Frankfurt School

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Frankfurt School


The Frankfurt school refers to the members and associates of the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute of Social Research) in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. The institute was established at the instigation of Felix Weil (18981975) as a privately endowed research foundation for the study of socialism within the University of Frankfurt in 1923. Prominent members of the institute included Max Horkheimer (18951973), Theodor W. Adorno (19031969), Herbert Marcuse (18981979), Leo Löwenthal (19001993), Friedrich Pollock (18941970), and Erich Fromm (19001980), and those associated with it included Walter Benjamin (18921940) and Siegfried Kracauer (18891966). During the period of the National Socialist (Nazi) regime in Germany, the institute, and its predominantly German-Jewish membership, was forced into exile, first in Geneva and subsequently in New York, where its members became affiliated with Columbia University. After World War II (19391945), the institute returned to Germany and reopened in Frankfurt in 1951, though some members, such as Marcuse and Löwenthal, chose to remain in the United States.

Between 1924 and 1930, the institute had close relations with the Moscow-based Marx-Engels Institute and was committed to the socioeconomic analysis of capitalism and such political issues as the crisis of the European labor movement. From 1931, under Horkheimers directorship, the school began to develop a distinctive theoretical framework, known as critical theory, that underpinned the diverse research programs to follow. At the epistemological level, the members shared the idealist tradition of continental philosophy, following in particular Immanuel Kant (17241804) and G. W. F. Hegel (17701831). In his inaugural lecture, however, Horkheimer urged the employment of critical theory in order to overcome the fundamental divergence between philosophical thinking and empirical inquiry. In contrast to traditional theory, typified in the positivist understanding of science, critical theory seeks to grasp the totality of society through interdisciplinary research and to provide an uncompromising critique of ideology.

At the level of social theory, the Frankfurt school was inspired by Marxism, in particular Georg Lukácss (18851971) theory of reification, but the school was always highly critical of orthodox Soviet Marxism. The members of the institute rejected the simplistic doctrine of dialectical materialism, the mechanical application of a base-superstructure framework, and the role of the working class as the lone agent for social change. They strived instead to combine Marxist critique with Max Webers (18641920) understanding of rationalization and Sigmund Freuds (18561939) psychoanalytic analysis of the individual.

Drawing upon this neo-Marxist perspective, the institute undertook research in three topical areas envisaged by Horkheimer and published them in their own journals, Zeitschrifit für Sozialforschung (Journal of Social Research) from 1932 to 1939 and Studies in Philosophy and Social Science from 1939 to 1941. First, institute members searched for a comprehensive theory of contemporary postliberal capitalist society in terms of state-capitalism. Second, drawing on Fromm and Wilhelm Reichs (18971957) social-psychological study of fascism and character, the institute investigated how individuals were integrated with so little resistance into a dominant system. This study became further developed in exile with the extensive research series Studies in Prejudice, which culminated in the collaborated work, The Authoritarian Personality (Adorno et al. 1950). Third, the institute saw the mass culture as central to a new configuration of the capitalist system, one that induced compliance with dominant social relations through culture and media, which Horkheimer and Adorno dubbed the culture industry.

Ultimately, the failure of the Weimar Republic, the emergence of totalitarian regimes in Europe, the Holocaust, and the self-destruction of Western civilization compelled the Frankfurt school to ask why mankind, instead of entering into a truly human condition, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism (Horkheimer and Adorno, [1947] 1997, p. xi). Horkheimer and Adorno found the answer lodged within a set of contradictions posed by an instrumental reason at the center of the Enlightenment project itself, providing a profoundly bleak and pessimistic diagnosis of modernity in the seminal collection of philosophical fragments, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947).

