The end of autonomous thinking

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Individuals with a reified consciousness are incapable of intellectual experimentation. They are not able to reflect critically and autonomously on reality.

Theodor Adorno's concern with the formative process in capitalist society runs through all of his work. When analyzing the formative process in the contemporary world, he realized that people are formed by society, through various mediating instances, in such a way that they absorb and accept everything, in terms of this alienated configuration. In this way, “[…] the training of subjects is increasingly confused with training, with adapting to the mechanisms that regulate production and that spread to the entire scope of life.” (MAIA, 2009, p. 47).

In the essay “Theory of Semiculture”, Theodor Adorno (2005) came to the conclusion that cultural formation in the modern world has degenerated, becoming semi-formation, understood by him as a kind of pseudo-culture, whose characteristic is to be one-dimensional and limited. Semi-formation is a formation defined a priori, which became the dominant form of consciousness, transforming itself into socialized semi-formation, under the determination of the cultural industry (MAAR, 2003).

Mass culture, planned and developed by the cultural industry, which produces semiculture, denied the transcendent values ​​of literature, art, music, which claimed freedom, equality, happiness and a better life for individuals. By denying these values, she produced new ideal models of life, such as beauty, the body, the family, the qualities of the soul and wealth: “Here is the terrible world of ideal models of a healthy life, giving men an image false than real life is.” (ADORNO, 1995, p. 84). These renewing ideals were conveyed in films, novels, soap operas, songs and advertisements. In place of transcendent values ​​of emancipation for all, the cultural industry responded with ideals of pleasure, consumption and individual satisfaction.

In order to disseminate the values ​​of the industrial capitalist world, all existence was forced to pass through the filter of the culture industry. The greater the perfection with which the cultural industry duplicates reality, the easier it creates the illusion that the outside world is the seamless extension of the world that is discovered in the film (ADORNO; HORKHEIMER, 1985). The imagination, autonomy and spontaneity of the cultural consumer are paralyzed by the very constitution of homogenized cultural products. As a result, semi-formation became the form of consciousness in individuals.

In a reality based on reification, where all things are leveled by the form of merchandise, people lose their autonomy, accepting with greater or lesser resistance what existence imposes on them. As a result, men are no longer able to experiment, because technical controls intervene between them and reality, which prevent a true awareness of reality. For Theodor Adorno (1995, p. 150), “[…] the constitution of aptitude for experience would essentially consist of awareness.”

However, in modern societies, the technical apparatus has acquired such power that individuals have been annulled as an autonomous subjectivity. The formation of conscience is constituted in the context of an administered society, which encloses individuals, disciplining them to socially established patterns of thought and behavior. The administered society is defined by the union between capital and democratic institutions, seeking greater technical and administrative rationality, in order to obtain greater organization, control and planning of individuals. As Theodor Adorno (1995, p. 43) rightly evaluated, if people want to live in society, “[...] there is nothing left for them but to adapt to the existing situation, to conform; need to give up that autonomous subjectivity to which the idea of ​​democracy refers.”

Theodor Adorno, in his works, was greatly influenced by his friend and partner Walter Benjamin, who reflected on the loss of experience in the modern world. For Walter Benjamin (1994), with the development of technology, a new form of spiritual misery emerged. The formative experience, which enabled the emancipation of the bourgeois class, gave way to an impoverished experience of values ​​and ideas that spread among people, such as the renewal of astrology and yoga, of Christian Science and palmistry, vegetarianism and gnosis, scholasticism and spiritualism.

Following Walter Benjamim's analysis of the loss of experience, Theodor Adorno (1985, p. 36) concluded that, “[…] the more the process of self-preservation is ensured by the bourgeois division of labor, the more it forces the self-alienation of individuals , which must be formed in the body and soul according to the technical apparatus.” Individuals, by reducing their existence to consumption and the idiotic entertainment of the cultural industry, let their interiority be shaped by the production of merchandise. In this way, society forms people through countless channels and mediating instances, in such a way that they absorb and accept everything, in terms of this alienated configuration (ADORNO, 1995).

In the contemporary world, social organization continues to be heteronomous, that is, no person can really exist in capitalist society according to his or her own passions and desires. As the world was leveled by the commodity form, the ego adjusted to reality learned order and subordination, through the technical and economic apparatus, which encompasses everything. In this sense, “[…] the phenomena of alienation are based on the social structure.” (ADORNO, 1995, p. 148). Adaptation, conformism, the absence of reflection, conventional behaviors are characteristics of this alienation.

Just as Kant understood, in his time, minority as a guardianship condition, caused by man's laziness and cowardice in using his own understanding, Theodor Adorno interpreted minority, in our time, in terms of loss of experience. For him (1995), men are no longer able to experiment, as they interpose between themselves and what is to be experienced those stereotyped layers of models, ways of thinking and acting socially determined. Adorno thinks, above all, of the role played by technique in the formation or deformation of consciousness and the unconscious. The most serious problem would be linked to the very constitution of consciousness, which is formed in the context of a reified society, which disconnects thought from its formative contents (PETRY, 2015).

In the administered world, the cultural industry plays a fundamental role in the loss of experience, because it is what disseminates the standardized products of semiculture. It prevents enlightenment and awareness of reality, since it makes critical reflection impossible by disseminating pasteurized cultural products. By doing so, it renders consciousness incapable of properly addressing reality. We could say, therefore, that semi-formation is characterized by the distorted way in which individuals experience culture, since they take it immediately, without its content being appropriated by the individual.

