Literary and Critical Theory Critical Theory
Neal Harris
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0121


Formed as the Institute for Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung) in 1923, Frankfurt School scholarship is distinctive in its fusion of Freudian psychoanalysis, Marxism, Weberian sociology, and left-Hegelian philosophy. The fundamental insight of Critical Theory is that a complex relationship exists between constitutive power, rationality, consciousness, and desire. As such, from a Critical Theory perspective, any meaningful analysis of society must surrender all pretensions to “objectivity.” All thought, including reflexive scholarly inquiry, retains the inherited form of the sociopolitical system. Critical Theorists appreciate that all research is therefore political, either reinforcing or challenging the social order. Subsequent “critical theories” have emerged in addition to the Frankfurt School’s approach, drawing on these principles; however, many are methodologically and politically divergent from their German forefather. For example, in the early twenty-first century, some consider deconstructionism, post-structuralism, and decolonial thought to be forms of critical theory. This article follows convention, and, in keeping with the capitalized “C” and “T” of the title, refers strictly to “Frankfurt School” Critical Theory. This is not stated as part of a broader territorial dispute, nor as part of a pointed “ground clearing” exercise. Rather, the acknowledged convention of capitalization for Frankfurt School Critical Theory serves to maintain disciplinary coherence. The methodological innovations and political sentiments captured by Michel Foucault’s critical theory, for example, are highly different to those of Theodor Adorno. That stated, one must be careful not to implicitly consider “Frankfurt School Critical Theory” to be a homogenous, harmonious whole. While a reweaving of the tapestry of ideas offered by Marx-Freud-Hegel-Weber provides a loose coherence across the different eras of Critical Theory, Frankfurt School scholarship is formally demarcated into three “generations.” The “first generation” refers to the work of Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, and their Frankfurt School contemporaries. First-generation scholarship was united by a Marxian philosophical foundation and an explicitly anti-capitalist politics. “Second-generation” Critical Theory refers to the work of Jürgen Habermas and his embrace of insights from analytic philosophy, linguistics, and formal pragmatics. “Third-generation” Critical Theory focuses on the work of Axel Honneth and the Hegel-inspired Critical Theory of Recognition. There is even sporadic discussion of an emergent “fourth generation” of Critical Theory that orbits Rainer Forst’s theory of judgement. Contemporary Critical Theory is an exceedingly fraught and politically divisive enterprise, with various scholars contending that the research agenda has lost its political potency and become blunted by a philosophically untenable “neo-Idealism.” The defining characteristics of Critical Theory are themselves the subject of a heated contemporary debate.

General Overviews

The names Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno carry a scholarly and political weight that contemporary Frankfurt School scholars, such as Axel Honneth and Rainer Forst, simply do not. As such, many of the most recent overviews of Critical Theory focus more on the life and work of the more famous “first generation.” This is typified in Bronner 2017 and Jeffries 2016. While there is far more engagement with the “canonical” first-generation, there are some excellent introductions to Critical Theory that engage in detail with Habermas’s “second generation” approach, see for example Guess 1981 and Held 1980. All the main Critical Theory readers are limited in not including adequate coverage of both first-generation concepts and the most contemporary debates—there is little available at present that engages with both the canonical work of Adorno, Fromm, and Marcuse and with contemporary debates on social pathology, neo-Idealism, and decoloniality. Perhaps the most “well-rounded” reader, which engages with equal weight on “canonical” and some (nearly) “contemporary” Critical Theory, is Rush 2004, although this is already somewhat debated. While many of these texts can be theoretically dense and potentially off-putting, Jeffries 2016 is an excellent antidote, offering a spritely frolic through Frankfurt School theory, with anecdotes, gossip, and historical context galore. While straying far beyond the formal confines of “Critical Theory,” Keucheyan 2014 will help the reader locate Critical Theory within today’s wider academic currents. However, it is clear that there is not a widely acknowledged accessible recent introductory text (in the last five years) that has been broadly embraced as the “gold standard” by scholars of Critical Theory. As such, the best available option for those seeking a swift induction in Critical Theory (past and present) will be to familiarize themselves with both the classical texts and concepts, and then engage, separately, with the more contemporary debates by reading texts such as Thompson 2016 (cited under Critical Theory and Recognition Theory). My recommended three core readings from this section, to provide a varied and synoptic introduction to Critical Theory, would be Jay 1973, Jeffries 2016, and Schecter 2013. Reading these three would bring a student up to speed to engage with the most contemporary debates.

