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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 October 2017

Department of History, Harvard University E-mail:


This essay examines one of the least-studied works in the philosophical corpus of Theodor Adorno, The Concept of the Unconscious in the Transcendental Theory of Mind. A retracted habilitation thesis composed in 1926–7, the text is often regarded as an exposition of the philosophical system of Adorno's teacher, Hans Cornelius, that bears little significance for Adorno's mature works. I argue that Concept of the Unconscious sheds significant light on both the historical origins and the conceptual underpinnings of the relationship between society and the psyche that Adorno would theorize over the course of his intellectual career. In this early text, Adorno articulated a dual critique of dominant neo-Kantian and vitalist understandings of the unconscious, turning to Freud for a more adequate account of the unconscious as a product of intertwining psychological and social processes. Adorno developed this dialectical understanding of the psycho-social relationship in numerous postwar writings on psychoanalysis.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2017 

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For their insightful feedback on earlier drafts of this essay, I would like to thank Peter E. Gordon, Samuel Moyn, Liat Spiro, and the editors and anonymous readers for Modern Intellectual History.


1 “Horkheimer an Adorno. Kronberg im Taunus, 2.10.1927,” in Adorno, Theodor W. and Horkheimer, Max, Briefwechsel 1927–1969, vol. 1, 1927–1937, ed. Gödde, Christoph and Lonitz, Henri (Frankfurt am Main, 2003), 910Google Scholar.

2 “Adorno an Kracauer. Frankfurt am Main, 17.9.1927,” in Adorno, Theodor W. and Kracauer, Siegfried, Briefwechsel 1923–1966, ed. Schopf, Wolfgang (Frankfurt am Main, 2008), 137Google Scholar. Translations from German are my own except where otherwise indicated.

3 “Wiesengrund-Adorno to Alban and Helene Berg. Frankfurt, 14.5.1928,” in Adorno, Theodor W. and Berg, Alban, Correspondence 1925–1935, ed. Lonitz, Henri, trans. Hoban, Wieland (Cambridge, 2005), 118Google Scholar. Also cited in Müller-Doohm, Stefan, Adorno: A Biography, trans. Livingstone, Rodney (Cambridge, 2005), 103Google Scholar.

4 Wiggershaus, Rolf, The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance, trans. Robertson, Michael (Cambridge, MA, 1994), 82Google Scholar.

5 Müller-Doohm, Adorno, 129.

6 Rolf Tiedemann, “Editorische Nachbemerkung,” in Adorno, Theodor W., Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 1, Philosophische Frühschriften, ed. Tiedemann, Rolf (Frankfurt am Main, 1997), 382Google Scholar. See also Claussen, Detlev, Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius, trans. Livingstone, Rodney (Cambridge, MA, 2008), 87CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 Buck-Morss, Susan, The Origin of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and the Frankfurt Institute (New York, 1977), 1720Google Scholar; Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School, 81–2. Other treatments that have argued for an abrupt shift in the concluding passages of Concept of the Unconscious include Heinz, Rudolf and Dahmer, Helmut, “Psychoanalyse und Kantianismus: Ein Beitrag zur Theoriegeschichte,” in Elrod, Norman, Heinz, Rudolf, and Dahmer, Helmut, eds., Der Wolf im Schafspelz: Erikson, die Ich-Psychologie, und das Anpassungsproblem (Frankfurt am Main, 1978), 127–67Google Scholar, at 142–4; and Pettazzi, Carlo, “Studien zu Leben und Werk Adornos bis 1938,” in Ludwig Arnold, Heinz, ed., Theodor W. Adorno (Munich, 1977), 2243Google Scholar, at 32–3. See also Robert Hullot-Kentor's critique of this tendency in scholarship on the early Adorno: Hullot-Kentor, Robert, “Critique of the Organic: Kierkegaard and the Construction of the Aesthetic,” in Kentor, Things beyond Resemblance: Collected Essays on Theodor W. Adorno (New York, 2006), 7793Google Scholar, at 84–6.

