U.S. Intellectual History Blog

BLEG: Critical Theory Equivocation?

Institut-Frankfurt-SchoolQuestion: As I read more and more and more Critical Theory, I am bothered by what I see as an equivocal (or just historical?) use of the word “culture.” They seem to use the term for artistic creations (broadly considered) as well in an anthropological sense. Is there a member of the “school” who precisely defines his/her meaning of, or offers more distinctions about, the term culture in relation to anthropology? I don’t recall seeing that turn outlined in Dialectic of Enlightenment*. I am particularly interested in potential definitions by early, or founding, Critical Theorists—i.e. Adorno, Horkheimer, Benjamin, Fromm, Marcuse, etc. Surely some of them were aware of the work of early anthropologists like Boas, Malinowski, Mead? But I do realize that the field and Critical Theory were developing simultaneously. Finally, if not an early Frankfurt School member, does Lukacs, Habermas, or another provide a thorough definition of culture that considers anthropology?

In sum, is there an equivocation, or am I trying to read Critical Theory through presentist eyes? – TL

*The term “anthropology” comes up nowhere in Dialectic.

21 Thoughts on this Post

  1. There’s a long discussion of Fromm’s interaction with Boas, Mead and many other in the mid- to late-thirties in Lawrence Friedman’s new biography of Fromm. Although the ISR was (re)located at Columbia, I’m not sure about the interactions of Adorno and Horkheimer with the locals, though I’m sure it’s in Martin Jay.

  2. You are unlikely, I suspect, to get a “precise definition” of culture (and definitely not in Dialectic!), but the two meanings of culture where well known to them (with a pedigree that goes back at least to Herder, no?) and essential to their work. You might try some of their programmatic statements like Adorno’s “Cultural Criticism and Society” and Horkheimer’s “Art and Mass Culture.” Also, the suggestion of looking in Jay is a good one – consider also his introduction to Adorno.

  3. To fill out a bit Alan Ryan’s comment above, Friedman writes of Fromm’s association with a group of American neo-Freudians (Sullivan, Horney, et al), “who were forging connections with a group of ‘culturalist’ anthropologists (in particular, Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Edward Sapir); they initiated the exciting and creative ‘Culture and Personality’ movement. [….] Fromm’s new ‘home’ essentially represented the ‘culturalist’ psychoanalytic pioneers at the high point of their creative powers.” Friedman proceeds to cite the importance of this movement to Fromm’s classic, Escape from Freedom (1941).

    I think it’s true that there is little by way of concentrated analytical or social scientific discussion of the concept and conceptions of culture among those identified with Critical Theory. However, as Craig Calhoun makes clear in his book Critical Social Theory (1995), a culturally oriented sociology can be traced back to Marx and Durkheim, Weber and Mead, and “has maintained a continuous tradition in symbolic interactionism, in the sociology of knowledge and cultural sociology of scholars like Mannheim and Elias….” It is of course this tradition that is found among the Frankfurt School thinkers and Critical Theory generally, but more, I suspect, by way of intellectual backdrop and assumptions, with little or no critical engagement with specific theories. I’d be surprised to learn, beyond Fromm, of Critical Theory intellectuals making explicit use of anthropological discussions of culture. A nice summary of the strengths and weaknesses of the cultural critique proffered by the theorists of the “early” Frankfurt School is found in Marcus and Fischer’s Anthropology as Cultural Critique… (1986): 117-122.

    • Thanks Patrick. As usual, your comments are thorough and enlightening.

      Perhaps what you’re saying here is that a connection to anthropology would be nice and tidy for us today (esp. for people like me who value Geertz—see below). But Critical Theory’s links to cultural sociology should suffice for those of us (i.e. me) looking for a comprehensive view of the term culture in Frankfurt School. Am I summarizing the gist of your comment—of your relay of Calhoun?

      • Yes, Tim, more or less. I don’t think what these folks were doing was dependent on a robust anthropological concept of culture. And it would be a bit anachronistic to have had contrary expectations: I think the “interdisciplinary” character of much of their work precludes going into any substantive depth in this regard. Indeed, that may be the price one pays for such work–even more so today, given the often hyper-specialized if not fragmented character of disciplines and subdisciplines (more true of the natural than the social sciences however).

  4. FWIW the great cultural historian Peter Gay in the introduction to the “Education of the Senses” (the first volume in the series The Bourgeois Experience) states:

    “That word ‘culture’, which I use in the comprehensive way of the anthropologist, requires some words of caution. Every human artifact that contributes to the making of experience belongs under this capacious rubric: social institutions, economic developments, family life, moral and religious doctrines, the anxieties of physicians, the tides of taste, the structure of emotions, even politics. But, while doubtless each culture displays striking dominant traits and a measure of coherence, its broad subdivisions develop with some degree of independence, sometimes in isolation, from one another.”
    P. 4

    I don’t know what influence Gay may have been under relative to the Frankfurt School but his analysis is decidedly Freudian.

  5. I might add that there’s an intriguing (at least by my lights) critique of anthropological and other social scientific conceptions of “culture” in Henry McDonald’s The Normative Basis of Culture: A Philosophical Inquiry (Louisiana State University Press, 1986).

    • See Adam Kuper, Culture: The Anthropologist’s Account (Harvard, 1999); discussions of culture at various points in Thomas McCarthy, Race, Empire and the Idea of Human Development (Cambridge 2009) – a truly great book.

      • Thanks to you both for these suggestions. My main interest here, in the end, is deciding whether my affinity for Geertz’s definition of culture in relation to education can work in relation to Critical Theory. Here’s the def. I value from Geertz:

        “An historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes towards life.”

        *Interpretation of Cultures* (Fontana Press reprint, 1993), p. 84.

