Critical Theory and the Frankfurt School Essay

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Critical theory and the Frankfurt School are virtually interchangeable identifiers that give apparent unity to the complex social and political concerns, epistemological questions, and critical analyses produced by the variety of thinkers affiliated with the Institut fur Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research). The Institut’s key figures included Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, Max Horkheimer, Leo Lowenthal, Herbert Marcuse, and Frederick Pollock. Others, such as Henryk Grossmann, Otto

Kircheimer, Franz Neuman, and Karl Wittfogel had longstanding membership while individuals like Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht, Hanns Eisler, and Karl Korsch were also affiliated with Institut projects and publications.

Founded in Frankfurt, Germany in 1923, the Institut emerged from organized discussions involving young intellectuals (many of Jewish descent), associated with the German Communist Party, eager to explore Marxist theory and practice while resisting Marxism’s ”Bolshevization.” Although never a unified theory or school, key themes provided some cohesion: feelings of marginalization (as Jews in Germany, communists, intellectuals aligning with the working class, radical democrats in the Weimar Republic, for example) stimulated interest in issues of authoritarianism, propaganda, mass culture, domination, alienation, ”authenticity,” genuine creativity (avant-garde art and music), and human fulfillment. Drawing from a neo-Hegelian conception of totality and Freudian psychology, critical theorists proposed a determinate, comprehensive reason (Vernunft)to critique the domination of instrumental rationality in the modern world.

During its initial period, inspired by Korch’s radical conception of socialization and Georg Lukacs’s focus on culture and class consciousness, Institut members wanted to develop a self-confident, active proletariat, engaged with intellectuals, which would transcend philosophy by actualizing it. Under Carl Grtinberg’s leadership, the Institut pursed projects that revitalized Grtinberg’s Archiv fur die Geschichte des Sozialismus und der Arbeiterbewegung (Archive for the History of Socialism and the Workers’ Movement). Grui nberg’s affiliation to Frankfurt University allowed, for the first time, students in Germany to formally study Marx’s work and pursue his critique of political economy while completing university degrees. The Institut was also a silent but vital collaborator in the first Marx—Engels Institute-led, publication of the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe — making Marx’s critically important, early philosophical works available to socialist theorists and reinforcing key themes in Marcuse’s and Fromm’s work.

In 1930, under Horkheimer, the ”managerial scholar,” the Institut began to shift from labor history and political economy to broader questions of social theory, epistemology and philosophy, replacing Griinberg’s Archiv with the Zeitschrift fur Sozialforschung (Journal for Social Research) as its major intellectual outlet. Horkheimer’s inaugural lecture emphasized the need to grasp the connections among the economic conditions of life, individual psychic development and changes in the cultural sphere. He sought a multidisciplinary program involving philosophy, sociology, economics, history and psychology to critically interrogate the domination of instrumental reason in the modern world. Marcuse and Adorno’s memberships in 1932 and 1938 strengthened and focused Horkheimer’s growing anti-positivist, neo-Hegelian intellectual agenda.

When Hitler took power in 1933, the Institut relocated to the USA. Horkheimer’s 1937 essay ”Traditional and critical theory” confirmed the Institut’s ongoing agenda, introducing the term that camouflaged its Marxism, making the Institut more acceptable to American social scientists. But the term ”critical theory” increasingly identified the Institut’s emerging, specific (and no longer Marxist) philosophy of ”determinate negation.” Adorno and Horkheimer sketched out aspects in Dialektik der Aufklarung: Philosophische Fragmente (Dialectic of Enlightenment/the Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments) in 1944, continuing the critique of positivism and instrumental reason and reinforcing the need for a totalizing, determinate and comprehensive reason. The monograph also included a trenchant indictment of ”the administered society” and America’s ”cultural industries,” drawing parallels to fascist Germany. Adorno’s Negative Dialectics (1966) and his Aesthetic Theory (1970) were the closest the Frankfurt School came to a systematic presentation of its philosophy.

By 1950, the Institut was re-established in Frankfurt where it was warmly received as a citadel of critical thought, inspiring university students across Europe to critically engage with the past and present. Remaining in America, Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization (1955) and One Dimensional Man (1964) popularized key aspects of critical theory, providing an intellectual focal point for the student movement. Scholars like Jurgen Habermas, Alfred Schmidt, Albrecht Wellmer, Thomas McCarthy, Douglas Kellner, Steve Best, and Axel Honneth are among current critical theorists who continue to revise and develop the Frankfurt School’s critique ofmodernity and instrumental reason.


  1. Jay, M. (1973) The Dialectical Imagination. Little, Brown, Boston, MA.
  2. Kellner, D. (1989) Critical Theory, Marxism, and Modernity. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD.
  3. Wiggerhaus, R. (1995) The Frankfurt School, trans. M. Robertson. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

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