This page contains a list of the six best books on critical theory. Finding good introductory philosophy books can be difficult for two reasons. First, searching google for recommendations usually doesn’t bring up anything useful. Second, phrases like “best books on critical theory” are ambiguous. One person may be looking for a short, beginner friendly introduction, someone else may want a comprehensive academic overview, a third person may be looking for classic works by critical theorists. This list tries to account for this ambiguity by recommending different types of books on critical theory. Here are the best books on critical theory in no particular order:
Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction – Stephen Eric Bronner
Critical theory emerged in the 1920s from the work of the Frankfurt School, the circle of German-Jewish academics who sought to diagnose — and, if at all possible, cure — the ills of society, particularly fascism and capitalism. In this book, Stephen Eric Bronner provides sketches of leading representatives of the critical tradition (such as George Lukács and Ernst Bloch, Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse and Jurgen Habermas) as well as many of its seminal texts and empirical investigations.
This Very Short Introduction sheds light on the cluster of concepts and themes that set critical theory apart from its more traditional philosophical competitors. Bronner explains and discusses concepts such as method and agency, alienation and reification, the culture industry and repressive tolerance, non-identity and utopia. He argues for the introduction of new categories and perspectives for illuminating the obstacles to progressive change and focusing upon hidden transformative possibilities. In this newly updated second edition, Bronner targets new academic interests, broadens his argument, and adapts it to a global society amid the resurgence of right-wing politics and neo-fascist movements.
The writings of the critical theorists caught the imagination of students and intellectuals in the 1960s and 1970s. They became a key element in the formation and self-understanding of the New Left, and have been the subject of continuing controversy. Partly because of their rise to prominence during the political turmoil of the sixties, and partly because they draw on traditions rarely studied in the Anglo-American world, the works of these authors are often misunderstood.
In this book David Held provides a much-needed introduction to, and evaluation of, critical theory. He is concerned mainly with the thought of the Frankfurt school—Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, in particular—and with Habermas, one of Europe’s leading contemporary thinkers. Several of the major themes considered are critical theory’s relation to Marx’s critique of the political economy, Freudian psychoanalysis, aesthetics, and the philosophy of history. There is also a discussion of critical theory’s substantive contribution to the analysis of capitalism, culture, the family, and the individual, as well as its contribution to epistemology and methodology.
Held’s book will be necessary reading for all concerned with understanding and evaluating one of the most influential intellectual movements of our time.
Critical Theory: The Essential Readings – David Ingram
This selection of some of the most important writing of the Frankfurt School and its critics provides beginning and advanced philosophy students with a solid grounding in critical theory. Substantial selections have been chosen from the works of Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and Jürgen Habermas as well as well-known feminist and post-structuralist critics Michel Foucault, Jean-Françoise Lyotard, Nancy Fraser, and Seyla la Benhabib.
The twenty-two selections in Critical Theory: The Essential Readings provide students with a lucid overview of the central themes and concerns of critical theory. The main introduction and prefaces to sections discuss the writers and selections, highlighting connections between ideas and their historical contexts. In addition, Critical Theory contains the first full translation of Habermas’ influential essay, “Modernity: An Unfinished Project.”
The introduction preceding each article orients the student to the general theory of the author and relates the particular article to the other materials in the book. The individual introductions also include particular historical events surrounding each article so students can read the pieces in context. The editors have also selected substantial pieces by each contributor and have avoided excerpting wherever possible.
Critical Theory: Selected Essays – Max Horkheimer
These essays, written in the 1930s and 1940s, represent a first selection in English from the major work of the founder of the famous Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt. Horkheimer’s writings are essential to an understanding of the intellectual background of the New Left and the to much current social-philosophical thought, including the work of Herbert Marcuse. Apart from their historical significance and even from their scholarly eminence, these essays contain an immediate relevance only now becoming fully recognized.
One-Dimensional Man – Herbert Marcuse
One of the most important texts of modern times, Herbert Marcuse’s analysis and image of a one-dimensional man in a one-dimensional society has shaped many young radicals’ way of seeing and experiencing life. Published in 1964, it fast became an ideological bible for the emergent New Left. As Douglas Kellner notes in his introduction, Marcuse’s greatest work was a ‘damning indictment of contemporary Western societies, capitalist and communist.’ Yet it also expressed the hopes of a radical philosopher that human freedom and happiness could be greatly expanded beyond the regimented thought and behaviour prevalent in established society. For those who held the reigns of power Marcuse’s call to arms threatened civilization to its very core. For many others however, it represented a freedom hitherto unimaginable.
Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School – Stuart Jeffries
In 1923, a group of young radical German thinkers and intellectuals came together to at Victoria Alle 7, Frankfurt, determined to explain the workings of the modern world. Among the most prominent members of what became the Frankfurt School were the philosophers Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse. Not only would they change the way we think, but also the subjects we deem worthy of intellectual investigation. Their lives, like their ideas, profoundly, sometimes tragically, reflected and shaped the shattering events of the twentieth century.
Grand Hotel Abyss combines biography, philosophy, and storytelling to reveal how the Frankfurt thinkers gathered in hopes of understanding the politics of culture during the rise of fascism. By taking popular culture seriously as an object of study—whether it was film, music, ideas, or consumerism—the Frankfurt School elaborated upon the nature and crisis of our mass-produced, mechanised society. Grand Hotel Abyss shows how much these ideas still tell us about our age of social media and runaway consumption.
This list was created by following a method that I’ve found to be useful when searching for introductory philosophy books. It involves:
- browsing required reading lists on university course syllabi
- searching for books using the Open Syllabus Project
- browsing the bibliographies of articles on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- searching for recommendations on philosophy forums
The following sources were used to build this list:
University Course Syllabi:
- Bibliography for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Critical Theory
- Bibliography for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Critical Theory
If you’d like to learn more about Critical Theory, check out this collection of beginner friendly resources on Critical Theory
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