8 O'Connor, Brian, Adorno's Negative Dialectic: Philosophy and the Possibility of Critical Rationality (Cambridge, MA, 2004), 102CrossRefGoogle Scholar, also 102–6, 118. On Adorno's critique of Kant in the 1927 dissertation see also Abromeit, John, Max Horkheimer and the Foundations of the Frankfurt School (Cambridge, 2011), 197201CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Müller-Doohm, Adorno, 104.

9 The only article-length treatment of Concept of the Unconscious does not detail the connections between the dissertation and Adorno's later writings on psychoanalysis, although the author notes, “In the early writings, themes are dealt with and decisions made that affected all of Adorno's later work more than just marginally.” Arlt, Gerhard, “Erkenntnistheorie und Gesellschaftskritik: Zur Möglichkeit einer transzendentalpsychologischen Analyse des Begriffs des Unbewußten in den Frühschriften Theodor W. Adornos,” Philosophisches Jahrbuch 90/1 (1983), 129–45Google Scholar, at 129. Studies that have briefly treated Concept of the Unconscious in discussions of Adorno's use of phenomenology and psychoanalysis over the course of his intellectual career include Dallmayr, Fred, “Phenomenology and Critical Theory: Adorno,” Cultural Hermeneutics 3/4 (1976), 367405CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 371–3; Dahmer, Helmut, “Adorno's View of Psychoanalysis,” Thesis Eleven 111/1 (2012), 97109CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 97–9; and Schmid Noerr, Gunzelin, “Adornos Utopik,” in Kirchhoff, Christine and Schmieder, Falko, eds., Freud und Adorno: Zur Urgeschichte der Moderne (Berlin, 2014), 153–64Google Scholar, at 158–9.

10 Hullot-Kentor, “Critique of the Organic,” 84.

11 On Adorno's concept of materialism see Schmidt, Alfred, “Begriff des Materialismus bei Adorno,” in Habermas, Jürgen and von Friedeburg, Ludwig, eds., Adorno-Konferenz 1983 (Frankfurt am Main, 1983), 1431Google Scholar.

12 Adorno, Theodor W., “Der Begriff des Unbewußten in der transzendentalen Seelenlehre,” in Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften, 1: 79322, at 107Google Scholar.

13 George Cavalletto also uses the term “psycho-social dialectic” to characterize Adorno's approach to the relation between psychology and sociology, but traces the origins of this model to a 1943 manuscript on the radio broadcasts of the American fascist preacher Luther Thomas, Martin. Cavalletto, George, Crossing the Psycho-social Divide: Freud, Weber, Adorno, and Elias (Aldershot, 2007), 67Google Scholar, 163–71.

14 On Cornelius's biography see Cornelius, Hans, “Leben und Lehre,” in Schmidt, Raymund, ed., Die Philosophie der Gegenwart in Selbstdarstellungen, vol. 2 (Leipzig, 1923), 83102Google Scholar; and Müller-Doohm, Adorno, 71.

15 Buck-Morss, Origin of Negative Dialectics, 8. Cornelius's empiricist departure from neo-Kantianism is also noted in Arlt, “Erkenntnistheorie und Gesellschaftskritik,” 131–2.

16 Rollinger, Robin, Austrian Phenomenology: Brentano, Husserl, Meinong, and Others on Mind and Object (Frankfurt am Main, 2008), 189CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17 For an overview of German philosophy in the 1920s following this schema see Gordon, Peter E., Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos (Cambridge, MA, 2010), 4386Google Scholar.

18 Ibid., 5–11.

19 Christian Köhnke, Klaus, The Rise of Neo-Kantianism: German Academic Philosophy between Idealism and Positivism, trans. Hollingdale, R. J. (Cambridge, 1991), 184Google Scholar.

20 Gordon, Continental Divide, 55, emphasis in the original.

21 Ibid., 69–77.

22 Kauders, Anthony, “The Crisis of the Psyche and the Future of Germany: The Encounter with Freud in the Weimar Republic,” Central European History 46/2 (2013), 325–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 334; Kauders, “The Mind of a Rationalist: German Reactions to Psychoanalysis in the Weimar Republic and Beyond,” History of Psychology 8/3 (2005), 255–70. For a detailed treatment of Klages's critique of Freud see Lebovic, Nitzan, The Philosophy of Life and Death: Ludwig Klages and the Rise of a Nazi Biopolitics (New York, 2013), 111–53.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

23 Cornelius, Hans, Transcendentale Systematik: Untersuchungen zur Begründung der Erkenntnistheorie (Munich, 1916), 33–6Google Scholar.

