Frankfurt School

from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Max Horkheimer (front left), Theodor W. Adorno (front right) and Jürgen Habermas (in the background right), Siegfried Landshut (in the background left) in Heidelberg in 1964

The Frankfurt School is a group of philosophers and scientists from various disciplines who drew on the theories of Hegel , Marx and Freud and whose center was the Institute for Social Research , which opened in Frankfurt am Main in 1924 . They are also understood as representatives of the critical theory established there.

The term critical theory goes back to the title of the programmatic essay Traditional and Critical Theory by Max Horkheimer from 1937. The main work of the school is the book Dialectic of the Enlightenment , written jointly by Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno from 1944 to 1947 , whose essay character they designated with the reserved subtitle Philosophical Fragments .


The Frankfurt School emerged from the Institute for Social Research (IfS) of the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main, which at the instigation of the patron Felix Weil was founded in 1924 as an affiliated institute of the university (inauguration on June 22nd) and in the first Years by the Austromarxist Carl Grünberg . Under the direction of Max Horkheimer (official director since 1931, but de facto since 1930 after Grünberg's illness), the journal for social research was created in 1932 as the theoretical organ of the institute. In it, members of the institute and closely related intellectuals formulated and discussed the main features of a “critical theory” of society (at that time still under the name “materialism”), which among the unorthodox variants of Western Marxism achieved worldwide importance.

The institute's members included Theodor W. Adorno , Herbert Marcuse , Erich Fromm , Leo Löwenthal , Franz Neumann , Otto Kirchheimer and Friedrich Pollock . Even Walter Benjamin , who during his exile was financially supported by the Institute, provided significant contributions.

The institute was forcibly closed by the National Socialists in 1933 and the members decided to leave Germany. Since the threat posed by National Socialism was recognized early on, they had already transferred the foundation's assets to the Netherlands in 1931 and set up a branch in Geneva. In 1933, the head office was relocated to Geneva. Finally the institute emigrated to the United States, with another stopover in Paris. Horkheimer rebuilt the Institute for Social Research at Columbia University in New York. In exile , Adorno and Horkheimer worked, among other things, on an extensive study on authoritarian character .

After Adorno and Horkheimer's return from emigration to Goethe University (1950), the Frankfurt School gained great importance for the 1968 movement and shaped parts of German academic sociology strongly in the direction of critical theory. In 1950 the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research was rebuilt with funds from the American occupying power, state institutions in West Germany and other donors and, under Horkheimer's direction, was to become an interdisciplinary institution in which theoretical fundamental criticism was conveyed with empirical studies .

The experience of National Socialism and the Shoah shaped the theoretical and empirical work of critical theory. The advocates of critical theory, above all Adorno, investigated the effects of such a catastrophe on philosophical thought, social criticism and the role of reason . After Horkheimer's and Adorno's deaths, Jürgen Habermas (whom they had refused to complete) and Oskar Negt represented the Frankfurt School in particular . Your critical theory is, in contrast to the older critical theory of Adorno and Horkheimer, also referred to as the younger critical theory and shows clear differences from it. Alfred Schmidt occupies a special position here .


Critical justification of social science

Intellectual base

In the Frankfurt School, undogmatic Marxists , critical critics of capitalism , gathered who assumed that in the Marxist orthodoxy of communist parties often only a limited selection of the ideas of Karl Marx were repeated and that the philosophical implications in particular were ignored. Against the historical background of the failure of the revolutions of the workers' movement after the First World War and the rise of National Socialism in a civilized nation, Horkheimer and Adorno began to investigate Marx's ideas to what extent they were suitable for the analysis of social conditions, as they were for Marx 'Had not yet existed. In doing so, they resorted to the results of other contemporary scientific disciplines. The sociology of Max Weber and the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud were of particular importance , with the latter acting as a mediator between the base and the superstructure .

The emphasis on the critical component of theory sprang from efforts to transcend the boundaries of positivism , dialectical materialism, and phenomenology . The Frankfurt School resorted to the critical philosophy of Kant and his successors in German idealism . In particular, Hegel's dialectical philosophy, with its emphasis on negation and contradiction as inherent properties of reality , was of importance, especially since the continuity of his thinking with Hegel became apparent since the publication of Marx's economic-philosophical manuscripts and his German ideology in the 1930s. Here the Frankfurters joined Georg Lukács .

Criticism of ideology

The institute made significant contributions in research areas relating to the possibility of rational action by human subjects, for example to regain control over society and history through rational action. The first research focus was the study of social phenomena that classical Marxism viewed as part of the superstructure or ideology: personality , family , structures of authority (the institute's first publication was entitled Studies on Authority and Family ), and the areas of aesthetics and mass media . The studies looked with concern at the possibility of capitalism to destroy the preconditions for a critical, revolutionary consciousness.

