Horkheimer studied philosophy at the University of Frankfurt, where he received his Ph.D. degree in 1922. In 1930, after four years as lecturer in social philosophy at Frankfurt, he was named director of the university’s newly founded Institute for Social Research. Under his leadership, the institute attracted an extraordinarily talented array of philosophers and social scientists-including Theodor Adorno, Eric Fromm, Leo Löwenthal, Herbert Marcuse, and Franz Neumann. Horkheimer also served as editor of the institute’s literary organ, Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung (“Journal for Social Research”), which published path breaking studies in political philosophy and cultural analysis from 1932 to 1941.
In the early years of its existence, Horkheimer described the institute’s program as “interdisciplinary materialism,” thereby indicating its goal of integrating Marxist-oriented philosophy of history with the social sciences, especially economics, history, sociology, social psychology, and psychoanalysis. The resulting “critical theory” would elucidate the various forms of social control through which state-managed capitalism tended to defuse class conflict and integrate the working classes into the reigning economic system.
The institute’s first study in this vein, “Authority and the Family,” was still incomplete when the Nazi seizure of power forced most members of the institute to flee Germany in 1933. Horkheimer moved to New York City, where he reestablished the institute and its journal at Columbia University. Throughout the remainder of the decade, he sought to keep the flame of critical theory burning by writing a number of programmatic essays for the Zeitschrift. Among the most influential of these works was “Traditional and Critical Theory” (۱۹۳۷), in which he contrasted what he considered the socially conformist orientation of traditional political philosophy and social science with the brand of critical Marxism preferred by the institute. According to Horkheimer, the traditional approaches are content to describe existing social institutions more or less as they are, and their analyses thus have the indirect effect of legitimating repressive and unjust social practices as natural or objective. By contrast, critical theory, through its detailed understanding of the larger historical and social context in which these institutions function, would expose the system’s false claims to legitimacy, justice, and truth.
In 1941 the institute, which had been overcome by financial troubles, was effectively dissolved, and Horkheimer moved to Los Angeles. There he collaborated with Adorno on an influential study, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), which traced the rise of fascism and other forms of totalitarianism to the Enlightenment notion of “instrumental” reason. The work’s pessimism reflects the defeats that progressive European social movements had suffered since the early 1930s. A more accessible version of the book’s argument also appeared in 1947 under the title The Eclipse of Reason. In 1950 Horkheimer returned to Frankfurt, where he reestablished the institute and ultimately became rector of the university. His later work displays his enduring fascination with the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer and the philosophy of religion. Horkheimer felt that Schopenhauer’s pessimistic social philosophy more faithfully reflected the lost prospects for utopia than did the more optimistic social theories of the postwar period.