Critical Theory refers to a form of self-reflexive social critique as well as a particular tradition associated with the Institute for Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung), a.k.a. the Frankfurt School. Early Frankfurt School theorists combined a Hegelian Marxist social criticism with other emancipatory approaches, such as psychoanalysis and cultural critique, taking a genuinely anti-positivist and interdisciplinary approach. Critical theory was intended to contribute to the “intensification of the struggle with which the theory is connected,” wrote Horkheimer, becoming a material force in the “transformation of society as a whole” (219). Theorists associated with the early Frankfurt School include Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and Walter Benjamin, while contemporary figures such as Jürgen Habermas, Axel Honneth, Nancy Fraser, and Seyla Benhabib continue the tradition with non-Marxist forms of critique grounded in, for example, communicative reason and social recognition. Today, Critical Theory refers to a broader spectrum of social theorists in poststructuralist, feminist, queer, critical race, disability, and postcolonial theory, such as Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Angela Davis, Paulo Freire, Frantz Fanon, Enrique Dussel, Gayatri Spivak, Giorgio Agamben, Jacque Rancière, and Slavoj Žižek.
Max Horkheimer’s 1937 essay “Traditional and Critical Theory” (in Horkheimer 1972) is a foundational text, outlining the Institute’s interdisciplinary methodology and critique of "traditional" theory. Other important works by early Frankfurt School theorists include Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment; Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia and Negative Dialectics; short works by Walter Benjamin in Illuminations and Reflections, particularly his essays “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and “On Violence”; and Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man and Eros and Civilization. Jürgen Habermas’ two-volume work The Theory of Communicative Action represents a break from the earlier Marxist tendencies of the Institute, laying out a new normative foundation for critique in communicative reason. Axel Honneth, the current director of the Institute for Social Research, has alternatively reconstructed the Hegelian notion of social recognition in his critiques of social injustices and social pathologies in Struggle for Recognition and Freedom’s Right. Seyla Benhabib’s Critique, Norm, and Utopia and Nancy Fraser’s Unruly Practices are also important works in the Frankfurt School tradition. Seminal texts beyond this tradition include, for example, Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, Enrique Dussel’s Ethics of Liberation, Gayatri Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, and Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer.
The best scholarly introductions to the Frankfurt School tradition in English are Jay 1973, Held 1980, and Wiggershaus 1995. Jay Bernstein has edited the six-volume collection: The Frankfurt School: Critical Assessment and the publications of the Institute’s journal Zeitscrift für Sozialforschung (1932-1941) are available in a nine-volume set. Notable anthologies on the Frankfurt School and critical theory more generally include Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt (eds.), The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, Stephen Eric Bronner and Douglas MacKay Kellner (eds.), Critical Theory and Society, David Rasmussen, The Handbook of Critical Theory, Benhabib, Butler, Cornell, and Fraser, Feminist Contentions; Seyla Benhabib and Drucilla Cornell (eds.), Feminism as Critique, William Rehg and James Bohman (eds), Pluralism and the Pragmatic Turn, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, et al. (eds.), Critical Race Theory, Philomena Essed and David Theo Goldberg (eds.), Race Critical Theories, Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman (eds.), Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory, and two volumes on the “idea of communism”: Costas Douzinas and Slavoj Žižek (eds.),The Idea of Communism, and Slavoj Žižek (ed.), The Idea of Communism, Volume II.
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