Studying Critical Theory

Herbert Marcuse and Angela Davis




"The first decision to make before seeking a graduate program that will train you in Critical Theory is ...."

The first decision to make before seeking a graduate program that will train you in Critical Theory is to decide which more general discipline you want to enter, and prepare yourself as best you can for that broader mastery of said field you will gain in a doctoral program. That is, if you want to study with an intellectual historian who has written on the Frankfurt School--and here I'm speaking from personal experience--you have to impress the admissions committee that you are first and foremost interested in the discipline of History as such. You will, after all, have several other fields on your orals besides intellectual history, and should be genuinely excited about immersing yourself in them. The same goes for training as, say, a sociologist, a literary critic or a philosopher, to mention other possible disciplines where you might want to apply and develop some of the insights of Critical Theory. If, in other words, you don't enjoy the close reading of literary texts, all the theoretical insights you get from studying Adorno, Benjamin, Marcuse or Lowenthal will hover above the subject matter that you and your fellow graduate students will be expected to interpret with sophistication. Critical Theory may have interdisciplinary roots and ambitions, but you have to begin by becoming competent in a specific field before you can move beyond it. Even when there is a program in Critical Theory per se at a university, such as the "designated emphasis" at Berkeley, you will be expected to bring to it the special training you've already gotten in a specific field, which will also be the likely framework for your job hunt at the end of your training.

The second decision involves finding a program that is robust enough in general to provide you the environment where you can prosper. This means a distinguished faculty in several sub-fields, a strong and talented cohort of fellow grad students, and enough fellowship support and teaching opportunities to make it possible to feel that it was worth it all, even when you face the daunting challenges of finding a job when you go on the market. You need a critical mass of mentors and fellow students to avoid the isolation that might make grad school an alienating experience. 


The third and perhaps most obvious decision involves finding at least one outstanding scholar whose work you admire and who expresses an interest in training you. This means reaching out to, perhaps even visiting possible candidates, and seeing how they respond to your questions. If they have written on Critical Theory in the past, are they still interested in it now and in the future? Will they still be around for the full term of your graduate training, or are they planning to retire or leave for other reasons? Have they successfully mentored other students and helped launch their careers? Can they put you in touch with current students in the program who might give you a candid insight into what to expect should you come there? Are there other sympathetic faculty in the department with whom you might also work?

Finally, it is probably unwise to present yourself as someone with a fixed dissertation topic already in hand. Unlike in some European systems, where you are expected to hit the ground running and won't have to do course work, in the US, you will have to spend something like three years in courses or general reading before starting a focused dissertation. In that period, you will be exposed to lots of possible influences and your interests may shift. You need to convey to an admissions committee and prospective mentor that you are open to what you will learn in their program rather than the impression that you are prematurely fixated on a particular topic. In other words, stay true to the non-dogmatic spirit of Critical Theory even when it applies to your own loyalty to the tradition.

Martin Jay

Ehrman Professor of European History Emeritus

University of California, Berkeley


October 1, 2022

Citation: Martin Jay, "The first decision to make before seeking a graduate program that will train you in Critical Theory is..." (2022), Studying Critical Theory, ed. Andrew T. Lamas (Philadelphia, PA: International Herbert Marcuse Society,

Studying Critical Theory: 

What to Look for 

in Graduate Programs

Arnold L. Farr

The human condition in its present form cries out for the type of analysis that critical theory can provide. There are several things that students must consider if they are interested in critical theory. The diversity of perspectives in the department where one will seek a degree is important. My main field of study is philosophy. Unfortunately, many philosophy departments in the US are not that diverse. I was lucky enough to find a philosophy department that was diverse with regards to the areas of philosophy represented. It also had two women and hired a third while I was there. The women in my department were instrumental in helping us challenge traditional models of philosophy as well as traditional ways of thinking. At that time there were no professors of color in the department however. That was the one weakness.

One of the most important attractions for me was the University of Kentucky’s Interdisciplinary Committee on Social Theory. This program was influenced by the Frankfurt School’s model of interdisciplinary research. While students worked to get a degree in a specific discipline, they could also take classes and seminars outside of their discipline and earn a social theory certificate. Another important feature of this program was the opportunity for graduate students to edit and publish a journal in social theory every year. Several faculty members who taught in this program were themselves students of critical theory. It was also helpful that my department and the university were open to interdisciplinary work. For students who are interested in critical theory, the openness of academic departments to interdisciplinary research and collaboration is important.