The criticism of ideology was thus oriented towards the mechanisms that serve to maintain social rule. One of the key findings of critical theory was formulated: ideology is one of the foundations of social structures.

The institute and its staff achieved an extraordinary influence on social science (especially on American) with the writing The Authoritarian Personality . In it, they conducted extensive empirical research using sociological and psychoanalytic categories to characterize the forces that lead individuals to join or support fascist movements or parties.

Dialectics as a method

The examination of the essence of Marxism itself determined the second focus of the institute. The concept of a critical theory arose from this context . The expression conveys several projects. First, he is in tension with a traditional understanding of theory that has been largely positivistic or scientistic . Second, the expression made it possible to escape the (party) politically charged connotation of the label 'Marxism'. Third, it linked critical theory with Immanuel Kant's critical philosophy , where the term 'critical' means philosophical reflection on the limits of the demands placed on a particular type of knowledge and a direct connection between this criticism and the emphasis on moral Established autonomy. In an intellectual context determined by dogmatic positivism and scientism on the one hand and dogmatic 'scientific socialism' on the other, critical theory ultimately meant the orientation towards a revolutionary subject at a time when it seemed to be in decline - or at least the orientation towards its possibility - to rehabilitate through a philosophically critical approach. Theory took on the role of governor of the revolution where the hope of revolutionary action by the working class seemed to be blocked.

Against the background of both Marxist-Leninist and social democratic orthodoxy, which saw Marxism as a new kind of positive science, the Frankfurters resorted to the epistemology implied by Marx , which saw itself as a critique, as in the subtitle of Marx Kapital, Criticism of political economy becomes clear. They stressed that it was Marx's concern to create a new kind of critical analysis that was more oriented towards the unity of theory and revolutionary practice than towards the concept of a new kind of positive science.

In the 1960s, Jürgen Habermas raised the epistemological discussion to a new level in his work Knowledge and Interest . He identified critical knowledge as based on principles that differed from those of the natural sciences as well as classical philology in their orientation towards self-reflection and emancipation . With that he gave up the attempt of the old Frankfurt school to assign these moments of reason a place at all.

Critical Theory of Western Civilization

Dialectics of the Enlightenment and Minima Moralia

The second phase of the critical theory of the Frankfurt School crystallized in two works that became classics of the 20th century: The Dialectic of the Enlightenment by Horkheimer and Adorno and the Minima Moralia Adorno. Both works were created during the exile of the authors in the USA at the time of National Socialism. Although both adhere to the Marxist analysis, a shift in emphasis on critical theory is becoming apparent in the works. The critique of capitalism as Marx made it increasingly becomes a critique of the pure mastery of nature and its philosophical masterminds. However, this form of thinking coincides with the capital ratio. In the dialectic of the Enlightenment, Homer's Odyssey becomes the paradigm for the analysis of bourgeois consciousness. In these works, Horkheimer and Adorno already touched on topics that have dominated thinking until recently. They viewed the control of nature (and everything “objective”) as an essential feature of capitalistically organized societies long before ecology became a catchphrase.

The analysis of reason goes one step further. The concept of reason of Western civilization is seen as the fusion of domination with a technical reason that seeks to bring all internal and external natural forces under the control of the human subject. In this process, however, the subject annuls itself and no social power (analogous to the proletariat ) is able to help the subject to its emancipation . Consequently, the subtitle of the Minima Moralia is : Reflections from the damaged life .

In Adorno's words: “Because in the present phase of the historical movement its overwhelming objectivity consists only in the dissolution of the subject, without a new one having already sprung from it, individual experience necessarily rests on the old subject, the historically condemned that is still in itself, but no longer in itself. It thinks it is still certain of its autonomy, but the nullity that the concentration camp demonstrated to the subjects already overtakes the form of subjectivity itself. "

At a time when it seems that reality itself has become ideology, critical theory is suitable on the one hand to explore the dialectical contradictions of individual subjective experience and on the other hand to preserve the truth of the theory. However, even dialectics could become a means of domination , since it does not derive its truth from theory itself, but from its task in the historical process. It must remain focused on omnipresent happiness and freedom . "Philosophy, as it can only be justified in the face of despair, would be the attempt to look at all things as they appear from the point of view of salvation."