Semi-formation is thus revealed as a form of blockage for carrying out an experience, insofar as it prevents the subject from maintaining a living relationship with the culture. It makes him establish a partial connection with the products he has access to, which ends up contributing to the reification of consciousness (PETRY, 2015).

In a totally reified society, based on consumption and standardized entertainment, semi-education prevents experience, precisely because people hate what is different, what is not standard, what is not part of what is established. In a debate with the German educator Helmut Becker, Adorno offers us a striking example of the loss of experience. He talks about a countless number of individuals, especially in adolescence, who have a great aversion to education: “They want to get rid of their conscience and the weight of primary experiences, because that only makes it difficult for them to orientate themselves.” (ADORNO, 1995, p. 149). In adolescence, the type of individual develops who asks: why study, if I can listen to music or watch television? In this way, people hate what is differentiated, what is not molded, because they are excluded from it and also because, if they accepted it, it would make everyday life difficult (ADORNO, 1995).

In another essay, “Philosophy and Teachers”, Theodor Adorno detected the loss of experience in the lack of autonomy of individuals. When evaluating the hiring of professors in the State of Hessen, Germany, he encouraged many candidates to put their own opinions in their work. However, most ended up having doubts about their own autonomy. For everything there should be corresponding habits, norms and paths already consolidated. In his opinion, this relationship between the absence of reflection and normative standards was a sign of conforming to what is established, to what is in force, showing a way of thinking that has affinities with authoritarianism.

That was why, according to him, Nazism still survived, not because people believed in its doctrines, but because they were determined by formal conformations of thought, such as conventionalism, exaggerated realism and the willingness to adapt to the prevailing: “In thought’s inability to impose itself, the potential for framing and subordination to any authority is already lurking, in the same way that today, concretely and voluntarily, people bow to what exists.” (ADORNO, 1995, p. 71).

The loss of experience can also be observed in the very scope of philosophical reflection. Theodor Adorno (1995) realized that occupation with philosophy, which should enable greater independence of thought, leading individuals to autonomy, became the opposite of that. As philosophy submitted to the rules of scientific knowledge, it abandoned its capacity for reflection. This fact is the result of scientific norms themselves. Science, which never accepted anything without verification and proof, meaning freedom and emancipation from all dogmas, beliefs and ideologies, has now become a new form of heteronomy.

This is what Theodor Adorno (1995, p. 70) shows in this passage: “People believe they are saved when they follow scientific rules, obey a scientific ritual, surround themselves with science. Scientific approval becomes a substitute for the intellectual reflection of the factual, of which science should be constituted. The breastplate hides the wound. Objectified consciousness places itself as a procedure between itself and living experience.

Adorno also assessed that the lack of aptitude for experience is linked to the loss of historical consciousness. What is characteristic of capitalist society is the deterioration of memory, since bourgeois society is subordinated, in a universal way, to the law of exchange. Material exchange relations between men are, by their very nature, timeless, as well as technical rationality, goods and work. The production and reproduction of capital liquidates time and all authentic experience. The result is that, in everyday life, people are eternally tied to work, entertainment and consumption. The world reproduces itself in the image of itself, as an eternal present. The loss of memory becomes an objective law of the development of the capitalist mode of production. Theodor Adorno (1985, p. 190) points out: “Reification is oblivion.”

The barbarism of Auschwitz is the strongest proof of the loss of experience. Individuals with a reified consciousness are incapable of intellectual experimentation. They are not able to reflect critically and autonomously on reality. In this sense, Auschwitz is part of an objective social process, of a regression associated with progress, a process of objectification that prevents the formative experience, replacing it with an affirmative, self-conservative reflection of the current situation. Auschwitz not only represents genocide, in an extermination camp, but symbolizes the tragedy of formation, in capitalist society (MAAR, 1995).[I]

*Michel Aires de Souza Dias He holds a PhD in Education from the University of São Paulo (USP).


ADORNO, TW Progress. New Moon, no. 27, p. 217-236, Dec. 1992. ADORNO, TW Education and Emancipation. Rio de Janeiro: Peace and Land, 1995.

ADORNO, TW Theory of Semiculture. Magazine First Version, year IV, n. 191, May/Aug. P. 1-20, 2005.

ADORNO, TW; HORKHEIMER, M. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar, 1985.

BENJAMIN, W. Experience and poverty. In: BENJAMIN, W. Selected Works: Magic and Technique, Art and Politics. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1994. p. 114-119.

MAAR, WL By way of introduction: Adorno and the formative experience. In: ADORNO, TW Education and Emancipation. São Paulo: Paz e Terra, 1995. p. 11-49.

MAAR, WL Adorno, Semi-formation and Education. Education and Society, v. 24, no. 83, p. 459-476, 2003.

PETRY, F. Experience and Training in Theodor W. Adorno. Education and Philosophy, v. 29, no. 57, p. 455-88, Jan./June. 2015.


[I] This text is part of the article “Education, formative experience and dialectical thinking in Theodor W. Adorno”, published in the Revista TRANS/FORM/AÇÃO (UNESP), v.5, n°4, Oct/Dec 2022.

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