The Frankfurt School
The Frankfurt School, also known as the Institute of Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung), is a social and political philosophical movement of thought located in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Thanks to a donation by Felix Weil in 1923, it was founded with the aim of developing Marxist studies in Germany. The Institute eventually generated what came to be recognized as a specific “school” of thought after 1933, when the Nazis forced it to close and move to the United States, where it found a new home at Columbia University (later, it would return to Frankfurt again in 1949).
The Frankfurt School is the original source and inspiration for what has come to be known as Critical Theory. Members of the Institute developed the concept of “critical theory” in opposition to “traditional theory.” Critical Theory evolved to apply Marxist theories among others in the study of social matters in order to, as Max Horkheimer once said, “liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.”
The philosophical impact of the school continues to resonate worldwide. Ironically, in what has become the U.S. right-wing’s favorite insult – “cultural Marxism” – is deployed as a weapon and is intended to debase critical thinking; it is in no uncertain terms understood to be a term of derision. This occurs in spite of the fact that the work represented by the Frankfurt School continues to resonate with contemporary audiences; the work is now deeply ingrained within the canon of social science as well as the humanities.
Some of the most prominent figures of the first generation Critical Theorists include Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), Theodore Adorno (1903-1969), Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), Friedrich Pollock (1894-1970), Leo Lowenthal (1900-1993), Otto Kirchheimer, and Eric Fromm (1900-1980). From the time period of the 1970s, the second generation was led by Juergen Habermas, whose writing contributed to fostering a dialogue between the so-called “continental” and “analytical” philosophical traditions. This phase of work was further complemented by the works of others, including Klaus Günther, Hauke Brunkhorst, Ralf Dahrendorf, Gerhard Brandt, Alfred Schmidt, Claus Offe, Oskar Negt, Albrecht Wellmer and Ludwig von Friedeburg, Lutz Wingert, Josef Früchtl, Lutz-Bachman. Now, it is possible to speak of a “third generation” of critical theorists, symbolically represented in Germany by the influential work of Axel Honneth [for an comparison between the “inner circle” of the first generation, and the particularly interesting outer circle, see Axel Honneth, “Critical Theory,” in Social Theory Today, ed. A. Giddens and J. Turner (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1987), 347ff].
The first generation critical theorists (Horkheimer, Adorno) devoted their work to concerns with the functional and conceptual elaboration of Hegel’s dialectics. Later, under Habermas’s influence, there was a focus on understanding the conditions of action coordinated through the underpinning of the conditions of validity for speech-acts. Third generation theorists, following the works of Honneth, turned back to Hegel’s philosophy (especially Hegel’s notion of “recognition”) which was understood to be a cognitive and pre-linguistic sphere grounding intersubjectivity. They comprise a large group of people, inside and outside Germany, including figures such as Stanley Aronowitz, Andrew Arato, Kenneth Baynes, Seyla Benhabib, Jay Bernstein, Richard Bernstein, James Bohman, Susan Buck-Morss, Jean Cohen, Fred Dallmayr, Peter Dews, Alessandro Ferrara, Jean-Marc Ferry, Nancy Fraser, David Held, Agnes Heller, David Ingram, Martin Jay, Douglas Kellner, Thomas McCarthy, David Rasmussen, William Rehg, Gillian Rose, Steven Vogel, Georgia Warnke, Stephen K. White, Joel Whitebook, and others – many of whom studied with Habermas or Marcuse. Habermas students Lutz Wingert, Josef Früchtl, Martin Löw-Beer, and Rainer Forst (though Forst is arguably the leading figure of the nascent fourth generation); Alfred Schmidt students Hauke Brunkhorst, Micha Brumlik, Matthias Lutz-Bachmann, and Gunzelin Schmid Nöerr; Wellmer students Christoph Menke and Martin Seel, Apel students Matthias Kettner and Wolfgang Kuhlmann; as well as Ulrich Beck, Helmut Dubiel, Günter Frankenberg, Klaus Günther, Hans Joas, Gertrud Koch, Ingeborg Maus, Herta Nagl-Docekal, Bernhard Peters, and the late Hinrich Fink-Eitel.
