Max Horkheimer Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Max Horkheimer 1895-1973

German sociologist and philosopher.

The following entry provides criticism on Horkheimer's career from 1977 through 1995.

Horkheimer is primarily remembered as one of the founders of Critical Theory and the director of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research during the 1930s and 1940s. Critics note that he played an important role in the development of not only Critical Theory but also twentieth-century Marxist thought. Written with colleague Theodor Adorno, his Philosophische Fragmente (1944; Dialectic of Enlightenment) is regarded as one of the most influential works on modern critical theory.

Biographical Information

Horkheimer was born on February 14, 1895, in Stuttgart, Germany. As a student, he studied philosophy and psychology in Munich and Frankfurt and became acquainted with Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Walter Benjamin. In 1931 he was appointed director of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research. Founded in 1924, the Institute was established as a forum for left-wing thought and discussions of class, cultural, and political issues. When Horkheimer assumed leadership of the Institute, he wanted the Frankfurt School to be the platform for an interdisciplinary critique of society, which would draw from sociology, economics, philosophy, psychology and history. The eventual aim of the Institute was to inspire and implement radical social change in the Marxist vein. In 1933 the Institute moved from Frankfurt when Hitler came to power. In 1934, after a brief stint in Geneva, it reestablished itself in the United States, where it was at first associated with Columbia University in New York City. In 1941 ill health prompted Horkheimer to move to California. His colleague, Adorno, joined him at Pacific Palisades, becoming part of an expatriate community that included Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, and Alfred Doeblin. In 1949 the Institute for Social Research returned to Frankfurt, and Adorno was appointed director. Horkheimer became rector of the University of Frankfurt in 1953. He died in 1973.

Major Works

Horkheimer's best-known works are those that focus on his concept of Critical Theory, which draws on Marxist dialectics, the philosophical thought of Hegel and Kant, and the insights of psychoanalysis and modern sociology. Its aim was to provide a technique for the analysis and criticism of ideologies, free from false theories and inherited assumptions. Commentators contend that Critical Theory played an important part in the postwar revitalization of Western European Marxism and in the student movement in the United States in the 1960s. Horkheimer's most prominent work, Dialectic of Enlightenment, was written with Theodor Adorno. Selling more than 70,000 copies, it is regarded as the most widely read work of the Frankfurt School. In this study, Adorno and Horkheimer provide a scathing indictment of capitalist society and Western civilization. The authors contend that authoritarianism and fascism are a direct result of reason and growing enlightenment. Moreover, they argue that Western Europeans had allowed themselves to be exploited by authoritarian governments and fascist leaders. Horkheimer's later work, Eclipse of Reason (1947), places the concept of reason within the history of Western philosophy, defining true reason as rationality. Horkheimer maintains that reason is often misunderstood and misapplied; if people would rationally critique their societies, they would be able to correctly identify and solve society's problems. Also, Horkheimer theorizes that culture and consciousness are partly independent of economic factors, and his ideas about consumer society continue to influence contemporary empirical sociologists.

Critical Reception

For the most part, Horkheimer has been remembered as the director of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research and as a colleague of Theodor Adorno. Since 1980, however, there has been a resurgence of interest in Horkheimer's work, especially in Germany. Critics have debated Horkheimer's role in integrating philosophy and social science, which defined the Frankfurt School. Moreover, commentators investigated his attitude toward and association with Marxism, and how that relationship impacted his overall philosophy. They trace the maturation of his thought, from his early work building a new relationship between philosophy and the social sciences and his later development of a critical social theory. Recent critics have maintained that the works of the Frankfurt School, particularly Dialectic of Enlightenment, have become irrelevant. Some view the volume as dark and pessimistic. Commentators note that Horkheimer and Adorno's argument remains incomplete, as a sequel was intended but never completed. Yet the work of the Frankfurt School is recognized as an important contribution to twentieth-century thought and a significant influence on sociologists and political thinkers.