Max Horkheimer, The Social Function of Philosophy; Erich Fromm, The Character of Social Procress

Max Horkheimer, The Social Function of Philosophy

When talking about physics, chemistry, medicine or history, most have a clear idea of the meaning of these words. Philosophy is a different matter. There are too many conceptions of philosophy: either as an exact science and discipline in itself, or as an auxiliary helper to other sciences. What are the contents and methods of philosophy? Is it about the highest concepts and laws of Being? Is it about the a priori, knowledge not derived from experience? Is it a science or inner experience, scientific language, or about universal values? And the methods vary as well: analyzing concepts, intuition, phenomenology, logic, empirical criticism It’s hard to assume that different people who use the term philosophy are even talking about the same concept.

Horkheimer attempts to introduce his own idea of what philosophy is. First, he distinguishes it from science in a very important way. The sciences deal with problems arising from their contemporary societies, “by its very nature, the work of the scientist is capable of enriching life in its present form. His fields of activity are therefore largely marked out for him, and the attempts to alter the boundaries between the several domains of science, to develop new disciplines, as well as continuously to differentiate and integrate them, are always guided by social need, whether consciously or not. ” Philosophy is not concerned with solving the specific problems of society, and is in fact has an indifferent or even hostile relationship to society.

So what philosophy does is that it “insists that the actions and aims of man must not be the product of blind necessity. Neither the concepts of science nor the form of social life, neither the prevailing way of thinking nor the prevailing mores should be accepted by custom and practiced uncritically. Philosophy has set itself against mere tradition and resignation in the decisive problems of existence, and it has shouldered the unpleasant task of throwing the light of consciousness even upon those human relations and modes of reaction which have become so deeply rooted that they seem natural, immutable, and eternal.” Although Horkheimer concedes that scientific change has brought about social change as well, without any philosophical guide it still remains blind and one sided: thought must not be merely confined within the special sciences and to the practical learning of the professions, thought which investigates the material and intellectual presuppositions that are usually taken for granted, thought which impregnates with human purpose those relationships of daily life that are almost blindly created and maintained.

Horkheimer objects to two other conceptions of philosophy: philosophy as helper to science and philosophy as sociology. Since science in his conception deals with every day values and problem, if philosophy is to become a servant to science then it assumes that there is no way to transcend the contemporary and social forms and is content with handling the everyday tasks of the moment- philosophical skepticism and nihilism. So philosophy is not a servant to the sciences, nor is philosophy sociology. The latter reduces thought to ideology, the product of biases from specific social class. The “stereotyped application of the concept of ideology to every pattern of thought is, in the last analysis, based on the notion that there is no philosophical truth, in fact no truth at all for humanity, and that all thought is seinsgebunden (situationally determined)” and again, back to skepticism and nihilism.

So what is the real function of philosophy? “The real social function of philosophy lies in its criticism of what is prevalent.” The criticism here does not mean to complain about the state of the world, but to prevent mankind from fully losing itself in the actions and ideas of the moment. For Horkheimer, Plato’s use of the Socratic dialogue was a way of creating a more comprehensive thinking, one that is more flexible and better adapted to reality. Ideas recieve their meaning within a system of ideas, that is the meaning behind dialogues, and every one-sided thought or conception may turn out to be harmful. “We may recall the comparison drawn in the Gorgias. The trades of the baker, the cook, and the tailor are in themselves very useful. But they may lead to injury unless hygienic considerations determine their place in the lives of the individual and of mankind. Harbors, shipyards, fortifications, and taxes are good in the same sense. But if the happiness of the community is forgotten, these factors of security and prosperity become instruments of destruction.”

The goal of all the great philosophies is “an equitable state of affairs was for them the necessary condition for the unfolding of man’s intellectual powers, and this idea lies at the basis of all of Western humanism.” It is an optimistic idea, one that believes that people have to potential to achieve the good life or the highest mode of human organization.

So to give a one line summary, the social function of philosophy is to discourage one-sided and uncritical acceptance of the ideas of the particular society or historical society, through the use of reason: the use of dialogical reasoning which places that idea into a larger system of ideas.

