The Frankfurt School:
Philosophy in Relation to Social Theory,
Cultural Theory, Science, and Interdisciplinary Research

Phase 1: Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse in the 1930s

Study Group Syllabus

by Ralph Dumain


MISSION: The "Frankfurt School," initially established as the Institute for Social Research, enacted, in its creation of "critical theory," an historically pivotal and the most profound intellectual intervention of the 20th century. Our interest in critical theory—parallel to the perspective of its originators—is to turn both towards the history of thought and the contemporary intellectual scene—turning inward toward theory, if you will—and towards the social, political, economic, cultural and ideological state of contemporary society—outwards toward the world we actually live in. These two directions do not belong to separate worlds, but to one and the same society.

In the 1930s, these thinkers theorized in a politically sinking ship, but survived to continue their work for decades. Erich Fromm, for example, is noteworthy not only for his social psychology grounded in Marx and Freud, but for his ability to explain social irrationality to a popular audience. We need someone like him to do likewise today, taking into consideration the fundamental social changes of the past three and a half decades. Adorno and Horkheimer were esoteric thinkers who generally did not address a popular audience. Marcuse had a foot in both worlds, academic and popular.

Our interests pull us in contrary directions, in consideration of time limitations: (1) history of ideas, philosophy, methodology, interdisciplinary research, with focus on the philosophy and overall research programme of Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse in the 1930s and after; (2) applications of the total spectrum of critical theory—especially social psychology and the culture industry—to current social and cultural issues. Whether or not we can have our cake and eat it too, remains to be seen. Our initial focus will be on (1), with side glances to (2), allowing for changes of direction depending on the interests of the participants. Our purpose is to assess the achievements of the first generation of the Frankfurt School, the state of contemporary intellectual endeavor, and put both to work in the service of clarification of the theoretical and practical needs of our time.

WORKING PREMISES:  The work of the Frankfurt School cannot be neatly subdivided and parceled out by discrete subject matter, yet there are reasons to target the philosophical core. Dialectic of Enlightenment by Horkheimer and Adorno, as important for its thesis on the culture industry as its cryptic take on the Enlightenment, marks a watershed and has apparently become critical theory's most influential work.  This work marks a decisive departure from the original programme of the Institute for Social Research as envisioned by Horkheimer.  (Horkheimer’s next and last major work was The Eclipse of Reason.) Our initial goal is to focus on Horkheimer's body of work in the 1930s and the beginnings of Adorno's lifelong approach to philosophy, with some attention to Marcuse’s perspective and discussion of the diverse researches of others.  We wish not only to distinguish the perspectives and development of Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse from one another, but to examine critically key philosophical assumptions of each of these thinkers and their place in the universe of knowledge, including their relationship to their philosophical competitors.  We wish to examine—as have several scholars—the viability of Horkheimer’s program for interdisciplinary research, and to evaluate the components of each thinker’s perspective and their validity individually and in combination.  While the fact that we are not academic specialists puts us at a disadvantage in grappling with this material, we bring to the table other perspectives which may help to overcome the inevitable provincialism of exclusive absorption in a single intellectual tradition. 

SCOPE:  The original plan for this study group was to focus on the philosophical perspectives of the three main philosophers of the first generation of the Frankfurt School—Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse—beginning with individual essays rather than whole books, and perhaps with time branching out to lectures in series or chapters of books. Our priority was close reading of primary texts, backed up with secondary works as necessary. However, attempting to study the primary essays without a great deal of historical and intellectual contextualization which only secondary sources can provide is not feasible.

Time constraints and diverse interests pull us in different directions. The initial decision to concentrate narrowly on core philosophical works while shortchanging some branches of philosophy as well as cultural and social theory admittedly violates the very spirit of these thinkers. Survey courses customarily cover the entire range of critical theory, while our initial thrust was to truncate breadth in favor of greater depth. This syllabus was then designed to be much narrower than any graduate survey course but also to include more readings in our chosen area. The bibliography is not intended as a wide-ranging bibliography of the subject; rather, it targets some general works in combination with narrowly philosophical books and essay collections. This bibliography and list of readings prepare us to have it both ways: we can proceed intensively down the philosophical track, or, using the readers and surveys of the field, broaden our study to other topics.