24 Cornelius, “Leben und Lehre,” 95.

25 Cornelius, Transcendentale Systematik, 44–5.

26 Cornelius, “Leben und Lehre,” 96.

27 Cornelius, Hans, Einleitung in die Philosophie, 2nd edn (Leipzig, 1919), 314–15Google Scholar, also 307–16 passim.

28 On the epistemological basis for Adorno's interest in Freud see also Buck-Morss, Origin of Negative Dialectics, 18; and Müller-Doohm, Adorno, 105.

29 Müller-Doohm, Adorno, 43–4, 69–71.

30 Abromeit, Horkheimer, 197–8.

31 Müller-Doohm, Adorno, 77.

32 Gordon, Continental Divide, 9–10, 38–9.

33 Gordon, Peter E., Adorno and Existence (Cambridge, MA, 2016), 60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

34 Zahavi, Dan, Husserl's Phenomenology (Stanford, 2003), 51Google Scholar, also see 46, 50–53.

35 Adorno, “Die Transzendenz des Dinglichen und Noematischen in Husserls Phänomenologie,” in Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften, 1: 7–77, at 17. See also Dallmayr, “Phenomenology and Critical Theory,” 369–71. Some contemporary scholars of Husserl would take exception to Adorno's interpretations. For instance, Dan Zahavi suggests that Husserl's transcendental reduction did not establish a dualistic ontology of “worldly objects” and “mental representations,” but rather his phenomenology aimed to disclose the object as it was “given” to the mind, as a “correlate of experience.” Zahavi, Husserl's Phenomenology, 59.

36 Adorno, “Transzendenz des Dinglichen,” 54.

37 Rollinger, Austrian Phenomenology, 205–6.

38 Adorno, “Transzendenz des Dinglichen,” 36, also see 67–8.

39 “Wiesengrund-Adorno to Berg. Frankfurt, 7.12.1925,” in Adorno and Berg, Correspondence, 31.

40 Adorno, “Begriff des Unbewußten,” 91.

41 Bowie, Andrew, “The Philosophical Significance of Schelling's Concept of the Unconscious,” in Nicholls, Angus and Liebscher, Martin, eds., Thinking the Unconscious: Nineteenth-Century German Thought (Cambridge, 2010), 5786CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 69–70; Martin Liebscher, “Friedrich Nietzsche's Perspectives on the Unconscious,” in ibid., 241–60, 251–2. For an overview of “tradition-lines” of the unconscious in nineteenth-century Germany see Günter Gödde, “Freud and Nineteenth-Century Philosophical Sources on the Unconscious,” in ibid., 261–86, at 262–3.

42 Adorno, “Begriff des Unbewußten,” 91.

43 Ibid., 95.

44 Ibid., 90.

45 Ibid., 95.

46 For a concise statement of this view see Schopenhauer, Arthur, “On the Antithesis of Thing in Itself and Appearance,” in Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms, trans. Hollingdale, R. J. (Harmondsworth, 1970), 5560Google Scholar. On Schopenhauer's notion of the unconscious will see also Christopher Janaway, “The Real Essence of Human Beings: Schopenhauer and the Unconscious Will,” in Nicholls and Liebscher, Thinking the Unconscious, 140–55.

47 Adorno, “Begriff des Unbewußten,” 98.

48 Ibid., 98–102. The journal Die Tat mediated the reception of Bergson among proponents of vitalism in early twentieth-century Germany. Lebovic, Philosophy of Life and Death, 83.

49 Adorno, “Begriff des Unbewußten,” 113.

50 Ibid., 99. However, for a contemporary interpretation that distinguishes Schopenhauer from Kant on the grounds that Schopenhauer rejected “the construal of human freedom as involving irreducible reflexivity and spontaneity” see Gardner, Sebastian, “Schopenhauer, Will, and the Unconscious,” in Janaway, Christopher, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Schopenhauer (Cambridge, 1999), 375421CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 396.

