The Frankfurt School was a school of analysis and philosophical and sociological thinking that emerged at the University of Frankfurt, located in Germany. It aimed to establish a new parameter of social analysis based on a re-reading of Marxism .
The theory established by the Frankfurt School intellectuals is called critical theory for two reasons: first, because it makes a social critique of the intellectual development of society that focuses on the Enlightenment theories; and, secondly, because it proposes a critical reading of Marxism, with new proposals beyond it without losing sight of the main ideals of the left.
Also read: Karl Marx – creator of the political doctrine that the Frankfurt School aimed to update
Historical context of the Frankfurt School
The 20th century was very turbulent . At the beginning of the 1920s, the world had already witnessed the First World War , and at the end of that same period, he witnessed the great economic crisis of 1929 .
In the midst of great technological change , the new social configuration and the experiences of the 20th century, the theorists of the Frankfurt School realized that the ideals of enlightenment and positivism had failed in their theory that scientific advancement coupled with the expansion of knowledge through schooling and the dissemination of information would lead to the moral advancement of society.
The philosophers of the Enlightenment French argued that the moral advancement of society would take place with the advance of scientific and philosophical knowledge and its global spread, in order to enlighten people on issues relating to the world and to your organization.
Among the Enlightenment theorists, we can highlight Voltaire, defender of individual freedoms; Montesquieu, creator of the state tripartition theory; and Diderot and D’Allambert, founders of the encyclopedia. All of them opposed absolutism in France and defended the popularization of knowledge for the betterment of society.
The positivists , led by the French philosopher Auguste Comte , already in the 19th century, were more radical. For them, social advancement would only occur through investment in the creation and dissemination of science and in a rigid reorganization of society , with a view to putting the advance back on the European people, especially the French people.
In this photograph taken in 1964, we see Horkheimer (left), Adorno (right) and Habermas still young (in the background, right, scratching his head).
In general, the Frankfurt School philosophers argued that the Enlightenment and Positivist theories were not sustained, given the phenomena that occurred in the 20th century. First, the thinkers experienced the first great war. Then they, who were Jews, experienced Nazi persecution against their people. Among them, philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin died under Nazi rule, and philosophers Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse and Max Horkheimer had to take refuge in the United States to escape persecution.
In the reflection undertaken by the Frankfurt School theorists after the Second World War , the barbarism of Nazi persecution and the creation of the gas chamber (an invention made to kill more effectively, with less expense) was the greatest proof that there was no progress, but a social return .
Don’t stop now … There’s more after the publicity;)
However, there are more accurate records on the history of the creation of the Frankfurt School . Socialism was being hotly debated in Europe after the Russian Revolution , dividing intellectuals as to whether or not to apply socialist ideals in European politics. An outstanding view was that Marxism no longer satisfied the needs of the 20th century, which were different and went beyond the relationship between worker and bourgeoisie in the industrialized world.
In this sense, Felix Weil, an Argentine Jewish intellectual based in Germany, organized the First Marxist Work Week , an event that brought together Marxist intellectuals in Frankfurt in 1922. One of the week’s proposals was put into practice the following year: the creation of the Social Research Institute . The institute was sponsored by Herman Weil, Félix’s father, and subsidized by the German government.
In the beginning, the institute was managed by the sociologist Kurt Albert Gerlach, who died in the first year of management. The institute was linked to the University of Frankfurt, justifying the title given to the group of its Frankfurt School thinkers, decades later. Between 1923 and 1930, the management of the institute was in charge of Karl Grümberg.
In 1930, an office of the institute was created in Geneva, which started to house the institution’s headquarters after the persecution and closure of the school by the Nazis in 1933. It was only in 1950, with the effective resumption of the institute’s activities, that he passed to be called the Frankfurt School.
See also: Hannah Arendt – political philosopher who was also persecuted by the Nazis
Frankfurt School Characteristics
Despite the range of different thinkers and different generations formed by the Frankfurt School, what unites everyone’s intellectual production is critical theory. They were all dedicated to building critical theories against capitalism and updating readings on Marxism , creating new alternatives to Marxist socialism that would fit into the 20th century.
The cultural aspect was one of the most debated by the institution’s thinkers. It would be necessary, according to an overview of critical theory, to look at culture in order to realize that the foundations of capitalist society were only so solid because of the spread of a culture that favored capitalism . In this sense, all the authors of the Frankfurt School started from a Marxist reading, but updated it, creating interpretations consistent with the reality experienced in the 20th century, which was different from that faced by people in the 19th century.
Frankfurt School Thinkers
As the Frankfurt School has endured since the 1930s , several thinkers graduated there and produced their theories on a similar basis. However, the difference between generations is a striking feature of the theories produced by them. For this reason, we next divide thinkers according to their generations, knowing that there are two notable and a third ongoing.
- First generation:composed of philosophers and sociologists Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, Otto Kirchheimer, Friedrich Pollock and Leo Löwenthal. These thinkers formed the first bases of Frankfurtian thought and critical theory, in addition to receiving important contributions from theorists associated with the Social Research Institute, such as Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch.
- Second generation:formed by philosophers and sociologists Axel Honneth, Albrecht Wellmer, Jürgen Habermas, Oskar Negt, Franz Neuman and Alfred Schmidt.
Jürgen Habermas is one of the most famous thinkers of the second generation of the Frankfurt School.
Frankfurt School and the cultural industry
It was in the heart of the Frankfurt School that the concept of cultural industry emerged , more specifically in the book Dialectics of Enlightenment , written by the first generation philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer . For them, one of the ways of capitalist domination would be through culture. Adorno and Horkheimer understood that there were two types of authentic culture: learned culture and popular culture.
The culture classical is that produced by an intellectual elite, the more refined and less intuitive. This culture would have a greater aesthetic value , since it is more elaborate. The erudite culture would be the escape for the intellectuality to develop fully, and, in the authors’ view, it should be expanded.
The culture popular is an authentic way to make up art and culture linked to the traditional cultures of the peoples. It is authentic , but composed of less technical and intellectual refinement , being more intuitive.
Finally, there is the mass culture . Unlike the other two types, this one is inauthentic. As a result of a fusion of elements of classical and popular culture and the possibility of high technical reproducibility, mass culture would be a capitalist resource for selling an inferior form of art that, at the same time, would keep the population under control. The cultural industry would limit itself to taking entertainment as if it were art to the consumer, who would be satisfied when faced with elements that are apparently pleasant and easy to consume.
Walter Benjamin was one of the external contributors to the Social Research Institute at the University of Frankfurt.
Regarding the forms of technical reproducibility, theorists cited audiovisual recording (considering, at the time, recording discs, films, photography and radio broadcasting). In this sense, the author of the work of art would not need to create, at each performance, a work, but rather reproduce on a large scale a work previously created.
The philosopher Walter Benjamin declared that this form of reproduction was the end of the aura that would give the work of art its authenticity . To delve deeper into this concept so important to the Frankfurt School, read: Cultural industry .