Philosophy Theodor Adorno
Lambert Zuidervaart
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 May 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0199


Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno (b. 1903–d. 1969) was a leading philosopher and social critic in postwar Germany. The only child of an assimilated Jewish father and Corsican Catholic mother, he began studies in music and philosophy at an early age. Not long after completing a Habilitationsschrift on Kierkegaard’s aesthetics, he left Nazi Germany, eventually settling in the United States. There he joined other exiled members of the Institute of Social Research, a center for interdisciplinary Marxist scholarship founded in 1923. Collectively known as the Frankfurt School, their members included Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and other scholars in literature, psychology, economics, and political theory. Several important publications stem from Adorno’s years in American exile, including Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947, with Horkheimer), Philosophy of New Music (1949), Minima Moralia (1951), and a monumental study in qualitative psychology titled The Authoritarian Personality (1950). After his return to Frankfurt in the 1950s, Adorno took over the directorship of the Institute from Horkheimer and became a sought-after professor of philosophy and an influential public intellectual, publishing books on Husserl (1956) and Hegel (1963) and many volumes on music, literature, and social and cultural criticism—collected in such works as Prisms (1955) and Critical Models (1963, 1969). The most important philosophical works from these years are his Negative Dialectics (1966) and Aesthetic Theory (1970). The latter appeared one year after his death, when he was at the height of his intellectual powers and sociocultural influence and in the middle of sociopolitical controversies ignited by the German student protest movement. These controversies shaped the reception of Adorno’s work right after his death, with bitter battles over his legacy occurring between the activists of the New Left and academic successors such as Jürgen Habermas, who had been Adorno’s student and later became the Institute’s director. As these controversies faded, however, and Adorno’s work became more widely available both in his Gesammelte Schriften (Collected Writings) and in translations, detailed studies in many different fields began to appear. Martin Jay’s 1973 history of the Frankfurt School, titled The Dialectical Imagination (see Histories and Biographies), paved the way for an especially rich and diverse reception in the English-speaking world. The secondary literature surveyed in this article includes only scholarship in English or in English translation. Attention to similar literature in German, French, Italian, and other languages would require a much longer article.

Introductions and General Overviews

Partly because Adorno’s work is both provocative and difficult to interpret, many introductions and surveys have appeared in English. Rose 1978 and Jay 1984 uncover his historical and conceptual roots. The more recent works Jarvis 1998 and O’Connor 2013 emphasize Adorno’s appropriation of the German intellectual tradition, especially Kant and Hegel. Cook 2008, Schweppenhäuser 2009, Zuidervaart 2011, and Bowie 2013 provide thematic introductions to Adorno’s central concepts and concerns. Jarvis 1998, Zuidervaart 2011, and O’Connor 2013 best combine comprehensiveness with accessibility.

  • Bowie, Andrew. Adorno and the Ends of Philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2013.

    A clear and illuminating discussion of key ideas in Adorno’s thought and their relevance for contemporary philosophy, especially with reference to recent Hegel scholarship and neo-pragmatism.

  • Cook, Deborah, ed. Theodor Adorno: Key Concepts. Stocksfield, UK: Acumen, 2008.

    Introductory essays by an international group of Adorno scholars on his intellectual legacy and on discrete aspects of his philosophy: logic, metaphysics, epistemology, moral philosophy, social philosophy, political philosophy, aesthetics, philosophy of culture, and philosophy of history.

  • Jarvis, Simon. Adorno: A Critical Introduction. New York: Routledge, 1998.

    A wide-ranging and accessible introduction to Adorno’s thought, with an emphasis on his critical appropriations of classical German philosophy and sociology and with a view to Husserl, Heidegger, and Derrida.

  • Jay, Martin. Adorno. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.

    A succinct and lucid introduction to the “force-field” of Adorno’s thought, as energized by competing impulses from “Western Marxism, aesthetic modernism, mandarin cultural despair, and Jewish self-identification, as well as the more anticipatory pull of deconstructionism” (p. 22).

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

    An astute and readable introduction to Adorno’s philosophical ideas and concerns, centered on his notion of experience and conversant with his readings of Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Freud, Lukács, and Benjamin.

  • Rose, Gillian. The Melancholy Science: An Introduction to the Thought of Theodor W. Adorno. London: Macmillan, 1978.

    The first English-language introduction to Adorno’s thought, with an emphasis on his developing a Marxist critique of culture rooted in Georg Lukács’s concept of reification.

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

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822390725

    A thematic introduction to central Adornian concepts by a leading German Adorno scholar, with an emphasis on Minima Moralia, Dialectic of Enlightenment, and Negative Dialectics.

  • Zuidervaart, Lambert. “Theodor W. Adorno.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2011.

    A succinct and comprehensive survey of Adorno’s thought, with a view to its contemporary philosophical significance.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.