Customer Reviews: The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950 (Weimar and Now: German Cultural Criticism)
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on January 6, 2002
28 years after its initial publication, Martin Jay's "The Dialectical Imagination" is still the best introduction and most indispensable guide to the Frankfurt School's history and thinkers. Jay can easily be forgiven his occasional historiographer's dryness and insistent reminders of the boundaries of his project (I would be a rich man if I had a nickel for every time he writes that "such considerations fall outside of the area of the current inquiry" or something to that effect). Moreover, even if subsequent publications of the translated correspondence and unpublished papers of figures like Benjamin and Adorno have robbed Jay's book of some of its potential for novelty and scoop, Jay still provides the best and most pithy assessments of the major points, and he does so without sacrificing the scholarly rigor that organizes "The Dialectical Imagination."
The book could certainly better fulfill its role as research tool if the publishers would sponsor an updating of the notes and citations; now that everything has been published and republished by presses like Fischer and Suhrkamp in Germany and by the likes of Continuum, Columbia, Harvard, etc., in the English-speaking world, Jay's opus might be more helpful were it not to insist on citing the original issues of the institute's journals, to which most of us simply don't have easy access.
That's a small bone to pick, though, with such a thorough book. Jay's chapter on the philosophical roots of critical theory moves quickly but surely (despite the occasional dependence on disciplinary argot that may slow down readers not steeped in the vocabulary of "isms"), providing a crucial backdrop to his reading of the Frankfurt School's entire intellectual contribution. This chapter grounds Jay's book safely, and the subsequent chapters make good on this very promising start.
"The Dialectical Imagination" is sure to remain the best available introduction to the thought of the Frankfurt School on the whole. I cannot recommend it highly enough for those interested in the history of philosophy in the 20th century, in radical politics, or in developments in literary theory.
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on May 3, 2000
Even though a few years old by now, this is still the finest volume on the (at one time) subversive and all-encompassing attempt at rewriting the understanding of man, with special emphasis on reconciling Marx with Freud. The movement was known as The Frankfurt School, and its leading lights are examined here, both in life and thought, with a special emphasis on the former. Other books have come out since then, some had greater access to previously unavailable documents. Even so, no other book beats Martin Jay's scholarly and eminently readable account. If you must read just one book on the movement, read this one.
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on January 26, 2001
A wonderful introduction to and overview of the works of one of the only coherent intellectual "schools" of the 20th century. Jay describes the penetrating insights (and weaknesses) of the thought of Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse et al., with mercifully little of the psychologizing that one often finds in intellectual history. Ideas and their relation to historical context are the focus, rather than personalities and psyches. The book is readable enough to be attractive for non-academics and academics alike. It would have been nice to have more on the post-1950 period, but the as the subtitle makes clear, this is beyond Jay's purview for this book.
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on December 3, 2012
In the early 1920s, a formidable array of intellectual talent coalesced into a group that called themselves the Institut fur Sozialforschung (the Institute for Social Research). They would later come to be known more simply as the Frankfurt School. Consisting mostly of assimilated German Jews, they had a truly impressive body of interests, running from sociology, sinology, philosophy, Marxism, musicology, psychology, and psychoanalysis. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno are probably most affiliated with the first generation of the school, but it also included Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, Leo Lowenthal, Paul Lazarsfeld, and Franz Neumann, many of whom are still read today.

But when one does hear the words "Frankfurt School" today, their influence on Marxism is perhaps what most immediately comes to mind. The members thought that the German Social Democratic Party was spineless and ineffective, but equally thought that the Communist party was too hard-lined and ideological. Because of this, their academic work paved a middle course between the bourgeois politics of the Social Democrats and the sclerotic, obsolescent, vulgar Marxism that they perceived in Germany, and which was soon to all but disappear.

Martin Jay uses this book as an opportunity to write a multi-person biography of many of the figures above, interlarded with the objective, measured perspective that I've come to know Jay for. (I've also read his "Songs of Experience: Modern American and European Variations on a Universal Theme," which is a philosophical history of experience over the last four hundred years or so, and which I have also reviewed for this site.) He discusses the major work which they produced, including their analysis of Nazism, aesthetic theory and Adorno's devastating critique of mass culture, and the later more empirical work that came out after World War II. In the last chapter, some of the contributions of Walter Benjamin, a figure more peripherally related to the school but still extraordinarily important in his own right, are more fully fleshed out. In school, I read Benjamin's "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (which I'm sure that every student in a philosophy of art course is made to read), and found that it completely changed some of my assumptions about aesthetic experience. I have several other volumes of Benjamin's work, including one of media criticism, and Jay's book has made me much more curious to pick those up.

