The Frankfurt School (German: Frankfurter Schule) is a school of social theory and critical philosophy associated with the Institute for Social Research, founded at Goethe University Frankfurt in 1923. Active in the Weimar Republic during the European interwar period, 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, such as Nazism. 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.[1]

The Frankfurt School perspective of critical investigation (open-ended and self-critical) is based upon Freudian, Marxist and Hegelian premises of idealist philosophy.[2] To fill the omissions of 19th-century classical Marxism, which did not address 20th-century social problems, they applied the methods of antipositivist sociology, psychoanalysis, and existentialism.[3] 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 György Lukács.[4][5]

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.[6] 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."[7] More recently, the "third generation"[8] 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.[9]


Institute for Social Research

Main article: Institute for Social Research

The Institute for Social Research, Frankfurt am Main, Germany

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.[10] 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).[3]

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.[11]

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.[11]

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).[3]

European interwar period (1918–39)

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)[citation needed] 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).[12] 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.[13]


See also: List of critical theorists

As a term, the Frankfurt School usually includes the intellectuals Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Leo Löwenthal and Friedrich Pollock.[6] Initially within the FS's inner circle, Jürgen Habermas was the first to diverge from Horkheimer's research program.

The Frankfurt School were:

Associates of the Frankfurt School:

Critical theoreticians of the Frankfurt School:

Religious Affiliations

Religious affiliations of the Frankfurt School entailed a history fraught with changes, continuities, and patterns. Participants in the inaugural symposium for the Institute of Social Research were predominantly Lutheran or nonpracticing Protestants, save for founder Carl Grünberg and philosopher György Lukács. Friedrich Pollock was also a possible exception, but his father was a former Jew who unexpectedly declined to raise Pollock in the Jewish faith. From there, as historian Peter Gordon argues, "nearly all the core members of the Frankfurt School were Jewish by heritage if not by conviction or practice." Anti-semitic perspectives on Cultural Marxism as a Jewish conspiracy have convoluted and propounded this same observation. Yet the addition of Theodor W. Adorno "complicated" the Judaism in toto of the Frankfurt School. When Adorno was seven years old, his father "'detached himself' from the Jewish community in Frankfurt ... Adorno's mother, Maria, was Catholic." Although his mother consented to a paternal surname, Adorno "was baptized in 1903 at the Frankfurt Cathedral into his mother's faith. Sometime later he was confirmed in a Protestant church." By the time he had completed his application for citizenship in the United States, Adorno switched from his father's surname to his maternal surname, "Adorno." Gordon, however, noted that "there is little evidence that Adorno ever tried to suppress the fact of his paternal lineage."[15]

In 1956, Adorno became an instructor and then dissertation advisor to Jürgen Habermas, a former Jungvolkführer teenage captain of the Deutsches Jungvolk who had publicly reviewed and renounced the Heideggerian "inner truth and greatness of that movement...N.S." Habermas critiqued his advisor on a number of fronts, especially after Adorno failed to fully intercede in Habermas' dissertating struggle with co-advisor Max Horkheimer. Historian emeritus Martin Jay, however, previously argued that Habermas attempted to explain Adorno's contrite guidance by "acknowledg[ing] that Adorno, in comparison to Horkheimer...did not solely depend upon the enlightening power of philosophical criticism, but allowed his thinking to circulate within the paradoxes of an identity logic that denies itself and yet illuminates from within." Habermas argued that denial and illumination of "identity" prompted Adorno to add more "motifs," such as "aesthetic theory," that sustained his analytical repertoire as "independent source[s] of insight."[16] Beginning in 1970, under the self-described "methodological atheism" of Habermas, religious and spiritual affiliations for the so-called "second generation" and "third generation" of the Frankfurt School ranged from Catholicism, Greek Orthodox Christianity, interdenominational Protestantism, and interdenominational Islam, to atheism, agnosticism, and Judaism. These affiliations neither precluded, nor always included, conflict, consensus, and engagement with a worldwide plurality of faiths, such as Buddhism. [17]

