Maximilian Ringleb | Guide to Horkheimer and Adorno Readings

Horkheimer and Adorno: Critical Theory and Actuality of Philosophy

by Maximilian Ringleb*

During the 1920s, it became apparent that Marx’s predicted proletarian revolution and Diktatur des Proletariats had not been realized in the industrialized European states. Quite the contrary, especially in Germany but elsewhere in Europe as well, the masses turned increasingly toward nationalist and ultimately fascist movements and parties. This socio-political phenomenon during the inter-war period posed existential questions to the future of Marxism and required a serious reassessment.

Max Horkheimer’s Traditionelle und kritische Theorie, published in 1937, marks the origin of what is, in retrospect, one of the most influential schools of thought which aimed at advancing Marx’s social theory to overcome its shortcomings, namely, the Frankfurt school. In his essay, Horkheimer proposes the creation not just of a reformatory research program to adjust Marxism in light of the given development of history, but of a completely different approach to theory. Horkheimer justifies this “radical reconsideration”[1] based on the limitations of what he terms traditionelle Theorie. Founding on “the Cartesian dualism of thought and being,”[2] the traditional concept of theory regards any conditions of being[3] as external to thought thereby being “absolutized, as though it were grounded in the inner nature of knowledge as such or justified in some other ahistorical way.”[4] While this might be a rather unproblematic assumption in the realm of natural sciences, Horkheimer notes that the traditional scientific method has slowly but steadily entered into the humanities (Geisteswissenschaften), upholding a dualism which essentially does not exist in any human sciences.[5] As Horkheimer puts it, ironically:  “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.”[6] Rather, scientific research is ultimately moderated by various dimensions of being, such as economic, social, cultural, or historical factors. According to Horkheimer, the capitalist system, implementing sophisticated systems of divided labor based on the principles of free market competition, essentially turned traditional science into yet another commodity which unconsciously follows the laws of supply and demand.[7] Based on these considerations about traditional theory, he consequently follows:

“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.”[8]

This alternative conception of theory is what Horkheimer terms Kritische Theorie, whose object consequently is to overcome the detachment of conscious but traditionally passive individuals from unconscious but actively evolving social conditions[9] thereby enabling individual human beings to become “producers of their own historical way of life in its totality.”[10] Critical theory therefore provides the theoretical basis for a radically new, “rational constitution of society”[11] which shakes off any historically and unconsciously evolved forms of oppression and ultimately realizes, in Horkheimer’s words, “man’s emancipation from slavery.”[12] In order to rationalize the future design of social reality, the critical scientificmethod needs to analyze the social totality dialectically, by recognizing and interpreting social reality and its conditions “exactly as they are”[13] but simultaneously criticizing these same interpretations based on the unconscious development of social reality in the first place. By adapting this dialectic approach to science, critical theory effectively addresses Horkheimer’s critique on the traditional scientific method by respecting the inapplicability of the Cartesian dualism of thought and being on human sciences (Geisteswissenschaften).

