TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

On Horkheimer’s “Materialism and Morality”

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Tomash Dabrowski looks at Max Horkheimer’s “Materialism and Morality,” from Telos 69 (Fall 1986).

In 1933, the rise of National Socialism had terminated the Frankfurt School’s residency in Germany, and “Materialism and Morality” marks the last contribution by Max Horkheimer to the Institute’s journal, the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, while still located in Frankfurt. In this respect, the present essay is a macrocosm of the development of the thought of the Frankfurt School at the cusp of exile. Key concepts in Horkheimer’s more widely known mature work already germinate in “Materialism and Morality,” but the essay’s unique position in his individual intellectual development likewise straddles the ongoing process of elaborating a cohesive sociological vision for the institute. The still nascent idea of a “Critical Theory,” which is now synonymous with the school, had yet to wait four years to be coined by Horkheimer; indeed “Materialism and Morality” is part of a still continuing clarification of what an interdisciplinary critical method might look like in application.

Horkheimer is largely concerned here with tracing the sociological apotheosis of the rational moral agent as the substratum of modern moral philosophy. Although enumerating and summarily treating a number of canonical authors, his analysis especially returns perennially to Kant. For Kant’s formulation of the categorical imperative, as Horkheimer puts it quite succinctly, the “moral conception of the bourgeoisie came to its purest expression” (89). Kant, in subsuming personal interests to the asceticism of the moral law, had in fact only transcendentalized the inner turmoil accompanying early capitalist development:

The social whole lives through unleashing the possessive instincts of all individuals. The whole is maintained insofar as they concern themselves with profit, with the conservation and multiplication of their own property. Each is left to care for himself as best he can. But because thereby he must produce things that others need, the general needs are fulfilled through activities which are apparently independent of one another and which only seem to serve the individual’s own welfare. . . . In this era, economic advantage is the natural law under which individual life proceeds. To this natural law of individuals, the categorical imperative holds up the ‘general natural law,’ the law of human society as a standard of comparison. (90–91)

If the antinomies produced by reason in philosophy are paradigmatic of the contradictions of the bourgeois era, the obverse is likewise true; for Horkheimer, the antinomies of reason are indicative of the unreasonableness of the social situation. Despite having elliptically identified the inner inconsistency of the eighteenth-century individual, by making this a permanent condition of consciousness Kant nevertheless limited the possibility of overcoming this contradiction. Essentially, the gulf between an autonomous general order and individual will cannot be overcome by any act done out of duty, for duty aims at preserving the conditions that maintain this irreconcilability. The categorical imperative

cannot be meaningfully realized in a society of isolated individuals. Its necessary implication is thus the transformation of this society. The individual to whom the imperative appeals and whose shaping is its sole aim, would also have to disappear. Bourgeois morality points beyond the order upon which it first becomes possible and necessary. If people want to act in such a way that their maxim is fit to become universal law, they must bring about an order in which this consideration does not remain as dubious as in the cases enumerated by Kant, but rather in which it can really be carried out according to criteria. Society must then be constructed so that it establishes its own interests and those of all its members in a rational fashion: only under this condition is it meaningful for the individual, who finds himself involved in such a project subjectively and objectively, to organize his life on this basis. (95–96)

This move broadly orchestrates the fidelity of Horkheimer’s version of materialism and recognizable themes developed in the later canonical texts of the school. Indeed Horkheimer uses Kant’s error as an opportunity to outline tenets of materialism as he understands it: in opposition to philosophies that extrapolate from existing conditions (Nietzsche is guilty here as well, for Horkheimer), materialism cannot be based on any privileging of a subsisting Archimedean point that can analyze the entirety of human cognition. Whereas morality renders historically determined cultural conditions as immutable, materialism rather

sees morality as the life expression of determinate individuals and seeks to understand it in terms of the conditions for its emergence and passing away, not for the sake of truth in itself, but in connection with determinate historical forces. Materialism understands itself as the effort to abolish existing misery. The features it discerns in the historical phenomenon of morality figure into its consideration on the condition of a determinate practical interest. Materialism presumes no transhistorical authority behind morality. (103)

Marx’s well-known eleventh thesis on Feuerbach proves to be paradigmatic here. If the concern of theory is the transformation of society rather than analysis and interpretation, then a truly critical method cannot content itself with categories that preserve social contradictions as the very condition of thought. Instead, Horkheimer proposes an analysis that recognizes that forms of thought and what they seek to understand are part of an ongoing reciprocal process rooted in historical conditions. The possibility of a flight from misery requires not the philosophical deduction of moral progress, but rather, the patient analysis of the very possibilities with which morality paradoxically cannot come to terms.

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