The philosophy of new music

Adorno, himself a music sociologist and composer , wrote countless musical texts, The Philosophy of New Music , in which he himself polemicises against “ beauty ” (as a philosophical-aesthetic category). Here he carries out theses of an aesthetic theory to Schönberg and Stravinsky .

Radical music recognizes the suffering of people: “The seismographic recording of traumatic shocks also becomes the technical law of form of music. It prohibits continuity and development. The musical language polarizes itself according to its extremes: after shock gestures, body twitches as it were, and the glass pausing of what makes fear freeze ... What once sought refuge in the form, is nameless in its duration. The forms of art record human history more fairly than the documents. No hardening of the form that cannot be read as a negation of hard life. "

“Schizophrenia is by no means expressed, but the music exercises a behavior that is similar to that of the mentally ill. The individual carries its own dissociation. From such imitation it hopes, magically again, but now in immediate topicality, the chance to survive its own downfall ... Just as it is rather her concern to control schizophrenic traits through the aesthetic consciousness, she would like to vindicate the madness as health as a whole . "

Critical Theory and Domination

Negative dialectic

Based on these views, it was only a small step to the positions of the Frankfurt School in the post-war period, especially in the period from the early 1950s to the mid- 1960s . With the growth of advanced industrial societies under the conditions of the Cold War, the theorists of the Frankfurt School concluded that economic and historical conditions had changed significantly, that the mechanisms of oppression worked differently, and that the industrial workers' movement no longer played the role of the subject Overcoming capitalism wanted or could take. This led to the attempt to ground the dialectic in a method of negativity , as Adorno did in his Negative Dialectic . During this period, the Institute for Social Research returned to Frankfurt am Main - although many intellectuals close to the institute (and institute members such as Neumann and Marcuse) stayed in the USA - not only to continue their research there, but also to become a major force in the sociological education and the democratization of West Germany. This led to a certain systematization of the entire collection of empirical research and theoretical analyzes of the institute.

More importantly, the Frankfurt School was now trying to understand the fate of reason in the new historical period. While Marcuse undertook this by analyzing the structural change in the work process in capitalism with the existing possibilities of scientific methodology, Horkheimer and Adorno concentrated on a renewed reflection on the foundations of critical theory . These efforts appeared systematized in Adorno's Negative Dialectic , which seeks to redefine dialectics for an age. “Philosophy that once seemed out of date is kept alive because the moment of its realization was missed”. Negative dialectic expresses the idea of ​​critical thinking in a way that the ruling apparatus cannot conquer. The central idea, which has long been the focus of Horkheimer and Adorno, is that the original sin of thought lies in his attempts to eliminate everything outside of thought. This is the subject's attempt to devour the object, the striving for identity. In this way, thinking becomes an accomplice of rule. Negative dialectics save the predominance of the object , not through a naive epistemological or metaphysical realism , but through a way of thinking that is based on differentiation , paradox and cunning : a “logic of decay”. Adorno fundamentally criticizes Heidegger's fundamental ontology for re-introducing idealistic and identity-based concepts while claiming to have overcome the philosophical tradition.

The negative dialectic is a monument to the end of the tradition of the individual subject as the center of criticism. With the decline of the liberal capitalist social base of the concept of an autonomous individual, the dialectic that was based on it became increasingly vague. This paved the way for another, the current phase of the Frankfurt School. It is shaped by Habermas' communication theory and is regarded as the turning point of the institute in terms of communication theory.

Communication and action

Jürgen Habermas ' work takes up the Frankfurt School's continuing interest in reason, the human subject , democratic socialism and dialectical method and attempts to overcome a number of contradictions that have always weakened critical theory: the contradictions between materialistic and transcendental methods, between Marxian social science and the individualistic assumptions of critical rationalism , between technical and social rationalization and between cultural and psychological phenomena on the one hand and economic relations on the other. The Frankfurt School carefully avoided taking a (positive: "freezing", negative: "testable") point of view on the exact relationship between materialistic and transcendental methods, which led to confusion in their writings and confusion among readers. Habermas' epistemology now connects the two traditions by showing that phenomenological and transcendental analysis can be summarized in a materialistic theory of social development, while materialistic theory only makes sense as part of a quasi-transcendental theory of emancipatory knowledge of self-reflection on cultural evolution . The equally empirical and transcendental nature of emancipatory knowledge becomes the cornerstone of the more recent critical theory .

By locating the conditions of rationality in the social structure of language, Habermas shifted reason from the autonomous subject to interaction . 'Rationality' is no longer a property of individuals per se, but a property of structures of undisturbed communication . With this view, Habermas meets the dilemma of the subject in critical theory . If the capitalist-technological society weakens the autonomy and rationality of the subject, this does not happen through the domination of the individual by the apparatus, but rather by virtue of a technological (or technical) rationality that displaces a describable rationality of communication. In his outline of communicative ethics as the highest level in the internal logic of the evolution of ethical systems, Habermas points to the source of a new political practice that embodies the imperatives of an evolutionary rationality.

