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Frankfurt School


The Frankfurt School (German: Frankfurter Schule) is a school of social theory and philosophy associated in part with the Institute for Social Research at the Goethe University Frankfurt. Founded during the interwar period, the School consisted of dissidents who felt at home neither in the existent capitalist, fascist, nor communist systems that had formed at the time. Many of these theorists believed that traditional theory could not adequately explain the turbulent and unexpected development of capitalist societies in the twentieth century. Critical of both capitalism and Soviet socialism, their writings pointed to the possibility of an alternative path to social development.

Although sometimes only loosely affiliated, Frankfurt School theorists spoke with a common paradigm in mind; they shared the Marxist Hegelian premises and were preoccupied with similar questions. To fill in the perceived omissions of classical Marxism, they sought to draw answers from other schools of thought, hence using the insights of antipositivist sociology, psychoanalysis, existential philosophy, and other disciplines. The school's main figures sought to learn from and synthesize the works of such varied thinkers as Kant, Hegel, Marx, Freud, Weber, and Lukács.

Following Marx, they were concerned with the conditions that allow for social change and the establishment of rational institutions. Their emphasis on the "critical" component of theory was derived significantly from their attempt to overcome the limits of positivism, materialism, and determinism by returning to Kant's critical philosophy and its successors in German idealism, principally Hegel's philosophy, with its emphasis on dialectic and contradiction as inherent properties of human reality.


Historical context Transition from small-scale entrepreneurial capitalism to monopoly capitalism and imperialism; socialist labor movement grows, turns reformist; emergence of the welfare state; Russian revolution and the rise of Communism; neotechnic period; emergence of mass media and mass culture, "modern" art; rise of Nazism.
Weberian theory Comparative historical analysis of Western rationalism in capitalism, the modern state, secular scientific rationality, culture, and religion; analysis of the forms of domination in general and of modern rational-legal bureaucratic domination in particular; articulation of the distinctive, hermeneutic method of the social sciences.
Freudian theory Critique of the repressive structure of the "reality principle" of advanced civilization and of the normal neurosis of everyday life; discovery of the unconscious, primary-process thinking, and the impact of the Oedipus complex and of anxiety on psychic life; analysis of the psychic bases of authoritarianism and irrational social behavior.
Critique of positivism Critique of positivism as a philosophy, as a scientific methodology, as a political ideology and as everyday conformity; rehabilitation of – negative – dialectic, return to Hegel; appropriation of critical elements in phenomenology, historicism, existentialism, critique of their ahistorical, idealist tendencies; critique of logical positivism and pragmatism.
Aesthetic modernism Critique of "false" and reified experience by breaking through its traditional forms and language; projection of alternative modes of existence and experience; liberation of the unconscious; consciousness of unique, modern situation; appropriation of Kafka, Proust, Schoenberg, Breton; critique of the culture industry and "affirmative" culture; aesthetic utopia.
Marxist theory Critique of bourgeois ideology; critique of alienated labor; historical materialism; history as class struggle and exploitation of labor in different modes of production; systems analysis of capitalism as extraction of surplus labor through free labor in the free market; Breakdown of Capital Accumulation/Crisis theory; unity of theory and practice; analysis for the sake of revolution, socialist democracy, classless society.
Culture theory Critique of mass culture as suppression and absorption of negation, as integration into status quo; critique of Western culture as a culture of domination, both of an external and internal nature; dialectic differentiation of emancipatory and repressive dimensions of elite culture; Kierkegaard's critique of the present age, Nietzsche's transvaluation, and Schiller's aesthetic education.

  • Arato, Andrew and Eike Gebhardt, Eds. The Essential Frankfurt School Reader. New York: Continuum, 1982.
  • Bernstein, Jay. Ed. The Frankfurt School: Critical Assessments. New York: Routledge, 1994. (in six volumes).
  • Benhabib, Seyla. Critique, Norm, and Utopia: A Study of the Foundations of Critical Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.
  • Bottomore, Tom. The Frankfurt School and its Critics. New York: Routledge, 2002.
  • Bronner, Stephen Eric and Douglas MacKay Kellner, Eds. Critical Theory and Society: A Reader. New York: Routledge, 1989.
  • Brosio, Richard A. The Frankfurt School: An Analysis of the Contradictions and Crises of Liberal Capitalist Societies. 1980.
  • Crone, Michael (ed.): Vertreter der Frankfurter Schule in den Hörfunkprogrammen 1950–1992. Hessischer Rundfunk, Frankfurt am Main 1992. (bibliography)
  • Friedman, George. The Political Philosophy of the Frankfurt School. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981.
  • Held, David. Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.
  • Gerhardt, Christina. "Frankfurt School. The International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest, 1500 to the Present. 8 vols. Ed. Immanuel Ness. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2009. 12-13.
  • Jay, Martin. The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute for Social Research 1923–1950. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. 1996.
  • Jeffries, Stuart (2016-09-20). Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School. London ; Brooklyn, NY: Verso. ISBN . 
  • Kompridis, Nikolas. Critique and Disclosure: Critical Theory between Past and Future. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006.
  • Postone, Moishe. Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx's Critical Theory. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  • Schwartz, Frederic J. Blind Spots: Critical Theory and the History of Art in Twentieth-Century Germany. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.
  • Shapiro, Jeremy J. "The Critical Theory of Frankfurt". Times Literary Supplement 3 (October 4, 1974) 787.
  • Scheuerman, William E. Frankfurt School Perspectives on Globalization, Democracy, and the Law. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge, 2008.
  • Wiggershaus, Rolf. The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories and Political Significance. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995.
  • Wheatland, Thomas. The Frankfurt School in Exile. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.
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