Max Horkheimer's Materialism:
The Struggle with Traditional Theory, Science, Positivism, & Irrationalism

by Ralph Dumain

Max Horkheimer: "Traditional & Critical Theory"

Max Horkheimer's "Traditional and Critical Theory" (which can be found in his Critical Theory: Selected Essays) is a fascinating document which reveals both the strengths and weaknesses of the intellectual tradition he represents—both its achievements and its shortcomings in it striving to become the self-consciousness of its age.  Horkheimer perspicaciously points to the social division of labor as determining the social role and hence the structural limits constraining the self-consciousness of the scientific professional.  However, Horkheimer's project remains incomplete due to the limitations of his own intellectual specialization.  If we attend carefully to the problems here, we could actually achieve a new understanding rather than follow provincially in the same old rut.

Highlights of Horkheimer's argument:

(1) What is theory?  Horkheimer, in explaining scientific theory as an integrated system of deductive inference, draws upon Poincare, Descartes, Husserl, and Hermann Weyl, an interesting panoply of sources which may perhaps reveal the limitations of his scope.

(2)  The social sciences have attempted to piggyback on the success of the natural sciences.  More abstract, qualitative, conceptual and philosophical approaches do not carry the weight of minute empirical data collection (reminiscent of industrial production techniques) in the intellectual marketplace.  Horkheimer claims: "There can be no doubt, in fact, that the various schools of sociology have an identical conception of theory and that it is the same as theory in the natural sciences."  (I suggest that, regardless of the ambitions of sociologists, there is plenty of doubt as to whether the conceptions of theory of sociologists are in actual fact identical to those of the natural sciences.)   Horkheimer claims that both empirically and theoretically oriented sociologists subscribe to the same basic theoretical conceptions as those which govern the natural sciences; they differ among themselves as to the value of general principles in lieu of exact empirical formulations.  Those dubious of grand theory find little use for the abstractions of Durkheim or Weber.  There are those such as Durkheim himself who respect the orientation of the empiricists but do not find such austerity as productive as a less restrictive approach to classifying phenomena according to general categories.  All are agreed on the need to fit the data to theory in a rigorous and non-arbitrary manner.

(3) Horkheimer's next move is to pan out and examine the social functioning of science.  An ordered set of hypotheses is mandated by the economic and social mechanisms that underlie the manipulation of physical nature.  Thus a conception of theory is absolutized and reified. (This is very very weak, though there must be a connection historically between the possibility of scientific development at a certain stage and social forces.)   Social factors themselves and not purely intellectual ones help determine the acceptance or rejection of theories in actuality.  (Horkheimer precedes Kuhn!)  "That Copernicanism, hardly mentioned in the sixteenth century, should now become a revolutionary force is part of the larger historical process by which mechanistic thinking came to prevail."  Henryk Grossman is cited here.  (This is very weak analysis, even though the recognition of the social dimension of science is valid.)

(4) The Positivists and Pragmatists are the ones who "apparently pay most attention to the connections between theoretical work and the social life-process."  However, those who have a "social" view and those who have a more "detached" view share the limitation of considering the subjective individual viewpoint alone.  The scientist or scholar occupies a particular position in the social division of labor and his job is "to integrate facts into conceptual frameworks and to keep the latter up-to-date so that he himself and all who use them may be masters of the widest possible range of facts."

(5) Here Horkheimer makes his shrewdest observation, when he focuses on the issue of the division of labor:

The traditional idea of theory is based on scientific activity as carried on within the division of labor at a particular stage in the latter's development. It corresponds to the activity of the scholar which takes place alongside all the other activities of a society but in no immediately clear connection with them. In this view of theory, therefore, the real social function of science is not made manifest; it speaks not of what theory means in human life, but only of what it means in the isolated sphere in which for historical reasons it comes into existence. Yet as a matter of fact the life of society is the result of all the work done in the various sectors of production. Even if therefore the division of labor in the capitalist system functions but poorly, its branches, including science, do not become for that reason self-sufficient and independent. They are particular instances of the way in which society comes to grips with nature and maintains its own inherited form. They are moments in the social process of production, even if they be almost or entirely unproductive in the narrower sense. Neither the structures of industrial and agrarian production nor the separation of the so-called guiding and executory functions, services, and works, or of intellectual and manual operations are eternal or natural states of affairs. They emerge rather from the mode of production practiced in particular forms of society. The seeming self-sufficiency enjoyed by work processes whose course is supposedly determined by the very nature of the object corresponds to the seeming freedom of the economic subject in bourgeois society. The latter believe they are acting according to personal determinations, whereas in fact even in their most complicated calculations they but exemplify the working of an incalculable social mechanism.

(6) Horkheimer criticizes bourgeois philosophical systems such as Neo-Kantianism as a form of false consciousness, oblivious to the realities of their social being.  Specialist theoretical activity is elevated to the level of the universal Logos, a "camouflaged utopia".

In fact, however, the self-knowledge of present-day man is not a mathematical knowledge of nature which claims to be the eternal Logos, but a critical theory of society as it is, a theory dominated at every turn by a concern for reasonable conditions of life.

The isolated consideration of particular activities and branches of activity, along with their contents and objects, requires for its validity an accompanying concrete awareness of its own limitations. A conception is needed which overcomes the one-sidedness that necessarily arises when limited intellectual processes are detached from their matrix in the total activity of society. In the idea of theory which the scholar inevitably reaches when working purely within his own discipline, the relation between fact and conceptual ordering of fact offers a point of departure for such a corrective conception. The prevailing theory of knowledge has, of course, recognized the problem which this relation raises. The point is constantly stressed that identical objects provide for one discipline problems to be resolved only in some distant future, while in another discipline they are accepted as simple facts. Connections which provide physics with research problems are taken for granted in biology. Within biology, physiological processes raise problems while psychological processes do not. The social sciences take human and nonhuman nature in its entirety as given and are concerned only with how relationships are established between man and nature and between man and man. However, an awareness of this relativity, immanent in bourgeois science, in the relationship between theoretical thought and facts, is not enough to bring the concept of theory to a new stage of development. What is needed is a radical reconsideration, not of the scientist alone, but of the knowing individual as such.

So far so good . . . .

(7) The vantage point of the individual of bourgeois society is very different from the vantage point needed to understand society as a whole.  Activity and passivity are not divided for society as a whole.  The" natural history" of experiment, technology, production, tool-making, perception and judgement are considered.  The relationships connecting the components of Kant's philosophy are analyzed: passive sensation, active understanding, the transcendental subject  . . . . Kant's idealism and his obscurities reflect the limitations of his conception of social activity.  Hegel's cunning of reason and the absolute spirit as universal subject step in to advance the recognition of the social, but Hegelian reconciliation is dubious.  (Though I grasp the general train of thought, I am not convinced this part of Horkheimer's argument is a direct logical development development taking off from [6].)

