Frankfurt School

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Related to Frankfurt School: Critical theory

Frankfurt School,

a group of researchers associated with the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute of Social Research), founded in 1923 as an autonomous division of the Univ. of Frankfurt. The institute's first director, Carl Grünberg, set it up as a center for research in philosophy and the social sciences from a Marxist perspective. After Max HorkheimerHorkheimer, Max
, 1895–1973, German philosopher and sociologist. As director (1930–58) of the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, he played an important role in the development of critical theory and Western Marxism.
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 took over as director in 1930, the focus widened. Leading members, such as Theodor AdornoAdorno, Theodor Wiesengrund
, 1903–69, German philosopher, born as Theodor Adorno Wiesengrund. Forced into exile by the Nazis (1933), he spent 16 years in England and the United States before returning to Germany to take up a chair in philosophy at Frankfurt.
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, Walter BenjaminBenjamin, Walter,
1892–1940, German essayist and critic. He is known for his synthesis of eccentric Marxist theory and Jewish messianism. In particular, his essays on Charles Baudelaire and Franz Kafka as well as his speculation on symbolism, allegory, and the function of
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, and Herbert MarcuseMarcuse, Herbert
, 1898–1979, U.S. political philosopher, b. Berlin. He was educated at the Univ. of Freiburg and with Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer founded the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research.
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, influenced by aspects of psychoanalysis and existentialism, developed a version of Marxism known as "critical theory." They formulated influential aesthetic theories and critiques of capitalist culture. In 1933 they fled the Nazis and settled in the United States, where they found a haven at Columbia Univ. Later they had a role in the formulation of postwar sociological theory. After their period of exile, the institute returned (1949) to Frankfurt, where Jürgen HabermasHabermas, Jürgen
, 1929–, German philosopher. He is a professor at the Univ. of Frankfurt (emeritus since 1994) and is the best-known contemporary proponent of critical theory, which is a social theory with Marxist roots developed in the 1930s by the Frankfurt School.
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 became its most prominent figure.


See M. Jay, The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research 1923–1950 (1973, repr. 1996); R. Geuss, The Idea of a Critical Theory: Habermas and the Frankfurt School (1981); R. Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School (1994); T. Wheatland, The Frankfurt School in Exile (2010).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Frankfurt School


a trend in German philosophy and sociology that took shape in the 1930’s and 1940’s around the Institute of Social Research of the University of Frankfurt am Main. The institute was headed by M. Horkheimer from 1931. Between 1934 and 1939, when Horkheimer and most of his colleagues had emigrated from Germany because of the Nazis’ rise to power, the institute was located in Geneva and at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris; in 1939 it was moved to Columbia University, in the United States, and in 1949 it was reconstituted in Frankfurt am Main, in the Federal Republic of Germany, after Horkheimer and Adorno had returned to that country. The most prominent representatives of this school of thought are T. Adorno, E. Fromm, H. Marcuse, and J. Habermas; its principal organ is the journal Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung.

On the basis of Horkheimer’s and Marcuse’s “critical theory of society”—a philosophical and sociological theory developed by them in the 1930’s—the Frankfurt school sought to combine Hegelian and Freudian ideas with certain elements of K. Marx’ critical approach to bourgeois culture. The concept of “rationalization,” as derived from M. Weber, has been transformed into one of the central concepts of the Frankfurt school’s philosophy of culture. The “enlightenment” is identified with rational mastery of nature as a whole; according to Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1948), the analysis of the internal contradictions of the “enlightenment” provides the key to understanding modern culture and society, and particularly the “mass culture” and “mass society” of the 20th century. Hegel’s dialectic is transformed into an antisystematic “negative dialectic,” and one of the focal concerns is the problem of alienation.

During the postwar period the divisions between members of the Frankfurt school grew more profound—as reflected, in particular, in the arguments between Fromm and Marcuse during the 1950’s and 1960’s; another example of such divisions was the evolution of Habermas and of younger members of the Frankfurt school away from the ideas of its founders, leading in effect to its disintegration in the early 1970’s. The Frankfurt school was an important influence in non-Marxist social and philosophical thought, both in the Federal Republic of Germany and in the United States, as well as in the theoretical formulations of the “new left” ideology, although Adorno and Horkheimer, and Habermas as well, disassociated themselves from the left-radical tendencies of that movement.


Sotsial’naia filosofiia frankfurtskoi shkoly. Moscow, 1975.
Die “Frankfurter Schule” im Lichte des Marxismus. Frankfurt am Main, 1970.
Rohrmoser, G. Das Elend der kritischen Theorie. Freiburg, 1970.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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