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Max Horkheimer

(1895—1973) German philosopher and sociologist


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(1895–1973)

Germanphilosopher and one of the founders of the Frankfurt School. Horkheimer was a superb organizer, who did an enormous amount behind the scenes to facilitate the research of the Frankfurt School scholars both in Germany and the US. From an early age, and in spite of—or perhaps because of—his privileged upbringing, Horkheimer had a powerful sense of the social injustices of the capitalist system.

He was born in Stuttgart, into a family of wealthy Jewish textile manufacturers. Initially he followed his father's footsteps into the family business, but his heart was never in it. He was conscripted in 1917, but was rejected as unfit for service on medical grounds. In 1919 he finally enrolled at university to study psychology, philosophy, and economics in Munich. While living in Munich, he was mistaken for the revolutionary playwright Ernst Toller and arrested and imprisoned. On his release, he transferred his studies to Frankfurt. He spent a year at Freiburg studying with Edmund Husserl and met his research assistant Martin Heidegger. He completed a doctorate and habilitation under the direction of Hans Cornelius (the same professor who would later fail Horkheimer's friends Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin).

In 1930 Horkheimer became director of the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt). His inaugural address, given in 1931, ‘The Present Situation of Social Philosophy and the Tasks of an Institute for Social Research’ outlined three key tasks: the development of an inter-disciplinary approach to the study of society (by which he meant combining philosophy and sociology, hitherto unheard of in the German academic system); the reconstruction of the Marxian project, so as to emphasize social and cultural issues rather than exclusively economic problems; the explication of the interconnections between society, economy, culture, and consciousness.

Under his direction the Institute funded and carried out research on the German working class's ‘psychic structure’, which given the political conditions of the time—the fact that the Nazi party was everywhere in ascendance—was incredibly brave and provocative. Aware, albeit not fully aware, of the danger this shift in the political situation betokened, the Institute transferred its affairs to Geneva in 1931. It relocated again in 1934, this time to Columbia University in New York. Horkheimer moved to the US first and then arranged for his other similarly exiled colleagues to follow, and in due course most of them did with the signal and sad exception of Benjamin. There the Institute began on an extensive qualitative and quantitative project on authority and the family. However, in 1939, due to some bad investments, the Institute found itself in financial difficulty and the amazing team of researchers it had assembled began to break up and of necessity take jobs elsewhere.

‘Traditionelle und Kritische Theorie’ (‘Traditional and Critical Theory’), Horkheimer's most famous essay, and a kind of signature piece for the Frankfurt School as a whole, was published in 1937 in the Institute's house journal, Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung (Journal for Social Research). This established critical theory as a codeword for a materialist form of social analysis which nonetheless eschewed any connection with science, or what it referred to as instrumental reason. It could maintain its connection with psychoanalysis precisely because it was not recognized as a science. This article foreshadowed in many ways what is undoubtedly Horkheimer's best-known work, namely his collaboration with Adorno, Dialektik der Aufklärung (1944), translated as Dialectic of Enlightenment (1972), completed in the Institute's new residence in exile, Los Angeles. In part this project set out to explain the conditions under which Nazism could take hold of a society, but it also wanted to show that it was very far from a uniquely German phenomenon, which it did by demonstrating that mass media diminished resistance to ideological messaging. This view would hold sway until the early 1980s when Cultural Studies decided it was elitist and overturned it in favour of more reception-oriented theory.

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Subjects: Literary Theory and Cultural Studies — Philosophy.


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