Max Horkheimer

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Max Horkheimer
Born (1895-02-14)February 14, 1895
Zuffenhausen (now Stuttgart), Württemberg, Germany
Died July 7, 1973(1973-07-07) (aged 78)
Nuremberg, Bavaria, Germany
Nationality German, American
Era 20th century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Frankfurt School, critical theory, Western Marxism
Notable ideas
Critical theory as opposed to traditional theory, the culture industry, authoritarian personality, eclipse of reason

Max Horkheimer (February 14, 1895 – July 7, 1973) was a German Jewish philosopher and sociologist who was famous for his work in critical theory as a member of the 'Frankfurt School' of social research. His most important works include The Eclipse of Reason (1947), "Between Philosophy and Social Science" (1930–1938) and, in collaboration with Theodor Adorno, The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947). Through the Frankfurt School, Horkheimer planned, supported and made other significant works possible.[1]


Early life

On February 14, 1895, Horkheimer became the only son of Moritz and Babetta Horkheimer. Horkheimer was born into a conservative, wealthy, and orthodox Jewish family. His father was a successful businessman who owned several textile factories in the Zuffenhausen district of Stuttgart, where Max was born.[2] Moritz expected his son to follow in his footsteps and own the family business.[2] Horkheimer graduated from prep school in 1911, at the age of sixteen, to work in his father's factory.[3] In 1916, his manufacturing career ended and his chances of taking over his family business were interrupted when he was drafted into World War I.[4]


In the spring of 1919, after failing an army physical,[2] Horkheimer enrolled at Munich University. Shortly thereafter, Horkheimer moved to Frankfurt am Main, where he studied philosophy and psychology under the respectable Hans Cornelius.[2] There, he met Theodor Adorno, several years his junior, with whom he would strike a lasting friendship and a collaborative relationship. After an abortive attempt at writing a dissertation on gestalt psychology, Horkheimer, with Cornelius's direction, completed his doctorate in philosophy with a 78- page dissertation titled The Antinomy of Teleological Judgment.[2][5] In 1925, Horkheimer was habilitated with a dissertation entitled Kant's Critique of Judgement as Mediation between Practical and Theoretical Philosophy. Here, he met Friedrich Pollock who would be his colleague at the Institute of Social Research. The following year, Max was appointed Privatdozent. Shortly after, 1926, Horkheimer married Rose Riekher.[5]

Institute of Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung)

In 1926 Horkheimer was an "unsalaried lecturer in Frankfurt." Shortly after, in 1930, he was promoted to professor of philosophy at Frankfurt University. In the same year, when the Institute for Social Research's (now known as Frankfurt School of Critical Thinking) directorship became vacant, after the departure of Karl Grunberg, Horkheimer was elected to the position "by means of an endowment from a wealthy businessman".[3] The Institute had had its beginnings in a Marxist study group started by Felix Weil, a one-time student of political science at Frankfurt who used his inheritance to fund the group as a way to support his leftist academic aims.[2] Pollock and Horkheimer were partners with Weil in the early activities of the Institute.[2]

Horkheimer worked to make the Institute a purely academic enterprise.[6] As director, he changed Frankfurt from an orthodox Marxist school to a heterodox for critical social research school.[7] The following year publication of the Institute's Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung began, with Horkheimer as its editor.[8] Horkheimer intellectually reoriented the Institute, proposing a programme of collective research aimed at specific social groups (specifically the working class) that would highlight the problem of the relationship of history and reason. The Institute focused on integrating the views of Marx and Freud. The Frankfurt School attempted this by systematically hitching together the different conceptual structures of historical materialism and psychoanalysis.

During the time between Horkheimer's being named Professor of Social Philosophy and director of the Institute in 1930, the Nazis became the second largest party in the Reichstag. In the midst of the violence surrounding the Nazis' rise, Horkheimer and his associates began to prepare for the possibility of moving the Institute out of Germany.[2] Horkheimer's venia legendi was revoked by the new Nazi government because of the Marxian nature of the Institute's ideas as well as its prominent Jewish association. When Hitler was named the Chancellor in 1933,[2] the Institute was thus forced to close its location in Germany. He emigrated to Geneva, Switzerland and then to the New York the following year, where Horkheimer met with the president of Columbia University to discuss hosting the Institute. To Horkheimer's surprise, the president agreed to host the Institute in exile as well as offer Horkheimer a building for the Institute.[9][10] In July 1934 Horkheimer accepted an offer from Columbia to relocate the Institute to one of their buildings.[2]

In 1940, Horkheimer received American citizenship and moved to the Pacific Palisades district of Los Angeles, California, where his collaboration with Adorno would yield the Dialectic of Enlightenment. In the years that followed, Horkheimer did not publish much, although he continued to edit Studies in Philosophy and Social Science as a continuation of the Zeitschrift. In 1949, he returned to Frankfurt where the Institute for Social Research reopened in 1950. Between 1951 and 1953 Horkheimer was rector of the University of Frankfurt. In 1953, Horkheimer stepped down from director of the Institute and took on a smaller role in the Institute, while Adorno became director.[11] Horkheimer and Adorno were seen as the fathers of the Institute.

