Critical Theory- a lecture for a global studies theory class

Critical Theory: The Frankfurt School

Key Terms:

Frankfurt School

Theodor Adorno, philosopher

Erich Fromm, psychologist

Herbert Marcuse, philosopher

Walter Benjamin, essayist

Jurgen Habermas, philosopher

Max Horkheimer, philosopher

Alienation and reification

Alienation: the psychological result of exploitation, when people are disconnected from the products they make.

Reification: the treatment of a person as a thing or object; the stripping of an individual’s humanity.

Interested in Learning More?: Look at Illuminations: the Critical Theory Web Site:

Youtube clips: Walter Benjamin: Who Killed Walter Benjamin

Perhaps a handout of Benjamin


  • What is critical theory?
  • School of thought that is based on philosophy
  • Has little patience for academic approaches that claim to be objective
  • All knowledge is political
  • It is impossible to be objective because everyone is part of social arrangements
  • The goal of Critical Theory is to provide a critique of existing social arrangements
  • Has its roots in the Enlightenment thought of Kant and Hegel, who sought to use reason to critique of the social order
  • More immediately, Critical Theory emerged out of a Marxist context
  • But its members did not believe in economic determinism, the stage theory of history, or an inevitable revolution
  • Unlike Marxists, they were less interested in the economic base than the super-structure
  • That is, the ideologies, beliefs and rituals that defined a society and how it behaved
  • From Marxism they took ideas such as alienation and reification, its emphasis on the role of ideology in class relations, and its utopian focus.
  • But its important to underline the debt that Critical Theory owes to Marxism
  • Its core founders embraced Marxist thought
  • This lecture will focus on the Frankfurt School of CT, and its origins
  • Important to note that Critical Theory has continued to evolve
  • But for this lecture we will focus on its origins in the Frankfurt School
  • Begin with a brief overview of the school, then a discussion of its key thinkers
  • Then talk about core aspects of its thought and its legacy

Brief Overview: The Frankfurt School

  • Frankfurt, Germany brought together an eclectic group of thinkers
  • Philosophers, a psychologist, musician and Walter Benjamin, my favorite thinker, who is very hard to categorize
  • Origins in the 1930s
  • A time when Marxism seemed ascendant, in the context of the Great Depression
  • But of course, these thinkers were living in Germany during the rise to power of Adolf Hitler
  • This led the Frankfurt school to question longstanding progressive beliefs about the value of science and technology, as well as mass politics
  • The Frankfurt school was not positivist
  • They did not believe that society could be analyzed based on the same set of criteria as the natural world
  • They thought that positivism created an a-historical view of the world
  • Every social world is particular to a time and place
  • It must be understood in historical context
  • They were also fascinated with alienation and reification, which is perhaps unsurprising given the influence of psychology upon the Frankfurt School
  • I’ll be discussing these two ideas in detail during this lecture
  • Critical theorists feared that alienation and reification were robbing the world of meaning and purpose
  • Turning the individual into a cog in the machine
  • Part of what became an increasingly bleak view of modernity
  • The Critical Theorists were troubled by their inability to stop the rise of fascism
  • Tried to understand how this could be possible in a developed and educated state, with a rich history in the humanities and philosophy
  • they became convinced that a bureaucratically administered mass society was destroying individuality
  • changing the structure of peoples’ personalities
  • believed that capitalism could in some cases be destructive
  • most of all they worried about the culture industry
  • the way the state and private interests could shape the media and what people learned
  • new media –film, radio, television- had become tools of consumerism
  • they believed that the means to address this was education
  • but the founders of Critical Theory were more conservative then they appeared
  • the movement would split over the counter-culture
  • they feared that even these mass-movements could become dangerous
  • in many respects, Critical Theory anticipated post-structuralism and post-modernism
  • fell out of favor in the 1960s, in part because it suffered an identity crisis and internal divisions
  • its popularity is now on the rise again
  • let’s talk about the Frankfurt School in some more detail

Max Horkheimer:

  • I want to say a little bit about the Frankfurt School’s founders
  • in 1923 the Institute for Social Research was founded in Frankfurt
  • had its origins in a Marxist study group
  • ironically, it was funded by a German businessman who had made his wealth in the grain trade with Argentina
  • in its early years it was clearly Marxist
  • but that would change in 1930
  • that was the year Max Horkheimer joined the school
  • Horkheimer came from a family of wealthy Jewish businessmen
  • When he joined the Institute he became its director
  • He published little until Hitler came to power in 1933
  • He began a series of efforts to move the Institute out of Germany
  • It moved from Geneva, then to Paris, and finally to Columbia University in NYC
  • The reasons for the series of moves are obvious if you think about Hitler’s rising power in World War Two
  • Hitler’s rise would shape everything about the Institute, as we will see when we talk about Walter Benjamin
  • The school and Critical Theory only make sense in this historical context
  • Many of its founding members were Jewish
  • Horkheimer published upon the origins of anti-Semitism in Germany, and the authoritarian personality
  • The movement was opposed to fascism
  • But it was also disillusioned by Stalin’s purges, which caused Horkheimer to break with Marxism as well

Eric Fromm

  • The psychological theme in Horkheimer’s work was not unique
  • Another member of the school was Eric Fromm
  • He was a psychoanalyst, who was very influential in introducing psychoanalysis to Latin America
  • He would later oppose the Vietnam War and American imperialism
  • He was the best writer in the Frankfurt School, and wrote popular books
  • Other members of the school envied him his popularity
  • Said that his books lacked rigor: fluff
  • You can imagine how they felt about his book, The Art of Loving
  • Despite what you might imagine based on the title, it looked at the reality of love, as opposed to how it was portrayed in mass culture
  • He is perhaps the best known member of the school
  • But he became disillusioned with it, and towards the end of his life would have little to do with it

Herbert Marcuse

  • Another key member of the Frankfurt School was Herbert Marcuse
  • He was a key influence on the New Left in the 1960s
  • Not something that you might expect from someone who served in the US intelligence service called the OSS from 1941 to the 1950s
  • This was the forerunner of the CIA, which was responsible for espionage against the Axis powers
  • But like all the members of the Frankfurt School, for Marcuse the first challenge was to defeat fascism
  • His work talked about the importance of social movements in overcoming alienation
  • Inspired the young radicals of the 1960s

