The Long Friendship: Theoretical Differences Between Horkheimer and Adorno originally appeared in the book On Max Horkheimer: New Perspectives. In this essay Stefan Breuer successfully highlights the contrasting viewpoints that arise when juxtaposing the works of Horkheimer and Adorno.
There is an apparent lack of unity in the field of critical theory. Beyond Horkheimer and Adorno’s collaboration on Dialectic of Enlightenment, the theoretical paths of these two thinkers diverge. Other members of the “inner-circle” at the Institute for Social Research took fundamentally different approaches but the rift between Horkheimer and Adorno was particularly stressed. Though the two pursued quite contrary goals, their differences did not surface during their joint effort in writing Dialectic of Enlightenment. The two did not juxtapose each other’s ideas in this work but instead built off one another’s concepts under the tenets of a “theoretical alliance” that presupposed a wide-reaching acceptance of certain fundamental principles that allowed for a steady academic friendship.
Jürgen Habermas sheds light on the stressed relationship between Horkheimer and Adorno in his Theory of Communicative Action. In 1931 Horkheimer gave a foundational lecture offering his conception of critical theory. In this presentation, Horkheimer seemed to offer a noteworthy advancement on “both orthodox historical materialism and the philosophical attempts to revive dialectics undertaken by Lukács and Korsch in the early 1920’s.” Horkheimer stood in opposition to empiricism and the fragmentation of fact-based research into inquiries. He was equally critical of the concrete function of philosophy permeating Western Marxism. Horkheimer’s distaste for this “hypostatization of philosophy,” stemmed from his disbelief in any immunization strategy toward Marxism; contrasting the works of Lukács, who emphasized that the validity of each individual theses by Marx was inconsequential to the impairment of the dialectical method.
Breuer’s juxtaposition of Horkheimer and Lukács reveals two starkly contrasting viewpoints toward the application of philosophy. Horkheimer’s approach to critical theory seems almost phenomenological; he felt that the institute had “to organize studies, based on current philosophical formulations of the problems, that unite philosophers, sociologists, political economists, historians, and psychologists in ongoing research groups.” Lukács presented a contrasting method in which the totality becomes a system divorced from its object of inquiry creating a dynamic based on a “value relationship.” The essential difference between these two lay in Horkheimer’s utilitarian schemata for philosophy, namely an attempt to reconcile abstract philosophical construction with empirical reality.
Though Horkheimer and Lukács pursued formally discordant goals, Horkheimer upheld historical materialism. Lukács conception of historical materialism sought to sketch the concrete and disconnected appendages of modernity back to their early human origins, in order to establish humans as the inevitable producers of all historical and current forms of life.
Though Horkheimer distanced himself from Western Marxism, Adorno surely made a more clear effort to exhibit his distaste for its intentions. Walter Benjamin and other members of the Institute influenced Adorno. In 1930 he declared that philosophy was “incapable of grasping the totality of the real by means of thought; only by way of traces and ruins can it hope to approach reality.” Adorno unambiguously oriented his thinking toward Benjamin this is evident in his replacement of Horkheimer and Lukács’s conception of totality. Instead Adorno conceived a less distinct model, based on “philosophical interpretation.”
1: Breuer, Stefan. “The Long Friendship: Theoretical Differences Between Horkheimer and Adorno.” On Max Horkheimer: New Perspectives. Comp. Seyla Benhabib, Wolfgang Bonss, and John J. McCole. Boston: MIT P, 1993. 257-279. (See endnote 1)
2: Sozialphilosophische Studien. Aufsätze, Reden und Vorträge 1930-1972, edited by Werner Brede (Frankfurt, 1972) Page 41.
3: Breuer, Stefan. “The Long Friendship: Theoretical Differences Between Horkheimer and Adorno.” On Max Horkheimer: New Perspectives. Comp. Seyla Benhabib, Wolfgang Bonss, and John J. McCole. Boston: MIT P, 1993. 257-279. (Cited From Adorno’s Gesammelte Schriften Volume 1, Page 326)
4: Ibid (See endnote 5)