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Horkheimer, Max (1894–1972)


Max Horkheimer, a German-American philosopher and social theorist, was born in Stuttgart, Germany, to a wealthy industrialist. After receiving a PhD in philosophy at the university of Frankfurt in 1922 with a dissertation on Kant supervised by Hans Cornelius, Horkheimer joined the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research) that was established in Frankfurt in 1923 as the first Marxist-oriented research center affiliated with a major German university. Under its director, Carl Grunberg, the institute's work in the 1920s tended to be empirical, historical, and oriented towards problems of the European working-class movement.

Horkheimer became director of the institute in 1930 and gathered around him many talented theorists, including Erich Fromm, Franz Neumann, Leo Lowenthal, Herbert Marcuse, and T. W. Adorno. Under Horkheimer, the institute sought to develop an interdisciplinary social theory that could serve as an instrument of social transformation. The work of this era was a synthesis of philosophy and social theory, combining sociology, psychology, cultural studies, and political economy.

During the 1930s, Horkheimer wrote many articles in philosophy, validating progressive ideals of reason, democracy, justice, morality, and other traditional concepts, while criticizing assaults on these ideals in the contemporary era and in particular developing critical perspectives on German fascism and its ideology. Most members of the Institute were both Jews and Marxist radicals and were forced to flee Germany after Hitler's ascendancy to power. The majority emigrated to the United States and the Institute became affiliated with Columbia University from 1931 until 1949, when it returned to Frankfurt.

From the mid-1930s, the Institute referred to its work as the "critical theory of society." For many years, "critical theory" stood as a code for the Institute's Marxism and was distinguished by its attempt to found a radical interdisciplinary social theory rooted in Hegelian-Marxian dialectics, historical materialism, and the critique of political economy. Members argued that Marx's concepts of the commodity, money, value, exchange, and fetishism characterized not only the capitalist economy but also social relations under capitalism, where human relations and all forms of life are governed by commodity and exchange relations and values.

In "Traditional and Critical Theory" (1937 [trans. 1972 in Critical Theory ]), Horkheimer argued that "traditional theory" (which included modern philosophy and science since Descartes) tended to be overly abstract, objectivistic, and cut off from social practice. "Critical theory," by contrast, was grounded in social theory and (Marxian) political economy, carried out systematic critique of existing society, and allied itself with efforts to produce alternatives to capitalism and bourgeois society (then in its fascist stage in much of Europe). The goal of critical theory is to transform these social conditions, and help produce "an association of free people in which each has the same possibility of self-development" ("Traditional and critical theory," p. 219).

Working collaboratively with T. W. Adorno, their Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947 [1972]) sketched out a vision of history from the Greeks to the present that discussed how reason and enlightenment became their opposite, transforming what promised to be instruments of truth and liberation into tools of domination. Under the pressure of societal systems of domination, reason became instrumental, reducing human beings to things and objects and nature to numbers. While such modes of abstraction enabled science and technology to develop apace, it also produced societal reification and domination, culminating in the concentration camps that generated an instrumentalization of death. In the "dialectic of Enlightenment," reason thus turned instrumental, science and technology had created horrific tools of destruction and death, culture was commodified into products of a mass-produced culture industry, and democracy terminated into fascism, in which masses chose despotic and demagogic rulers. Moreover, in their extremely pessimistic vision, individuals were repressing their own bodies and renouncing their own desires as they assimilated and made their own repressive beliefs and allowed themselves to be instruments of alienated labor and war.

Sharply criticizing enlightenment scientism and rationalism, as well as systems of social domination, Adorno and Horkheimer implicitly implicated Marxism within the "dialectic of enlightenment" because it too affirmed the primacy of labor, instrumentalized reason in its scientism and celebration of "socialist production," and participated in Western modernity and the domination of nature. After the Second World War, Adorno, Horkheimer, and Pollock returned to Frankfurt to reestablish the institute in Germany, while Lowenthal, Marcuse and others remained in the United States.

In Germany, Adorno, Horkheimer, and their associates published a series of books and became a dominant intellectual current. At this time, the term "Frankfurt School" became widespread as a characterization of their version of interdisciplinary social research and of the particular social philosophy developed by Adorno, Horkheimer, and their associates. They engaged in frequent methodological and substantive debates with other theories, most notably "the positivism dispute," where they criticized empirical and quantitative approaches to social theory and defended their own more speculative and critical brand of thought. The German group around Adorno and Horkheimer was also increasingly hostile toward orthodox Marxism and were in turn criticized by a variety of types of "Marxism-Leninism" and "scientific Marxists" for their alleged surrender of revolutionary and scientific Marxian perspectives.

Horkheimer's Eclipse of Reason (1947) presents a popularized version of Dialectic of Enlightenment for an English-speaking audience and Critique of Instrumental Reason (1974) brings together Horkheimer's key essays since the end of World War II. The late Horkheimer became increasingly pessimistic and combined Schopenhauer's stoicism with a quest for the "totally other," a religious desire for transcendence that entered his materialist philosophy in later years.

See also Adorno, Theodor; Critical Theory.


works by horkheimer

Twenty volumes of Horkheimer's Gesammelte Schriften are available in a Suhrkamp (Frankfurt) edition edited by Alfred Schmidt and Gunzelin Schmid Noerr. Important translations include:

Between Philosophy and Social Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993.

Critical Theory. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972.

Critique of Instrumental Reason. New York: Seabury, 1974.

Dialectic of Enlightenment.With T.W. Adorno. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972.

Eclipse of Reason [1947]. New York: Seabury, 1974.

works on horkheimer

Benhabib, S., W. Bonss, and J. McCole, eds. On Max Horkheimer: New Perspectives. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993.

Wiggershaus, R. The Frankfurt School. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 1994.

Douglas Kellner (2005)

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