Later years

Horkheimer continued to teach at the University until his retirement in the mid-1960s. In 1953, he was awarded the Goethe Plaque of the City of Frankfurt, and was later named honorary citizen of Frankfurt for life.[12] He returned to America in 1954 and 1959 to lecture as a frequent visiting professor at the University of Chicago.


He remained an important figure until his death in Nuremberg in 1973. Max Horkheimer with the help of Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, Leo Lowenthal, Otto Kirchheimer, Frederick Pollock and Neumann developed "Critical Theory". According to Larry Ray "Critical Theory" has "become one of the most influential social theories of the twentieth century".[13]

Horkheimer's thought

Horkheimer's work is marked by a concern to show the relation between affect (especially suffering) and concepts (understood as action-guiding expressions of reason). In this, he responded critically to what he saw as the one-sidedness of both neo-Kantianism (with its focus on concepts) and Lebensphilosophie (with its focus on expression and world-disclosure). Horkheimer did not think either was wrong, but insisted that the insights of each school on their own could not adequately contribute to the repair of social problems. Horkheimer focused on the connections between social structures, networks/subcultures, and individual realities, concluding that we are affected and shaped by the proliferation of products on the market place. It is also important to note that Horkheimer collaborated with Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin.[1]

Critical theory

Through critical theory, Horkheimer "attempted to revitalize radical social, and cultural criticism" and discussed authoritarianism, militarism, economic disruption, environmental crisis and the poverty of mass culture.[4] Horkheimer helped to create Critical Theory through a mix of radical and conservative lenses that stem from radical Marxism and end up in "pessimistic Jewish transcendentalism".[4] Horkheimer developed his critical theory by examining his own wealth while witnessing the juxtaposition of the bourgeois and the impoverished. This critical theory embraced the future possibilities of society and was preoccupied with forces which moved society toward rational institutions that would ensure a true, free, and just life.[14] He was convinced of the need to "examine the entire material and spiritual culture of mankind"[4] in order to transform society as a whole. Horkheimer sought to enable the working class to reclaim their power in order to resist the lure of fascism. Horkheimer stated himself that "the rationally organized society that regulates its own existence" was necessary along with a society that could "satisfy common needs".[4] To satisfy these needs, it would need to engage with the social conditions within which people lived and in which their concepts and actions were formed. It reached out for a total understanding of history and knowledge. Through this, critical theory develops a "critique of bourgeois society through which 'ideology critique' attempted to locate the 'utopian content' of dominant systems of thought".[15] Above all, critical theory sought to develop a critical perspective in the discussion of all social practices.[14]


Eclipse of Reason

Horkheimer's book, Eclipse of Reason, published in 1947, is broken into five sections: Means and Ends, Conflicting Panaceas, The Revolt of Nature, The Rise and Decline of the Individual, and On the Concept of Philosophy.[1] The 'Eclipse of Reason focuses on the concept of reason within the history of western philosophy, which can only be fostered in an environment of free, critical thinking while also linking positivist and instrumental reason with the rise of fascism.[15] He describes the difference between objective, subjective and instrumental reason, and states that we have moved from the former through the center and into the latter (though subjective and instrumental reason are closely connected). Objective reason deals with universal truths that dictate that an action is either right or wrong. It is a concrete concept and a force in the world that requires specific modes of behavior. The focus in the objective faculty of reason is on the ends, rather than the means. Subjective reason is an abstract concept of reason, and focuses primarily on means. Specifically, the reasonable nature of the purpose of action is irrelevant - the ends only serve the purpose of the subject (generally self-advancement or preservation). To be "reasonable" in this context is to be suited to a particular purpose, to be "good for something else". This aspect of reason is universally conforming, and easily furnishes ideology. In instrumental reason, the sole criterion of reason is its operational value or purposefulness, and with this, the idea of truth becomes contingent on mere subjective preference (hence the relation with subjective reason). Because subjective/instrumental reason rules, the ideals of a society, for example democratic ideals, become dependent on the "interests" of the people instead of being dependent on objective truths. In his writing Horkheimer states, "Social power is today more than ever mediated by power over things. The more intense an individual's concern with power over things, the more will things dominate him, the more will he lack any genuine individual traits, and the more will his mind be transformer into an automation of formalized reason."[16] Nevertheless, Horkheimer admits that objective reason has its roots in Reason ("Logos" in Greek) of the subject. He concludes, "If by enlightenment and intellectual progress we mean the freeing of man from superstitious belief in evil forces, in demons and fairies, in blind fate - in short, the emancipation from fear - then denunciation of what is currently called reason is the greatest service we can render."[17][18]

In 1941, Horkheimer outlined how the Nazis had been able to make their agenda appear "reasonable", but also issued a warning about the possibility of a similar occurrence happening again. Horkheimer believed that the illnesses of modern society are caused by misunderstanding of reason: if people use true reason to critique their societies, they will be able to solve problems they may have.