It was under Horkheimer’s leadership that members of the Institute were able to critically address a wide variety of economic, social, political and aesthetic topics, ranging from empirical analysis to philosophical theorization. Concerns with the contradictions of public life that were brought about by the psychodynamics of fascism, the manipulation of public opinion, the substitution of information for knowledge, material excess and mass-consumerism, and the breakdown of communication were all themes of major concern. In short, advanced capitalism and its accompanying instrumental rationality were seen as contributing to the deterioration of all social life.
Different interpretations of Marxism and its historical applications explain some of the hardest confrontations on economic themes within the Institute, such as the case of Pollock’s criticism of Grossman’s standard view on the pauperization of capitalism. This particular confrontation led Grossman to leave the Institute. Pollock’s critical reinterpretation of Marx also received support from intellectuals who greatly contributed to the later development of the School: for instance, Leo Lowenthal, Theodor Wiesengrund-Adorno and Erich Fromm. In particular, with Fromm’s development of a psychoanalytic trend at the Institute and with an influential philosophical contribution by Horkheimer, it became clear how under his directorship the Institute faced a drastic turning point that came to characterize its future endeavors.
The Frankfurt School provides us with useful perspectives that we can use to study contemporary society; it also provides a solid underpinning of critique for Cultural Studies. Furthermore, this work might be combined with the theoretical innovations provided by Poststructuralist/postmodern theorists like Foucault, Baudrillard, and Jameson to analyze some of the more salient aspects of the present moment – consumer society, social media, computer and information technologies, fashion and culture, new forms of knowledge and power, and subjectivity and identity.
The academic influence of the “critical” method is far reaching in terms of educational institutions in which such tradition is taught and in terms of the problems it addresses. Some of its core issues involve the critique of modernities and of capitalist society, the definition of social emancipation and the perceived pathologies of society. Critical Theory provides a specific interpretation of Marxist philosophy and reinterprets some of its central economic and political notions such as commodification, reification, fetishization and critique of mass culture. Likewise, it helps us to think about the world in terms of power relations and how individual humans are constituted as subjects, who are subject to those relations or power.
Critical theory draws from Kantian rationalism and Marxist Hegelianism, which postulates the following:
- humans are rational beings; the world of the real comes not from our senses, but from our rational capacities; therefore, a rational society is possible.
- social systems are presented with constant challenge and contradiction; these contradictions produce new syntheses, and out of this change (progress) occurs [dialectical thinking].
- Progress, in this respect, does not occur as a result of straight means-end logic (formal rationality); means-end logic is what underlies repression and domination in society; it leads to totalitarianism.
- These theoretical frameworks see events as not discrete and isolated); events are part of a social process that implies constant change.
Critical Theory incorporated Hegel’s dialectical concept of Self and Other:
- They see social progress as contingent upon a self that is able to see itself as an object – so to act self-consciously. Failing to do this, they warn, we are all doomed.
The Problem of Enlightenment
Critical theorists (Horkheimer and Adorno in particular) were concerned with the problem of “Enlightenment” within modernity and post-modernity. So for example, the central premise of the book Dialectic of Enlightenment was that “something went wrong with the Enlightenment.” Enlightenment, in their view, became totalitarian; its focus was now about controlling nature and humans.
Enlightenment, furthermore, created a culture that violated individuality by compelling conformity. The potential of the individual was not being destroyed by fascism alone; rather, it was the positivist turn of modern science within the Enlightenment that was now poised to do the most damage. The only way to get out of this modern version of hell is to engage in a Critical Theory of Society – this is the only way to achieve social transformation and progress.
What is “Dialectical” thinking?