Critical Theory and the New Left

The critical theory of the Frankfurt School influenced some sections of the political left and left intellectuals (especially the extra-parliamentary opposition and student movement ) in the 1960s, in particular the New Left . Herbert Marcuse has occasionally been referred to as the theorist and intellectual father of the New Left.

Influence in the USA

In the USA, the Frankfurt School came into focus in the course of the 1970s and influenced various schools of thought in the following period , such as B. the critical legal studies .

Discussion and further development in Latin America

In Latin America, the discussion of the Frankfurt School with the end of the Soviet Union took on a central position in the socio-theoretical and critical debate on capitalism, especially at several public universities. Since then, the texts of the Frankfurt School have not been translated into any other language as comprehensively and completely as Spanish. A large number of authors take part in the debate and further development of the Frankfurt School, although the tendency prevailing in the Academy in Europe and the USA to pull the anti-capitalist sting on the Frankfurt School is less evident in Latin America. At the same time, one of the central limitations of the Frankfurt School, its philosophical Eurocentrism, is gradually questioned and overcome in certain theoretical approaches ("the fourfold ethos of capitalist modernity"), which fueled the thesis that the center of this theoretical tradition is shifting to Latin America.

Generations of the Frankfurt School

Pedestrian lights in front of the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt

Criticism of the Frankfurt School

Content-related points

The Frankfurt School of the first generation was often accused of being dominated by Horkheimer and Adorno. They tried to establish a monopoly of interpretation . The bad treatment of z. B. Walter Benjamin , Norbert Elias or Jürgen Habermas pointed out; on the other hand, in 1935 it gave Ferdinand Tönnies, who was already ostracized in Germany, the opportunity to publish his theoretically completely differently based study The Right to Work in Paris in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung .

It was also accused of a conceptual imperialism, which z. B. have overstretched the concept of positivism completely negatively.

The Critical Theory itself is criticized especially with regard to two aspects: the intellectual perspective of the Frankfurt School was in fact a romantic, elitist critique of mass culture in the neo-Marxist garb: What the theorists really angry, is not the social oppression, but the fact that the Crowds prefer Ian Fleming and the Beatles to Samuel Beckett and Anton Webern . From a Marxist point of view, it is criticized that critical theory itself represents a form of bourgeois idealism that has no inherent relationship to political practice and is isolated from any revolutionary movement. Georg Lukács pointed out this criticism with his graphic statement that the members of the Frankfurt School lived in a “Grand Hotel Abgrund” , from whose terrace they watched the misery of the world over an aperitif .

Well-known critics

Name takeover

The group of poets and draftsmen of the “ New Frankfurt School ” leaned ironically on the term “Frankfurt School” .

