Theodor Adorno, the Arch-curmudgeon of the Frankfurt School of Critical theory, devotes a brief but substantial section of his Minima Moralia to a critical engagement with Freudian psychoanalysis. Interspersed throughout the work are discussions of the concept of pleasure: a keystone theme in Freudian thought which situates the so-called pleasure principle at the center of human behavior. Whatsmore, the book is riddled with psychoanalytic language and concepts. 

To what extent does this reflect something deeper than a mere appropriation of useful theoretical terminology? I argue that Adorno’s thought is more heavily influenced by psychoanalysis than is commonly recognized. This essay will attempt to trace that influence and explain the importance of the concept of pleasure in Adorno’s critical philosophy. Adorno ultimately agrees with Freud that pleasure is the primal motivation for human activity; however, he will contest Freud’s definition of pleasure, suggesting that the kind of raw physiological pleasure that Freud emphasized is a product of bourgeois ideology. For Adorno, pleasure is an undefinable purposelessness which, in contemporary society, is replaced by manufactured alternatives. 

The basic principles of Freud’s theory of human psychology are well known. In summary, Freud argues that humans are primarily guided by the “pleasure principle.” This drive is observable in infancy when the child desires only the breast of the mother. For Freud, this represents both the desire for sustenance and for proto-sexual gratification. 

As children develop, their desire to maximize pleasure and minimize pain is usurped by the reality principle; the recognition that pleasure cannot always be maximized in the short term, but rather must be strategically deferred towards the goal of maximizing pleasure in the long run. In his Civilization and its Discontents Freud locates the reality principle as the primary source of psychological neurosis and general human unhappiness. He argues that people living in society must accept a substantial degree of unhappiness because civilization inherently requires the repression of the pleasure principle. 

Ultimately, Freud strongly endorses the progress of civilization, arguing that  reason and cooperation can reduce the repression necessary to ensure social cohesion. He abstains from substantial sociological or political critique, instead focusing on the ways in which the pain of life under the reality principle is expressed through individual neuroses. 

Freud’s prognosis places civilization in a double-bind. A non-repressive society would be anarchistic, violent, and irrational, yet civilization under the reality principle bars us from experiencing pleasure to its fullest extent. Adorno characterizes this paradox as a failure on Freud’s behalf to recognize the implications of his own theory. He remarks that: 

In the teeth of bourgeois ideology, he tracked down conscious actions materialistically to their unconscious instinctual basis, but at the same time concurred with the bourgeois contempt of instinct which is itself a product of precisely the rationalizations that he dismantled. (p.60)

Here Adorno accuses Freud of a kind of hypocrisy. On the one hand, he wants to disillusion people about the real motivations of their actions by tracing them back to basic instincts. On the other hand, Adorno cites examples of Freud reaffirming the bourgeois disgust for all things bodily, sensual, and irrational. Freud seems to at once desire the liberation of people from the repressive restraints of the reality principle and to condemn the pleasure-driven society that would result from such liberation. For Adorno, Freud’s recognition that behavior is rooted in primal drives shows that the bourgeois conception of humans as rational agents is false. Therefore, the repulsion towards sexuality and base instincts typical of enlightenment thinking is precisely what psychoanalysis should lead us to reject. The idea that a society liberated from oppression would necessarily be primitive and chaotic is, for Adorno, a product of ideology rather than reason. 

Adorno’s critique of psychoanalysis challenges Freud’s conceptualization of pleasure and attempts to orient reason towards the achievement of pleasure rather than positioning it as a higher faculty working to suppress pleasure. He remarks that 

Freud’s unenlightened enlightenment plays into the hands of bourgeois disillusion…Reason is for him a mere superstructure…because he rejects the end, remote to meaning, impervious to reason, which alone could prove the means, reason, to be reasonable: pleasure. (p. 60)

 If reason can be understood as merely a tool produced by the ego to navigate a painful world governed by the reality principle, then reason can only serve as a means of the reification of a repressive society. To be sure, Freud vociferously defends reason for its ability to guide society towards increasingly less repressive ways of life; yet, for Adorno, the reason he champions is too easily co-opted by oppressive social forces.

 Because Freud places individual pleasure in permanent contention with the demands of society his theory rules out the possibility of a society oriented towards the achievement of individual pleasure. When the realization of pleasure is viewed as antithetical to social progress, any hope of attaining pleasure must be sacrificed for the sake of social preservation. For Adorno, the idea of using reason to affirm and reinforce social forces which make people tangibly less happy is itself irrational. Reason, for Adorno, must be directed towards the goal of achieving happiness if it is to be reasonable at all. 