51 Adorno, “Begriff des Unbewußten,” 161.

52 Kant presented this argument in the section of the First Critique on the “Paralogisms of Pure Reason”: Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Pure Reason, ed. and trans. Guyer, Paul and Wood, Allen W. (Cambridge, 1998), 411–31CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Hatfield, Gary, “Empirical, Rational, and Transcendental Psychology: Psychology as Science and as Philosophy,” in Guyer, Paul, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Kant (Cambridge, 1992), 200–27CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 201–4.

53 Adorno, “Begriff des Unbewußten,” 162–3.

54 Ibid., 171–3. On Adorno's discussion of Kant's Paralogisms in Concept of the Unconscious see also O'Connor, Adorno's Negative Dialectic, 102–6.

55 Adorno, Begriff des Unbewußten, 202, emphasis added.

56 Ibid., 203–6.

57 Ibid., 151.

58 Ibid., 105.

59 Freud, Sigmund, “The Unconscious,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. Strachey, James, vol. 14 (London, 1957), 159216Google Scholar, at 166, 168. On the place of this essay and the Introductory Lectures in Freud's intellectual biography see Gay, Peter, Freud: A Life for Our Time (New York, 1988), 361–74Google Scholar.

60 Toews, John E., “Historicizing Psychoanalysis: Freud in His Time and for Our Time,” Journal of Modern History 63/3 (1991), 504–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 541, also see 541–4 passim.

61 On Freud's departure from Schopenhauer on this point see Gardner, “Schopenhauer,” 385–6; and Gödde, “Freud,” 282–3. Rudolf Heinz and Helmut Dahmer note that for Freud, both consciousness and the unconscious belonged to the “sphere of appearance.” Heinz and Dahmer, “Psychoanalyse und Kantianismus,” 129–31. For Schopenhauer, by contrast, unconscious will was a thing-in-itself.

62 Gay, Freud, 410, also see 407–14 passim; Gay, Peter, “Sigmund Freud: A Brief Life,” in Freud, Sigmund, Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis, ed. and trans. Strachey, James (New York, 1989), ix–xxiiGoogle Scholar, at xxi.

63 Adorno, “Begriff des Unbewußten,” 244–9, 258–61.

64 Ibid., 228–9.

65 Freud, Introductory Lectures, 353.

66 Adorno, “Begriff des Unbewußten,” 291–4.

67 Ibid., 298, emphasis added. The reference to Freud is found in Freud, Introductory Lectures, 59.

68 Adorno, “Begriff des Unbewußten,” 299.

69 Ibid., 318–19.

70 Ibid., 321, emphasis added.

71 See the works cited in note 7.

72 Adorno, “Begriff des Unbewußten,” 321, emphasis added.

73 Ibid., 322.

74 Ibid., 320, emphasis in original.

75 Abromeit, Horkheimer, 375.

76 Theodor W. Adorno et al., [“Wissenschaft und Krise: Differenz zwischen Idealismus und Materialismus. Diskussion über Themen zu einer Vorlesung Max Horkheimers”] (untitled, 1931–2), in Max Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 12, Nachgelassene Schriften 1931–1949, ed. Schmid Noerr, Gunzelin (Frankfurt am Main, 1985), 349–97Google Scholar, at 368. Thanks to one of the anonymous readers for this reference.

77 Adorno, Theodor W., Against Epistemology: A Metacritique, trans. Domingo, Willis (Cambridge, 2013), 129Google Scholar. The English title departs from the German Metakritik der Erkenntnistheorie. On Adorno's critique of Husserl see also Gordon, Adorno and Existence, 64–70.

78 Tiedemann, “Editorische Nachbemerkung,” 381–2.

79 Cavalletto, Psycho-social Divide, 127–71; Jay, Martin, The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research (Berkeley, 1996), 227–30Google Scholar, 238, 246. See also Adorno, Theodor W., “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda,” in Arato, Andrew and Gebhardt, Eike, eds., The Essential Frankfurt School Reader (New York, 1978), 118–37Google Scholar.