See also


  • John Abromeit: Max Horkheimer and the Foundations of the Frankfurt School. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge / GB 2011.
  • Clemens Albrecht , Günter C. Behrmann, Michael Bock , Harald Homann, Friedrich H. Tenbruck : The intellectual founding of the Federal Republic. A history of the impact of the Frankfurt School. Campus, Frankfurt am Main 1999, ISBN 3-593-36214-7 .
  • Wolfgang Bock : Dialectical Psychology. Adorno's reception of psychoanalysis . VS-Springer Verlag, Wiesbaden 2018, ISBN 978-3-658-15325-0
  • Michael Crone (Red.): Representative of the Frankfurt School in the radio programs 1950–1992. Hessischer Rundfunk, Frankfurt am Main 1992. (The bibliography also contains the contributions from the evening studio .)
  • Alex Demirović : The non-conformist intellectual. The development of critical theory for the Frankfurt School. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1999, ISBN 3-518-29040-1 .
  • Helmut Dubiel : Critical Theory of Society. An introductory reconstruction from the beginnings in the Horkheimer district to Habermas. Juventa, Weinheim and Munich 2001, ISBN 3-7799-0386-5 .
  • Jeanette Erazo Heufelder : The Argentine Croesus. Brief economic history of the Frankfurt School. Berlin, 2017, ISBN 978-3-946334-16-3 .
  • Stefan Gandler: Frankfurt Fragments. Essays on Critical Theory. Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main 2013, ISBN 978-3-631-63400-4 .
  • Axel Honneth , Albrecht Wellmer (Ed.): The Frankfurt School and the Consequences . Lectures at a symposium of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation from 10. – 15. December 1984 in Ludwigsburg. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin, New York 1986.
  • Martin Jay : Dialectical Fantasy. The history of the Frankfurt School and the Institute for Social Research 1923–1950. Fischer, Frankfurt am Main 1976, ISBN 3-10-037101-1 .
  • Stuart Jeffries: Grand Hotel Abyss. The Lives of the Frankfurt School. Verso, London 2016, ISBN 978-1-784-78568-0 .
    • German edition: Grand Hotel Abgrund. The Frankfurt School and its time. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2019, ISBN 978-3-608-96431-8 .
  • Raffaele Laudani (Ed.): Secret Reports on Nazi Germany. The Frankfurt School Contribution to the War Effort with texts by Franz Neumann , Herbert Marcuse and Otto Kirchheimer ; with a foreword by Raymond Geuss . Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, USA 2013, ISBN 978-0-691-13413-0 .
    • German edition: Franz Neumann, Herbert Marcuse, Otto Kirchheimer: In the fight against Nazi Germany. Reports for the American Secret Service 1943-1949 , ed. v. Raffaele Laudani, Frankfurt: Campus Verlag 2016, ISBN 978-3-593-50345-5 .
  • Thomas A. McCarthy : Ideals and Illusions. Deconstruction and Reconstruction in Critical Theory. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1993, ISBN 3-518-58159-7 .
  • Jeffrey T. Nealon, Caren Irr (Ed.): Rethinking the Frankfurt School. Alternative Legacies of Cultural Critique. State University of New York Press (SUNY), Albany 2002
  • Gunzel Schmid Noerr, Willem van Reijen (ed.): Grand Hotel Abgrund. A photograph of the Frankfurt School. Junius, Hamburg 1988, ISBN 3-88506-165-1 .
  • Gregor-Sönke Schneider: No critical theory without Leo Löwenthal. The journal for social research (1932–1941 / 42). Philosophy in Past and Present Vol. 5. Edited by Alfred Schmidt and Michael Jeske. With a foreword by Peter-Erwin Jansen. Peter Lang Verlag 2014, ISBN 978-3-631-64177-4
  • Göran Therborn : A Critique of the Frankfurt School. In: new left review. Issue 63 September – October 1970, pp. 65–96.
  • Emil Walter-Busch : History of the Frankfurt School. Critical Theory and Politics. Fink, Munich 2010, ISBN 978-3-7705-4943-6 .
  • Thomas Wheatland: The Frankfurt School in Exile. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 2009, ISBN 978-0-8166-5367-6 .
  • Rolf Wiggershaus : The Frankfurt School. History, Theoretical Development, Political Significance. 5th edition. dtv, Munich 1997, ISBN 3-446-13132-9 .
  • Rolf Wiggershaus: The Frankfurt School. Rowohlt, Reinbek 2010, ISBN 978-3-499-50713-7 .
  • Eva-Maria Ziege : Anti-Semitism and Social Analysis. The Frankfurt School in American exile . 2nd Edition. Suhrkamp, ​​Berlin 2018, ISBN 978-3518-29513-7 .

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Emil Walter Busch: History of the Frankfurt School. Critical Theory and Politics. Munich 2010, p. 30.
  2. Theodor W. Adorno: Collected Writings , Volume 4: Minima Moralia. Reflections from the damaged life . Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1980, p. 14 (appropriation)
  3. Theodor W. Adorno: Collected Writings , Volume 4: Minima Moralia. Reflections from the damaged life . Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1980, p. 281. (To the end)
  4. Stefan Gandler, Bibliografia de la Teoría crítica en español . In: S. Gandler, Fragmentos de Frankfurt. Ensayos sobre la Teoría crítica. México, Siglo XXI Editores, 2009, 2011², 2013³, ISBN 978-607-03-0070-7 , pp. 128-140.
  5. Only a small number of the corresponding publications are available in German. Cf. Bolívar Echeverría : To live the inanimate. Critique of Modernity & Resistance. edition assemblage, Münster 2013, ISBN 978-3-942885-51-5 ; Stefan Gandler: Frankfurt Fragments. Essays on Critical Theory. Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main 2013, ISBN 978-3-631-63400-4 , p. 41.
  6. Alexander Cammann: When sons rebel . In: Die Zeit , November 21, 2019.
  7. Detlev Claussen: Review of: Wheatland, Thomas: The Frankfurt School in Exile. Minneapolis 2009 . In: H-Soz-u-Kult , December 22, 2009. Max Pensky: Review , in: Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews January 27, 2010.