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Critical Theory

The Frankfurt School And Critical Theory

"Critical theory" stood as a code for the quasi-Marxist theory of society developed by a group of interdisciplinary social theorists collectively known as the Frankfurt School. The term Frankfurt School refers to the work of members of the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research) that was established in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1923 as the first Marxist-oriented research center affiliated with a major German university. Max Horkheimer became director of the institute in 1930, gathering around himself many talented theorists, including Erich Fromm, Franz Neumann, Herbert Marcuse, and Theodor W. Adorno. Under Horkheimer, the institute sought to develop an interdisciplinary social theory that could serve as an instrument of social transformation. The work of this era was a synthesis of philosophy and social theory, combining sociology, psychology, cultural studies, and political economy, among other disciplines.

In a series of studies carried out in the 1930s, the Institute for Social Research developed theories of monopoly capitalism, the new industrial state, the role of technology and giant corporations in monopoly capitalism, the key roles of mass culture and communication in reproducing contemporary societies, and the decline of democracy and of the individual. Critical theory drew alike on Hegelian dialectics, Marxian theory, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Max Weber, and other trends of contemporary thought. It articulated theories that were to occupy the center of social theory for the next several decades. Rarely, if ever, has such a talented group of interdisciplinary intellectuals come together under the auspices of one institute. They managed to keep alive radical social theory during a difficult historical era and provided aspects of a neo-Marxian theory of the changed social reality and new historical situation in the transition from competitive capitalism to monopoly capitalism.

During World War II, the institute split up because of pressures from the war. Leo Lowenthal, Marcuse, Neumann, and others worked for the U.S. government as their contribution to the fight against fascism. Adorno and Horkheimer, meanwhile, moved to California, where they worked on their collective book, Dialectic of Enlightenment, which discussed how reason and enlightenment in the contemporary era turned into their opposites, transforming what promised to be instruments of truth and liberation into tools of domination. In their scenario, science and technology had created horrific tools of destruction and death, culture was commodified into products of a mass-produced culture industry, and democracy terminated into fascism, in which masses chose despotic and demagogic rulers. Moreover, in their extremely pessimistic vision, individuals were oppressing their own bodies and renouncing their own desires as they assimilated and created their own repressive beliefs and allowed themselves to be instruments of labor and war.

After World War II, Adorno, Horkheimer, and Friedrich Pollock returned to Frankfurt to reestablish the institute in Germany, while Lowenthal, Marcuse, and others remained in the United States. In Germany, Adorno, Horkheimer, and their associates published a series of books and became a dominant intellectual current. At this time, the term Frankfurt School became widespread as a characterization of this group's version of interdisciplinary social research and of the particular critical theory developed by them. They engaged in frequent methodological and substantive debates with other social theories, most notably "the positivism dispute" in which they criticized more empirical and quantitative approaches to theory and defended their own more speculative and critical brand of theory.

The Frankfurt School eventually became best known for their critical theories of "the totally administered society," or "one-dimensional society," which analyzed the increasing power of capitalism over all aspects of social life and the development of new forms of social control. During the 1950s, however, there were divergences between the work of the reestablished institute and the developing theories of Fromm, Lowenthal, Marcuse, and others who did not return to Germany, which were often at odds with both the current and earlier work of Adorno and Horkheimer. Thus it is misleading to consider the work of various critical theorists during the postwar period as members of a monolithic Frankfurt School. Whereas there was both a shared sense of purpose and collective work on interdisciplinary critical theory from 1930 to the early 1940s, thereafter critical theorists frequently diverged, and during the 1950s and 1960s Frankfurt School as a term can really be applied only to the work of the institute in Germany under Horkheimer and Adorno.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Cosine to Cyano groupCritical Theory - Critical Theory In The Disciplines, The Frankfurt School And Critical Theory, From Structuralism To Poststructuralism And Beyond