Thomas Wheatland


On his book The Frankfurt School in Exile

Cover Interview of December 02, 2009


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 reevaluate the implications of this time in America.

First, like Jay and Wiggershaus before me, The Frankfurt School in Exile challenges the myth of a homogenous Horkheimer Circle by complicating the picture of Critical Theory and its theorists.  By focusing on the Frankfurt School in exile, we glimpse Critical Theory at a moment of crisis and transformation, an era during which competing visions for the future of the institute and its intellectual program were openly debated.  Second, my study dispels the common idea that the critical theorists isolated themselves in the United States, documenting the numerous contacts that emerged between members of the Horkheimer Circle and networks of American scholars and public intellectuals.  Third, my project evaluates the impacts that American exile had on the Frankfurt School, as well as the influences that these critical theorists had on various communities of American thinkers.

Recently, intellectual history has been in crisis. It began with the widespread rise of social history; intellectual history increasingly was perceived by social historians as old-fashioned and elitist.  Further problems arose as some leading intellectual historians began to take French theory more seriously. As a result, intellectual history became a brief lightening rod among historians for the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s. 

Writing in the wake of all of this, I hope that this book will offer a new path for intellectual historians—and more importantly one that will be appreciated by my fellow social historians.  In the aftermath of last fall’s financial crisis, the timing seems right for a Marcuse (and Critical Theory) renaissance.  But his ideas regarding the “new sensibility” must be rescued from his celebrity and his reputation as the “guru” of 1968.  Only by re-examining Critical Theory’s academic reception during the 1960s can the Frankfurt School be rediscovered by the wide audience to whom it was addressed.

© 2009 Thomas Wheatland