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The Frankfurt School (German: Frankfurter Schule) is a school of social theory and critical philosophy associated with the Institute for Social Research, at Goethe University Frankfurt in 1929. Founded in the Weimar Republic (1918–1933), during the European interwar period (1918–1939), the Frankfurt School initially comprised intellectuals, academics, and political dissidents dissatisfied with the contemporary socio-economic systems (capitalist, fascist, communist) of the 1930s. The Frankfurt theorists proposed that social theory was inadequate for explaining the turbulent political factionalism and reactionary politics occurring in 20th century liberal capitalist societies. Critical of both capitalism and of Marxism–Leninism as philosophically inflexible systems of social organization, the School's critical theory research indicated alternative paths to realizing the social development of a society and a nation.
The Frankfurt School perspective of critical investigation (open-ended and self-critical) is based upon Freudian, Marxist and Hegelian premises of idealist philosophy. To fill the omissions of 19th-century classical Marxism, which did not address 20th-century social problems, they applied the methods of antipositivist sociology, of psychoanalysis, and of existentialism. The School's sociologic works derived from syntheses of the thematically pertinent works of Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Karl Marx, of Sigmund Freud and Max Weber, and of Georg Simmel and Georg Lukács.
Like Karl Marx, the Frankfurt School concerned themselves with the conditions (political, economic, societal) that allow for social change realized by way of rational social institutions. Their emphasis on the critical component of social theory derived from their attempts to overcome the ideological limitations of positivism, materialism, and determinism by returning to the critical philosophy of Kant and his successors in German idealism – principally the philosophy of Hegel, which emphasized dialectic and contradiction as intellectual properties inherent to the human grasp of material reality.
Since the 1960s, the critical-theory work of the Institute for Social Research has been guided by Jürgen Habermas's work in communicative rationality, linguistic intersubjectivity, and "the philosophical discourse of modernity." More recently, the "third generation" critical theorists Nikolas Kompridis, Raymond Geuss, and Axel Honneth have opposed Habermas's propositions, claiming he has undermined the original social-change purposes of critical-theory-problems, such as what should reason mean; analysis of the conditions necessary to realize social emancipation; and critiques of contemporary capitalism.
The term "Frankfurt School" describes the works of scholarship and the intellectuals who were the Institute for Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung), an adjunct organization at Goethe University Frankfurt, founded in 1923, by Carl Grünberg, a Marxist professor of law at the University of Vienna. It was the first Marxist research center at a German university and was funded through the largesse of the wealthy student Felix Weil (1898–1975).
Weil's doctoral dissertation dealt with the practical problems of implementing socialism. In 1922, he organized the First Marxist Workweek (Erste Marxistische Arbeitswoche) in effort to synthesize different trends of Marxism into a coherent, practical philosophy; the first symposium included György Lukács, Karl Korsch, Karl August Wittfogel and Friedrich Pollock. The success of the First Marxist Workweek prompted the formal establishment of a permanent institute for social research, and Weil negotiated with the Ministry of Education for a university professor to be director of the Institute for Social Research, thereby, formally ensuring that the Frankfurt School would be a university institution.
Korsch and Lukács participated in the Arbeitswoche, which included the study of Marxism and Philosophy (1923), by Karl Korsch, but their Communist Party membership precluded their active participation in the Institute for Social Research (Frankfurt School); yet Korsch participated in the School's publishing venture. Moreover, the political correctness by which the Communists compelled Lukács to repudiate his book History and Class Consciousness (1923) indicated that political, ideological, and intellectual independence from the communist party was a necessary work condition for realizing the production of knowledge.
The philosophical tradition of the Frankfurt School – the multi-disciplinary integration of the social sciences – is associated with the philosopher Max Horkheimer, who became the director in 1930, and recruited intellectuals such as Theodor W. Adorno (philosopher, sociologist, musicologist), Erich Fromm (psychoanalyst), and Herbert Marcuse (philosopher).
In the Weimar Republic (1918–33), the continual political turmoils of the interwar years (1918–39) much affected the development of the critical theory philosophy of the Frankfurt School. The scholars were especially influenced by the Communists’ failed German Revolution of 1918–19 (which Marx predicted) and by the rise of Nazism (1933–45), a German form of fascism. To explain such reactionary politics, the Frankfurt scholars applied critical selections of Marxist philosophy to interpret, illuminate, and explain the origins and causes of reactionary socio-economics in 20th-century Europe (a type of political economy unknown to Marx in the 19th century). The School's further intellectual development derived from the publication, in the 1930s, of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (1932) and The German Ideology (1932), in which Karl Marx showed logical continuity with Hegelianism as the basis of Marxist philosophy.