(8) Horkheimer jumps to the current situation:

The integration of facts into existing conceptual systems and the revision of facts through simplification or elimination of contradictions are, as we have indicated, part of general social activity. Since society is divided into groups and classes, it is understandable that theoretical structures should be related to the general activity of society in different ways according as the authors of such structures belong to one or other social class. Thus when the bourgeois class was first coming into being in a feudal society, the purely scientific theory which arose with it tended chiefly to the break-up of the status quo and attacked the old form of activity. Under liberalism this theory was accepted by the prevailing human type. Today, development is determined much less by average men who compete with each other in improving the material apparatus of production and its products, than by conflicting national and international cliques of leaders at the various levels of command in the economy and the State. In so far as theoretical thought is not related to highly specialized purposes connected with these conflicts, especially war and the industry that supports it, interest in theory has waned. Less energy is being expended on forming and developing the capacity of thought without regard to how it is to be applied.

These distinctions, to which others might be added, do not at all change the fact that a positive social function is exercised by theory in its traditional form: that is, the critical examination of data with the aid of an inherited apparatus of concepts and judgments which is still operative in even the simplest minds, as well as the interaction between facts and theoretical forms that goes on in daily professional activity. In this intellectual work the needs and goals, the experiences and skills, the customs and tendencies of the contemporary form of human existence have all played their part. Like a material tool of production, it represents potentially an element not only of the contemporary cultural totality but of a more just, more differentiated, more harmoniously organized one as well. To the extent that this theoretical thinking does not deliberately lend itself to concerns which are external and alien to the object but truly concentrates on the problems which it meets in the wake of technical development and, in this connection, itself turns up new problems and transforms old concepts where necessary—to this extent it may rightly regard the technological and industrial accomplishments of the bourgeois era as its own justification and be confident of its own value.

(This I think is very good.)

(9) Horkheimer briefly discusses the overall utility of theorizing, even the emptiest and most marginalized of metaphysical systems within the context of productive and unproductive labor.

(10) Critical theory challenges the social totality.  In traditional theoretical thinking, practical applications are taken as external to theoretical thinking itself, an alienated modus vivendi which eases the tensions within the specialist.  "The investigation into the social conditioning of facts and theories may indeed be a research problem", this sociology of knowledge can also be accommodated within traditional theory.

In this reaction to critical theory, the self-awareness of thought as such is reduced to the discovery of the relationship that exists between intellectual positions and their social location. Yet the structure of the critical attitude, inasmuch as its intentions go beyond prevailing social ways of acting, is no more closely related to social disciplines thus conceived than it is to natural science. Its opposition to the traditional concept of theory springs in general from a difference not so much of objects as of subjects. For men of the critical mind, the facts, as they emerge from the work of society, are not extrinsic in the same degree as they are for the savant or for members of other professions who all think like little savants. The latter look towards a new kind of organization of work. But in so far as the objective realities given in perception are conceived as products which in principle should be under human control and, in the future at least, will in fact come under it, these realities lose the character of pure factuality.

(Very good!  Very important!)


Bourgeois thought is so constituted that in reflection on the subject which exercises such thought a logical necessity forces it to recognize an ego which imagines itself to be autonomous. Bourgeois thought is essentially abstract, and its principle is an individuality which inflatedly believes itself to be the ground of the world or even to be the world without qualification, an individuality separated off from events. The direct contrary of such an outlook is the attitude which holds the individual to be the unproblematic expression of an already constituted society; an example would be a nationalist ideology. Here the rhetorical "we" is taken seriously; speech is accepted as the organ of the community. In the internally rent society of our day, such thinking, except in social questions, sees nonexistent unanimities and is illusory.

Critical thought and its theory are opposed to both the types of thinking just described. Critical thinking is the function neither of the isolated individual nor of a sum-total of individuals. Its subject is rather a definite individual in his real relation to other individuals and groups, in his conflict with a particular class, and, finally, in the resultant web of relationships with the social totality and with nature. The subject is no mathematical point like the ego of bourgeois philosophy; his activity is the construction of the social present. Furthermore, the thinking subject is not the place where knowledge and object coincide, nor consequently the starting-point for attaining absolute knowledge. Such an illusion about the thinking subject, under which idealism has lived since Descartes, is ideology in the strict sense, for in it the limited freedom of the bourgeois individual puts on the illusory form of perfect freedom and autonomy. As a matter of fact, however, in a society which is untransparent and without self-awareness the ego, whether active simply as thinker or active in other ways as well, is unsure of itself too. In reflection on man, subject and object are sundered; their identity lies in the future, not in the present. The method leading to such an identification may be called explanation in Cartesian language, but in genuinely critical thought explanation signifies not only a logical process but a concrete historical one as well. In the course of it both the social structure as a whole and the relation of the theoretician to society are altered, that is both the subject and the role of thought are changed. The acceptance of an essential unchangeableness between subject, theory, and object thus distinguishes the Cartesian conception from every kind of dialectical logic.

(Not bad at all.  You will notice, I hope, that the more Horkheimer gets into this, the less specifically he feels the need to conflate the intrinsic characteristics of scientific theorizing with the alienated ideological complex that penetrates the consciousness of the bourgeois specialist.)

(12) How is critical thought then related to experience?  For thought to remain locked up in itself was the way of idealism.  Thinking in a detached, compartmentalized, "spiritualist" way reflects existing conditions of division of labor.  The difference between traditional and critical theory with regard to the role of experience is expressed in the character of social interest, the needs of the society and the goals of work.  Marx and Engels saw the proletariat as "necessarily generated in the proletariat."

But it must be added that even the situation of the proletariat is, in this society, no guarantee of correct knowledge.  The proletariat may indeed have experience of meaninglessness in the form of continuing and increasing wretchedness and injustice in its own life. Yet this awareness is prevented from becoming a social force by the differentiation of social structure which is still imposed on the proletariat from above and by the opposition between personal class interests which is transcended only at very special moments. Even to the proletariat the world superficially seems quite different than it really is. Even an outlook which could grasp that no opposition really exists between the proletariat's own true interests and those of society as a whole, and would therefore derive its principles of action from the thoughts and feelings of the masses, would fall into slavish dependence on the status quo. The intellectual is satisfied to proclaim with reverent admiration the creative strength of the proletariat and finds satisfaction in adapting himself to it and in canonizing it. He fails to see that such an evasion of theoretical effort (which the passivity of his own thinking spares him) and of temporary opposition to the masses (which active theoretical effort on his part might force upon him) only makes the masses blinder and weaker than they need be. His own thinking should in fact be a critical, promotive factor in the development of the masses. When he wholly accepts the present psychological state of that class which, objectively considered, embodies the power to change society, he has the happy feeling of being linked with an immense force and enjoys a professional optimism. When the optimism is shattered in periods of crushing defeat, many intellectuals risk falling into a pessimism about society and a nihilism which are just as ungrounded as their exaggerated optimism had been. They cannot bear the thought that the kind of thinking which is most topical, which has the deepest grasp of the historical situation, and is most pregnant with the future, must at certain times isolate its subject and throw him back upon himself.



