Adorno and Critical Self-Reflection

Second post in the theology of remembrance series…

In the decades following World War II, a phrase was coined in Germany that can roughly be translated as “coming to terms with the past” or “mastering the past.” This is not an exact translation, since a precise translation simply looses some of the cultural understanding that goes along with the German phrase. But the process of coming to terms with the past became the goal of at least a subset of the German population (which included notable political and public figures), and this subset understand the process as a finite and measurable task with a clear goal. There could be, so they argued, some point at which Germans could come to terms with their Nazi past, after having considered, dissected, and discussed this past. The process, while perhaps wrong-headed, was a somewhat undertandable outgrowth of a situation of extreme guilt and shame. However, not everyone in Germany bought into such a process. Some, like philosophers Theodor Adorno and Eric Voegelin, viewed the project of coming to terms with the past as a suspicious process that in reality aimed at moving beyond the past in the sense of doing away with the past or sweeping the past under the rug. This post will talk about Adorno’s critiques of such a process and will outline what he viewed as more helpful ways of examining the past, including most importantly his notion of critical self-reflection.

A brief word about Adorno–Theodor Adorno was the son of a Roman Catholic mother and Jewish father who claimed at least a partial Jewish heritage throughout the course of his life. He was trained in both philosophy and musical composition and even studied with the early 20th century Austrian composers Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg. Adorno completed his dissertation on Kierkegaard under the direction of Paul Tillich, who continued to be an influential presence in his life. He eventually joined the faculty at the University of Frankfurt where he became a member of the Institute for Social Research, run at the time by Max Horkheimer. Both Adorno and Horkheimer (as well as most others at the institute) were heavily influenced by Marx and socialist philosophical critiques, and the two used Marx’s critiques of economy and capital to develop a more robust critical theory. And in fact, Frankfurt is typically regarded as the birthplace of critical theory–a type of study that seeks to uncover the assumptions that may be hidden, displaced, or that go unvocalized in a society.

In 1959 Adorno delivered a radio address on “The Meaning of Working Through the Past.” The talk later became an essay that is his most salient response to the problem of coming to terms with the past as it appeared in post-war Germany. In it he speaks about the difference between working through the past and working upon the past. The first he sees as (and the translation of the German word corresponds to) carrying out an unpleasant task, as in clearing away the paperwork on one’s desk. The second, however, he understood as digesting or processing the past so as to understand it more fully, and it was this second notion (working upon the past) that Adorno advocated. He goes on in the talk to discuss how those who engaged in working through the past seemed to be merely brushing the past aside, hastily working through it so as to be rid of it; and wrote that this hasty process would result in an “empty and cold forgetting.” Forgetting the atrocities committed under National Socialism in Germany meant for Adorno that the conditions that made the Nazis’ rise to power possible in the first place would go unexamined and could therefore potentially re-present themselves even within the newly minted democratic republic of Germany. Thus, Adorno looked for a path toward remembrance that routed itself (consciouslly and critically) through the very deplorable past that some Germans most wanted to forget or move beyond.

He did this by suggesting that critical self-reflection become the cornerstone of intellectual and public discussion. By this he meant taking an honest and deep look at oneself in order to consider the motivations and influences affecting one’s decisions, actions, and discourse. In Germany this meant examining the factors that allowed National Socialists to come to power in the first place, and then taking a good, hard look at the present conditions to see what had changed, what remained the same, and if those original factors were still there.

Clearly the idea of critical self-reflection has a lot possibility outside of post-Holocaust discussions and outside of talk about German’s past. But in thinking about the atrocities of the Holocaust, critical self-reflection asks those involved (and even those of us who are heir to religious thinking that contributed to violent anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism) to work upon the past by looking closely at what created those factors that led to such atrocities and then asking whether or not those factors still exist today. Just because we live in a democratic society where we can’t even imagine such things taking place, Adorno reminds us that those same “modernist” systems (democracy, technology, industrialization) completely and totally broke down in the Second World War so as to lend themselves to the horrific acts of the Nazi state. Modernity ended up being the greatest help to the Nazis, rather than a safeguard against human brutality. For this reason, Adorno sees the on-going process of critical self-reflection as an extremely important part of the task of remembering the past.

There’ll be more to come on Adorno’s understanding of religion and theology in future posts. But for now we can consider what it would mean for religious persons to adopt a practice of critical self-reflection. This doesn’t necessarily mean undermining our entire belief system, but it could mean thinking critically about the past and present motivations, actions, and beliefs that are a part of our religious traditions in order to 1) understand our traditions more fully and know why we stand where we stand today, and to 2) ensure that there aren’t tendencies within our religious traditions that might cause undue harm to ourselves or others either inside or outside of our traditions.


Author: Jeremy

I am happiest outside, surrounded by trees or water. I rarely go anywhere without my camera, and I actively seek ways to connect my work as a philosopher and theologian with regular people who are trying to make sense of this world.

3 thoughts on “Adorno and Critical Self-Reflection”

    1. Oh you should definitely check out Adorno. He studied composition in the 1920s for a bit with Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, and he writes on aesthetics and musical composition.

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