About this topic

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.

Key works

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 1994. 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.

Related categories

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Material to categorize
  1. Global Fragments: Latinamericanisms, Globalizations, and Critical Theory.Alejandro A. - 2010 - Journal of Speculative Philosophy 23 (4):364-367.
  2. Culture and Identity Critical Theories.Ross Abbinnett - 2003
  3. Anti-Semitism and Critical Social Theory: The Frankfurt School in American Exile.J. Abromeit - 2013 - Theory, Culture and Society 30 (1):140-151.
    Ziege’s book focuses primarily on the two main empirical studies carried out by Max Horkheimer’s Institute of Social Research during its exile in the United States in the 1940s: a relatively unknown and never-published study of anti-Semitism among American workers and the much better known, five-volume Studies in Prejudice. Ziege poses and successfully answers the question of why the Institute began to focus more on empirical studies and anti-Semitism in the 1940s. Her thorough archival research illuminates as never before the (...)
  4. Left Heideggerianism or Phenomenological Marxism? Reconsidering Herbert Marcuse's Critical Theory of Technology.John Abromeit - 2010 - Constellations 17 (1):87-106.
  5. South Africa's Search for Legitimacy.H. Adam - 1984 - Télos 1984 (59):45-68.
  6. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory.Carol J. Adams - 2000 - Continuum.
  7. Castoriadis and the Non-Subjective Field: Social Doing, Instituting Society and Political Imaginaries.Suzi Adams - 2012 - Critical Horizons 13 (1):29 - 51.
    Cornelius Castoriadis understood history as a self-creating order. In turn, he elaborated history in two directions: as the political project of autonomy, and as the ontological modality of the social-historical. On his account, history as self-creation was only possible through the interplay of social (or political) imaginaries and social doing. Although social imaginaries are readily situated within the non-subjective field, non-subjective modes of doing have been less explored. Yet non-subjective contexts are integral to both the “doing” and “imaginary” dimensions of (...)
  8. Andrew Feenberg, Lukács, Marx and the Sources of Critical Theory (Review). [REVIEW]Walter L. Adamson - 1983 - Journal of the History of Philosophy 21 (2):264.
  9. Critical Theory.Fawzia Afzal-Khan - 1989 - Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 4 (1):4-5.
  10. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life.Giorgio Agamben - 1998 - Stanford University Press.
  11. Deconstructing Post-Modernism: Gellner and Crocodile Dundee.Joseph Agassi - unknown
    Abstract and Introduction. This essay is an attempt to dispense with the negative aspects of Romanticism and examine whatever positive it has to offer--in the light of ideas scattered through diverse writings of Ernest Gellner.
  12. Marxism 'Or' the Frankfurt School?Ben Agger - 1983 - Philosophy of the Social Sciences 13 (3):347-365.
  13. ¿Nuevas Formas de Dialogar?: Bloggers, Trolls y Otras Especies.Virginia Fernández Aguinaco - 2006 - Critica 56 (938):72-74.
  14. How Critical is Critical Theory?: Reflections on Jurgen Habermas.Rolf Ahlers - 1975 - Philosophy and Social Criticism 3 (2):119-136.
  15. Planning as Social Process the Use of Critical Theory.Johann Albrecht - 1985
  16. The Sublime Pleasures of Tragedy: A Study of Critical Theory From Dennis to Keats.William Price Albrecht - 1975 - University Press of Kansas.
  17. Subjectivity in Capitalist Culture.Robert Albritton - 2004 - Journal of Critical Realism 3 (2):341-352.
  18. Dialectics and Deconstruction in Political Economy.Robert Albritton - 2001 - Science and Society 65 (3):403-406.
  19. Abromeit, John. Max Horkheimer and the Foundations of the Frankfurt School. Cambridge-New York: Cam-Bridge University Press, 2011. Pp. Xiii+ 441. Cloth, $95.00. Acosta, Emiliano. Schiller Versus Fichte: Schillers Begriff der Person in der Zeit Und Fichtes Kategorie der Wech-Selbestimmung Im Widerstreit. Fichte Studien Supplementa, Band 27. Amsterdam-New York: Rodopi, 2011. Pp. X+ 302. Paper, $87.00. [REVIEW]Linda Martín Alcoff & John D. Caputo - 2012 - Journal of the History of Philosophy 50 (2):305-307.