Critical theory

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.[18][19] 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.[20]

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.[21]

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.[22]

Horkheimer believed the problem was epistemological saying "we should reconsider not merely the scientist, but the knowing individual, in general."[23] 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.[19]

Dialectical method

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.[24] 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.[24]

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.[25] However, the Problem of future contingents (considerations about the future) did not interest Hegel,[26][27] 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.[25] 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."[28] Marx's theory follows a materialist conception of history and geographic space,[29] 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.[30]

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.[31] 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.[32]

Critique of Western Capitalism as an ideology

Dialectic of Enlightenment and Minima Moralia

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 the social and ideological forces bought about by early Capitalism, 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 and its application within the Capitalism of the Post-Enlightenment era was made long before ecology and environmentalism became popular concerns.

The analysis of reason now goes one stage further: Critiquing instrumental rationality as the new means of cultural reproduction within the mechanical age, 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.[33]

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."[34]

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.[35] This ambivalence was rooted in the historical circumstances in which the work was originally produced, in particular, the rise of Nazism, 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.[36] 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.[37] 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.[38]

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.[38]

In the Frankfurt School analysis, consumption culture and mass media displaced the role of a father figure in the paternalistic family. Rather than serving to liberate society from patriarchal authority however, this merely replaced it with the authority of the "totally administered" society. Christopher Lasch criticized subsequent liberatory movements of the 1960s for failing to reckon with this dynamic, which in his view led to a "culture of narcissism."[39] Lasch believed the "later Frankfurt School" tended to ground political criticisms too much on psychiatric diagnoses like the authoritarian personality: "This procedure excused them from the difficult work of judgment and argumentation. Instead of arguing with opponents, they simply dismissed them on psychiatric grounds."[40]

Art and music criticism

Walter Benjamin's essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is a canonical text in art history and film studies.[41] In it, Benjamin is optimistic about the potential of commodified works of art to introduce radical political views to the proletariat.[42] Adorno and Horkheimer in contrast saw the rise of the culture industry as promoting homogeneity of thought and entrenching existing authorities.[42]

Theodor Adorno came to America initially to work on the Princeton Radio Project, but it quickly became apparent that his theoretical bent was incompatible with the project's focus on opinion polling. Adorno's funding was not renewed after the initial two year period, and he was employed by the Institute for Social Research for the remainder of his time in America, before returning to Germany at the first opportunity. [43] While employed by the radio project, 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 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.[44]

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.[citation needed] 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". Martin Jay called the attack on jazz the least successful aspect of Adorno's work in America.[43]

When others of the Frankfurt School settled in the United States, Benjamin went instead to Paris, whose architecture was central to the Arcades Project, a work that Benjamin thought would be his magnum opus.[42] Adorno encouraged Benjamin to imbue the work with an overtly Marxist outlook, but on reading Benjamin's draft of the work's central chapter on Baudelaire, Adorno criticized Benjamin's uses of Marxist jargon, writing that he had, "denied yourself your boldest and most productive thoughts in a kind of precensorship."[41] Although Adorno encouraged Benjamin to join him in America, and the institute obtained a work visa for him, Benjamin killed himself in 1940 on the mistaken belief he would not be able to leave France.[42]

Adorno's media critiques were background to Frederic Wertham, a psychiatrist concerned with child welfare and school desegregation. Wertham's other work was overshadowed by his role in creating the Comics Code Authority that ended the Golden Age of Comics. Later, socialists in the 1980s criticized what they called 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.[45][46]

Positivism dispute

Main article: Positivism dispute

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).

