Frankfurt School  

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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli
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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli

The Frankfurt School is a school of neo-Marxist critical theory, social research, and philosophy. The grouping emerged at the Institute for Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung) of the University of Frankfurt am Main in Germany when Max Horkheimer became the Institute's director in 1930. The term "Frankfurt School" is an informal term used to designate the thinkers affiliated with the Institute for Social Research or influenced by them. It is not the title of any institution, and the main thinkers of the Frankfurt School did not use the term to describe themselves.

The Frankfurt School gathered together dissident Marxists, severe critics of capitalism who believed that some of Marx's followers had come to parrot a narrow selection of Marx's ideas, usually in defense of orthodox Communist or Social-Democratic parties. Influenced especially by the failure of working-class revolutions in Western Europe after World War I and by the rise of Nazism in an economically, technologically advanced nation (Germany), they took up the task of choosing what parts of Marx's thought might serve to clarify social conditions which Marx himself had never seen. They drew on other schools of thought to fill in Marx's perceived omissions. Max Weber exerted a major influence, as did Sigmund Freud (as in Herbert Marcuse's Freudo-Marxist synthesis in the 1954 work Eros and Civilization). Their emphasis on the "critical" component of theory was derived significantly from their attempt to overcome the limits of positivism, crude materialism, and phenomenology by returning to Kant's critical philosophy and its successors in German idealism, principally Hegel's philosophy, with its emphasis on negation and contradiction as inherent properties of reality. A key influence also came from the publication in the 1930s of Marx's Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts and The German Ideology, which showed the continuity with Hegelianism that underlay Marx's thought. Marcuse was one of the first to articulate the theoretical significance of these texts. Erich Fromm, an under-represented member of the school, is credited with bringing it a psychoanalytic focus. However, members Adorno and Horkheimer attempted to belittle Fromm's contributions, even though a central theme, "The Authoritarian Character," developed directly from Fromm's research on the subject.

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