Literary and Critical Theory Frankfurt School
Douglas Kellner
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0043


The term “Frankfurt School” refers to the work of members of the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research), which was established in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1923 as the first Marxist-oriented research center affiliated with a major German university. Under its director, Carl Grünberg, the Institute’s work in the 1920s tended to be empirical, historical, and oriented toward problems of the European working-class movement. Max Horkheimer became director in 1930, and gathered around him many talented theorists, including Erich Fromm, Franz Neumann, Herbert Marcuse, Leo Lowenthal, and T. W. Adorno. Under Horkheimer, the Institute sought to develop an interdisciplinary social theory that could serve as an instrument of social transformation. The work of this era developed what the Institute called a “critical theory of society,” generating a synthesis of philosophy and social theory, which combined sociology, psychology, cultural critique, political economy, and philosophy to produce a critical theory of the contemporary era. With the rise of German fascism, the Institute members immigrated to the United States in 1934 and set up their Institute at Columbia University. There they continued developing their theories from the family and market-oriented capitalism during the 19th century that Karl Marx theorized, which contrasted with 20th-century forms of state capitalism. The different types of state capitalism ranged from German and Italian fascism to Soviet communism, and to the Welfare State democracies developing in the United States and some European countries. The Frankfurt School also developed influential theories of the culture industry, which provided one of the first models of critical analysis of the role of mass media and culture in the contemporary era, analysis of the authoritarian state and authoritarian personality, and accounts of changing roles of science, technology, and ideology in contemporary history. After World War II, key members of the Frankfurt School, such as Horkheimer, Adorno, and Friedrich Pollock, returned to Germany and re-established the Institute in Frankfurt. Marcuse, Neumann, Lowenthal and others chose to remain in the United States, and after working for the US government during World War II and the beginning of the postwar period, they returned to university life. By the 1960s, the Institute scholars had become renown, and histories (Jay 1973 and Wiggershaus 2007, cited under Historical and Theoretical Contextualization), readers (Arato and Gebhardt 1982 and Bronner and Kellner 1989, cited under Anthologies and Commentaries), introductions, overviews of the trajectories of critical theory (Bonss and Honneth 1982, cited under Methods, Concepts, and Foundations of Critical Theory; and Kellner 1989, cited under Historical and Theoretical Contextualization), monographs on major themes and individual critical theorists, and passionate polemics have steadily emerged around the school up to the present day (Rush 2004 and Neumann, et al. 2013, cited under Anthologies and Commentaries).

Anthologies and Commentaries

English-language anthologies of key texts of the Frankfurt School begin with the collections Arato and Gebhardt 1982 and Bronner and Kellner 1989, both of which brought together key texts of Frankfurt School social theory and offered historical contextualization and commentary. Schirmacher 2000 collects Frankfurt School texts oriented toward philosophy. Volumes that provide critical commentary on the Frankfurt School, its major theorists and themes, and contributions to contemporary social theory, politics, and intellectual history include Marcus and Tar 1984, Bernstein 1994, and Rush 2004. Kraushaar 1998 collects key German texts of the German protest movement of the 1960s that shed light on relationships between student activists and professors of the Frankfurt School, while Neumann, et al. 2013 collects for the first time secret reports by Neumann, Marcuse, and Kirchheimer written for U.S. intelligence agencies during World War II, which provide insights into Nazi Germany and key ideas of some of the theorists who would be associated with the Frankfurt School.

  • Arato, Andrew, and Eike Gebhardt, eds. The Essential Frankfurt School Reader. New York: Continuum, 1982.

    Arato and Gehardt provide an introduction that situates the texts chosen in terms of the institutional history of the Frankfurt School, and offer introductions to the three sections of the book: “Political Sociology and Critique of Politics,” “Esthetic Theory and Cultural Criticism,” and “A Critique of Methodology. The editors’ introductions seek to situate the historical development of the school’s thought and to demonstrate its complexity, while investigating its influence on various disciplines.

  • Bernstein, Jay, ed. The Frankfurt School: Critical Assessments. New York: Routledge, 1994.

    Jay Bernstein, a University Distinguished Professor at the New School for Social Research, has edited six volumes of essays providing critical assessments of the various Frankfurt School theorists and their contributions to contemporary philosophy, social theory, and other academic disciplines. However, the collection is highly inaccessible, costing over $2,000 from Amazon, although it can be examined through university libraries that have purchased the volumes.

  • Bronner, Stephen Eric, and Douglas Kellner, eds. Critical Theory and Society: A Reader. New York: Routledge, 1989.

    Bronner and Kellner’s introduction situates key texts of the Frankfurt School within the development of a critical theory of society. Selections of essays illustrate the metatheory and original program of critical theory and its theory of society, cultural criticism and critique of mass culture, psychoanalysis and the authoritarian personality, and analyses of society and history.

  • Kraushaar, Wolfgang, ed. Frankfurter Schule und Studentenbewegung: Von der Flaschenpost zum Molotowcocktail. Vols. 1–3. Hamburg: Rogner & Bernhard, 1998.

    Kraushaar has brought together a three-volume edition of key texts relating to the history of the Frankfurt School and German protest movement that shook German society in the 1960s. He provides discussion and notes on the relationship between key German activists and members of the school, and texts from the period of students and professors, including Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, Habermas, von Friedeburg, Krahl, Cohn-Bendit, Marcuse, and Negt.

  • Marcus, Judith, and Zoltán Tar, eds. Foundations of the Frankfurt School of Social Research. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1984.

    Marcus and Tar bring together an international array of interdisciplinary scholars to appraise the contemporary contributions and limitations of the Frankfurt School. The articles on critical theory were originally published in different American, German, and Italian books and journals in the 1970s. The articles are organized into six sections under the traditional headings of history/history of ideas, philosophy, aesthetics, sociology and social psychology, political science and political economy, and Marxism.

  • Neumann, Franz, Herbert Marcuse, and Otto Kirchheimer. Secret Reports on Nazi Germany: The Frankfurt School Contribution to the War Effort. Edited with an introduction by Raffaele Laudani. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013.

    The collection brings together for the first time key secret reports by Frankfurt School theorists Franz Neumann, Herbert Marcuse, and Otto Kirchheimer, written for U.S. intelligence agencies during World War II. The texts offer important insights into Nazi Germany, and editor Raffaele Laudani, now Associate Professor in the Dipartimento di Storia Culture Civiltà at the University of Bologna, provides an excellent scholarly introduction to the texts, with scholarly notes to introduce and locate each article.

  • Rush, Fred, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Critical Theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    Rush has assembled an international team of scholars who survey the shared philosophical concerns that have defined critical theory throughout its history, while also indicating the diversity and richness of its work. Contributors articulate its central conceptual concerns, contributions to contemporary issues, and future prospects. Rush’s introduction situates the reception of critical theory in the post–World War II epoch of the Cold War, which helped shape the theory and its reception in a variety of academic disciplines.

  • Schirmacher, Wolfgang, ed. German 20th Century Philosophy: The Frankfurt School. German Library 78. New York: Continuum, 2000.

    Schirmacher has assembled a German Library paperback collection that includes key texts of the classical critical theorists, such as Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Jürgen Habermas, and others. He provides a brief introduction and stresses the Hegelian and Marxian dimensions of critical theory.

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