In 2020, philosopher Carl Sachs contended that the Frankfurt School and Vienna Circle, rather than Popperian adherents tout court, comprised the two sides of the debate. The "Frankfurters" believed that the Vienna Circle attempted to demonstrate that a pure objectivity was possible, without any subjectivity.[47] Vienna Circle members, especially Popper, likewise believed that the Frankfurt School promoted moments of violent revolution over gradual reform as the only means to escape historicism.[48]

But the Vienna Circle, rather than deemphasizing the role of subjectivity, completely disregarded its conceptual underpinnings and cast studies of subjectivity as "useless for science." The Vienna Circle instead wished to design a "formal semantics of declarative assertions" that could "be [universally] said to anyone by anyone," devoid of "subjectivity" in "mathematical or symbolic logic."[49]

Frankfurt School members, on the other hand, sought to critique the conceptual underpinnings of "neoliberalism," including premises of a "philosophy of language" that could potentially advance "irrationality and short-sightedness." Sachs concluded that the Frankfurt School "critique of social pathologies of rational subjectivity" could even further the Vienna Circle pursuit of "a purely formal explication of objectivity."[50]

Communicative action

Main article: Communicative action

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Jürgen 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.[51] 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."[52]

Similarly, in 2022, historian Samuel Moyn described Habermas' ideas as "retreating from the Frankfurt School's radicalism." Habermas, according to Moyn, was guilty of "abandoning the most promising aspects of the Frankfurt school." Moyn found "some use" in Habermas’ "mid-career social theory", although that had "shown its the end he becomes a kind of neo-Kantian liberal." For Moyn, Habermas was complicit "in a betrayal of left theory", a "betrayal" that occurred despite twilight efforts to sustain "left theory" by philosophers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty.[53] In 2010, Moyn had argued that, in the decade prior to publication of Habermas' The Theory of Communicative Action and well before the Habermas–Rawls debate, an "internationalism revolving around individual rights surged, and it did so because it was defined as a pure alternative in an age of ideological betrayal and political collapse. It was then that the phrase 'human rights' entered common parlance in the English language. And it is from that recent moment that human rights have come to define the present day."[54]


The first generation of Frankfurt scholars generally engaged in theory and avoided political commitments or praxis in the post-war years.[55] Max Horkheimer opposed any revolutionary rhetoric in the institute's publications, since it could jeopardize funding from the West German government.[56] Theodor Adorno showed some sympathy to student movements, particularly after the after the Killing of Benno Ohnesorg,[57] but he did not believe street violence had the potential to effect change.[58][57] Before his death in 1969, Adorno said, "I established a theoretical model of thought. How could I have expected that people would want to implement it with Molotov cocktails?"[58] Angela Davis recounted advice given to her by Adorno that critical theorists working in the radical movements of the 1960s were, "akin to a media studies scholar deciding to become a radio technician".[56][59]

In The Theory of the Novel (1971), György 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."[60][58]

The singular exception to this was Herbert Marcuse, who engaged enthusiastically with the New Left in the 1960s and 70s.[55][58] Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man described the containment of the working class by material consumption and mass media that diverted any possibility of a proletarian revolution. Although Marcuse considered this pessimistic state of affairs to be fait accompli when the book was published in 1964, he was surprised and pleased when almost immediately the civil rights movement intensified and serious opposition to the Vietnam war began. Student activists such as the Students for a Democratic Society in turn took an interest in Marcuse and his works. Formerly an obscure academic émigré, he rapidly became a controversial public intellectual known as the "Guru of the New Left". Marcuse did not aim for narrow, incremental reforms but for the "Great Refusal" of all existing culture and "total revolution" against capitalism. In the democratic protests movements, Marcuse saw agents of change that could supplement the quiescent working class and unite with third-world Communist revolutionaries.

