No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Theodor W. Adorno

Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969) was a social philosopher from the (critical) Frankfurt School, which also included Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin and Herbert Marcuse. Adorno was notoriously famous for his critique of the capitalist system, science and art in which uniformity (standardization and variations on only one theme) sets the tone, to the detriment of the other, the unknown and uncontrollable of human and non-human nature . The culture industry creates the demand for what capitalism offers, and sensemaking disappears from the scene, Adorno wrote. Together with Horkheimer, Adorno drew attention to the failing project of enlightenment: its espoused values of rationality and progress turned into a compulsion to control.

Sociology of Art

The Frankfurt School's approach to the sociology of art differed from that of more traditional Marxist thought in that it viewed art not just as a reflection of existing social trends, but also as a means through which people could express their desire for an alternative society. According to the Frankfurt School, true art serves as a way for people to express their interests in their own happiness and serves as a source of utopia in a world that has lost its sense of transcendence. The Frankfurt School also recognized that art is always tied to the social conditions under which it is produced and, as such, can be critical of the existing reality. In their analysis of mass culture, the Frankfurt School argued that the products of the culture industry, including artificial art, are stripped of their use value and become commodities that are subject to the laws of capitalism. They argued that this results in the production of an emasculated art that is unable to serve as a source of protest and instead serves to confirm the existing reality.

The Autoritarian Personality

A study conducted in the wake of World War II, 'The Authoritarian Personality' investigated the connections between personality traits and political culture in post-war American society. Using a blend of clinical and social psychology methods, it examined the emergence of authoritarianism.

The research addressed the formation of authoritarian and democratic attitudes within education, family, and social interactions. The study revealed antisemitism as part of a broader ideological framework influenced by psychological needs and social climates.

Adorno and colleagues emphasized that persistent tendencies aren't solely tied to innate factors but also to social circumstances, but, personality structure does impact susceptibility to antidemocratic propaganda. Self-awareness and self-determination were seen as important to counter manipulation. Adorno wrote that societal changes are integral to combatting authoritarian structures.

Adorno developed the F-scale to measure subjects' susceptibility to authoritarian, anti-democratic, and fascistoid tendencies (stemming from the fear of the unknown and the uncontrollable). Some critics might view the study as reductionist because it focuses on a specific set of personality traits and attributes and suggests that these traits are the primary determinants of an individual's political beliefs and behaviors. This could be seen as reducing the complexity of human psychology and social behavior to a single set of characteristics, rather than considering the multiple factors that may influence an individual's beliefs and actions. Additionally, the study was conducted using a sample of subjects that may not have been representative of the general population, which could also contribute to a perception of reductionism. Despite these criticisms, the work is foundational due to its focus on cultural variables, refinement of measurement techniques, and attempt to integrate the quantitative and the qualitative.

Individual and Organization

Adorno was concerned about society being completely ruled by bureaucracy, rationalization and technology: "Supremacy of a dehumanized apparatus up to the consequences of complete inhumanity", "a moment of rigidity, coldness, externality, violence", "the organizational hardening of the world" or the central "thesis of the inevitability of organization."
Adorno saw nothing in humanization projects for organisations: "It cannot be a question of incorporating the human, the immediate or the individual into the organization. Such installation would make it self-organizing and deprive it of the very quality one hopes to preserve. Likewise, the nature conservation park does not save nature and sooner or later turns out to be just a traffic obstacle in the social hustle and bustle" (1954; p. 33).

Adorno's critical theory can be used to analyze and criticize the ways in which power is exercised and how it affects the people within the organization. Adorno's critique of the mass media which reinforce dominant ideologies and values can be applied to the ways organizations communicate and present themselves to the public. Adorno's work can also be used to examine the ways in which organizational structures and practices reproduce and reinforce inequalities, for example through the use of hierarchical power structures or discriminatory practices. By applying a critical lens, it is possible to identify and challenge these systems of domination and work to create more just organizations.


Adorno, Theodor W. (1954): Individuum und Organisation. In: Neumark, Fritz (Hg.): Individuum und Organisation. Darmstädter Gespräche. Darmstadt: Neue Darmstädter Verlagsanstalt, S. 21 – 35.
Adorno, Theodor, Frenkel-Brunswik, Else, Levinson, Daniel, Sanford, Nevitt (1993) [1950]. The Authoritarian Personality. Studies in Prejudice Series. Vol. 1. New York City: Harper & Row and W. W. Norton & Company.

Kühl, S. (Ed.; 2015), Schlüsselwerke der Organisationsforschung, Wiesbaden: Springer VS.
Weyns, W. (2017), Inleiding tot de sociale wetenschappen, Antwerp: Universiteit Antwerpen.

By clicking the button below, you can read my summary of Adorno's essay bundles "Interventions" and "Catchwords", and watch the video "The Managed World".

Below you can see a video from a 3sat documentary about Adorno. Here's a short description of its content:

In 1948, three years after the end of World War II, Frankfurt's inhabitants were rebuilding their city amidst the ruins, trying to erase the memory of the past and the failures of a whole generation. The Goethe University, once the most modern in Germany before the Nazi era, saw students helping to construct new lecture halls. Nearby, the Institute for Social Research, originally founded in the 1920s and the first Marxist research institution at a German university, was also in ruins. The institute was established with funds from a grain merchant and led for many years by Max Horkheimer. It aimed to free Marxism from its dogmatic constraints, with contributions from notable intellectuals like Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor Adorno.