Walter Benjamin

  • Like most other members of the Frankfurt School, Benjamin was born into a wealthy Jewish family in 1882
  • Two of his friends had committed suicide to protest the war
  • This radicalized him
  • Left Germany for Switzerland during the War
  • He received his doctorate from the University of Bern in 1919, and then became a writer
  • Was unable to get a university position
  • He never really held a steady job
  • In a sense, he was a very impractical person
  • He wrote about poetry and the novels of Kafka and Proust
  • But he also wrote about almost everything else: art, architecture, photography, translation, politics and history
  • He also carried out extensive drug experimentation with both hashish and morphine
  • Thought of himself as a psychonaut
  • Seems very naïve now
  • He was contemptuous of Marxism, and the possibility of achieving its ideal
  • There is still a utopian vision to his work
  • His friend was Adorno
  • Brought him into the Frankfurt school, which gave him a small amount of money
  • Life defined by his effort to escape the Nazis
  • Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933
  • Benjamin’s brother arrested, and later died in a concentration camp
  • Benjamin went to Paris
  • His friends tried to persuade him to leave
  • He waited too long, until the Nazi invasion of France
  • Then fled 
  • Tried to cross the border into Portbou, Spain
  • He was trying to make it across Spain to Lisbon with a group of Jewish people
  • From there he would catch a boat to the United States, where his friend Adorno was waiting for him
  • If he had tried to cross the day before, he would have perhaps been permitted
  • Rules changed
  • Picked up by the police, and told that he would be sent back the next day
  • Committed suicide with morphine
  • Perhaps shocked the police: they let all those traveling with him continue on
  • Perhaps his death saved the others
  • Ironically, he was buried in a Catholic cemetery under the name Benjamin Walter
  • Some people believe that he was murdered: I’ll show you a brief film trailer for a documentary with this thesis
  • Other people believe that Benjamin –although brilliant- was something of a bungler
  • If he had not committed suicide, he would almost have certainly have wound up in a Nazi concentration camp
  • Walter Benjamin was virtually unknown in the US in the 1960s
  • Then in 1969 Hannah Arendt published a collection of his essays called Illuminations
  • His fame soon reached epic heights in academia
  • If there was one question that Benjamin studied it was modernity
  • But its very difficult to describe his methodology
  • When he died he was working on a project called the Arcades Project
  • It consisted of a thousand quotes about covered streets in Paris
  • But it was more than this
  • It was a way of talking about modernity
  • In this work, no authorial or historical context to be given
  • It is strange that Benjamin’s work is so popular
  • It was infused by a strain of Jewish mysticism
  • Fascinated with Kabbalah
  • There is very little program in Benjamin’s works
  • Think about the range of topics that he addressed
  • How do you take what he has written and turn it into a political project?
  • Essay: “Art in the Age of Mechanical Production”
  • How does technology change art
  • How did the invention of photography change art
  • Critic of film
  • His work can be very frustrating and incomplete
  • It’s also addictive
  • He reminds me of the Argentine writer Borges, with his ability to evoke worlds with a very brief essay, the sophistication of his thought, his cosmopolitanism
  • People usually say that Fromm was the best writer, but Benjamin seems to have the ability to obsess academics
  • Unexpected for a man whose worked sometimes seemed to be more theological than sociological
  • Here is a brief clips on Benjamin
  • a trailer from a documentary that suggests that Benjamin was murdered:

Theodor Adorno

  • Walter Benjamin only ever had one student, Theodor Adorno
  • He embodied the interdisciplinary ideal of Critical Theory and the European intellectual
  • He had a Jewish father and an Italian mother
  • Received his doctorate in 1924
  • A musicologist- someone who studies the theory of music
  • I now what you are thinking
  • How can a musicologist have anything to say about global issues?
  • Yet this was what was unusual about Critical Studies
  • A field defined by not only the humanities, but also an interdisciplinary approach
  • People sometimes say that Adorno had the most dazzling philosophical mind of the age
  • A critic of literature
  • But like all Critical Theorists, he was really interested in the limits and dangers of modernity
  • Worried about the dangers of mass movements
  • He sought to examine the flawed aspects of European civilization
  • I should not make Adorno seem too disengaged from the world
  •  He carried out empirical work on radio and television
  • like all Critical Theorists, he was interested in the mass media because that was how people learned about the world
  • also how consumerism came to define peoples’ behavior
  • I want to show you a Youtube video by someone who loves Adorno: perhaps far too much
  • You will notice something about the background of the scene
  • I’m not going to tell you what it is
  • Here it is:

Jurgen Habermas

  • you may be feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of thinkers at this point
  • but I need to say a few words about Jurgen Habermas
  • he was a student of Horkheimer and Adorno
  • In a sense, the next generation of Critical Theorists
  • He is also the most prolific writer, who has published on almost all aspects of social life
  • Habermas had grown up under Nazism
  • For this reason, he had a deep interest in the rule of law and liberal democracy
  • He was also concerned about how discourse can be manipulated 
  • You may have noticed a theme here
  • Habermas is very important to media studies