All participants should read the works available online itemized under section (1a) below, and then the essays under (1b) when they can. We will discuss how to secure copies of the items listed under section (2), which provide invaluable background for the whole project. We intend to cover all the programmatic essays in section (3). From there we will have to take stock and decide whether to proceed to sections (4)-(6), or change direction.

If we pursue our studies in this order—and we may decide to change course at any point—after surveying selected primary writings and their broader context, the next logical step would be to broaden the scope to sociological studies, psychoanalysis, culture and aesthetics, perhaps the state and political economy.  The 1940s introduces watershed works—Dialectic of Enlightenment and Marcuse’s Reason and Revolution.  We have a special fondness for Adorno (the most difficult of the three to grasp) and would like to progress eventually to his later essays and lectures on philosophy, especially those contained in Critical Models, the two volumes of lectures on Kant, and the lectures on metaphysics. 

If our study group reaches a second or even third phase, a further syllabus will be issued. Interim supplements to this syllabus will be issued as our endeavor progresses.

PREREQUISITES: Without some background in philosophy, the prospective participant is bound to be lost.  Prior familiarity with the Frankfurt School and with its sources would be helpful, perhaps unavoidable for this reading group to proceed smoothly.  This is a collective study project, as we ourselves have not mastered all the sources necessary for a complete professional grasp of the subject matter.  Critical theory is founded on the thought of Kant, Hegel, and Marx.  Other important influences include Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, Weber, and of course Freud.  The most important direct precursor of the Frankfurt School is Georg Lukács. Significant related philosophers include Karl Korsch and Ernst Bloch, not to mention the other thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School, including Walter Benjamin, a key influence on Adorno.

NOTE ON BIBLIOGRAPHY: This selected bibliography represents only a fraction of the works of these three thinkers themselves, not to mention the other thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School.  A good personal library would have to encompass a broader range of books.  Although it is highly artificial and potentially distorting to do so, I limit the books of individual thinkers as strictly as I can to philosophical works, minus aesthetics, theology, and political philosophy.  Of the readers, my priority would be Bronner/Kellner.  Of the essay collections, the two Horkheimer anthologies and Adorno’s Critical Models are indispensable.  Of the major histories of the Frankfurt School, Wiggershaus is the most comprehensive; Jay is a classic.  Ingram is a useful introduction for those without the prerequisites. Ingram also illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of the collective introductory approach, as he admittedly slights Adorno as an individual thinker while adumbrating the themes of the Frankfurt School as a whole. On Max Horkheimer is a collection of in-depth scholarly essays.  Adorno’s thought is the most difficult to understand; the reader must experiment with different introductions to see which works best. 


(1) Introductory Material & Surveys Online

(a) General

Frankfurt School - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Contents, Introduction to Critical Theory and Society, edited by Stephen Eric Bronner and Douglas Kellner

Critical Theory and the Crisis of Social Theory by Douglas Kellner

Critical Theory Today: Revisiting the Classics by Douglas Kellner (original publication: "Critical Theory and Social Theory: Current Debates and Challenges," Theory, Culture, and Society, Vol. X, Nr. 2 (1993), 43-61.)

Critical Theory, James Bohman, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The Significance of the Frankfurt School and Critical Theory by Harry Cowen (2003)

(b) Specific Thinkers

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Theodor Adorno by Lambert Zuidervaart

Herbert Marcuse July 19, 1898-July 29, 1979 by Theresa M. Mackey

The Relevance of Reality by Herbert Marcuse (1969)

(2) Orientation to Philosophical & Research Programme of the Frankfurt School

Rush, Fred. "Conceptual Foundations of Early Critical Theory," in The Cambridge Companion to Critical Theory, edited by Fred Rush (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 6-39.

Dubiel, Helmut. Theory and Politics: Studies in the Development of Critical Theory, translated by Benjamin Gregg, with an introduction by Martin Jay. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985.

