From beginner-friendly introductions to classic books on critical theory, this page features books to suit any learning style. It’s important to note that there is no single best book on critical theory. The best book for you will depend heavily on your preferred learning style and the amount of time/energy you’re willing to spend reading. For example, if you tend to find classic works of philosophy difficult to understand, you might want to start with a short, beginner-friendly introduction. If you prefer more depth, you can choose a more comprehensive introduction, a relevant handbook, or pick up one of the classics.
It’s also worth noting that it is not a list of personal recommendations. Personal book recommendations tend to be highly subjective, idiosyncratic, and unreliable. This list is part of a collection of over 100 philosophy reading lists which aim to provide a central resource for philosophy book recommendations. These lists were created by searching through hundreds of university course syllabi, internet encyclopedia bibliographies, and community recommendations. Links to the syllabi and other sources used to create this list are at the end of the post. Following these links will help you quickly find a broader range of options if the listed books do not fit what you are looking for.
Here are the best books on critical theory in no particular order.
Introducing Critical Theory – Stuart Sim
Publisher’s description: What might a ‘theory of everything’ look like? Is science an ideology? Who were Adorno, Horkheimer or the Frankfurt School? The decades since the 1960s have seen an explosion in the production of critical theories. Deconstructionists, poststructuralists, postmodernists, second-wave feminists, new historicists, cultural materialists, postcolonialists, black critics and queer theorists, among a host of others, all vie for our attention. Stuart Sim and Borin Van Loon’s incisive graphic guide provides a route through the tangled jungle of competing ideas and provides an essential historical context, situating these theories within tradition of critical analysis going back to the rise of Marxism. They present the essential methods and objectives of each theoretical school in an incisive and accessible manner, and pay special attention to recurrent themes and concerns that have preoccupied a century of critical theoretical activity.
Publisher’s description: 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. …
Critical Theory: The Essential Readings – David Ingram
Publisher’s description: 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
Publisher’s description: 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
Publisher’s description: 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
Publisher’s description: 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.
The following sources were used to build this list:
University Course Syllabi:
- CTSJ186: Introduction to Critical Theory – Occidental College
- CS500A: Introduction to Critical Theory – San Francisco Art Institute
- PHIL4804: Critical Theory – University of Central Florida
- Seminar in Frankfurt School Critical Theory
- PHIL343: Critical Theory: Immanent Critique – University of Oregon
- ENG211: Introduction to Critical Theory and Practice – University of British Columbia
- Bibliography for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Critical Theory
- Bibliography for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Critical Theory
If you want to learn more about critical theory, you can find a collection of free articles, videos, and podcasts here.
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