Besides the abstract, originally Kantian problem of “transcendental affinity,” which results in an inevitable “discrepancy between fact and theory,”[14] the object of critical theory, polemically definable as the complete “Ausgang des Menschen aus seiner selbst verschuldeten Unmündigkeit,”[15] raises essentially practical concerns, specifically in terms of the relation between theory and praxis. In this regard, Horkheimer notes – considering the offspring of idealist philosophy such as the neo-Kantian Marburg school – that “[t]heattempt legitimately to determine practical goals by thinking must always fail.”[16] Traditional theory, being included into and governed by the capitalist order of society, mainly follows unconscious systemic orders and consequently does not face the problem of defining practical goals – quite the opposite, it has generously accepted Weber’s Postulat der Werturteilsfreiheit.While this “separation of value and research, knowledge and action, and other polarities, protects the savant,”[17] it results in serious tensions within critical theory. The necessity of value judgments and of a bridging from knowledge to action essentially makes critical theorists “appear[] to be biased and unjust.”[18] A second obstacle to the implementation of critical theory’s findings is a general “hostility […] in contemporary public life […] against the transformative activity associated with critical thinking.”[19] This status quo bias is amplified by the ones who profit from it as well as by system-confirmative ideology. Third, a consequent application of critical theory on praxis, aiming at a fundamental transformation of society, at first intensifies the societal struggles, which further undermines its practical attraction. Since effective transformations nevertheless depend on the conviction and decisive action of the masses, Horkheimer believes in regard of the  various obstacles for and tensions inherent to critical theory that “[t]he historical significance of his [the critical theorist’s] work […] depends on men speaking and acting in such a way as to justify it.”[20] For Horkheimer, these decisive “men” are essentially the intelligentsia, a social class composed of “university professors, middle-level civil servants, doctors, lawyers, and so forth.”[21] Being able to grasp and internalize the practical recommendations of critical theorists, this class constitutes in Horkheimer’s view the bridging societal element between critical theory and mass action. In this way, Horkheimer cautiously attempts to position critical theory in its relation to praxis on a very fine line, trying to ensure that it “is neither ‘deeply rooted’ like totalitarian propaganda nor ‘detached’ like the liberalist intelligentsia.”[22]

Having elaborated on the objectives and methods of critical theory and how it relates to praxis, Horkheimer emphasizes another dimension crucial to it, namely the “relation between thought and time.”[23] As critical theory discards the dualism of thought and being, and since being constantly evolves over time, thought must constantly adapt as well and consequently, “the theory as a whole is caught up in an evolution.”[24] Therefore, critical theory’s “knowledge guarantees only a contemporary, not a future community of transmitters”[25] and both theory and practice need to constantly reflect and adjust. Keeping the temporary dimension of critical theory in mind as well, Horkheimer ends on the notion that nothing less than “[t]he future of humanity depends on the existence of the critical attitude.”[26] Only through maintaining this attitude both in thought and praxis, “the abolition of social injustice”[27]can ultimately be achieved.

Several German philosophers of Horkheimer’s time, among them Herbert Marcuse, Friedrich Pollock, and Leo Löwenthal, followed his call for a radical new approach to theory. Of this first generation of Frankfurt School theorists, Theodor Adorno is generally regarded as their main proponent besides Horkheimer. Both stood in a Marxist tradition, and both agreed in the notion that idealist philosophy had to be overcome once and for all. However, their approaches were fundamentally different as Adorno aimed to criticize the philosophical foundations of contemporary social conditions by dialectic reasoning, whereas Horkheimer focused on revealing the dissonance between the two. Benjamin Snow summarizes the methodological difference between Adorno and Horkheimer very well, stating that “[o]ne was doing sociological philosophy; the other, philosophical sociology.”[28]

Where Horkheimer’s Traditionelle und kritische Theorie provided the basis for the subsequent research program of the Frankfurt school, Adorno’s lecture on The Actuality of Philosophy circumscribes his personal research project. Starting off by rejecting “that the power of thought is sufficient to grasp the totality of the real,”[29] which he subsequently substantiates by analyzing the historical failure of idealist philosophers to interpret the world in its totality, Adorno raises the question if, especially in the age of science which proclaims the end of the metaphysical era, “philosophy is itself at all actual.”[30] Adorno affirms this question, based on “the problem of the meaning of the ‘given’ itself”[31] as well as “[t]he problem of the unknown consciousness, the alter ego.”[32] While philosophy will ultimately abandon extensive fields of thought for their proper analysis through the scientific perspective, Adorno identifies these two problems as fundamentally out of reach of the sciences. However, by definition philosophy cannot approach these questions with scientific research methods but rather needs to interpret them until “the singular and dispersed elements of the question […] fall into a figure which can be read as an answer, while at the same time the question disappears.”[33] Due to the limited scope of the modern philosophical interpretation, however, the disappearance of the question can only follow on a dialectic process which includes, besides philosophical interpreting, “materialist praxis.”[34] As Adorno puts it: “[T]he annihilation of the question compels praxis.”[35] Consequently, Adorno believes that, even if “the mind (Geist) is indeed not capable of producing or grasping the totality of the real,”[36] philosophical interpretation remains highly actual as “it may be possible to penetrate the detail,”[37] if and only if it aligns with praxis in a dialectical process. Thus, Adorno just as Horkheimer reemphasize with their foundational essays Marx’s 11th thesis on Feuerbach and consequently define the major aim of critical theory as nothing less than to change the world.[38]