Critical Theory as a Body of Work

  • Let’s talk about CT as a body of work
  • The term itself was only coined in 1937
  • By this point, all of its key thinkers were living in exile in the United States
  • That was the year that Horkheimer published an article entitled: “Traditional and Critical Theory”
  • In it he suggested that Critical Theory could be an alternative to traditional philosophical forms
  • He argued that traditional theories were not neutral as their advocates often stated
  • Social interests lay hidden in philosophical discourse
  • Criticism was needed to show how these approaches supported the existing political and social order
  • In particular, Horkheimer was criticizing positivist approaches, which argued that they adopted the methodology of the sciences to study social issues
  • Critical theorists loved to quote an 18th century Italian philosopher who said that “the difference between history and nature is that man has created the one but not the other.”
  • In other words, scientific methodologies were appropriate to nature, but not to society
  • Horkheimer also criticized metaphysics
  • Theorists should concern themselves with real social issues
  • His critique was not as harsh as that against those who adopted scientific methodologies
  • But ultimately Horkheimer argued that theory had to be relevant, and it only became meaningful in relation to social issues
  • Radical approach to philosophy in some respects
  • Facts were socially constructed
  • Critical theory was concerned about ideology and its practical impact
  • They critiqued existing philosophies to show how they adopted the interests of a class
  • They sought to ruthlessly critique everything
  • The goal was to create a sociology of knowledge
  • The movement was sympathetic to Communism
  • But after the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939 –which unleashed World War Two- Critical Theory had little sympathy for traditional Marxists
  • The Critical Theorists were frightened by totalitarianism
  • That is a political movement that controlled all aspects of society
  • For this reason, they stressed the importance of the individual
  • They believed that the modern state sought to control and regiment all aspects of daily life
  • Individuals were left alienated 
  • People were left in an intellectual slumber
  • Mass media used to keep them from thinking deeply

Alienation and Reification:

  • I want to say a few words about alienation and reification
  • These ideas were key to the thought of CT
  • We now think of alienation in terms of Marxist thought
  • But the idea is much older
  • Jean Jaques Rosseau talked about how society created artificial needs, which people then had to labor to meet
  • The idea was then seized upon by Hegel
  • Humanity is estranged from its true goals
  • In part, this is because of class
  • The elites keep people from realizing their true interests, which is central to the idea of alienation
  • Alienation: the state in which people are separated from that which is most meaningful to them
  • Differs from reification, in which people are converted into things
  • Marx argued that capitalism strips people of their humanity
  • They become only a tool to produce commodities
  • Alienation was an inherent part of modern life, as was reification
  • As people specialized in economic roles, their identity was defined by their work
  • People had to behave in the role appropriate to their economic function
  • Accountants had to act like accountants
  • These people had lost their true identity
  • They could not make independent decisions or exercise independent thought
  • Under fascism, the situation was worse
  • All true individualism became impossible
  • Schools, mass media, social clubs, even the family: are all defined and controlled by the state
  • Modern states are based on a state of alienation and reification
  • They rely on bureaucracy, social control, hierarchy and subservience, the division of labor and mechanized work
  • Alienation and reification were core psychological and philosophical problems
  • Critical theorists harshly criticized both modernity and the state
  • They were also harshly critical of capitalism which caused people to treat each other not with compassion, but as means to an end
  • Raised serious doubts about Enlightenment thought as a whole
  • Capitalism, bureaucracy and science were core to the thought of the Enlightenment
  • But CT thought all of these could be destructive
  • Critical theorists doubted the value of modernity
  • They believed that it was because people were alienated and spiritually empty because of reification that they were prone to irrational urges
  • From alienation came anti-Semitism and violence
  • As far as Communism was concerned, it drew heavily on religion
  • It had a sacred book, and a vision of an end time, which would lead to utopia
  • It was hence based on irrationalism
  • Critical theorists were mistrustful of utopia
  • They believe that since the idea of utopia appeared so powerful, the idea could be used to justify terrible acts

The Culture Industry:

  • Critical Theorists saved their most powerful arguments for what they called the culture industry
  • Opposition to mass society meant opposition to mass culture
  • The elites were indoctrinating the masses
  • Classical music had become the backdrop for commercials
  • Culture has become an aspect of a totally administered society, in which people lack freedom
  • Only through cultural critique could people acquire their freedom
  • This is why the CTs took art, music and culture so seriously
  • Cultural criticism is a form of resistance
  • Capitalism had reduced culture to a commodity
  • Art was becoming standardized, so that everyone would have the same experiences
  • People in England would watch the same shows as people in the United States
  • With this uniformity authentic expression was disappearing
  • Public opinion now shaped by the mass media and propaganda
  • Corporations decided what people could see and when
  • A bureaucratic welfare state subsidized art to make sure that it was not threatening
  • These authors did not know of the work of Gramsci
  • An Italian communist who had died in Mussolini’s prisons
  • His prison notebooks would not be published until 1971
  • Hugely influential
  • His thought was very similar in many respects to the CTs
  • Interested in what Marxist’s had called the superstructure of life: ideology and culture
  • The way in which elites managed it in their interests
  • The elites tried to destroy a true public sphere, upon which all true progressive movements –such as that for women’s rights- depended
  • These ideas remain the most powerful legacy of CT

The Weaknesses of Critical Theory

  • For all of its insights and strengths, they are a number of weaknesses to the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory
  • It was a very male school, and did not engage with feminist issues
  • While critiquing modernity, it failed to engage sufficiently with issues of colonialism and post-colonialism
  • Its thought was firmly grounded in the developed world
  • It also lacked a methodology, a fact that it took pride in
  • It said that it was focused on creating a social critique
  • With time it became less and less clear what the purpose of its speculative critiques might be
  • The authors bitterly critiqued capitalism
  • But what economic system did they propose in its place?
  • Some of the CT critiques unfair
  • CTs said unkind things about science
  • But their opponents, the fascists, had little love for science either
  • Fascists also had nothing but contempt for positivism
  • Critical Theorists perhaps drew too simple a line between Enlightenment thought and fascism
  • Advanced capitalist states like the US and Britain never experienced a fascist threat
  • Less economically advanced states –like Italy and Romania- succumbed to fascism
  • The liberals were the most outspoken opponents of fascism
  • Too simple to say that fascism was a reaction to modernity
  • In the end, the movement lost a great deal of power
  • There was a sense that its arguments had become too abstract
  • Positivism was on the rise as a force in the social sciences
  • The movement inspired student radicals in the 1960s
  • But by the 1980s it was considered somewhat eccentric by most mainstream academics in the United States
  • Positivist scholars had their own critique of CT
  • If theory is always for someone and for some purpose, how is it possible to decide what is good theory academically
  • In CT the value of any theory is its political merit
  • How can we decide what theory is best academically?
  • In CT, there are no real academic debates
  • They are all really political debates in disguise
  • From a positivist perspective, CT undermines the entire idea of scholarship


  • These criticisms were powerful
  • But then in the 1990s Critical theory underwent something of a rebirth
  • For a time it seemed that every new academic field had to have the word critical in the title: critical legal studies, critical race theory, critical gender studies
  • If CT had begun as a Eurocentric theory, it was now appropriated by people from diverse backgrounds to serve many different projects
  • A period when academics were interested in contesting master narratives
  • CT was useful for this
  • There was a backlash against the ideals of positivism
  • People believed that academic work could not –and should not- be disinterested
  • The goal of theory was to achieve social change
  • With the decline of Marxism, people were looking for new theoretical approaches to challenge the existing order
  • In Canada and Europe, therefore, CT has undergone something of a rebirth
  • This is also true to a lesser extent in the U.S., where it is used in diverse programs that are interested in historically marginalized groups


Why do you think CT focuses so much on the mass media, and the culture industry?

Why do you think CT may have undergone a rebirth in popularity in the 1990s? (I don’t have the answer to this).

Do any aspects of CT appear persuasive/attractive to you?

Why do think that CT has still largely remained outside the mainstream in the United States, but not in Canada or Europe?

CT unusual in that he draws heavily on the humanities. Even its approach to psychology emphasizes psychoanalysis, which is no longer in the mainstream in the social sciences. Do you think that this is a strength or a weakness of the approach?

Was critical theory to pessimistic in its perception of popular culture? Aren’t there positive aspects of pop culture? Isn’t it a contested realm, that is not always under the control of elites?

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