As the anti-intellectual threat of Nazism increased to political violence, the founders decided to move the Institute for Social Research out of Nazi Germany (1933–45). Soon after Adolf Hitler's rise to power in 1933, the Institute first moved from Frankfurt to Geneva, and then to New York City, in 1935, where the Frankfurt School joined Columbia University. The School's journal, the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung ("Magazine of Social Research"), was renamed "Studies in Philosophy and Social Science". Thence began the period of the School's important work in Marxist critical theory; the scholarship and the investigational method gained acceptance among the academy, in the U.S and in the U.K. By the 1950s, the paths of scholarship led Horkheimer, Adorno, and Pollock to return to West Germany, whilst Marcuse, Löwenthal, and Kirchheimer remained in the U.S. In 1953, the Institute for Social Research (Frankfurt School) was formally re-established in Frankfurt, West Germany.
As a term, the Frankfurt School usually includes the intellectuals Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Leo Löwenthal and Friedrich Pollock. Initially within the FS's inner circle, Jürgen Habermas was the first to diverge from Horkheimer's research program.
Associates of the Frankfurt School:
Critical theoreticians of the Frankfurt School:
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The works of the Frankfurt School are understood in the context of the intellectual and practical objectives of critical theory. In Traditional and Critical Theory (1937), Max Horkheimer defined critical theory as social critique meant to effect sociologic change and realize intellectual emancipation, by way of enlightenment that is not dogmatic in its assumptions. Critical theory analyzes the true significance of the ruling understandings (the dominant ideology) generated in bourgeois society in order to show that the dominant ideology misrepresents how human relations occur in the real world and how capitalism justifies and legitimates the domination of people.
In the praxis of cultural hegemony, the dominant ideology is a ruling-class narrative story, which explains that what is occurring in society is the norm. Nonetheless, the story told through the ruling understandings conceals as much as it reveals about society. The task of the Frankfurt School was sociological analysis and interpretation of the areas of social-relation that Marx did not discuss in the 19th century – especially the base and superstructure aspects of a capitalist society.
Horkheimer opposed critical theory to traditional theory, wherein the word theory is applied in the positivistic sense of scientism, in the sense of a purely observational mode, which finds and establishes scientific law (generalizations) about the real world. Social sciences differ from natural sciences because their scientific generalizations cannot be readily derived from experience. The researcher's understanding of a social experience is always filtered through biases in the researcher's mind. The researcher does not understand is that he or she operates within an historical and ideological context. The results for the theory being tested would conform to the ideas of the researcher rather than the facts of the experience proper; in Traditional and Critical Theory (1937), Horkheimer said:
The facts, which our senses present to us, are socially performed in two ways: through the historical character of the object perceived, and through the historical character of the perceiving organ. Both are not simply natural; they are shaped by human activity, and yet the individual perceives himself as receptive and passive in the act of perception.
For Horkheimer, the methods of investigation applicable to the social sciences cannot imitate the scientific method applicable to the natural sciences. In that vein, the theoretical approaches of positivism and pragmatism, of neo-Kantianism and phenomenology failed to surpass the ideological constraints that restricted their application to social science, because of the inherent logico–mathematic prejudice that separates theory from actual life, i.e. such methods of investigation seek a logic that is always true, and independent of and without consideration for continuing human activity in the field under study. He felt that the appropriate response to such a dilemma was the development of a critical theory of Marxism.
Horkheimer believed the problem was epistemological saying "we should reconsider not merely the scientist, but the knowing individual, in general." Unlike Orthodox Marxism, which applies a template to critique and to action, critical theory is self-critical, with no claim to the universality of absolute truth. As such, it does not grant primacy to matter (materialism) or consciousness (idealism), because each epistemology distorts the reality under study to the benefit of a small group. In practice, critical theory is outside the philosophical strictures of traditional theory; however, as a way of thinking and of recovering humanity's self-knowledge, critical theory draws investigational resources and methods from Marxism.
The Frankfurt School reformulated dialectics into a concrete method of investigation, derived from the Hegelian philosophy that an idea will pass over into its own negation, as the result of conflict between the inherently contradictory aspects of the idea. In opposition to previous modes of reasoning, which viewed things in abstraction, each by itself and as though endowed with fixed properties, Hegelian dialectics considers ideas according to their movement and change in time, according to their interrelations and interactions.
In Hegel's perspective, human history proceeds and evolves in a dialectical manner: the present embodies the rational Aufheben (sublation), the synthesis of past contradictions. It is an intelligible process of human activity, the Weltgeist, which is the Idea of Progress towards a specific human condition – the realization of human freedom through rationality. However, the Problem of future contingents (considerations about the future) did not interest Hegel, for whom philosophy cannot be prescriptive and normative, because philosophy understands only in hindsight. The study of history is limited to descriptions of past and present human realities. For Hegel and his successors (the Right Hegelians), dialectics inevitably lead to approval of the status quo – as such, dialectical philosophy justifies the bases of Christian theology and of the Prussian state.
