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Wolfgang Schirmacher - The Frankfurt School

Schirmacher, Wolfgang. "Introduction." In: Schirmacher, Wolfgang (Editor). German 20th Century Philosophy: The Frankfurt School. The German Library 78. The Continuum International Publishing Group. New York, London, February 2000, 324 pages, Hardcover, Pages VII- XX,ISBN: 0826409660. May 2000, 324 pages, Paperback, Pages ISBN: 0826409679.

Wolfgang Schirmacher - The Frankfurt School


There is no right way of living a damaged life. We may have more reason today than ever to heed this warning. And the words with which Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno ended the first chapter of their jointly written Dialectic of Enlightenment in 1947 strike us now, on the threshold of the 21st century, as prophetic: "Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant."(1) For all their differences in philosophical temperament and individual scientific interests, the theorists associated with the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research were in complete agreement on one thing – in their relentless refusal to make peace with the prevailing conditions. They worked "in opposition to existing conditions" (Leo Löwenthal) to determine anew how we, as individuals, can live humanly with our fellow human beings. The Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, as it became widely known, never withdrew into an ivory tower; it combined an expressly materialistic theory with the goal of changing social praxis. Critical Theory's defiant and undogmatic Marxism allowed for sociological macro- and microanalyses, a social philosophy in touch with social reality, yet at the same time a darkly primed anthropology borrowed from Arthur Schopenhauer protected it from falling prey to the belief in a linear progress. It is not without irony that the dark side of the Enlightenment, its ambiguous dialectic, has been described so revealingly by the selfsame advocates of the Enlightenment: "In the most general sense of progressive thought, the Enlightenment has always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty."(2) How was it possible then that "humanity, instead of entering into a truly human condition, lapsed into a new kind of barbarism?" Adorno, a German Jew as were most members of the Frankfurt School, forced to emigrate in 1934, gave a bitter characterization of the utter madness of the self-proclaimed members of the "master race" (Herrenmenschen), in "Meditations on Metaphysics," the last section of his Negative Dialectics from 1964:

Auschwitz demonstrated irrefutably that culture has failed. That this could happen in the midst of the traditions of philosophy, of art, and of the enlightening sciences says more than that these traditions and their spirit lacked the power to take hold of men and work a change in them. There is untruth in those fields themselves, in the autarky that is emphatically claimed for them. All post-Auschwitz culture, including its urgent critique, is garbage.(3)

All that could be achieved under such conditions which were "rotten to the very core" (Adorno) was "solidarity with those who suffer" (Horkheimer) and radical counterthinking. Critical Theory's sustained vantage is due not lastly to that existential gesture with which each new generation spontaneously and vulnerably reacts to the outrageous injustice of life. All attempts at appeasement are defied; something must be done. Much to the disapproval of dogmatic Marxists, the Frankfurt School was little concerned with class struggle and the redistribution of economic resources, instead, the causes were addressed; theirs was a fundamental rejection of conditions degrading to human dignity and spirit, conditions with which the individual must not be reconciled. Society, economics, technology, science, and culture all stood accused. Essentially, Critical Theory grew out of analysis as discerning as it was unsparing, conducted with the resources of philosophy, sociology, psychoanalysis, and literary criticism. No real improvement in existing conditions was truly expected of any party claiming to be the "vanguard of the working class," as none had gone through the "Great Refusal" of which Herbert Marcuse believed the rebellious students of Berkeley and Paris capable for one optimistic moment in the 1960s.

The most noted philosopher of the Frankfurt School was unquestionably Adorno (4), and his 'negative dialectics' is to be regarded as a philosophy resolute "in the face of despair."(5) In contradiction to Hegel, the founder of modern dialectics and advocate of all-embracing synthesis, Adorno vehemently insisted that the whole is the untrue.(6) Initially drawn to the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, Adorno became ever more Marxist-oriented under the influence of Walter Benjamin, and beginning in 1931 he built up the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research together with his close friend and collaborator Horkheimer. Yet with respect to the philosophy of history Adorno remained a skeptic. Not only does his dialectics reject a positive end, it demands of identity-seeking thought its own refutation. Conceding that "to think is to identify," he went on to stress: "dialectics is the consistent sense of nonidentity."(7) Adorno shares this adamant denial of communicative consent as well as the resistance to the total incorporation of things – inherent to subject and thought – with the postmodern thinkers of difference such as Jacques Derrida and Jean-François Lyotard, not always endorsed by today's members of the Frankfurt School, Jürgen Habermas for one. Adorno aimed to protect the particular, the non-identical and incommensurate from the totalitarian grip of ontological thinking in identities without severing the link to social praxis. The world as it is, the suffering occurring in it every day dare not leave thinking unmoved. On the contrary:

If negative dialectics calls for the self-reflection of thinking, the tangible implication is that if thinking is to be true – if it is to be true today, in any case – it must also be a thinking against itself. If thought is not measured by the extremity that eludes the concept, it is from the outset in the nature of the musical accompaniment with which the SS liked to drown out the screams of its victims.(8)

From art Adorno learned to seek out the moment of the true within the havoc and dread of reality, taking it to heart and bringing it to bear in his philosophy: "It lies in the definition of negative dialectics that it will not come to rest in itself, as if it were total. That is its form of hope."(9) The son of an opera singer, Adorno came to appreciate early on the power of aesthetic experience. This familial predisposition and his own inclinations nurtured the decision to take up music. He studied in Vienna with the composer Alban Berg and trained to become a concert pianist. The wunderkind lost none of his intensity as he matured; at 18 he excelled as music critic. But Adorno then switched to philosophy. He received his doctorate at 20, and in 1933 he produced his first major work, Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic. In art the mirror-image of an entirely different world can be glimpsed as "sensual appearance of a sense scattered throughout experience." Unlike the postmodernists Adorno adhered to the difference between art and life whose interplay of appropriation and repulsion cannot be stayed. "Art reaches in gesture for reality only to shrink back from it in the very moment of contact," Adorno tells us in the unfinished, posthumous work Aesthetic Theory. "By rejecting reality – and this is not a form of escapism but an inherent quality of art – art vindicates reality."(10) He conceived of the hope that avantgarde art might be the last refuge of truth. Aesthete and music expert, Adorno couldn't find much redeeming value in popular art, and his devastatingly unfair judgment on jazz was used against him often enough. He rejected as philistine the notion of art as functioning in service to life. Nor did he consciously trouble to write in an easily understandable, consumable manner. His philosophical style resembles more the music of Arnold Schönberg which he loved. Adorno's writings become transparent and even enjoyable only for those who make an effort to learn difficult basic concepts and to read to a different rhythm. Yet despite his harsh critique of culture and civilization in the Dialectic of Enlightenment and Minima Moralia Adorno was no elitist Mandarin professing to be a Marxist, but possessed rather the sensitivity of a seismograph, registering precisely as early as the 1940s the problematic nature of mass culture. Adorno emigrated with the Institute for Social Research to New York, settling there for a time but then landed in Hollywood, of all places, where he saw the newest films being made and was able to observe the practices of the culture industry close up.

The rarified talk about the film as an art doubtless befits hacks wishing to recommend themselves; but the conscious appeal to naivety, to the servants' obtuseness that has long since permeated the thoughts of the masters, is equally worthless. The film, which today attaches itself inescapably to men as if it were a part of them, is at the same time remotest of all from their human destiny, which might be realized from one day to the next; and apologetics for it are sustained by resistance to thinking this antinomy. That the people who make films are in no way schemers is no counter-argument. The objective spirit of manipulation asserts itself in experiential rules, appraisals of the situation, technical criteria, economically inevitable calculations, the whole specific weight of the industrial apparatus, without any special censorship being needed, and even if the masses were asked they would reflect back the ubiquity of the system. The producers no more function as subjects than do their workers and consumers, but merely as components in a self-regulating machinery. The Hegelian-sounding precept, however, that mass-art should reflect the real taste of the masses and not that of carping intellectuals, is usurpation. The film's opposition, as an all-encompassing ideology, to the objective interests of mankind, its interlacement with the status quo of profit-motivation, bad conscience and deceit can be conclusively demonstrated. No appeal to an actually existent state of consciousness could ever have the right to veto insight which transcended this state of consciousness by discerning its contradiction to itself and to objective conditions. (11)

