Adornment, ideology, sociology



Adorno's unsystematically systematic thinking

When referring to the ideological phenomenon, authors linked to Marxism refer to a certain moment in Marx's work. Gramsci develops his reflection, centered on politics, from the Preface of 1857 to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Althusser, on the other hand, resorted to german ideology in which the phenomenon was defined as an inversion (the “dark chamber”) of false consciousness that produced an imaginary, unreal representation of the conditions of existence.

Adorno relies on the chapter on commodity fetishism in The capital to invert the perspective of the philosophies of subjectivity. Thus, it proposes a shift from the subject (human consciousness) to the object, social reality: it is the “bewitched” reality itself that duplicates the false image. Ideology, seen from this angle, accompanies the unfolding of social life. It is not, therefore, an ahistorical phenomenon, like the unconscious, as Althusser claimed, but the result of a historical process initiated with the social division of labor.

In the book Basic themes of sociology, written in collaboration with Horkheimer, reads that the study of a spiritual sphere, such as ideology, must be carried out from the “historical movement of this concept, which is, at the same time, that of the thing” (ADORNO-HORKHEIMER: 1975, p. 185), therefore, one must seek a careful understanding of the metamorphoses of the superstructure, which does not develop alone as the idealists intend, but, on the contrary, presupposes a material base (“thing”).

Resorting to history, the authors recall that in its fight against the feudal world, the nascent bourgeoisie condemned, in the name of reason and its interests, the preconceptions that justified the social order. Ideology, then, was a product of “the machinations of the powerful”. The ideological phenomenon thus appeared, on the one hand, as a mere justification of what exists and, on the other, as an action on the mentality of individuals. The Enlightenment claimed that the misunderstanding was internalized by men: the error, therefore, would be in individuals and not in the social conditions responsible for the situation. Considering the ideology error, a deviation of the intellect that moved away from reality, the Enlightenment conception remained circumscribed to the epistemological perspective. Adorno and Horkheimer, on the contrary, propose an interpretation that gives priority to the material base of society – strictly speaking, an ontological inflection that they prefer to call materialistic.

In the conception derived from the Enlightenment, “the idea predominates that with the correct knowledge of the chemistry of ideas it is possible to dominate men”, since “the knowledge of the origin and formation of ideas is the domain of specialists and what they elaborate must serve later for those who make the laws and govern the States, in order to ensure the order they desired, which was still undoubtedly identified with the rational order” (p. 180).

As a justification of an order, a cover-up, ideology was imposed as the result of non-transparent social relations in a still pre-industrial world. With the development of capitalism, its function changes, causing the traditional concept of ideology to lose its object. Until then, it was based on the alleged autonomy of spiritual products. Now, ideology dispenses with this autonomy, and its old function of being a socially necessary appearance ceases to exist, since society has become transparent and everything in it is subordinated to an organic direction that “converted the whole into a cohesive system” – “ideology and reality run into each other; because the given reality, for lack of another more convincing ideology, becomes an ideology of itself” (pp. 201 and 202).

This thesis reappears in several texts by Adorno. At negative dialectic, for example, one can read: “With society, ideology has progressed to the point that it is no longer a socially necessary illusion and autonomy as always fragile, but simply as cement: false identity between subject and object”. Or else: “ideology does not overlap the social being as a detachable layer, but lives in the most intimate point of the social being” (ADORNO: 1970, pp. 289 and 294). In this way, it became a thought of identity.

With unification, the distinction between base and superstructure also disappears: in this “cohesive system”, ideology lost its former function by becoming propaganda that duplicates the world. In Aesthetic Theory Adorno speaks of “absolute reification” to name the empirical reality that has become an ideology that duplicates itself.

The process of reification, in Lukács de History and class consciousness, had as a counterpoint the revolutionary consciousness of the proletariat; in Adorno, on the contrary, the working class would have been incorporated into the order, allowing reification to triumph definitively without encountering resistance. The reified society thus imposed itself on individuals as a second nature over the first – the socially mediated one.

Faced with this new reality, social theories were not immune. Sociology, for example, also became ideology, as the developments of positivism and idealism would prove, which capitulated in the face of reification by surrendering to “second nature”, transforming the mediated into something immediate. Duplicating immediate reality, sociology became, like its object, ideology. In his classes and essays, Adorno several times tried to contrast sociology with his critical theory, which has as its object the social praxis of men and its results, while, in Durkheim, the object of sociology was the social fact and, in Max Weber , the meaning of social action.

