Which of Adorno's books explains best his ideas on moral autonomy? Can anyone provide a quick outline of them?


The main texts as you probably know are:

Adorno, T.W. 1973. Negative Dialectics, translated by E. B. Ashton. London: Routledge.

Adorno, T.W. 1991. Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged life, translated by E. F. N. Jephcott. London and New York: Verso.

Adorno, T.W. 1998a. "The Meaning of Working through the Past", in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, translated by Henry W. Pickford. New York: Columbia University Press.

Adomo, T.W. 1998b. "Education after Auschwitz," Critical Models: Interventions and This content downloaded from on Fri, 10 Jan 2020 20:02:39 UTC

Adorno, T.W. 2000a. Problems of Moral Philosophy , translated by Rodney Livingstone. Cambridge: Polity Press.

But you want an answer, not a list. I nominate Negative Dialectics. In this text we find the crucial idea of nonidentity, hard to explain briefly but well worth exploring if you have time to read the book.

What we also find in Negative Dialectics is a reflection on autonomy mediated by Kant on the one hand and, on the other, Auschwitz:

... we can see the core issue in Adorno's moral philosophy, namely, the new categorical imperative after Auschwitz, which was the catastrophic and symbolic event in the process of Western civilization:

A new categorical imperative has been imposed by Hitler upon unfree mankind: to arrange their thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz repeat itself, so that nothing similar will happen.

(Songtao Luo, Adorno's View of Life, Frontiers of Philosophy in China, Vol. 10, No. 3 (September 2015), pp. 444-456: 454; T.W, Adorno, Negative Dialectics, translated by E. B. Ashton. London: 1973: 365.)

Without a doubt, the Kantian formal categorical imperative, namely, "act as if the maxim of your action were to become by your will a universal law of nature" (I. Kant, Practical Philosophy, translated & edited by Mary J. Gregor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996: 73), has been transformed here by Adorno into something with social-historical concreteness. In view of the concept of nonidentity, Adorno acknowledges that "it is in the unvarnished materialistic motive only that morality survives" (Adorno 1973, 365, emphasis added). In other words, it is only in the particular, heterogeneous, and qualitative strivings of living rightly and experiencing vividly, which are ultimately imbedded in the social condition, that individuals can become moral and lead a right life. In this sense, morality is to a large extent based on acting in accordance with freely adopted motives. Hence, Adomo often criticizes Kantian practical philosophy on the grounds that morality, as well as freedom and the right life, cannot be solely derived from reason. As Adomo argues:

The material of my feelings, therefore, and indeed everything that comes to me from outside, everything that is not me in the sense of being my own reason , is really no more than a stimulus [...] the entire construction of the categorical imperative [. . .] can only be understood if the very strange coupling of freedom and law [...] is arrived at in such a way that the principle of freedom should itself be nothing but reason, pure reason [...]. (Adorno 2000a, 70-71, emphasis added)

What is at issue here is that individuals will be actually and inescapably repressed and subordinated to the universal imperative of norms derived from the given social system rather than from the so-called universal law of nature in the Kantian sense; as Colin Hearfield puts it, the autonomous character of morality "evaporates in face of this compulsive submission to conscience and social duty" (Colin Hearfield, Adorno and the Modern Ethos of Freedom,. Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing LimitedHearfield 2004, 23).

However, the analysis above does not mean that Adomo denies the role of reason and personal autonomy in terms of living rightly. If we supposed that life after Auschwitz is life as usual, and if people think that the best way to eliminate the consequences of the disaster is to forget or forgive everything and just follow the mies, then "absolute identity" might be eternalized as ever. According to Adomo, if the individual can survive only insofar as he or she adapts to existing conditions, Auschwitz will definitely reappear: "the necessity of such adaptation, of identification with the given, the status quo, with power as such, creates the potential for totalitarianism" (Adomo 1998a, 98-99). In this regard, individuals should keep their power to reflect, should criticize the existing state of affairs autonomously and resolutely hold on to the memory of suffering for the Adornoian imperative of life discussed above to be implemented. Otherwise, once individuals are restrained by the consumerism and money-worship advocated by market-freedom and the culture industry, how can they think freely, act morally, and ultimately live rightly? In particular, Adorno stresses the role of education (Bildung) in leading a right life. It is worth noting that, in Adorno's view, the premier demand upon all education is that Auschwitz not happen again (Adorno 1998b, 191). Since "the more enlightened the individual, the more enlightened society as a whole" (cf. O'Connor 2013, 131), authentic education fosters "the power of reflection, of self-determination, of not cooperating" (Adorno 1998b, 195). In short, education enlightens individuals again and again, spurring them to become themselves rather than mere specimens.

Consequently, the right life can only be achieved by maintaining nonidentity thinking, undertaken autonomously by free, creative individuals. As Alastair Morgan implies, it is the possibility of nonidentity that is freedom, and, in my view, is right life as well (A. Morgan, Alastair, Adorno's Concept of Life, London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007:105). Only in this way can the imperative of life be substantively implemented. Essentially speaking, the realization of individual's right life based on his or her personal capacity for experiencing, resisting, and self-reflecting, and changes in the organization of society for a freer, more just, and better world are dialectically interrelated in the context of Adorno's nonidentity thinking.

(Songtao Luo: 453-5.)

  • so a moral imperative to avoid a repeat of the holocaust grants us moral autonomy? i was just googlng it, and reading how we may have freedom from external demands [culture] but also internal -- out concept of human nature. right?
    – user38026
    Jan 10 '20 at 21:08
  • 1
    another_name. Not ignoring your comment ! I just need a little time to frame a proper reply. Best -Geoff
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jan 11 '20 at 21:41

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