Works cited

Adorno, T.(1997):“The Actuality of Philosophy.” In: Telos, Vol. 31, pp. 120-133.

Bauer, L. / Matis, H. (1988):Geburt der Neuzeit. Vom Feudalsystem zur Marktgesellschaft. München: dtv.

Colander, D. (2003): “Muddling Through and Policy Analysis.” Middlebury College Economics Discussion Paper No. 03-17, Keynote Address at the New Zealand Economic Association.

Descartes, R. (1920) [1637]:Von der Methode des richtigen Vernunftgebrauchs und der wissenschaftlichen Forschung. Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag.

Ebner, A. (2014): “Ökonomie als Geisteswissenschaft?” In: Kurz, H. (Ed.): Studien zur Entwicklung der ökonomischen Theorie XXVIII. Die Ökonomik im Spannungsfeld zwischen Natur- und Geisteswissenschaften. Alte und neue Perspektiven im Licht des jüngsten Methodenstreits. Berlin: Dunker & Humboldt, pp. 73-106.

Harcourt, B. (2019): Praxis and Critique: A Manifesto. New York, 3rdedition.

Horkheimer, M. (2002) [1937]:“Traditional and Critical Theory.” In: Horkheimer, M. (Ed.):Critical Theory. Selected Essays.New York: Continuum, pp. 188-252.

Horkheimer, M./ Adorno, T. (1988) [1944]: Dialektik der Aufklärung.Frankfurt am Main: Fischer.

Kant, I.(1784):“Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?” In: Berlinische Monatsschrift, Vol. 12, pp. 481-494.

Snow, B.(1997):“Introduction to Adorno’s ‘The Actuality of Philosophy.’” In: Telos,Vol. 31, pp. 113-119.

De Tocqueville, A. (2002) [1840]: Democracy in America.Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press.

Viner, J.(1927): “Adam Smith and Laissez Faire.” In: Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 35, No. 2, pp. 198-232.



[1] Horkheimer (2002, p. 199).

[2] Horkheimer (2002, p. 231). According to Horkheimer (2002, pp. 188 et seq.), the traditional conception of theory can be traced back specifically to René Descartes’s famous Discours de la méthode pour bien conduire sa raison et chercher la verité dans les sciences, first published in 1637, which subsequently constituted the groundwork of French rationalism. In the second part of this book, Descartes introduces a universal philosophical method in order to ensure a linear progression of truth through scientific research. In that sense, scienceis understood as a body of knowledge which is conceded as or at least considered to be true and which expands over time through the iterative application of the scientific method. See Descartes (1960, pp. 15-16). In fact, the Cartesian ideal of a universal science, founding on the principles of decomposability, hierarchization, and quantifiability regarding objects of investigation, dominated European academia in early modern times and can therefore be regarded as the origin of a “traditional” conception of theory. See Ebner (2014, p. 74) and Bauer / Matis (1988, pp. 414-444).

[3] Such conditions of being are, for example, “[t]he social genesis of problems, the real situations in which science is put to use, and the purposes which it is made to serve.” Horkheimer (2002, p. 244).

[4] Horkheimer (2002, p. 194).