If critical theory consisted essentially in formulations of the feelings and ideas of one class at any given moment, it would not be structurally different from the special branches of science. It would be engaged in describing the psychological contents typical of certain social groups; it would be social psychology.

The same issues apply to the consciousness of the bourgeoisie, and for that matter the revolutionary vanguard.

If, however, the theoretician and his specific object are seen as forming a dynamic unity with the oppressed class, so that his presentation of societal contradictions is not merely an expression of the concrete historical situation but also a force within it to stimulate change, then his real function emerges. The course of the conflict between the advanced sectors of the class and the individuals who speak out the truth concerning it, as well as of the conflict between the most advanced sectors with their theoreticians and the rest of the class, is to be understood as a process of interactions in which awareness comes to flower along with its liberating but also its aggressive forces which incite while also requiring discipline. The sharpness of the conflict shows in the ever present possibility of tension between the theoretician and the class which his thinking is to serve. The unity of the social forces which promise liberation is at the same time their distinction (in Hegel's sense); it exists only as a conflict which continually threatens the subjects caught up in it. This truth becomes clearly evident in the person of the theoretician; he exercises an aggressive critique not only against the conscious defenders of the status quo but also against distracting, conformist, or utopian tendencies within his own household.

The traditional type of theory, one side of which finds expression in formal logic, is in its present form part of the production process with its division of labor. Since society must come to grips with nature in future ages as well, this intellectual technology will not become irrelevant but on the contrary is to be developed as fully as possible. But the kind of theory which is an element in action leading to new social forms is not a cog in an already existent mechanism. Even if victory or defeat provides a vague analogy to the confirmation or failure of scientific hypotheses, the theoretician who sets himself up in opposition to society as it is does not have the consolidation that such hypotheses are part of his professional work. He cannot sing for himself the hymn of praise which Poincare sang to the enrichment deriving even from hypotheses that must be rejected. His profession is the struggle of which his own thinking is a part and not something self-sufficient and separable from the struggle. Of course, many elements of theory in the usual sense enter into his work: the knowledge and prognosis of relatively isolated facts, scientific judgments, the elaboration of problems which differ from those of other theoreticians because of his specific interests but nonetheless manifest the same logical form.

Traditional theory may take a number of things for granted: its positive role in a functioning society, an admittedly indirect and obscure relation to the satisfaction of general needs, and participation in the self-renewing life process. But all these exigencies about which science need not trouble itself because their fulfillment is rewarded and confirmed by the social position of the scientist, are called into question in critical thought.

(All excellent.)

(13) There is more on the functions and intellectual self-consciousness of the intelligentsia (the theoretician's social position).  In the specific abstract role in which competing theories and political ideas are considered, they and their proponents may all be formally equal, but critical theory rejects such a formalistic formulation.  An abstract enlightening (missionary) view of the intelligentsia's role is wrong especially in a time of crisis.  "Mind is liberal", true, but it is not self-sufficient, and must recognize this too in its quest for autonomy.  "To that extent, mind is not liberal."  "Critical theory is neither 'deeply rooted' like totalitarian propaganda nor 'detached' like the liberalist intelligentsia."  (Excellent!)

(14) The difference in the logical structures of traditional and critical theory can now be ascertained in light of their functions.  There are another four pages showing how physics and Marxian political economy are similar in their logical scientific structure.

The problem that arises as soon as particular propositions of the critical theory are applied to unique or recurring events in contemporary society has to do not with the truth of the theory but with how suitable the theory is for traditional kinds of intellectual operation with progressively extended goals. The special sciences, and especially contemporary political economics, are unable to derive practical profit from the fragmentary questions they discuss. But this incapacity is due neither to these sciences nor to critical theory alone, but to their specific role in relation to reality.

Even the critical theory, which stands in opposition to other theories, derives its statements about real relationships from basic universal concepts, as we have indicated, and therefore presents the relationships as necessary. Thus both kinds of theoretical structure are alike when it comes to logical necessity. But there is a difference as soon as we turn from logical to real necessity, the necessity involved in factual sequences. The biologist's statement that internal processes cause a plant to wither or that certain processes in the human organism lead to its destruction leaves untouched the question whether any influences can alter the character of these processes or change them totally. Even when an illness is said to be curable, the fact that the necessary curative measures are actually taken is regarded as purely extrinsic to the curability, a matter of technology and therefore nonessential as far as the theory as such is concerned. The necessity which rules society can be regarded as biological in the sense described, and the unique character of critical theory can therefore be called in question on the grounds that in biology as in other natural sciences particular sequences of events can be theoretically constructed just as they are in the critical theory of society. The development of society, in this view, would simply be a particular series of events, for the presentation of which conclusions from various other areas of research are used, just as a doctor in the course of an illness or a geologist dealing with the earth's prehistory has to apply various other disciplines. Society here would be the individual reality which is evaluated on the basis of theories in the special sciences.

However many valid analogies there may be between these different intellectual endeavors, there is nonetheless a decisive difference when it comes to the relation of subject and object and therefore to the necessity of the event being judged. The object with which the scientific specialist deals is not affected at all by his own theory. Subject and object are kept strictly apart. Even if it turns out that at a later point in time the objective event is influenced by human intervention, to science this is just another fact. The objective occurrence is independent of the theory, and this independence is part of its necessity: the observer as such can effect no change in the object. A consciously critical attitude, however, is part of the development of society: the construing of the course of history as the necessary product of an economic mechanism simultaneously contains both a protest against this order of things, a protest generated by the order itself, and the idea of self-determination for the human race, that is the idea of a state of affairs in which man's actions no longer flow from a mechanism but from his own decision. The judgment passed on the necessity inherent in the previous course of events implies here a struggle to change it from a blind to a meaningful necessity. If we think of the object of the theory in separation from the theory, we falsify it and fall into quietism or conformism. Every part of the theory presupposes the critique of the existing order and the struggle against it along lines determined by the theory itself.

The theoreticians of knowledge who started with physics had reason, even if they were not wholly right, to condemn the confusion of cause and operation of forces and to substitute the idea of condition or function for the idea of cause. For the kind of thinking which simply registers facts there are always only series of phenomena, never forces and counterforces; but this, of course, says something about this kind of thinking, not about nature. If such a method is applied to society, the result is statistics and descriptive sociology, and these can be important for many purposes, even for critical theory.