80 Buzby, Amy, Subterranean Politics and Freud's Legacy: Critical Theory and Society (New York, 2013), 97100CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 107–13.

81 Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School, 270.

82 Lee, Nan-Nan, “Sublimated or Castrated Psychoanalysis? Adorno's Critique of the Revisionist Psychoanalysis: An Introduction to ‘The Revisionist Psychoanalysis,’” Philosophy and Social Criticism 40/3 (2014), 309–25CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 312, 315. On Horney's biography and critique of Freud see also Herzog, Dagmar, Cold War Freud: Psychoanalysis in an Age of Catastrophes (Cambridge, 2016), 2234Google Scholar.

83 Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School, 271. For a detailed account of Adorno's “rapprochement” with Horkheimer in the mid-1930s and their mutual departure from Fromm, see Abromeit, Horkheimer, 336–48, 361–74.

84 “Adorno an Horkheimer. London, 21.3.1936,” in Adorno and Horkheimer, Briefwechsel, 129–30.

85 Adorno, Theodor W., “Revisionist Psychoanalysis,” trans. Nan-Nan Lee, Philosophy and Social Criticism 40/3 (2014), 326–38Google Scholar, at 337.

86 Buzby, Subterranean Politics, 95–6, also see 106–7. Rolf Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School, 270, further notes that Adorno “ignored” the fact that “Fromm's position . . . was markedly more critical than Horney's and that of other ‘revisionists.’”

87 Adorno, “Begriff des Unbewußten,” 317–20.

88 Adorno, “Revisionist Psychoanalysis,” 337, also see 334–7 passim.

89 Ibid., 334; Adorno, Theodor W., Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, trans. Jephcott, E. F. N. (London, 2005), 49Google Scholar.

90 On the context of this essay see Müller-Doohm, Adorno, 388–9.

91 Adorno, Theodor, “Sociology and Psychology—II,” New Left Review 47 (Jan.–Feb. 1968), 7997Google Scholar, at 83.

92 Ibid., 95.

93 Ibid., 96.

94 O'Connor, Brian, Adorno (London, 2013), 94Google Scholar. On Adorno's effort to link materialism and metaphysics see Jarvis, Simon, “Adorno, Marx, Materialism,” in Huhn, Tom, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Adorno (Cambridge, 2004), 79100CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Schmidt, “Begriff des Materialismus.”

95 Theodor W. Adorno, “Kant's Resignation 374–377,” and “Desire of Salvation and Block 377–382,” in Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. Dennis Redmond, 2001, at, accessed 6 June 2017.

96 Theodor W. Adorno, “Mundus Intelligiblis 382–386,” in Adorno, Negative Dialectics. On this point, see also Gordon, Adorno and Existence, 127–9.

97 Theodor W. Adorno, “Neutralization 386–391,” in Adorno, Negative Dialectics.

98 Ibid., translation modified. The original reads, “Das Ich muß geschichtlich erstarkt sein, um über die Unmittelbarkeit des Realitätsprinzips hinaus die Idee dessen zu konzipieren, was mehr ist als das Seiende.” Adorno, Theodor W., Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 6, Negative Dialektik, Jargon der Eigentlichkeit, ed. Tiedemann, Rolf (Frankfurt am Main, 1997), 389Google Scholar.

99 Theodor W. Adorno, “Neutralization 386–391,” in Adorno, Negative Dialectics.

100 Buzby, Subterranean Politics, 154–62; Whitebook, Joel, Perversion and Utopia: A Study in Psychoanalysis and Critical Theory (Cambridge, MA, 1995), 257–62Google Scholar.

101 Whitebook, Perversion and Utopia, 154. See also Joel Whitebook, “Weighty Objects: On Adorno's Kant–Freud Interpretation,” in Huhn, The Cambridge Companion to Adorno, 51–78, at 58–9, 70.

102 Buzby, Subterranean Politics, 98, also see 154.

103 Adorno, Minima Moralia, 247.

104 On the notion of Adorno's philosophy as a “constellation” of “force-fields” see Jay, Martin, Adorno (Cambridge, MA, 1984), 1423Google Scholar.

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