In 1949 Adorno returned to Germany. In addition to writing the Dialectic of Enlightenment during his American exile he also worked on the innovative study The Authoritarian Personality which firmly established his reputation as empirical sociologist. The intellectual-political climate in the Federal Republic was not favorable to the proponents of Critical Theory, and it wasn't until 1956 that Adorno received tenure as professor at the University of Frankfurt after his friend Horkheimer had been Rector from 1951-53. When the student movement in America, decisively influenced by Marcuse, a former member of the Institute, spread to West Germany, the rebels rediscovered the writings of the other members of the Frankfurt School. The near-forgotten Dialectic of Enlightenment was printed in a pirated edition, Walter Benjamin's works enjoyed an unexpected Renaissance, and Adorno's young assistant, Habermas, gained prominence as ally to the students' cause, but of a definitely critical bent. Adorno's students could be found in the front lines of the barricades. And for a few years the Frankfurt School became what it had never wanted to be, a ruling ideology which tolerated no strange gods beside it. In the "positivism debate" Adorno won out against the German followers of the critical rationalist Karl Popper, and the once dominant school which formed around Martin Heidegger disappeared. But the anti-authoritarian disposition soon changed to persecution of dissenters in the universities. Adorno shuddered at those who believed they had been called by him and justified their activism with quotes from his writings. It was especially infuriating to the freethinker when barebreasted female students disrupted his lecture in protest of the patriarchate. Deeply offended the philosopher fled to Wallis, in Switzerland, for the summer holidays and during the summer of 1969 he died there, only 65 years old. Adorno's enduring impact is due above all to a sensibility, rare among philosophers, through which he combines the eternal questions of philosophy and the artist's love of the particular. Adorno is a postmetaphysical thinker not because he presented modest philosophical proposals, as does the Frankfurt School of today, but because he knew how to protect the uniqueness of the particular from every theoretical assimilation and dominion. "There is solidarity between such thinking and metaphysics and the time of its fall,"(12) the closing words of Negative Dialectics remind us. The leading philosopher of the Frankfurt School left behind no doctrine as legacy, despite the wealth of writings collected in the 33-volume edition of the Complete Works. This was not his weakness, but his strength. He showed us, by example, 'negation' as the enlightened path to truly critical thinking.

If Adorno was the brain, then fellow combatant Horkheimer, eight years his senior, was the uncontested control center and shrewd manager of the Frankfurt School. The son of a textile manufacturer, Horkheimer first joined his father's business, but then completed his secondary education and went on to study philosophy in Frankfurt and Freiburg. The phenomenology of Husserl and Neo-Kantianism were an integral part of Horkheimer's academic education but the decisive impetus toward critical theory came from two 19th century philosophers who couldn't have been more different: Karl Marx and Arthur Schopenhauer. In his key essay Traditional and Critical Theory from 1937 Horkheimer dissociates himself from a theory which will not fight for the abolishment of entrenched injustice. In 1930, Horkheimer, newly appointed philosophy professor at the University of Frankfurt, was also named Director of the Institute for Social Research, founded in 1924, the core members of which included Herbert Marcuse, Leo Löwenthal, Friedrich Pollock and Erich Fromm (until 1939). After the National Socialists seized power in 1933, the Institute, which was financed through grants and donations, had to relocate – first to Geneva, then on to Columbia University in New York and later California. The Institute became a safe haven for a great many German emigrants in the United States, helping them survive. Even Benjamin, in Paris, and Norbert Elias, in Zurich counted on the support coming through Horkheimer. The five-volume Studies in Prejudice, to which all the Institute members contributed, was published after the war (1949-50) and dealt with the psychological and sociological dynamics of the authoritarian personality, of anti-Semitism, as well as of propaganda.