The Interdisciplinary Committee on Social Theory was instrumental in my success as a teacher and scholar. While I had many demands placed on me by my department, I was still able to build a knowledge beyond philosophy. In fact, my interaction with disciplines outside of philosophy made me a much better philosopher. Philosophical ideas are not born in a vacuum. There are born and develop within certain social, economic, and political contexts. An interdisciplinary education allows one to better understand the way in which different bodies of knowledge interact and influence each other. It gives one a much fuller picture of the human condition. This is why the Frankfurt School approached research in the way that it did.

The Interdisciplinary Committee on Social Theory at the University of Kentucky is just one example programs that universities may offer that will greatly benefit students who are interested in critical theory. There are many universities with similar or compatible programs. Search for such universities should be at the top of the list for students who are interested in critical theory.

Arnold L. Farr

Professor of Philosophy

University of Kentucky


October 17, 2022

Citation: Arnold L. Farr, "Studying Critical Theory: What to Look for in Graduate Programs" (2022), Studying Critical Theory, ed. Andrew T. Lamas (Philadelphia, PA: International Herbert Marcuse Society,

imaculada kangussu

"Se alguma jovem estudante, interessada em Teoria Crítica, me procurasse buscando um conselho, eu lhe diria:"

Advice to a Young Student 

Interested in Critical Theory

Imaculada Kangussu

"If a young student, interested in Critical Theory, asked me for advice about where to begin, I would say:"

Imaculada Kangussu

Professor of Philosophy

 Universidade Federal de Ouro Preto


October 20, 2022

Citation: Imaculada Kangussu, "Advice to a Young Student Interested in Critical Theory," (2022), Studying Critical Theory,ed. Andrew T. Lamas  (Philadelphia, PA: International Herbert Marcuse Society,

savita Singh

"Our students need to read much of critical theory as a part of the Indian tradition of critical thought, not merely as Western theory. "

A Creative Critical Path 

to Critical Theory in India

Savita Singh

The way to critical theory here in India is to follow a creative critical path that aspires not only to understand the societies in which we live, as given realities, but to alter them in ways all can realize reason and freedom.  

Students come to universities here from various backgrounds. Some already understand the power of negation; they know the given form of our existence is oppressive and that it already contains negativity, that is, its own opposition. They may not have read Hegel, Marx, or Lenin theoretically. Still, it will certainly be useful to introduce them to courses taught in the departments of political science,  history, and literature in various universities in India where critical thinking is introduced,  as most now teach M.N Roy,  Ravindranath Thakur, Gandhi, Thanthai Periyar, Savitribai Phule, Ambedkar, Mahaswheta Devi, and Pandita Ramabai. 

Creatively now we are deepening our critical need to include the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School.  Dialectic of Enlightenment by T. W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse's One Dimensional Man and Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory are much-discussed texts. Jurgen Habermas' The Theory of Communicative Action and The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity are also included in many political theory courses. 

Our students need to read much of critical theory as a part of the Indian tradition of critical thought, not merely as Western theory.  This is what creative theory is accomplishing and impressing upon students who are keen on understanding the possibility and necessity of transformative experience.

If students want to start reading and understanding the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, I suggest they begin with Marcuse's Reason and Revolution.  I would also offer them my poem "Consent"—to stoke the simmering amber of negation already present in our human condition today. It can be read, perhaps, alongside Marcuse's An Essay on Liberation


खुशी- खुशी चल रहा है सारा अत्याचार

अपने सिर उतारकर पेश कर रहे हैं लोग खुशी- खुशी

अब तो अपना ही जल्लाद है

जैसे अपना नाई

वकील और डॉक्टर अपना एक

दर्जी भी एक अपना 

वैसे ही खरीदार  है अब सबका अपना -अपना

खरीदता है सब कुछ सारी देह सारा दिमाग

समूचा अंतःकरण 

सारी सहमति

बेचते हुए कितना हल्कापन महसूस होता है

खरीदे जाते हुए कितना संतोष

यह तो बाजार ही जनता है  अब

या बाजार में बिकती चीजें


Happily presses on,

this thread of all torture.

And happily, people offer

Their own heads.

Now we have a butcher

Just as a lawyer, a doctor

One and the same, a clothier,

And like that our transactions

become each our own.

He, that buys everything, all body,

All mind, the whole of conscience,

the entirety of our consent.

Selling it all, one feels such lightness

Coming on, such relief in being bought.