(3) Programmatic Philosophical Essays of Frankfurt School Thinkers: the 1930s

Max Horkheimer, "The Present Situation of Social Philosophy and the Tasks of an Institute for Social Research" (1931)

Horkheimer, 1993
Bronner/Kellner, 1989, under the title “The State of Contemporary Social Philosophy and the Tasks of an Institute for Social Research"

Max Horkheimer, "Traditional and Critical Theory" (1937)

Horkheimer, 1972
Ingram/Simon-Ingram, 1992, selections only

Herbert Marcuse, "Philosophy and Critical Theory" (1937)

Bronner/Kellner, 1989
Ingram/Simon-Ingram, 1992
Marcuse, 1968

Max Horkheimer, "Postscript" (1937)

Horkheimer, 1972

Theodor W. Adorno, "The Actuality of Philosophy" (1931)

Adorno, 2000; originally:
Telos, no. 31, Spring 1977, pp. 120-33; plus "Introduction to Adorno's "The Actuality of Philosophy" by Benjamin Snow (pp. 113-199)

(4) More Philosophical Essays of Max Horkheimer: the 1930s

“Notes on Science and the Crisis” (1932)

Bronner/Kellner, 1989
Horkheimer, 1972

"Materialism and Metaphysics" (1933)
“The Latest Attack on Metaphysics” (1937)
The Social Function of Philosophy” (1939)

Horkheimer, 1972

“The Rationalism Debate in Contemporary Philosophy” (1934)

Horkheimer, 1993

“On the Problem of Truth” (1935)

Horkheimer, 1993
Arato/Gebhardt, 1982

“Materialism and Morality” (1933)

Horkheimer, 1993
Ingram/Simon-Ingram, 1992

(5) More Philosophical Essays of Theodor W. Adorno: the 1930s

"The Idea of Natural History" (1932), Telos, No. 60, summer 1984, pp. 111-124; plus: Bob Hullot-Kentor, 'Introduction to Adorno's "Idea of a Natural History"', pp. 97-110. Both essays are reprinted in:

Hullot-Kentor, Robert. Things Beyond Resemblance: Collected Essays on Theodor W. Adorno. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. (ColumbiaThemes in Philosophy, Social Criticism, and the Arts) Contents.

(6) More Philosophical Essays of Herbert Marcuse: the 1930s

"The Concept of Essence" (1936)

Marcuse, 1968


Frankfurt School (Critical Theory) Readers

Critical Theory and Society, edited by Stephen Eric Bronner and Douglas Kellner.  New York: Routledge, 1989. Table of Contents, Introduction (PDF)

Critical Theory: The Essential Readings, edited by David Ingram & Julia Simon-Ingram. New York: Paragon House, 1992. (Paragon Issues in Philosophy)

The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, edited by Andrew Arato & Eike Gebhardt; introduction by Paul Piccone.  New York: Continuum, 1982. (Orig. 1978.)

Selected Essay Collections of Frankfurt School Thinkers

Adorno, Theodor W.  The Adorno Reader, edited by Brian O’Connor.  Oxford, UK; Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000.

Adorno, Theodor W. Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, translated by Henry W. Pickford. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Horkheimer, Max.  Between Philosophy and Social Science: Selected Early Writings, translated by G. Frederick Hunter, Matthew S. Kramer and John Torpey.  Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1993.

Horkheimer, Max. Critical Theory: Selected Essays, translated by Matthew J. O'Connell et al.  New York: The Seabury Press (Continuum), 1972.

Marcuse, Herbert. Negations: Essays in Critical Theory, with translations from the German by Jeremy J. Shapiro. Boston: Beacon Press, 1968.

Max Horkheimer  & Theodor W. Adorno

The Dialectic of Enlightenment, edited by Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, translated by Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.

The Dialectic of Enlightenment, translated by John Cumming. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972.  (Older, oft-disparaged translation.)

Contents: "The Concept of Enlightenment"; "Excursus I: Odysseus or Myth and Enlightenment"; "Excursus II: Juliette or Enlightenment and Morality"; "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception"; "Elements of Anti-Semitism: Limits of Enlightenment"; "Notes and Drafts".  (1947)

Max Horkheimer: Selected Philosophical Works

Horkheimer, Max. Eclipse of Reason. New York: Continuum, 1974. (1947)

Theodor W. Adorno: Selected Philosophical Works

Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic, translated by Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989. (1933)

Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, translated by E.F.N. Jephcott. London: Verso, 1974. (1951)

Minima Moralia, translation 2005 by Dennis Redmond

Against Epistemology: A Metacritique - Studies in Husserl and the Phenomenological Antinomies, translated by Willis Domingo. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1983. (Out of print) (1956)

Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason", translated by Rodney Livingstone. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001. (1959)

Problems of Moral Philosophy, edited by Thomas Schröder, translated by Rodney Livingstone. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000. (Lecture series, 1956-7)

Hegel: Three Studies, translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993. (1963)

The Jargon of Authenticity, translated by Knut Tarnowski and Frederic Will. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973. (1964)

History And Freedom: Lectures 1964-1965. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006.