For traditional science either everything is necessary or nothing is necessary, according as necessity means the independence of event from observer or the possibility of absolutely certain prediction. But to the extent that the subject does not totally isolate himself, even as thinker, from the social struggles of which he is a part and to the extent that he does not think of knowledge and action as distinct concepts, necessity acquires another meaning for him. If he encounters necessity which is not mastered by man, it takes shape either as that realm of nature which despite the far-reaching conquests still to come will never wholly vanish, or as the weakness of the society of previous ages in carrying on the struggle with nature in a consciously and purposefully organized way. Here we do have forces and counterforces. Both elements in this concept of necessity—the power of nature and the weakness of society are interconnected and are based on the experienced effort of man to emancipate himself from coercion by nature and from those forms of social life and of the juridical, political, and cultural orders which have become a straitjacket for him. The struggle on two fronts, against nature and against society's weakness, is part of the effective striving for a future condition of things in which whatever man wills is also necessary and in which the necessity of the object becomes the necessity of a rationally mastered event.

(This is all very good, but one caveat: the ontological distinction between the natural and social sciences (the objects of their study) should not be conflated with the social functions that differentiate traditional and critical theory.   Any perspicacious philosopher of science ought to be able to recognize these distinctions, though critical theory may well explain why many of them do not.  Also, dialectical materialism—not in its apologetic misuse but in its original intent—was founded on a recognition of stratified ontological distinctions as well as upon a fundamental unity of the material world.)


The concept of necessity in the critical theory is itself a critical concept; it presupposes freedom, even if a not yet existent freedom. But the idea of freedom as a purely interior reality which is always there even when men are enslaved is typical of the idealist mentality. The tendency immanent in this not wholly false but surely distorted conception of freedom was most clearly expressed by the young Fichte: "I am now fully convinced that the human will is free and that the purpose of our existence is not to be happy but only to deserve happiness." Here we see the real identity underlying fundamental metaphysical polarities and schools. The claim that events are absolutely necessary means in the last analysis the same thing as the claim to be really free here and now: resignation in practice.

The inability to grasp in thought the unity of theory and practice and the limitation of the concept of necessity to inevitable events are both due, from the viewpoint of theory of knowledge, to the Cartesian dualism of thought and being. That dualism is congenial both to nature and to bourgeois society in so far as the latter resembles a natural mechanism. The idea of a theory which becomes a genuine force, consisting in the self-awareness of the subjects of a great historical revolution, is beyond the grasp of a mentality typified by such a dualism. If scholars do not merely think about such a dualism but really take it seriously, they cannot act independently. In keeping with their own way of thinking, they can put into practice only what the closed causal system of reality determines them to do, or they count only as individual units in a statistic for which the individual unit really has no significance. As rational beings they are helpless and isolated. The realization that such a state of affairs exists is indeed a step towards changing it, but unfortunately the situation enters bourgeois awareness only in a metaphysical, ahistorical shape. In the form of a faith in the unchangeableness of the social structure it dominates the present. Reflecting on themselves men see themselves only as onlookers, passive participants in a mighty process which may be foreseen but not modified. Necessity for them refers not to events which man masters to his own purposes but only to events which he anticipates as probable. Where the interconnection of willing and thinking, thought and action is admitted as in many sectors of the most recent sociology, it is seen only as adding to that objective complexity which the observer must take into account. The thinker must relate all the theories which are proposed to the practical attitudes and social strata which they reflect. But he removes himself from the affair; he has no concern except—science.

The hostility to theory as such which prevails in contemporary public life is really directed against the transformative activity associated with critical thinking. Opposition starts as soon as theorists fail to limit themselves to verification and classification by means of categories which are as neutral as possible, that is, categories which are indispensable to inherited ways of life. Among the vast majority of the ruled there is the unconscious fear that theoretical thinking might show their painfully won adaptation to reality to be perverse and unnecessary. Those who profit from the status quo entertain a general suspicion of any intellectual independence. The tendency to conceive theory as the opposite of a positive outlook is so strong that even the inoffensive traditional type of theory suffers from it at times. Since the most advanced form of thought at present is the critical theory of society and every consistent intellectual movement that cares about man converges upon it by its own inner logic, theory in general falls into disrepute. Every other kind of scientific statement which does not offer a deposit of facts in the most familiar categories and, if possible, in the most neutral form, the mathematical, is already accused of being theoretical.

This positivist attitude need not be simply hostile to progress. Although in the intensified class conflicts of recent decades rulers have had to rely increasingly on the real apparatus of power, ideology is nonetheless still a fairly important cohesive force for holding together a social structure threatened with collapse. In the determination to look at facts alone and to surrender every kind of illusion there still lurks, even today, something like a reaction against the alliance of metaphysics and oppression.

It would be a mistake, however, not to see the essential distinction between the empiricist Enlightenment of the eighteenth century and that of today. In the eighteenth century a new society had already been developed within the framework of the old. The task now was to free an already existent bourgeois economy from its feudal limitations and to let it operate freely. Bourgeois scientific thought, too, needed, fundamentally, only to shake off the old dogmatic chains in order to progress along a path it had already mapped out. Today, on the contrary, in the transition from the present form of society to a future one mankind will for the first time be a conscious subject and actively determine its own way of life. There is still need of a conscious reconstruction of economic relationships. Indiscriminate hostility to theory, therefore, is a hindrance today. Unless there is continued theoretical effort, in the interest of a rationally organized future society, to shed critical light on present-day society and to interpret it in the light of traditional theories elaborated in the special sciences, the ground is taken from under the hope of radically improving human existence. The demand therefore for a positive outlook and for acceptance of a subordinate position threatens, even in progressive sectors of society, to overwhelm any openness to theory. The issue, however, is not simply the theory of emancipation; it is the practice of it as well.


(16)  In an extended analysis of the history of capitalism and hence of the social theory associated with it, Horkheimer touches on the issues of the relationship between thought (theory) and time (the essential or changing nature of the object of investigation), and the related consequences of the relation between subject and object (the theoretician and society).  In the present historical period of crisis, slouching toward barbarism, "true theory is more critical than affirmative".

(17) POSTSCRIPT: Horkheimer commences a postscript to his essay by stating:

In the preceding essay I pointed out two ways of knowing: one is based on the Discourse on Method, the other on Marx's critique of political economy. Theory in the traditional sense established by Descartes and everywhere practiced in the pursuit of the specialized sciences organizes experience in the light of questions which arise out of life in present-day society.

I am not entirely happy with this formulation.  The point on which interpretation turns is the phrase "two ways of knowing".  I don't agree that two ways of knowing are involved at all, but rather two ways of orienting oneself with respect to social being that determine how the enterprise of knowing is ideologically contoured. I fear that this distinction may be lost on my reader without careful deliberation; it is a distinction I've been aiming at all along.  Similarly, in tracing the methodology of modern science to Descartes, Horkheimer does not distinguish the philosophical/ideological framework of Descartes (corresponding to an emergent form of social organization) from the intrinsic nature of theoretical scientific reasoning distinct from the former and distinguishable from the dualism that serves a social, ideological role formulated in philosophical terms.

