The Frankfurt School is a school of social theory and philosophy associated with the University of Frankfurt's Institute for Social Research (German: Institut für Sozialforschung, IfS). It is known for its Critical Theory, which Wikipedia describes as follows:

In Traditional and Critical Theory (1937), Max Horkheimer defined critical theory as social critique meant to effect sociologic change and realize intellectual emancipation, by way of enlightenment that is not dogmatic in its assumptions.[...] The purpose of critical theory is to analyze the true significance of the ruling understandings (the dominant ideology) generated in bourgeois society, by showing that the dominant ideology misrepresents how human relations occur in the real world, and how such misrepresentations function to justify and legitimate the domination of people by capitalism.

One of the philosophers and thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School is György Lukács, who is best known in the field of literary criticism for his work The Theory of the Novel / Die Theorie des Romans. The section on criticism of the Frankfurt School cites The Theory of the Novel as a work published in 1971, but the German edition of that work Die Theorie des Romans was published in 1920 (and written in the years 1914-1915), long before Horkheimer's Traditionelle und kritische Theorie, cited above, and before the establishment of the Frankfurt School itself. (1971 was when the English translation of Die Theorie des Romans was published.)

What Wikipedia describes as the purpose of Critical Theory ("to analyze the true significance of the ruling understandings (the dominant ideology) generated in bourgeois society etc") can be perfectly done in literary criticism. For this reason, I would like to find out whether literary theory (not just criticism) has been influenced by Critical Theory, and, if yes, if there is something like a leading theorist in this area[1]. I am especially interested in literary theory that predates the trend in cultural studies to subsume literary studies that emerged in the 1960s or 1970s. (I have capitalised "Critical Theory" in order to refer to philosophies that emerged from the Frankfurt School and to emphasise I am not using the term as a synonym for literary theory.)

[1] This is not intended to ask for opinions from Stack Exchange users. When reading about literary theory, it is easy to find out, for example, that Stephen Greenblatt established New Historicism and that Raymond Williams developed Cultural Materialism. I am looking for a leading figure or a seminal publication on Critical Theory applied to literature.

  • I think this question is essentially "Why is Marxism relevant in the field of literary criticism?" part of a decades long and ongoing debate whether critical theory is valid or constructive. One one hand, the wish to continue that debate shows disdain towards Marxism and other new strains of thought (feminism, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, post-colonialism) And I am mentioning that camp because I am trying to be fair and give it due consideration. OTOH for some lit people literary theory=critical theory which is why I am having a hard time understanding your question.
    – Eddie Kal
    Aug 26, 2020 at 21:39
  • 1
    There is Marxist literary theory (see e.g. Terry Eagleton) and Cultural Materialism is also influenced by Marxism. And the Frankfurt School cannot be simply reduced to Marxism because (1) Marxism as a label has become too broad and (2) they apparently applied methods that Marx had never used. (And using "critical theory" as a synonym for literary theory is extremely misleading, in my opinion.)
    – Tsundoku
    Aug 27, 2020 at 9:16
  • While I agree we can't reduce the Frankfurt School to Marxism what I was trying to say is that if we use "text" in its broadest sense and agree textual analysis is literary analysis, then social theory is most definitely literary theory because society is most definitely the source and subject of the study of literature. Anything and everything society produces and encompasses can be examined as literary text. If we agree that is the case, social theory is just a mode of literary analysis.
    – Eddie Kal
    Aug 27, 2020 at 22:02
  • I understand and partly agree that it is misleading and inaccurate to equate critical theory with literary theory because that excludes towering figures considered to have made their names in literary criticism who have expressly criticized critical theory. But their criticism by and large is built on an old Eurocentric, ethnocentric, patriarchal worldview where anything beyond that is not literature. Harold Bloom, an epitome of such thought, didn't hide his disdain towards new literature.
    – Eddie Kal
    Aug 27, 2020 at 22:09
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    @EddieKal This discussion should probably be continued in a chatroom. Just one thing: I am fairly certain that the Frankfurt School, which was founded before WWII, predates the idea that you can analyse any text using the methods of literary analysis.
    – Tsundoku
    Aug 28, 2020 at 9:17

1 Answer 1


The question is a bit difficult to answer because of the constraints put on it. The Frankfurt School was hugely influential on cultural critique; Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Fredric Jameson, to name three towering figures, were all steeped in critical theory. But none of them is a member of the Frankfurt School per se. For one thing, they came of age a generation or so later.