Karl Marx and the Young Hegelians strongly criticized that perspective; Hegel had over-reached in his abstract conception of "absolute Reason" and had failed to notice the "real"— i.e. undesirable and irrational – life conditions of the proletariat. Marx inverted Hegel's idealist dialectics and advanced his own theory of dialectical materialism, arguing that "it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but that their social being that determines their consciousness." Marx's theory follows a materialist conception of history and geographic space, where the development of the productive forces is the primary motive force for historical change. The social and material contradictions inherent to capitalism lead to its negation – thereby replacing capitalism with Communism, a new, rational form of society.
Marx used dialectical analysis to uncover the contradictions in the predominant ideas of society, and in the social relations to which they are linked – exposing the underlying struggle between opposing forces. Only by becoming aware of the dialectic (i.e. class consciousness) of such opposing forces in a struggle for power can men and women intellectually liberate themselves, and change the existing social order through social progress. The Frankfurt School understood that a dialectical method could only be adopted if it could be applied to itself; if they adopted a self-correcting method – a dialectical method that would enable the correction of previous, false interpretations of the dialectical investigation. Accordingly, critical theory rejected the historicism and materialism of Orthodox Marxism.
The epistemological aspects of the Frankfurt School are linked to the presence of Karl Popper on the scene of philosophical and scientific thought of the 20th century. Popper's response to philosophy indicates a link between critical theory and the crisis of scientific thought in the face of falsificationism. The boundaries of social disciplines are also involved in the revision of the debate on critical knowledge and dialectical reason. The bequests of authors such as Adorno, Hans Albert and Jürgen Habermas are also the text of the debate, culminating with the affirmation of the second Methodenstreit (See Guglielmo Rinzivillo, Passato e presente nello sviluppo della teoria critica della società su "Sociologia. Rivista Quadrimestrale di Scienze Storiche e Sociali", Anno LIV, N. 1, 2020, pp. 77–98; idem Second Part su "Sociologia. Rivista Quadrimestrale di Scienze Storiche e Sociali", Anno LIV, N. 2, 2020, pp. 89–108).
The second phase of Frankfurt School critical theory centres principally on two works: Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) and Adorno's Minima Moralia (1951). The authors wrote both works during the institute's exile in America. While retaining much of a Marxian analysis, these works critical shifted emphasis from a critique of capitalism to a critique of Western civilization, as seen in Dialectic of Enlightenment, which uses the Odyssey as a paradigm for their analysis of bourgeois consciousness. In these works, Horkheimer and Adorno present many themes that have come to dominate social thought. Their exposition of the domination of nature as a central characteristic of instrumental rationality in Western civilization was made long before ecology and environmentalism became popular concerns.
The analysis of reason now goes one stage further: The rationality of Western civilization appears as a fusion of domination and technological rationality, bringing all of external and internal nature under the power of the human subject. In the process the subject gets swallowed up and no social force analogous to the proletariat can be identified that enables the subject to emancipate itself. Hence the subtitle of Minima Moralia: "Reflections from Damaged Life". In Adorno's words:
For since the overwhelming objectivity of historical movement in its present phase consists so far only in the dissolution of the subject, without yet giving rise to a new one, individual experience necessarily bases itself on the old subject, now historically condemned, which is still for-itself, but no longer in-itself. The subject still feels sure of its autonomy, but the nullity demonstrated to subjects by the concentration camp is already overtaking the form of subjectivity itself.
Consequently, at a time when it appears that reality itself has become the basis for ideology, the greatest contribution that critical theory can make is to explore the dialectical contradictions of individual subjective experience on the one hand, and to preserve the truth of theory on the other. Even dialectical progress is put into doubt: "its truth or untruth is not inherent in the method itself, but in its intention in the historical process." This intention must be oriented toward integral freedom and happiness: "The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption." Adorno distanced himself from the "optimism" of orthodox Marxism: "beside the demand thus placed on thought, the question of the reality or unreality of redemption [i.e. human emancipation] itself hardly matters."
From a sociological point of view, Horkheimer's and Adorno's works contain an ambivalence concerning the ultimate source or foundation of social domination, an ambivalence that gave rise to the "pessimism" of the new critical theory over the possibility of human emancipation and freedom. This ambivalence was rooted in the historical circumstances in which the work was originally produced, in particular, the rise of National Socialism, state capitalism, and mass culture as entirely new forms of social domination that could not be adequately explained within the terms of traditional Marxist sociology. For Adorno and Horkheimer, state intervention in the economy had effectively abolished the tension in capitalism between the "relations of production" and "material productive forces of society"—a tension that, according to traditional Marxist theory, constituted the primary contradiction within capitalism. The previously "free" market (as an "unconscious" mechanism for the distribution of goods) and "irrevocable" private property of Marx's epoch gradually have been replaced by the more central role of management hierarchies at the firm level and macroeconomic interventions at the state level in contemporary Western societies. The dialectic through which Marx predicted the emancipation of modern society is suppressed, effectively being subjugated to a positivist rationality of domination.
