The Frankfurt School of Critical Theory

An overivew of people and theory

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in 1964
Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in 1964. Jeremy J. Shapiro/Creative Commons

The Frankfurt School refers to a collection of scholars known for developing critical theory and popularizing the dialectical method of learning by interrogating society's contradictions and is most closely associated with the work of Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Erich Fromm, and Herbert Marcuse. It was not a school, in the physical sense, but rather a school of thought associated with some scholars at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt in Germany.

The Institute was founded by Marxist scholar Carl Grünberg in 1923, and initially financed by another Marxist scholar, Felix Weil. However, the Frankfurt School is known for a particular brand of culturally focused neo-Marxist theory—a rethinking of classical Marxism to update it to their socio-historical period—which proved seminal for the fields of sociology, cultural studies, and media studies.

Portrait of Max Horkheimer and Professor Rajewski
Max Horkheimer receiving the chain of office by former Rector Prof. Rajewski. Dr. Horkheimer left Germany in the early days of the Third Reich when his institute for Social Research fell under the Nazi ban. Bettman/Getty Images

In 1930 Max Horkheimer became the director of the Institute and recruited many of those who came to be known collectively as the Frankfurt School. Living, thinking, and writing in the aftermath of Marx's failed prediction of revolution, and dismayed by the rise of Orthodox Party Marxism and a dictatorial form of communism, these scholars turned their attention to the problem of rule through ideology, or rule carried out in the realm of culture. They believed that this form of rule was enabled by technological advancements in communications and the reproduction of ideas. (Their ideas were similar to Italian scholar-activist Antonio Gramsci's theory of cultural hegemony.) Other early members of the Frankfurt School included Friedrich Pollock, Otto Kirchheimer, Leo Löwenthal, and Franz Leopold Neumann. Walter Benjamin was also associated with it during its mid-twentieth century heyday.

One of the core concerns of the scholars of the Frankfurt School, especially Horkheimer, Adorno, Benjamin, and Marcuse, was the rise of what Horkheimer and Adorno initially called "mass culture" (in Dialectic of Enlightenment). This phrase refers to the way technological developments had newly allowed for the distribution of cultural products—like music, film, and art—on a mass scale, reaching all who were connected by the technology in society. (Consider that when these scholars began crafting their critiques, radio and cinema were still new phenomena, and television had not yet hit the scene.) Their concern focused on how technology-enabled both a sameness in production, in the sense that technology shapes content and cultural frameworks create styles and genres, and also, a sameness of cultural experience, in which an unprecedented mass of people would sit passively before cultural content, rather than actively engage with one another for entertainment, as they had in the past. They theorized that this experience made people intellectually inactive and politically passive, as they allowed mass-produced ideologies and values to wash over them and infiltrate their consciousness.

They argued that this process was one of the missing links in Marx's theory of the domination of capitalism, and largely helped to explain why Marx's theory of revolution never came to pass. Marcuse took this framework and applied it to consumer goods and the new consumer lifestyle that had just become the norm in Western countries at mid-twentieth century, and argued that consumerism functioned in much the same way, through a creation of false needs that can only be satisfied by the products of capitalism.

Given the political context of pre-WWII Germany at the time, Horkheimer chose to move the Institute for the safety of its members. They first moved to Geneva in 1933, and then to New York in 1935, where they affiliated with Columbia University. Later, after the war, the Institute was re-established in Frankfurt in 1953. Later theorists affiliated with the School include Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth, among others.

Philosopher Herbert Marcuse
Philosopher Herbert Marcuse in 1968 while he was a Professor of Philosophy at the University of California at San Diego. Bettman/Getty Images

Key works by members of the Frankfurt School include but are not limited to:

  • Traditional and Critical Theory, Max Horkheimer
  • Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno
  • Critique of Instrumental Reason, Max Horkheimer
  • The Authoritarian Personality, Theodor W. Adorno
  • Aesthetic Theory, Theodor W. Adorno
  • Culture Industry Reconsidered, Theodor W. Adorno
  • One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse
  • The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics, Herbert Marcuse
  • The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin
  • Structural Transformation and the Public Sphere, Jürgen Habermas
  • Towards a Rational Society, Jürgen Habermas