  20. Reconciliation with Nature? The Frankfurt School, Postmodernism and Melanie Klein.C. F. Alford - 1993 - Theory, Culture and Society 10 (2):207-227.
  21. Levinas, the Frankfurt School, and Psychoanalysis.C. Fred Alford - 2002 - Wesleyan University Press.
    'Original and provocative . . . engagingly written. (C Fred Alford) counters Levinas's notorious obscurity with a goodly dose of transparency' - John Lechte, Macquarrie University Abstract and evocative, writing in what can only be ...
  22. The Opposite of Totality: Levinas and the Frankfurt School. [REVIEW]C. Fred Alford - 2002 - Theory and Society 31 (2):229-254.
  23. The Entanglement of Power and Validity : Foucault and Critical Theory.Amy Allen - 2010 - In Timothy O'Leary & Christopher Falzon (eds.), Foucault and Philosophy. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 78--98.
  24. The Politics of Our Selves: Power, Autonomy, and Gender in Contemporary Critical Theory.Amy Allen - 2007 - Columbia University Press.
    Introduction : the politics of our selves -- Foucault, subjectivity, and the enlightenment : a critical reappraisal -- The impurity of practical reason : power and autonomy in Foucault -- Dependency, subordination, and recognition : Butler on subjection -- Empowering the lifeworld? autonomy and power in Habermas -- Contextualizing critical theory -- Engendering critical theory.
  25. Dependency, Subordination, and Recognition: On Judith Butler's Theory of Subjection. [REVIEW]Amy Allen - 2005 - Continental Philosophy Review 38 (3-4):199-222.
    Judith Butler's recent work expands the Foucaultian notion of subjection to encompass an analysis of the ways in which subordinated individuals becomes passionately attached to, and thus come to be psychically invested in, their own subordination. I argue that Butler's psychoanalytically grounded account of subjection offers a compelling diagnosis of how and why an attachment to oppressive norms – of femininity, for example – can persist in the face of rational critique of those norms. However, I also argue that her (...)
  26. Power Trouble: Performativity as Critical Theory.Amy Allen - 1998 - Constellations 5 (4):456-471.
    Although Judith Butler’s theory of the performativity of gender has been highly influential in feminist theory, queer theory, cultural studies, and some areas of philosophy, it has yet to receive its due from critical social theorists. This oversight is especially problematic given the crucial insights into the study of power – a central concept for critical social theory – that can be gleaned from Butler’s work. Her analysis is somewhat unique among discussions of power in its attempt to theorize simultaneously (...)
  27. A.R.L. Gurland, the Frankfurt School, and the Critical Theory of Antisemitism.Kevin S. Amidon & Mark P. Worrell - 2008 - Telos: Critical Theory of the Contemporary 2008 (144):129-147.
    “Just for the record, however: I don't hate Communists.” So wrote Arcadius Rudolph Lang Gurland to his longtime friend, colleague, and collaborator Otto Kirchheimer in 1958.1 Behind this straightforward statement lay over thirty years of Gurland's experience as a passionate scholar, spokesperson, and advocate of that most dialectical of the many forms of socialist politics, revolutionary social democracy. Throughout his peripatetic life of near-constant exile in Russia, Germany, France, and the United States as student, journalist, theoretician, researcher, writer, teacher, and (...)
  28. Rethinking the 'Crisis of Hope' in Critical Theory.Sarah S. Amsler - unknown
  29. Autonomy Gaps as a Social Pathology: Ideologiekritik Beyond Paternalism.Joel Anderson - forthcoming - In Rainer Forst (ed.), Sozialphilosophie Und Kritik. Suhrkamp.
    From the outset, critical social theory has sought to diagnose people’s participation in their own oppression, by revealing the roots of irrational and self-undermining choices in the complex interplay between human nature, social structures, and cultural beliefs. As part of this project, Ideologiekritik has aimed to expose faulty conceptions of this interplay, so that the objectively pathological character of what people are “freely” choosing could come more clearly into view. The challenge, however, has always been to find a way of (...)