Against these two conceptions – the positivist and the idealist – Adornian criticism turned.


 The critique of sociology as ideology

Durkheim is Adorno's main target, since the positivist vision of society, which is limited to duplicating reality in thought, is radically opposed to critical theory and its negative dialectic. Analogously, the definition of the social fact as a thing, its impenetrable character and, mainly, the coercive action it exerts on individuals, would be the glorification of the reification and tyranny of the whole over the parts. Things are social facts, results of human action, and not the other way around. The objectivism given to the social fact, its exteriority in relation to individuals, reveals “sympathy with objectification and objectified consciousness” (ADORNO: 2004, p. 245). The latter, victim of social coercion, only adapts to the reified world, as any resistance is classified as anomie and explained as arising from the weak penetration of the collective consciousness into the individual consciousness.

Social fact objectivism echoes Hegel's "objective spirit"; Durkheim, however, was “somewhat remiss about citing his sources” (p. 234). In both theories, the primacy of the whole is imposed on individuals, coercively framing them, whereas in Durkheim the crystallization of social facts in institutions and in the collective consciousness results in the de-historization of social life and in abstraction. Historicity is replaced by fixation on “primitive phenomena” and the consequent “obsession with primitive relations: these must be prototypical of everything social” (p. 234). The collective consciousness identified with the average of opinions, beliefs, etc. it is a statistical abstraction, a mathematical construction based on the elimination of concrete qualitative differences present in social life.

This abstraction is reproduced in individuals, considered mere atoms, because although Durkheim insists that the individual is mediated by society, this mediation, says Adorno, “needs the mediated” (p. 234). Thus, Adorno, in a course given in 1968, urged sociology to resort to dialectics. Society, “is not a datum in the realm of the senses, something immediately tangible”. But neither is it an impenetrable “second-degree reality” that imposes itself on individuals. It is neither an agglomeration of atom-individuals nor “something absolutely opposite to individuals, but always contains both these moments simultaneously within itself”. Addressing the class, Adorno concluded his reasoning: “and here you can understand exactly why Sociology needs to be thought of dialectically – because here the concept of mediation between the two opposed categories, on the one hand, individuals, and, on the other hand, another, society, is present in both”. (ADORNO: 2007, p. 119).

The mediation that structures social life means that it cannot be thought of, as positivism wants, as a body formed by solidary parts that would guarantee its functioning, all of them collaborating for the balance. Adorno, rather than an organism, prefers to define society as a system: “A system is society as the synthesis of an atomized diversity, as a real, albeit abstract, compendium of something that in no way comes together in an “organic” or immediate way. The exchange relation gives the system a resolutely mechanical character: it is objectively encased in its elements, and absolutely in the manner of an organism, similar to the model of a divine theology, where there is no organ to which a function in the whole does not correspond; everything from which it receives its meaning” (ADORNO: 1973, pp. 48-9).

This conception of a society above individuals and which exerts relentless coercion over them made a school of Durkheim's disciples, as demonstrated by the various theories on social role. On the other hand, the identification of collective consciousness with the average of opinions made it possible for statistics to replace theoretical reflection in sociological research.

Durkheim's ambitious claim to build a general theory of society gave way, among his disciples, to the more modest project of working with “middle-range theories” (RK Merton), replacing the organicist and totalizing vision of global society with different social systems. In this change of direction, the social coercive bond over the individual was broken: like loose, atomized pieces, they now move within society, freely playing various social roles detached from objective relations of dominion.

Adorno remembers that the expression social role was born in the theater, where the actors are not the characters they represent. This actor-character duality actually expresses an antagonism. Theorizing about social roles in the human sciences had been anticipated by Marx when, in The capital, claimed that individuals under capitalism were personifications of economic categories. The reification effected in this way served to hide the domination over men, a discovery that still did not appear in Marx's juvenile texts that gravitated around the theory of alienation.

According to Adorno, the discourse on the alienation of the self, as it appears in the Economic-philosophical manuscripts, is untenable: “this speech became apologetic because it suggests, with paternal aspects, that man would be separated from a being-in-itself that he never was” (ADORNO: 1970, p. 232). In a different register, the defense of a lost authenticity reappeared in Heidegger and in other writers centered on the concept of person or on its variants, such as the I-you relationship, which assume “the oily tone of a theology”.

