Precarious Happiness: Adorno and the Sources of Normativity

in Context
June 3, 2024 20:00 - 21:30
Roter Salon Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz Linienstraße 227, 10178 Berlin


Talk organised by the Center for Post-Kantian Philosophy (CPKP), University of Potsdam


More than fifty years after his death, the legacy of Theodor W. Adorno is still highly controversial. Many see him as a philosopher of uncompromising negativity, of gnostic darkness, and also of all-encompassing, standardless criticism. Even among the wider public, the image of the thinker of totalizing despair, of “there is no right life in the wrong one” has become entrenched – to the point of cliché.

The historian and philosopher Peter E. Gordon decisively challenges this image. Adorno, he argues, is rather to be understood as a theorist whose practice of critique is oriented towards an unrealized norm of human flourishing – of precarious happiness in a radically imperfect world. Gordon identifies this norm as the unifying theme that runs through Adorno’s entire oeuvre, his sociological writings as well as his moral philosophy, metaphysics and aesthetics. Precarious Happiness is itself a stroke of luck: a fascinating interpretation of Adorno’s legacy, which now appears in a completely new light and as an indispensable resource for critical theory today.


Peter Gordon

Peter E. Gordon, born in 1966, is Amabel B. James Professor of History at Harvard University and a member of its Department of Philosophy. He researches the intellectual history of the 20th century, in particular philosophical thought in Germany and France, and is considered an internationally outstanding expert on the Frankfurt School. His previous books, which deal with Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Heidegger, Ernst Cassirer and Theodor W. Adorno and their time, among others, have been awarded numerous prizes: the Salo W. Baron Prize, the Goldstein-Goren Prize, the Morris D. Forkosch Prize and the Jacques Barzun Prize of the American Philosophical Society. Precarious Happiness is his first book to be published in German.

“Fluently, even captivatingly written, Peter Gordon meticulously examines the entire spectrum of Adorno’s writings to show that he based his critique of contemporary societies on an idea of human flourishing that only reveals itself in the smallest testimonies from within our damaged way of life. Gordon thus succeeds in something that almost all other attempts have so far failed to do: to create a coherent picture of the idea of morality that Adorno only ever developed in a fragmentary and sketchy manner in his work.”
Axel Honneth

“Peter Gordon’s confidently accessible and at the same time persistently subtle interpretation brings a new tone to the debate on Adorno’s negativism. In conversation with Adorno’s lectures, he shows how the negative dialectic should serve to spell out a ‘right’ life that eludes the direct grasp of statements about the ‘good life’. Under the spell of a life distorted as a whole, Adorno searches for traces of failed happiness. The Hegelian reads a transcending impulse of hope out of the desperate criticism of the hopeless state of the world, which goes far beyond Kant’s encouragement to use our rational freedom.”
Jürgen Habermas


Tickets can be purchased at Volksbühne or online.


Precarious Happiness: Adorno and the Sources of Normativity