Thomas Wheatland


On his book The Frankfurt School in Exile

Cover Interview of December 01, 2009

In a nutshell

My book aims to challenge what I consider to be some pervasive views about the Frankfurt School during its period of exile in the United States and to re-evaluate the implications of this time in America.  By rigorously examining the institutional and intellectual networks that the Frankfurt School sought to navigate (and sometimes join) in the United States, I cast the well-known history of Critical Theory into a new and unfamiliar light. 

Typically, we see the members of Horkheimer’s Circle as classic exiles—marginal men because of the lonely territory that they staked out between Germany and America.  In fact, members of the Frankfurt School, particularly Theodor W. Adorno, highlighted their de-centered status ironically as an empowering tool for observing and critiquing contemporary society.  Nonetheless, the experiences of the group in exile were more typical of a classic immigrant’s tale.  Although the shock of forced relocation and all of the traumas that accompanied their departure from Germany never left their minds, the Critical Theorists rapidly had to establish new professional and intellectual lives for themselves, a task that included assimilation and adaptation.

With the inspiration of the sociologists Pierre Bourdieu, Michelle Lamont, and Randall Collins, I have mapped the major academic and public intellectual networks that the Frankfurt School encountered, traversed, and sometimes entered in exile.  Thus my book is a hybrid between the sociology of knowledge and the history of ideas—a combination that I have called the social history of ideas.