Positivist sociology does not speak of alienation, nor does it admit the possibility of a split tearing the individual between his ego and the social roles he is obliged to play. At most, it refers to anomie to explain individual maladjustments, the result of little coercion by the collective conscience over individual conscience or, then, pathological behaviors that would express deviations that do not collaborate with the proper functioning of the social gear.

The sociological theory on the social role found its most famous expression in the work of Talcott Parsons, who replaced the Durkheimian social organism with the theory of the social system built from the sum of elements that has as its starting point the relationship between two minimal units: alter and ego. From this relationship, expectations of behavior, possible types of action, etc., are produced. Parsons derives from this minimal unit the elements that make up the social system: norms, values, roles, status, structure, functions, etc. In this way, the maximum possible totalization is no longer society, the living organism, but the set of existing social systems. While Durkheim started from the totality (organism) to understand isolated phenomena, Parsons, on the contrary, starts from the relationship of two individuals to deduce the different social systems.

We are, therefore, with Parsons, before a psychologizing theory that celebrates the image of the uprooted individual acting freely in the performance of his functions. Fragments of this theory guided some “Systematic Sociology” manuals that reproduced this image of individuals moving in a society presumably without coercion (the former professors who followed this trend used to oppose status and social role, concluding in a solemn tone: “the status is static, the role is dynamic, as the individual does not remain fixed in a position, as he actively plays different roles in his existence”).

This peaceful coexistence between the individual and society is, according to Adorno, the exemplary expression of the tyranny exercised by the totality over individualities. Hence the urgency to shift the philosophical critique of identity to the realm of the social sciences.

The social coercion that structured Durkheim's vision of society was abandoned in the empirical sociology that flourished in the United States from the 30s onwards. The fragmentation of social life, conceived as an idyllic scenario where free individuals play roles, brought with it the abandonment of social mediations, the forgetfulness of the economic structures that organize and mediate human relations. Thus, observes Adorno, “Roles are part of a social structure that trains men to pursue only their self-preservation and, at the same time, deny them the conservation of their I” (ADORNO: 2001, p. 12). Sociology should overcome immediacy, the reduction of society to the performance of loose individuals and find a social structure organized from the beginning to perpetuate the social division of labor and the training of individuals who will “freely” fulfill the functions imposed on them.

The empowerment of individuals, in turn, in addition to causing the replacement of the general theory of society by the psychologizing analysis of the social system, transformed statistics into the main tool of sociological interpretation.

Adorno, exiled in the United States, knew firsthand the avalanche of empirical research produced by the association of the university with business conglomerates, a phenomenon that later deserved the brilliant criticism of Wright Mills, in the sociological imagination. Invited to work on a survey of music played on the radio, Adorno heard the astonishing warning of an American professor: “You came here to do research, not to think” (ADORNO: 1973, p. 62). Disconnecting research from reflection was then an imperative to guarantee the objectivity of knowledge without lucubrations and philosophical abstractions.

The first victim of this procedure is the refusal of totality, seen as a product of speculation, a daydream of philosophers. With this refusal, however, the unsolvable problems of empirical sociology begin. What is the starting point of research on society? Marx's readers will remember that passage where he says it could be the population, then noting that this, without the determinations, is an abstraction. Empirical research goes further: from this abstract datum, which is the population, a sample is taken, the drawing of individuals, who, in the sequence, will be interviewed individually.

The responses obtained, that is, the opinions of individuals, are the material to be interpreted by the sociologist. But what is most important in society and, therefore, should be privileged in research? The “common” type, the one included in the largest number of responses obtained? The “typical” type, the one that expresses universal traits in its uniqueness, as intended by the realistic novel of the 2,3th century? Or the “average” type, that statistical abstraction that concentrates the sector favored by the research at a certain point of confluence, thus neutralizing the extreme points that remain on the margins? Empirical sociology works with the average, but this is more of an abstraction, since being a statistical creation, the “average” type does not find correspondence in concrete individuals (none of the interviewees, for example, regularly watches XNUMX films per month).

The center of Adorno's critique is the issue of objectivity. The fragmentation of society understood as a totality and the consequent atomization of individuals distance research from the intended objectivity and consecrate pure subjectivism. The research's first and last reference is the opinion of individuals on questions imposed on them by the researcher. Adorno says: “the intention is to investigate an object through an instrument of investigation that decides, by virtue of its own formulation, what the object itself is – in short, a vicious circle” (p. 86). Therefore, objectivity is restricted to the research method, and not to the object. Thus, sociology “takes the epiphenomenon, what the world has made of us, for the thing itself” (p. 87). The reified nature of the method “is transferred to its objects, that is, to the ascertained subjective states of affairs, as if these were things in themselves and were not reified” (p. 84).