After the institutes return to Frankfurt, Adorno served as director from 1958 until his sudden death in 1969. During this period, the institute continued to elaborate the systematic social theory, particularly through the positivism dispute. As shown in Horkheimers Eclipse of Reason (1947) and Adornos Negative Dialectic (1966), however, their pessimistic perspective became more pronounced. In a continuing turn from the empirical-analytical sciences, Adorno increasingly focused on aesthetics and, in particular, the philosophy of music. His Aesthetic Theory (1970), published posthumously, clearly illuminates how the utopian dimension of critical theory rests upon aesthetic motifsa dimension that also preoccupied Marcuse. The equivocal relation of the institute to radical social movements during the 1960s came to an end in January 1969 when Adorno called the police to eject student protesters occupying the institutes Frankfurt premises. By contrast, in the United States, Marcuses distinctive social theory of liberation, greatly influenced by Martin Heidegger (18891976) and Freud, appealed to the New Left throughout the 1960s and early 1970s.

There have been significantyet often marginal-izedcontributions to the development of the Frankfurt school and critical theory made by intellectuals more loosely associated with the institute: Walter Benjamins unique analysis of art and media; Franz Neumann (19001954) and Otto Kirchheimers (19051965) profound inquiry of political forms of integration in advanced capitalism; and Kracauers theory of film and propaganda. Jürgen Habermas, the most important representative of the second generation of the school, extensively criticized his predecessors oversimplification of modernity and developed a different analysis of capitalist society that appreciates the normative dimension of rationality rooted in communicative interaction. The Frankfurt school has also been criticized for its overly negative view of mass culture and its overestimation of the autonomous character of high art. More recently, Axel Honneth, who became director of the institute in 2001, has elaborated critical theory with a new focus on the social theory of recognition.

SEE ALSO Critical Theory; Fromm, Erich; Habermas, Jürgen; Marcuse, Herbert


Adorno, Theodor W., et al. 1959. The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Harper.

Adorno, Theodor W. [1966] 1973. Negative Dialectics. Trans. E. B. Ashton. New York: Seabury.

Benjamin, Walter. 1999. The Arcades Project. Ed. Rolf Tiedemann. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.

Habermas, Jürgen. 19841987. The Theory of Communicative Action.2 vols. Trans. Thomas McCarthy. Boston: Beacon.

Honneth, Axel. 1995. The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflict. Trans. Joel Anderson. Cambridge, MA: Polity.

Horkheimer, Max. 1947. Eclipse of Reason. New York: Oxford University Press.

Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. [1947] 1997. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. London, New York: Verso.

Jay, Martin. 1973. The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 19321950. London: Heinemann.

Kirchheimer, Otto, and Georg Rusche. 1939. Punishment and Social Structure. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kracauer, Siegfried. 1947. From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Löwenthal, Leo, and Norbert Guterman. 1970. Prophets of Deceit: A Study of the Techniques of the American Agitator. 2nd ed. Palo Alto, CA: Pacific Books.

Marcuse, Herbert. 1955. Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud. Boston: Beacon.

Neumann, Franz. 1942. Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism. London: Gollancz.

Wiggershaus, Rolf. 1994. The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance. Trans. Michael Robertson. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Jae Ho Kang

Frankfurt School

views updated May 11 2018



The phrase Frankfurt School refers to an illustrious group of German-Jewish thinkers who came of age during the tumultuous years of the Weimar Republic. Their number included Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Erich Fromm, Max Horkheimer, Otto Kirchheimer, Leo Lowenthal, Herbert Marcuse, Franz Neumann, and Friedrich Pollock. Later, they achieved a remarkable degree of intellectual renown in the United States, where they fled following Adolf Hitler's seizure of power.


The Frankfurt School's organizational base was the Institute for Social Research, which was established by Felix Weil in the liberal milieu of Frankfurt in 1923. The institute was originally conceived as an intellectual ally of the German working-class movement, whose 1918 through 1919 revolution had been brutally subdued by the reigning social democrats and their right-wing allies. The institute's charge was to undertake research on working-class politics in order to facilitate the eventual triumph of the "progressive social forces" that had been defeated in Weimar's early years. However, the Frankfurt School as it is known today was given its definitive shape under the directorship of Max Horkheimer, who succeeded Carl Grünberg in 1930.