Only the agora knows it, and the things 

that are sold there.

Translated from Hindi by Medha Singh

—Savita Singh


School of Gender and Development

 Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU)


October 23, 2022

Citation: Savita Singh, "A Creative Critical Path to Critical Theory in India." (2022), Studying Critical Theory,ed. Andrew T. Lamas (Philadelphia, PA: International Herbert Marcuse Society,

Charles Reitz

"The importance of ecology to the revolutionary movement and the importance of the revolutionary movement for ecology was evident and vividly elaborated by Marcuse."

Critical Theory and Higher Learning

Charles Reitz

When you think about it, most people who go into the social sciences do so because they think something is profoundly wrong with the social and human world. There are very few social scientists who don’t have that initial impulse. ‘There’s something wrong. That’s why I want to be a sociologist.

There’s something wrong with the ways human beings treat each other, that’s why I want to be a social psychologist.’ . . . So the critical impulse was there at the beginning of social science.

―Roy Bhaskar 

Reality and Its Depths: A Conversation Between Savita Singh and Roy Bhaskar (2020), 30-31.

This society is obscene in producing and indecently exposing a stifling abundance of wares while depriving its victims abroad of the necessities of life; obscene in stuffing itself and its garbage cans while poisoning and burning the scarce foodstuffs in the fields of its aggression; obscene in the words and smiles of its politicians and entertainers; its prayers, in its ignorance, and in the wisdom of its kept intellectuals.

―Herbert Marcuse 

An Essay on Liberation (1969), 7-8.

We submit to the peaceful production of the means of destruction, to the perfection of waste, to being educated for a defense which deforms the defenders and that which they defend.

―Herbert Marcuse

One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (1964), ix.

To create the subjective conditions for a free society [it is] no longer sufficient to educate individuals to perform more or less happily the functions they are supposed to perform in this society or extend ‘vocational’ education to the ‘masses.’ Rather . . . [we must] . . . educate men and women who are incapable of tolerating what is going on, who have really learned what is going on, has always been going on, and why, and who are educated to resist and to fight for a new way of life. By its own inner dynamic, education thus leads beyond the classroom, beyond the university, into the political dimension, and into the moral, instinctual dimension.

―Herbert Marcuse 

“Lecture on Education, Brooklyn College, 1968” 

in Marcuse’s Challenge to Education (2009), 35, emphasis in original.

Readers of all of the above already know the world needs changing and want to help to change it. Who will define the  future? The political language of the Republicans and Democrats is patently insufficient. We must dedicate ourselves to the cause of studying society critically and creatively. We face the necessity of building the theory and practice for a new world order today: one of racial equality, women’s equality, the liberation of labor, the restoration of nature, leisure, abundance, and peace.

CHARLES REITZ Critical Theory and Higher Learning 01-15-2023.pdf

Citation: Charles Reitz, "Critical Theory and Higher Learning," (2022), Studying Critical Theory, ed. Andrew T. Lamas (Philadelphia, PA: International Herbert Marcuse Society,

Robert T. Tally Jr.

" think critically about our own all-too-real systems and to imagine potential alternatives."

Critical Theory and Literary Studies

Robert T. Tally Jr.

Critical theory is not only “interdisciplinary,” as we tend to use that term, but it also involves both the critique and the theorizing of disciplines. That is, the “rationalization” of knowledge and of society at large constitutes part of the project of critical theory, from its roots in Kantian Kritik through the Frankfurt School and Herbert Marcuse’s analysis of “one-dimensional society” in the twentieth century to social and cultural criticism of today’s multivalenced, global system. Marxism, in particular, has always labored to make and to show the connections between politics, economics, culture, science, art, religion, and so on, and beyond the pragmatic need to study certain areas at certain moments there is a powerful sense that, in order to truly understand the society in which we live, the critical theorist must approach it in its totality. I want to argue that literary studies offers a superb locus from which to engage in this project.

The principal way in which the study of literature distinguishes itself is in its concern for language and its uses, which also turns out to be crucial to critical theory. Literature teaches us to employ language deliberately, to pay attention to diction and syntax, to think on the multiple meanings and nuances of words, to connect disparate ideas through such figures of speech as metaphor or allegory, and to examine the relationships between works of the literary imagination (novels, poems, plays, etc.) and the world we live in. Being attuned to matters of language, poetics, aesthetics, and narrative is all the more important today, as there are forces at work that, consciously or not, degrade thought and ultimately limit freedom by their sometimes negligent, sometimes quite intentional use of words, phrases, and stories. As Fredric Jameson has put it, “no society has ever been so mystified in quite so many ways as our own, saturated as it is with messages and information, the very vehicles of mystification.”