(18) Critical social theory agrees with German idealism in the dynamic relation of subject to object in opposition to the conformist worship of brute fact.  Critical theory agrees with materialism in its understanding of labor and class and their impact on subjectivity.  Traditional theory corresponds to the social role of the specialist.  Critical theory corresponds to the emancipatory interest in the rational reorganization of the whole of society for human benefit and not just the interest of an increase in knowledge, analogous to the function of ancient Greek philosophy in a certain period.

Critique, however, is not identical with its object. Philosophy has not provided a teaching on national economy. The curves of the mathematical political economics of our day are no more able to maintain a link with essentials than are positivist or existential philosophy. Concepts in these disciplines have lost any relation to the fundamental situations of the age. Rigorous investigation has always required the isolating of structures, but today the guidelines for this process are no longer being supplied, as in Adam Smith's time, by conscious, inspiring, historical concerns. Modem analyses have lost all connection with any rounded knowledge that deals with historical reality. It is left to others or to a later generation or to accident to establish a relation of the analyses to reality and specific goals. As long as there is a social demand for and recognition of such activity, the sciences are not disturbed by reality or leave the care of it to other disciplines, for example sociology or philosophy, which of course act the same way in turn. The forces which guide the life of society, those rulers of the day, are thereby tacitly accepted by science itself as judges of its meaning and value, and knowledge is declared powerless.

Critical theory also differs from specialized science in that it continues to be a philosophical discipline and not just economic science; its content is the transformation of the concepts dominating economic organization.   Thereupon follows a critique of economism.

(19) FINIS.  Horkheimer's essay is of very high quality and subtle in its analysis, but there is a subtle distinction missing from it I have tried to pinpoint now and again, albeit with insufficient precision and clarity.   


Horkheimer wasn't a slouch, as I can see from a brief glance at other essays in the same book: he confronts Bertrand Russell, the logical positivists, and so on.  Given what he was up against, I can understand.  The problem I think maybe we can begin to grasp, is that, if we put ourselves back imaginatively into the 1930s, living in a moment of constricted options, there is just so much anyone so positioned could do.  A distinction that needs to be elaborated is that there were other ways of conceiving of scientific theory other than what the positivists had to offer that if, had Horkheimer had other options to draw upon, he might not have had to get locked into a debate with them and hence be constricted by what he was opposing, not to mention the limitations of the German idealist tradition he drew upon.  If so many of us are in 2003 still caught up in these limitations, should we be so harsh about Horkheimer's limitations in 1937 or whenever?  One has to have gone through a whole epoch and view it retrospectively before its fundamental contours can even be named.  But we here now should develop the imagination to discern them, name them, sum up the experiences of an epoch with a view toward plunging into the unknown future.

(Written 9-11 April 2003)

Horkheimer on Science & Crisis

There is some fascinating stuff on science, metaphysics, idealism, positivism, philosophy in general and society in Horkheimer's old essays.  It will be interesting to compare this material, largely admirable with some quibbling caveats to add, with the work that seems to have been most influential and thus worthy of distrust, Dialectic of Enlightenment.

This is a most interesting passage:

5. Science in the pre-War years had in fact a number of limitations. These were due, however, not to an exaggeration of its rational character but to restrictions on it which were themselves conditioned by the increasing rigidification of the social situation. The task of describing facts without respect for nonscientific considerations and of establishing the patterns of relations between them was originally formulated as a partial goal of bourgeois emancipation in its critical struggle against Scholastic restrictions upon research. But by the second half of the nineteenth century this definition had already lost its progressive character and showed itself to be, on the contrary, a limiting of scientific activity to the description, classification, and generalization of phenomena, with no care to distinguish the unimportant from the essential. In the measure that concern for a better society, which still dominated the Enlightenment, gave way to the attempt to prove that present-day society should be permanent, a deadening and disorganizing factor entered science. The result of science, at least in part, may have been usefully applied in industry, but science evaded its responsibility when faced with the problem of the social process as a whole. Yet this was the foremost problem of all even before the War, as ever more intense crises and resultant social conflicts succeeded one another. Scientific method was oriented to being and not to becoming, and the form of society at the time was regarded as a mechanism which ran in an unvarying fashion. The mechanism might be disturbed for a shorter or longer period, but in any event it did not require a different scientific approach than did the explanation of any complicated piece of machinery. Yet social reality, the development of men acting in history, has a structure. To grasp it requires a theoretical delineation of profoundly transformative processes which revolutionize all cultural relationships. The structure is not to be mastered by simply recording events as they occur, which was the method practiced in old-style natural science. The refusal of science to handle in an appropriate way the problems connected with the social process has led to superficiality in method and content, and this superficiality, in turn, has found expression in the neglect of dynamic relationships between the various areas with which science deals, while also affecting in quite varied ways the practice of the disciplines. Connected with this narrowing of scientific purview is the fact that a set of unexplicated, rigid, and fetishistic concepts can continue to play a role, when the real need is to throw light on them by relating them to the dynamic movement of events. Some examples: the concept of the self-contained consciousness as the supposed generator of science; the person and his world-positing reason; the eternal natural law, dominating all events; the unchanging relationship of subject and object; the rigid distinction between mind and nature, soul and body, and other categorical formulations. The root of this deficiency, however, is not in science itself but in the social conditions which hinder its development and are at loggerheads with the rational elements immanent in science.

SOURCE: Horkheimer, Max.  "Notes on Science and the Crisis", translated by Matthew J. O'Connell, in: Critical Theory: Selected Essays (New York: The Seabury Press, 1972), pp. 5-6.

Observations and questions:

(1) Science in the pre-war years: World War 1?  Restrictions on science due to social rigidification?

(2) 2nd half of 19th century: this seems to be a flashback to an earlier time before "pre-war years".  Horkheimer is vague about what happened to science itself, but he seems to be describing the rising dominance of positivism, which would indeed limit the conception of science to description and empirical generalization and was linked to a technocratic notion of social control (Comte).  This conception certainly would be conducive to making science utilizable for industry without addressing its deeper explanatory function.  However, the actual effect on science (physics alone would be a good example) is left extremely vague.  Of course science abandoned its proper role in analyzing society, as the sole function of social science outside of Marxism (and to some extent even within it) was social control and administration.

(3) Subsequent remarks are a little nebulous.  Also, "simply recording events as they occur" hardly describes "the method practiced in old-style natural science".  Neither Galileo nor Newton nor Maxwell limited themselves in such a way.

(4) The last sentence is very good.

(Written 27 April 2003)

Horkeimer on Materialism and Metaphysics

Horkheimer begins his essay by dissecting Dilthey.  Somewhere in the middle of this essay, I lose the thrust of Horkheimer's argument.

One detail: he refers to a German debate on materialism of 1854, followed by a reference to Du Bois-Reymond [p. 15].  I am not familiar with this apparently famous debate.

There are some interesting paragraphs on the tension between concept and object, and the conditioning of concepts by subjective as well as objective factors [p. 28]  There is also an interesting discussion of materialism's requirement to unify philosophy and science [pp. 34-35].  He suggests that this effort was given up in the mid-19th century, with the pseudo-materialist monism of a Haeckel the result.

The argument then picks up with a discussion of Mach and Mill, and the generation of materialism into a positivism that only seeks the appearances of things.  And then—bam!—a few pages of profound analysis:

In maintaining this doctrine of the necessary limitation of knowledge to appearances or rather in degrading the known world to a mere outward show, positivism makes peace, in principle, with every kind of superstition. It takes the seriousness out of theory since the latter must prove itself in practice. If non-positivist metaphysics must exaggerate its own knowledge (since by its nature it must claim autonomy for itself), positivism, on the contrary, reduces all possible knowledge to a collection of external data. In addition, it usually overlooks the contradiction between its own metaphysical description of known reality as appearance and externality, on the one hand, and its ostensible power of prevision, on the other (the latter already containing the undialectical separation of subject and object). "Not to know the true but only the appearance of the temporal and accidental, only what is empty—this emptiness has become widespread in philosophy and is still being broadcast in our time, and even boasts of itself." [48]

This objection of Hegel to the Enlightenment can today be directed primarily against positivism, which of course originated in the Enlightenment. Hegel himself, despite the sound of his words here, did not separate truth and knowledge from the temporal; on the contrary—and this is the secret of his depth of thought—he made knowledge of the temporal as temporal the content of philosophy. His idealism consists in the belief "that to call a thing finite or limited proves by implication the very presence of the infinite and unlimited, and that our knowledge of a limit can only be when the unlimited is on this side in consciousness." [49]

Yet, despite his hostility to it, Hegel is closer to the genuine Enlightenment than positivism is, because he admits nothing to be in principle inaccessible to human knowledge and subject to surmise alone. Positivism, on the other hand, is very conscious of its tolerance in this respect; it even wanted its very name to be interpreted expressly as opposition to the "negative," that is to any denial of such surmise. Sound philosophy, says Comte, leaves aside necessarily insoluble problems but in so doing it remains more impartial and more tolerant than its opponents. It investigates the factors that conditioned the duration and decline of former systems of belief "without ever engaging in any absolute rejection. . . . In this way it renders scrupulous justice not only to various monotheistic systems besides the one which is dying among us today, but also to polytheistic or even fetishistic beliefs, while always relating them to the corresponding phase of the basic evolutionary process." [50]

An historical understanding of these beliefs signifies here simultaneously the recognition of a correlative area of reality which is in principle inaccessible to knowledge and not assumed into the historical dialectic.

Materialism, too, seeks an historical comprehension of all spiritual phenomena. But its insight that there can be no infinite knowledge does not lead to impartiality in the face of a claim by any finite knowledge to be infinite. Thought is recognized to be limited, but no areas are set aside to which thought is not to be applied. This opinion of the positivists is itself in fact a contradiction. That we do not know everything does not mean at all that what we do know is the nonessential and what we do not know, the essential. These faulty judgments, by which positivism has knowingly made its peace with superstition and declared war on materialism, allow us to see that Bergson's depreciation of theoretical thinking and the rise of modem intuitionist metaphysics are a result of positivist philosophy.

Positivism is really much closer to a metaphysics of intuition than to materialism, although it wrongly tries to couple the two.

Since the turn of the century positivism has seemed, in comparison with the reigning metaphysics, not to be "concrete" enough, that is, really, not spiritualist enough. But in fact positivism and metaphysics are simply two different phases of one philosophy which downgrades natural knowledge and hypostatizes abstract conceptual structures. Bergson, like vitalism generally, bases his metaphysics of la duree on the doctrine of an immediate datum which is verified by intuition; the only distinction from positivism is that for Bergson this datum is not made up of discrete and detached elements but consists of the intuitively known vital flow of life itself. The metaphysics of the elements, the interpretation of reality as a sum-total of originally isolated data, the dogma of the unchangeableness of the natural laws, the belief in the possibility of a definitive system are an the special metaphysical theses of positivism. It has in common with intuitionism the subjectivist claim that immediate primary data, unaffected by any theory, are true reality, as well as the use of "only" by which both philosophies try to limit any theory of rational prevision (a theory which, we must admit, they wrongly interpret along mechanistic lines).

In their opposition to materialism, therefore, positivism and intuitionism are at one. In fact, if the defenselessness of these philosophies before any and all supernaturalist tendencies may be said to find especially obvious expression in their helplessness in the face of spiritism and occultism, then Bergson even takes precedence over Comte. A philosophy with metaphysical content fills the transcendental regions with its own speculations. Therefore, as Comte says reproachfully, it "has never been able to be anything but critical" [51] towards prevailing doctrines of the afterlife. Bergson must begin, consequently, by expressly assuring us that the transcendence of consciousness is "so probable that the burden of proof falls on him who denies it, not on him who affirms it" and that philosophy leads us "little by little to a state of mind which is practically equivalent to certitude." [52]

Comte, on the other hand, having equated reality with subjective data and mere appearances, is antecedently and in principle rendered helpless before all claims to have experienced the suprasensible.

At the present time it is hardly possible to distinguish between the more positivist and the more intuitionist forms of a philosophy that is marked by such subjection to the occult. According to Hans Driesch it is clear that his teaching "not only is not opposed to the 'occult' but even paves the way for it." [53] Bergson does not hesitate to assure us in his most recent book "that if, for example, the reality of "telepathic phenomena" is called in doubt after the mutual corroboration of thousands of statements which have been collected on the subject, it is human evidence in general that must, in the eyes of science, be declared to be null and void: what, then, is to become of history?" and he does not think it impossible "that a gleam from this unknown world reaches us, visible to our bodily eyes." [54] In fact, Bergson seriously conjectures that such messages from the other world could bring about a total transformation of mankind. The neglect of the theoretical in favor of the bare immediate datum thus wholly robs philosophy of its illuminative effect. "Whenever sensation with its alleged independence is taken as the criterion of reality, the distinction between nature and ghosts can become blurred." [55]

The disciples of Comte, especially the empirico-criticists and the logical positivists, have so refined their terminology that the distinction between simple appearances, with which science deals, and the essential is no longer to be found. But the depreciation of theory makes itself felt nonetheless in very varying ways, as when Wittgenstein declares, in his otherwise first-rate Tractatus logico-philosophicus:

"We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched. Of course there are then no questions left, and this is itself the answer . . . There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical." [56]

Neither does materialism, as we explained above, believe that the problems of life are solvable in a purely theoretical way, but it also regards it as unthinkable that "after a long period of doubt . . . the sense of life" [57] could become clear in any other way. If hypostatized in such a way, there is no "mystical" and no "sense of life."

