Critical theory

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S015-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 15, 2024, from

1. Historical background

In 1923 a group of intellectuals in Frankfurt, Germany, founded an ‘Institute for Social Research’ as a centre for the interdisciplinary study of social and economic issues in contemporary society from a broadly socialist perspective. The term ‘critical theory’ is used to designate the approach to social theory developed by the members of the Institute (who came to be known collectively as ‘The Frankfurt School’) between 1930 and 1970. The philosophers most closely associated with the genesis of critical theory were Max Horkheimer, Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno and Herbert Marcuse. When the National Socialists seized power in Germany in 1933 the Institute moved to New York, where it remained until 1949. Much of the most original work of the Frankfurt School was produced during this period of exile in the USA.

In their early papers, Horkheimer and Marcuse outline the conception of an interdisciplinary social theory that would be guided by an interest in the normative goal of human emancipation. Translations of the most important papers from this period are collected in Critical Theory (Horkheimer 1968) and Negations (Marcuse 1968).

Although Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse took themselves to be rationalists (of a sort), in the 1940s they found themselves becoming increasingly sceptical of the Enlightenment assumption that scientific and technological progress is an unproblematic human good. Empirical science, they thought, was based on a form of rationality – ‘instrumental rationality’ – which was inherently manipulative and which would have disastrous social and moral consequences if not strictly subordinated to a more encompassing notion of rationality. The ‘critique of instrumental reason’ is elaborated most fully in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, written jointly by Adorno and Horkheimer and published in 1947. The 1940s also saw the completion of Adorno’s The Philosophy of Modern Music (1949) and, in Minima Moralia (1951), his reflections on the impossibility of leading a good life in the contemporary world.

In 1949 Horkheimer negotiated a return of the Institute to Frankfurt. Marcuse, however, elected to remain in the USA. During the 1950s and 1960s he held positions at various US universities and wrote the two books on which his reputation as a theorist of the New Left mainly rests: Eros and Civilization (1955) and One-Dimensional Man (1964).

Upon their return to Frankfurt Adorno and Horkheimer became prominent public figures, while continuing to practise their form of cultural criticism. In 1958 Horkheimer retired to Switzerland where he died in 1973. In 1966 Adorno published a lengthy philosophical account of his version of the critical theory, Negative Dialectics. He seems to have been surprised by the student movement of the 1960s. Many participants were inspired by his writings and thought of themselves as putting critical theory into practice, however Adorno repudiated their activism. In contrast, Marcuse attempted to the very end of his life to maintain a theoretical commitment to action for radical social change.

Citing this article:
Geuss, Raymond. Historical background. Critical theory, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S015-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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