  30. On Marx, Hegel, and Critical Theory in Postwar Germany: A Conversation with Iring Fetscher. [REVIEW]Kevin Anderson - 1998 - Studies in East European Thought 50 (1):1-18.
    This paper consists of an introduction to the life and work of Iring Fetscher by the interviewer, followed by a conversation with Fetscher, and notes. In the interview, Fetscher discusses his relationship to Marxism, Hegelianism, Lukács, and the Frankfurt School, as well as his critique of Althusser. The contribution of Fetscher, an extremely well-known German specialist on Soviet and Marxist thought, is here discussed in greater detail than anywhere else to date in the English-language scholarly literature.
  31. On Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory: A Critical Appreciation of Herbert Marcuse's Reason and Revolution, Fifty Years Later.Kevin Anderson - 1993 - Sociological Theory 11 (3):243-267.
    Marcuse's Reason and Revolution was the first Hegelian Marxist text to appear in English, the first systematic study of Hegel by a Marxist, and the first work in English to discuss the young Marx seriously. It introduced Hegelian and Marxist concepts such as alienation, subjectivity, negativity, and the Frankfurt School's critique of positivism to a wide audience in the United States. When the book first appeared, it was attacked sharply from the standpoint of empiricism and positivism by Sidney Hook, among (...)
  32. Hegel's Theory of Recognition: From Oppression to Ethical Liberal Modernity.Sybol Cook Anderson - 2009 - Continuum.
    Introduction: Redeeming recognition -- Oppression reconsidered -- Foundations of a liberal conception -- Toward a liberal conception of oppression -- Conclusion : A liberal conception of oppression -- Misrecognition as oppression -- Exploitation and disempowerment -- Cultural imperialism -- Marginalization -- Violence -- Conclusion: Misrecognition as oppression -- Overcoming oppression : the limits of toleration -- Contemporary differences : matters of toleration -- John Rawls : political liberalism -- Will Kymlicka : multicultural citizenship -- Conclusion: Accommodating differences : the limits (...)
  33. Rethinking the Frankfurt School: Alternative Legacies of Cultural Critique (Review).Mark Andrejevic - 2004 - Philosophy and Rhetoric 37 (1):92-95.
  34. "Authority and Power" Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse.Ruth Wanda Anshen - 1974 - Journal of Social Philosophy 5 (3):1-8.
  35. Molière and the Sociology of Exchange.Jean-Marie Apostolidès & Alice Musick McLean - 1988 - Critical Inquiry 14 (3):477-492.
    The method chosen here draws on concepts borrowed from sociology and anthropology. This double conceptual approach is necessary for a society divided between values inherited from medieval Christianity and precapitalist practices. Seventeenth-century France did not think of itself as a class society but as a society of orders. Since sociology is a system of knowledge whose concepts are taken from an imaginary construct, it is thus more suited to analyzing bourgeois society than societies in transition.6 In trying to measure the (...)
  36. Teaching Applied Ethics, Critical Theory, and “Having to Brush One's Teeth”.Barbara Applebaum - 2002 - Teaching Philosophy 25 (1):27-40.
    This paper argues that to study and teach ethics without due attention to feminism and other relevant aspects of critical theory is to be ethically handicapped. In arguing for this point, the author explains the key components of critical theory, how critical theory augments critical thinking insofar as the former points out certain limitations of exclusive abstract analysis, and how a consideration of critical theory can aid teachers to achieve their learning objectives. In illustrating these points, the paper points to (...)
  37. Women Carrying Water: At the Crossroads of Technology and Critical Theory.Yoko Arisaka - unknown
    In the rapidly changing arena of global politics today, nothing looms larger than the framework technology provides in determining the cultural, political, and economic fate of a people. Japanese philosopher Kiyoshi Miki observed already in the early 1940s that technology is not merely a sophisticated manipulation of tools but that it is fundamentally a “form of action” expressing a cultural and political orientation through the means of material production.1 The power of technology, according to Miki, has to do with its (...)
