Philosophy 236 - 12.4 The Frankfurt School

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Identify the main goal of critical theory as developed by the Frankfurt School.
  • Describe the Frankfurt School’s revision of Enlightenment and Marxist ideas.
  • Evaluate communicative action as a tool for liberation.
  • Explain how critical theory is messianic.

What we know as critical theory emerged from the work of a group of early 20th-century Marxist German philosophers and social theorists at the Institute for Social Research at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany—a group that came to be known as the Frankfurt School. It arose within the turbulent political environment of the socialist revolutions of the early 20th century and the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany.

Following World War I, the socialist 1918–19 November Revolution dethroned the existing monarchy in Germany, replacing it with a parliamentary system that was later known as the Weimar Republic. Felix Weil (1898–1975), who would go on to provide the financial backing for what would become the Frankfurt School, was on the front lines of the revolution, serving in the Frankfurt Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council. The son of a wealthy entrepreneur, Weil aligned himself with philosophers, artists, and others who had been shifted to the left by the experiences of WWI and by other socialists. In 1923, Weil helped establish what was known as “Marxist Study Week,” a gathering of left-leaning thinkers, many of whom would later be affiliated with the Institute for Social Research. Although the Institute for Social Research was founded in 1924, it was under the leadership of Max Horkheimer, who became director in 1930, that the institute began to focus on practical responses to social oppression (Horkheimer [1972] 1992).

In 1933, in response to the rise of the Nazi regime, the institute moved from Frankfurt to Geneva, Switzerland (Löwenthal 1981). From Geneva, the institute relocated to New York City, where it was made a part of Columbia University. It was while the institute was part of Columbia that the Frankfurt School gained notice and prestige, with its research methods gaining acceptance among other academics. After the end of World War II, some of the Frankfurt School intellectuals returned to West Germany while others remained in the United States. A full return of the institute to Frankfurt occurred in the 1950s (Held 1980).

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax