Theorizing Modernism Essays In Critical Theory Frankfurt

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date: 10 March 2018

Critical Theory: International Relations' Engagement With the Frankfurt School and Marxism

Summary and Keywords

Critical international relations theory (CIRT) is not only an academic approach but also an emancipatory project committed to the formation of a more equal and just world. It seeks to explain the reasons why the realization of this goal is difficult to achieve. What is crucial here is not only the social explanation, but also politically motivated action to achieve an alternative set of social relations based on justice and equality. Critical theory in international relations (IR) is part of the post-positivist turn or the so-called “fourth debate,” which followed the inter-paradigm debate of the 1970s. Post-positivism consists of a plurality of theoretical and epistemological positions that opened up wide ranging criticisms of the neo-realist “orthodoxy” that has dominated IR theorizing since the beginning of 1980s. Critical theory has challenged the mainstream understanding of IR, and has spurred the development of alternative forms of analysis and approaches. Moreover, since the beginning of the 1980s, different types of CIRT have become the main alternative to mainstream IR. The general aim of CIRT can be summed up by Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach that “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” A specific tradition of critical thought in IR, derived from Marx, comprises the normative Critical Theory (CT) of the Frankfurt School—termed the “structural critical theory”—since it focuses more on the sociological features and dynamics of capitalism.

Keywords: critical theory, critical international relations theory, Frankfurt School, structural critical theory, Karl Marx, justice, equality, normative critical theory, capitalism


This article presents an analysis and evaluation of critical international relations theory (CIRT). Critical theory has challenged the mainstream understanding of international relations (IR) and analyzes the alternative forms of analysis/approaches that have developed under the banner of critical theory. Since the beginning of the 1980s, different types of critical international relations theory (CIRT) have been the main alternative to mainstream IR. After reviewing Critical International Relations Theory after 25 Years, Rengger and Thirkell-White conclude that “various forms of ‘critical theory’ . . . constitute the main theoretical alternatives within the discipline” (Rengger & Thirkell-White, 2007b, pp. 4–5). They argue that even “a robust, analytical and still heavily ‘scientific’ U.S. academy now has strong elements of critical theory of various sorts lodged within it” (p. 9).

Critical international relations theory is not only an academic approach but also an emancipatory project committed to the formation of a more equal and just world. It seeks to explain the reasons why the realization of this goal is difficult to achieve. Therefore, what is crucial is not only the social explanation but also politically motivated action to achieve an alternative set of social relations based on justice and equality. The general aim of CIRT can be summed up by Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach that “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it” (Marx, 1977b, p. 158). One of the most well-known definitions of CT in IR belongs to Robert Cox (1981) who defines critical theory in the context of his famous landmark distinction between problem-solving theories and critical theories. According to Cox, problem-solving theories are preoccupied with maintaining social power relationships and the reproduction of the existing system, attempting to ensure that “existing relationships and institutions work smoothly” (p. 129) Unlike ahistorical problem-solving theories which serve the existing social arrangements and support the interests of the hegemonic social forces, critical theory, according to Cox, is self-reflexive, criticizes the existing system of domination, and identifies processes and forces that will create an alternative world order (Cox, 1981, pp. 129–130). Linklater (2001), another key critical theorist in international relations, defines critical theory as a post-Marxist theory that “continues to evolve beyond the paradigm of production to a commitment to dialogic communities that are deeply sensitive about all forms of inclusion and exclusion-domestic, transnational and international” (p. 25). Similar definitions of critical theory emphasize one or more of its aspects. For instance, Steans et al. (2010) stress, “the express purpose of Critical Theory is to further the self-understanding of groups committed to transforming society” (p. 106). Alway (1995) defines critical theory as a “theory with practical intent” oriented to the emancipatory transformation of society. According to Neufeld, the defining feature of critical theory is its “negation of positivism” and “technical reason” dominant in mainstream IR (Neufeld, 1995, pp. 129–130). For Hutchings (2007), “[a]lthough critical theory takes many different forms, it always distinguishes itself from other forms of theorising in terms of its orientation towards change and the possibility of futures that do not reproduce the patterns of hegemonic power of the present” (p. 72). Levine (2012), who focuses on a more methodological reevaluation of critical theory, proposed the concept of sustainable critique, which he defines as “a practice, tied to a philosophical-normative sensibility” (p. 231) aimed at an “entente between positive theory building and critique” (p. 230), and a “practical and reflexive theory” (p. 211). Thus, critical theories constitute a very broad group of different approaches and are in a radical position vis-a-vis mainstream international relations theory.

In line with these different definitions, a heterogeneous group of theories has been labelled as critical in international relations, including feminism, poststructuralism, critical geopolitics, critical security studies, critical international political economy, postcolonialism, and international historical sociology. This article focuses on a more specific tradition of critical thought in international relations derived from Marx, which comprises the normative Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School. This structural critical theory focuses more on the sociological features and dynamics of capitalism.

This article contains six sections. The first briefly locates critical theory in the context of the development of international relations and provides an overview of the main strands of CIRT. The following two sections discuss the origins of Critical Theory in the Frankfurt School of Sociology and then present Habermas’ contribution. The fourth section outlines the main contributions from international relations scholars to the development of a normative CIRT in accordance with Habermas’ theory of communicative rationality. This section particularly focuses on the contributions of Richard Ashley and Andrew Linklater to CIRT. The fifth section discusses some of the key strands of structural critical theory incorporating Neogramscianism and Marxist historical sociology counterposed with the idealist normative critical theory originating from the Frankfurt School. The article concludes with an overview of the efforts to integrate critical theory into international relations and directions for future development.

The Critical Tradition and the Meaning of Critique

The idea of critique is a product of the heritage of Enlightenment. Basically, it involves the use of reason and critical insight in relation to the liberation of human beings. It expresses the opposition between reason and dogma, the rational and the revealed. As Shapcott (2008) summarizes it, “in the language of Kant, this is termed Enlightenment, in the language of Hegel, it is spirit or history (Geist) and in the language of Marx, it is emancipation” (p. 327). Kant claimed in 1781 in his Preface to his Critique of Pure Reason that his era was the age of critique. Kant’s critique involved a reflection on the conditions and limits of knowledge. Later, Hegel, in the Phenomenology of Mind, reflected on the constraints on human autonomy and how humans can liberate themselves from these constraints. In his Preface to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx developed a critique of the social conditions for thinking about social reality. He argued that the categories used by classical political economists were in fact propositions, which led to the legitimation of existing power structures within the liberal capitalist economy (Connerton, 1976, pp. 23–24). This ideology-critique offered a reinterpretation of these categories producing a critique of actual social conditions thus linking analysis with the forms of practice that correspond to it. This Enlightenment heritage later produced different forms of critical theory under changed historical circumstances revising and reinterpreting the insights of these key critical philosophers, adapting its categories to a new historical reality. The meaning of critique itself, therefore, has altered as the historical conditions that informed its categories.

Critical theory in international relations is part of the post-positivist turn or the “fourth debate,” which followed the interparadigm debate (Banks, 1985) of the 1970s. Postpositivism consists of a plurality of theoretical and epistemological positions that opened wide-ranging criticisms of the neo-realist “orthodoxy” that has dominated international relations theorizing since the beginning of 1980s (Ashley, 1986; Smith, 1996). However, a distinction needs to be made between different forms of critical theory. The term critical theory in lower case letters refers to postpositivist theories such as feminism, historical sociology, poststructuralism, constructivism, and postcolonialism, which are united in their critique of the mainstream, and particularly, of Neo-Realism. Critical Theory (CT) with capital letters refers more directly to the critical theory originating from the Frankfurt School and mainly particularly from the work of Jürgen Habermas, which is elaborated in the third section of this article. Although most critical theories draw their insights from Marxism, the failure of classical Marxist works to explicitly deal with the impact of the state system on emancipatory politics has relegated Marxist critical theory in international relations to a more isolated position compared with the more normative forms of critical theory originating from the Frankfurt School. On the other hand, not all the post-positivist theories utilize the theoretical apparatus of Critical Theory originating from the Frankfurt School. For instance, poststructural critical thinkers are influenced by French philosophers such as Derrida or Foucault, who base their work on the critiques of structuralism, which were popular in the 1970s. Also, in contrast to the normative critical theory of the Habermasians, more structural forms of critical theory based on historical materialism have developed more recently, first in Neo-Gramscianism and later in international historical sociology, especially through political Marxism. Thus, there is a rich variety of critical scholarship and theorizing that alters the framework and substance of mainstream International Relations.

Despite the occasional sometimes intricate differences between them, all critical theories are united in their critique of the main research agenda and the positivist orientations in international relations questioning, above all, the idea of value free theoretical and social inquiry. During the first wave of critical theory in the 1980s, the main concern of international relations theorists was to develop a critique of the dominant realist/neorealist orthodoxy, which had failed to explain the end of the Cold War (George, 1989; Lapid, 1989). Andrew Linklater (1992), for instance, characterizes the discussions originating from critical theory as constituting the “next stage in international relations theory” (see also Hoffmann, 1987). In particular, the idea of a structurally determined, immutable anarchical system adopted by the Neorealists was heavily criticized. The first task of a critical theory of international relations was to expose the assumptions that formed the basis of mainstream theoretical and empirical inquiry. Neorealism reified and naturalized the existing structure of the international system taking it as given and immutable. This inevitably gave neorealism a problem-solving quality that sustained the existing asymmetries of power and equality. According to Cox, “Critical theory has relativized neorealism so as to perceive it as an ideology of the Cold War” (Cox, 2001, p. 46).

The pursuit of scientism and the emphasis on scientific objectivity, for a long time, prevented any reflection on the moral and normative side of international relations. Post-positivist scholars “brought back” the critical and the normative into international relations. Thus, the development of critical theory enabled those who were “exiled” or “excluded” from international relations to start speaking their own language (Ashley & Walker, 1990, p. 259). Instead of trying to explain social reality in terms of transhistorical regularities and making predictions on that basis, these scholars instead emphasized the reflexive nature of theorizing underscoring the social, historical, and contingent nature of knowledge claims, posing both an epistemological and ontological challenge to positivist social science. Critical theorists reject the objectivist conception of truth as a correspondence to the real world. Objects of knowledge are not given as the positivists assume but are constituted by different powers and interests. This is summarized in Cox’s famous comment that “theories are for someone and for some purpose” (Cox, 1981). As Cox later argued “there is no such thing as theory in itself, divorced from a standpoint in time and space. When any theory so represents itself, it is the more important to examine it as ideology, and to lay bare its concealed perspective” (Cox, 1986, p. 207). Critical theorists also indicate how objects of knowledge are intimately linked to theoretical practice itself. Theoretical activity is not only a methodological pursuit but also closely associated with the construction of political reality. Therefore, from this perspective, it is not possible to assess different knowledge claims from an Archimedean viewpoint to say which is true; thus, the politico-normative content is as much a criterion of theory assessment as empirical adequacy (Neufeld, 2001, p. 138; Eckersley, 2008, pp. 347–348). Truth for critical theorists is, therefore, more “normative rather than objective and scientific” (Fluck, 2010, p. 266) than the positivists assume, and the commitment to normative progressive change is an essential part of critical theory.

In short, critical theory has been very productive in developing alternative approaches and new areas of research in international relations. One of the most important theoretical starting points and sources of inspiration for this whole development has emanated from the views of the Frankfurt School adopted by international relations scholars.

Origins of Critical Theory: The Frankfurt School

Critical Theory is generally traced back to the Frankfurt School, whose origins lay in the establishment of the Institute for Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research) at the University of Frankfurt in 1923 (Jay, 1973; Held, 1980; Alway, 1995). The members of the school were exiled to the United States during the Nazi Period and World War II but reestablished themselves in Germany in 1950. The Frankfurt School was part of the regeneration of critical thinking in social sciences due to the rise of fascism, the development of world economic crises, the New Deal, and the degeneration of the Russian revolution into Stalinism. The most well-known thinkers of the Frankfurt School include philosophers such as Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, and second-generation theorists such as Jürgen Habermas and a third-generation scholar, Axel Honneth.

The Frankfurt School theorists were concerned with “the dark side” of modernity and set themselves the task of understanding “why mankind, instead of entering into a truly human condition” is sinking into a “new kind of barbarism” (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1972). Reason, in which Enlightenment had placed all its hope for progress and emancipation, had become an instrument for dominating and destroying nature instead of liberating man.

Max Horkheimer (1895–1973) in his seminal 1937 essay “Traditional and Critical Theory” (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1972) outlined the main premises of critical theory. Horkheimer’s starting point was the inhibition of critical and independent thinking in contemporary society for which he blamed traditional Western thought and an instrumental understanding of reason inherent in the dominant positivist understanding of science and society. In his essay, Horkheimer contrasted traditional theory with critical theory. Traditional theory adopts the model of natural sciences and sees knowledge as an instrument of control rather than the basis for human happiness. Facts are separated from the activity of theorizing; science is separated from the world it studies. Traditional theory is not self-reflexive, as it does not question the social context of the activity of theorizing nor the social conditions with which it deals. By contrast, according to critical theory, theories and theoretical activity are socially conditioned. Therefore, inquiry into emancipation requires an immanent critique of social life to provide insight into existing social contradictions and act as a guide for the social conditions necessary for an emancipated future.

The Frankfurt School philosophers were particularly concerned with the proletariat’s declining and inhibited revolutionary consciousness and their support for right-wing movements in Germany. In different degrees, although still committed to Enlightenment ideals of emancipation, Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, and Habermas questioned the capacity of the proletariat to be the agent of revolution and placed the human species as the historical subject of emancipation. Reason had become an instrument of domination rather than critique and reflexivity, a situation, which Horkheimer described as the “eclipse of reason.” Horkheimer and Adorno emphasized how the instrumental rationality of positivism interested in the technical control of nature had been more successful than practical reason that was interested in the achievement of a good life. Their later work was tainted by a “politics of despair” and a “negativistic” social philosophy concerning emancipation with the Dialectic of Enlightenment “heralding the end of the emancipatory vision that had previously animated the [Frankfurt School]” (Brincat, 2011, p. 232). Thus, an immanent critique was necessary to understand the underlying social relations and the inner contradictions of society to explain why the proletariat consciousness was “limited and corrupted by ideology” (Horkheimer, 1972, p. 242). Therefore, the “real social function of philosophy” was to develop a critique of itself and the prevailing social conditions not by a priori moral principles but by focusing on concrete relationships and contradictions in society for a “better order of things” (Horkheimer, 1972, p. 212).

Habermas and Critical Theory

Habermas (1972, 1979, 1984, 1985) is the most well-known of the second-generation critical theorists and his views have been the most influential in international relations. Habermas continues the critique of reason and rationality initiated by the Frankfurt School developing and remolding it into new dimensions. His theory of communicative action, discourse ethics, and analysis of the relation between knowledge and human interests have proven to be very productive in understanding and evolving alternative critical positions within international relations.

The ideas of Habermas center around the radical democratization of society. In line with his ultimate belief in the ideals of Enlightenment, he believes that universal moral principles can be the basis of the resolution of conflicting claims concerning social and political life (Griffiths, O’Callaghan, & Roach, 2008, p. 61). Unlike the negativistic philosophy of Horkheimer and Adorno, Habermas treats modernity as an unfinished project and wishes to find a way that the promises of modernity could once again be realized. According to Habermas, although modernity has achieved technological progress, it has not yet brought freedom, solidarity, and human emancipation. Therefore, he seeks a path whereby freedom and progress can once again be united under modern conditions. He believes that historical materialism should also be reconstructed in a way that emphasizes on the potential for social communication and expansion of mutual understanding rather than labor as the rational guiding element of social and political organization. Classical Marxism elevated the importance of labor but ignored the significance of the symbolic reproduction of capitalism through communication. Accordingly, Habermas developed a paradigm communication to complement the paradigm of production, which is the focus of historical materialism.

One of the most significant contributions of Habermas in terms of developing his theory of communicative rationality was the move he made from a philosophy of consciousness to a philosophy of language, thus changing the focus of Western philosophy for the first time since Descartes (Habermas, 1984, 1985; Fluck, 2012). This implies a shift of emphasis from the subject, the main agent of Enlightenment philosophy, to intersubjectivity in which the communication between language users is the fundamental cognition (Fluck, 2012, p. 7; Alway, 1995, p. 107). Therefore, in Habermas’s theory of communicative action, it is not the “relation of a solitary subject” to an objective world but the subject-subject relation that primarily enables the conceptualization of a form of interaction which is communicative rather than instrumental (Alway, 1995, p. 129). This theory thus expands the conditions of rational decision making to form more inclusive and just communities not only within societies but, eventually, also between societies and states. The subject in this conceptualization is no longer concerned only with pursuing his own private interests but also interacts with other subjects to further common interests. Thus, communication itself becomes “a source of praxis, and therefore a means of emancipation” (Fluck, 2012, p. 1) and rational progress. Because it allows for the communication and understanding of diverse identities and interests, this conception also facilitates a pluralist understanding of social reality, therefore rendering Habermas’s position compatible with some of the ideas of post-modern thinkers without sacrificing reason as the basis of social organization.

Habermas bases his analysis on what he calls a “pure communicative sociation” defined as an Ideal Speech Situation, in which the actors can freely and truthfully communicate (Habermas, 1984, 1985). In this situation, the “force of the better argument” prevails. “The only regulations and ways of acting that can claim legitimacy are those to which all who are possibly affected could assent as participants in rational discourses” (Habermas, 1996, p. 458). Thus, rationality is formulated so that it does not solely imply a universality of norms but a discursive but nevertheless formal and procedural context of an ideal speech situation. History itself is reconceptualized as a collective learning process whereby the species not only acquires technical knowledge oriented to the instrumental domination of nature but also develops new norms of communication in the moral-practical sphere, avoiding the “asocial universalism of more traditional accounts of reason and progress” (Habermas, 1985, p. 148; Fluck, 2012, pp. 6–7).

Habermas links his views on communicative rationality to what he calls knowledge constitutive interests (Habermas, 1972), which pertains to the role of knowledge in achieving different forms of social arrangements. He argues that knowledge generated by positivism is not the only type of knowledge oriented to fulfill the needs of social life. Positivism conceives of social problems as technical problems that require technical solutions. However, knowledge of the social world should be based not only on social control but also on communication and human emancipation. Recognizing this problem, Habermas (1972) makes a distinction between different technical cognitive interests in which knowledge interests as the basis for controlling one’s environment, practical cognitive interests that seek to further intersubjective communication between different subjects, and emancipatory cognitive interests, a guiding communication that deals with the conditions of distorted communication and the conditions necessary to achieve autonomy and freedom.

Due to the limitation on the length of this work, a thorough critique of Habermas’ complex arguments cannot be presented; however, some of the criticisms from international relations scholars concerning the application of Habermas’ theory are presented below. One objection to his arguments has been whether his interpretation of Marx and historical materialism is a correct starting point from which to develop a critical theory of IR. Anievas for instance has argued that Habermas’ philosophy “reconceptualizes production relations as a dimension of consensual, norm-governed social interaction” and subsumes relations of production under the concept of communicative action (2010, p. 151). However, capitalist relations of production refer to underlying structures of inequality and irreconcilable social struggles that cannot be conceptualized as part of consensual relations (2010, p. 151; also see Callinicos, 1989, pp. 114–115). Indeed, other scholars have also joined this criticism in arguing that without altering the objective conditions underlying capitalism, it would be futile to expect changes in social reality as a result of intersubjective consensus or what Habermas would later call discourse ethics (Fluck, 2010, p. 264).

Habermasian Critical International Relations Theory: From Ashley to Linklater

Habermas’ theory of communicative action and his description of knowledge constitutive interests have been very influential in developing a normative/critical theory of international relations (Diez & Steans, 2005). In one of the first attempts to formulate a Habermasian inspired IR scholarship, Ashley in his Political Realism and Human Interests (1981) has used Habermas’ concept of knowledge constitutive interests to understand different traditions of IR. Following Habermas, Ashley starts with the assumption that “knowledge is always constituted in reflection of interests” (Ashley, 1981, p. 207). Then he makes a distinction between technical realism, practical realism and what he calls a dialectical competence model as reflecting different interests embedded within different traditions. According to Ashley, technical realism is represented in international relations by Neorealism, and it is oriented to the control of the international system by the most powerful. Practical realism is associated with an interest in communication and cooperation and is best represented by classical Realism and the arguments of the English school. Ashley argues that although practical realism is an advance over structural realism, it still shares many of the assumptions of the realist understanding of IR. The dialectical competence model on the other hand incorporates both technical and practical realism but goes beyond them in favor of a more emancipated form of international relations. However, Ashley’s dialectical competence model has been criticized for not being well developed. As Hoffmann argues in his evaluation of Ashley’s alternative, “While it is possible to indicate to a dialectical element in Ashley’s model, it is questionable if there is a critical or emancipatory component” (Hoffmann, 1987, p. 233). However, this initial attempt to develop a CIRT did make a very important contribution to IR critical theory in general. As Brincat notes, “The work of CIRT . . . offer(s) a number of advances on the sociology of the early [Frankfurt School], which was problematically confined to the examination of Euro- and state centric possibilities for emancipation” (Brincat, 2011, p. 218). “Ashley’s dialectical competence model,” Brincat argues, “overcame the tendency of the [Frankfurt School] towards an endogeneous, state focused and Euro-centric form of critical theorizing and offered a way for CT to revitalize the project of emancipation by taking into account global forces in the dialectic of oppression and emancipation” (Brincat, 2011, p. 237).

The most developed form of critical theory in international relations is the normative theory of Andrew Linklater (1990, 1998, 2001, 2007). The importance of critical theory for Linklater is to “facilitate the extension of moral and political community in international affairs” beyond the state and to “institutionalize cosmopolitan principles of morality” (Griffiths, 2007, p. 61). The existing system is based on ethical particularism and intersocietal estrangement (Devetak, 2013, pp. 171–173); therefore, it is necessary to form a more inclusive and just system based on new moral principles that advance the civilizing process in international relations. Based on, but extending Habermas’s concept of an ideal communication community, Linklater attempts to outline the conditions for the criticism that Marxism overemphasizes production, and he wants to develop a theory that is “beyond the paradigm of production,” one that is “deeply sensitive about all forms of inclusion and unjustified exclusion-domestic, transnational, and international” (Linklater, 2001, p. 25). For the realization of this project, Linklater envisages a “triple transformation” of the political community that is more universal, less unequal, and more sensitive to differences (Linklater, 2001, p. 25) and to human beings fears about injury, vulnerability and suffering (Linklater, 2006; Linklater & Suganami, 2006, p. 277). The realization of such a political community implies questioning the moral significance of national boundaries and developing a post national and postsovereign or post-Westphalian forms of life (Linklater, 2001).

Linklater utilizes the distinction that Wight (1991) made between realism, rationalism, and revolutionism to locate his arguments in the context of different Habermasian cognitive interests. For Linklater, and Ashley, realism is associated with technical interest, rationalism is associated with practical interest, and revolutionism is associated with emancipatory interests (Linklater, 1990, pp. 21–22; Linklater & Suganami, 2006; Devetak, 2013, p. 171). Linklater considers that globalization has significantly intensified the instances and possibilities of “transnational harm,” rendering nation states incapable of providing citizens with their basic needs of justice, social welfare, and physical security. Hence, there is an immanent possibility for the creation of a post- Westphalian community as represented by the European Union (Linklater, 1998).

Linklater’s critical project presents difficulties both at the theoretical and practical level, which are equally problematic in relation to the perspective taken by Habermas. One difficulty is the commitment to a form of rationality that assumes a universal subject committed to universal values. A central objection to this assumption is the totalizing nature of this reasoning bringing together diverse identities under one universal totality (Diez & Steans, 2005, pp. 134–136). This raises the issue of whether it is possible to conceive of a form of intersubjectivity that is sensitive to different voices leading to a common understanding.

A more crucial critique relates to the idealist conception of social change in Linklater’s normative project. The transformation of the political community toward more cosmopolitan forms of association is made possible through a learning process that has results, which are inevitably indeterminate (Linklater, 1998, p. 86). As Anievas indicates, “The material conditions necessary for any functioning dialogic community within and between political communities would necessitate some form of social struggle forcibly translating the existing social order. A forceless ‘force of the better argument’ is not much help achieving universal human emancipation” (Anievas, 2010, p. 154). Shilliam (2002, p. 3) also suggests that Linklater takes an “essentially metaphysical” conception of social struggle and resistance where the primary force for the resolution of conflicts is attributed to “moral capital.” These observations can be linked to an overall lack of sociological sensitivity in analyzing historical change in Linklater’s work. According to Avienas, Linklater’s arguments fail to specifically address the “material prerequisites” (e.g., the substantive levels of political, economic, racial, and gender equality) for “the force of the better argument” to be effective in a dialogic community and “detaches” emancipatory practices from the “material and social” relations of capitalism (2010, p. 154). In a similar vein, Norman Geras argues that social structures of capitalism do not make the participation of all classes possible in the discursive construction of norms (Geras, 1999, p. 163; Fluck, 2012, p. 11).

An unresolved tension exists between universality and difference in the foundation of the claims of discourse ethics. Theoretically, the arguments for communicative rationality aim to discover the universal conditions of communication to avoid the morally relativist posture of the postpositivist approaches. Poststructuralists have been particularly critical of attempts to reach consensus because they see this diversity as the basis of freedom and emancipation. Linklater has also been quite attentive to the way in which the standpoint of the “others” should be considered, arguing thus for a “historically self-conscious universalism” sensitive to differences (Diez & Steans, 2005, p. 135). However, as Shapcott argues, “The notion of emancipation is too culturally specific, reflecting only the values of the European enlightenment” and this leads “to a problematic universalism that threatens to assimilate and legislate out of existence all significant differences” (Shapcott, 2008, p. 336; see also Inayatullah & Blaney, 2004).

Another issue is the way different cultures or communities come to interact with each other to arrive at a common ground or consensus and how this interaction is to be conceptualized. Historical sociologists have for some time argued that this interaction is not between equal social circumstances but takes the form of an uneven and combined development. Furthermore, it is not possible to imagine a dialogue that does not take this structural unevenness as its initial premise. Allison and Anievas consider that concept—the uneven, multilinear, and interactive nature of social development—to have been neglected by Linklater (Allison & Anievas, 2010; see also Rosenberg, 2006). In other words, there is a Eurocentric bias in Linklater’s arguments, which “merely states a Euro-centric ‘inside-out’ bias by attributing the West’s development of higher levels of rationalization and morality to its own unique ability to learn and borrow from other cultures” (Anievas, 2010, p. 153). This results in a “rather ‘uncritical’ political project, often difficult to distinguish from ‘liberal’ IR analyses” (2010, p. 155).

Eckersley, in contrast, offers a critique on the Habermasian applications of Critical Theory from the perspective of green theory. Arguing that Habermas’ Critical Theory is “ultimately based on respect for the relative autonomy of the human subject,” she maintains that “the treatment of the other as moral subjects should be extended to nature, regardless of its level of communicative competence” (Eckersley, 1999, pp. 44–45).

At the practical level, the most obvious related difficulty is the various power differential in international society that makes negotiation and consensus difficult to achieve. In addition, the type of political activity required for the formation of a universal communication community is abstract and vague. Therefore, as Eckersley comments, it is not clear whether “the discourse ethic” is “always the best, or only, means for achieving transformation, or emancipation in general” (2008, p. 353).

Given the fact that historically universalistic discourses have been used as justifications for hegemonic projects, it is natural that universalistic aspirations are treated cautiously. As Shapcott states, “the necessity for state survival in an uncertain anarchic environment . . . provides a brake on universalizing forces that emerged from modernity, the Enlightenment and later globalization” (Shapcott, 2010, p. 66).

Structural Critical Theory

Structural critical theory is the other well-known line of critical thinking in IR that provides a more materialist and social-structural understanding of critical theory compared to those approaches influenced by the normative idealism of Habermasian critical theory. It is also different from other forms of critical IR approaches which define the social in intersubjective terms (such as constructivism). Structural critical theory in IR is generally associated with different forms of neo-Gramscian analysis (Cox, 1983; Burnham, 1991; Gill, 1993; Bieler, 2005; Bieler & Morton, 2003, p. 200; Morton, 2007) as well as with some recent historical sociological approaches that adopt different forms of Marxian historical materialism emphasizing the importance of production processes and of relations of production (van der Pijl, 1984; Rosenberg, 1994, 2006; van Apeldoorn, 2002, 2004; Teschke, 2003; Morton, 2013). Generally, these works are united in their critique of capitalism and the different forms of class, race, or gender inequality that it creates. Different works take different stances on the relation between structures and ideology and place different weights on the determinacy of structures versus ideas. What I call structural critical theory here is also particularly compatible with many of the assumptions of critical realism as a philosophy of science and differs in its assumptions both from the positivism of mainstream international relations as well as post positivist normative idealist positions such as those held by Linklater (Joseph, 2007; Joseph & Wight, 2010; Yalvaç, 2010; Apeldoorn, 2004).

The following two sections first outline neo-Gramscian theory and then consider the main issues involved in Marxist historical sociology. Viewed from the perspective of IR theory, the most important aspect of neo-Gramscianism is its understanding of state and hegemony. The way neo-Gramscians see these concepts provide alternative starting points for developing a CIRT (Cox, 1981, 1983, 1986; Joseph, 2000, 2008). In contrast to the mainstream, which has an abstract and ahistorical understanding of the state, the state is understood as a form of social (class) relation. In the mainstream, an ontological exteriority (Morton, 2013) is assumed in terms of its analysis of the relation of the state to the society ignoring the internal relation between the two. However, in the historical materialist analysis, the separation of the public from the private or the state from civil society is a structural aspect of the capitalist mode of production. Therefore, the state is not taken only in its institutional aspect but also in terms of its relations with other social forces in society and the way they influence the functioning of the state (Gramsci, 1971, p. 261). Thus, the class nature of the state can be understood from the way that the state maintains and supports the conditions necessary for the reproduction of the capitalist relations of production. Gramsci labels this unity of the political and civil society as the integral state “through which ruling classes organize their hegemony and moral superiority” (Gramsci, 1971, p. 258, 271).

The Gramscian understanding of hegemony is also different from its use in the mainstream. In contrast to the accounts proffered by (neo) realists, which define hegemony as the concentration of material power in one dominant state, hegemony is defined with reference to the social relations of production and the way dominant social classes organize their domination. Furthermore, hegemony is conceived not only in terms of force but also as consenting to the legitimacy of existing institutions with respect to the reproduction of the existing social relations of production (see Joseph, 2000, 2008 for a critical realist interpretation).

Neo-Gramscian thought entered international relations primarily through the work of Robert Cox (1981, 1983, 1986) who extended the Gramscian categories of analysis to international relations to develop an emancipatory approach to world politics. As opposed to the ‘deterministic and ahistorical’ analysis of the mainstream, the concern of Cox is to “provide . . . a non-deterministic yet structurally grounded explanation of change” (Germain & Kenny, 1998, p. 5). Cox also shares the concerns of the CT held by the Frankfurt School theorists about the way knowledge has been conditioned by the social, political, and historical context. Knowledge of international relations has become instrumental to furthering the interests of the dominant states that reflect the interests of their hegemonic classes. Cox generalizes the Gramscian concept of hegemony to cover not only systems of domination in domestic societies but also those in the international. Similar to Gramsci, he is more interested in the “social basis of hegemony” and “its inherent points or moments of contradiction” (Germain & Kenny, 1998, p. 6). According to Cox, world hegemonies are based on the universalization of the state-society complexes of a hegemonic state. Hegemony at the international level links the dominant mode of production within the world economy with “subordinate modes of production” thus connecting “the social classes of different countries” (Cox & Sinclair, 1996, p. 137). Like the domestic hegemony of a social class, world hegemony of a state is not only based on force but also on consent and its acceptance as legitimate by those participating in the system. Hegemony within a world order is consequently “based on a coherent conjunction or fit between a configuration of material power, the prevalent collective image of world order (including certain norms) and a set of institutions which administer the order with a certain semblance of universality” (Cox, 1981, p. 139).

Cox developed what he calls a world structures approach to analyze different world orders (1981, 1989). To overcome the limitations of a state centric approach, he applies this method to the following three levels or spheres of activity: (a) organization of production, more particularly with regard to the social forces engendered by the production process; (b) forms of states, which are derived from the study of different state/society complexes; and (c) world orders, that is, the particular configurations of forces. The dialectical relation between these three different levels of activity constitutes different historical structures. Each of these structures, in turn, is affected by a configuration between dominant ideas, institutions, and material capabilities. These elements are irreducible and dialectically related and concretized in each of the elements of the historical structures (social forces, forms of states and world orders) forming different world hegemonies.

At the core of these different world hegemonies is a dominant structure of accumulation, which is then projected outside state boundaries by a hegemonic class with the help of an increasingly internationalizing state apparatus. The hegemonic class disseminates and consolidates its ideology through different international organizations (e.g., the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, G8, and United Nations), this leads to the formation of a nascent global civil society (also see van der Pijl, 1984; Gill & Law, 1988; Gill, 1993). Together, these transnational forces exert pressure on other states to adopt the accumulation strategies of the hegemonic state. These states become “transmission belts” (Cox, 1981, 1989) between the hegemon and their domestic societies and become part of the hegemonic structure of the world system. Modern world history is then periodized with respect to different hegemonies such as Pax Britannica and Pax Americana. The internationalization of production has led to the formation of a new class of transnational labor, thus creating new forces for antihegemonic struggles. However, according to Cox, as the working classes are still nationally organized, antihegemonic struggles are bound to begin within national societies.

Cox’s approach has attracted a variety of criticism. For example, Teschke (2008, p. 174) argues that there is a problem with Cox’s concept of structures of accumulation, which he uses instead of Marx’s concept of mode of production. These structures of accumulation, the starting point of Cox’s analysis, are actually “historical variations” within the capitalist mode of production but these are taken as given by Cox and not properly theorized. Teschke, therefore, criticizes Cox for taking the development of capitalism in a preconstituted state system without questioning its formation. Cox is also criticized for emphasizing interruling class relations and ideology formation rather than class conflict as the primary contradiction of capitalism leading to a lack of understanding of its main dynamics (Teschke, 2008, pp. 173–175). Another criticism is related to the presence of an inherent Eurocentrism in Cox’s approach in his explanation of the geographical expansion of capitalism from the West to the East (Hobson, 2007).

Marxist international historical sociology has revised some of the unfinished themes in Marx’s work and incorporated the dynamics of the interstate system in the analysis of the reproduction and contradictions of capitalism (Wallerstein, 1974; Lacher, 2002, 2006; Morton, 2007a, 2007b; Teschke & Lacher, 2007). Indeed, the relation between capitalism, the state, and the state system is an extremely dynamic topic for discussion in international historical sociology. This topic contains an echo of some of the controversies of 1970s concerning the connection between the economic and the political—Althusserian totality. The focus of the current discussions is, however, an expanded understanding of the concept of totality, which now covers the whole world system rather than one nation state or society. Inevitably, this raised the relative autonomy versus determinism discussion that had previously been analyzed in the context of one state or society and elevated this discussion to a new context of an internationalized capitalism and its relation with geographical multiplicity.

In his early work, Justin Rosenberg (1994) developed an alternative Marxist analysis that argues for a structural correspondence between different geopolitical systems and different modes of production and/or social structures. According to Rosenberg, despite the presence of anarchy in most geopolitical systems, there is a “structural discontinuity” between pre- and modern capitalist systems. Both sovereignty and anarchy are “social forms arising out of the distinctive configuration of capitalist social relations” (1994, p. 172). Following Wood (1981, 2003), Rosenberg argues that, whereas precapitalist modes of production are based on personalized domination, the capitalist mode of production is characterized by an impersonal form of sovereignty resulting from the separation between the economic and the political in capitalism. It is this generalized differentiation between these two spheres within capitalism that creates an abstract understanding of the state and a realist discourse and makes independent power politics possible.

In his later work, rather than a structural analysis of the development of different state systems, Rosenberg (2006, 2010) altered his focus, attempting to integrate the international into social theory by developing Leon Trotsky’s concept of uneven and combined development (UCD). Rosenberg’s aim here is to develop an international dimension of social theorizing while at the same time advancing a social theory of the international (2006, p. 312, 313). Rosenberg utilizes UCD as a general transhistorical abstraction to explain the development of world history through the interactive dynamics of a multiplicity of political units and their uneven and combined development across time and space (2006, p. 312). The emphasis on “interactive multiplicity” allegedly avoids the universalist and essential assumptions of stadial conceptions of international development. Other scholars have joined Rosenberg in outlining different aspects of international development through the concept of UCD. For instance, Kamran Matin applied this concept to the process of state formation in premodern Iran (Matin, 2007) arguing that UCD provides “a deeper theoretical foundation for a non-Eurocentric international historical materialism . . . highlighting the constitutiveness of the international both to the emergence and the expansion of capitalism” (Matin, 2013, p. 370).

Political Marxists, in their effort to avoid accusations of developing transhistorical abstractions in their explanations of international relations, have advanced more historicist accounts of international development that focus on class and particularly on social property relations and the conflicts they create (Tecshke, 2014). The key thinker of Political Marxism in IR is Benno Teschke. In developing his views, Teschke starts from a philosophical divide within Marxist discussions between Critical Marxism and Scientific Marxism (Teschke, 2002, 2003, 2014). On one hand, the Scientific Marxists believe that Marxism is a science, and their paradigm is the mature political economy of Capital (Marx, 1977a

1. Biography

Max Horkheimer was born into a conservative Jewish family on February 14, 1895, the only son of Moritz and Babette Horkheimer. A successful and respected businessman who owned several textile factories in the Zuffenhausen district of Stuttgart (where Max was born), Moritz Horkheimer expected his son to follow in his footsteps. Thus Max was taken out of school in 1910 to work in the family business, where he eventually became a junior manager. During this period he would begin two relationships that would last for the rest of his life. First, he met Friedrich Pollock, who would later become a close academic colleague, and who would remain Max’s closest friend. He also met Rose Riekher, who was his father’s personal secretary. Eight years Max’s senior, a gentile, and of an economically lower class, Riekher (whom Max called “Maidon”) was not considered a suitable match by Moritz Horkheimer. Despite this, Max and Maidon would marry in 1926 and remain together until her death in 1969 (Wiggerschaus 1994, p. 41–44).

In the spring of 1919, after failing an army physical, Horkheimer began studies at the University of Munich, and transferred to the University of Frankfurt a semester later. At Frankfurt he studied psychology and philosophy, the latter with the neo-Kantian philosopher Hans Cornelius. He also spent a year, on Cornelius’s recommendation, studying in Freiburg with Edmund Husserl. After an abortive attempt at writing a dissertation on gestalt psychology, Horkheimer, with Cornelius’s direction, completed his doctorate in philosophy with a dissertation titled The Antinomy of Teleological Judgment. Upon completion of the degree he was offered an assistantship under Cornelius, and thus definitively set off on an academic career rather than continuing in his father’s business. In 1925 Horkheimer completed his Habilitation with a work titled Kant’s Critique of Judgment as a Link between Theoretical and Practical Philosophy, and took a position as Privatdozent, or lecturer, at Frankfurt. During this time he would lecture extensively on 18th and 19th Century philosophy, with his research interests moving more in line with Marxian themes (Wiggerschaus 1994, p. 44–47).

The most important moments of Horkheimer’s early academic career would come in 1930. In July he was appointed Professor of Social Philosophy at Frankfurt, and in October made the director of the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute of Social Research). The Institute began as a Marxist study group started by Felix Weil, a one-time student of political science at Frankfurt who used his inheritance to fund an institution that would support his leftist academic aims. Along with Pollock (who also completed a doctorate in Frankfurt, writing on Marx), Horkheimer became acquainted with Weil, and took part in the activities of the Institute from the beginning. The Institute formally opened in 1924 under the direction of the Austrian Marxist scholar Carl Grünberg, who became ill quickly after taking the post. While Pollock was more closely associated with the Institute during the Grünberg period, he supported his friend for the directorship (on the early history of the Institute, see Jay 1996, ch. 1). On January 24, 1931, Horkheimer delivered his inaugural lecture for the chair of social philosophy and directorship of the Institute, titled “The Present Situation of Social Philosophy and the Tasks of an Institute for Social Research.” This lecture, and several essays written by Horkheimer in the early 1930s, would develop a conception of interdisciplinary social research that was meant to guide the activities of the institute during Horkheimer’s tenure as director.

This program was obstructed from the very beginning by social-political unrest. In 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. Shortly after Hitler was named Chancellor in 1933, the Institute in Frankfurt was closed and its building seized by the Gestapo. Horkheimer was also relieved of his professorship and directorship in early 1933, and relocated to Geneva, where the Institute had opened a satellite office. In 1934 Horkheimer moved to New York, where one of Pollock’s assistants had been negotiating an agreement for the Institute with the department of sociology at Columbia University. In July of 1934 Horkheimer accepted an offer from Columbia to relocate the Institute to one of their buildings. Having received American citizenship in 1940, Horkheimer would continue to live and work largely in New York until 1941, when he moved to the Los Angeles area (for a thorough history of the development of Horkheimer’s thought up to this point, see Abromeit 2011). With the Institute splintering between New York and California, Horkheimer concentrated his energies on his own work, including the collaborative efforts with Theodor Adorno that produced Dialectic of Enlightenment.

With the end of WWII, Horkheimer gradually considered moving back to Germany. In April 1948, he returned to Europe for the first time, to lecture in various cities, including as a visiting professor in Frankfurt. His full return to Germany would follow shortly, and in July 1949 he was restored to his professorship at the University of Frankfurt. The following year the Institute would return as well. After returning, Horkheimer would focus on administrative work, reestablishing the Institute and serving two terms as University Rector in the early 1950s. In 1953 he was awarded the Goethe Plaque of the City of Frankfurt, and would later be named honorary citizen of Frankfurt for life. His academic activities also continued throughout the 1950s, and included a period during which he served as a regular visiting professor at the University of Chicago. His work would slow, however, once he retired in 1958 to the Swiss town of Montagnola. Max Horkheimer passed away on July 7, 1973, at the age of 78.

2. Materialism and The Early Program of the Institute of Social Research

The theoretical viewpoint that oriented the work of the Institute of Social Research, most famously known as “critical theory,” was largely developed by Horkheimer in various writings in the 1930s (most of which were published in the Institute’s journal, the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung).[1] In the earliest works Horkheimer used the term “materialism,” rather than critical theory, to name his philosophical viewpoint. Though his early texts do not directly mention Marx as much as one might expect (perhaps for reasons of political expediency), it is clear that this theory draws great inspiration from Marxian thought (see Borman 2017 for further discussion of Horkheimer’s early materialism and its connection to Marx). Horkheimer’s materialism is not systematically presented in those early essays; rather the epistemological, methodological, and moral concepts that were to orient the work of the Institute are developed through a variety of texts. What follows is an attempt at a reconstruction of Horkheimer’s program for the Institute, which draws on elements from various essays of the early 1930s.

One can begin to piece together Horkheimer’s materialist method by examining the 1931 inaugural address. There he presents most of the main themes of his early philosophy in the context of describing what the Institute was to accomplish under his leadership. As he notes at the beginning, social philosophy must interpret the various phenomena associated with human social life. But along with this fairly obvious point, he asserts that “social philosophy is confronted with the yearning for a new interpretation of a life trapped in its individual striving for happiness” (p. 7). This introduces perhaps the most fundamental element of Horkheimer’s view. Social philosophy must connect with the practical aim of alleviating suffering. But it is, after all, still a theoretical enterprise, and he would emphasize that the work of the Institute would amount to “a reformulation...of the old question concerning the connection of particular existence and universal Reason” (pp. 11–12). Along with the emphasis on suffering, the proper interpretation of reason would play a crucial role in Horkheimer’s thought.

Early in the inaugural address he lays out a quick, and critical, history of modern German social philosophy that fixes on Hegel. Hegelian social philosophy is criticized for “transfiguring” oppression; individual human experience, with all its suffering, is given sense insofar as it is fit within a rational, overarching conception of the movement of the “eternal life of Spirit” (pp. 4–5). Horkheimer rejects this kind of metaphysical view because it seeks to cover over the reality of human suffering. But he is not unreservedly critical of metaphysics. After criticizing Hegelian social philosophy, he notes that in reaction certain strands of social research eschewed philosophy entirely. This leads to Horkheimer’s criticism of the excessive specialization of the (in this case social) sciences. Due to this specialization, scientific researchers omit any broader examination of the social roots, and social meaning, from their inquiry. At least metaphysical thinking recognizes the need to present a comprehensive view that can make sense of the social whole. The twin critiques of metaphysics and science provide a space for Horkheimer to present his own view. The aim of materialist social research is to combine specific empirical studies with more comprehensive theorizing, and thus overcome these problems. Horkheimer finishes by noting that this research will be aimed at the elucidation of the links between economic structure, psychology, and culture, such that the work of various social scientists and theorists can be brought together to forge an empirically informed picture of society that might replace such previous metaphysical categories as Universal Reason or Spirit.

Thus construed, we can use the themes presented in the inaugural address as a guide for the further examination of Horkheimer’s early thought. Four elements become key: the emphasis on suffering and happiness, the role rationality plays in emancipatory movements, the combined critiques of metaphysics and positivism, and the methodology of interdisciplinary social research. Each of these four is examined in more depth in the four subsections below.

2.1. Suffering and the Desire for Happiness

As noted, the rejection of Hegelian social philosophy in the inaugural lecture is tied to a broader rejection of metaphysics, which will be discussed in more detail in §2.2. At the root of the rejection of “transfiguration,” however, is a very basic point. No social philosophy that denies the singular import of suffering, and the corresponding desire to overcome that suffering, can properly grasp human social reality. Thus, in the 1933 essay “Materialism and Metaphysics” Horkheimer writes that “man’s striving for happiness is to be recognized as a natural fact requiring no justification” (p. 44). Prior to any critique of metaphysics, materialism rests on the basic recognition of suffering and the desire for happiness. Suffering and happiness are in some sense “properly basic”; their significance is evident, in no need of justification, and foundational to materialist social theory.

The talk of both “suffering” and “happiness” suggests that Horkheimer oscillated between pessimistic and optimistic renderings of this foundational idea. The pessimistic side of this view, with its conception of human life as shared suffering, was present in Horkheimer’s thought from very early in his life. In the novellas and diary entries written from 1914–1918 and later published as Aus der Pubertät (From Puberty), this pessimism is prominent (see Schmidt 1993, 25–26). This is in part due to the early influence of Schopenhauer’s “metaphysical pessimism” on Horkheimer’s thought, and Horkheimer himself would emphasize that Schopenhauer was his first philosophical role model (Horkheimer 1968, p. ix). It is noteworthy (especially given the link here to Horkheimer’s critique of metaphysics), that for Schopenhauer this “metaphysical” view is tied to the concrete need to interpret the world in a way that can help humans understand and deal with their suffering (on this point, and Horkheimer’s relation to Schopenhauer’s thought in general, see Schmidt 1993). Metaphysical or not, this view is based on the notion that life is marked by pain. The optimistic rendering comes to the fore in the above quote from “Materialism and Metaphysics” insofar as the desire for happiness is emphasized. But the optimism should not be overestimated, because happiness is construed in a solely negative manner. The oppressed are motivated not by some positive conception of happiness, but by the hope of freedom from suffering. This individual desire for happiness can further manifest itself as the moral sentiment of compassion, wherein we desire the happiness of others (Horkheimer 1933b, pp. 34–35).[2] The desire to overcome one’s own suffering, combined with the feeling of compassion, should help motivate the oppressed to join together to work for positive social change. But even this optimistic note is tinged with a pessimistic note, as “the aim of a future happy life for all” arises only “out of the privation of the present” (Horkheimer 1933b p. 34); it is the existence of current shared suffering that could lead to revolutionary social change.

Along with Schopenhauer, Horkheimer’s thoughts on suffering owe a great deal to Freud. The notion that human beings have an inner drive to overcome suffering is taken from Freud’s early libido theory (see Held 1980, pp. 43–44 and 197–198). Horkheimer’s most direct analysis of Freud in the 1930s is found in “Egoism and Freedom Movements” (especially pp. 103–106), and the Freudian conception of inner drives will further mark Horkheimer’s later work, as will be shown in §4.2 below. In the 1930s Horkheimer was also influenced by Erich Fromm, who was a member of the Institute at the time; for example, shortly after the claim in “Materialism and Metaphysics” that the desire for happiness is a natural fact, Fromm’s work is referenced. It is noteworthy in this regard that Fromm’s work from this period aimed to broadly draw together Freudian and Marxian views. This connection can be seen in the link between the desire for happiness and emancipation, as discussed in the next section.

2.2 Reason and Emancipation

When focusing on the affective nature of suffering, happiness, and compassion in Horkheimer’s view, one might get the sense that he is relying on a sort of emotivism that shuns reason. But there is a strongly rationalistic strand present in Horkheimer’s early work that is tied directly to his views on positive social change. In fact, he describes suffering as resulting from a lack of rational social organization, and proposes that any attempt to improve society must involve making it in some way more rational. This view is in turn tied to the broadly Marxian element in Horkheimer’s early work, as capitalism is criticized for creating the irrational social conditions that lead to suffering.

To a large extent, this problem of irrationality is described as a social coordination problem. Insofar as it is individual human beings who suffer, and who desire happiness, individual welfare is a crucial matter. This is made clear by the critique of Hegelian “transfiguration,” which is problematic partly because it subsumes individual suffering and happiness within the absolute. At the same time, individual welfare is still dependent upon a broader social basis, so the life of society as a whole is pertinent to the search for happiness. But capitalism has created a situation wherein people are made to focus on their own individual welfare, without considering anything other than “the conservation and multiplication of their own property” (1933b, p. 19). Social needs are thus handled through various disorganized activities focused on individual needs, which in turn inadequately deals with the social basis of individual welfare, thus detracting from individual welfare. This kind of critique is found in some form in many of Horkheimer’s early essays (see, for example, 1934c, pp. 247–250 and 1935b, pp. 162–170).

Such an argument is made particularly clearly in “Materialism and Morality,” where Horkheimer discusses idealist, and predominantly Kantian, conceptions of morality. One main thread of the rather intricate argument made there is that there is a tension in Kant’s view, insofar as he places a radical emphasis on the individual will, but also makes that will beholden to the universal law described in terms of the kingdom of ends. This tension supposedly comes from the bourgeois socio-economic context in which Kant lived:

The categorical imperative holds up a “universal natural law,” the law of human society, as a standard of comparison to this [bourgeois] natural law of individuals. This would be meaningless if particular interests and the needs of the general public intersected not just haphazardly but of necessity. That this does not occur, however, is the inadequacy of the bourgeois economic form: there exists no rational connection between the free competition of individuals as what mediates and the existence of the entire society as what is mediated...This irrationality expresses itself in the suffering of the majority of human beings...This problem, which only society itself could rationally solve through the systematic incorporation of each member into a consciously directed labor process, manifests itself in the bourgeois epoch as a conflict in the inner life of its subjects. (pp. 19–20)

This passage makes it clear that the coordination problems associated with the “bourgeois epoch” (i.e. the capitalist period) are problems of irrationality. Furthermore, it makes clear that the solution to these problems is to be found in the formation of a more rational social order, which is described in terms of a socialist planned economy. This point, then, provides the space where Horkheimer can link his own materialist theory, and the work of the Institute, to the broadly Marxian aim of emancipation through overcoming the capitalist order. Because “the wretchedness of our own time is connected with the structure of society” (1933b, 24) a social theory that could make that structure’s irrationality explicit could help overcome that wretchedness. Furthermore, that irrationality needs to be made explicit to the classes who suffer the most from it, so they can take proper action. So Horkheimer’s view connects generally to the Marxian view of the proletariat as a critical force in history, but unlike (on certain interpretations, at least) Marx, he does not see history as necessarily moving the proletariat to “critical consciousness” because of the irrationality inherent in capitalist socio-economic arrangements. Rather, various social and economic forces keep the proletariat from recognizing its potential; for example there is a split between the unemployed, who suffer most from capitalism but are disorganized, and the workers who can be organized, but fear losing their jobs (Horkheimer 1934a, 61–65). The proletariat requires the help of the theorist. That theorist must engage in a special kind of activity, however, which (as the next section will show) must steer clear of two opposing errors.

2.3 Critiques of Metaphysics and Science

One can get a sense of what Horkheimer means when criticizing metaphysics by looking at “Materialism and Metaphysics.” There metaphysics is described in relation to Wilhelm Dilthey’s doctrine of “world views.” For Dilthey, human beings engage in metaphysics in an attempt to explain the enigmatic elements of human life. In this attempt, certain characteristics of experience are emphasized and developed into coherent world views that have putatively universal validity, and describe the significance of the world and human life (pp. 10–17). So “metaphysics,” in this sense, amounts to a kind of intellectualized, theoretically elaborated attempt at turning partial, finite experiences into a comprehensive view of nature and human experience.

For Horkheimer, theories of this type are in part problematic because “knowledge of the infinite must itself be infinite” (Horkheimer 1933a, p. 27). But human beings are only capable of finite knowledge, and can only pay attention to changing historical conditions. If insights into the absolute are impossible, there is no known ultimate order of things that grounds all other forms of knowledge. Along these lines Horkheimer criticized Max Scheler’s metaphysical anthropology for holding that all human works and achievements could be described in terms of some basic structure of human nature (Horkheimer 1935b, p. 153). Rather than pursuing an interest in understanding human existence, Horkheimer argues, metaphysics obscures the proper understanding of human life. Many of Horkheimer’s early essays aim to show how the works of various philosophers, past and present, are troubled in this way. For example, along with the criticism of Dilthey in “Materialism and Metaphysics” and the criticism of Scheler in “Remarks on Philosophical Anthropology,” there are (among others) critiques of this type that attack Kant in “Materialism and Morality,” and Henri Bergson in “On Bergson’s Metaphysics of Time.”

In each case, however, Horkheimer was not solely critical, and there is a positive element that Horkheimer finds in metaphysics that serves as a transition to his critique of science. For example, in the 1932 essay “Notes on Science and the Crisis,” he applauds “postwar metaphysics, especially that of Max Scheler” for developing “a method less hindered by conventional narrowness of outlook” (p.6). Similarly, in the 1934 essay “The Rationalism Debate in Contemporary Philosophy,” Horkheimer agrees with Dilthey and Bergson (and also Nietzsche, all three under the aegis of Lebensphilosophie) insofar as they critique scientism and formalistic rationalism. Metaphysics is, in general, right to try to engage in some form of synoptic theorizing, although it takes it too far. But the opposite extreme, of which Scheler, Dilthey, and Bergson are critical, fits with Horkheimer’s conception of the state of the sciences.

The critique of the sciences developed in the early texts moves along two lines. First, the sciences are criticized for being overly specialized. For example, in the inaugural address Horkheimer complains of “chaotic specialization” (p. 9). The danger of focusing on technical minutiae is that researchers become insulated from one another, and lose the ability to use one another’s resources. The result is a lack of unification and overall direction. Just as he favors a planned economy, Horkheimer wants the “setting of tasks” in scientific research to be brought under rational control, so empirical researchers can work together toward broader ends. Second, as noted in “Notes on Science and the Crisis,” science “has no realistic grasp of that comprehensive relationship upon which its own existence and the direction of its work depends, namely, society” (p. 8). All human work, be it in the sciences or anything else, depends on a broader context which supports it, and the activities that are associated with the social interests prevalent at any given time affect the direction of scientific research. There is no “view from nowhere” from which empirical research begins, but only socially situated standpoints. Horkheimer expands on this point to argue that when empirical research misses its social roots, it also misses the effects the “direction of its work” might have on society. Science has a responsibility to society that can only be filled if its various research efforts are knit together within a more comprehensive framework that takes society and its improvement as its object.

This is largely repeated in other works that criticize “positivism.” The fact that the Frankfurt School mounted a strong critique of positivism is quite well known, in part because of the so-called “Positivismusstreit” of the 1960s, and Horkheimer also uses the term frequently, especially in his later works. The critiques of science and positivism make the same basic points.[3] Consider the critique of logical positivism in the 1937 essay “The Latest Attack on Metaphysics.” There Horkheimer argues that insofar as logical empiricism “holds only to what is, to the guarantee of facts” (pp. 133–134), it tries to insulate the individual sciences from broader interpretation. Thus positivism disconnects science from society and robs it of its emancipatory possibilities, because brute facts can only grasp the present, and the possibility for changing the status quo in the future is lost.

The crucial point to note is that the critiques of metaphysics and science work together, and are meant to open up a space between the two where materialist social research should operate. Philosophy maintains metaphysics’ goal of producing a synoptic view of human life, but it does so in a merely provisional way, which is open to empirical research that genuinely follows the contours of history. Science, on the other hand, maintains its rigorous empirical methods, but must open itself up to the role it plays in the broader social framework. In the inaugural address, Horkheimer thus claims that there must be a “continuous, dialectical penetration and development of philosophical theory and specialized scientific practice” (p. 9).

2.4 The Epistemology and Methodology of Interdisciplinary Research

Horkheimer’s conception of interdisciplinary social research is rooted in, broadly construed, both empiricist and realist views. Horkheimer speaks often of such research as aiming at “facts,” as seen in §2.1 when he refers to the desire for happiness as a natural fact. This connects to a kind of realism seen most directly in the 1935 essay “On the Problem of Truth.” “Materialism” he tells us, “insists that objective reality is not identical with man’s thought,” and truth is determined by the “relation of the propositions to reality” (pp. 189, 194). But this realism has to be qualified; materialism is distinguished from idealism through the appeal to an objective reality outside of our thinking, but it is further separated from metaphysical realism by its recognition that our knowing is historically bounded. Along these lines, Horkheimer admits to holding to a correspondence theory of truth, but notes that:

This correspondence is neither a simple datum [nor] an immediate fact...Rather, it is always established by real events and human activity. Already in the investigation and determination of facts, and even more in the verification of theories, a role is played by the direction of attention, the refinement of methods, the categorical structure of the subject matter—in short, by human activity corresponding to the given social period. (p. 190)

Here we find Horkheimer’s epistemological considerations echoing his critique of science. Presumably the “real events and human activity” that grasp objective truth involve empirical research. But because (as discussed in the critique of science) empirical research is always tied to a social context, one must see that the truths it reveals are conditioned by the “human activity corresponding to the given social period.” Knowledge is always affected by the historical changes in our methods noted. But more than theoretical or methodological changes that shift scientific theories, Horkheimer sees knowledge as being marked by our practical interests. This is why a strong metaphysical conception of reality is unavailable to us; all thinking is marked by practical and theoretical interests that are partial and subject to historical change.

But this point cannot be taken too far; truth is neither wholly determined by our practical interests nor by theory-dependent conditions of verification. When it is claimed that truth is dependent on the “relation of propositions to reality,” Horkheimer means both of those to be given equal weight. While the weight put on “propositions” (or better, human conceptual activity) removes the possibility of a metaphysical theory of reality, it does not remove reality. But because all inquiry into truth is historically and socially mediated, it is constantly open to adjustment. This points out why the “continuous, dialectical penetration” of philosophy and science spoken of in the inaugural address is necessary. Objective truths have to be grasped empirically, and the work of the specialized sciences is thus necessary to determine the truth of the current state of society. But “truth is advanced” only when “human beings who possess it stand by it unbendingly, apply it and carry it through, act according to it, and bring it to power against the resistance of reactionary, narrow, one-sided points of view” (Horkheimer 1935a, p. 4). This requires that empirical research be saved from “chaotic specialization,” and interpreted through an adequate theoretical framework. It is noteworthy in this regard that toward the end of the inaugural lecture, Horkheimer states that it is appropriate for the head of the Institute to also hold a chair in social philosophy, as was not the case with his predecessor who worked in the “specific discipline” of political economy. For Horkheimer, it was properly the job of the philosopher to plan out and guide the interdisciplinary work of the Institute.

Historical exigencies kept the Institute’s early researchers from implementing this program. They did press on with their empirical and theoretical efforts during the time of upheaval in the 1930s, producing various small studies in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, and the larger Studies on Authority and the Family. It is clearly the case, however, that there were many difficulties in carrying out the empirical research that was used in those studies (see the historical discussion of this period in Wiggerschaus 1994, 149–156). Even if we set aside the historical difficulties that beset the Institute during this time, there is still reason to question whether Horkheimer’s interdisciplinary program could have been carried out successfully. One might doubt, for example, that the philosophers who formed the core of the Frankfurt School, including Horkheimer himself, were actually open enough to the sciences. Jay 1996 (pp. 130–131), Wiggerschaus 1994 (p. 151), and Wolin 1992 (pp. 56–58), argue that they were not, such that their theoretical works (especially in Studies on Authority and the Family) were not really integrated with the empirical studies. Perhaps more damningly, Bonß 1993 argues that this failure comes from faults internal to Horkheimer’s methodological and epistemological considerations such that “the interdisciplinary claim amounts to no more than an external formula for integration” (p. 118). This seems fair insofar as Horkheimer spent a great deal of energy claiming that empirical and theoretical research should be combined, and explaining why they should be combined, but did very little to explain how they would be so combined. It remains to be shown if one might reactivate Horkheimer’s intentions while providing a better explanation of how such integrated research might actually work. Clearly, however, Horkheimer would come to gradually doubt the efficacy of such a program; one can begin to trace out this shift by examining the 1937 essay “Traditional and Critical Theory” (this separation of the 1937 essay from the earlier “materialist” works roughly follows arguments in Dubiel 1985).

3. “Traditional and Critical Theory”: Summation and Dissolution of the Early Program

To an extent, Horkheimer’s materialist theory is encapsulated in his most famous and widely-read essay from the 1930s, “Traditional and Critical Theory.” The essay is often referred to as being “programmatic,” highlighting the notion that it summarizes the philosophical and methodological views that were meant to guide the work of the Institute (see, for example, Schmidt 1993, p. 34, and Ingram 1990, p. 108). This is not wrong, but can be misleading if overemphasized. At the same time as it summarizes the earlier work, “Traditional and Critical Theory” evinces a transition to Horkheimer’s later critiques of reason and enlightenment (a similar point is made in Benhabib 1986, pp. 149–163). The most obvious change occurs in the name Horkheimer gives to his favored view, as he shifts from “materialism” to “critical theory.” But the changes are more than cosmetic. For example, the critique of “traditional theory” subtly shifts the terms of the critiques of metaphysics and positivism. Also, the role of the theorist vis-a-vis society changes. In part, this prefigures later views.

The titular forms of theorizing correspond (as noted at the beginning of the 1937 “Postscript,” p. 244) to those found in Descartes’ Discourse on Method and Marx’s critique of political economy, respectively. So the overarching point of the essay can be summarized fairly succinctly; it describes a form of “traditional” theory that follows Descartes’ methodology, examines the weaknesses of such theory, and then opposes to traditional theory a superior Marxian “critical” theory. The critique of traditional theory largely follows the earlier critique of the sciences and positivism, and in this sense is a summation. Again, the fact that the sciences do not recognize their presence in a broader social framework is emphasized. Traditional theory misses the fact that that “bringing hypotheses to bear on facts is an activity that goes on, ultimately, not in the savant’s head but in industry” (p. 196). “Savant” is the derisive term Horkheimer uses throughout the text to refer to the traditional theorist, and the savant does not recognize that the economic (and thus currently capitalist) structure of society shapes scientific work. The savant further misses the suffering caused by that social structure, and the fact that science is complicit in this oppression. Critical theorizing, on the other hand, is “a human activity which has society itself for its object” (p. 206); it overcomes the blindness of the savant by openly and purposely examining the way in which theory is immersed in a particular historical and social setting, and it seeks to critique that social setting for emancipatory effect. This relies on a form of immanent critique, tied to the suffering of the oppressed; the theorist must seize on the meaning of the experience of the oppressed and develop it into a coherent critique of existing society. To this end Horkheimer notes that if the critical theorist’s “presentation of societal contradictions is not merely an expression of the concrete historical situation but also a force within it to stimulate change, then [the critical theorist’s] real function emerges” (p. 215).

This general symmetry with the earlier program belies certain important changes to the theory, however. The very beginning of the text, which discusses traditional theory, shows a subtle shift from the earlier work. Traditional theory is first linked with the natural sciences, for which “theory” involves a set of logically linked propositions that are consonant with empirical facts. The logical coherence of such a set of propositions is then emphasized, and connected to Descartes’ method. Horkheimer goes on to suggest that such a conception of theory has an inherent tendency to move toward “a purely mathematical system of symbols.” Formal logic and reasoning thus become a main target of criticism. This is not a radical departure from Horkheimer’s earlier critique of science, since, for example, in “Notes on Science and the Crisis,” he objects to the rigid, mechanistic character of the scientific method. But the earlier texts focus more on a problem that is external to the sciences. There is no coherent “setting of tasks” prior to the engagement in empirical research, and the results of empirical research are not knit into a broader theory that can have emancipatory intent. The earlier essays largely ask for the sciences to go about their normal business within an interdisciplinary setting that would correct these problems. In “Traditional and Critical Theory,” on the other hand, the critique strikes more directly at the formalism inherent in the sciences’ own methodology, such that the problem is internal to the sciences. This provides one clear transitional point, insofar as formalism will be a primary object of critique in Horkheimer’s writings from the 1940s.

Another interesting shift is that the critique of metaphysics largely falls out of the picture. For some commentators, metaphysics is folded, along with science, into traditional theory (see Brunkhorst 1993, 74). But this does not seem entirely correct, because in the midst of criticizing positivism, Horkheimer notes that there is, “lurking” in positivism’s emphasis on facts, “something like a reaction against the alliance of metaphysics and oppression” (p. 232). This claim hearkens back to the notion, described in places like “Materialism and Metaphysics,” that scientific attention to facts, when properly construed within materialist research, can keep philosophy from overlooking actual human suffering. But such references are few, and Horkheimer does shift the discussion of science in such a way that it takes over parts of his earlier critique of metaphysics. For example, he criticizes the sciences, in a manner that is not common in earlier essays, for the way they subsume facts under universal concepts (pp. 224–226). This critique of universal concepts is tied to the critique of formalism; Horkheimer finds fault in the fact that the sciences relate facts to concepts in terms of the “relation of classes to instances” which can be “accomplished by a simple deduction” (p.225). Critical theory is then contrasted with this overly simplified universal-particular relation insofar as it constantly reexamines the relation of facts to universal concepts, and sees them as fitting together in a dynamic relationship that must be carefully charted. The implication is that logical formalism leads the sciences to form static universals into which all particulars can be neatly placed. Since the sciences are attending to facts in engaging in such an operation, the critique does not exactly match up with the criticism that metaphysics turns a blind eye to the world. But as those facts are misconstrued through formalism, the upshot of the critique is the same; actual social existence has not been adequately incorporated into theory because of the creation of a false universal. This formalism is contrasted with the fact that critical theory is “the unfolding of a single existential judgment” (p. 227). Displaying the contradictions inherent in capitalist society, and fixing on possibilities for emancipatory change, does not involve the scientific subsumption of facts within a logically ordered conceptual system. It rather involves unfolding and elaborating on an insight that one initially acquires simply by existing in (with “existing in” taken in the robust sense of living and acting in) that society.

The way this point is construed displays the most crucial difference between “Traditional and Critical Theory” and its antecedents. Horkheimer’s attitude toward the possibility of social change is less optimistic, and the critical theorist is described as having a somewhat antagonistic relationship with the oppressed. This fits with a general shift in the Frankfurt School’s work from the 1930s to the 1940s corresponding to a lack of faith in the possibility of emancipatory social change. In his 1937 essay “Philosophy and Critical Theory,” (which he wrote largely as a response to and counterpart with “Traditional and Critical Theory”) Herbert Marcuse rhetorically asks what happens “if the development outlined by the theory does not occur? What if the forces that were to bring about the transformation are suppressed and appear to be defeated?” (Marcuse 1937, 63) “Traditional and Critical Theory” is worried precisely with these questions. For a variety of reasons, including obvious social and political exigencies, Horkheimer and his associates would become less and less confident that the oppressed classes could become a force for change. Horkheimer clearly did not believe that compassion and the desire to overcome suffering could, on their own, motivate social change. Consider the assertion in “Traditional and Critical Theory” that while the oppressed strive for happiness they do not know how to achieve it, so the theorist must step in and help the oppressed come to critical consciousness. “Even the situation of the proletariat is…no guarantee of correct knowledge” (pp. 211–215); the significance of suffering is not always evident to those who experience it, and it is the job of the social theorist to elaborate on this significance in such a way that it can have practical effect. “Traditional and Critical Theory” holds out the hope that this task is possible, but it is noteworthy that the critical theorist is described as being set over against the oppressed, as “it is the task of the critical theoretician to reduce the tension between his own insight and oppressed humanity in whose service he thinks” (p. 221).

Horkheimer would become less and less confident that the tension could be so reduced. He also ominously notes that while the “commodity economy” might at first usher in a period of progress, “after an enormous extension of human control over nature, it finally hinders further development and drives humanity into a new barbarism” (p. 227). This passage states the main themes that would dominate Horkheimer’s work in the 1940s, which would be marked by an increasing pessimism in the ability of rational, theoretical activity to halt that drive toward barbarism.

4. The Critique of Reason and the Domination of Nature

In the late 1930s, Horkheimer described all of his efforts as working toward a project on dialectical logic (Wiggerschaus 1994, 177). This “dialectics project” would, through many twists and turns, develop into ideas presented primarily in two books published in 1947. Horkheimer was the sole author of Eclipse of Reason, which appeared originally in English. The book incorporates and expands on a series of lectures delivered at Columbia University in 1944, and, as Horkheimer writes in its preface, presents “in epitome some aspects” of his work with Adorno from that time (p. vi). That work with Adorno would also produce Dialectic of Enlightenment, a collaborative text that was first published in 1947, after having been distributed as a limited edition typescript in 1944. It would become the most famous work of the “first generation” of the Frankfurt School, and is surely the work most commonly associated with Horkheimer’s name.[4] The rest of this section will review the major themes of Horkheimer’s work from the 1940s, considering both Dialectic of Enlightenment and Eclipse of Reason together.

4.1 The Critique of Instrumental Reason

It is noteworthy that the text of Eclipse would eventually be published in German as “Zur Kritik der instrumentellen Vernunft” (“On the Critique of Instrumental Reason”). Both Eclipse and Dialectic are nuanced texts that present a number of themes, but if there is one overarching theme to the work from the 40s it is, as that German title suggests, the critical description of how reason collapses into irrationality through its emphasis on instrumental concerns. What is at stake here is made most clear by the first chapter of Eclipse, which is straightforwardly titled “Means and Ends.” Instrumental reason is interested only in determining the means to a goal, without reasoning about ends in themselves. In Dialectic, the Enlightenment is largely equated with the advance of instrumental reason, and through instrumental reason, Enlightenment turns against itself. This is noted in the very beginning of the text: “Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity” (p.1).

While the strong emphasis on instrumental reason’s domination of nature (which will be more fully discussed in §4.2) is new to the work of the 1940s, it picks up on themes present in Horkheimer’s earlier work. A prominent component (particularly in Dialectic) of the critique of instrumental reason is a critique of formalistic rationality, which evokes the criticism of the Cartesian mathematical method in “Traditional and Critical Theory.” On the face of it, one might question the necessary link between “formal” and “instrumental.” But Horkheimer and Adorno equate formalism with the drive to make nature calculable, and calculability is assimilated to usefulness. Thus formalistic reason becomes a species instrumental reason. Along similar lines, the critique of positivism is repeated in Eclipse (pp. 40–62). All parts of nature that cannot be calculated and formalized fall out of the Enlightenment’s scientific picture of the world. This scientific picture is further reproduced through activities which seek to dominate nature, thus instrumental-scientific activity creates a reality to fit this picture. The inexorable drive of instrumental reason causes this distorted picture to be seen as the only true picture of the world (Horkheimer 1947a p. 33).

Moreover, all elements of society, not just scientific research, are touched by the progress of instrumental rationality. Motivated by self-preservation, people seek protection from various powerful groups (sometimes called “rackets,” see Schmid Noerr 2002, and Stirk 1992 ch. 6). Instrumental rationality causes society to fragment into these various competing cliques. But this fragmentation is attended by cultural homogenization, as displayed by the chapter in Dialectic titled “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” The general thrust of that chapter is that instrumental rationality has assimilated culture to an industrial model, which leads to a leveling and homogenizing of that culture. At points, this homogenizing move is described as though it is necessarily all-encompassing, as when the authors write that “anyone who resists can survive only by being incorporated. Once registered as diverging from the culture industry, they belong to it as the land reformer does to capitalism” (p. 104).

Eclipse also presents a slightly different view of instrumental reason, which is equated with “subjective reason,” and contrasted with “objective reason.”[5] At the beginning of “Means and Ends,” Horkheimer notes that “the average man will say that reasonable things are things that are obviously useful,” and then notes that it is through “classification, inference, and deduction…the abstract functioning of the thinking mechanism,” that one is to determine what is thus reasonable (p. 3). Usefulness is further equated with whatever works in favor of one’s self-preservation. This is why instrumental reason is subjective reason; it is thought oriented to the subject’s preservation. Objective reason (which Horkheimer largely associates with history’s great metaphysical systems from Plato to German Idealism), on the other hand, seeks to root truth and meaning, which should be the proper ends of thought, within some comprehensive totality. Objective reason is interested in ends, while subjective reason is interested only in means. Subjective reason thus falls into incoherence, because as the drive toward self-preservation becomes more and more all encompassing, any real conception of the significance of what is to be preserved is lost. Subjectivity is so oriented toward self-preservation that the drive toward self-preservation is the only end left. An interesting comparison can be drawn here with the earlier critique of capitalist social arrangements discussed in §2.2 above. There the similar point is made that the drive to fulfill self interests is ultimately self defeating. But there is a crucial difference; in the works from the 1930s this is clearly said to be the fault of irrationality, and it is supposed that more rational social arrangements could overcome the problem. In the works from the 1940s, rationality itself is impugned.

This description of subjective reason thus displays one way in which reason works against itself, and so falls into irrationality. A more famous way that this movement is displayed is through one of the primary themes of Dialectic, viz. that “myth is already enlightenment, and enlightenment reverts to mythology” (p. xviii). Myth is already enlightenment insofar as myths are already an attempt to control nature; “myth sought to report, to name, to tell of origins, but therefore also to narrate, record, explain” (p. 5). The interpretation of the Odyssey in Excursus I serves as a concrete example of this point. In general, the Odyssey maps out and rationally orders ancient myths, and shows how humanity, in the person of Odysseus, goes about submitting the mythological to rational control (pp. 35–40). Just as myth prefigured enlightenment, enlightenment in turn becomes myth insofar as our abstract categories become reified, leveling their relation to nature and thus making them untrue. This is the case, for example, with the formalistic scientific picture of the world mentioned above; “the mythical scientific respect of peoples for the given reality, which they themselves constantly create, finally becomes itself a positive fact, a fortress before which even the revolutionary imagination feels shamed as utopianism” (p. 33).

4.2 The Domination of Outer and Inner Nature

Instrumental rationality necessarily involves the domination of nature. Taken in its most straightforward sense, this point has become something of a commonplace. As the sciences developed during the enlightenment period (and earlier, insofar as myth was already enlightenment), technology also developed, at the service of self-preservation. Technology involves making over nature for human purposes. This movement ends up thwarting human preservation, however, insofar as the destruction of nature involves the destruction of humanity. This now fairly common line of critique is complicated in Horkheimer’s work from the 1940s, however, because instrumental rationality’s distortion of “outer nature” (nature taken in the most straightforward sense), is directly tied to the repression of “inner nature.”

The concept of “inner nature” is tied to the Freudian libido theory already mentioned in §2.1 above. Our inner life is most immediately, or “naturally,” marked by various drives, particularly the desire for pleasure (which would be akin to the desire for happiness discussed above). On the Freudian view ego development involves the suppression of these various drives (along these lines Horkheimer directly mentions Freud in Eclipse in discussing the way the child relates to the superego which embodies the principles of father-figures; see p. 75). While the development of the ego is necessary, undue repression of our inner drives leads to pathological results. In Excursus II of Dialectic, this repression of inner nature is related to Kant’s moral theory, insofar as it specifies that the will should follow reason against inclination. This complete denial of inclination by calculating reason finds its fullest expression (in an ironic suggestion that would surely horrify Kant) in the writings of the Marquis de Sade. Pleasure, in Sade’s orgies, is submitted to rigorous order, such that the rationalized pursuit of pleasure takes precedence over pleasure itself (pp. 66–69). And importantly in this case it is not only the inner desires that are subjugated; others people are subjugated in the process of subjugating pleasure to organization. This is one instance of Horkheimer and Adorno’s broader claim that the domination of nature leads to the domination of human beings.

The same points are made in Eclipse in the chapter “The Revolt of Nature,” where the domination of inner nature is described as following necessarily from the domination of outer nature. Instrumental reason leads us to dominate outer nature by taking outer nature to be meaningless apart from the way it can satisfy the prerogatives of our self-preservation. But this further requires that our desires must be construed in such a way that they can provide a clear guide for the technological and industrial activity that makes use of outer nature. In this case, “domination becomes ‘internalized’ for domination’s sake. What is usually indicated as a goal—the happiness of the individual, health, wealth—gains its significance exclusively from its functional potentiality” (p. 64). Lohmann 1993 suggestively sums up Horkheimer’s point by referring to the domination of outer and inner nature as a process of “desubstantialization” (p. 392). This connects clearly with the contrast between objective and subjective reason discussed above. Nature loses its objective meaning, or in this sense, its own “substance”; not only in the case of outer nature, but also in the case of inner nature, because of the functionalization of our desires and drives. Eclipse construes this in terms of a loss of autonomy, which would involve our creatively developing drives and desires into ideal ends that could orient the ways we act on our environments (see, for example, 66). This can make sense of the somewhat unique interpretation in Dialectic of Odysseus telling the cyclops that he is “Nobody” (p. 53). As we reduce our inner nature to instrumental functions, we lose any strong sense of self, and thus lack the inner substance in a manner that makes us, metaphorically, into nobodies.

4.3 Sources of Emancipation

The upshot of these views seems to be that reason is self-destructive in a way that limits the very possibility of a rational critique of reason. It is fairly common to interpret the work from the 1940s as being so totalizing in its critique that it closes all avenues for finding in reason the possibility for any emancipatory critique of society (Habermas is the most famous exponent of such a critique, see for example his 1984, pp. 366–399). One can certainly find much pessimistic rhetoric in both Dialectic and Eclipse that supports such a notion. But there are also elements of the text that hint at the possibility for positive social change, such that the emancipatory aim of earlier critical theory is not entirely lost.

The emancipatory aim is not lost, but it is perhaps obscured. In the first essay of Dialectic, it is noted that “a true praxis capable of overturning the status quo depends on theory’s refusal to yield to the oblivion in which society allows thought to ossify” (p. 33). That “theory” and “thought” are so emphasized is important. Relatedly, Horkheimer disavows, in the preface to Eclipse, the idea he should present a program of action, because “action for action’s sake is in no way superior to thought for thought’s sake, and is perhaps even inferior to it” (p. vi). This does not necessarily separate thought from action, of course, and the quote from Dialectic speaks of a “true praxis.” But genuinely emancipatory action is said to depend on correcting problems of thought first, such that Horkheimer would stress thought for thought’s sake. Correcting these problems would require freeing reason from instrumentality, which would mean eschewing formalism. But this does not mean eschewing reason, if there can be a kind of knowing that uses rational concepts while at the same time moving beyond the static form of concepts associated with scientific thinking. Such a view is closely associated with Adorno’s later work (see the entry in this encyclopedia on Adorno, Zuidervaart 2008). It is sometimes argued that the unusual literary style of Dialectic itself is meant to exemplify such an attempt at escaping the ossification of thought (for an interpretation that generally takes such a view, see Honneth 2007). Along somewhat similar lines, modern art might have emancipatory potential, in its ability to express something of the current state of society through means other than formal reasoning. This is, again, a view that is commonly associated with Adorno’s thought. But Horkheimer also presents such a view, especially in his 1941 essay “Art and Mass Culture.” There culture is criticized in a manner similar to the discussion of the culture industry in Dialectic, and a largely pessimistic picture of the restrictive and homogenizing role of contemporary mass culture is presented. But Horkheimer does note that some art can break free of this and still help the human being “conceive of a world different from that in which he lives.” Such works (Horkheimer mentions Joyce’s literature and Picasso’s Guernica) can do so only negatively, however, by displaying the difference between the human being and his or her “barbarous surrounding” (p. 278; on Horkheimer’s views on art see Jay 1993). In the case both of non-ossifying thought and modern art, the emancipatory potential is found only in traces, presented in an esoteric and perhaps abstruse manner. Such a conception of “emancipation” now seems to be somewhat separated from the experience of the proletariat, and is possibly evidence of elitism (see Heller 2002). Whatever one makes of these criticisms, it is clear that Horkheimer was less than sanguine regarding the possibility of positive social change.

Horkheimer does suggest another avenue for emancipatory social change, however. He notes in Eclipse that “there are some forces of resistance left within man,” and that “the spirit of humanity is still alive, if not in the individual as a member of social groups, at least in the individual as far as he is left alone” (p. 95). Unsurprisingly given the tone of the text as a whole, much of what follows that passage discusses the difficulty of separating oneself from the homogenizing forces of society. But Horkheimer does suggest that it is possible to engage in a kind of non-conformism (without much of a description of what it would be like), which comes through the “spontaneity of the individual subject” (p. 99). The emphasis on individual action is tempered, however, through the emphasizing of a point that brings the latter parts of Eclipse back to one of Horkheimer’s earliest views; solidarity can be formed through the experience of shared suffering, and philosophy should “translate what [those who suffer in the face of oppression] have done into language that will be heard” (p.109). How this happens is unclear, as is the connection between individual acts of non-conformism and solidarity. One might also doubt the reliance on the power of the compassion. For a thorough discussion of Eclipse that examines these potential problems, see Lohmann 1993. Whatever one makes of these points, it is clear that this emphasis on suffering is the thread that ties all of the periods of Horkheimer’s work together, as it would continue to be present in Horkheimer’s last works.