In their Dialectic of Enlightenment Adorno and Horkheimer had persuasively demonstrated how destructive the effects of the domination of nature are, specifically a domination addicted to nature, itself in thrall to an enlightenment which restricts reason to scientific rationality. Horkheimer intensified his bold critique of instrumental reason in his Eclipse of Reason (1947), based on his lectures at Columbia University. He saw in store for us in the transition to a regulated world and a fully automated society the "decline of the individual" and the subjugation of human beings through technology. Scientific mania for progress and totalitarian politics destroy western civilization: "Where theory does not serve man, we have estrangement, meanness, narrow-mindedness," the contentious philosopher declared, and countered with a philosophy of history which needs no firm belief in salvation yet strives to redeem the utopia of a life in solidarity. A skeptical moralist who sought to correct Marx with Schopenhauer, he recognized that at the end of progress of a self-annulling reason nothing is left but the regression to barbarism or the beginning of history. Harboring no illusions Horkheimer sums up: "The Enlightenment set out to destroy lies and myths and to help truth and freedom triumph. But after its work of destruction had been done it was compelled to recognize that freedom and truth themselves were part of those myths." The later Horkheimer recommended a return to creative dreams and voluntarily imposed prohibitions, putting his faith in a "corporeal reason" (Nietzsche) which had escaped the coercion toward a system. But he did not shrug off the nightmare of our existence, and in the posthumously published Notes (1974) we read the harsh words: "The radically evil in the world exercises its dominion over all creatures the world over and up to the sun."

The thinkers committed to Critical Theory fluctuated constantly between hope and desperation, and when Horkheimer and Adorno painted the gloomiest of pictures, Walter Benjamin responded with his messianic philosophy of history. He greeted Paul Klee's Angelus Novus as the "angel of history" who shows us that what we await in the future has already arrived. The "aura" of art has decayed and the new barbarians wear Mickey Mouse smiles. Destruction rejuvenates, commented Benjamin, and his critique of culture denied itself all anachronistic lamentation. Photography and film changed our perception and shattered the aura which was no match for even the Dadaist "Shock." In view of the poverty of experience the modern individual evolves into a designer who manages with a minimum and makes a fresh start. The philosophical flâneur, whose Arcades Project resembles more an unending tale with every new manuscript find, cannot be reduced to a "theological incandescence" (Adorno). As literary theorist and philosopher, Benjamin toiled in the quarry of the past and brought forth saving images of resistance. His "materialistic theology" (Gershom Scholem) conceived of retrieving "forgotten humanness" for a fulfilled time of the present. His "micrological eye" (a quality for which Norbert Elias also was known) discovered the sign of the time in the hidden, the ephemeral, the peripheral. Benjamin's work necessarily remained a fragment, for the aesthetician sought to read the traces of the world, not erect philosophical systems. Benjamin's relevance for literary criticism, media theory and philosophy lies in his ability to flush out what is still alive and holds potential within the gigantic heap of wreckage we call progress.

Benjamin was born in Berlin, the son of a banker, and enjoyed an upper-middle-class lifestyle, a pampered child. He retained throughout his life a taste for the finer things, but not the means. The "model of a failed intellectual" (Fritjof Hager), he found it impossible to conform and even his friends considered him quaint and something of a ditherer whose antiquated politeness set him apart. Ernst Bloch, Bertolt Brecht, Adorno, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal held Benjamin in high esteem, but the academic community rejected his most significant writings on Goethe's Elective Affinities and The Origins of German Tragic Drama as being incomprehensible and "obscure." Benjamin's far-reaching essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is a scathing assault on bourgeois culture and undisguised praise for the new technologies with which tradition can be outwitted. The emigrant Benjamin spent a brief happy time in 1933 on the Balearic island of Ibiza where he experienced a sense of being "co-creator of nature." He returned to Paris, for Benjamin the "capital of the nineteenth century" yet, thanks to such poets as Baudelaire, at the same time holding the key to the twentieth century. Here, in this magical place, he wrote the Theses on the Philosophy of History which became his legacy. When his flight from the Nazis across the Pyrenees appeared doomed to failure, Benjamin committed suicide in the Spanish port of Bou. He summed up his own life as "defeat in great things, triumph in the small." With the publication in 1955 of a controversial 2-volume selection of Benjamin's Writings, Adorno ensured that the ideas of his friend who met such a tragic fate would not pass into obscurity. Those disillusioned children of the sixties discovered in Benjamin someone to identify with, someone whose erudite works resist surrender of a claim to happiness.