George Orwell famously showed in Nineteen-Eighty-Four how “newspeak” and “doublethink” were just as effective as government surveillance and police repression in bolstering Big Brother’s totalitarian society. Orwell was criticizing the increasingly common use of misleading rhetoric and terminology in public discourse, as well as the burgeoning power of the mass media to enforce widespread acceptance of such ideas, thus working against any forms of critical thinking. The Canadian critic Northrop Frye worried that advertising and commercial interests, just as much as repressive political regimes, were dumbing down thought through their unimaginative—and anti-imaginative—use of language, which “stands for cliché,” that is, “ready-made, prefabricated formulas” and “automatic babble,” and which “leads us inevitably from illusion to hysteria.” Jameson has observed that, even in a lot of supposedly well-educated circles, the commitment to so-called “plain speaking” or “ordinary language” in writing is itself ideological, “intended to speed the reader across a sentence in such a way that he can salute a readymade idea in passing,” and thus effectively denying the reader the opportunity to think critically about the material or ideas being presented. By making things “easy to read,” these writers also make it harder to resist, effectively turning the potential argument in their favor in advance. Such uses of language not only dull one’s critical capacities, but dull one’s very imagination, making it all the more difficult to assess the present situation and making it virtually impossible to imagine alternatives.

This is where literature and literary studies comes in. As Frye has put it, “Literature speaks the language of the imagination, and the study of literature is supposed to train and improve the imagination.” At its best, literary studies is thus a form of critical theory and practice, a means by which to comprehend our own world without simply accepting the status quo presented to us. Literature can engender a great love of the world, in its vast diversity and complexity, which is also important for a proper critique of that world and its problems. This is why so many who go into the fields of literary studies speak of their “love” of reading, but to truly love something is not to passively absorb it, but rather to engage meaningfully with all its heterogeneous possibilities. Critique, properly understood, is thus essential to the love of literature.

Students interested in critical theory understandably chafe at the often artificial or merely “professional” strictures imposed by various academic disciplines. English, Comparative Literature, and other departments associated with literary studies certainly have these features as well, but literary works themselves also help us move beyond the strict disciplinarity of the “rationalized society,” for they frequently present glimpses of or even entire worlds in which arts, sciences, social systems, religious and philosophical ideas, and so forth are on display. In some cases, those might include interstellar starships or fire-breathing dragons or ghosts, but there is still the powerful sense of a world system there, one which can in turn empower readers to think critically about our own all-too-real systems and to imagine potential alternatives. That is one reason why Marcuse so heavily emphasized the aesthetic dimension, “as the form of sensitivity of the senses and as the form of the concrete world of human life,” which makes the “productive imagination” possible.

In educating and empowering the imagination, literature and critical theory—literature as critical theory, for that matter—can help us to overcome the tyranny of the actual, of the “what is,” precisely by understanding it and its workings in detail, while never capitulating to its apparent hegemony. Those of us who seek to change the world first need to be able to interpret it, and in doing so, we can encounter what Marcuse called “the scandal of qualitative difference”: not just a slightly better situation but another one entirely. Accordingly, as great literary works have taught us in so many diverse ways and with such vivid examples, we realize that new worlds are possible, new thoughts are possible.

Robert T. Tally Jr.

Professor of English

Texas State University


May 28, 2023

Citation: Robert T. Tally Jr., "Critical Theory and Literary Studies," (2023), Studying Critical Theory, ed. Andrew T. Lamas (Philadelphia, PA: International Herbert Marcuse Society,


"Can you imagine Marcuse writing a grant proposal with the following lines: 'In this project, I will employ Marx’s dialectics seasoned with Freudian psychoanalysis and aesthetic utopianism to solve the issue of the irrational rationality of advanced industrial societies'?"

I Must Warn You

Eduardo Altheman Camargo Santos

Disclaimer: Before you begin reading this text, I must warn you that, even though I have                                        been studying Critical Theory (CT) for almost two decades, I am still a postdoctoral fellow.


The first thing to know when studying Critical Theory is…it can be hard.