  • Bronner, Stephen Eric. Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780190692674.001.0001

    As the title suggests, a very short introduction to Critical Theory. This accessible text is aimed at a nonspecialist audience. An ideal text for a first-year undergraduate that provides both a historical and a theoretical grounding in the Frankfurt School.

  • Bronner, Stephen Eric, and Douglas MacKay Kellner, eds. Critical Theory and Society. New York and London: Routledge, 1990.

    A collection of essays by the canonical figures of Critical Theory. Includes chapters by Horkheimer, Pollock, Marcuse, Adorno, Benjamin, Habermas, Lowenthal, Kracauer, and Fromm. While not the most accessible introduction for someone entirely new to the field, Bronner and Kellner’s reader provides an excellent overview of the key themes and core content of Critical Theory in one volume.

  • Corradetti, Claudio. “The Frankfurt School and Critical Theory.” In Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by James Fieser and Bradley Dowden. Martin, TN: University of Tennessee at Martin, n.d.

    Corradetti’s detailed entry in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy will be valuable to both undergraduate and graduate students seeking incisive summaries of key Frankfurt School concepts. This is richer theoretically and philosophically and lighter on historical detail. As with many of the synoptic works on the Frankfurt School, Corradetti is strongest when discussing the first and second generation. There is little engagement with the most contemporary debates.

  • Guess, Raymond. The Idea of a Critical Theory: Habermas and the Frankfurt School. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

    A short introduction to the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School. The title may suggest a dominant focus on Habermas, which is not the case; other theorists are discussed at length too. Central to Guess’s discussion is the role of ideology, with different conceptions of ideology critically engaged with.

  • Held, David. Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

    DOI: 10.1525/9780520341272

    An essential text on Critical Theory, with nearly five hundred pages of detailed, scholarly analysis. The book finishes with an impressive bibliography that is also a useful resource. Chapter 1, “The Formation of the Institute of Social Research,” situates the origins of the research program with the sociohistorical context. Four chapters focus in detail on Habermas. A useful final section engages with the importance and limitations of Critical Theory.

  • Jay, Martin. The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute for Social Research; 1923–1950. Boston: Little, Brown, 1973.

    Martin Jay is broadly accepted as being the world-leading authority on the history of the Frankfurt School. Jay’s text focuses on the early days of the institute and offers both a theoretical sophistication and a sharp historical portrait. An excellent pairing for Jeffries 2016, a lighter read.

  • Jeffries, Stuart. Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School. London and Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2016.

    An accessible group biography of the Frankfurt School, of interest to a nonspecialist reader. The text locates the Frankfurt School theorists within their broader social and historical worlds and brings the cast of characters to life. Centers the work of Benjamin more than other introductions to Critical Theory. Strongest when providing a situated analysis of first-generation authors, their lives, and works.

  • Keucheyan, Ramzig. The Left Hemisphere: Mapping Contemporary Critical Theory. London: Verso, 2014.

    Introduces contemporary Critical Theory, albeit very broadly construed. Engaging with Keucheyan’s text will help undergraduates situate Frankfurt School approaches within the broader early-21st-century theoretical landscape.

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

    Contemporary authors reflect on key features of Frankfurt School Critical Theory, past and present. The text starts with a useful timeline of key developments in the history of Critical Theory. While other volumes listed here, such as Bronner and Kellner 1990 and Jay 1973, are strongest on first-generation Critical Theory, Rush’s companion is an excellent reader for (more) contemporary debates. An excellent pairing to Held 1980.

  • Schecter, Darrow. Critical Theory in the Twenty-First Century. New York and London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

    A critical engagement with the Frankfurt School that incorporates discussion of “French” Critical Theory. Argues that Critical Theory has not provided an adequate means of interrogating contemporary developments, particularly globalization. Not explicitly an introductory guide but an excellent critical study that covers vast ground.

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