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

Arnold L. Farr

"Studying Critical Theory:

What to Look for

in Graduate Programs"

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

imaculada kangussu

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

  • leia Eros e Civilização, de Marcuse ... é O Livro sobre uma vida civilizada;

  • leia as Passagens, de Benjamin ... para entender como a forma terrível do mundo em que vivemos foi formada;

  • leia Dialética do esclarecimento, de Adorno e Horkheimer ...e observe como eles colocam a linguagem de joelhos para expressar (ex-pressar, tirar da pressão) o que desejam;

  • leia o que mais você precisar para entender os livros acima mencionados e, por favor, sinta-se à vontade em me consultar sempre que julgar necessário; e,

  • leia literatura, ouça música e dance, para manter o equilíbrio.

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

  • read Marcuse's Eros and Civilization ... it's THE book about a civilized life;

  • read Benjamin's Passagenwerk (The Arcades Project) ... to understand how the terrible shape of the world in which we are living has been formed;

  • read Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightment ... and watch how they bring language to its knees to express what they want to reveal;

  • read whatever else is necessary to enhance your understanding of the three books mentioned above, and, please, do not hesitate to contact me for assistance; and,

  • read literature, listen to music, and dance—to keep in balance.

Imaculada Kangussu

Professor of Philosophy

Universidade Federal de Ouro Preto


October 20, 2022

savita Singh

"A Creative Critical Path to Critical Theory in India"

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 throught, 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