The relationship between theory and practice in Adorno’s philosophy, and what it can do for physiotherapy ethics

  • Anna Ilona Rajala

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This thesis is a philosophical criticism of physiotherapy ethics through the work of Theodor
W. Adorno that adds to the growing literature on critical physiotherapy—a physiotherapy
research field that draws on philosophy and critical social science. This is the first extended
reading of Adorno in the context of physiotherapy and, more broadly, in healthcare. The
thesis falls broadly within applied philosophy and ethics. My purpose is to reconfigure the
understanding of theory and practice in physiotherapy ethics. I aim to answer the following:
1) How might the relationship between theory and practice be understood in physiotherapy?
2) How does Adorno’s thinking help to clarify the relationship between theory and practice
in physiotherapy? 3) How does the sort of understanding that emerges help to advance
critical understanding of physiotherapy?

The central ideas from Adorno’s thinking that frame my argument are the following. First,
Adorno’s philosophy criticises objects ‘immanently’—from within them rather than using
external criteria. Second, Adorno criticises ‘identity thinking’—the tendency to attach
concepts to objects to categorise them—to emphasise the importance of the non-conceptual
for rationality. Third, to open up rationality to the non-conceptual, Adorno uses the notion
of ‘constellations’ to surround the object with concepts rather than simply attaching a
definition to the object. Fourth, Adorno insists on the ‘priority of the object’: theory must
begin with its object which mediates the response of philosophical practice. Finally,
Adorno was an adamant critic of positivism.

Chapter 1 frames the thesis by tracing Adorno’s thinking about the relationship between
theory and practice. Adorno argues that theory is a form of practice: theory must place its
object as primary and aim at affecting change in a world that is antagonistic to its core.
Theory must not prescribe the path to a better world but analyse why change for the better
is not happening. Chapter 2 extends Chapter 1 to outline the idea of theory as practice for
physiotherapy ethics and to defend theoretical analyses both against the notion of
‘evidence-based ethics’ and mistaken views of philosophical theory. Chapter 3 is a criticism
of identity thinking in the claim that clarifying what the concept of ‘person-centredness’ is
leads to the related practice becoming better. A direct path from clarified concept to practice
is not guaranteed. Instead, I argue for placing ‘person-centredness’ in a constellation.
Chapter 4 criticises immanently the four principles approach—a liberal theory of healthcare
ethics that enjoys endorsement but has also been criticised widely. My criticism reveals
that instead of placing the principle-abiding subject as primary, the priority of the object
offers a basis for physiotherapy ethics. Chapter 5 focuses on Adorno’s somatic philosophy
and how physiotherapy ethics might be anchored in the body, its vulnerability and
Date of AwardMay 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton
SupervisorBob Brecher (Supervisor) & Andy Knott (Supervisor)


  • critical physiotherapy
  • Adorno
  • ethics
  • theory
  • practice
  • critique

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