Erich Fromm, The Character of the Social Process

Erich Fromm introduces the concept of Social Character to analyse society. Social character are the character traits that most individuals in a particular group share. Character “is the specific form in which human energy is shaped by the dynamic adaptation of human needs to the particular form of existence of a given society.” It determines thinking, action and feeling in individuals, as different individuals will have different definitions of a concept based on their character. This “emotional matrix of character” when applied to social character explains cultural differences, for some ideas which resonate strongly in some character structures may fall on deaf ears to people with a different structure. Ideas may be consciously accepted by a group, but if that idea fails to meet a particular need in the character, it fails to have any real effect. Other ideas are more readily accepted if they carry that emotional weight. “ideas can become powerful forces, but only to the extent to which they are answers to specific human needs prominent in a given social character.”

Fromm summarizes the function of the social character in two lines: ” the subjective function of character for the normal person is to lead him to act according to what is necessary for him from a practical standpoint and also to give him satisfaction from his activity psychologically” and “the social character internalises external necessities and thus harnesses human energy for the task of a given economic and social system.” For example, in a given society where saving is the norm, a person who’s character is in line with the social character will not only be do the action of saving money but will derive psychological satisfaction from it. Likewise, a place where labor and work are valued will have the workers internalize this need as an inner compulsion towards work. When social conditions change, those needs may not be met like they used to, and thus people will seek satisfaction in different ways.

However, humans are not infinitely malleable. There appear to be certain needs and desires that are inherent. “What are these qualities? The most important seems to be the tendency to grow, to develop and realize potentialities which man has developed in the course of history – as, for instance, the faculty of creative and critical thinking and of having differentiated emotional and sensuous experiences. Each of these potentialities has a dynamism of its own.” Because of their dynamic nature, if they are suppressed by their society they may appear in new adaptions, potentially destructive ones. Although Fromm refuses to speculate on where they might come from, he believes that the desire for truth and justice may be inherent as well.

This is where he finds disagreement with Freud’s psychoanalysis, although he acknowledges the debt he owes to the psychologist. First, he criticizes Freud’s view of humans as a closed system of drives and instincts and instead calls for a model in which humans are the interaction of world, nature, self and others. Freud’s conception of the closed system leads to ideas where personality traits are developed because of physiological “errors”- the classic psychoanalytic ideas of “oral” or “anal” fixation, which is the result of the natural process of suckling or defecating in infants not developing naturally. Fromm argues these are the symptoms, not the cause:  the infant who experiences a lack of reliability in the mother’s love may acquire “oral” traits even though the feeding process went on without any particular disturbances. The “oral “ or “anal” phantasies or physical sensations in later years are not important on account of the physical pleasure they imply, or of any mysterious sublimation of this pleasure, but only on account of the specific kind of relatedness towards the world which is underlying them and which they express.

Fromm does not share Freud’s pessimism, where all the so-called higher ideals are the result of “baser” instincts: the feeling of justice resulting from a child feeling envy towards other. For Fromm, these desires are potentially inherent drives in humans. He also calls for a distinction between psychologies of want and abundance. Freud’s psychology, where pleasure is just the termination of pain, is a psychology of want. But when basic wants are fulfilled, there is the potential for culture, for free and spontaneous action: the psychology of abundance. Failing to distinguish the two, for example, sex in Freudian thought becomes merely a physiological compulsion, he cannot account for joy or intimacy or other feelings that come from the psychology of abundance.

So the concept of the Social Character is a different way of analyzing the system of human thought and culture, different from the psychological- instinctual drives create society- the economic- economic interests shape culture- or the idealistic- new religious ideals pushing for new society. It analyzes the adaptation of human character to social structure, and the effect changes in the society can have on that structure. Here are two examples he ends with:

With regard to the problem of the spirit of Protestantism and capitalism, I have tried to show that the collapse of medieval society threatened the middle class; that this threat resulted in a feeling of powerless isolation and doubt; that this psychological change was responsible for the appeal of Luther’s and Calvin’s doctrines; that these doctrines intensified and stabilised the characterological changes; and that the character traits that thus developed then became productive forces in the development of capitalism which in itself resulted from economic and political changes.

With regard to Fascism the same principle of explanation was applied: the lower middle class reacted to certain economic changes, such as the growing power of monopolies and post-war inflation, with an intensification of certain character traits, namely sadistic and masochistic strivings; the Nazi ideology appealed to and intensified these traits; and the new character traits then became effective forces in supporting the expansion of German imperialism. In both instances we see that when a certain class is threatened by new economic tendencies it reacts to this threat psychologically and ideologically; and that the psychological changes brought about by this reaction further the development of economic forces even if those forces contradict the economic interests of that class. We see that economic, psychological, and ideological forces operate in the social process in this way: that man reacts to changing external situations by changes in himself, and that these psychological factors in their turn help in moulding the economic and social process.


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