Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Horkheimer and Philosophy of Education

  • Ilan Gur-Ze’ev
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_330

Max Horkheimer (1895–1973) was the general manager of the Institute of Social Research at Frankfurt University from 1930 and its dominant figure. Together with Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, Walter Benjamin, Leo Lowenthal, Otto Kirchheimer, Friedrich Pollock, and Franz Neumann, he formed what became known as the “Critical Theory” of “The Frankfurt School.” However, each of these thinkers developed unique theories and perspectives that problematize considering their work as a “school” (Gur-Ze’ev 1996).

Two stages of development characterize Horkheimer’s work in Critical Theory. A positive utopianism and optimism toward the possibility of revolutionary change characterize the first stage in his thinking. His Critical Theory of this period was committed to social and cultural transformation. The second stage, starting in 1944 and the joint publication (with Adorno) of “Dialectic of Enlightenment” (Horkheimer and Adorno 1988), manifests a negative utopianism and a harsh critique of Marx and orthodox Marxism. In Horkheimer’s words this shift represents a move from Marx to Schopenhauer (Horkheimer 1985a, p. 309) and from the quest for revolution to a commitment to education (Horkheimer 1985b, p. 417). The dividing lines are sometimes unclear and unstable. We can find philosophical pessimism in the writings of the young Horkheimer and his letters (Horkheimer 1927) and optimistic attitudes in his later work (especially in his public speeches on education while serving as rector of Frankfurt University) (Horkheimer 1985a, pp. 361–456). However, fundamental changes in his philosophical orientations and its educational implications evolved, as he himself readily acknowledged (Horkheimer 1985b, pp. 336–353), with the advent of World War II and the Holocaust. For all the common ground between the first and the second periods of Horkheimer’s work, two essentially different philosophies of education are articulated. The first, or the immature stage of development of Horkheimer’s work, is its best known and most influential part, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world. This is especially true regarding the influence of Critical Theory on the New Left in the 1960s and 1970s. This part of Horkheimer’s work was of special relevance, influencing Critical Pedagogy as developed by thinkers such as Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, Ira Shor, Cathleen Weiler, Peter McLaren, and Stanley Aronowitz.

While in the first period Horkheimer did not devote much of his energy to schooling, one can understand the whole project of constituting a critical theory as an effort to articulate a philosophy of education. Here education has to be understood in the broader sense, as relating to practices, concepts, and symbolic development that constitute emotional formation, conceptual apparatus, conscience, and consciousness and the historical, local, collective, and individual possibilities and limitations.

Already in his now classic “Critical and traditional theory,” the production of knowledge is not to be detached from social power relations and interests. Science too has to be understood not only as part of the reproduction of the hegemonic order; it is to be seen also as part of its protection, regardless of the opinions and the consciousness of the individual scientist (Horkheimer 1977, p. 18). Nor is Critical Theory neutral, but it identifies with specific and concrete social interests: “It has no unique evaluative standard beside its interest in the overcoming of social injustice” (Ibid. 64). Critical Theory manifests itself not only as a struggle on the stance of knowledge but of the possibilities for human liberation. This aim of Horkheimer’s Critical Theory is manifested in a critique of ideology, with a materialistic dimension on the one hand and a commitment to an interdisciplinary and unifying new science on the other. The educational implications of this kind of Critical Theory are constructed by its positive utopianism: “a vision of a better reality, which overcomes the present oppressive reality. This transformation [of Utopia] becomes the arena of today’s theory and praxis” (Horkheimer 1985c, p. 105). In other places in this period, Horkheimer presents the aim of Critical Theory as nothing less than “building a new world” (Horkheimer 1985d, p. 294). Here the critique of the hegemonic ideologies and the struggle against the present order of things is an educational process in line with the Enlightenment’s humanist tradition, from Lessing’s The Education of the Human Race to Marx’s Communist Manifest. The historical struggle itself is conceived as an educational process of humanity to which Critical Theory makes an irreplaceable contribution. This is because the struggle over the control of knowledge, the representation of reality, and the representation of relevant knowledge about knowledge and about the context in which it is produced is inseparable from the potentials for social responsibility and the prospects of emancipatory political activism. This is also a central element of Critical Pedagogy as a realization of Critical Theory in the schooling process. Here it is important to note some of the central preconceptions and assumptions of Horkheimer’s project:
  1. 1.

    A human essence, in which reason, solidarity, and quest for freedom are central. This is the foundation of the Enlightenment’s conception of unlimited human potential for emancipation and elevation. In this sense it is a moral imperative as well as a political need to struggle for progress in the realization of unfulfilled human potential.

  2. 2.

    Critical Theory offers a liberating concept of knowledge, which is capable of dividing “emancipatory” from “oppressive” representations of knowledge and its legitimization apparatuses.

  3. 3.

    The foundation of an enlightened critique is unproblematic. Immanent critique, not fundamental justification and metaphysical argumentation, ensures the stance of Critical Theory and its educational implications not as mere contingent and contextual rhetoric.

  4. 4.

    Social reality not only justifies Critical Theory; it also contains the potentials for its realization and for the constitution of a better human coexistence. The irrationality of capitalist production, distribution, and consumption; the actual interests of the proletariat; and the inconsistencies within the system as evident in bourgeois philosophy – all manifest the justification of Critical Theory as well as its future victory.


