We are unable to display your institutional affiliation without JavaScript turned on.
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE


Download PDF

Reconsidering the History of the Frankfurt School in America

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 39, Number 2, June 2011
pp. 341-347 | 10.1353/rah.2011.0061

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

In the past decade or so, many historians on both sides of the Atlantic have attempted to recast familiar European and American narratives in terms of common, or at least mutually interacting, "transatlantic" traditions. This shift away from the complacent assumptions of nationalist historiography has also left its mark on recent scholarship on the history of the Frankfurt School. Thomas Wheatland's study, The Frankfurt School in Exile, is the most recent and most thorough reassessment of the history of the "Horkheimer Circle" (as he calls them; hereafter HC) from a transatlantic perspective. Wheatland examines, in particular, how the HC reacted to unfamiliar American intellectual traditions and institutions and how their willingness or refusal to adapt to them shaped the reception of their work. His primary concern is to flesh out the "living social networks" that the HC encountered in the U.S., which were "governed by different epistemological assumptions and sociopolitical interests" than the European intellectual institutions they were forced to leave behind (pp. 1–2). Wheatland states explicitly at the beginning of his study that he approaches the subject as a historian, not as someone primarily interested in recovering the intellectual or political legacy of Critical Theory for present concerns. In this regard he wants to build upon the pathbreaking studies of Martin Jay and Rolf Wiggershaus, while at the same time moving beyond them.

Wheatland's study is divided into four sections, each with two chapters and each with a focus on a different community or network of U.S. thinkers that influenced or was influenced by the HC. The first section is dedicated to the Columbia University department of sociology, which provided the HC with an institutional home during the first phase of its exile in New York (1933–41). In the first chapter, Wheatland provides a well-documented and convincing answer to the question of why Columbia was so eager to affiliate itself with the HC. By recounting the history of sociology at Columbia since the late nineteenth century and the development of the work of Robert Lynd, who was the dominant figure in the department when the HC arrived, Wheatland shows how the research program of the Institute for Social Research in the 1930s corresponded uncannily well to the department's needs and Lynd's own interests at the time. Concerned that they were being eclipsed by Robert Park and his students at the University of Chicago, the Columbia sociology department was looking for a way to conduct more empirical projects. At the same time, Lynd had developed a model of interdisciplinary research that paralleled Horkheimer's own model of Critical Theory; both drew liberally, for example, from psychology and both sought to identify larger social trends through an analysis of the family. So the Columbia sociology department was only too happy to help the HC reestablish their Institute in Morningside Heights, especially since they came with their own funding.

In the second chapter, Wheatland attempts to dispel the myth that the HC remained isolated during the initial period of their exile. Members of the Institute taught courses at Columbia's extension school and participated regularly in informal Sunday-evening seminars that were held at the home of Robert MacIver, who was emerging as Lynd's main rival in the sociology department. The literature examined and the authors featured during this time in the extensive review section of the Institute's journal also testified to an increased engagement with American academic discussions. So while the Institute made some significant steps to reorient themselves in their new intellectual environs, Wheatland still sees this period primarily as one of failure and missed opportunities. Relations between the HC and Columbia began to sour in the late 1930s when the Institute suffered a financial crisis and Horkheimer chose to sever their relations with Erich Fromm, who had served as their initial interlocutor with Columbia and who remained Lynd's personal favorite. During this same time, Lynd was establishing cordial relations with another émigré from Central Europe, Paul Lazarsfeld, whose Office of Radio Research (the forerunner of the Bureau of Applied Social Research) would provide Columbia sociology with the empirical fortification it had originally sought from the Institute.