About this second "phase" of the Frankfurt School, philosopher and critical theorist Nikolas Kompridis wrote:
According to the now canonical view of its history, Frankfurt School critical theory began in the 1930s as a fairly confident interdisciplinary and materialist research program, the general aim of which was to connect normative social criticism to the emancipatory potential latent in concrete historical processes. Only a decade or so later, however, having revisited the premises of their philosophy of history, Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment steered the whole enterprise, provocatively and self-consciously, into a skeptical cul-de-sac. As a result they got stuck in the irresolvable dilemmas of the "philosophy of the subject," and the original program was shrunk to a negativistic practice of critique that eschewed the very normative ideals on which it implicitly depended.
Kompridis argues that this "sceptical cul-de-sac" was arrived at with "a lot of help from the once unspeakable and unprecedented barbarity of European fascism," and could not be gotten out of without "some well-marked [exit or] Ausgang, showing the way out of the ever-recurring nightmare in which Enlightenment hopes and Holocaust horrors are fatally entangled." However, this Ausgang, according to Kompridis, would not come until later – purportedly in the form of Jürgen Habermas's work on the intersubjective bases of communicative rationality.
Adorno, a trained classical pianist, wrote The Philosophy of Modern Music (1949), in which he polemicized against popular music―because it has become part of the culture industry of advanced capitalist society[page needed] and the false consciousness that contributes to social domination. He argued that radical art and music may preserve the truth by capturing the reality of human suffering. Hence:
What radical music perceives is the untransfigured suffering of man [...] The seismographic registration of traumatic shock becomes, at the same time, the technical structural law of music. It forbids continuity and development. Musical language is polarized according to its extreme; towards gestures of shock resembling bodily convulsions on the one hand, and on the other towards a crystalline standstill of a human being whom anxiety causes to freeze in her tracks [...] Modern music sees absolute oblivion as its goal. It is the surviving message of despair from the shipwrecked.
This view of modern art as producing truth only through the negation of traditional aesthetic form and traditional norms of beauty because they have become ideological is characteristic of Adorno and of the Frankfurt School generally. It has been criticized by those who do not share its conception of modern society as a false totality that renders obsolete traditional conceptions and images of beauty and harmony.
In particular, Adorno despised jazz and popular music, viewing it as part of the culture industry, that contributes to the present sustainability of capitalism by rendering it "aesthetically pleasing" and "agreeable".
Critics have highlighted several aspects of Critical theory: the alleged comfort of the early Frankfurt school theorists, the lack of a promise of a better future in Adorno and Horkheimer's works, or the undue emphasis on psychiatric categories in their political criticism. Habermas's "reformulation of critical theory" has been criticized, as well as the Frankfurt School's analysis of popular culture.
In The Theory of the Novel (1971), Georg Lukács criticized the "leading German intelligentsia", including some members of the Frankfurt School (Adorno is named explicitly), as inhabiting the Grand Hotel Abyss, a metaphorical place from which the theorists comfortably analyze the abyss, the world beyond. Lukács described this contradictory situation as follows: They inhabit "a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss, between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered."
The seeming lack of a promise of a better future and the lack of a positive outlook on society in the works of Adorno and Horkheimer was criticized by Karl Popper in his "Addendum 1974: The Frankfurt School" (1994). For Popper, "Marx's own condemnation of our society makes sense. For Marx's theory contains the promise of a better future." Any theory becomes "vacuous and irresponsible" if the promise of a better future is omitted or not present in the theory.
Habermas's "reformulation of critical theory" has been accused by philosopher Nikolas Kompridis as solving "too well, the dilemmas of the philosophy of the subject and the problem of modernity's self-reassurance", while creating a self-understanding of critical theory that is too close to liberal theories of justice and the normative order of society. He contended that, while "this has produced an important contemporary variant of liberal theories of justice, different enough to be a challenge to liberal theory, but not enough to preserve sufficient continuity with critical theory's past, it severely weakened the identity of critical theory and inadvertently initiated its premature dissolution."
The historian Christopher Lasch criticized the Frankfurt School for their initial tendency to "automatically" reject opposing political criticisms, based upon "psychiatric" grounds: "This procedure excused them from the difficult work of judgment and argumentation. Instead of arguing with opponents, they simply dismissed them on psychiatric grounds."
During the 1980s, anti-authoritarian socialists in the United Kingdom and New Zealand criticized the rigid and determinist view of popular culture deployed within the Frankfurt School theories of capitalist culture, which precluded any prefigurative role for social critique within such work. They argued that EC Comics often did contain such cultural critiques.