Max Horkheimer (1895-1973) was a prominent German philosopher and a founding figure of the Frankfurt School. He played a crucial role in facilitating research for scholars associated with the Frankfurt School in both Germany and the United States. He was born on February 14, 1895, in Stuttgart, Germany. Despite his privileged upbringing as part of a wealthy Jewish textile manufacturing family in Stuttgart, Horkheimer possessed a keen awareness of the social injustices inherent in the capitalist system. Although he initially followed his father’s path into the family business, Horkheimer’s true passion lay elsewhere. His journey into academia began in 1919 when he enrolled at the University of Munich to study psychology, philosophy, and economics. While living in Munich, in a twist of fate, he was mistaken for the revolutionary playwright Ernst Toller and arrested and imprisoned. Upon his release, Horkheimer transferred to Frankfurt, where he studied under notable figures such as Edmund Husserl and met Martin Heidegger, then Husserl’s research assistant.
Completing his doctoral and habilitation degrees under the guidance of Hans Cornelius, Horkheimer took over as the director of the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research) in Frankfurt in 1930. His inaugural address in 1931 outlined the Institute’s three primary objectives: forging an interdisciplinary approach to societal studies, reshaping the Marxist project to encompass cultural and social concerns, and analyzing the intricate connections between society, economy, culture, and consciousness. Under Horkheimer’s leadership, the Institute conducted groundbreaking research on the psychological makeup of the German working class during a politically perilous time when the Nazi Party was gaining momentum. In response to the mounting danger, the Institute relocated first to Geneva in 1931 and then to Columbia University in New York in 1934, with Horkheimer leading the way and aiding his exiled colleagues in the transition.
One of Horkheimer’s most renowned works, “Traditionelle und Kritische Theorie” (“Traditional and Critical Theory”), was published in 1937. This essay, featured in the Institute’s journal “Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung” (Journal for Social Research), marked a milestone for critical theory, an approach rooted in materialist social analysis that deliberately distanced itself from science and what Horkheimer termed “instrumental reason.” Notably, this work anticipated his collaboration with Theodor Adorno on “Dialektik der Aufklärung” (Dialectic of Enlightenment), completed in Los Angeles, the Institute’s new exiled base. “Dialectic of Enlightenment” aimed to unravel the conditions that allowed Nazism to grip a society, while also highlighting the universality of such phenomena beyond Germany. The collaboration posited that mass media weakened resistance to ideological manipulation, a viewpoint influential until the rise of more reception-oriented theories in the 1980s within the realm of Cultural Studies.
Horkheimer returned to Frankfurt in 1949, with the Institute reopening there the following year. He assumed the role of university rector between 1951 and 1953 and later lectured at the University of Chicago in 1954. Retirement arrived in 1955, yet Horkheimer’s influence endured despite his reduced written output in his later years. His ideas continued to reverberate, solidifying his lasting impact on philosophical and sociological thought.