Marcuse took an active role in the New Left, organizing events with students in the United States and the West German student movement.[55] Throughout these activities he articulated ideas like those in his 1965 article, Repressive Tolerance concerning free speech and the use of violence. Marcuse argued that since Western societies engaged in imperialism abroad and repressed minorities at home, there was a "clear and present danger" justifying a "natural right" to resistance. He said, therefore, that contrary to traditional notions of free speech, speech that served to legitimize the status quo should not be tolerated.[55] There was strong opposition to these ideas from the political right and also some opposition from the left.[55] Douglas Kellner commented that the rhetoric of "clear and present danger" was often used by authorities to suppress radical resistance.[55] German student leaders such as Rudi Dutschke interpreted Marcuse to legitimize their activities.[55] Dutschke's willingness to consider violence was criticized by Jürgen Habermas as "left fascism"[57][61] which drew condemnation from Oskar Negt and others.[62] Habermas later withdrew the accusation of fascism during the German Autumn of 1977.[62]

Marcuse's relationship with Horkheimer and Adorno was strained by their divergence of opinion about the student movements.[55][57] The Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund was harshly critical of Adorno for his lack of political engagement and would disrupt his lectures.[57] When a student's room was trashed for refusing to take part in protests, Adorno wrote, "praxis serves as an ideological pretext for exercising moral constraint." Adorno further said it was a manifestation of the authoritarian personality.[58] Adorno's student Hans-Jürgen Krahl was also critical of Adorno's inaction.[57] When in January 1969, Krahl led a group of students to occupy a room, Adorno called the police to remove them, further angering the students.[57] Marcuse criticized Adorno's decision to call the police,[55][57] writing,

"[...]I reject the unmediated translation of theory into praxis just as emphatically as you do. But I do believe that there are situations, moments, in which theory is pushed on further by praxis - situations and moments in which theory that is kept separate from praxis becomes untrue to itself[...]"[57]

Adorno replied that the actions of the students had been Stalinist and fascist. He mocked Marcuse for taking offense at Habermas' use of the phrase "left fascism", writing,

"But you are a dialectician aren't you? As if such contradictions did not exist - might not a movement, by the force of its immanent antimonies, transform itself into its opposite? I do not doubt for a moment that the student movement in its current form is heading towards that technocratization of the university that it claims it wants to prevent, indeed quite directly."[57]

In the 1970s, perceiving the limitations of the New Left, Marcuse de-emphasized the third world and revolutionary violence in favor of a focus on social issues in the United States.[55] He sought to recruit other movements on the political periphery, such as environmentalism and feminism, to a popular front for socialism. During this period, he spoke enthusiastically about women's liberation, seeing in it echoes of his earlier work in Eros and Civilization. Seeing that the revolutionary moment of the 1960s was over, Marcuse advised students to avoid even a suggestion of terrorism. Instead he advocated the "long march through the institutions" and recommended educational institutions as a refuge for radicals in the U.S.[55]

The Frankfurt School was a significant influence on Paolo Freire in the conception of critical pedagogy, alongside influences from orthodox Marxism, the Praxis School, and Frantz Fanon.[63] Freire's work made major inroads towards increasing literacy in Brazil and the third world, which Freire saw as an essential step towards raising class consciousness.


Horkheimer and Adorno

In The Theory of the Novel (1971), Georg Lukács said that the Frankfurt School were:

A considerable part of the leading German intelligentsia, including Adorno, have taken up residence in the Grand Hotel Abyss which I described in connection with my critique of Schopenhauer as "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."[64]

In "Addendum 1974: The Frankfurt School" (1994) Karl Popper said that:

Marx's own condemnation of our society makes sense. For Marx's theory contains the promise of a better future. But the theory becomes vacuous and irresponsible if this promise is withdrawn, as it is by Adorno and Horkheimer.[65]


In his criticism of Habermas, the philosopher Nikolas Kompridis said that a break with the proceduralist ethics of communicative rationality is necessary:

For all its theoretical ingenuity and practical implications, Habermas's reformulation of critical theory is beset by persistent problems of its own ... In my view, the depth of these problems indicate just how wrong was Habermas's expectation that the paradigm change to linguistic intersubjectivity would render "objectless" the dilemmas of the philosophy of the subject.[66] Habermas accused Hegel of creating a conception of reason so "overwhelming" that it solved too well the problem of modernity's [need for] self-reassurance.[67] It seems, however, that Habermas has repeated rather than avoided Hegel's mistake, creating a theoretical paradigm so comprehensive that in one stroke it also solves, too well, the dilemmas of the philosophy of the subject and the problem of modernity's self-reassurance.[68]


The change of paradigm to linguistic intersubjectivity has been accompanied by a dramatic change in critical theory's self-understanding. The priority given to questions of justice and the normative order of society has remodeled critical theory in the image of liberal theories of justice. 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 has severely weakened the identity of critical theory and inadvertently initiated its premature dissolution.[69]

That to prevent that premature dissolution critical theory should be reinvented as a philosophic enterprise that discloses possibilities by way of Heidegger's world disclosure, by drawing from the sources of normativity that were blocked by the change of paradigm.[70]

Psychoanalytic categorization

The historian Christopher Lasch criticized the Frankfurt School for their initial tendency of "automatically" rejecting opposing political criticisms, based upon "psychiatric" grounds:

The Authoritarian Personality [1950] had a tremendous influence on [Richard] Hofstadter, and other liberal intellectuals, because it showed them how to conduct political criticism in psychiatric categories, [and] to make those categories bear the weight of political criticism. This procedure excused them from the difficult work of judgment and argumentation. Instead of arguing with opponents, they simply dismissed them on psychiatric grounds.[71]

Economics and communications media

During the 1980s, anti-authoritarian socialists in the United Kingdom and New Zealand criticised the rigid and determinist view of popular culture deployed within the Frankfurt School theories of capitalist culture, which seemed to preclude any prefigurative role for social critique within such work. They argued that EC Comics often did contain such cultural critiques.[72][73] Recent criticism of the Frankfurt School by the libertarian Cato Institute focused on the claim that culture has grown more sophisticated and diverse as a consequence of free markets and the availability of niche cultural text for niche audiences.[74]