One of those who believed to the very end in the utopian ideals of changing the world was Leo Löwenthal who died in 1993 at a ripe old age, the last of the great thinkers of the Frankfurt School. His family was from Frankfurt, his father a physician, and he completed his doctorate in 1923 with a dissertation on Franz von Baader, philosopher of religion. Löwenthal was also a founding member of the Institute for Social Research and served from 1926 as editor of the Institute's "Journal for Social Research." A close friend of Marcuse, he stayed in the United States after the war and taught sociology at Berkeley from 1956. His writings in the sociology of literature and communication studies have become standard texts. Löwenthal turned to a social history of the artist in opposition to the unified front of irrationalist literature theory of his time. His works on Balzac and Zola, Hamsun and Dostoyevsky are exemplary of the productive cross-disciplinary adventures for which he was famed. His chief interest was in a pronounced ideological-critical text analysis which he expanded to include advertising and mass culture. Commissioned by the American State Department during the Second World War, Löwenthal analyzed German propaganda. He understood critical theory as "indication and characterization of an opprobrious world." His empirical findings couldn't prove more critical: "What appears at first glance to be a rather harmless world of entertainment and consumption, proves on closer observation to be a realm of spiritual terror in which the masses must needs recognize the negligibility and insignificance of their daily life. Advertising and terror form an indissoluble unity in the world of the superlative."

Löwenthal's observations on the culture industry continue Adorno's critique, but also display a confidence in the saving power of art set against mass culture. Unable to find anything laudatory in the technological duplication of artistic productions, he was all the more interested in the artist as outsider and his art as socioethical alternative to the morally indifferent forces of the market: "Art is the real message of the socially unredeemed, it is in fact the great reservoir of organized protest against social misery which allows the possibility of social happiness to shine through." Löwenthal sees the theory that history is written by the victors repudiated in the work of art. "In every work of art the voice of the losers in the world process is articulated, of those who will one day hopefully be the winners." With this hope Löwenthal transformed a critical motive of Benjamin's Illuminations. In Minima Moralia Adorno gave his version, pointing out: "If Benjamin said that history had hitherto been written from the standpoint of the victor, and needed to be written from that of the vanquished, we might add that knowledge must indeed present the fatally rectilinear succession of victory and defeat, but should also address itself to those things which were not embraced by this dynamic, which fell by the wayside – what might be called the waste of products and blind spots that have escaped the dialectic."(13)

The most influential thinker worldwide of the Frankfurt School was Herbert Marcuse, of whom Martin Heidegger, his former teacher, once said: "One of my best students, unfortunately corrupted by Freud." Marcuse, co-founder of Critical Theory, hoped for a new sensibility with whose help modern technology could develop into an unfettered art of living. A visionary philosopher of technology and thinker of the revolution of consciousness, he combined Marx with Freud, inner and external liberation. A native Berliner and Jewish anti-fascist, Marcuse declared the power of negation to be the basis of an aesthetics of freedom. As the intellectual father of the international student movement, he was more a phenomenologically rather than ideologically oriented student of Marx, and in the sixties he became known through such cult books as Eros and Civilization and One-Dimensional Man. The counterculture hailed Marcuse's insistence that Eros should not be repressed nor should culture be built on sublimation. But the political philosopher who had rescued Marx's Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts from oblivion strove to complement his hedonism with uncompromising social criticism. With his review of Hegel in the book of the same name he argued that Reason and Revolution are not mutually exclusive. And his One-Dimensional Man, an astute forecast of the triumphal advance of the capitalistic system, became the Bible of leftist critics of civilization. Since every protest is assimilated by capitalism and transformed into a product of consumption, Marcuse urged us to follow the example of authentic art and its "Great Refusal." The romantic realist could not be won for the class struggle but he believed the idealistic students capable of banding together in solidarity with the exploited, the ostracized and the incapacitated out of disgust with the obscene affluent society. Not in the repressive tolerance of a society out only for a good time which cheats us out of our autonomy, but in an aesthetic revolution did Marcuse see our chance of liberated consciousness and a radical change in our senses. Works of art cannot take the place of revolutions, but the permanence of art is brought about through its ceaseless rebellion against society. The philosopher emphasized early on the subversive role played here by pop culture.

