Philosophy 238 - 12.4.2 Critique of the Enlightenment Concept of Knowledge

The Frankfurt School was critical of the Enlightenment view of true knowledge as conceptual, hence separate from the world. Drawing on the work of other branches of philosophy that had arisen in continental Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries—in particular, phenomenology and hermeneutics—the school focused on how the context within which we experience a phenomenon or observe an object can change our interpretation of its meaning. The Frankfurt School rejected the Enlightenment’s faith in the ability of reason to lay bare the secrets of the universe. For these thinkers, knowledge did not consist of absolute “facts” but instead an awareness of the structures of our social world that shape what we believe to be facts (Corradetti 2021).

While many philosophical systems revolved around abstract ideas made popular by the Enlightenment, the critical theory developed at the Frankfurt School attempted to engage the world as it was and not as philosophical frameworks painted it to be. The theorists of the Frankfurt School asserted that philosophical ideas are not abstract concepts. Rather, the ideas that structure the world as we live in it are the result of social, political, cultural, and religious forces and are therefore lived issues. Moreover, to the degree that these forces are oppressive, so are the accepted beliefs or knowledge generated by these forces. The purpose of true knowledge is thus to inform us on how the social world can be liberated from marginalizing and oppressive concepts (Corradetti 2021).

Horkheimer’s Rejection of the Primacy of Reason

The Enlightenment had established a hierarchical relationship between philosophy—and by extension reason—and science. Kant had positioned reason itself as the key to understanding science and to making sense of how scientific discoveries fit into the overall framework of knowledge. According to the Kantian view, proper philosophical reflection was based in reason. Horkheimer rejected this prioritization of reason. He asserted that the objects of scientific reflection were shaped and determined through context (Horkheimer [1972] 1992). Horkheimer and others criticized Kant and Enlightenment philosophy as abstract, irrelevant, or in the worst case, enabling the oppression that occurred since Kant’s time. Instead, the Frankfurt School offered a focus on how philosophy could be used to make a practical difference within that world.

Benjamin’s Disruption of the Status Quo

A common denominator among the multiplicity of ideas within the Frankfurt School could arguably be what German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) called the “messianic.” By this, he meant a disruption within the status quo that eventually responds in various ways to the oppression occurring in a society (Horkheimer [1972] 1992). Jewish and Judeo-Christian theology prophesies a messianic redeemer who will eventually bring peace to an unstable world. Benjamin adapted the term to indicate a conceptual resistance to hegemonic systems (another term for the power structures of the status quo). This resistance is not part of and does not flow from linear history but rather interrupts it. Benjamin understood systems such as capitalism to be linear pathways of history that the messianic impulse interrupts, thus bringing forth a reality that does not flow from past to present but always is. Benjamin held that such a disruption of linear time disrupts systems of power by creating a classless moment (Khatib 2013).

One example of Benjamin’s idea of the messianic would be the eradication of the socially constructed hierarchy of race. Disrupting this concept would presumably result in a society devoid of the stratification that is connected to notions of race. The difficulty with this idea is that messianic moments within human societies don’t seem to last. With the messianic deconstruction of one status quo (such as race) arises another construction that eventually takes the place of the former as the status quo (such as class).

A 2/3 profile pen drawing shows a person with a moustache wearing round eyeglasses.
Figure 12.10 Walter Benjamin was an early member of the Frankfurt School. He started as a literary critic but contributed profoundly original ideas to the school. (credit: “Walter Benjamin for PIFAL” by Artruro Espinoza/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

The Revision of the Marxist Dialectic

The Frankfurt School amended the dialectical method to address what they saw as the shortcomings of Marx’s belief that the progression of the world from capitalism to socialism was inevitable. As we can see now, a socialist future has yet to be the inevitable end point of all capitalist societies. In the hands of Frankfurt School theorists, the dialectical method became not a forecast for humanity’s future, but a “down and dirty” understanding of the arbitrariness of the social situation in any given era (Horkheimer [1972] 1992). This understanding indicated that what is to come must be shaped in a real way by intentional action, as opposed to theoretical reflection. While utilizing elements of Marxist philosophies, many Frankfurt School thinkers held that social transformation was not inevitable but needed to be worked toward in conscious ways.

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