  6. While there’s much to commend in this definition, it strikes me as a tad too “mentalistic” (as McDonald writes, ‘the tendency to regard the symbol as mental and ethereal is almost overwhelming’) and, perhaps more importantly, it does not suggest a way to go about making sense of fairly discrete or “different” cultures (not assuming any form of strong relativism or conventionalism here) or imply how or why we might want to judge facets or aspects of a particular culture “wrong,” “mistaken,” or even, say, immoral (or are such judgments disallowed). As Wittgenstein would ask us, what role is there for the norms, rules, and values that saturate such forms of symbolic meaning? Didn’t the Frankfurt theorists themselves have a normative conception (or conceptions) of culture in mind in their critiques? This would be important when it comes to identifying or highlighting or focusing on “this” pattern of meanings rather than “that,” or in counting “this” as a form of knowledge while disallowing “that” as worthy of such an appellation. Consider McDonald’s comment that in addition to historical and natural processes (the latter as evolutionary and ecological; this dimension is missing in Geert’s definition), the meaning of culture exhibits “a certain logical framework or range of possibility:” on what basis do we define or delineate that framework or range of possibility? Insofar as these “symbolic meanings” need to be discovered and described, they are found incarnate (materialized, as it were) in a corresponding (systemic) range of use and practice. As we sometimes do with moral terms, perhaps we need both a “thin” definition (like the above from Geertz) and a thick definition or, to use a different metaphor, one that captures both “the forest” (Geertz), and “the trees.” Don’t get me wrong, the emphasis on a conceptual framework (‘pattern of meanings embodied in symbols’) is indispensable and thus fundamental. But how are we to distinguish “our” pattern of meanings embodied in symbolic forms form “theirs” (this has occurred in comparative religion with regard, for instance, to notions of ‘rationality,’ which are a bit different in Indic philosophies, at least this argument has been forcefully made by Jonardon Ganeri) so as not to impose or insinuate ours in the descriptive enterprise while allowing for, at the same time, the appreciation of the role of norms, rules and values (which, while they may overlap, may only have familial resemblance to each other across cultures) by which we distinguish and, yes, comparatively assess cultures (better: this or that feature or elements of a culture, for, as Hilary Putnam might inform us, to assess a culture in toto is perhaps as silly or mistaken as the attempt to assess a worldview in toto).

  7. Interesting discussion, folks.

    This comment is more for those readers — surely we have them — who might feel like I did when I first started reading this blog in January of 2011. I would come across these definitional conversations with various authors/commenters weighing in on some term, or some “genealogy” of influence, or some school of thought, and I would think some variant of a) what/who the hell are they talking about? b) why? c) is this something I have to care about?

    I say this not (just) to razz my friends and colleagues, but more to encourage people coming across this post and thinking, “If this is what intellectual historians do all the time, I think I’ll pass on this field.”

    But take heart, and be ye not dismayed — this little bit of inside baseball is not the whole game.

    Now, to the conversation above — I’m surprised no one has invoked Raymond Williams’ Keywords on culture.

    I’m also surprised that there’s not more historicization going on in the thread above. There’s an awareness that various theorists might have meant different things at different times by the same word, or different things at the same time by the same word, and there’s an interest in “early” definitions of “culture,” but then the conversation kind of slips between the history of how a group of thinkers variously used the term to what the term “is” analytically — and Tim, Patrick and others are all aware of this tricky slippage and acknowledge it in the discussion.

    But, if I can zoom out for a moment, I am trying to figure out in what context it would be possible to find “a comprehensive view of the term culture in Frankfurt School” and at the same time look for a precise meaning. Comprehensiveness and precision seem to me to work against each other.

    In any case, just wanted to give a shout-out to those readers who are trying to follow along at home and find themselves saying, “What the hell are these people even talking about, and why does it matter?”

    A perfectly legitimate question, and not a sign that the field isn’t right for you. Maybe, in fact, a sign that the field needs you!

  8. Tim, I thought of this when I ran across Harvard classicist Donald Kagan’s farewell address today. That the kids are becoming fluent in Frankfurt German and illiterate in Greek and Hebrew seems…well, you know.


    Earlier generations who came to college with traditional beliefs rooted in the past had them challenged by hard questioning and the requirement to consider alternatives and were thereby unnerved, and thereby liberated, by the need to make reasoned choices. The students of today and tomorrow deserve the same opportunity. They, too, must be freed from the tyranny that comes from the accident of being born at a particular time in a particular place, but that liberation can only come from a return to the belief that we may have something to learn from the past. The challenge to the relativism, nihilism, and privatism of the present can best be presented by a careful and respectful examination of earlier ideas, ideas that have not been rejected by the current generation but are simply unknown to them. When they have been allowed to consider the alternatives, they, too, can enjoy the freedom of making an informed and reasoned choice.

    And more. Read the whole thing.

    • Donald Kagan is not a Harvard classicist but a Yale classicist.

      Given the late hour and the fact that I have not read the address, I will refrain from any substantive comment. Kagan’s politics, though, are quite repulsive. (I’m not competent to comment on his scholarship.)

      • In any case, that snippet from Kagan does not describe the Frankfurt School that I recognize.

      • Donald Kagan is not a Harvard classicist but a Yale classicist.
        Given the late hour and the fact that I have not read the address, I will refrain from any substantive comment. Kagan’s politics, though, are quite repulsive. (I’m not competent to comment on his scholarship.)

        Thank you for the correction, LFC. Yes, it’s Yale, not Harvard.

        As for the rest of the gloss on the gentleman’s work and scholarship, USIH or any “intellectual” org would benefit from such a person in their company, I think, if only to illustrate the superiority of its majority’s own politics and philosophical approach to knowledge.

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