Horkheimer articulated a new program in his inaugural address as director, "The Present State of Social Philosophy and the Tasks of an Institute for Social Research." The new approach centered on the research methodology of "interdisciplinary materialism." By this term, Horkheimer sought to map an intellectual course that would navigate between two prevalent scholarly extremes: on one hand, philosophical speculation entirely ungrounded in fact and on the other hand narrow-minded social scientific fact-gathering uninformed by theoretical directives.

The institute's approach to social philosophy followed a course that had been charted by the Western Marxist revival of the 1920s. In 1923 Karl Korsch's Marxism and Philosophy and Georg Lukács's History and Class Consciousness appeared. Both works vigorously rejected the determinist conception of Marxism purveyed by Soviet theoreticians. Lukács argued that Soviet Marxism's "objectivism" was incompatible with the notion of human freedom. Marxism, Lukács contended, was in essence a superior theory of human self-determination. However, it differed from earlier, bourgeois theories in stressing the "material" side of freedom: the component of social justice, without which freedom shrinks to a formal attribute relevant to the privileged classes alone. (In this vein, Horkheimer was fond of quoting the maxim, "Capitalism is inherently democratic; it forbids the right to sleep under bridges to millionaires and vagrants alike.") In many respects, Western Marxists like Lukács, Korsch, and the Frankfurt School foresaw the degeneration of Soviet Marxism into an oppressive and dogmatic "science of legitimation."

The collaborative research project that was meant to implement the Frankfurt School's interdisciplinary research program was Studies on Authority and the Family, in which Fromm's social psychology played a pivotal role. The study's thematic focus was the structural transformation of the bourgeois nuclear family, one of the institute's dominant concerns in the 1930s. But another aspect of the project highlighted the increasingly precarious status of Weimar democracy: the cultural transmission, via the family, of authoritarian patterns of socialization that undermined autonomy and bred obedience, thereby paving the way for dictatorship—a model that would soon cast its net across the Continent. During the 1950s, many of the concepts and research methods employed in the 1936 study were utilized in The Authoritarian Personality (1950), co-edited by Adorno and sponsored by the American Jewish Committee as part of its Studies in Prejudice series.

Hitler's seizure of power put an end to the Frankfurt School research program in its original incarnation: in March 1933, institute offices and property were confiscated by the Gestapo. Empirical research of the sort Horkheimer envisioned had become ideologically impossible in Germany. In 1934 the institute relocated to New York, where it established ties with Columbia University. Until 1940 its members continued to publish in German in order to preserve intellectual and cultural traditions that the Nazis sought to efface. Institute studies appeared in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, arepository of strikingly innovative work in philosophy, cultural criticism, and social theory.


The institute focused on the economic, political, cultural, and psychological preconditions behind the rise of fascism. In his own programmatic contributions, such as the 1937 essay "Traditional and Critical Theory," Horkheimer strove to articulate the theoretical foundations of critical theory, a term that had become a deliberate euphemism for reflexive, nondogmatic Marxism. Unlike orthodox Marxism, critical theory had shed all vestiges of economic determinism, remaining sensitive to the multifarious causalities of the total social process—political, legal, and cultural developments that possessed their own immanent logic. Unlike "traditional theory"—the conventional bourgeois disciplines that Horkheimer sought to integrate—critical theory rejected the positivist ethos that accepted bourgeois society at face value, in its sheer immediacy or givenness. By casting its lot with the downtrodden and oppressed, critical theory sought to inform processes of social emancipation—or, as Horkheimer phrased it, the "rational organization of society."

As prospects for emancipation receded with the triumph of fascism in Europe and "state capitalism" (the New Deal) in the United States, critical theory's approach became increasingly abstract and philosophical. In his essays from the late 1930s, Horkheimer began to rely on the ideals of "Philosophical Reason" as a transhistorical touchstone of humanity's emancipatory hopes. In Horkheimer's view, reason, by stressing the tension between the "real" and the "rational," brought to light the deficiencies of contemporary social life. By emphasizing the ways in which reality failed to measure up to the sublimity of reason's demands, philosophy preserved the idea of a radically different, utopian social order. Many of these themes were also central to Marcuse's important 1940 study of Hegel, Reason and Revolution.

