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Max Horkheimer

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Max Horkheimer (1895-1973)


A Jewish intellectual, born in Stuttgart to a wealthy family, Horkheimer's early years were not particularly academic. He left school at 16 to work in his father's factory. It was not until after the First world War that he entered University, to study philosophy and psychology and earned his doctorate with a study of German philosopher Immanuel Kant 's Critique of Judgement. Following this he moved to Frankfurt in 1930 to become Director of the Institute for Social Research, where he met his long-time friend and associate Theodor Adorno . In that same year he also took up the Chair in social philosopy at the University. Together with Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, Horkheimer was the foremost representative of the 'Critical Theory' associated with the Institute of Social Research (or 'Frankfurt School'). He organised the Institute's move into exile from Nazi Germany in 1933, when it was closed by the Nazis, and he supervised the return of the Institute to Frankfurt in 1949.

The Institute for Social Research did not really achieve prominence until 1930, when Horkheimer (its second director) laid the groundwork for what was to become a comprehensive critical analysis of society, culture, economic theory and social development. In his inaugural address, Horkheimer set out three policy themes:

  1. To restate all of the great philosophical questions
  2. To reject orthodox marxism and to re-study Marx in the light of marxism's apparent failure
  3. To develop a theory which would explain the connections between the factors affecting social development, so as to facilitate the project of universal social emancipation.

These themes were to be pursued through a systematic empirical and theoretical study. Although there was no "plan" or unitary "critical theory" which co-ordinated all the work of the Institute's staff, there was a great deal of overlap as its members followed their own (wide) disciplinary methodologies in pursuit of the themes. Indeed, if there were any common principles upon which they worked, chief among these was the imperative of what Douglas Kellner has termed "intradisciplinary study".  The other abiding principle of the Frankfurt School was a passionate commitment to human emancipation, animated by an empathy with the suffering of the powerless. From 1930 until 1969 (when Adorno died) the Institute produced an impressive body of work, covering a wide range of social investigations. Large parts of this work became very popular in the 1960's and formed the theoretical basis for the social revolution of that time. The scope of the work carried out at the Institute was very broad and in some in¬stances anticipated much of the later work of the Postmodernists like Lyotard and  Derrida. Hiis influence on the field of critical theorising remains paramount. In the opening chapter to the Institute's first publication Horkheimer made it very clear that:

"The term "human nature" here does not refer to an original or an external or a uniform essence. Every philosophical doctrine which sees the movement of society or the life of the individual as emerging out of a fundamental, ahistorical unity is open to justified criticism. Such theories with their undialectical method have special difficulty in coming to grips with the fact that new individual and social qualities arise in the historical process. Their reaction to this fact either takes the form of mechanical evolution: all human characteristics which arise at a later point were originally present in germ; or it takes the form of some variety of philosophical anthropology: these characteristics emerge from a metaphysical 'ground' of being. These mutually opposed theories fail to do justice to the methodolog¬ical principle that vital processes are marked by structural change no less than by continual development."

In other words, he recognised that theories of what it means to be a human being cannot be separated from the ideological position of those who promulgate these theories, that theories of “human nature” are always in the end ideological. This recognition proved to be extremely influential in the social theories which developed in the 1960s. During that time numerous social theorists and psychiatrists all questioned accepted definitions (and legitimations) of what constituted social and cultural normativity itself - what fundamentally constitutes the social categories of “sanity” and “madness”.  They theorised that these categories were themselves shaped by the cultural struggle of competing groups as well as from the social conditions deriving from the social organisation of Capitalist production.

Horkheimer's essay on 'Traditional and Critical Theory' (1937) enshrined the ambitions of the Institute. In this essay, Horkheimer argued that "traditional theory," understood as heretofore existing social science theorising, has focussed exclusively on  the accumulation of facts in specialised and isolated fields of study. This had tended to serve rather than challenge the existing social order. In contrast, he proposed a "critical theory" which would break traditional theory's separation of theory from practice, and values from research. Like Marx, he believed that theory and knowledge should be used to achieve greater social equity and justice fopr the masses. Critical Theory described the necessity of integrating philosophy and social science, and of developing a relationship of reciprocity between critical theory and political practice. In this sense, Horkheimer is seen by many as "the father" of Critical Theory. 

His vision brought together a remarkably diverse group of thinkers, and created a very original new school of thought. The Institute founded its initia; works on the analysis of the writings and theories of Hegel, Marx, Freud, Max Weber, and  Georg Lukács. The research methodologies they used included philosophy, social psychology, political economics, and literary and cultural criticism to uncover previously uncharted dimensions of the social world. Horkheimer and his colleagues did not simply advocate a revolutionary labour movement, or even political activism per se. Although the goal of their critical inquiries was the transformation of society, this was approached by way of the transformation of consciousness. Probably Horkheimer's greatest achievement was in confronting the dogma of orthodox Marxism and revealing both its inherent contradictions and its failures. He recognised that Marxism was not unique in these contradictions and that the application of the dialectic to Marxism itself suggested the need fo an ongoing process of revision and transformation if it was to remain relevant to the changes taking place in the 20th Century. It was this philosophy embodied in his work with Adorno The Dialectic of Enlightenment that so animated the New Left movement and the student uprising of the 1960s. 

Unlike Adorno, he was not a prolific writer, although his essay Authority and the Family analysed the role of the family in capitalist production (as had Marx) andlaid the groundwork for much that was to come later on the relationship between the cultural forms that relate to and are influenced by the economic base of society. He shared with Adorno the distinction of co-authoring one of the most significant books to come out of the Institute - The Dialectic of Enlightenment. This book, together with  Horkheimer's own The Eclipse of Reason (1947) became the foundation stones of the Critical Theory that was to have such a profound influence throughout the 1960 and the later Postmodern movement. 

In The Dialectic of Enlightenment and subsequent work (e.g., Eclipse of Reason [1947] and Critique of Instrumental Reason [1967]), Horkheimer demonstrated how "instrumental reason"- the principle and methods by which means, such as factories or consumer goods, are calculatingly designed to efficiently meet certain ends, usually greater profit or control (what Giroux will later call Instrumental Rationality) has come to dominate everyday life through the mass consumption of commodities. Horkheimer and Adorno interrogated the relationship of man and nature (as also did Marcuse) - suggesting that such relations were based upon a model of domination which would ultimately lead to environmental degradation and collapse. In this they prefigured the Green movement by 30 years. In the same work they also devoted considerable attention to the reproduction of culture through commodification, coining the now famous term "culture industry" to explain the role of Marx's commodity fetishism to the reproduction of culture.

The significance of this work hads been extensive although its limitations (including the author's own inability to move beyond their own critique has been previously explained in the section on Adorno above. Nevertheless, Horkheimer's reputation as the Father of Critical Theory stands unchallenged.

He returned to America from 1954 and 1959 to lecture at the University of Chicago. He retired in 1955. He died in Nuremberg in 1973.

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