Not only due to the quantity (and quality) of fields Frankfurt School critical theorists embrace in their work (from music to sociology, philosophy to literature, psychoanalysis to political theory, pedagogy, aesthetics—everything, really!). Don’t get me wrong, feeling comfortable and confident in those fields is quite a challenging task in and of itself, one that will require many, many years of intense dedication. You will spend hours and hours contemplating why you decided to pursue a line of critical social inquiry that spent decades discussing the actual structure of fascism or what aesthetic form best expresses end-stage capitalism without ever coming to a conclusion (and rightfully so).


But the adversities, sadly, do not stop there.


First of all, if you come from a country from the (semi)periphery of capitalism, always be ready to hear one or more of the following questions:

·       Why are you studying this?

·       Does that mean anything to you?

·       Why not stick to your national authors and subjects?

Unfortunately, like most of the academia worldwide, Critical Theory is still a field dominated by cis-hetero white males from the global North. Most do not come from working-class backgrounds. This means coming from any underrepresented groups in the area will probably be instantly noted. Not always in a good way. Still, even though gender, sexuality, nationality, and class identities and origins are a real issue, the problem is not so much the standpoint of the people who circulate in CT, but rather the openness to accept that Critical Theory must surpass its hindrances by contemplating its own limits—an openness that, at least in theory, is embedded within the very notion of Critical Theory as opposed to traditional theory.


Secondly, finding a job—a real, secure academic job—might prove somewhat tricky if your background is in Critical Theory. While CT is often regarded as one of the most erudite fields and lines of inquiry in the Humanities, this does not always translate to an advantage when it comes to securing a tenured job. Knowledge specialization and siloization is a genuine trend in academia, which means not all departments are willing to hire someone who tries to cross disciplinary borders in a non-compromising fashion.


Applying for fellowships is a constant challenge, as submission models seem to be devised for scientists wearing a coat in a lab: list your envisioned research outputs; describe in detail every methodological step you will take; define your estimated conclusions; explain what problem you expect to solve; designate your competition in the field; name the technological breakthroughs your research might lead to. For a tradition completely based on the idea of experimentation, trial and error, creativity (in other words: Versuch) and on the notion of allowing the object to lead the way, this can be a nightmare! Can you imagine Marcuse writing a grant proposal with the following lines: “In this project, I will employ Marx’s dialectics seasoned with Freudian psychoanalysis and aesthetic utopianism to solve the issue of the irrational rationality of advanced industrial societies”?


Job interviews can also be difficult. Delivering a so-called “elevator speech” for someone who works on CT is frankly impossible. I’ve once heard that you should be able to explain your current research in one single short sentence. Failure to do so allegedly means you are not clear about your own subject. Not one word about a prismatic and ever-changing object that requires multiple and simultaneous analyses, long-term dedication, or crossdisciplinarity.


If not for an extremely wealthy person who funded the project from the start, not even the Institut für Sozialforschung would have been able to realize such a bold endeavor. Even with Felix Weil’s funds, critical theorists needed an independent institute, not immediately housed under one single department, to be able to pursue the kind of theory they developed. Just think of Marcuse’s, Adorno’s, or Benjamin’s careers! Marcuse, for instance, got his first teaching job at the age of 54. These are some of the twentieth century’s biggest geniuses, and even they struggled.


Third hardship: having an unbreakable commitment to historical truth—even if you may not like it. Even if it means disavowing your intellectual mentors or going against what you formerly held as indisputable. One of the main lessons of Critical Theory is that no fixed formula and no dogma can ever be capable of grasping the core of a given object. There are no textbooks to follow and no sacred author that can help you in your task of ruthlessly criticizing everything existing—not even the person who created this expression! This same attitude drives us away from hagiographies and pushes us to criticize critical theorists for their own insufficiencies and dead ends. So be ready to question yourself and the knowledge you produce every step of the way.


Which leads to the fourth difficulty: It can be lonely at times. You’ll have much in common with many fields and areas of life, but you will never truly belong exclusively to one. This becomes particularly evident when you attend a conference in one specific field. You get the constant impression everyone is staring at your presentation like you’re a cosmonaut aloofly exploring because you have not employed the cutting-edge technological methodology for investigating this or that phenomenon. As if Big Data or machine-learning could ever make up for rigorous interpretation, critical thought, and imagination. Nothing against new methodologies per se, but they simply cannot substitute for these elements.