Horkheimer presided over the institute's effective dissolution, apparently due to financial constraints, in 1941, at which point the Zeitschrift ceased to appear. He and Adorno relocated to Pacific Palisades, California, where they coauthored Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944–1947), an influential presentation of the Frankfurt School's philosophy of history. Here Adorno's influence clearly predominated, because the new outlook on reason was a highly critical one. The authors argued that the very process of human ratiocination—intellection itself—underwrote the modern totalitarian impulse. The most basic expression of domination, they argued, was the attempt to make the dissimilar similar by subjecting it to the abstract imperatives of logical thought.

Despite fascinating chapters on the Enlightenment, Homer's Odyssey, the Marquis de Sade, and anti-Semitism, their perspective seemed oblivious to some important and potentially devastating objections and counterarguments; the authors had abandoned the original methodological promise of interdisciplinary materialism in favor of a schematic philosophy of history. Horkheimer and Adorno concluded that the rise of totalitarianism had revealed the inner logic of the Western cultural development in toto. They never explored the converse possibility that fascism represented a last-ditch effort to overturn the ideas of the French Revolution, the rule of law and democratic republicanism.

One of the book's major innovations was its systematic treatment of the phenomenon of mass culture ("The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception"). Similar misgivings about mass culture as a species of socially administered, ideological conformity would be voiced by American critics such as Dwight MacDonald, Clement Greenberg, and Irving Howe. Yet in this instance, too, one suspects that, despite the chapter's undeniable analytical brilliance, the authors indelicately grafted the experience of European totalitarianism onto the American situation. As a result, their analysis of the culture industry became monolithic: they readily assumed that mass culture, as a new form of ideological control, resulted in the "total integration" of American society. The distinctiveness of American political traditions—rule of law, republicanism, civil liberties—as a counterweight to culture industry conformity played no role in their account.


In 1950, Horkheimer and Adorno returned to Frankfurt to accept teaching positions. Other former institute members—Kirchheimer, Lowenthal, Marcuse, and Neumann (who died in 1953)—remained in the United States, where they enjoyed distinguished university careers. Although Horkheimer and Adorno's major philosophical works were only translated during the 1970s, the Frankfurt School's interpretive framework was introduced to an American public via a number of influential works by Herbert Marcuse. During the 1960s, reading books such as Eros and Civilization (1955) and One-Dimensional Man (1964) served as an obligatory rite of passage for many members of the New Left. Marcuse's critique of the repressive nature of advanced industrial society, whose survival was predicated on rechanneling desire in accordance with the strictures of mass consumption (a process he famously characterized as "repressive desublimation") proved prophetic, for it anticipated the "libidinal politics" that a subsequent generation of student radicals would soon adopt.

Thus, whereas the Frankfurt School's critique of domination was first elaborated in the 1930s and 1940s, its doctrines were received under very different conditions. As a result of this unexpected confluence of German social thought and indigenous American radicalism, a generation of young American scholars (inspired in part by Martin Jay's pioneering history The Dialectical Imagination [1973]) sought to renew and adapt critical theory to the changed political and social realities of the post-1960s America, making the Frankfurt School framework an integral component of postwar American intellectual discourse.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Horkheimer and Adorno, for their parts, were extremely active in refashioning German politics. In his capacity as university rector, Horkheimer rubbed elbows with German political elites and had an important influence on postwar educational policy. The resurrected institute's new annual, Frankfurter Beiträge zu Soziologie, published influential studies of German occupational life that revealed a marked continuation of authoritarian character structure.

Adorno was an especially active participant in the reeducation process. He delivered a series of public lectures and radio addresses urging his fellow citizens to actively confront the German past rather than simply bury it. In the aftermath of Auschwitz, contrition and restitution became the twin preconditions for Germany's return to the fold of civilized nations. The Frankfurt School, with Adorno in the lead, stressed the imperatives of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or "Coming to terms with the past." For these reasons, in their study of the School's postwar influence Clemens Albrecht et al. credited it with establishing the intellectual and moral foundations of postwar Germany.

