Updating Frankfurt School Economics - Benjamin Morgan, Oxford University

Wednesday, April 10, 2024 - 5:30pm to 7:00pm
320 York Street, New Haven, CT - HQ 136

“How updating Frankfurt School political economy changes the way we think about a critical theory of culture in the 21st-century”

The lecture shows the transformed potential of the interdisciplinary project of the Frankfurt School when the framework of economic thinking by which it was originally shaped is updated for the 21st-century. Returning to key essays published in the 1930s in the Frankfurt School journal, I first document the Frankfurt School’s detailed engagement with economic debates prompted by the Great Depression and with major figures such as John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek. I then show how the essays fail to integrate the major methodological innovations of either Keynes or Hayek, in particular their attention to uncertainty, situated forms of knowledge, and liberal institutions. I argue that an approach which took more seriously the challenge of Keynes and Hayek would have been better able to make sense of the insights arising from empirical studies conducted at the same time by figures associated with the Frankfurt School such as Erich Fromm, Hilde Weiss, and Paul Lazarsfeld. As well as showing the constraints that Horkheimer and his colleagues imposed on themselves by retaining a Marxian conceptual apparatus, the paper sets out a positive alternative. The key changes that characterize the alternative approach are: 1) abandoning the focus on reification that characterizes Frankfurt School approaches from Horkheimer and Adorno in the 1930s to Axel Honneth and Rahel Jaeggi in the 2000s; 2) updating the guiding epistemological assumptions to take account of recent insights into the distributed, embodied and interactive aspects of human cognition prefigured in the work of both Keynes and Hayek; 3) engaging with the productive potential of a wider range of everyday practices. The revised vision explores how social institutions need not stifle but can also foster development, and how analyses of culture can be integrated into a new form of the socially committed, reflexive interdisciplinarity originally proposed by Horkheimer.

Benjamin Morgan is Professor of German and Comparative Literature at the University of Oxford, and a Fellow of Worcester College. In 2019, and 2020/21 he was Visiting Associate Professor of German at Harvard University. He is author of On Becoming God: Late Medieval Mysticism and the Modern Western Self (Fordham UP, 2013), and numerous articles on philosophy, literature, film, and contemporary social and critical theory. He has edited, with Carolin Duttlinger and Anthony Phelan, Walter Benjamins Anthropologisches Denken (Rombach, 2012), and with Sowon Park and Ellen Spolsky a Special Issue of Poetics Today on “Situated Cognition and the Study of Culture” (2017).

With support from The Edward J. and Dorothy Clarke Kempf Fund at Yale University