But Marcuse was not cut out for the part of Guru for the believers in the revolution, he knew the classics of philosophical literature all too well for that. Marcuse came from a well-to-do family and studied in Berlin and Freiburg, his strongest formative influence coming from the Freiburg phenomenologists Husserl and Heidegger. After completing his dissertation on the German artist novel, Marcuse sought unsuccessfully to win Heidegger's support for his habilitation. He became interested in psychoanalysis, developed an enthusiasm for the early Marx and established close ties with Adorno and Horkheimer, who, like Marcuse, incorporated phenomenology and historical materialism into a critical theory. When the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research was forced to flee Hitler, Marcuse also went into exile, first to Paris, then arriving in New York in 1934. He became an American citizen in 1940, and in 1954 accepted an appointment to Brandeis University. One of the sharpest critics of the Vietnam war, Marcuse was dismissed from his position but in 1965 he was offered a professorship in San Diego. He had gained fame by then, staunchly supporting the insurgent students as well as scorning fossilized communism, and began a series of extended lecture tours. In Berkeley, Berlin and Paris Marcuse encouraged the New Left to uphold the right to liberation in defiance of the doctrine of non-violence, but without falling into terrorism. Marcuse died in July 1979 during a stay at a sanatorium in Starnberg, near Munich. The two decades since his death have seen postmodernism easily overcome the Oedipus complex that had created false authorities, but from Marcuse's viewpoint this liberation must be judged as half-hearted, lacking as it is in the life-enhancing solidarity of a socially fulfilled life.

Norbert Elias was the least known of the key thinkers of the Frankfurt School. He completed his doctoral dissertation Idea and the Individual (1924) in Breslau and his postdoctoral studies in Freiburg with Husserl and Karl Jaspers in Heidelberg. In Frankfurt in 1930 Elias became assistant to Karl Mannheim, founder of the "sociology of knowledge," and joined the discussion circle of the Institute for Social Research. He fled in 1933 from the Nazis, first to Paris and later to England where he taught from 1938. After his retirement he continued his research in Amsterdam. And then the almost unknown scholar was thrust into the spotlight when he received the Adorno Award in 1977. His "process sociology of civilization," a descriptive microanalysis in the spirit of critical theory, was suddenly discovered and he became the "new" theorist of the Frankfurt School. Never mind that Elias' main work, The Civilizing Process had been published back in 1939 and went completely unnoticed at the time. In addition to philosophy Elias had studied medicine, psychology and sociology and he made use of this broad basis of knowledge for his well-documented cultural history which redefined civilization. On the whole the civilizing process takes its normal course unplanned, yet does exhibit a certain order which Elias called "human figurations." This concrete order is neither reasonable nor unreasonable but instead expresses social processes of change. Elias' scientific interest was held by ordinary, everyday phenomena such as the use of knife and fork or the rituals of greeting. The human individual brings in these figurations his modes of behavior in harmony with those of other individuals and in this way achieves over time civilized social intercourse.

More often than not the reality of the world bears no resemblance to our desires, but becoming civilized means replacing external controls with prudent internal restraints. With his pioneering behavioral research Elias furnished evidence that from the "Court Society" to present day a steadily increasing "affect control" has held sway. So we should really marvel at how peaceful things are in the world, he challenged. Elias is widely recognized today as a "human science researcher" (Menschenwissenschaftler) and he saw himself as a bridge-builder between the disciplines. He died in 1990. "I never belonged," declared Elias, whose Studies on the German Character (1989) trenchantly defined the German national character as shaped by historical conflicts. The iconoclast Elias anticipated the "Society of Individuals," emergent as we enter the 21st century and bid farewell to general sociology from Marx to Talcott Parsons. "Micrology is the place where metaphysics find a haven from totality," (14) advised Adorno, whereas the critics of the "master of micrological observation" argued that Elias described only superficial changes beneath which we are still barbarians. But for all its enlightened optimism, Elias' "historical psychology" remained aware of the danger: that in a well-regulated community aggressions harbored by the inhabitants are easily directed against oneself. "Compassion for the difficulties of civilization" was his express recommendation.

