Max Horkheimer (February 14, 1895 – July 7, 1973) was a German philosopher and sociologist, and a founder and guiding thinker of critical theory (or, broadly speaking, a founding member of the Frankfurt School).
Horkheimer was born in Stuttgart to an assimilated Jewish family. Due to parental pressure, he did not initially pursue an academic career, leaving secondary school at the age of sixteen to work in his father's factory. However, after World War I he enrolled at Munich University, where he studied philosophy and psychology. He subsequently moved to Frankfurt am Main, where he studied under Hans Cornelius. There he met Theodor Adorno, several years his junior, with whom he would strike a lasting friendship and a fruitful collaborative relationship.
In 1925, Horkheimer was habilitated with a dissertation entitled Kant's Critique of Judgement as Mediation between Practical and Theoretical Philosophy written under Cornelius. He was appointed Privatdozent the following year. When the Institute for Social Research's directorship became vacant in 1930, he was elected to the position. In the same year Horkheimer took over the chair of social philosophy at Frankfurt University. The following year publication of the Institute's Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung began, with Horkheimer as its editor.
Horkheimer's venia legendi was revoked by the new Nazi government, and the Institute closed in 1933. He emigrated to Switzerland, from where he would leave for the USA the following year, where Columbia University hosted the Institute in exile.
In 1940, Horkheimer received American citizenship and moved to Pacific Palisades, California, where his collaboration with Adorno would yield the Dialectic of Enlightenment. Unlike Adorno, Horkheimer was never a prolific writer and in the following twenty years he published little, although he continued to edit Studies in Philosophy and Social Science as a continuation of the Zeitschrift. In 1949 he returned to Frankfurt, where the Institute reopened in 1950. Between 1951 and 1953 Horkheimer was rector of the University of Frankfurt, where he continued to teach until his retirement in the mid-1960s.
Horkheimer's book, Eclipse of Reason, deals with the concept of reason within the history of Western philosophy. Horkheimer defines true reason as rationality, which can only be fostered in an environment of free, critical thinking. He details the difference between objective, subjective and instrumental reason, and states that we have moved from the former through the center and into the latter (though subjective and instrumental reason are closely connected). Objective reason deals with universal truths that dictate that an action is either right or wrong. It is a concrete concept, and a force in the world which requires specific modes of behavior. The focus in the objective faculty of reason is on ends, as opposed to means. Subjective reason is an abstract concept of reason, and focuses primarily on ends. Specifically, the reasonable nature of purposes of action are irrelevant - the ends only serve the purpose of the subject (generally self-advancement or preservation). To be "reasonable" in this context is to be suited to a particular purpose, to be "good for something else". This aspect of reason is universally conforming, and easily furnishes ideology. In instrumental reason, the sole criterion of reason is its operational value or purposefulness, and with this, the idea of truth becomes contingent on mere subjective preference (hence the relation with subjective reason). Because subjective/instrumental reason rules, the ideals of a society, for example democratic ideals, become dependent on the "interests" of the people instead of being dependent on objective truths. Horkheimer thus concludes, "If by enlightenment and intellectual progress we mean the freeing of man from superstitious belief in evil forces, in demons and fairies, in blind fate - in short, the emancipation from fear - then denunciation of what is currently called reason is the greatest service we can render.
Writing in 1941, Horkheimer was strongly influenced by the Nazi legacy in Germany. He outlined how the Nazis had been able to make their agenda appear "reasonable", but also issued a warning about the possibility of this happening again. Horkheimer believed that the ills of modern society are caused by misunderstanding of reason: if people use true reason to critique their societies, they will be able to solve problems they may have.
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