See also


  1. ^ Held, David (1980). Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas. University of California Press. p. 14.
  2. ^ Finlayson, James Gordon (2005). Habermas a Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press. ISBN 978-0-19-284095-0. Archived from the original on 27 July 2021. Retrieved 26 March 2016.
  3. ^ a b c "Frankfurt School". (2009). Encyclopædia Britannica Online: Archived 22 May 2010 at the Wayback Machine (Retrieved 19 December 2009)
  4. ^ Held, David (1980). Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas. University of California Press. p. 16.
  5. ^ Jameson, Fredric (2002). "The Theoretical Hesitation: Benjamin's Sociological Predecessor". In Nealon, Jeffrey; Irr, Caren (eds.). Rethinking the Frankfurt School: Alternative Legacies of Cultural Critique. Albany: SUNY Press. pp. 11–30.
  6. ^ a b Held, David (1980). Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas. University of California Press. p. 15.
  7. ^ Habermas, Jürgen (1987). The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. MIT Press.
  8. ^ Anderson, Joel. "The "Third Generation" of the Frankfurt School". Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies: University of Utrecht. Intellectual History Newsletter. Retrieved 20 June 2022.
  9. ^ Kompridis, Nikolas (2006). Critique and Disclosure: Critical Theory between Past and Future. MIT Press.
  10. ^ Corradetti, Claudio (2011). "The Frankfurt School and Critical Theory", Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (published: 21 October 2011).
  11. ^ a b "The Frankfurt School and Critical Theory", Marxist Internet Archive Archived 27 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine (Retrieved 12 September 2009)
  12. ^ Dubiel, Helmut. "The Origins of Critical Theory: An interview with Leo Löwenthal", Telos 49.
  13. ^ Held, David (1980), p. 38.
  14. ^ Kuhn, Rick. Henryk Grossman and the Recovery of Marxism Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007
  15. ^ Gordon, Peter E. (2020). Migrants in the Profane: Critical Theory and the Question of Secularization. New Haven: Yale University Press. pp. 6-7 and 104-13. ISBN 9780300250763.
  16. ^ Jay, Martin (11 August 2019). "Habermas and the Light of Reason: On Late Critical Theory". Los Angeles Review of Books.
  17. ^ Gordon, Peter E. (2020). Migrants in the Profane: Critical Theory and the Question of Secularization. New Haven: Yale University Press. pp. 6-7 and 104-13. ISBN 9780300250763.
  18. ^ Geuss, Raymond. The Idea of a Critical Theory: Habermas and the Frankfurt school. Cambridge University Press, 1981. p. 58.
  19. ^ a b Carr, Adrian (2000). "Critical theory and the Management of Change in Organizations", Journal of Organizational Change Management, pp. 13, 3, 208–220.
  20. ^ Martin Jay. The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research 1923–1950. London: Heinemann, 1973, p. 21.
  21. ^ Horkheimer, Max (1976). "Traditional and critical theory". In: Connerton, P (Eds), Critical Sociology: Selected Readings, Penguin, Harmondsworth, p. 213
  22. ^ Rasmussen, D. "Critical Theory and Philosophy", The Handbook of Critical Theory, Blackwell, Oxford, 1996. p .18.
  23. ^ Horkheimer, Max (1976), p. 221.
  24. ^ a b dialectic. (2009). Retrieved 19 December 2009, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online: Archived 29 April 2015 at the Wayback Machine
  25. ^ a b Little, D. (2007). "Philosophy of History", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (18 February 2007), Archived 28 October 2013 at the Wayback Machine
  26. ^ "When philosophy paints its grey on grey, then has a shape of life grown old. . . . The Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk" – Hegel, G. W. F. (1821). Elements of the Philosophy of Right (Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts), p.13
  27. ^ "Hegel's philosophy, and in particular his political philosophy, purports to be the rational formulation of a definite historical period, and Hegel refuses to look further ahead into the future." – Peĺczynski, Z. A. (1971). Hegel's political philosophy – Problems and Perspectives: A Collection of New Essays, CUP Archive. Google Print, p. 200 Archived 4 May 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  28. ^ Karl Marx (1859), Preface to Das Kapital: Kritik der politischen Ökonomie.
  29. ^ Soja, E. (1989). Postmodern Geographies. London: Verso. (pp. 76–93)
  30. ^ Jonathan Wolff, PhD (ed.). "Karl Marx". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford. Archived from the original on 8 February 2012. Retrieved 17 September 2009.
  31. ^ Seiler, Robert M. "Human Communication in the Critical Theory Tradition", University of Calgary, Online Publication Archived 14 January 2010 at the Wayback Machine
  32. ^ Bernstein, J. M. (1994) The Frankfurt School: Critical Assessments, Volume 3, Taylor & Francis, pp. 199–202, 208.
  33. ^ Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, Verso (2006), pp. 15–16.
  34. ^ Adorno, Theodor W. (2006), p. 247.
  35. ^ Adorno, T. W., with Max Horkheimer. (2002). Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford University Press, p. 242.
  36. ^ "Critical Theory was initially developed in Horkheimer's circle to think through political disappointments at the absence of revolution in the West, the development of Stalinism in Soviet Russia, and the victory of fascism in Germany. It was supposed to explain mistaken Marxist prognoses, but without breaking Marxist intentions" – Habermas, Jürgen. (1987). The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures. Trans. Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, p. 116.