Materialism has in common with positivism that it acknowledges as real only what is given in sense experience, and it has done so since its beginnings. "What we contemplate in mind has its whole origin in sense perception," says Epicurus. [58] "If you fight against all sensations, you will have no standard by which to judge even those of them which you say are false." [59] Throughout its history materialism has held to this theory of knowledge, which serves it as a critical weapon against dogmatic concepts. On the other hand, materialism does not absolutize sensation.

The requirement that every existent manifest itself through the senses does not mean that the senses do not change in the historical process or that they are to be regarded as fixed cornerstones of the world. If the evidence of sense experience is part of the grounds for existential judgments, such experiences are far from identical with the constant elements of the world. Theory is always more than sensibility alone and cannot be totally reduced to sensations. In fact, according to the most recent developments in psychology, far from being the elementary building blocks of the world or even of psychic life, sensations are derivatives arising only through a complicated process of abstraction involving the destruction of formations which the psyche had shaped. [60] Even apart from these two considerations, we must say that eternity cannot be predicated of our sensibility. Like the relation of "subject" to "data," it is conditioned and changeable. Even in the same period of time individual subjects have contradictory perceptions, and the differences are not to be resolved simply by appeal to a majority but only with the help of theory. Sense experiences are indeed the basis of knowledge, and we are at every point referred back to them, but the origin and conditions of knowledge are not identically the origin and conditions of the world.

SOURCE: Horkheimer, Max. "Materialism and Metaphysics", translated by Matthew J. O'Connell, in: Critical Theory: Selected Essays (New York: The Seabury Press, 1972), pp. 38-43.

This is an extraordinarily acute analysis.  Horkheimer has described the underlying unity of positivism and lebensphilosophie and their mutual need to gang up on materialism.  Engels saw the opening of pure empiricism to superstition.  And here we have an argument of how Comte leads to Bergson and Driesch, and young Wittgenstein's austere logicism leads right to his mysticism.  Then Horkheimer shows that materialism allies with positivism against traditional metaphysics based on the common priority of sense perception.  Finally, he provides an argument for the irreducibility of matter to sensation.  All in all, Horkheimer's argument is very much in line with Roy Wood Sellars' critical realism.

(Written 27 April 2003)

Martin Jay on Horkheimer on Logical Positivism

I'm looking at Martin Jay's The Dialectical Imagination, and I'm finding the description of the early Horkheimer fascinating. His relation to Nietzsche is interesting, both accepting and critical of various aspects of Nietzsche's methodology. Horkheimer also draws a distinction between the lebensphilosophie and irrationalism of the 19th century, which he lauds as a protest against the dehumanizing tendencies of modern social organization, and the same tendencies of the 20th century, which he sees as unequivocally reactionary and conformist. In this, according to Jay, Horkheimer stands almost alone, as Marxism traditionally abhors the whole tradition of lebensphilosophie.

Horkheimer is revealed here to be pretty sharp as a whole, but I think the fatal flaw of him and his colleagues is also revealed. They were materialists by way of idealism, which made them much more sophisticated than the competition, but they were still bound within the dichotomizing dynamic of late bourgeois philosophy.

A quotation:

His first major broadside against Logical Positivism came in 1937 in the Zeitschrift. [90] Once again his sensitivity to the changing functions of a school of thought in different historical contexts was evident. Originally, he argued, empiricism as practiced by Locke and Hume contained a dynamic, even critical, element, in its insistence on the individual's perception as the source of knowledge. The Enlightenment empiricists had used their observations to undermine the prevailing social order. Contemporary Logical Positivism, on the other hand, had lost this subversive quality, because of its belief  that knowledge, although initially derived from perception, was really concerned with judgments about that perception contained in so-called "protocol sentences." [91] By restricting reality to that which could be expressed in such sentences, the unspeakable was excluded from the philosopher's domain. But even more fundamentally, the general empiricist stress on perception ignored the active element in all cognition. Positivism of all kinds was ultimately the abdication of reflection. [92] The result was the absolutizing of "facts" and the reification of the existing order. [93]

In addition to his distaste for their fetishism of facts, Horkheimer further objected to the Logical Positivists' reliance on formal logic to  the exclusion of a substantive alternative. To see logic as an analogue of mathematics, he held, was to reduce it to a series of tautologies with no real meaning in the historical world. To believe that all true knowledge aspired to the condition of scientific, mathematical conceptualization was a surrender to a metaphysics as bad as the one the positivists had set out to refute. [94]

What was perhaps worst of all in Horkheimer's eyes was the positivists' pretension to have disentangled facts from values. Here he detected a falling away from the original Enlightenment use of empiricism as a partisan weapon against the mystifications of superstition and tradition. A society, he argued, [95] might itself be "possessed" and thus produce "facts" that were themselves "insane." Because it had no way to evaluate this possibility, modern empiricism capitulated before the authority of the status quo, despite its intentions.  The members of the Vienna Circle might be progressive in their politics, but this was in no way related to their philosophy.  Their surrender to the mystique of the prevailing reality, however, was not arbitrary; rather it was an expression of the contingency of existence in a society that administered and manipulated men's lives. As man must reestablish his ability to control his own destiny, so must reason be restored to its proper place as the arbiter of ends, not merely means. Vernunft must regain the field from which it had been driven by the triumph of Verstand.

Source: Jay, Martin.  The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1973), pp. 62-63.

Naturally, I will have to check Horkheimer's own writings to evaluate this paraphrase properly, and I have my doubts about Jay anyway, but I find this characterization fascinating, both for its shrewdness and for the points at which I find it jarring.  Some observations:

(1) This would confirm the supposition that the real philosophical players in the 1930s were indeed the positivists and the irrationalists.  Dialectical materialism is left out of account here, but the Soviets had by that time botched it so badly that nobody else could do anything with it, I presume.  Other alternatives to positivism in the scientific camp apparently did not register on the radar screen, for example Roy Wood Sellars' critical realism, which was rooted in the sciences and the tradition of American philosophy, but from an anti-positivist perspective.  (Whether Sellars had graduated to the point of saying anything of importance about values at that point, I do not know, and I doubt he was well-versed in the territory that the Frankfurters covered.)  In effect, Horkheimer was attempting in his own way to transcend the positivism-lebensphilosophie divide, but he was stuck as everyone else with the consequences of its legacy.