Despite the explicit common referrals to "subjective" reason in the book, his frequent connecting of it with relativism could be an indication that by "subjective reason" Horkheimer also means "relativist reason".

Between philosophy and social science

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Between Philosophy and Social Science

"Between Philosophy and Social Science" appeared between 1930 and 1938, during the time the Frankfurt school moved from Frankfurt to Geneva to Columbia University. It included: "Materialism and Morality", "The Present Situation of Moral Philosophy and the Tasks of an Institute for Social Research", "On the Problem of Truth", "Egoism and the Freedom Movement", "History and Psychology", "A New Concept of Ideology", "Remarks on Philosophical Anthropology", and "The Rationalism Debate in Contemporary Philosophy". It also included "The Present Situation of Social Philosophy and the Tasks for an Institute of Social Research", "Egoism and Freedom Movements" and "Beginnings of the Bourgeois Philosophy of History". The essays within "Between Philosophy and Social Science" were Horkheimer’s attempts to “remove the individual from mass culture, a function for philosophy from the commodification of everything”.[19] Horkheimer was extremely invested in the individual. In one of his writings, he states, "When we speak of an individual as a historical entity, we mean not merely the space-time and the sense existence of a particular member of the human race, but in addition, his awareness of his own individuality as a conscious human being, including recognition of his own identity.".[20] Horkheimer was a strong believer in individuals becoming aware of themselves and their conscious as human beings. This is important to Horkheimer because for workers, he is aware of individuals losing their identity in products, which affects the power an individual may have of him/herself.[21]

"The Present Situation of Social Philosophy and the Tasks for an Institute of Social Research" was not only included in this volume, but it was also used as Horkheimer’s inaugural speech as director of the Frankfurt School. In this speech he related economic groups to the struggles and challenges of real life. Horkheimer often referenced human struggle and used this example in his speech because it was a topic he understood well.[19]

"Egoism and Freedom Movements" and "Beginnings of the Bourgeois Philosophy of History" are the longest of the essays. The first is an evaluation of Machiavelli, Hobbes and Vico; the latter discusses the bourgeois control. In Beginnings of the Bourgeois Philosophy of History, Horkheimer explained “what he learned from the bourgeois rise to power and what of the bourgeois he thought was worth preserving.[19]

The volume also looks at the individual as the “troubled center of philosophy.” Horkheimer expressed that “there is no formula that defines the relationship among individuals, society and nature for all time”.[19] To understand the problem of the individual further, Horkheimer included two case studies on the individual: one on Montaigne and one on himself.

Dialectic of Enlightenment

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno collaborated to publish Dialectic of Enlightenment, which was originally published in 1944. The inspiration for this piece came from when Horkheimer and Adorno had to flee Germany, because of Hitler, and go to New York. They went to America and "absorbed the popular culture"; thinking that it was a form of totalitarianism.[22] Nonetheless, Dialectic of Enlightenment's main argument was to serve as a wide-ranging critique of the "self-destruction of enlightenment".[15] The work criticized popular culture as "the product of a culture industry whose goal was to stupefy the masses with endless mass produced copies of the same thing" (Lembert). Along with that, Horkheimer and Adorno had a few arguments; one being that these mass-produced products only appear to change over time. Horkheimer and Adorno stated that these products were so standardized in order to help consumers comprehend and appreciate the products with little attention given to them. They expressed, "the result is a constant reproduction of the same thing" (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1993 [1944]). However, they also explain how pseudo-individuality is encouraged among these products in order to keep the consumers coming back for more. They argue that small differences in products within the same area are acceptable.[23]

The similar patterns found in the content of popular culture (films, popular songs and radio) have the same central message; "it's all linked to "the necessity of obedience of the masses to the social hierarchy in place in advanced capitalist societies".[24] These products appeal to the masses and encourage conformity to the consumers. In return, capitalism remains in power while buyers continue to consume from the industry. This is dangerous because the consumers' belief that the powers of technology are liberating, starts to increase. To support their claim, Horkheimer and Adorno, "proposed an antidote: not just thinking the relations of things, but also, as an immediate second step, thinking through that thinking, self-reflectively". In other words, technology lacks self-reflectivity. Nonetheless, Horkheimer and Adorno believed that art was an exception because it "is an open-ended system with no fixed rules"; thus, it could not be an object of the industry.[25]