5. Late Work

With his return to Frankfurt the year after the publication of both Eclipse of Reason and Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer’s academic production would largely consist of essays and lectures. He also left a number of unpublished texts from the period, including a set of notes and aphorisms published shortly after his death (along with a set of aphorisms from the early 30s titled Dämmerung) under the name Notizen 1950 bis 1969. There is no real systematic unity to these writings (Habermas 1993, p. 51 even refers to them as “shot through with contradictions”), but there are common themes that can be explored.

One can, for instance, trace out Horkheimer’s late views on the tasks of critical theory. In a remark in Notizen from 1957–1958 titled “Critical Theory,” he pursues the idea mentioned in the preface to Eclipse that philosophy need not be immediately related to practical action. Philosophy “holds up a mirror to the world” but “it is no imperative” (p. 148). It is as though Horkheimer wants to guard against a caricature of his earlier views as blindly equating theory and practice. But there is also a very pessimistic note sounded when Horkheimer says that philosophy “has replaced theology but found no new heaven to which it might point, not even a heaven on earth” (p. 148). Horkheimer touches on these same themes in his 1956 conversations with Adorno in which they preliminarily discussed producing a new (never finished) joint work. In the transcripts of those conversations (which were published in 1989 as a part of Horkheimer’s collected works with the title “Diskussion über Theorie und Praxis”) one finds Horkheimer continually stressing the importance of linking theory to practice without reducing the former to the latter. And while he does at points seem to hold out a vague hope for such a combination of theory and practice, he also pessimistically claims that “it is easy to believe that the whole of world history is just a fly caught in the flames” (p.39). Because of this pessimism, critical theory takes on a primarily negative task. In another note from a collection dated 1966–1969 titled “On Critical Theory” he continues with the idea that no positive conception of the good can be formed, but “if one wishes to define the good as the attempt to abolish evil,” such a view can be formed, and “this is the teaching of Critical Theory” (p. 237).

The negative conception of critical theory is closely related to the renewed interest Horkheimer showed in Schopenhauer in his last works. Schopenhauer is said, in the 1961 essay “Schopenhauer Today,” to be “the teacher for modern times” (p. 81). This is in part because Schopenhauer’s work grasps the need to focus on the suffering of the present as it is, without covering it over with a false philosophical conception of the good. To a certain extent this repeats the earlier emphasis on suffering and rejection of metaphysics. But these points work in a much more pessimistic direction, because, “according to Schopenhauer, philosophy does not set up any practical aims” (p. 80). It rather focuses on correctly grasping suffering. Schopenhauerian pessimism also connects with an interest in negative theology in Horkheimer’s late work. In 1935, he would write that the religious belief in another world of perfect justice, when uncoupled from “the inhibiting religious form” amounted to a positive force for social change (Horkheimer 1935c, p. 131). In his late writings this combination of criticism of organized religion and respect for the desire for the “wholly other” would be further developed (see Siebert 1976). In religious beliefs, if not in organized religion, Horkheimer would find a desire for a better world that never forgets the suffering of this world (see, for instance, Horkheimer 1963).

The overall tenor of Horkheimer’s last writings has led some to criticize him for falling into a backhanded form of conservatism (see, for example, Bronner 1994, pp. 88–92). This criticism makes some sense, especially when one considers the political climate of the late 1960s that served as a backdrop for his latest work. It is pertinent, along these lines, that he was generally opposed to the radical student movements, and he supported (with much qualification) the Vietnam War as an attempt to halt the totalitarian movement of Chinese Communism (on these points see Stirk 1992, 178–181). But Horkheimer did not give up on the possibility of radical action entirely. For example, Notizen ends on something of a positive note by ( in the note “For Nonconformism”) holding out hope that the “critical analysis of demagogues” might aid the practical work of those who are attempting to create non-conformist collectives that work against current society. But the primary possibility for hope discussed in Horkheimer’s later work is compassion, as seen at the end of the 1961 essay “The German Jews”:

The decisive point—and the real task of education without which neither the Jewish nor the Christian nor the German cause is helped—is that men should become sensitive not to injustice against the Jews but to any and all persecution, and that something in them should rebel when any individual is not treated as a rational being. (p. 118)

In a way, this passage sums up the aim of all of Horkheimer’s work, early to late. The task of education, and the task of the critical theorist, is to foster such compassionate sensitivity to injustice.


A partial bibliography, written in English, of Horkheimer’s works can be found in S. Benhabib, W. Bonß, and J. McCole (eds.), On Max Horkheimer: New Perspectives, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993. An extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources, written in German, can be found in Max Horkheimer Gesammelte Schriften, Band 19: Nachträge, Verzeichnisse, und Register, A Schmidt and G. Schmid Noerr (eds.), Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1996.

Primary Sources

References in the text above are to the English translations, where available. Horkheimer’s works can be found in various collections in German, but there is one primary collected edition:

  • Max Horkheimer Gesammelte Schriften, 19 volumes, A Schmidt and G. Schmid Noerr, (eds.), Frankfurt am Main: Fischer.

Below are the bibliographical entries for the cited English translations, listed by original publication date:

  • 1931, “The Present Situation of Social Philosophy and the Tasks of an Institute for Social Research,” in Between Philosophy and Social Science: Selected Early Writings, G. Hunter, M. Kramer and J. Torpey, (trans.), Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993, pp. 1–14.
  • 1932, “Notes on Science and the Crisis,” in Critical Theory: Selected Essays, M. O’Connell (ed.), New York: Continuum Press, 1999, pp. 3–9.
  • 1933a, “Materialism and Metaphysics,” in Critical Theory: Selected Essays, pp. 10–46.
  • 1933b, “Materialism and Morality,” in Between Philosophy and Social Science: Selected Early Writings, pp. 15–47.
  • 1934a, Dämmerung, partially translated as “Dawn: Notes 1926–1931,” in Dawn and Decline: Notes 1926–1931 & 1950–1969, M. Shaw, (trans.), New York: Seabury Press, 1978, pp. 15–112.
  • 1934b, “On Bergson’s Metaphysics of Time,” Radical Philosophy, P. Thomas and S. Martin, (trans.), 131(May/June 2005): pp. 9–19.
  • 1934c, “The Rationalism Debate in Contemporary Philosophy,” in Between Philosophy and Social Science: Selected Early Writings, pp. 217–264.
  • 1935a, “On the Problem of Truth,” in Between Philosophy and Social Science: Selected Early Writings, pp. 177–215.
  • 1935b, “Remarks on Philosophical Anthropology,” in Between Philosophy and Social Science: Selected Early Writings, pp. 151–175.
  • 1935c, “Thoughts on Religion,” in Critical Theory: Selected Essays, pp. 129–131.
  • 1936, “Egoism and Freedom Movements: On the Anthropology of the Bourgeois Era,” in Between Philosophy and Social Science: Selected Early Writings, pp. 49–110.
  • 1937a, “The Latest Attack on Metaphysics,” Critical Theory: Selected Essays, pp. 132–187.
  • 1937b, “Traditional and Critical Theory,” in Critical Theory: Selected Essays, pp. 188–243.
  • 1937c, “Postscript,” in Critical Theory: Selected Essays, pp. 24–252.
  • 1941, “Art and Mass Culture,” in Critical Theory: Selected Essays, pp. 273–290.
  • 1947a, with T. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, E. Jephcott, (trans.), G. Schmid Noerr, (ed.), Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002.
  • 1947b, Eclipse of Reason, London: Continuum Press, 2004.
  • 1961a, “Schopenhauer Today,” in Critique of Instrumental Reason: Lectures and Essays Since the End of WWII, M. O’Connell, (trans.), New York: Seabury Press, 1974, pp. 63–83.
  • 1961b, “The German Jews,” in Critique of Instrumental Reason: Lectures and Essays Since the End of WWII, pp. 101–118.
  • 1963, “Theism and Atheism,” in Critique of Instrumental Reason: Lectures and Essays Since the End of WWII, pp. 34–50.
  • 1968, “Preface,” in Critical Theory: Selected Essays, pp. v-x
  • 1974, Notizen 1950 bis 1969, partially translated as “Decline: Notes 1950–1969,” in Dawn and Decline: Notes 1926–1931 & 1950–1969, pp. 113–240.
  • 1989, with T. Adorno, “Diskussion über Theorie und Praxis,” in Max Horkheimer Gesammelte Schriften v. 13, translated as Towards a New Manifesto, R. Livingstone, (trans.), London: Verso 2011.

Secondary and Other Sources

  • Aboulafia, M., M. Bookman, and C. Kemp (eds.), 2002, Habermas and Pragmatism, London: Routledge.
  • Abromeit, J., 2011, Max Horkheimer and the Foundations of the Frankfurt School, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Benhabib, S., 1986, Critique, Norm, and Utopia: A Study of the Foundations of Critical Theory, New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Bonß, W., 1993, “The Program of Interdisciplinary Research and the Beginnings of Critical Theory,” in On Max Horkheimer: New Perspectives, S. Benhabib, W. Bonß, and J. McCole (eds.), Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 99–125.
  • Borman, D., 2017, “Materialism in Critical Theory: Marx and the Early Horkheimer,” in The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Theory, M. Thompson (ed.), New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.207–229.
  • Bronner, S., 1994, Of Critical Theory and Its Theorists, London: Blackwell.
  • Brunkhorst, H., 1993, “Dialectical Positivism of Happiness: Horkheimer’s Materialist Deconstruction of Philosophy,” in On Max Horkheimer: New Perspectives, S. Benhabib, W. Bonss, and J. McCole (eds.), Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 67–98.
  • Dubiel, H., 1985, Theory and Politics: Studies in the Development of Critical Theory, B. Gregg, (trans.), Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Habermas, J., 1984, The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume 1: Reason and the Rationalization of Society, T. McCarthy, (trans.), Boston: Beacon Press.
  • –––, 1993, “Remarks on the Development of Horkheimer’s Work,” On Max Horkheimer: New Perspectives, S. Benhabib, W. Bonss, and J. McCole (eds.), Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 49–65.
  • Held, D., 1980, Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • Heller, A., 2002, “The Frankfurt School,” in Rethinking the Frankfurt School: Alternative Legacies of Cultural Critique, Albany: SUNY Press, pp. 207–222.
  • Ingram, D., 1990, Critical Theory and Philosophy, New York: Paragon.
  • Jay, M., 1996, The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1920–1950, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • –––, 1993, “Mass Culture and Aesthetic Redemption: The Debate between Max Horkheimer and Siegfried Kracauer,” in On Max Horkheimer: New Perspectives, S. Benhabib, W. Bonss, and J. McCole (eds.), Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 364–386.
  • Joas, H., 1993, Pragmatism and Social Theory, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Marcuse, H., 1937, “Philosophy and Critical Theory,” in Critical Theory and Society: A Reader, S. Bronner and D. Kellner, (eds.), New York: Routledge, 1989, pp. 58–74.
  • O’Neill, J. and T. Uebel, 2004, “Horkheimer and Neurath: Restarting a Disrupted Debate,” European Journal of Philosophy, 12: 75–105.
  • Schmid Noerr, G., 2002, “Editor’s Afterword,” in Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, E. Jephcott, (trans.), G. Schmid Noerr, (ed.), Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, pp. 217–247.
  • Schmidt, A., 1993, “Max Horkheimer’s Intellectual Physiognomy,” in On Max Horkheimer: New Perspectives, S. Benhabib, W. Bonss, and J. McCole (eds.), Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 25–47.
  • Siebert, R., 1976, “Horkheimer’s Sociology of Religion,” Telos, 30: 127–144.
  • Stirk, P., 1992, Max Horkheimer: A New Interpretation, Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
  • Wiggerschaus, R., 1994, The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Significance, M. Robertson (trans.), Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Wolin, R., 1992, The Terms of Cultural Criticism: The Frankfurt School, Existentialism, and Poststructuralism, New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Zuidervaart, L., 2008, “Theodor W. Adorno”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

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