    See also: Dubiel, Helmut. (1985). Theory and Politics: Studies in the Development of Critical Theory. Trans. Benjamin Gregg. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London.
  37. ^ "[G]one are the objective laws of the market which ruled in the actions of the entrepreneurs and tended toward catastrophe. Instead the conscious decision of the managing directors executes as results (which are more obligatory than the blindest price-mechanisms) the old law of value and hence the destiny of capitalism." – Horkheimer, Max and Theodor Adorno. (2002). Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 38.
  38. ^ a b Kompridis, Nikolas. (2006), p. 256
  39. ^ Tucker, Ken; Treno, Andrew. "The Culture of Narcissism and the Critical Tradition". Berkeley Journal of Sociology. 24/25: 341–355. JSTOR 41035493.
  40. ^ Blake, Casey and Christopher Phelps. (1994). "History as Social Criticism: Conversations with Christopher Lasch", Journal of American History 80, No. 4 (March), pp. 1310–1332.
  41. ^ a b Kirsh, Adam (21 August 2006). "The Philosopher Stoned". The New Yorker.
  42. ^ a b c d Ross, Alex (15 September 2014). "The Naysayers". The New Yorker.
  43. ^ a b Jay, Martin (1984). "Adorno In America". New German Critique. Duke University Press. Winter 1984 (31): 157–182. doi:10.2307/487894. JSTOR 487894.
  44. ^ Adorno, Theodor W. (2003) The Philosophy of Modern Music. Translated into English by Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Blomster. Continuum International Publishing Group, pp. 41–42.
  45. ^ Martin Barker: A Haunt of Fears: The Strange History of the British Horror Comics Campaign: London: Pluto Press: 1984
  46. ^ Roy Shuker, Roger Openshaw and Janet Soler: Youth, Media and Moral Panic: From Hooligans to Video Nasties: Palmerston North: Massey University Department of Education: 1990
  47. ^ Sachs, Carl (5 August 2020). "Why Did the Frankfurt School Misunderstand Logical Positivism?". JHI Blog. Journal of the History of Ideas.
  48. ^ Popper, Karl. Addendum 1974: The Frankfurt School, in The Myth of the Framework. London New York 1994, p. 80.
  49. ^ Sachs, Carl (5 August 2020). "Why Did the Frankfurt School Misunderstand Logical Positivism?". JHI Blog. Journal of the History of Ideas.
  50. ^ Sachs, Carl (5 August 2020). "Why Did the Frankfurt School Misunderstand Logical Positivism?". JHI Blog. Journal of the History of Ideas.
  51. ^ Kompridis, Nikolas. (2006), p. 25
  52. ^ Kompridis, Nikolas. (2006), p. xi
  53. ^ McAteer, Dan. "A Conversation with Samuel Moyn: The Cold War and the Canon of Liberalism". Centre for Intellectual History: University of Oxford.
  54. ^ Moyn, Samuel (2010). The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. p. 8. ISBN 9780674048720.
  55. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Kellner, Douglas (2005). "Introduction". Herbert Marcuse: The New Left and the 1960s. Routledge. ISBN 9780815371670.
  56. ^ a b Jeffries, Stuart (26 September 2017). "Up against the wall, motherfuckers". Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School. Verso. ISBN 9-781-78478-569-7.
  57. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Jeffries, Stuart (26 September 2017). "Philosophising with Molotov cocktails". Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School. Verso. ISBN 9-781-78478-569-7.
  58. ^ a b c d e Jeffries, Stuart (26 September 2017). "Introduction". Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School. Verso. ISBN 9-781-78478-569-7.
  59. ^ Davis, Angela Y. (2005). "Foreword". In Kellner, Douglas (ed.). Herbert Marcuse: The New Left and the 1960s. Routledge. ISBN 9780815371670.
  60. ^ Lukács, Georg. (1971). The Theory of the Novel. MIT Press, p. 22.
  61. ^ De Groot, Gerard J. (25 September 2014). Student Protest: the Sixties and After. Taylor & Francis. pp. 104–106. ISBN 9781317880493.
  62. ^ a b Gerhardt, Christina (12 July 2018). Screening the Red Army Faction. Bloomsbury Publishing. pp. 91–97. ISBN 9781501336690.
  63. ^ Gottesman, Isaac (2016). Apple, Michael (ed.). The Critical Turn in Education. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-138-78134-4.
  64. ^ Lukács, Georg. (1971). The Theory of the Novel. MIT Press, p. 22.
  65. ^ Popper, Karl. Addendum 1974: The Frankfurt School, in The Myth of the Framework. London New York 1994, p. 80.
  66. ^ Habermas, Jürgen (1987), The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, MIT Press, 1987. p. 301
  67. ^ Habermas, Jürgen (1987), p. 42
  68. ^ Kompridis, Nikolas. (2006), pp. 23–24.
  69. ^ Kompridis, Nikolas. (2006), p. 25
  70. ^ Kompridis, Nikolas. (2006), p. xi
  71. ^ Blake, Casey and Christopher Phelps. (1994). "History as Social Criticism: Conversations with Christopher Lasch", Journal of American History 80, No. 4 (March), pp. 1310–1332.
  72. ^ Martin Barker: A Haunt of Fears: The Strange History of the British Horror Comics Campaign: London: Pluto Press: 1984
  73. ^ Roy Shuker, Roger Openshaw and Janet Soler: Youth, Media and Moral Panic: From Hooligans to Video Nasties: Palmerston North: Massey University Department of Education: 1990
  74. ^ Cowen, Tyler (1998) "Is Our Culture in Decline?" Cato Policy Report, Archived 4 November 2012 at the Wayback Machine