The second stage of Horkheimer’s project can be described as philosophical pessimism. In contrast to many critical theorists who refer to his Critical Theory with or without postmodern adjustments, the later Horkheimer explicitly dissociates himself from the Marxian tradition. He dissociates himself from the tradition which believed in the possibility of “the good society,” wherein not only social relations but also thought itself could be elevated (Horkheimer 1985b, p. 339). He abandons the revolutionary project since, according to Horkheimer, by his essence the revolutionary tends to become an oppressor. This is because the claim for justice cannot have the upper hand without its transformation into its opposite. As long as there is room for liberty, collective violence will continue to rule, he asserts (Horkheimer 1985e, p. 247). Freedom and justice are contradictory in terms (Horkheimer 1985b, p. 340). Progress has not come to a temporary halt – there is no room for progress in principle!

Horkheimer’s pessimism has three levels: metaphysical, theoretical, and historical. On the metaphysical level, according to Horkheimer, power as the will to life or as will to overcome life governs being, and within it there is no room for meaning, aim, or a struggle detached from the total role of power as active meaninglessness. On the theoretical level, Horkheimer understood the immanent critique of Critical Theory as related to conceptual possibilities of the Enlightenment that have been dissolved by the victory of instrumental rationality over the tradition of objective reason. The second half of the twentieth century is marked not by lack of rationality but by the omnipotence of rational organization of social relations, production practices, and the culture industry. According to the later Horkheimer, Critical Theory has lost its conceptual context, and within the current culture industry can no longer justify its aims (Horkheimer 1974, pp. 101–102). The essential point here is that this historical moment is conceived not as a temporary situation or a historical accident: it is essential to being, in which for humans the “adjustment to the power of progress contains the progress of power. And each time it produces degeneration which does not manifest the defeat of progress but its success, which reveals itself as its opposite” (Horkheimer 1988, p. 42). The successes of capitalism and the integration of socially antagonistic elements such as the proletariat set the historical dimension of his pessimism. The “totally administered world” (which already Marx was committed to) is rational and self-regulatory, and within it there is no room for the historical possibilities that were open in previous stages of modernity (Horkheimer 1985b, p. 348). This is because the present system has been successfully developed into a stance where not only does it master the consciousness of collectives, it even constitutes and controls the instincts of the individual in accordance with the needs and imperatives of the system (Horkheimer 1974, p. 141). This position is highly relevant for emancipatory education today, especially in face of recent postmodern feminist, multicultural, postcolonial, and other alternatives to hegemonic education. Note that on this point Horkheimer presides over the “hard” postmodern discourse, which addresses the end of the subject and the contingency of hegemonic knowledge, as well as resistance to the system (which is actually part and parcel of the system). Horkheimer, however, did not abandon Utopia and responsibility to the Other or the commitment for transcendence. His pessimism is not a preview for solipsism, nihilism, or escapism. It is a new setting for the realization of the principle of hope and for the struggle over a potential counter-education.

Horkheimer’s later Critical Theory abandons optimism but it is unconditionally Utopian. The possibilities for transcendence and change are not grounded in the present reality but in the essence of being and in the human subject qua subject. The powers, which produce the “subject” and control his or her consciousness, knowledge, identity, and actual social function, normally have the upper hand. However, according to Horkheimer, as “facts” they do not have the last word. Hegemonic knowledge and power structures are not disregarded in the name of actual authenticity, autonomy, or freedom to act in line with “genuine interests.” The openness of being and the human potentials to become different from constructed by the system are vital elements for the constitution of a non-repressive and non-naive educational alternative. Horkheimer calls this alternative “negative theology,” but it is theology without a God or messianism without a messiah. Horkheimer’s mature work does not abandon critique of ideology and resistance to the triumphant culture industry and the logic of capitalism. It does not give up the struggle for counter-education, but it certainly urges us to beware of today’s exile of spirit on the one hand and the arrogance of the revolutionary tradition on the other. The sensitivity to the presence of power and meaninglessness within dogmatic revolutionary alternatives is no less important than the emancipatory potentials of ideology critique and democratic activism within the present political order. The later Horkheimer connects this humanistic tradition to the fundamental philosophical questions and challenges the realm of self-evidence not only within the hegemonic power relations and groups but also in the praxis, theory, consciousness, and self of the critical educator herself. Within this framework life becomes, again, a mission, and within dialogical settings the struggle over self-constitution and re-articulation of identity, knowledge, and intersubjectivity becomes concrete, even within a (almost) totally constructed and controlled reality.


  1. Gur-Ze’ev, I. (1996). The frankfurt school and the history of pessimism. Jerusalem: The Magness Press, The Hebrew University.Google Scholar
  2. Horkheimer, M. (1974). Eclipse of reason. New York: Seabury Press.Google Scholar
  3. Horkheimer, M. (1977). Traditionelle und Kritische Theorie. Frankfurt a.Main: Suhrkamp.Google Scholar
  4. Horkheimer, M. (1985a). Gesammelte Schriften 7, Frankfurt a.Main: Suhrkamp.Google Scholar
  5. Horkheimer, M. (1985b). Gesammelte Schriften 8. Frankfurt a.Main: Suhrkamp.Google Scholar
  6. Horkheimer, M. (1985c). Gesammelte Schriften 3. Frankfurt a.Main: Suhrkamp.Google Scholar
  7. Horkheimer, M. (1985d). Gesammelte Schriften 4. Frankfurt a.Main: Suhrkamp.Google Scholar
  8. Horkheimer, M. (1985e). Gesammelte Schriften 13. Frankfurt a.Main: Suhrkamp.Google Scholar
  9. Horkheimer, M., & Adorno, T. (1988). Dialektik der Aufklaerung. Seabury Press. Frankfurt a.Main: Suhrkamp.Google Scholar
  10. Horkheimer, M. Max Horkheimer letter to Huebscher, 3 Apr 1927, Max Horkheimer Archiv V, 89.170.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of HaifaHaifaIsrael