Book on social philosopher Max Horkheimer: Being in historical experience

Book on social philosopher Max Horkheimer: Being in historical experience

The literary scholar Yael Kupferberg reconstructs the role of Judaism as experience and idea in Max Horkheimer’s thinking.

Max Horkheimer is standing at a bookshelf

Spiritus Rector of critical theory: Max Horkheimer 1960 Photo: akg/picture alliance

The critical theory of the Frankfurt School is commonly regarded as a kind of Hegelian Marxism. The way of thinking of her Spiritus Rector Max Horkheimer is usually described in such a way that the entrepreneur’s son changed from a council communist to a more conservative social philosopher as a result of the experience of fleeing to America and the extermination of the Jews in Europe, especially in the last 15 years of his life, which he spent in Ticino.

After the reopening of the Institute for Social Research In 1951 he kept the radical left origins of critical theory under wraps and joined the anti-Soviet communist camp during the Cold War. Horkheimer’s commitment to Judaism is also an expression of this conservative pessimism.

Yael Kupferberg, a literary scholar from Berlin, now examines the “late” Horkheimer as a modern Jewish philosopher and as a translator of Jewish paradigms into German philosophy. And she surprises with the thesis: Judaism played a major role even for the young Horkheimer, yes, critical theory is actually a philosophical translation of Jewish motifs, namely the “longing for something completely different” in combination with the “ban on images”. The author points out that precisely because critical theory is also a philosophy of religion, it contains the element and the ethos of criticism.

Idealistic moral philosopher

Kupferberg’s study itself consists of back and forth translations between Jewish theology and Horkheimer’s philosophy of reason. For them, critical theory is a Kantian secularization of Judaism, making Horkheimer more of an idealistic moral philosopher.

It is no coincidence that Hermann Cohen repeatedly has his say as the mediator. Horkheimer’s central ideas are rooted in monotheistic Jewish ethics. Kupferberg presents a large number of documents from German-Jewish literature that are intended to testify to the chosen affinity – the book is based on a habilitation thesis.

The central concept of the evidence is the “ban on images”, which prevents the concrete and false synthesis, and therefore “ideology”. “Thou shalt not make an image of God for thyself” means with Horkheimer: You cannot say anything about the absolute.

Critical theory thus means an approximation of truth insofar as it can express what is not true, which in turn implicitly enables truth. But Kupferberg’s atheological point seems much more important to me, namely: to read Horkheimer’s theoretical turn to Judaism as a philosophical-political commentary on his experience of the time.

The Destruction of Reason

The destruction of reason from within as well as from without is the general philosophically expressed Jewish experience of the 20th century. Unfortunately, Kupferberg says nothing about the communism-conservatism constellation of the Jewish Horkheimer and his political development. What is clear, however, is that one cannot speak of a reactionary-religious turn, as described by the 1968 generation, without ignoring the conditions of Jewish existence in post-National Socialist Germany.

Just recently, another scientific qualification work – “In the Twilight” by Christian Voller (Matthes & Seitz 2022) – reconstructed the historical-materialistic and also the syncretic intellectual-historical sources in the pre- and early history of critical theory. It seems a bit like the argument about Walter Benjamin: How Jewish or Marxist is the mastermind of critical theory?

It seems a bit like the argument about Walter Benjamin

To only think in terms of alternatives here – “materialistic or Jewish” – misses the historical experiences of Max Horkheimer, who wrote sentences like: “I am very sad about the situation in the world. The future is dark, probably even more frightening than the people who already, consciously and unconsciously, feel depressed.

Incidentally, Schopenhauer’s pessimistic metaphysics should not be forgotten!

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