Friday, 30 September 2016

The Frankfurt School and Critical Theory

The Frankfurt School of German Social Theory has exerted a considerable influence over the sociology of the last two generations. Originally a centre for the study of Marxist theory brought into being in the first years of Weimar Republic Germany, the work of its principal figures has nonetheless always had a somewhat ambiguous relationship with mainstream Western Marxism, right through from the early writings of Max Horkheimer in the 1930s to the very recent work of J├╝rgen Habermas.

However, the development of a distinct ‘critical theory’ of society by Horkheimer and Adorno and its reworking by later Frankfurt theorists constituted a (sometimes tenuous) thread of ideas and concepts which gave the Frankfurt School an important role in the expansion of modern sociology. Despite the somewhat paradoxical rejection of Marxist concepts by many Frankfurt School writers, it was especially instrumental in the renaissance of Marxist sociology which took hold in the late 1960s.

As Tom Bottomore makes clear in drawing this parallel, the Frankfurt School thinkers were led by their pessimism into a retreat from Marxian social theory, and then towards an essentially philosophical and neo-Hegelian critique of ideology. Perhaps best seen as ‘radicals in despair’, Horkheimer, Marcuse and Adorno were responsible for a theory of capitalist society which emphasized its cultural manifestations above all other aspects. Caught in a climate of cultural loss and decline which must be linked to their experience of the rise of Fascism in Germany, the ‘critical theory’ developed by these men during this period was overwhelmingly concerned with the mounting irrationality of social and cultural values, and their reflection in the ideas of positivism and ‘scientism’.

Herbert Marcuse’s version of ‘critical theory’ shares many of these aspects of Ideologiekritik conducted not from empirical observation but philosophical speculation. His One-Dimensional Man (certainly his best known work) thus remains firmly within the contemplative cast of Frankfurt School work, its nature as a philosophical critique of advanced capitalism perhaps explaining why its great popularity did not lead to any significant attempts at extension or empirical demonstration of the thesis which it contains.

The Frankfurt School is a complex phenomenon, and the style of social thought which has come to be principally associated with it—‘critical theory’—has been expounded and interpreted in a variety of ways. The institutional basis upon which the school developed was the Institute of Social Research, officially established on 3 February 1923 by a decree of the Ministry of Education, and affiliated with the University of Frankfurt.

The founding of the Institute took place in the particular conditions produced by the victory of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the defeat of the Central European revolutions, notably that in Germany; and it can be seen as one response to the need felt by left wing intellectuals to reappraise Marxist theory, and especially the relation between theory and practice, in the new circumstances.

In this sense the Institute formed part of a wider movement of thought which has come to be known as ‘Western Marxism’, characterized on one side by diverse, predominantly philosophical and Hegelian reinterpretations of Marxist theory in relation to the advanced capitalist societies, and on the other, by an increasingly critical view of the development of society and the state in the USSR.

The Formation of the School

Horkheimer, in the address delivered on the occasion of his official installation as director of the Institute in January 1931, indicated clearly, while paying tribute to the work of his predecessor, that the Institute was about to take a new direction. ‘Social philosophy’ now emerged as its main preoccupation; not in the sense of a philosophical theory of value which would provide a superior insight into the meaning of social life, nor as some kind of synthesis of the results of the specialized social sciences, but rather as the source of important questions to be investigated by these sciences and as a framework in which ‘the universal would not be lost sight of’. In subsequent essays of the 1930s Horkheimer developed his conception of the role of philosophy primarily through a criticism of modern positivism or empiricism (the terms are used interchangeably), and in particular that of the Vienna Circle. His argument in one important essay, ‘The latest attack on metaphysics’ (1937), proceeds on two levels.

Horkheimer pursued this argument in his best known essay of the 1930s, ‘Traditional and critical theory’ (1937), which should perhaps be regarded as the founding document, or charter, of the Frankfurt School. ‘Traditional theory’ is there interpreted as the implicit or explicit outlook of the modern natural sciences, expressed in modern philosophy as positivism/empiricism; and Horkheimer is above all concerned with the diffusion of this conception of theory in the ‘sciences of man and society [which] have attempted to follow the lead of the natural sciences’. The opposed kind of social thought, ‘critical theory’, rejects the procedure of determining objective facts with the aid of conceptual systems, from a purely external standpoint, and claims that ‘the facts, as they emerge from the work of society, are not extrinsic in the same degree as they are for the savant…critical thinking…is motivated today by the effort really to transcend the tension and to abolish the opposition between the individual’s purposefulness, spontaneity, and rationality, and those work-process relationships on which society is built’. But how, in that case, is critical thought related to experience? Is it anything more than ‘conceptual poetry’ or an ‘impotent expression of states of mind’? Marx and Engels had grounded their critical theory in the situation of the proletariat, which necessarily struggles for emancipation.

Adorno’s contribution to the formation of a school of critical theory is much more ambiguous and obscure. Until 1938 his relations with the Institute were informal, and his principal interests lay in the field of culture (particularly music), psychoanalysis, and aesthetic theory (where he was profoundly influenced by Walter Benjamin). The philosophical outlook which he developed during this time was not a ‘dialetical social theory’, but what he later called ‘negative dialectics’; that is, a criticism of all philosophical positions and social theories. This appears to be a form of relativism or scepticism, which denies the possibility of any absolute starting point (‘identity principle’) or ultimate basis for human thought, though Adorno attempted to evade this outcome. At all events his philosophical stance is very different from that of Horkheimer or Marcuse, both of whom tried to formulate a positive social theory on the basis of a Hegelian concept of ‘reason’. Adorno was also much more remote from Marxism than his colleagues. In his inaugural lecture at the University of Frankfurt, ‘The actuality of philosophy’ (1931), he expounded a view of philosophy which claimed to be both ‘dialectical’ and ‘materialist’, but as Buck-Morss comments ‘…it was not dialectical materialism in any orthodox sense…throughout his life he differed fundamentally from Marx in that his philosophy never included a theory of political action’. Moreover, unlike Horkheimer and Marcuse, who only gradually abandoned their (qualified) belief in the revolutionary potential of the working class, Adorno seems never to have given any serious attention to Marx’s economic analysis or his theory of class, and he rejected entirely the idea of a theory of history, or ‘science of history’, which is one of the fundamental elements in Marx’s thought.

During its formative period, and still more in its later phases, the Frankfurt School detached itself increasingly from Marx’s theory and from classical Marxism, abandoning large (and crucial) parts of that theory, but without embarking upon a systematic critical confrontation with it.

For more on the Frankfurt School of German Social Theory, kindly read - 


Tom Bottomore’s The Frankfurt School and its Critics published by Routledge [Special Indian Edition]

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