Metaphysics: Concept and Problems,  edited by Rolf Tiedemann, translated by Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.  (Lecture series, 1965)

Negative Dialectics, translated by E.B. Ashton. New York: Seabury Press, 1973. (1966)

Negative Dialectics, translation 2001 by Dennis Redmond

Herbert Marcuse: Selected Philosophical Works

Heideggerian Marxism, edited by Richard Wolin and John Abromeit. University of Nebraska Press, 2005.  Essays, 1928-1932. Table of contents.

Hegel's Ontology and Theory of Historicity, translated by Seyla Benhabib.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987.  (1932)

Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory. Boston: Beacon Press, 1960. (1941).

Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud.  New York: Vintage Books, 1962.  (1955)

One Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964.

Collective Philosophical/Methodological Works

Adorno, Theodor W.; et al. The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology, translated by Glyn Adey and David Frisby. London: Heinemann, 1976.

Commentary by R. Dumain
   I. Adorno's Introduction

History and Ideas of the Frankfurt School

The Cambridge Companion to Critical Theory, edited by Fred Rush. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Dubiel, Helmut. Theory and Politics: Studies in the Development of Critical Theory, translated by Benjamin Gregg, with an introduction by Martin Jay. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985.

Held, David.  Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas.  Berkeley; Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980.

Ingram, David. Critical Theory and Philosophy. New York: Paragon House, 1990. (Paragon Issues in Philosophy) [introductory survey]

Jay, Martin.  The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1973.

Wiggershaus, Rolf; Robertson, Michael, trans. The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1994.

Max Horkheimer: Secondary Works

On Max Horkheimer: New Perspectives, edited by Seyla Benhabib, Wolfgang Bonß, and John McCole.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993.

Stirk, Peter M. Max Horkheimer: A New Interpretation. Lanham: Barnes & Noble, 1992.

Theodor W. Adorno: Introductions & Surveys

Buck-Morss, Susan. The Origin of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and the Frankfurt Institute. New York: Free Press, 1977.

Jarvis, Simon. Adorno: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge: Polity Press; New York; Routledge, 1998.

Jay, Martin. Adorno. London: Fontana, 1984.

Reijen, Willem van. Adorno: An Introduction. Philadelphia: Pennbridge Books, 1992.

Rose, Gillian. The Melancholy Science: An Introduction to the Thought of Theodor W. Adorno. London: Macmillan 1978.

Herbert Marcuse: Introductions & Surveys

Kellner, Douglas.  Herbert Marcuse and the Crisis of Marxism. London: Macmillan;  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. Click to download large PDF file of book.


Web Pages: Gateways to Critical Theory Online

Theodor W. Adorno Study Guide (with links to major critical theory sites)

Online Discussion Groups

theory-frankfurt-school -- Discussion of Frankfurt School critical theory

habermas: as text, influence, adversary, exemplar yahoo discussion group (listserv)

Ver. 5.2, 6 February 2007; Ver. 5.1, 10 October 2006; Ver. 5.0, 31 March 2006; Ver. 4.2, 15 March 2006; Ver 4.1, 14 March 2006; Ver 4.0, 13 March 2006; Ver 3.4, 11 March 2006; Ver. 3.3, 1 March 2006; Ver 3.2, 23 Feb 2006; Ver. 3.1, 21 February 2006; Ver. 2.2, 17 February 2006; Ver. 2.1, 17 February 2006; Ver. 1.2, 13 February 2006; Ver. 1.1, 12 February 2006; updates 4 February 2009, 25 January 2013

©2006-2013 Ralph Dumain

Theodor W. Adorno & Critical Theory Study Guide

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Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Philosophy and the Division of Labor: Selected Bibliography

The Philosophy of Theory and Practice: Selected Bibliography

Ideology Study Guide

Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)

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Uploaded 17 February 2006
Last updated 25 January 2013
Previously updated
20 July 2009

©2006-2013 Ralph Dumain