Further reading

  • Arato, Andrew and Eike Gebhardt, Eds. The Essential Frankfurt School Reader. New York: Continuum, 1982.
  • Bernstein, Jay (ed.). The Frankfurt School: Critical Assessments I–VI. New York: Routledge, 1994.
  • Benhabib, Seyla. Critique, Norm, and Utopia: A Study of the Foundations of Critical Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.
  • Bottomore, Tom. The Frankfurt School and its Critics. New York: Routledge, 2002.
  • Bronner, Stephen Eric and Douglas MacKay Kellner (eds.). Critical Theory and Society: A Reader. New York: Routledge, 1989.
  • Brosio, Richard A. The Frankfurt School: An Analysis of the Contradictions and Crises of Liberal Capitalist Societies. Archived 4 October 2012 at the Wayback Machine 1980.
  • Crone, Michael (ed.): Vertreter der Frankfurter Schule in den Hörfunkprogrammen 1950–1992. Hessischer Rundfunk, Frankfurt am Main 1992. (Bibliography.)
  • Friedman, George. The Political Philosophy of the Frankfurt School. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1981.
  • Gerhardt, Christina. "Frankfurt School". The International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest, 1500 to the Present. 8 vols. Ed. Immanuel Ness. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2009. 12–13.
  • Held, David. Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.
  • Immanen, Mikko (2017). A Promise of Concreteness: Martin Heidegger's Unacknowledged Role in the Formation of Frankfurt School in the Weimar Republic (PhD thesis). University of Helsinki. ISBN 978-951-51-3205-5.
  • Jay, Martin. The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute for Social Research 1923–1950. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. 1996.
  • Jeffries, Stuart (2016). Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School. London – Brooklyn, New York: Verso. ISBN 978-1-78478-568-0.
  • Kompridis, Nikolas. Critique and Disclosure: Critical Theory between Past and Future. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2006.
  • Postone, Moishe. Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx's Critical Theory. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  • Schwartz, Frederic J. Blind Spots: Critical Theory and the History of Art in Twentieth-Century Germany. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2005.
  • Shapiro, Jeremy J. "The Critical Theory of Frankfurt". Times Literary Supplement 3 (4 October 1974) 787.
  • Scheuerman, William E. Frankfurt School Perspectives on Globalization, Democracy, and the Law. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge, 2008.
  • Wiggershaus, Rolf. The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories and Political Significance. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1995.
  • Wheatland, Thomas. The Frankfurt School in Exile. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.