In "Education towards Maturity," Adorno praised the Kantian virtue of Mündigkeit, or autonomy. Thereby, he acknowledged that one of the key factors in Nazism's precipitous rise was a widespread dearth of Zivilcourage on the part of the German civil population. The traditional authoritarian state had excelled at producing quiescent and obedient subjects (Untertanen) rather than citizens. Only a far-reaching transformation in socialization patterns would remedy this debility and set Germany on the path to stable democratic government. Consequently, the Frankfurt School consciously downplayed its earlier hopes for radical social change—to the point where for many years Horkheimer categorically refused requests to republish books and articles from the 1930s and 1940s.

However, this change in political tone was apparently lost on postwar German youth. To the chagrin of Horkheimer et al., they found the Frankfurt School's more radical doctrines of the 1930s timely and congenial. Their impatience was, in many respects, understandable. After all, during the 1950s the Americans had sacrificed denazification to the ends of anticommunism. But this policy meant that there was a discomfiting continuity in personnel from the Third Reich to the Federal Republic.

The German SDS (Sozialistischer deutscher Studentenbund) saw itself as antifascist, and its goal was to oppose the authoritarian continuities in German politics. But this put it on an explosive collision course with the reincarnated Institute for Social Research, since one of the political lessons that Horkheimer and his colleagues had learned during the 1930s was that the Left's failure to rally around the values of liberal democracy had greatly facilitated Hitler's seizure of power—a scenario they were anxious to forestall in the postwar era. The inevitable political clash between the two groups came to pass in 1968, when Adorno felt compelled to summon the police to expel student radicals who had illegally occupied institute premises.

Jürgen Habermas, Adorno's assistant in Frankfurt during the 1950s, has continued to build on his mentor's legacy. Yet he has taken exception to the philosophy of history propounded in Dialectic of Enlightenment, which he perceives as an exaggerated "inverted" teleology, in which linear decline supplants the positive teleology of progress. Unlike Horkheimer and Adorno, Habermas has been eager to stress the redeeming or positive features of political modernity: the values of civil society, the public sphere, the rule of law, human rights, and participatory democracy, all of which he perceives as an important bulwark against political authoritarianism.

At the same time, Habermas shares the Frankfurt School's critical verdict on "instrumental reason": like Adorno, he fears that the technocratic imperatives of economic management and state administration have taken precedence over human capacities for undistorted intersubjectivity—the ability to reach agreement through the beneficent capacities of mutual understanding. In The Theory of Communicative Action (1981), Habermas coined the phrase administrative colonization of the lifeworld to describe the process whereby the formal imperatives of economic and administrative rationality increasingly subsume informal modes of human interaction: friendship, intimacy, and principled political will-formation. Unlike his intellectual forebears, he has sought to reconcile critical theory's emancipatory thrust with contemporary developments in philosophy and the social sciences. Thus, his view of traditional theory is markedly less confrontational than was Horkheimer's. His theory of "universal pragmatics"—the "ideal speech situation" that constitutes the philosophical basis for the theory of communicative action—was developed via an encounter with the linguistic philosophies of J. L. Austin and John Searle.

Habermas's own work, which has had a profound and extensive impact on a variety of intellectual fields, is significant testimony to the continuing relevance of the Frankfurt School vision.

See alsoAdorno, Theodor; Benjamin, Walter; Fromm, Erich; Habermas, Jürgen; Marcuse, Herbert.


Albrecht, Clemens, et al. Die Intellektuelle Gründung der Bundesrepublik: Eine Wirkungsgeschichte der Frankfurter Schule. Frankfurt, 1999.

Arato, Andrew, and Eike Gebhardt, eds. The Essential Frankfurt School Reader. New York, 1978.

Bernstein, Richard J., ed. Habermas and Modernity. Cambridge, Mass., 1985.

Bronner, Stephen Eric, and Douglas MacKay Kellner, eds. Critical Theory and Society: A Reader. New York, 1989.

Horkheimer, Max. Critical Theory, translated by J. Cummings. New York, 1972.

McCarthy, Thomas. The Critical Theory of Jürgen Habermas. Cambridge, Mass., 1978.

Seidman, Steven, ed. Jürgen Habermas on Society and Politics: A Reader. Boston, 1989.

