Continental Philosophy

Critical Theorists

Who were Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno?

Max Horkheimer (1893–1973) and Theodore Adorno (1903–1969) were founding members of the Frankfurt School and they were its leaders in exile. Horkheimer was a cultural critic and social philosopher; Adorno was a cultural critic and musicologist. Horkheimer’s ideal was a general understanding of the place of human beings in society. He thought, contrary to orthodox Marxists who often viewed society from the standpoint of the proletariat, that no social class at that time escaped distortions in its social world view. Adorno thought that Austrian composer Arnold Shönberg’s atonal music supported human autonomy or freedom, and he strongly condemned jazz as a form of “music for the masses,” in contrast.

In a way, given their shared view that Marxism should not be culturally centered on the proletariat, it is not surprising that Horkheimer and Adorno collaborated, producing Dialectic of Enlightenment (1974). They argued that the progress sought in the Enlightenment could not be achieved and that instead the result would be either mass capitalistic vulgarity in a consumer economy, or totalitarian brutality.


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