Cite as: Katia Genel, Introduction to the lecture Peter E. Gordon, Between Realism and Utopia: Reflections on Adorno and ’The Authoritarian Personality’, ICI Berlin, 11 December 2019, video recording, mp4, 05:36 <>
11 Dec 2019


By Katia Genel


ICI Berlin
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Part of the Lecture

Between Realism and Utopia: Reflections on Adorno and 'The Authoritarian Personality' / Peter E. Gordon

Recent years have witnessed the rise of authoritarian political leaders as well as violent and authoritarian behaviors from numerous groups, across different countries. Recent events suggest that there is a dynamic of obedience and submission and a constellation of symptoms similar to what Theodor W. Adorno, in 1949, diagnosed under the label of ‘authoritarian personality’. As Peter Gordon notes, in The Authoritarian Personality, Adorno didn’t mean to isolate a specific psychological ‘type’, rather he captured the subjective effects of an irrational social order. It is the fascist potentiality of the modern cultural context as a whole he tried to uncover.

The phenomena he pointed out — the mechanisms that underlie anti-Semitism, the psychic effects of authoritarianism, the porosity between capitalism and fascism, the loss of a recipient for the critique produced by the workers’ movement — are highly relevant today. This is probably the reason why — without necessarily recalling Adornos’ work in detail — several analysts refer to his writings when they evoke the current transformations of democracy (the election of Trump, populism, illiberalism). To this extent, it may be interesting to return to Adorno’s research on the authoritarian personality in order to re-examine and update it. The purpose of this reconsideration is to produce new descriptions and analyses of authoritarianism, and to initiate a critical review of The Authoritarian Personality.

Peter E. Gordon is the Amabel B. James Professor of History, faculty affilitate in the Departments of Germanic Languages and Literatures and of Philosophy at Harvard University. His areas of research are in Continental philosophy and social thought in Germany and France in the late-modern era, with an emphasis on critical theory, Western Marxism, the Frankfurt School, phenomenology, and existentialism.  He has published Rosenzweig and Heidegger:  Between Judaism and German Philosophy (2003), Continental Divide:  Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos (2010), Adorno and Existence (2016). He has also co-authored Authoritarianism: Three Inquiries in Critical Theory with Wendy Brown and Max Pensky (2018). Earlier this year, he gave the Adorno Lectures at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt on ‘Adorno and the Sources of Normativity’. He wrote the introduction for the new edition of Adorno et al, The Authoritarian Personality (2019). His next book is Migrants in the Profane: Critical Theory and the Question of Secularization (forthcoming).


ICI Berlin
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Katia Genel
Duarte Rolo

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Centre Marc Bloch in cooperation with the ICI Berlin