understanding Adorno’s stylistic techniques.

  • Jarvis, Simon. Adorno: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1998.

    This is an exceptionally thorough survey of Adorno’s work and thought, devoting serious attention to the intersection of philosophy and critical social theory. Where earlier studies tended to link Adorno primarily to the Western Marxist tradition deriving from Georg Lukács, the approach taken here looks back further to Kant and Hegel.

  • O’Connor, Brian. Adorno. London: Routledge, 2013.

    Provides a clear overview of all aspects of Adorno’s work, stressing their interconnection. Written by a philosopher, it is a good reflection of the increasing emphasis on epistemology and moral philosophy taken by scholarship on Adorno since the turn of the century.

  • Rose, Gillian. The Melancholy Science: An Introduction to the Thought of Theodor W. Adorno. London: Verso, 2014.

    Originally published in 1978, this is both a classic exposition of Adorno’s thinking and a substantial work of philosophical interpretation in its own right. Although described as an “introduction,” this is a challenging book. However, few studies of Adorno are as sensitive to the importance of form and style in his work, and to the complex interplay between philosophical, sociological, and aesthetic questions.

  • Schweppenhäuser, Gerhard. Theodor W. Adorno: An Introduction. Translated by James Rolleston. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822390725

    This is a very readable overview of Adorno’s work, with insights into his intellectual trajectory, and a particular stress on the integration of ethical questions with aesthetic and philosophical concerns. First published in German in 1996.

  • Zuidervaart, Lambert. “Theodor Adorno.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2015.

    Concise, thoughtful entry in the reputable online reference work, covering all the major areas of Adorno’s thought. An excellent starting point for an overview.

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