Critical Theory: The Best Introductory Resources

This page features a collection of the best resources on critical theory. Just to be clear, there is no single best resource on critical theory. The best one will depend on your preferred learning style and the amount of time you want to spend learning about it.

To get started, simply choose one of the links below:

If you want a comprehensive overview of critical theory:

“Critical Theory has a narrow and a broad meaning in philosophy and in the history of the social sciences. “Critical Theory” in the narrow sense designates several generations of German philosophers and social theorists in the Western European Marxist tradition known as the Frankfurt School. According to these theorists, a “critical” theory may be distinguished from a “traditional” theory according to a specific practical purpose: a theory is critical to the extent that it seeks human “emancipation from slavery”, acts as a “liberating … influence”, and works “to create a world which satisfies the needs and powers” of human beings (Horkheimer 1972, 246). Because such theories aim to explain and transform all the circumstances that enslave human beings, many “critical theories” in the broader sense have been developed. They have emerged in connection with the many social movements that identify varied dimensions of the domination of human beings in modern societies. In both the broad and the narrow senses, however, a critical theory provides the descriptive and normative bases for social inquiry aimed at decreasing domination and increasing freedom in all their forms. . . .

It follows from Horkheimer’s definition that a critical theory is adequate only if it meets three criteria: it must be explanatory, practical, and normative, all at the same time. That is, it must explain what is wrong with current social reality, identify the actors to change it, and provide both clear norms for criticism and achievable practical goals for social transformation. Any truly critical theory of society, as Horkheimer further defined it in his writings as Director of the Frankfurt School’s Institute for Social Research, “has as its object human beings as producers of their own historical form of life”. . .”

If you’re looking for a somewhat shorter and more engaging introduction:

If you’d prefer a video introduction:

If you prefer audio and podcasts:

Unfortunately, there’s only so much you can learn by using free online resources. If you want to learn more, check out this list of the Best Books on Critical Theory

For more introductory philosophy resources and reading lists check out this collection of Resources and Reading Lists.