(2) The empiricist stress on perception was not just "passive", it was in effect anti-materialist, an alienated abstraction.  Sellars criticizes this in his autobiography.

(3) Formal logic: it seems the Frankfurters were as confused about this as the dialectical materialists.  The fetishization of formal logic has to be analyzed properly, not just from the point of view of its ideological function in a social way, but in view of the fundamentally flawed perspective of empiricism, which is anti-materialist and covertly idealist.  Both the Frankfurters and the dialectical materialists came out of the Hegelian heritage, separate from the developments in formal and mathematical logic, hence the latter two perspectives were never properly assimilated by the same people, let alone integrated.

(4) Again, this characterization of Logical Positivism was shrewd, from the perspective of its functioning in the total cultural system, which the Frankfurters understood far better and the positivists were unequipped to analyze at all, even those who were socialists.  However, when we examine closely the subtleties of these arguments now, we need to detect certain lapses which indicate that the real integration of the formal and natural sciences and the geistwissenschaften has not been accomplished.  Maybe someone has written something on this subject, but damned if I know who or what.

(Written 26 April 2003)

Max Horkheimer's The Eclipse of Reason

Horkheimer's The Eclipse of Reason is a very quick read. Now after reading all this stuff one gets a good idea of what these Europeans were worried about. They were smart enough to question the old idealism and its elitism, and they tried to find a third way—not a completely grounded one, I might add—between those conservative ideas and positivism. But you can see that for Horkheimer as well as Marcuse, positivism was the worse enemy, though one or the other would make some concessions because of their own opposition to obscurantism. This is a reflection of their time and background and we should be able to overcome their limitations. The reason that doesn't happen is because most American academic students of the Frankfurters will never have an original idea of their own. They are masters of regurgitating their cultural capital—and very snobbish about it no matter what political causes they support or say they do. I have consistently criticized the Frankfurters' cardinal intellectual flaw—their conflation of natural science with positivism and 'technological rationality'. I've had no response whatever to my analyses. What does this tell you? Well, growing up, my hero was Einstein, not Marcuse, and in fact Einstein had far more politically progressive instincts than some of the Frankfurters ever did.

(Written 24 August 2003)

Wiggershaus on Horkheimer

Wiggershaus is a huge history of the Frankfurt School, perhaps the thickest available volume. Chapter 3, on the Frankfurt School, details inter alia Horkheimer's interest in developing dialectical philosophy (in connection with scientific research), which was also seen as an alternative to both positivism and metaphysical obscurantism. Horkheimer reached a watershed with his essay "Traditional and Critical Theory." But then, according to Wiggershaus:

The Horkheimer circle never attempted to rescue the various scientific disciplines from the grasp of positivism and the system of bourgeois academic scholarship. Instead, they showed growing contempt for the sciences as well as for positivist philosophy of science. This was made easier by the fact that Freudian psychoanalysis, in the way in which it had been presented in its classic period, could not be classified as a specialized scientific discipline. Instead, Freud's psychoanalysis, which not only Fromm but also Horkheimer and Adorno had to thank for many of their most fruitful ideas, continued the tradition of the psychologically or anthropologically oriented 'dark' novelists of the bourgeois epoch. It was a central factor in giving Horkheimer and the most important of his fellow theoreticians the sense that important insights could also be achieved or even better achieved by skipping over the specialized disciplines. Fromm, for example, who did not think of himself as a trained philosopher in any sense, was able to write to Horkheimer in March 1938, without disparaging himself: 'I have just read such a splendid remark that I shall copy it out for you, although you probably know it already: "Whoever goes into the specialized scientific disciplines without undertaking any philosophy is like Penelope's suitors, who carried on with the women slaves when they could not win their mistress."' In the course of the 1930s, the relationship to the specialized sciences became somewhat less honest, although this changed little of the overall picture of the Institute's activities.

SOURCE: Wiggershaus, Rolf; Robertson, Michael, trans. The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1994), pp. 186-7. (See also further commentary on Adorno.)

(Written 20 September 2003)

Horkheimer's Materialism & Intellectual Traditions

One problem of the fragmentation of knowledge is that "orthodox Marxism" and "Western Marxism" are artificial, misleading constructs that serve to perpetuate the same divisions that exist within bourgeois thought—the constant vacillation between scientism and romanticism. Not to see through this is to fall victim to learning only one part of the total intellectual heritage and acting like you know everything. It's essential to know what you don't know as well, or you will end up in a niche of clueless snobbery, which is what this part of the theory industry promotes. The evidence is the mentality of so many people interested in Critical Theory, with Habermasians as the lowest of the low. The exact natures of traditional and critical theory have to be analyzed with greater clarity, especially given the passage of
time. The "critical" theory you see nowadays in certain hands is not critical at all but "traditional" in the worst ways.

(Written 12 April 2003)

Horkheimer and Adorno were materialists, though strange materialists. (I would like to know more about their relation to dialectical materialism if any in the 1930s.) Horkheimer and Adorno and several others went down the "Continental" philosophy road: they absorbed the heritage of German idealism and then rebelled against it by way of Marxism and (historical) materialism. But ontologically, it's not the sort of materialism positively constructed, as say dialectical materialism, Sellars' critical realism, or other variants of ontological materialism. Positive materialism is also very much engaged with the sciences or the philosophical issues arising therefrom. You will notice Horkheimer and Adorno dancing around these issues: they try to be pro-science at times but are uncomfortable venturing into this area; rather, they focus on a critique of positivism. I've been suggesting all along that this is a very important nuance that we must be very conscious of now, especially with a view to overcoming the artificial academic divisions of knowledge, which also express themselves in the bogus categories of "western" and "orthodox" Marxism.

My recent writings on Goldmann, Lukacs, Horkheimer, Adorno, et al, are relevant to the question of intellectual trajectories. The rebellion against idealism had a number of interesting implications, positive and not-so-positive. Horkheimer and especially Adorno are materialists of a curious sort. They did not construct a positive ontology including the natural sciences as did dialectical materialism or American naturalists/critical realists such as Roy Wood Sellars. Their materialism in the general ontological sense was a critique of idealism. That meant they couldn't quite engage the natural sciences even when they overcame their prejudices. On the warpath against positivism (as well as idealism), and particularly the logical positivism that dominated philosophy of science in the 1930s (so it seems), they could not positively engage the sciences beyond the smokescreen of positivism.

(Written 30 May 2003)

Compiled & edited 19 November 2003
© 2003 Ralph Dumain. All rights reserved.

R. Dumain's Critique of Dialectic of Enlightenment

Philosophy and the Division of Labor by Max Horkheimer & Theodore W. Adorno

Jeffrey Herf on Reactionary Modernism & Dialectic of Enlightenment

Theodor W. Adorno Study Guide

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

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