Finally, the activist dimension of Critical Theory is also Janus-faced. Critical Theory is political in nature; even in its apparently most abstract and intangible remarks, it is still fully committed to human emancipation, social justice, equality, and freedom. The ultimate goal is to put an end to the prehistory of humanity. However, CT should not and must not be mistaken for strategy or tactics. You will be constantly aware of problematic methods and “realistic” compromises in the name of Realpolitik. To reduce theory to an immediate plan of action is to deprive it from its most negative and utopian elements. And these are precisely what push praxis further and keep the dreams of inhaling airs from other planets alive.


Having said that, I would not choose to study anything else other than Critical Theory.


Critical Theory has presented me with the most brilliant, radical, profound, and fascinating books I have ever encountered. It is not every day that something touches you so deeply that it completely changes your mind and who you are that you find such vivid expositions of what’s wrong with the world. It is certainly not easy to find authors so mercilessly willing to eviscerate how we communicate, work, dream, live, or think, and who so relentlessly critique how we are shaped by the ubiquitous forces of commodity form, value, and capital.


Critical theorists are committed to leaving no stone unturned: they explore how the way our language is populated with acronyms impoverishes our capacity for critical thinking; how boardgames we play might expose how our desire might be connected with aggressiveness and ruthlessness; how our sexuality and even our most profound pleasures might be problematically entangled with domination and (self-)exploitation; how what passes for democracy in culture might actually mean commodification; how what we call freedom and perceive as autonomy might just prove to be their exact opposites. And they also open the windows to show that what is… is not all there is to it. Above all, Critical Theory has shown me that when radicalness and intellect walk hand in hand, the sparks they create together are not easily extinguished.


So, my advice is: be aware that the path ahead will be rough; you may want to quit at times; if you do not come from financially stable settings, you will probably have a hard time supporting yourself; and, you will definitely not emerge the same way you entered the first time you read something like Eros and Civilization. Nonetheless, as with Brecht’s Mister Keuner, one should turn pale at the thought of not changing a bit (of the world and oneself).

Citation: Eduardo Altheman Camargo Santos, "I Must Warn You," (2023), Studying Critical Theory, ed. Andrew T. Lamas (Philadelphia, PA: International Herbert Marcuse Society,

Joan Braune

"Critical Theory is an inherently antifascist project."

How to Study Critical Theory

Joan Braune

The term “Critical Theory” was coined by Max Horkheimer, director of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research. While many academic disciplines and schools of thought have branches deemed “critical,” I take “Critical Theory” in its original meaning here, and offer these six suggestions for those who wish to embark on the work of Critical Theory begun by the Frankfurt School and who are drawn to the field for its radical and revolutionary potential.

1.  Interrogate what is familiar and “normal.”

For example: What popular images, slogans, or aphorisms do you frequently encounter? In what ways might these be maintaining or challenging dominant social structures? Who are the “influencers” you listen to, and why? Consider the institutions with which you yourself have come into contact and their social function. What is the history of the Girl Scouts, the American Legion, the Knights of Columbus, the AFL-CIO, or the YMCA? What realities are hidden behind our experience as workers? As consumers? What do you own that was made by children, enslaved people, or incarcerated people? What does your school or workplace purchase that was made by children, enslaved people, or incarcerated people? In what ways is our society hiding from awareness of troubling and looming threats? How can we overcome willful ignorance and the tendency of routine drudgery to drag us down and distract us from the questions humanity urgently needs to encounter?

2.  Engage deeply with traditions of thought.

Critical Theory is an evolving tradition of thought tied to the Frankfurt School, that is, to the school of thought founded by the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research. To do Critical Theory, you will need to study the classic texts of this tradition, even (or especially) if you see limitations and places where they must be superseded. Study the history of the tradition and be sure to include figures like Erich Fromm, Leo Lowenthal, and others that may have for some time received less attention. Furthermore, you will need to go back to origins; Critical Theory draws from multiple intellectual sources, including Marx and Marxism (including humanist Marxists like Georg Lukács), Max Weber’s sociology, Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis, twentieth century Jewish thought, and “modern” German philosophy from Kant onwards. To understand the latter as well as the general intellectual background of Frankfurt School writers, it is also necessary to develop a working understanding of the dialectical development and key concepts in the history of Western philosophy going back to Plato and Aristotle. Furthermore, look at other ongoing traditions of thought and how Critical Theory intersects, was influenced by, or shows up in those traditions. This includes the Black radical tradition, indigenous thought, and others. Bring traditions into dialogue with one another, see how they overlap or contradict or challenge one another, and be attuned to spaces of, or future opportunities for, “creolizing” and synthesis.


