The Frankfurt School
The Frankfurt School. 1

Early history

The Institute for Social Research, popularly known as the Frankfurt School, was created by Felix Weil, a Marxist scholar who wanted to create an inter-disciplinary institute to espouse scientific Marxism.

After convening a successful gathering of scholars in 1922, Weil donated an inheritance from his mother to build the Institute for Social Research in 1923. He relied on funds from his father to pay for the staffing and upkeep on the building.2

The 1920s in Frankfurt saw a cultural, political and academic Renaissance and the school attracted members such as Friedrich Pollock, Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Frankfurt psychology scholars such as Erich Fromm and Wilhelm Reich.3 One of the school’s later, and most influential, scholars was Jürgen Habermas, who studied under Horkheimer and Adorno in the 1940s.4
Frankfurt School c. 1922. Felix Weil is 2nd from left, in the back. 5

Critical theory

A key contribution of the Frankfurt School was Critical Theory, which, as they defined it, is differentiated from traditional theory because its purpose is to seek human emancipation.6 As Horkheimer explained it, there are many conditions in society that enslave human beings, requires an interdisciplinary approach to identify, explain and proactively address these problems, thereby liberating people.7

The Frankfurt School in exile, and the Nazi question
With the rise of the National Socialists in the early 1930s, it soon became clear that the Marxist leanings of the Frankfurt School were going to be problematic. Not surpisingly, massive cuts were made by the Nazi regime to the teaching staff of the Institute in 1933. Several members, including Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and Erich Eromm left Germany to work together in New York City, at Columbia University. 8

This time of exile was particularly productive for Horkheimer and Adorno, who worked on Dialectic of Enlightenment, published in 1947, which is considered one of the most influential books published by members of the institute.9 The book, rooted heavily in Kantian theory, attempts to explain how the loss of enlightenment in a society could reverse cultural progress, and allow a phenomenon like the rise and fall of the National Socialists (Nazis) to take place.10

Jürgen Habermas also turned his philosophical considerations to the question of how the Nazis could rise to power in Germany. Habermas was a teenager when he listened to the Nurgemburg trials on the radio, in shock, at the details of the horrors inflicted by the Nazis on their fellow men, women and children. He admits the question was a driving force in his work.11

From these philosophical deliberations, Habermas’ theory of Discourse Ethics developed, which argues that moral courses of action are only valid if they align with the universal ethics of society.12 Since the Nazis acted against the universal values and morals of society at large, their actions were not morally justifiable.

Fromm also published on the issue of how the Nazis rose to power and why working class Germans didn’t resist Hitler.13 He published a study in Horkheimer’s collection Studien über Autorität und Familie in 1936, and entered into a particularly bitter and public debate with Horkheimer and Adorno, and later Marcuse, parting ways with them and the Frankfurt School.14

Following the war, and rebuilding of Frankfurt, most of the Frankfurt School academics returned to Germany, hopeful that their work could help create a better society from the ashes of the war years.15 A new institute was built and officially opened in 1951. It still operates today.16

Suggested further reading:
Bottomore, T. (2002). The Frankfurt School and its critics. New York: Taylor & Francis.
Hohendahl, P. (1985). The dialectic of enlightenment revisited: Habermas’ critique of the Frankfurt School. New German Critique, 35, 3-27.
Howard, D. (2000). Political theory, critical theory, and the place of the Frankfurt School. Critical Horizons, 1(2), 271- 280.
Scheuerman, W. (2007). Frankfurt School perspectives on globalization, democracy and the law. Hoboken: Taylor & Francis.

1. Photo retrieved from:
2. “History of the Institute for Social Research”, Institute for Social Research, Frankfurt, Germany.
4. Pusey, Michael. (1987). Jurgen Habermas. New York: Taylor and Francis.
5. Photo retrieved from Felix Weil identification from Filosofía, Ciencia y Técnica.
6. “Critical Theory”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
7. “Critical Theory”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
8. Institute for Social Research
9. “Theodore Adorno”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
10. Horkheimer, M. & Adorno, T. (2002). Dialectic of Enlightenment. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr (Ed.). (E. Jephcott, Trans.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
11. Habermas, Jürgen. (2003). Dual Layered Time: Reflections on T. W. Adorno in the 1950s.
12. Bordum, A. (2005). Immanuel Kant, Jürgen Habermas and the catergorial imperative. Philosophy and Social Criticism, 31 (7), 851-874.
13. McLaughlin, N. (1999). Origin myths in the social sciences: Fromm, the Frankfurt School and the emergence of Critical Theory. Canadian Journal of Sociology, 24(1), 109-139.
14. McLaughlin, N. (1999), p. 115.
15. Horkheimer and Adorno, 2002.
16. Institute for Social Research