Jürgen Habermas is the most prominent heir of Critical Theory, but his new "Frankfurt School" differs significantly in its renunciation of all metaphysical claim to truth. While his early works Theory and Practice, Technology and Science as Ideology, and Knowledge and Human Interest with their reference to a comprehensive emancipatory reason clearly reveal the influence of Adorno and Marcuse, Habermas' own "Theory of Communicative Action" set itself far more modest goals. Philosophy should function as "clearing house" for the sciences and initiate communicative action as mutual understanding. "It cannot be the task of philosophy to render meaning." With this precept Habermas defined the difference to his notable predecessors and insisted on a strict delimitation between science and art. Habermas offers us an ethics of modernity: in the transformation of intersubjective convictions into a social force through the participation of an informed public. Instead of a radical critique of reason he recommends a reason existing in the unity of diversity of its voices. Habermas freely links together the linguistic practice of individuals oriented toward understanding with a discourse theory of law, as we can follow in his treatise Between Facts and Norms. In the United States he is admired as a master thinker - though against his will – for the good reason that his "rationality of communicative action" is considered the last great philosophical system of a leftist theory of society. At the time when Critical Theory was at its influential peak Habermas worked at the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, was a colleague of Adorno as well as contact person for the revolutionary-minded students, and he became friends with the much older Marcuse, the "vagabond professor." Thus Habermas' function as communicator of the spirit of the Frankfurt School took on a special quality, as will become clear through his keen and appreciative articles on Adorno, Benjamin, and Marcuse in this volume.

In his Negative Dialectics Adorno proclaimed "to want substance in cognition is to want a utopia" and defined philosophy as "the prism in which its (utopia's) color is caught." (15) It is not necessarily a contradiction that Elias sought to describe the nature of society in realistic terms and considered a "de-ideologizing" advisable for general sociology. We can do one thing without omitting the other, for a "critical humanism" (Elias) is of essence to both: to Horkheimer's skepticism, instructed by negative experience, as well as to Benjamin's historical-philosophical vision. Marcuse pointed to compassion with those who suffer as a central motivation of the Frankfurt School, but this insight, reminiscent of Schopenhauer, is complemented by the hope for paradise on earth, something Marx claimed was realistic. In view of the experience of totalitarianism Critical Theory explicitly distanced itself from the class struggle, for Marx the only path to liberation of the proletariat, but the Frankfurt School clung to the idea of revolution. Marcuse laid the blame for our being deprived of autonomy with the repressive tolerance of the consumer society: goods instead of liberation. Like Adorno and Benjamin, he believed art, an art that becomes an art of living, capable of a "revolution of the senses," a worldly experience guided by creativity. Opponents argued that such an aestheticization of society made excessive demands of art and was ineffectual politically; but the members of the Frankfurt School were not put off by such pragmatic deliberations. Precisely because they had a deeper understanding of history, economics, and society than any philosophical school before them, they were not inclined to underestimate the "aesthetic dimension," as Marcuse called it, and its transhistorical truth: "I see the political potential of art in art itself, in the aesthetic form as such. Furthermore, I argue that by virtue of its aesthetic form, art is largely autonomous vis a vis the given social relation. In its autonomy art both protests these relations, and at the same time transcends them. Thereby, art subverts the dominant consciousness, the ordinary experience." (16) Critical Theory is emphatically self-critical in conceding the necessity of art for counterthinking, for thinking against one's own convictions, without however giving up its philosophical claim to truth.


1. Th.W. Adorno / M. Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, transl. J. Cumming, New York, 1995, 3.

2. Ibid.

3. Th.W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, transl. E.B. Ashton, New York, 1973, 366f.

4. It had been planned to include longer sections from Minima Moralia, Negative Dialectics, and Aesthetic Theory in this collection, but unfortunately this intention was frustrated by the refusal of the Adorno estate to grant permission to reprint.

5. Th.W. Adorno, Minima Moralia, transl. E.F.N. Jephcott, London, 1978, 247.

6. Cf. ibid., 50.

7. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 5.

8. Ibid., 365.

9. Ibid., 406.

10. Th.W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, transl. C.Lenhardt, London, 1984, 2.

11. Adorno, Minima Moralia, 205.

12. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 408.

13. Adorno, Minima Moralia, 151.

14. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 407.

15. Ibid., 57.

16. H. Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension, Boston, 1978, ix.