After the war, efforts were made to bring back the saved books and professors. The bulk of the book ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment’ was largely Theodor Adorno's work, who had joined Max Horkheimer in the United States. Horkheimer returned to Frankfurt in 1948 aboard the Queen Mary, not as a victor but seeking a new purpose for the Institute, possibly re-educating Germans towards democracy. The institute officially reopened on November 14, 1951, with significant support from the U.S. and local government. Adorno, now a professor, received unprecedented recognition. Frankfurt was captivated by the activities of the institute, which became a beacon of intellectual and political revival, signaling an overcoming of National Socialism. The institute operated independently, almost like a self-sufficient ship, prepared to leave if Germany reverted to reactionary politics.

Only 130 out of the original 30,000 Jews returned to Frankfurt after the war. Horkheimer and Adorno's return was extraordinary and their mission to promote justice and freedom was seen as essential. They faced challenges, including skepticism towards democracy and denial of guilt among Germans. The institute conducted a major study on the authoritarian personality and other socio-political issues, revealing a persistent ambivalence towards democracy and a refusal to acknowledge guilt for Nazi crimes. To sustain itself, the institute took on commercial research projects, though Adorno found them unfulfilling. The institute's work, later known as Critical Theory, did not propose utopian ideals but critically analyzed reality through Hegel and Marx, attracting young intellectuals. Prominent figures like Jürgen Habermas were influenced by the institute, which played a crucial role in shaping post-war German intellectual life. In Frankfurt, one confronted Marx in a different way from the scholasticism taught in East Berlin. This was the notion that existence determines consciousness. Adorno represented the opposite: it was a confrontation with Marx without Marx's quotations or biblical citations. Adorno taught his students to think critically.

Thomas Mann, while in California, wrote his novel "Doctor Faustus," symbolizing Germany's path to fascism through a modern composer. Adorno, familiar with Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique, introduced it to Mann. Mann subsequently wrote a book about the creation of "Doctor Faustus," which solidified Adorno's reputation as a music philosopher. Adorno was actively involved in the Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music, where he interacted with young composers, occasionally presenting his pre-war compositions. Adorno provided a framework for understanding new music through his philosophy written in the USA. Without Adorno, the best developments in music after World War II might not have begun. His role in the rediscovery of the Viennese School was pivotal, influencing composers and musicians alike.

While Adorno enhanced the intellectual reputation of the Institute for Social Research, Horkheimer, now distant from his Marxist past, prioritized maintaining favor with political authorities and avoided revolutionary rhetoric. He concealed early critical theory works from students, fearing their revolutionary potential. The institute's shift away from overt Marxism was influenced by the political climate of the Cold War. Jürgen Habermas, Adorno's assistant, faced dismissal upon insisting on maintaining critical theory's integrity. Horkheimer, perceiving him as a threat, insisted on his removal, though Habermas ultimately left voluntarily. Adorno, although influential, could not protect him.

In 1959, Adorno took over the institute, ceasing empirical studies and relying on past works for societal critique. He became a prominent public figure, regularly speaking on radio and television, and advocating for a different kind of society, where individuals could determine their fate.
Adorno's critique of society was profound, opposing both the prevailing institutional powers and rival philosophers like Heidegger. Despite their differing philosophies, both shared a sense of disillusionment with contemporary society. Adorno's influence extended to an entire generation of German intellectuals, shaping cultural and critical discourse.

The city of Frankfurt was an intellectual hub, with prominent figures like Adorno contributing significantly to its vibrancy. The Suhrkamp Verlag publishing house was central to this intellectual life. Despite the intellectual and cultural dynamism, Adorno grew increasingly pessimistic about society, believing people were too entrenched in falsehoods to conceive of a better life.

Influenced by global events like the Vietnam War, students in West Germany became politically active, critiquing unresolved issues from Germany’s past and opposing contemporary injustices.
Adorno was skeptical of combining political protest with popular music, believing that the commercial nature of pop music undermined its potential for serious critique. He preferred art that resisted consumption, like the works of Samuel Beckett. Adorno had mixed feelings about the student protests. While initially sympathetic, he grew disillusioned with their methods and perceived lack of focus. He believed in intellectualism over direct action, viewing thinking itself as a form of practice.
Adorno worked on a book about Beethoven, while also trying to navigate the challenges posed by the student movement. He supported democratic reforms at his institute but was frustrated by the unyielding demands of the students, leading to conflicts and ultimately, an occupation of the institute by the students.

In 1969, a group of students occupied a symbolic house as a form of rebellion against the leaders of the protest movement, leading to a power struggle. Among the occupiers was Frank Wolf, a student of Adorno. The students hoped the professors would support their cause rather than just provoke the police. Despite the tensions, the institute’s leadership, including Adorno, had to call the police to clear the building. The police intervention led to legal consequences. The occupation marked a turning point in the student movement, as the institute lost its aura and the students felt abandoned. In April 1969, the Frankfurt Women's Council disrupted Adorno's lecture with a provocative action, deeply hurting Adorno, who was already struggling with health issues and personal conflicts. Adorno died in August 1969, shortly after this incident. His death was followed by his wife Gretel's unsuccessful suicide attempt. She lived until 1993, with her husband's archives eventually forming the Adorno Archive.