Frankfurt school of critical theory

Frankfurt school of critical theory

the grouping of left-wing thinkers and a style of radical social theory associated with members of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, which was founded in 1922 by Felix Weil, a wealthy political scientist with a strong commitment to Marxist radicalism. During the Nazi era the institute moved to New York, returning to Frankfurt in 1949. It was disbanded in 1969, but its influence continues, notably, recently, in the work of Jürgen HABERMAS. Many leading left-wing theorists were formally associated with the school, including Theodor ADORNO, Walter BENJAMIN, Erich FROMM, Max HORKHEIMER (Director of the Institute 1931-58), and Herbert MARCUSE.

The distinctive approach of the Frankfurt school of critical theory was a brand of neo-Marxist thinking which took issue with both Western POSITIVISM and Marxist SCIENTISM, and was at the same time critical of both Western capitalism and the forms of society created by bolshevik socialism. Among the important contributions made by Frankfurt school theorists have been:

  1. debate on an appropriate non-positivist epistemology for the social sciences;
  2. accounts of the dominant structural and cultural formations of capitalist and socialist societies;
  3. the combination of ideas drawn from MARX and FREUD, resulting in a radicalization of Freudian theory and the provision of Marxism with a fuller theory of personality Such features of the work of members of the school were based, above all, on a recovery of the philosophical thinking of the young Marx and a ‘revision’ of prevailing, ‘official’, Soviet interpretations of MARXISM which were seen by Frankfurt theorists as economistic and over-determinist.

Despite such shared themes, the work of members of the school does not result in a single unified view. Not only did individual theorists pursue their own distinctive lines of research, but, collectively, members of the school continually shifted the terms of their analysis of modern society in response to the massive political and economic changes that have occurred since the institute's formation, including the rise of fascism and the eclipse of revolutionary movements in the West. At first, institute members expected the transformation of competitive capitalism into monopoly capitalism and fascism to lead directly to socialism. Later, the mood of some members of the school, notably Adorno and Horkheimer, became increasingly pessimistic, portraying the working class as ever more manipulated by the new modes of MASS CULTURE, and as unlikely to develop revolutionary modes of consciousness in the future. Other theorists, especially Marcuse, remained more optimistic, identifying new sources of revolutionary consciousness outside the traditional proletariat, e.g. ethnic minorities and students. Whether pessimistic or optimistic about the prospects of revolution, however, all Frankfurt school theorists can be identified as continuing to explore a shared theme: the perversion of the ideals of Enlightenment rationality by a narrow and dehumanizing ‘technical rationality’ seen as embodied in both Western capitalist and Soviet Marxist forms of social organization, a technical rationality with which positivistic and scientistic forms of social science must be seen as colluding, and which critical theory must seek to combat. Accessible accounts of the work of the school are provided by M. Jay, The Dialectical Imagination (1973) and by D. Held, Introduction to Critical Theory (1980).

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
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