The downfall of psychoanalysis, in Adorno’s view, is twofold. First, psychoanalysis understands pleasure in crude, narrow terms. Secondly, structural sources of repression and alienation are largely ignored in favor of the supposed treatment of individual neuroses. These two issues are perfectly encapsulated in Freud’s words, “Happiness, in the reduced sense in which we recognize it as possible, is a problem of the economics of the individual’s libido.” (Civilization and its Discontents, p. 34) Understood in this way, happiness could only lead to perpetual opposition with reason. 

The psychoanalytic emphasis on individual therapy stands in stark contradiction to Adorno’s Hegelian view that individual examples of anything cannot be understood in isolation. Attempts to treat individual neuroses are ultimately fruitless if the structural conditions that produce them are accepted as given. Operating on a case-by-case basis, Adorno argues that psychoanalysis is reduced to a means of alienation. To administer treatment to an individual is to tacitly admit that an individual can be cured. Adorno insists the contrary in his memorable dictum “Wrong life cannot be lived rightly” (p. 39) Practiced as such, psychoanalysis can only operate as a series of injunctions to live right, which Adorno maintains is impossible in currently existing society. Soothing isolated anxieties in individuals amounts to demanding that they accept reality as determined and unchangeable. 

To achieve “successful” treatment, the psychoanalyst must turn her patient against the very pleasure which Freudian theory recognizes as primal. Adorno remarks that 

Those who feel equal revulsion for pleasure and paradise are indeed best suited to serve as objects: the empty, mechanized quality observable in so many who have undergone successful analysis is to be entered to the account not only of their illness but also of their cure, which dislocates what it liberates. (p. 61)

Put simply, after locating the source of individual trauma in repressed libidinal drives, the psychoanalyst proceeds to suggest means of adaptation to trauma–the only way to administer treatment on an individual basis. In doing so, the patient is slowly conditioned not only to accept his or her conditions as absolute, but also to follow instructions, fostering obedience and atomization. Patients internalize the causes of their misery, accept responsibility, and attempt to fix themselves by obeying the commands of a superior and accepting classification into false categories. 

Most importantly for Adorno, psychoanalytic treatment encourages the patient to misunderstand pleasure and ultimately turn against it. Such treatment could easily reinforce the notion that the manufactured activities provided by the culture industry are desirable alternatives to the kind of pleasure seeking that is unavailable to us in civilization under the reality principle. 

Adorno believes that experiences of genuine pleasure are inherently critical: they recall the possibility of a better life in a better society. He argues that psychoanalytic treatment nullifies “the lingering awareness of the ancient wound, in which lies hope of a better future.” (p. 66) By encouraging patients to reject the demands of their instincts and “be happy,” psychoanalysts join forces with the market and the culture industry in perpetuating the lie that genuine happiness can be produced and purchased. 

In Adorno’s view, the role of the psychoanalyst should be to help people realize just how unhappy they really are and why. Anything else is mere apologetics for brutality. He makes the bold assertion that 

There is a straight line of development between the gospel of happiness and the construction of camps of extermination so far away as Poland that each of our own countrymen can convince himself that he cannot hear the screams of pain. (p.63)

Adorno is suggesting here that individual psychology inevitably becomes a kind of opium, analogous to religion as criticized by both Marx and Freud. When happiness is understood as something which is achievable in society and something which should be aspired to at all times, critical instincts and thoughts are anesthetized. Happiness as such amounts to a form of control which protects the status quo by eliminating the possibility of critical consciousness.    

Adorno’s critique of psychoanalytic treatment castigates it as another footsoldier in the enlightenment war against humanity. However, Freudian theory remains for him a key theoretical framework. It’s ability to lay bare enlightenment suppositions about the inherent rationality of mankind are invaluable to his broader critique. In order to apply Freudian theory critically, Adorno must challenge Freud’s assessment of unrepressed human nature and ultimately reject the pessimism which follows as a natural conclusion. Freud explored the  possibility that “civilization is largely responsible for our misery, and that we should be much happier if we gave it up and returned to primitive conditions,” (Civilization and its Discontents, p. 38) and concluded that a civilized life under the reality principle is more desirable than a barbaric existence governed by pleasure seeking. Adorno does not wish to abandon the project of civilization, so he must challenge the notion that the only alternative to repression is primitive life. Therefore, the definition of pleasure, which is the subject of such repression, is critically important. In Part 2 we will explore the possibility of defining pleasure.


Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia. Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2005

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. New York, NY: Norton, 1989.


3 thoughts on “Adorno on Pleasure, 1: The Critique of Psychoanalysis

  1. Pingback: Adorno on Pleasure: The Critique of Psychoanalysis – The Philosophical Hack

  2. Pingback: Adorno on Pleasure, 2: Purpose and Play | Blue Labyrinths

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