Shane Avery's Reviews > The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School & the Institute of Social Research, 1923-50

The Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay
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Nov 12, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: non-fiction, thought
Read in October, 2008

Martin Jay writes an intellectual history of the Institut fur Sozialforschung , more commonly known as the Frankfurt School, during its sojourn in America. The Institut was comprised of a group of exceptionally brilliant scholars; its most noteworthy members included Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Leo Lowenthal, Erich Fromm, and Herbert Marcuse. The Institut was founded by a grant in 1929, and was only very loosely affiliated with the University of Frankfurt. Nazi ascension forced the Institut to relocate in New York, and eventually Los Angeles, only to return again to Frankfurt after the War.

Its nominal affiliation with the University allowed the School to pursue independent social research, originally directed towards understanding the revolutionary activity of the proletariat. This meant an exploration of the relationship between theory and practice, or, in Marxist terminology, praxis. Marxists defined praxis as self-creating action, as opposed to externally motivated behaviour outside of man's control. The main question they hoped to answer in their early years was whether the collapse of capitalism would come about through objective forces, or through subjective understanding, i.e., revolutionary praxis.

Once Horkheimer took over the directorship of the Institut, its members' understanding of Marxism become much more creative and dialectical. Horkheimer, et al rejected the economic determinism of what they deemed vulgar Marxism and instead stressed social psychology as a way to bridge the gap between the individual and society. Pure consciousness does not exist. Nor does an Absolute Idea. Yet that does not mean that humans are simply by-products of historical forces; they both make and are made by history. In other words, there is no Thought as such, only concrete men rooted in socioeconomic conditions. It might be added parenthetically that this meant that the Institut rejected Kant's identity theory.

The members thus developed what they called Critical Theory, which is quite difficult to define. At its core, Critical Theory was dialectical. That is to say, every force, concept, or trend in history is dynamic and interacts with other forces; nothing is closed or finished. Thus, neither idealism nor materialism works as a closed philosophical system. Metaphysical systematizing is off-limits, as is antinomian-style empiricism. Ideas are important, but they only reveal historically conditioned phenomenon. Materialism is important, but not to the point of ontological primacy of economic conditions. So, while there is a right and wrong, they too are historically conditioned; there is no transcendent moral code. Absolute certainty will only lead to manipulating and dominating attitude. The only constant in human affairs is what the members called anthropogenesis, or the ability of humans to always create themselves anew. This aversion to closed philosophical systems led to a series of critiques of other philosophical systems, or negation. In fact, “a program of negation” might be the best way to define Critical Theory: a refusal to define itself in any fixed way. What, then, is the goal of the social scientist? Although definitely a part of society, the researcher is at times capable of rising above it. Truth is the moment of correct praxis; he who identifies truth leaps over history and works to end exploitation and oppression.

One of the most interesting aspects of Critical Theory was its relationship to psychoanalysis. In short, CT tried to marry Freud and Marx. The task of an analytic social psychology is to understand consciously motivated behaviour in terms of the effect the socioeconomic structure has on basic psychic drives. These theoretical considerations informed an interesting and lengthy study in 1936 entitled Studien uber Autoritat und Familie, which originally intended to understand the failure of Marxism to fulfil its historical role. The Studien concluded that the family had lost its countersocial function, and now most individuals were more directly socialized by other institutions in society. The work also included empirical research, which included questionnaires, developed by Fromm, distributed to test the psychological status of workers and clerical employees in Germany.

I realise now that I’ve only summarized one-third of the book, and am likely to run out of space if I continue writing with such detail. Briefly: upon its move to America in 1936, the Frankfurt School shifted its focus away from understanding the failures of Marxism and the rise of fascism, to the understanding conformity and the relationship between man and nature. To this end, CT concluded that the subliminal message of almost all that passed for art and culture was conformity and resignation. In fact, both “art” and the culture industry in American enslaves and exploits humans in ways far more insidious and effective than the crude methods of domination practiced by totalitarian states. American consumerism, by claiming a false harmony between the individual’s needs and universal needs, is highly dangerous for its ability to lull victims into passive acceptance of the status quo. The worst effect of automaton conformity is the inability it produces in the masses to think conceptually, or critically, about anything at all.

Horkhemier and Adorno stretched this critique to include the main thrust of Western thought since the beginning of Baconian science and the enlightenment project, which they defined as a program of dominance. The Frankfurt School’s impact on American scholarship was mixed. This was due partially to the reluctance of Horkheimer and Adorno to publish in English, and to the School’s relative insulation from mainstream American University life and the American intellectual tradition. CT rejected the glorification of empiricism above philosophy, and especially the relativistic tendencies of the American social sciences. However, the School did collaborate on one important project during its several years in California, namely a lengthy empirical and theoretical study called The Authoritarian Personality, which sought to understand the tendency of American workers to accept implicit authority.

The Institut never aligned itself with a political party in America, or in Germany, deeming all political parties, even radical ones, affirmative and essentially under-girding props to the status quo. (although this is not quite true of Marcuse) Toward the end of their American sojourn, Horkhimer and Adorno became particularly pessimistic about the possibility of a fundamental shift in the forces of production. In fact, Horkheimer and Adorno rejected just about everything, aside from a vague and intentionally ill-defined notion of positive human freedom. They resigned themselves to embracing critical thrusts, and distrusted everything, especially the Liberal tradition.

All in all, Martin Jay does a tremendous job with this difficult material. While not the best writer, not many scholars could have effectively synthesized the profound and penetrating thought of this group of German philosophers and social scientists as the author does. Jay has almost a hundred pages of discursive footnotes, and his command and understanding of what amounts to a large body of very complex ideas is impressive. Dialectical Imagination is a remarkable achievement.
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