Academic journal article The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies

The Frankfurt School Demythologized?

Academic journal article The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies

The Frankfurt School Demythologized?

Article excerpt

The Frankfurt School Demythologized? The Frankfurt School in America: A Transatlantic Odyssey from Exile to Acclaim Thomas Wheatland University of Minnesota Press, 2009

Though the history of the Frankfurt School has been delineated in exhaustive detail on both sides of the Atlantic by Martin Jay and Rolf Wiggershaus, Thomas Wheatland's The Frankfurt School in America: A Transatlantic Odyssey from Exile to Acclaim ambitiously endeavors to demystify the consensus belief that the Frankfurt School remained intellectually and politically estranged from the American scene during their exile at Columbia University during the 1930s. Wheatland laments that the Frankfurt School did not fully exploit the opportunity to interact with The New York Intellectuals, another widely celebrated group of Jewish Marxists who were also cultural modernists.1 Wheatland devotes an entire chapter, "John Dewey's Pit Bull," to magnifying the interaction between Sidney Hook and the Frankfurt School. Hook was arguably the most seminal thinker among The New York Intellectuals. The alleged confrontation between pragmatism and critical theory focuses upon two meetings between Hook, Ernest Nagel, Meyer Schapiro, and Otto Neurath with the Horkheimer Circle in 1936 and 1937. As one of the leading Marxist scholars in the western world who conducted research at the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow (1929) as well as collaborating with German Marxists, like Karl Korsch, Hook was a formidable intellectual presence. His synthesis of Marxism and Deweyan pragmatism constituted a dangerous heresy for orthodox Marxist- Leninism.

Unfortunately, no minutes were taken of the two meetings. What transpired was filtered through the recollections of the participants. The discussion pivoted upon the relationship between scientific empiricism and logical positivism. The Frankfurt School's political sub-text charged that pragmatic liberalism, including socialist democracy, rooted in empiricism, devolved inexorably into fascism. Positivism and pragmatism were portrayed as manifesting a "worship of the facts." Hook queried Horkheimer and Marcuse about what doctrines are dialectically true but scientifically false or scientifically true yet dialectically false. Hook's repudiation of the "dialectic" confronted the Frankfurt School with a frontal attack on their core convictions. In a series of articles culminating in his book, From Hegel to Marx (1936), Hook undermined both orthodox Marxist-Leninism and the cultural Marxist approach fashioned by the Frankfurt School. Both Horkheimer and Marcuse recognized that Deweyan pragmatism represented their most formidable adversary in the United States. In a letter to Friedrich Pollock (June 9, 1943), Horkheimer echoed a ubiquitous charge against pragmatic liberalism by declaring that "pragmatism and empiricism and the lack of genuine philosophy are some of the foremost reasons which are responsible for the crisis which civilization would have faced even if the war had not come."2 Horkheimer's Eclipse of Reason, emanating from lectures delivered at Columbia University in 1944, indicted pragmatism for advancing the Enlightenment aspiration of controlling nature at the expense of the environment.

In a review of Dewey's Theory of Valuation (1941), Marcuse acknowledged that Dewey and Hook were not conventional logical positivists since they rejected value-free thinking. Marcuse insisted that "freedom" was not testable. Only in the act of negation can one be free. This supercedes any concrete values. In a fascist regime where people are afflicted with a false consciousness, rebellion against the dominant order would be deemed "unreasonable." Dialectically speaking, democratic institutions are actually totalitarian. Dewey deemed free inquiry or the exercise of critical intelligence to be the only absolute. Advocating the power of negativity, Marcuse paradoxically espoused an antinomian "freedom" while abstaining from free inquiry regarding the Soviet Union. …

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