Political Science Critical Theory and the Frankfurt School
Diana Boros
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0161


“Critical Theory” in its proper noun form denotes the work of the Frankfurt School—the interdisciplinary group of thinkers who coalesced at the Institute for Social Research beginning in the 1930s in Frankfurt, Germany—and most often refers to the works of its most famous and prolific members: Theodor W. Adorno (b. 1903–d. 1969), Walter Benjamin (b. 1892–d. 1940), Eric Fromm (b. 1900–d. 1980), Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929–), Max Horkheimer (b. 1895–d. 1973), and Herbert Marcuse (b. 1898–d. 1979). As a school of thought, the Frankfurt School is often described generationally. Along with the five theorists mentioned above, barring Habermas, the first generation of critical theorists also included Otto Kirchheimer (b. 1905–d. 1965), Leo Lowenthal (b. 1900–d. 1993), Franz Leopold Neumann (b. 1900–d. 1954), and Friedrich Pollock (b. 1894–d. 1970). Jürgen Habermas joined the core group later, first as a student of Adorno and Horkheimer in the 1950s, and, a decade later, as a professor. He went on to advise a large number of third generation critical theorists. Critical theory is most well known within two main historical trajectories—that of literary criticism and that of social and political critique. However, the focus in this article is on critical social theory, and specifically on the work of the Frankfurt School. Broadly speaking, “critical theory” can include almost any form of theory that is focused on critique of given or prescribed conditions and on the seeking of liberation against these conditions. Critical theory as a philosophical school of thought was borne out of both a disillusionment with Enlightenment ideals, and an interpretation of Marxian thought (particularly the ideas of the early Marx) that articulates the philosophy in a humanist light, delivers it from its (they argued) outmoded understanding of capitalism’s oppression, and focuses on its fundamentally critical nature. Besides Marx, thinkers such as Kant, Schiller, and Hegel, as well as Nietzsche, Lukács, Weber, and Freud, inspired the critical perspective of the Frankfurt School. From the early work done at the institute before and after World War II to the later contributions of the 1960s and 1970s, the theorists of the Frankfurt School objected to the increasingly rapid advance of a free-market dogma that established its dominance in language, cultural tropes, societal ideals, and even emotional and intellectual self-assessment by the individual. Critical Theory relies primarily on a Hegelian-Marxian dialectical philosophy as a tool by which to examine the ideology of this encompassing system. The critical theorists aimed to develop an interdisciplinary critical theory of society that combined philosophy, social theory, political science, psychology, and aesthetics. They critiqued the conformity of public life, the mechanization of the “culture industry,” and the instrumental rationality that drove these characteristics of cultural life under advanced capitalism. To seek individual liberation to improve everyday life amidst these conditions, they argued in various ways for the rise of dialectical or negative thinking in order to resist the “false needs” created by late capitalism, to stress the importance of the sensual and the aesthetic as sources of knowledge, and to promote the need for a vibrantly democratic multidimensional public sphere.

General Overviews

The texts below offer a sampling of some of the most influential edited volumes on the Frankfurt School. Besides Habermas, some of the most prominent social and political-minded critical theorists writing today include Axel Honneth, Frederic Jameson, Douglas Kellner, Stephen Bronner, and Susan Buck-Morss, among others. For a broad introduction to the primary works of the Frankfurt School and Critical Theory, it is helpful to begin with Bronner and Kellner 1989 and Arato and Gebhardt 1982. After these works, see Buck-Morss 1977, Geuss 1981, Honneth 2009, Nealon and Irr 2002, Rush 2004, Wiggershaus 1995, and Wolin 2006.

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

    This volume draws together essential works of the Frankfurt School, many of them otherwise not available in English. Arato and Gebhardt provide useful introductions to the three sections that make up this reader in which they discuss the importance of the works included in the volume as well as their historical significance. Paul Piccone writes the general introduction.

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

    This is a valuable collection of influential essays by the key members of the Frankfurt School. The volume is divided into five main sections, the selections are well chosen and many of them appear here in English for the first time. This volume is a provocative introduction to the foundations of Critical Theory. Bronner and Kellner write the introduction.

  • Buck-Morss, Susan. The Origin of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and the Frankfurt Institute. New York: Free Press, 1977.

    This is a lucid guide to understanding the origin and influences on Adorno’s negative dialectics. Buck-Morss not only highlights Adorno’s debt to Benjamin, but also places the theory into context by discussing the roles that other thinkers, from Kant to Lukács to Horkheimer, have played in shaping Adorno’s thought.

  • Geuss, Raymond. The Idea of a Critical Theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

    This text offers an analytically succinct and informative critique of the claims of the Frankfurt School. Geuss pays particular attention to the cognitive, conformational, and epistemological aspects of critical theory. This is a useful introductory text to critical theory.

  • Honneth, Axel. Pathologies of Reason: On the Legacy of Critical Theory. Translated by James Ingram. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

    This collection of essays, published in English for the first time, offer what Honneth considers to be the essential unifying and continuing justification for the critical social theory tradition: the distortion of reason in capitalist society.

  • Nealon, Jeffrey, and Caren Irr. Rethinking the Frankfurt School. New York: State University of New York Press, 2002.

    This collection presents essays from a range of critical theory’s representatives, including Fredric Jameson and Douglas Kellner.

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

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521816602

    This is a collection of essays from leading scholars on critical theory including Axel Honneth, Jay Bernstein, and Raymond Geuss.

  • Wiggershaus, Rolf. The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance. Translated by Michael Robertson. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1995.

    This text gives a thorough account of the Frankfurt School’s history and importance with a keen eye toward the evolution of the school relative to external contexts.

  • Wolin, Richard. The Frankfurt School Revisited: And Other Essays on Politics and Society. New York: Routledge, 2006.

    This collection of essays provides a fresh look at the importance of the Frankfurt School. The volume includes essays on Benjamin, Adorno, Marcuse, Arendt, Heidegger, Weber, Jaspers, and Schmitt. Included also is a valuable account of Marcuse’s Heideggerian Marxism. Wolin wrote this following two excellent and relevant books: Heidegger’s Children (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003) and The Seduction of Unreason (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).

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