3.  Relate theory to practice.

To be fair, not all ideas must be made to be useful in the way that a tape measure or a stapler is useful. Some ideas are just there to be enjoyed, or even for the experience of wonder or awe they evoke. It is capitalism, after all, that demands that everything be marketable and efficient. That said, Critical Theory at its best is a revolutionary project, not an abstract intellectual exercise. It seeks to understand the world in order to change it, not merely interpret it. It seeks to challenge injustice and ease human suffering, not just impress a journal editor or a tenure committee. Explore how ideas can help dismantle unjust systems and to what extent they might be able to build a bridge to a new kind of society. This also may include finding ways to make some of your intellectual products accessible to non-academic audiences. Critical Theorists like Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse modeled intellectual engagement and public activism. Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy drew from Fromm and Marcuse—how can our public scholarship include an element of the “pedagogy of the oppressed,” in which we are both teachers and students?

4.  Keep Critical Theory scary to fascists.

Critical Theory is an inherently antifascist project.

The Frankfurt School was forced to flee Nazi Germany due to their Jewish backgrounds and Marxist politics, and much of their work was about understanding how it was possible that Europe witnessed a rise of fascism when Europe seemed primed for a proletarian revolution.

Many fascists fear Critical Theory, as evidenced by their antisemitic conspiracy theories about “Cultural Marxism.” Critical Theory’s study of the authoritarian personality, escapes from freedom, antisemitic scapegoating, New Age obscurantism, the “jargon of authenticity,” and more, does make Critical Theory dangerous to fascism. Some fascists know that some members of the Frankfurt School even participated in the U.S. war effort during World War II and later in the “denazification” of Germany.

In order to be defeated, fascism needs to be fought and intimidated, not invited over for tea and cookies, nor platformed in order to be “debated in a marketplace of ideas.” We need to actively work to ensure that Critical Theory as an enduring, evolving tradition and set of practices, continues to undermine fascism consistently. This includes carrying on the intellectual work of countering fascism. It also includes drawing boundaries in our disciplines, social circles, and within Critical Theory itself, to make these spaces less hospitable to fascists. Although this should go without saying, it also means not allowing fascists or far-right activists to claim the mantle of Critical Theory. The influence of products such as the journal Telos—whose editor and former editor played a role in the Trump administration and which has been a primary publisher and translator in the U.S. of far-right literature by Alain de Benoist, Aleksandr Dugin, and others—should be challenged rather than ignored.

Intellectuals being pulled into far-right politics in moments of personal crisis is a growing problem today. I think those of us who have been on online long enough know the dynamics to look out for: In other words, in the course of your work, be on guard against those who seem to be offering you a peculiarly warm welcome (or “love bombing” you) simply because you are saying something “edgy,” and while it is a bad sign if mainstream neoliberal institutions always agree with you, being widely criticized by the general public also doesn’t automatically mean you are a brave truth-teller. (Intellectual courage and intellectual humility are kindred virtues.) When you feel a need for a sense of belonging that you cannot find among your fellow scholars, seek to cultivate that space of safety and care in real life, in a way that doesn’t leave you vulnerable to ideological or cultic manipulation. Creating this community for others is also a collective task.

5.  Find spaces of interdisciplinary exploration and lively solidarity.

Continuing on the theme of creating a healthy community of support, let me add that Critical Theory is an interdisciplinary (in some ways even anti-disciplinary) enterprise, drawing from fields including Philosophy, Sociology, Psychology, History, and the Arts, among others. You will need colleagues outside your academic department and outside your discipline. Furthermore, in seeking to be a field that challenges the status quo, we need joy, life, and community to sustain ourselves. Consider part of your work to be a community-building enterprise, with work for social justice at the center. For example, join a union if you can, participate in some local grassroots activism, and broaden your professional association memberships or conference participation to bring you into contact with scholars in other areas, and people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives. Cultivate curiosity and joy. To be a revolutionary involves sacrifice, but alienated modern workers are seeking not only a higher wage but a reason to live and to hope. Can we cultivate spaces that engage the joys of art, sports, spirituality, the appreciation of nature, and more?

In turn, let’s seek to make our spaces more welcoming and inclusive of scholars and researchers from marginalized identities or those otherwise excluded in academia. This is an ongoing learning process for everyone. This includes making our conferences more accessible to those with disabilities, low income, and immigration status challenges that inhibit travel. Here’s a simple starter: When you’re at a meeting and someone says, “Do I need to use the mic?”, yell back, “Yes.”