Wiggershaus, Rolf. The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance. Cambridge, Mass., 1994.

Wolin, Richard. The Terms of Cultural Criticism: The Frankfurt School, Existentialism, Poststructuralism. New York, 1992.

Richard Wolin

Frankfurt School

views updated May 29 2018


The Frankfurt School, most famous for its Critical Theory, was conceived in 1922 by Felix Weil. His family fortune provided for both the inauguration of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany and the financial independence necessary for its members to perform the envisaged social research and theoretical speculation both there and elsewhere, especially in the United States, during the period of exile caused by Nazism. Officially erected in 1923, the Institute only began to develop the approach which later characterized it in 1930 under the leadership of Max Horkheimer (18951973). He remained director of the Institute until his retirement. He and Theodor Adorno (19031969) are most closely identified with both the Institute and the development of its Critical Theory. Among others associated with the institute, the more well known are W. Benjamin, F. Pollock, and especially in the United States, P. Tillich, E. Fromm, H. Marcuse, and J. Habermas.

General Theory. In order to produce a new critical theory, the Frankfurt School attempted a fusion of Marx's socio-economic with Freud's psychoanalytic critique. Originally directed precisely against the capitalist economic system and its concomitant implicit ontology, the new Critical Theory soon widened its scope to include the "whole (of reality)," which it deemed to be a "totally administered world," and, hence, destructive of individual human persons, their freedom, their pleasure, their being. Thus, "the (empirical) whole is the untrue." Consequently, Critical Theory rejected both the more recent positivism, empiricism, and scientism as well as the older classical metaphysical systems, because both inherently tend to accept and equate any given particular state of reality with reality pure and simple. According to Critical Theory, the malaise of modern man is rooted specifically in the Enlightenment, but can be traced all the way back to the dawn of human consciousness and reflective thinking. The exploitation of nature and the alienation of humanity involved in this beginning have intensified steadfastly and culminated in the capitalist economic system, whose own proper fruit has been the mass culture and consumer civilization, so typical of the West, but inexorably infecting all mankind. The result is the total and seemingly incurable alienation of mannot only economic, social, cultural, but also ontological.

A Theological Dimension. Although some thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School have remained steadfastly atheistic, there is discernible in the writings of especially Benjamin and the later Horkheimer and Adorno what has been termed a theological dimension. Thus Adorno and Horkheimer have been led to the conclusion that, since "the whole is the untrue," the appeal to or "longing for the entirely other" is not absolutely reprobate, although it "is, to be sure, a nonscientific wish." However, on the basis of their fear of and opposition to the cheap reconciliation advocated in customary metaphysical systems (German Idealism) and the reduction of everything to the status of means in contemporary empiricist scientism, they remain decidedly dedicated to their Negative Dialectic. By it alone can the temptation to absolutize the present moment be overcome. Thus their admittedly impressive achievement remains but a negative critique. Hence their noble aim of overcoming the split in human consciousness, of reconciling subject and object, person and nature, of restoring paradise (the influence, however implicit and unreflective, of the Jewish background of many members of the Frankfurt School ought never be overlooked) was essentially beyond attainment. The thin line between Judeo-Christian negative theology and rationalist agnosticism is strikingly manifest in their thought.

Writings. Horkheimer and Adorno not only thought together, they also wrote together Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York 1944, 1972). The foundation of Critical Theory, as well as of all their later writings, was provided by that book along with Horkheimer's Eclipse of Reason (New York 1947, 1974) and Adorno's Minima Moralia (Frankfurt, 1951, 1976). Their entire work can be viewed, as they themselves viewed it, as "a critique of philosophy, and therefore (it) refuses to abandon philosophy." Their journey, starting in the culture of assimilated German Jewry, took them through classical Greek and modern European philosophy as well as the Marxist and Freudian critiques to a head-on confrontation with contemporary mass-consumer culture, created by technological rationalism. They were philosophers characterized by a refusal to accept human suffering, by a demand for justice in a world where injustice at least seems to triumph. Hence they were led to define the human being as the "Longing for the Entirely Other," the title of what may be termed Horkheimer's last will and testament (Die Sehnsucht nach dem ganz Anderen, Hamburg 1970). For theistic thinkers their writings are clearly an inspiration and a challenge, for the philosophy of religion an especially fertile source of new insights about the transcendent, both human and divine.