The devastating criticism of empirical sociology, however, was accompanied by a finding that was very faithful to Adorno's dialectical spirit: this theory contains a moment of truth in faithfully reflecting the reality of reification. For this reason, Adorno has always endeavored to bring philosophy closer to the human sciences and, in particular, to sociology, a project announced in 1931, when he took over the direction of the Institute for Social Research (ADORNO: 1964). The conciliation between philosophy and empirical research, attempted in the United States, was resumed when he returned to Germany after the Second World War. There, he came across the hegemony of idealism, expressed in the conception of Weber's disciples who considered sociology a “science of the spirit”.

Weber was always an important influence on Adorno, who took up and critically re-elaborated central themes in his work, such as, for example, rationalization. But the Weberian project of creating a “comprehensive sociology” is summarily discarded. This claim to know society “from the inside”, through the meaning attributed to the action of individuals, is rejected by Adorno with an argument that recalls Durkheim’s “thingism”: social life is not restricted to the action of individuals, as it involves others elements that escape them, such as institutions. These, according to Durkheim, are the results of the synthesis of the actions of individuals and, from this synthesis, something new is born, objective, with its own existence that imposes itself on them, who no longer recognize it as their creation, thus remaining impenetrable to reason. . Adorno, likewise, understands institutions not as “immediate action”, but rather as “coagulated action (…) something that has become autonomous in the face of immediate action”. (ADORNO: 2007, p. 254).

Against the meaning attributed to individuals, Adorno, like Durkheim, believes that the meaning of social action “depends much more on these institutions and can be explained solely on the basis of these institutions” (p.255). The similarities, however, end there. Unlike Durkheim, he argues that treating social facts as things implies renouncing to understand them: “Durkheim was not dissuaded by the fact that every individual primarily experiences society as the non-identical, as “coercion”. To this extent, reflection on society begins where comprehensibility ends. In Durkheim, the natural-scientific method, which he defends, registers this “second nature” of Hegel in which society ended up converting itself in front of its members. Weber's antithesis, however, is as partial as this thesis, for it is satisfied with incomprehensibility, as he is with the postulate of comprehensibility. What one should do is understand the incomprehensibility, deduce the opacity of a society autonomous and independent of men from the relations existing between them. Today more than ever, sociology should understand the incomprehensible, humanity's entry into the inhuman” (ADORNO: 2001, pp.11-12).

The transformation of sociology into an ideology that enjoys reproducing the second nature, the “inhuman”, the “second degree reality”, was criticized, as we have seen, through reference to the Marxian theory of value and its consequence: commodity fetishism . This same theoretical basis was summoned in Adorno's last work, aesthetic theory. In it, Adorno's unsystematically systematic thought returns to themes that are dear to him: the critique of the Hegelian system that submits the parts to the domain of the whole, the relationship between appearance and essence, immediate and mediate, quantity and quality, the new function of ideology which now pervades the interior of reality, etc.

*Celso Frederico is a retired senior professor at ECA-USP. Author, among other books, of Essays on Marxism and Culture (Morula).



ADORNO & HORKHEIMER, Max. Basic themes of sociology (Sao Paulo: Cultrix, 1973).

ADORNO, Theodor. negative dialectic (Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 1970).

ADORNO, Theodor. “Introduction to sociology and philosophy, by Émile Durkheim, complete work, volume 8 (Madrid: Akal, 2004).

ADORNO, Theodor. Introduction to Sociology (São Paulo: Unesp, 2007).

ADORNO, Theodor. "Introduction", in ADORNO, Theodor, POPPER, Karl, DAHRENDORF, Ralf, HABERMAS, Jürgen, ALBERT, Hans and PILOT, Harald, The Dispute of Positivism in German Sociology (Barcelona: Grijalbo, 1973).

ADORNO, Theodor. Epistemology and social sciences (Madrid: Frónesis, 2001),

ADORNO, Theodor. Justification of philosophy (Madrid: Taurus, 1964).

MÜLLER-DOOHM, Stephan. In crops of nobody (Barcelona: Herder, 2003).

WIGGERHAUS, Rolf. the frankfurt school (São Paulo: Difel, 2002).


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