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  • Opinion Delusion Society
  • Theodor W. Adorno (bio)
    Translated by Henry W. Pickford (bio)

Despite its several meanings, the concept of public opinion is widely accepted in a positive sense. Derived from the philosophical tradition since Plato, the concept of opinion in general is neutral, value-free, insofar as opinions can be either right or wrong. Opposed to both these concepts of opinion is the notion of pathogenic, deviant, delusional opinions, often associated with the concept of prejudice. According to this simple dichotomy there is, on the one hand, something like healthy, normal opinion and, on the other, opinion of an extreme, eccentric, bizarre nature. In the United States, for instance, the views of fascistic splinter groups are said to belong to the lunatic fringe, an insane periphery of society. Their pamphlets, whose body of ideas also includes ritual murders and (despite their having been conclusively disproved) The Protocols of the Elders of Zion are considered “farcical.” Indeed, in such products one can scarcely overlook an element of madness, which nevertheless is quite likely the very ferment of their effect. Yet precisely that should make one suspicious of an inference habitually drawn from the widely held idea: namely, that in the majority the normal opinion necessarily prevails over the delusional one. The naive liberal reader of the Berliner Tageblatt between the wars thought no differently when he imagined the world to be one of common sense that, although troubled by rabid extremists on the right and the left, nonetheless must be right in the end. So great was the trust in normal opinion versus the idée fixe that many elderly gentlemen continued to believe their favorite paper long after it had been forced into line by the National Socialists who, cleverly enough, retained only the paper’s original masthead. 1 What those subscribers experienced when their prudence toppled overnight into helpless folly as soon as things no longer followed the approved rules of the game should have made them critically examine the naive view of opinion as such, which depicts a peaceful and separate juxtaposition of normal and abnormal opinion. Not only is the assumption that the normal is true and the deviant is false itself extremely dubious but so is the very glorification of mere opinion, namely, of the prevailing one that cannot conceive of the true as being anything other than what everyone thinks. Rather, so-called pathological opinion, the deformations [End Page 227] due to prejudice, superstition, rumor, and collective delusion that permeate history, particularly the history of mass movements, cannot at all be separated from the concept of opinion per se. It would be difficult to decide a priori what to ascribe to one kind of opinion and what to the other; history also admits the possibility that in the course of time hopelessly isolated and impotent views may gain predominance, either by being verified as reasonable or in spite of their absurdity. Above and beyond that, however, pathological opinion, the deformed and lunatic aspects within collective ideas, arises within the dynamic of the concept of opinion itself, in which inheres the real dynamic of society, a dynamic that produces such opinions, false consciousness, necessarily. If resistance to that dynamic is not to be condemned at the outset to harmlessness and helplessness, then the tendency toward pathological opinion must be derived from normal opinion.

Opinion is the positing, no matter how qualified, of a subjective consciousness restricted in its truth content. The form of such an opinion may actually be innocuous. If someone says that in his opinion the new faculty building is seven stories high, then that can mean that he heard it from someone else but does not know exactly. Yet the sense is completely different when someone says that at all events in his opinion the Jews are an inferior race of vermin, as in Sartre’s instructive example of Uncle Armand, who feels special because he detests the English. 2 Here the “in my opinion” does not qualify the hypothetical judgment, but underscores it. By proclaiming his opinion—unsound, unsubstantiated by experience, conclusive without any deliberation—to be his own, though he may appear to qualify it, simply by relating the opinion...

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pp. 227-245
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