Max Horkheimer: Biography Of This German Philosopher

A summary of the life of Max Horkheimer, philosopher of the Frankfurt School.

Max horkheimer

Max Horkheimer was a German philosopher, sociologist and psychologist known for having actively participated 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 rose to power, an experience that would significantly mark his socio-philosophical criticism.

Next 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.

Short biography of Max Horkheimer

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

Horkheimer has been one of the great figures of German philosophy, sociology and, in part, of psychology. His works are influenced by authors such as Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, although it would be the latter in particular that would inspire him to analyze late-capitalist society.

Early years

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

At the end of the conflict, Horkheimer began his studies in Philosophy and Psychology at the University of Munich. His philosophical vocation had the opportunity to manifest itself while traveling in Paris, during which he was able to read the works of great thinkers of Western philosophy such as Schopenhauer, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud.

Later, he would move to Frankfurt, where he would study under Hans Cornelius. In that city he had the opportunity to meet Theodor Adorno with whom he established a lasting friendship, despite Horkheimer being fourteen years older than him. 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 was advised by Hans Cornelius. After a year, 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 behind the formation of a new philosophical current, the Frankfurt School, a current critical of the society of its time and in favor of Marxist currents. Under the direction of Horkheimer a series of analytical studies would be programmed that would have as their object the radical critique of late-capitalist society.

After taking possession of the chair of social philosophy at the University of Frankfurt, in 1931 Max Horkheimer began the publication of the magazine Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, a publication belonging to the Institute and whose edition would be carried out by Horkheimer himself. This magazine advocated a critical-sociological orientation of society, with a philosophical basis.

It should be said that before the publication of this journal Horkheimer had already published a few essays in Germany, including his Kritik der instrumentellen Vernunft . His works published between 1926 and 1931 are compiled in the work Dämmerung, published in 1934 under the pseudonym Heinrich Regius.

Powered by his condition as director of the Institute and with the Frankfurt School in full training, Max Horkheimer’s critical approach was reinforced throughout the 1930s. Together with several figures from the same institution, they studied the concept of the European family, giving birth to works such as Studien über Autorität und Familie (Studies on Authority and the Family).


With the rise of the Nazis to power, Max Horkheimer lost his venia legendi and, in 1933, the Institute ended up closing due to government pressure. Not only did German National Socialism frown upon an institution critical of Marxist and social 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 evolving and with fear of losing his life, Max Horkheimer was forced into exile. First he emigrated to Geneva, Switzerland, then to spend a brief stay in Paris and, finally, to go to 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 the Pacific Palisades in Los Angeles, California. While there he would collaborate with Adorno in the writing of Dialectic of the Enlightenment . In later years he published rather little, although he continued to edit a new journal, this time in English, considered the continuation of Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung , and Studies in Philosophy and Social Science .

While in America, Horkheimer was also the promoter of a series of investigations that 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 than 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 the Institute was re-established within a year. The new institution would be very enriched with the experiences of several of its returned members, in addition to training new minds such as Jürgen Habermas, a disciple of Horkheimer and Adorno, among other prominent figures.

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

Between 1954 and 1959 he alternated his academic life between Europe and America, giving classes in Frankfurt and, also, at the University of Chicago. It would be during this time that he would have the privilege of winning the Goethe Prize (1955) and would be 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 handing over the leadership of the Institute for Social Research to Theodor Adorno. During the 70’s Horkheimer lived the death of his wife, which made him take refuge even more in solitude. He died on July 7, 1973 in Nuremberg, West Germany, and would be buried in the Jewish cemetery in Bern, Switzerland.

Bibliographic 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 Postgraduate Studies. ISBN 978-607-02-5467-3.

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