Dialectical thinking is a form of analytical reasoning that pursues truth and knowledge as such through a process of reconciling discursive conflict. Social change, in other words, is understood to occur through contradiction (oppositional concepts are different than binary, polar opposites – Levi Strauss). Opposites attract, change takes place, and so you end up with a third order that is not like either the first or the second [bear in mind the dialectic is also about space and time].
Dialectics/the dialectical method can be illustrated as a form of a discourse between two or more people, who hold different points of view. In classical philosophy, the dialectic represents a form of reasoning based upon dialogue of arguments and counter-arguments, where one advocates propositions (theses) and counter-propositions (antitheses). The outcome of such a dialectic might be the refutation of a relevant proposition, or a synthesis, or a newly formulated combination of the opposing assertions.
Hegelian dialectic follows this logic, however, it is usually presented as comprising three dialectical stages of development: a thesis, which gives rise to its reaction, an antithesis, which contradicts or negates the thesis; the tension between the two are resolved by means of some form of synthesis. Although this model is often named after Hegel, he himself never used that specific formulation. Hegel ascribed that terminology to Kant. Carrying on Kant’s work, it was Fichte who greatly elaborated on the synthesis model and popularized it.
- Dialectics originated with Plato (dialogues)
- Kant also uses the dialectic (but different than Hegel does)
- In Hegel/Marx, the dialectic is about a relationship between subject and object.
- Horkheimer/Adorno examine the dialectic of reason and un-reason, as they look at how modernity’s promise of progress produces new forms of barbarism and violence.
- Marcuse looks at the dialectic of the individual and society; technology and domination.
From the beginning, psychoanalysis in the Frankfurt School was conceived in terms of a reinterpretation of Freud and Marx. Its consideration in the School was clearly due to Horkheimer, who encouraged his researchers to direct their attention to the subject. It was Fromm, nevertheless, who best produced an advancement of the discipline; his central aim was to provide, through a synthesis of Marxism and psychoanalysis, “the missing link between ideological superstructure and socio-economic base” (Jay 1966, p. 92).
There was a radical shift in the conjunction of the School’s interests and psychoanalysis with the coeval entrance of Adorno and Fromm’s departure in the late 1930s. Nevertheless, the School retained psychoanalysis, and in particular Freud’s instinct theory, as an area of interest. This can be seen in Adorno’s later paper “Social Science and Sociological Tendencies in Psychoanalysis” (1946), as well as Marcuse’s book Eros and Civilization (1955). The School’s interest in psychoanalysis was characterized by the total abandonment of Marxism as well as by a progressive interest into the relation of psychoanalysis with social change and the maintenance of Fromm’s insight into the psychic (or even psychotic) role of the family.
This interest became crucial in empirical studies in 1940, which culminated in Adorno’s co-authored work The Authoritarian Personality (1950). The goal of this work was to explore, on the basis of submission of a questionnaire, a “new anthropological type” – the authoritarian personality (Adorno et al. 1950, quoted in Jay 1996, p. 239). Such a character was found to have specific traits, such as, among others: compliance with conventional values, non-critical thinking, an absence of introspectiveness.
It should be noted here that Nietzsche’s influence, articularly his critique of Enlightenment, was also significant. According to Rolf Wiggershaus, Adorno aimed to correct/supplement Marx through the use of Nietzsche as a thinker concerned with the “totality of happiness incarnate.” Horkheimer likewise supported him, seeing in Nietzsche a critic of the “entire [bourgeois] culture of satiety.”
Horkheimer, says Wiggershaus, shares Nietzsche’s (as opposed to Marx’s) “distrust of the bourgeoisie” (Adorno); he also shares their detachment from the proletariat and social democracy, and merely avoids speaking of the superman (Nietzsche’s “aristocratism”), since there are those who would allege that, without class-rule and mass-domination, the characteristics and higher culture of the superman would be impossible. Horkheimer sees in this only a problem of release from stultifying toil. He concludes that if Nietzsche had realized that an extremely advanced domination of nature would make stultifying toil superfluous, he would have realized that his conviction that “all excellence [develops]. . .only among those of equal rank” means that either all or none would become supermen. Thus, in a sharp criticism of Jaspers’s book on Nietzsche, Horkheimer could write: “Beneath [Nietzsche’s] seemingly misanthropic formulations lies . . . not so much this [elitist] error but the hatred of the patient, self-avoiding, passive and conformist character at peace with the present.”
