Max Horkheimer: biography of this German philosopher

Max Horkheimer was a German philosopher, sociologist and psychologist known for his active participation in the consolidation of so-called critical theory within the framework of the German Institute for Social Research.

Like some of his contemporaries, among whom we can highlight Theodor Adorno, he had to go into exile when the Nazi Party came to power, an experience that will significantly mark his socio-philosophical criticism.

Then we will see the life of this great thinker through a biography of Max Horkheimer, In which we will review his vision of the society of his time and some of his most remarkable works.

    Brief biography of Max Horkheimer

    Max Horkheimer’s life takes place in his hometown of Stuttgart, the city of Frankfurt, several European cities that were his refuge from National Socialism, and the United States, which welcomed him both personally and intellectually.

    Horkheimer he was one of the great figures of philosophy, sociology and, in part, German psychology. His works are influenced by authors like Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, although it is the latter in particular who would inspire him to analyze the society of late capitalism.

    first years

    Max Horkheimer was born in Stuttgart, German Empire, on February 14, 1895 into a wealthy Jewish family.. Under pressure from his father, young Max dropped out of school at the age of sixteen to work in his father’s factory. In 1916, he ended his career as a manufacturer, being recruited to participate in the First World War.

    When the conflict ended, Horkheimer began his studies in philosophy and psychology at the University of Munich. His philosophical vocation had the opportunity to manifest itself during a trip to Paris, During which he was able to read the works of great thinkers of Western philosophy such as Schopenhauer, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud.

    He would later move to Frankfurt, where he would study under the tutelage of Hans Cornelius. In this city he had the opportunity to meet Theodor Adorno with whom he established a lasting friendship., Despite fourteen years older than Horkheimer. Their relationship would be culturally and intellectually very intense.

    academic career

    In 1925, Max Horkheimer presented his thesis The Critique of Kant’s Judgment as a mediation between practical and theoretical philosophy, which had the advice of Hans Cornelius. A year later he was appointed “privatdozent”.

    In 1930 he would have the honor of being elected director of the German Institute for Social Research. This institution would be at the origin of the formation of a new philosophical current, the Frankfurt School, a critical current with the society of its time and a supporter of Marxist currents. Under Horkheimer’s leadership, a series of analytical studies would be scheduled that would target the radical critique of late capitalism society.

    After taking possession of the chair of social philosophy at the University of Frankfurt in 1931 Max Horkheimer to begin publishing Journal for Social ResearchA publication owned by the Institute and editing would be made by Horkheimer himself. This magazine advocated a critical sociological orientation of society, based on philosophy.

    It should be noted that before the publication of this magazine, Horkheimer had already published several essays in Germany, including his Kritik der instrumentellen Vernunft. His works published between 1926 and 1931 are collected in the book Dämmerung, Published in 1934 under the pseudonym Heinrich Regius.

    Driven by his status as director of the Institute and with the Frankfurt school in full formation, Max Horkheimer’s critical approach was reinforced throughout the 1930s. Together with various personalities from this same institution, they studied the concept of the European family, giving rise to works such as Studien über Autoritat und Familie (Studies on Authority and the Family).


      With the rise to power of the Nazis, Max Horkheimer lost his venia legendi and in 1933 the Institute closed its doors under pressure from the government. German National Socialism not only looked down upon a critical institution with social and Marxist movements, but also among its members were many Jews, as was the case with Horkheimer and Adorno.

      Seeing how the political situation in the country was developing and fearing to lose his life, Max Horkheimer was forced into exile.. He first emigrated to Geneva, Switzerland, then spent a brief stay in Paris and eventually ended up in the United States. The Institute for Social Research would build its headquarters in exile at Columbia University in New York.

      In 1940, Horkheimer received US citizenship and moved to Pacific Palisades in Los Angeles, California. Being here would collaborate with Adorno in writing Dialectics of the Illustration. He later published relatively little, although he continued to publish a new journal, this time in English, seen as a continuation of Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung and studies of philosophy and social science.

      Being in America, Horkheimer he was also the promoter of a series of investigations which took shape in 1950 in the five volumes of Studies in Prejudice, An interesting analysis of the different types of authoritarian mentality and repressive behavior, stimulated by the tragic experience of having had to flee from fascism and Nazism.

      Return to Germany

      After the fall of the National Socialist regime and the end of World War II in 1949 Max Horkheimer returned to Frankfurt and re-founded the Institute a year later. The new institution would be greatly enriched by the experiences of several of its returning members, as well as by the formation of new minds as would be the case with Jürgen Habermas, a disciple of Horkheimer and Adorno, among other personalities.

      Between 1951 and 1953 Horkheimer was rector of the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, an institution in which would continue to teach until his retirement in the mid-1960s. Taking advantage of his power as a teacher, he showed his critique of the capitalist restoration that was seen in the newly created Federal Republic of Germany which, although more democratic, continued to neglect the workers.

      Between 1954 and 1959, he alternated his university life between Europe and America, Teaching in Frankfurt and also at the University of Chicago. It was during this time that he had the privilege of winning the Goethe Prize (1955) and was named Honorary Citizen of the City of Frankfurt in 1960.

      In his later years, Max Horkheimer showed a low profile, making few public appearances and entrusting the leadership of the Institute for Social Research to Theodor Adorno. In the 1970s, Horkheimer experienced the death of his wife, which prompted him to take refuge more in solitude. He died on July 7, 1973 in Nuremberg, West Germany, and was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Bern, Switzerland.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Abromeit, J. (2011), Max Horkheimer and the Foundations of the Frankfurt School, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011. ISBN 9781107660656
      • Silva-Lazcano, L. (2014) Among the dust of the world. Irrationality, pessimism and compassion in Max Horkheimer. Mexico, DF, National Autonomous University of Mexico. Coordination of higher education. ISBN 978-607-02-5467-3.

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