Perry Anderson sees Horkheimer's attempt to make the Institute purely academic as “symptomatic of a more universal process, the emergence of a ‘Western Marxism’ divorced from the working-class movement and dominated by academic philosophers and the 'product of defeat’” because of the isolation of the Russian Revolution. Rolf Wiggerhaus, author of The Frankfurt School believed Horkheimer lacked the audacious theoretical construction produced by those like Marx and Lukács and that his main argument was that those living in misery had the right to material egoism. In his book, "Social Theory", Alex Callinicos claims that Dialectic of Enlightenment offers no systematic account of conception of rationality, but rather professes objective reason intransigently to an extent.[6] Charles Lemert discusses in his book Social Theory that in writing 'Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno lack sufficient sympathy for the cultural plight of the average working person, unfair to criticize the tastes of ordinary people, and that popular culture does not really buttress social conformity and stabilize capitalism as much as the Frankfurt school thinks.[23]

Selected works


  • "The Authoritarian State". 15 (Spring 1973). New York: Telos Press.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 "Horkheimer, Max" Dictionary of the Social Sciences. Craig Calhoun, ed. Oxford University Press 2002. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. College of the Holy Cross. 14 October 2009 <[1]>
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 2.9 Berendzen, J.C., "Max Horkheimer", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <[2]>.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Sica, Alan., ed. 2005. Social Thought: From the Enlightenment to the Present. Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc. Pp: 542
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Reason, Nostalgia, and Eschatology in the Critical Theory of Max Horkheimer Brian J. Shaw The Journal of Politics, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Feb., 1985), pp. 160–181
  5. 5.0 5.1 Sica, Alan 2005. "Social Thought : From the Enlightenment to The Present. Pennsylvania State University: Pearson, Inc."
  6. 6.0 6.1 Callinicos, Alex T. 2007. Social Theory: A Historical Introduction. 2nd ed. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
  7. Elliot, Anthony and Larry Ray. ed. 2003. Key Contemporary Social Theorists. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Ltd. Pp:163
  8. "Glossary of People: Ho". Retrieved 2015-06-14.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. "Biography of Horkheimer at MIT Press". Retrieved 2015-06-14.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Ritzer, George. 2011. Sociological Theory. 8th ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
  11. Biography of Horkheimer at University of Haifa
  12. "Max Horkheimer (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)". Retrieved 2015-06-14.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Elliot, Anthony and Larry Ray, . ed. 2003. Key Contemporary Social Theorists. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Ltd. Pp:162
  14. 14.0 14.1 Held, David. 1980. Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 Elliott, Anthony and Larry Ray, ed. 1996. Key Contemporary Social Theorists. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
  16. Sica, Alan 2005. "Social Thought : From the Enlightenment to The Present." (p. 542-546). Pennsylvania State University: Pearson, Inc."
  17. Eclipse of Reason, Seabury Press, 1974 (Originally 1941). P. 187
  18. [3]
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 19.3 W. G. Regier MLN, Vol. 110, No. 4, Comparative Literature Issue (Sep., 1995), pp. 953-957 Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
  20. Sica, Alan. 2005. "Social Thought : From the Enlightenment to The Present". (p. 542-546). Pennsylvania State University: Pearson, Inc
  21. Lemert, Charles. 2010. "Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings." (p. 208-212). Westview Press, A Member of the Perseus Books Group
  22. Mann, Douglas. 2008. “Slamming Society: Critical Theory and Situationism.”Pp.106 in Understanding Society: A Survey of Modern Social Theory. Don Mills, Ontario” Oxford University Press.
  23. 23.0 23.1 Lembert, Charles. 2010. Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings. 4th ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  24. Mann, Douglas. 2008. “Slamming Society: Critical Theory and Situationism.”Pp.107 in Understanding Society: A Survey of Modern Social Theory. Don Mills, Ontario” Oxford University Press.
  25. Parker, Noel and Stuart Sim., ed. 1997. The A Guide to Modern Social and Political Theorists. Prentice Hall: London. Pp: 1-2.

Further reading

  • Abromeit, John. Max Horkheimer and the Foundations of the Frankfurt School. Cambridge (UK): Cambridge University Press, 2011.
  • Jay, Martin. The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923–1950. Second edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
  • Schirmacher, Wolfgang. German 20th Century Philosophy: The Frankfurt School. New York: Continuum, 2000.
  • Wiggershaus, Rolf. The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance. Boston: MIT Press, 1995.

External links