Adorno says expressly that he does not want to adopt as positive correctives Nietzschean concepts like “love” and “longing.” Indeed, he and Horkheimer valued Nietzsche above all for his frankness concerning the instinctual nature of cruelty, for his attentiveness to the stirring of repressed instincts without minimizing rationalization. No philosopher had brought such anti-Christian, antihumanistic furor to his age as the pastor’s son Nietzsche, who interacted almost exclusively with the educated, patricians, and petty nobility. Almost no philosopher had attempted so resolutely, without regard for socio-historical trends, to negate and destroy his own origins and training. Almost no philosopher so uncompromisingly and aggressively placed self-unfolding and enhanced life above considerations of personal gain and social success. In the 1942 discussion, Adorno and Horkheimer insist that Nietzsche must be rescued from fascist and racist appropriations. They find in him, as in no other philosopher, their own desires confirmed and accentuated.
Criticisms of Critical Theory
Critics point to Adorno’s cultural pessimism and the fact he and Horkheimer both seemly assume that all life takes place in front of the TV. In this there is no room for interpretation. Their view of culture is that it comprises a totalizing system, from which they say we must escape, but from which there can never be any form of escape.
Critics, likewise, allege that the products of mas culture would not be popular if people did not enjoy them. Culture is in this sense self-determining – people get what they desire.
Traditional Marxists accused the Critical theorists of claiming the intellectual heritage of Karl Marx without feeling the obligation to apply theory to the project of political action. Again, they argue that Critical Theory offers no practical solutions for societal change.
Positivist philosophers and social scientists accuse Critical theorists of not submitting their theories to empirical tests ( they base this critique on Karl Poppers revision of Logical Positivism).
More recently, neoconservative critics have reduced the entire cannon of Critical Theory to what many have termed “Cultural Marxist” rubbish. What they see in the complexity of thought that is being offered is a refuge for the “politically correct,” who reject plain lanugage and simple expression, preferring instead to offer long-winded justifications for unworthy and opaque schemes of social engineering. In his book The Death of the West, former televison personality and pundit Pat Buchanan argues “the Frankfurt School must be held as a primary suspect and principle accomplice in the titular catastrophe.”
Rolf Wiggershaus, “The Frankfurt School’s ‘Nietzschean Moment.”
Martin Jay, The dialectical imagination : a history of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950 (Boston : Little, Brown, 1973) – provides a history overview.
Susan Buck-Morss, The origin of negative dialectics : Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and the Frankfurt Institute (New York : Free Press, 1977)
Rolf Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories and Political Significance, trans. M. Robertson (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994)
Helmut Dubiel, Theory and Politics: Studies in the Development of Critical Theory, trans. Benjamin Gregg (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1985)
Zoltán Tar, The Frankfurt School: The Critical Theories of Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1977)
Joel Anderson, “The Third Generation of the Frankfurt School.”
Additional reading might be found on the blog – Introducing the Frankfurt School
For current information on the current activity of the Institute, see the following website linked here.
How can we use the tools provided by Critical Theory to understand some of the more pressing problems that characterize the present moment in regards to culture and politics? Problems like police brutality, war, racial antipathy, the disappearance of the middle class, and other problems in connection with social inequality.
If the project of modernity was to achieve Enlightenment, do you think this vision has been fulfilled?
What role do you see science playing in this process? Has science been put to good use in a way that allows us to be self-reflective and democratic, or has it too occasioned “new forms of barbarism?”