Besides, Derrida and Foucault aren't exactly literary theorists, and would question the distinction between literary and non-literary. (Jameson is more traditionally a literary scholar, but his bent is Marxist to a degree that the Frankfurt School itself would characterize as dogmatic.) Derrida and, especially, Foucault underwrote what you call "the trend in cultural studies to subsume literary studies". When critical theory itself is responsible for that trend, it would be difficult to find a space for a purely literary theory that reflects the tenets and practices of the Frankfurt School without engaging in broader historical and cultural critique. I'm not aware of any theorist who, while broadly accepting the tenets of the Frankfurt School, has nevertheless argued for a specific role of the literary realm that sets it apart from other cultural artifacts.

Rather than identifying a literary theorist whose work is influenced by the Frankfurt School, it might be fruitful to ask what the members of the school themselves had to say about literature or, more broadly, aesthetics. At least three members of the School thought of the examination of the aesthetic realm as important to the larger examination of society: Theodor Adorno, György Lukács, and Walter Benjamin.

Adorno thought of modernism, with its creative disjunctions and its abandonment of the ideal of a self-contained, self-sufficient work of art, as reflecting the contradictions of modern society. In that way, art opened up a space for social critique. His collected Notes to Literature include many essays exemplifying this; however, these essays are more in the nature of literary criticism than theory. It is also important to note that Adorno's writings on aesthetics focused more on music than literature.

You've mentioned Lukács's being hors de combat because his best-known work of literary theory was written during World War I and published in 1920, three years before the Institute for Social Research itself was founded at Frankfurt. Indeed, Lukács himself repudiated The Theory of the Novel. But his later work, such as The Historical Novel (1937) and "Realism in the Balance" (1938) does put forward a theory of literary realism. In contrast to Adorno's valorization of modernism, Lukács argued that traditional realists like Walter Scott and Tolstoy depict historical realities in a way that makes revolution possible. Lukács was rather dismissive of what he saw as Adorno's ivory tower view of the realm of art.

Walter Benjamin also made important contributions to literary theory. For example, in "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire" (1939), Benjamin links Baudelaire's poetry to the philosophy of Henri Bergson and the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud. The essay argues that Baudelaire, like Bergson, depicts the world in a way that is historically specific without being limited to historical determinism. In this essay, one might argue, Benjamin articulates a theory of literature that bridges the gap between Adorno and Lukács. Adorno valorizes modernism for using explicitly non-realistic, subjective techniques to defamiliarize the world; Lukács praises realism for its presentation of an objective world in all its contradictions; Benjamin praises Baudelaire for presenting a world that's historically specific while also rendering it not transparent, so that one can't assume it's the only possible world there could be.

Benjamin wrote on the theory of translation as well. But his work too went beyond literary theory and criticism to broader cultural critique. His work on Parisian street culture, The Arcades Project, was left unfinished when he committed suicide while fleeing the Nazis in 1940. Right from its inception, the members of the Frankfurt School did not maintain boundaries between literary criticism and theory on the one hand, and broader cultural critique and critical theory on the other. So while their influence on aesthetics and literary criticism has been tremendous, to ask whether there is any purely literary theorist who shares their approach, methodology, and goals seems a bit self-contradictory.

  • "The question is a bit difficult to answer because of the constraints put on it." These constraints are intentional, because some people mistakenly think that critical theory is a synonym for literary theory. An answer based on that assumption would come down to a truism.
    – Tsundoku
    Nov 16, 2020 at 18:50
  • But for someone who’s influenced by the Frankfurt School, literary theory wouldn’t be separate from critical theory. So to ask for someone who accepts the goals, methodology, and techniques of the Frankfurt School, yet maintains a specific literary as opposed to a broader cultural focus, and not just in the objects of critique (not just literary criticism) but in the theory ... that’s a pretty tall order.
    – verbose
    Nov 16, 2020 at 21:29
  • I suppose one could ask whether any theorist, while broadly accepting the tenets of the Frankfurt School, has nevertheless argued for a specific role of the literary realm that sets it apart from other cultural artefacts. That’s actually an excellent question to ask, and I’d only be able to say, I’m not aware of any. But that is no answer; I’m not aware of most things. H’m, I feel an edit to my answer coming on.
    – verbose
    Nov 16, 2020 at 21:46

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