Bibliography: Suhrkamp Verlag of Frankfurt, Germany, has published the collected works of T. Adorno and is publishing those of M. Horkheimer. t. adorno, Negative Dialectics (New York 1972); Jargon of Authenticity (Evanston 1973). t. adorno et al., The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology (New York 1976). m. horkheimer, Die Sehnsucht nach dem ganz Anderen (Hamburg, 1979); Critical Theory (New York 1972); Critique of Instrumental Reason (New York 1974). m. jay, The Dialectical Imagination (Boston 1973). k. oppens et al., Über Theodor W. Adorno (Frankfurt 1970). h. schweppenhÄuser, ed., Theodor W. Adorno zum Gedachtnis (Frankfurt 1971).

[r. kress]

Frankfurt School

views updated May 29 2018


FRANKFURT SCHOOL. Although founded in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1923, the Institute for Social Re-search (or Frankfurt School) established itself at Columbia University in New York City in 1934 in response to the Nazi seizure of power in Germany. The Frankfurt School's principal members included the institute's director Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Erich Fromm, Leo Lowenthal, and Herbert Marcuse. The institute reestablished itself in Frankfurt in the early 1950s, though several of its members—including Fromm, Lowenthal, and Marcuse—remained in the United States.

The diverse intellectual contributions of the Frankfurt School were linked by a common attempt to develop what they called "critical theory." Critical theory was an ambitious attempt to understand modern society through an interdisciplinary approach integrating philosophy, political economy, history, psychoanalysis, sociology, and cultural theory. Frankfurt School members were revisionist Marxists who sought both to understand society and to make it more rational and just. However, with the rise of fascism and Stalinism, they became increasingly disillusioned with the prospects for progressive social change. Thus, for the Frankfurt School, critical theory represented an intellectual challenge to the social order when a political one failed to materialize.

At the heart of critical theory was a trenchant critique of the modern "totally administered society." The Frankfurt School's analysis of fascism stressed its parallels with contemporary capitalism. Its influential critique of the "culture industry" claimed that commercialized mass culture produces conformity and political passivity, thus upholding the repressive capitalist social order.

Ironically, the influence of critical theory on American intellectuals was greater after the institute moved back to Germany. The most recognized work by a Frankfurt School member during its American exile was The Authoritarian Personality, a sociological study conducted by Adorno and a team of American researchers that rated its subjects on an "f" scale to determine the potential for fascism in America. But The Authoritarian Personality was not the most representative expression of the distinctive approach of the Frankfurt School. The full weight of critical theory's political critique was not felt in the United States until the publication of Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man in 1964, which found a receptive audience among the growing New Left student movement.

Not until the 1970s did many American intellectuals discover the important theoretical works of critical theory. An English translation of Horkheimer and Adorno's crucial book Dialectic of Enlightenment, though written in the United States in the early 1940s, did not appear until 1972. Later, American intellectuals were much influenced by the work of Jürgen Habermas, a second-generation member of the Frankfurt School who made significant contributions to understanding the public sphere, the social sciences, the nature of language, and postmodernism. Thus, the insights of the Frankfurt School continued to make their way across the Atlantic.


Bronner, Stephen Eric, and Douglas McCay Kellner, eds. Critical Theory and Society: A Reader. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Jay, Martin. The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923–1950. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.

———. Permanent Exiles: Essays on the Intellectual Migration from Germany to America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.


See alsoPhilosophy ; Sociology .

Frankfurt School

views updated May 29 2018

Frankfurt School a school of philosophy of the 1920s (associated with the Institute for Social Research at Frankfurt in western Germany) whose adherents were involved in a reappraisal of Marxism, particularly in terms of the cultural and aesthetic dimension of modern industrial society. Principal figures include Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse.

Frankfurt School (of social theory>)

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Frankfurt School (of social theory>) See CRITICAL THEORY.

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