  38. Andrew Biro, Ed. , Critical Ecologies: The Frankfurt School and Contemporary Environmental Crises . Reviewed By.Darrell Arnold - 2012 - Philosophy in Review 32 (2):89-92.
  39. Marcuse's Conception of Eros.Stanley Aronowitz - 2013 - Radical Philosophy Review 16 (1):31-47.
    In his books Eros and Civilization and An Essay on Liberation, Herbert Marcuse offers a different, but complementary, theory of eros from that of Freud. While sexuality still occupies a central space in the pleasure principle, Marcuse extends the concept to embrace a wider understanding of eros. Now eros is termed the “new sensibility,” which, in his view, has been made possible by the end of scarcity’s rule over human life. In an epoch in which necessary labor can be sharply (...)
  40. [Book Review] the Struggle for Recognition, the Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts. [REVIEW]Honneth Axel - 1998 - In Stephen Everson (ed.), Ethics. Cambridge University Press. pp. 108--3.
  41. Recognition and Moral Obligation.Honneth Axel - 1997 - Social Research 64 (1).
  42. [Book Review] the Critique of Power, Reflective Stages in a Critical Social Theory. [REVIEW]Honneth Axel - 1994 - In Peter Singer (ed.), Ethics. Oxford University Press. pp. 104--412.
  43. The Scandal of Reason: A Critical Theory of Political Judgment.Albena Azmanova - 2012 - Columbia University Press.
    Preface -- Introduction: the scandal of reason and the paradox of judgment -- Political judgment and the vocation of critical theory -- Critical theory: political judgment as ideologiekritik -- Philosophical liberalism: reasonable judgment -- Liberalism and critical theory in dispute -- Judgment unbound: Arendt -- From critique of power to a theory of critical judgment -- The political epistemology of judgment -- The critical consensus model -- Judgment, criticism, innovation -- Conclusion: letting go of ideal theory.
  44. Herbert Marcuse.R. J. B. - 1970 - Review of Metaphysics 24 (1):138-139.
  45. Nietzsche's Critical Theory of Science as Art.Babette Babich - manuscript
    radicalization of Kant 's critical project inverts or opposes traditional readings of Kant 's critical program. Nietzsche aligns both Kant and Schopenhauer with what he named the effectively, efficiently pathological optimism of the rationalist drive to knowledge, patterned on the Cyclopean eye of Socrates in The Birth of Tragedy. For the rest of Nietzsche's writerly life, the name of Socrates would serve both as a signifier for the historical personage marking the end of the "tragic age" of the Greeks as (...)
  46. Habermas, Nietzsche, and Critical Theory.Babette E. Babich (ed.) - 2004 - Humanity Books.
  47. Misrecognition, Power, and Democracy.Veit Bader - 2007 - In Bert van den Brink & David Owen (eds.), Recognition and Power: Axel Honneth and the Tradition of Critical Social Theory. Cambridge University Press. pp. 238--269.
  48. Developing Competence in Collegial Spaces : Exploring Critical Theory and Community Education.John Bamber - 2010 - In Mark Murphy & Ted Fleming (eds.), Habermas, Critical Theory and Education. Routledge.
  49. One-Dimensional Man By Herbert Marcuse Routledge.Renford Bambrough - 1994 - Philosophy 69 (269):380-.
  50. The Evolutionary Perspective in Habermas' Critical Social Theory.Clodomiro José Bannwart Júnior - 2013 - Trans/Form/Ação 36 (s1):67-86.
    Busca-se acompanhar o desenvolvimento da teoria evolucionária no pensamento de Habermas, a partir da afirmação colhida no prólogo de Problemas de Legitimação do Capitalismo Tardio, de 1973: "O caráter programático evidencia que uma teoria da evolução social hoje se encontra apenas esboçada, mas que, no entanto, deveria constituir a base da teoria da sociedade". A atenção é direcionada à forma como Habermas reorienta o sentido evolucionário do desdobramento histórico à luz do conceito de mundo da vida, como esfera de realização (...)
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