If there is one complaint that I could level against the book, it would be that Jay pays almost equal attention to everyone, even those figures that few people really read these days. For whatever reason, I thought "history of the Frankfurt School" might mean "a detailed discussion of Horkheimer and Adorno," with maybe a little Marcuse or Benjamin tossed in for good measure. But he really tells the entire history of the Institute itself, including how it was funded and the minor figures that no one really except for perhaps academic specialists read anymore (like Neumann and Lazarsfeld). If you're looking for a book that gives a more straightforward account on the major ideas of critical theory and its continuing interdisciplinary influences, this isn't really the book that you're looking for - which is what this book seemed to be - this isn't really the book for you. If this is what you're more interested in I've heard, though I can't confirm since I haven't read them, that the Very Short Introduction's book on the group by Stephen E. Bronner or Thomas Wheatland's "The Frankfurt School in Exile" might be more appropriate.
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on July 31, 2007
This was one of the best books I read in graduate school. After 20 years this is still a great reference for anyone interested in the development of American universities. This work is an essential part of the intellectual landscape to anyone navigating the currents of the reactionary neocon thought, which developed in large degree in opposition to the legacy of the Frankfurt School. While the Frankfurt School's students seemed to dominate academe for a generation or more, the new invisible college is dominated by the reaction to this major stream of thought.
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on February 8, 2013
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on August 14, 2015
Long on information. Short on insight. Little on early thinkers like Luckas or later eg. Marcuse.
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VINE VOICEon September 9, 2008
I remember having read this book when it first came out, some 25 years ago. It was a good book then and it is a good book now. I read the book originally while at college when the smoke had just cleared from the sixties and there was still glamor associated with the New Left and its antecedents in Germany's prewar years. Reading the book now, although it is every bit as good as scholarship, places that particular generation of mainly Jewish, upper-middle class Marxists in a new light. The odor of revolution is long gone, the USSR has fallen, left-leaning professors dominate academe but the audience for chic revolutionaries has withered away along with the proletariat they were counting on. There is something faintly hilarious about these pompous Herr Professors and their trust-fund institute grinding out "studies" on the future of Marxism. Did not one of them ever wonder how they would maintain their elitist lifestyle were the revolution to ever actually occur? These guys were smoking-jacket intellectuals who were about as interested in seeing the world change as blue-blooded WASPs who prefer to play bridge while listening to Vivaldi. No wonder they ran back to Germany after the war to take up chaired professorships, never mind their appointments came from men who had just taken off their Nazi uniforms. The Frankfurt school is certainly very interesting and this book serves as a wonderful introduction , but for God sake don't think they can offer any guidance to how to lead the revolution.
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on June 26, 2002
Frankfurt school is now a part of history. Not much of its arguments are reproduced now a day. For example, their critical cultural theory opened up the vast terrain of cultural study in capitalism. But their characterizing cultural consumer as dumb passive receiver is too much extreme to be real. Now nobody hold up such a position. Its perspective seems locked in the interwar period. Indeed, the power of the school comes from the distinctive problematic derived from such a peculiar era. But the strength is the source of weakness. But even we don¡¯t follow their lines, we should know what they said at least in cursory manner, for their theories are now classic in each field.
This book must be still the most authoritative history of Frankfurt school from its inception to 1950. but it deals with not only chronological events but also what the first generation of the school, such as Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, and Fromm, worked. This book is the intellectual history of the school. The author illustrates the school against the time of school. As Hegel said, thought is the child of its time. So the thought should be located in the right context to understand. The society of Western intellectuals faced a crisis in the interwar period. The impact was severe especially to German intellectuals. The thought of Frankfurt school is one of the reactions to the crisis. Marin Jay succeeds in reconstruct their time in front of us. This book is the ¡®must¡¯, if you want to be oriented to Frankfurt school.
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on September 30, 2008
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Cry Havoc: The Great American Bring-Down and How It Happened

I have always considered "Dialectical Imagination" an indispensable research tool, but until the publication of Ralph de Toledano's "Cry Havoc: The Great American Bring-down and How It Happened," Martin Jay had a monopoly on the history of the Frankfurt School. More than a decade after Jay's publication, Cry Havoc is an excellent companion piece, by a strong critic of the Frankfurt School who personally knew many of the operatives of the ISR network at Columbia University, and many of the operatives of the Comintern of the 1940s and 1950s. A great combination.
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