6.  Put Critical Theory under its own lens.

Finally, we cannot let Critical Theory itself escape the work of Critical Theory. Ask questions about Critical Theory itself. How do capitalism and neoliberalism impact what Critical Theorists study, where they are or are not able to find employment, how they do or do not engage with the public, and how they relate theory to practice? Is Critical Theory being “adjusted” to mainstream society, and “defanged” or “declawed”? While some Critical Theorists may face attack for their work, where are we bolstering unjust power that we should be dismantling? And how can we support colleagues under attack or on the frontlines of struggle for change?

Pay attention and be wary when people seem to be reducing Critical Theory’s radical potential, converting it either into a weak notion of liberal identity politics (as opposed to seeing antiracism as inherently linked to anticapitalism, anti-imperialism, and anti-colonialism, for example); a defense of the national security state; or overfriendliness towards right-wing arguments.


In conclusion, as a new student of Critical Theory, you must read Critical Theory itself carefully, intently, with an eye to the impacts of diverse approaches. This is not just a group of friends setting out to change the world but a complex field with its own internal divisions. As you can see, I am a defender of a radical Critical Theory against a merely liberal Critical Theory, a watered-down inheritance found for example in the work of Habermas (although Habermas does have some smart things to say and should be read). You must develop your own theory over time of what Critical Theory’s inheritance should be and how to fight for it.

To really fight for Critical Theory involves courage and sacrifice, not simply creating a safe space for its enjoyment. While we draw strength from those who can be our allies, comrades, and supporters—and while we all need safe spaces or the closest thing possible, to fall back upon when times are rough—we also sally forth into an intellectual battle, and we remember that theory itself becomes a material force when it grips the masses (pace Marx).

August 21, 2023

Joan Braune, Ph.D., is Lecturer in Philosophy and Instructor in the Doctoral Program in Leadership Studies at Gonzaga University (Spokane, Washington, USA). She is author and co-editor of various titles, including two books on Erich Fromm’s critical theory, and two forthcoming books on contemporary fascist movements and the ethics of researching far-right movements.  

Citation: Joan Braune, "How to Study Critical Theory," (2023), Studying Critical Theory, ed. Andrew T. Lamas (Philadelphia, PA: International Herbert Marcuse Society,

BrunA Della torre

"The first thing that those looking to begin their studies in Critical Theory should know is that, in order to move in this area, they must be willing to endure a kind of 'disciplinary exile,' as they will not be at home anywhere."

Thomas Mann once wrote that "a path always seems considerably longer when we first walk it than when we have come to know it." Perhaps this is where the joy of wonder lies, sometimes accompanied by the fear of discovering new routes. When we begin our studies in the Humanities, we always try to follow the "correct" order of things, of readings, to outline research and career strategies. We frequently encounter an immense void, as this recipe for a linear and smooth path cannot be found anywhere. With which texts should you start studying Critical Theory? What is the best possible course?


Thinking about what I would have liked to have read when I started studying the Frankfurt School and which texts would have allowed me to know better what Critical Theory is about, I present below some remarks on the subject, followed by the presentation of some of the research lines covered by this tradition.

BRUNA DELLA TORRE No road map for Critical Theory edited 2024 for Marcuse Society website rev. final 01.25.2024.pdf

Bruna Della Torre, Ph.D., is postdoctoral fellow in the Sociology Department at the State University of Campinas (UNICAMP), in São Paulo, Brazil. She was Horkheimer fellow at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt (2023); fellow at the Käte Hamburger Centre for Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic Studies at Heidelberg University (2021-2022); lecturer at University of Brasilia (2021/2017-2018); postdoctoral fellow at the Literary Theory and Comparative Literature at the University of São Paulo (2018-2021); visiting scholar at Humboldt University (2019), Goethe University (2014), Duke University (2016), and she was a lecturer at the University of Brasília (2021/ 2017-2018). She served as the executive editor of the Crítica Marxista journal (2018-2023), and she is the author of Vanguarda do Atraso ou Atraso da Vanguarda? Oswald de Andrade e os teimosos destinos do Brasil (São Paulo: Alameda Editorial, 2019).

Citation: Bruna Della Torre, "No Road Map for Critical Theory: An Introductory Guide to the Frankfurt School," (2024), Studying Critical Theory, ed. Andrew T. Lamas (Philadelphia, PA: International Herbert Marcuse Society,