[5] See Horkheimer (2002, p. 190). One remarkable illustration for the takeover of natural scientific methods in human sciences provides the methodological history of economics. In regard of the original methodology applied by the founding father of modern economics, Adam Smith, but also used by many others of the Grand Tradition, such as John Stuart Mill, Jacob Viner (1927, p. 198) notes that “Smith was the great eclectic. He drew upon all previous knowledge in developing his doctrine of a harmonious order in nature manifesting itself through the instincts of the individual man.” David Ricardo’s Principles of Political Economy, published in 1821, was then a first attempt to introduce the mathematical deductive method into economics. With the victory of Carl Menger and the Austrian Neoclassical School over Gustav Schmoller and the German Historical School in the first Methodenstreit, the dominance of natural scientific methods in economics was finally set for the 20thcentury, building on such abstract entities as the homo oeconomicus. For a more comprehensive history of economic methodology in the Anglo-American tradition, also see Colander (2003).

[6] Horkheimer (2002, p. 197).

[7] In this regard, Horkheimer (2002, p. 205) further criticizes that today more than ever, “[l]ess energy is being expended on forming and developing the capacity of thought without regard to how it is to be applied.” While he traces this development back to the mechanisms of capitalism, it is worth to note that Tocqueville (2002, p. 434) rather holds democracy liable for this phenomenon: “Nothing is more necessary to the cultivation of the advanced sciences or of the elevated portion of sciences than meditation, and there is nothing less fit for meditation that the interior of a democratic society.”

[8] Horkheimer (2002, p. 199).

[9] As Horkheimer (2002, p. 200) puts it: “In the bourgeois economic mode the activity of society is blind and concrete, that of individuals abstract and conscious.”

[10] Horkheimer (2002, p. 244). Also see Horkheimer (2002, pp. 206 et seq.).

[11] Horkheimer (2002, p. 246).

[12] Horkheimer (2002, p. 246).

[13] Horkheimer (2002, p. 208).

[14] Horkheimer (2002, p. 203).

[15] Kant (1784, p. 481).

[16] Horkheimer (2002, p. 211).

[17] Horkheimer (2002, p. 208).

[18] Horkheimer (2002, p. 218).

[19] Horkheimer (2002, p. 232).

[20] Horkheimer (2002, p. 220).

[21] Horkheimer (2002, p. 221).

[22] Horkheimer (2002, pp. 223-224). Horkheimer’s attempt to reverse the detachment of the liberalist intelligentsia thereby granting theory ultimately an interpretational sovereignty over practice is risky. The transition of this sovereignty of theory of practice into an actual power to direct practice is indeed not unimaginable, as the direct line from Rousseau’s Social Contract to the writings of Abbé de Mably and ultimately to the terror regime of the Jacobins prove. The relation of theory and praxis is further discussed in Harcourt (2019).

[23] Horkheimer (2002, pp. 239-240).

[24] Horkheimer (2002, p. 238). Horkheimer consequently upheld this claim in his own works. In a foreword to a later edition of the Dialectics of Enlightenment, he and Adorno write: “Nicht an allem, was in dem Buch gesagt ist, halten wir unverändert fest. Das wäre unvereinbar mit einer Theorie, welche der Wahrheit einen Zeitkern zuspricht, anstatt sie als Unveränderliches der geschichtlichen Bewegung entgegenzusetzen.” Horkheimer / Adorno (1988, p. IX).

[25] Horkheimer (2002, p. 241).

[26]Horkheimer (2002, p. 242).

[27]Horkheimer (2002, p. 242).

[28]Snow (1997, p. 118).

[29]Adorno (1997, p. 120).

[30]Adorno (1997, p. 124).

[31]Adorno (1997, p. 125).

[32]Adorno (1997, p. 125).

[33]Adorno (1997, p. 127).

[34]Adorno (1997, p. 129).

[35]Adorno (1997, p. 129).

[36]Adorno (1997, p. 133).

[37]Adorno (1997, p. 133).

[38]Harcourt (2019, p. 3).

*M.A. Candidate in Global Thought