Frankfurt School: Critical Theory & Philosophy

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will outline some of the most important ideas and thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School. Learn about the context for the critical theories proposed by members of the Frankfurt School, and then discover the challenges those same theories faced.

A Critical Voice in Uncritical Times

The Frankfurt School was a fairly loose group of scholars, philosophers, and theorists originally based at the Institute for Social Research in, you guessed it, Frankfurt, Germany. Many of the most famous scholars connected with the Frankfurt School were Marxist in political orientation, and several of the school's key members came from Jewish backgrounds. For both of these reasons, the Frankfurt School decided that it would be prudent to relocate to the United States when Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933.

Living in exile during World War II, the Frankfurt School became associated with Columbia University in New York City and continues to retain popularity among American intellectuals partially as a result of their stint in America. The Frankfurt School reestablished themselves in Germany after the war's end, and several Frankfurt School theorists were among the most significant intellectual voices that attempted to come to grips with the meaning of Nazism. Mass culture, global Capitalism, and the capacity for individuals to make choices in a mechanized society were among the Frankfurt School's principal concerns.


Theodore W. Adorno is probably the most famous member of the Frankfurt School. Although principally a philosopher, Adorno's works cover a great deal of ground, from Freudian psychoanalysis to avant-garde music to the analysis of television shows.

Adorno with other members of the Frankfurt School

Karl Marx famously described religion as the opium of the people. Theodore Adorno sees popular culture in very much the same way as Marx saw religion. If the masses are busy binge watching Game of Thrones or attending Bonnaroo, they will be too distracted to fight the oppression of Capitalism.

Adorno's assessment of Western, capitalist, post-war culture is essentially very negative. Mass culture is designed, according to Adorno, to get regular people to accept the inequalities and tedium of capitalist culture. As a scholar working in the Marxist tradition, Adorno saw culture as basically the result of economic forces. Classical Marxism sees cultural institutions (the superstructure in Marxist terminology) as serving the interests of whoever controls the means of production (the base in Marxist jargon). So for classical Marxists, whoever controls the factories or other economic fundamentals will dictate what happens within the cultural sphere.

Adorno elaborates on this concept and applies it to mid-20th century culture. Jazz, for instance, was just a mass produced, mechanical form of music designed to make people forget about how pointless their lives really are. Many scholars have criticized Adorno's assessment of mass culture, and jazz in particular, as dismissive and overly simplistic. Adorno did not see audiences of television shows or jazz music as having very much control over interpretation. People in a capitalist society are, as Adorno sees it, pretty passive.


Herbert Marcuse was a member of the Frankfurt school whose ideas are sometimes in step with those of Adorno's, but which are often far more critical of Marxism. Marcuse argues that capitalist culture constructs a cultural situation in which superficial needs are met, while really important ones are ignored. Popular culture titillates the senses and provides simple pleasures, but makes individuals in capitalist societies unimaginative and uncritical.

In the 1960s, Marcuse became a big hero to the leftist movements that were taking place in the United States and elsewhere. Many old-school Marxists did not appreciate Marcuse's criticisms of the Marxist understanding of history or his other deviations of traditional Marxist thinking. Marcuse's main point, and one of the main points of the Frankfurt School more generally, was that the political consciousness of working class people was inhibited by mass culture. Why worry about attending mass demonstrations or lobbying for social justice when you could be at home watching Netflix and ordering Domino's?

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