The Routledge Companion to the Frankfurt School

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Peter E. Gordon, Espen Hammer, Axel Honneth
Routledge Companions
  • New York, NY: 
    , November
     576 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


It has been a century since Max Horkheimer’s inaugural address as the new director of the Institute for Social Research in 1931, and the legacy of the Frankfurt School is still thriving. Critical theory and its distinguishing interdisciplinary approach had a vast impact on the development of social and political thought. Nonetheless, despite enormous fruitful debates and contestations, there has seemingly only been one comprehensive handbook or companion book published before, The SAGE Handbook of Frankfurt School Critical Theory (2018), edited by Beverley Best, Werner Bonefeld and Chris O'Kane. That work was comprised of three large volumes with almost one hundred essays.

Yet, Peter E. Gorden, Espen Hammer, and Axel Honneth, the editors of The Routledge Companion to the Frankfurt School, realized that a fully comprehensive portrait of the Frankfurt School is impossible to attain. Thus, instead of pursuing an all-encompassing description of the Frankfurt School, they “promote a balanced understanding that allowed for internal variation and common themes,” for the sake of emphasizing the topics they “feel deserve the most attention in light of current interests today” (xiv). Rather than a mere retrospective summary of the debates involved, this book devotes a great deal to the current developments and anticipations.

This striking volume has five main sections, with thirty-nine clear and well-written articles. The first part introduces basic concepts, such as instrumental reason, discourse ethics, recognition, history, transcendence and so on, in the context of the Frankfurt School. In each essay, authors generally articulate the meaning of the term or method, and how different generations of critical theory endorsed it differently. J. M. Bernstein's “The Idea of Instrumental Reason” describes the fundamental difference of the understanding of instrumental reason between Horkheimer and Adorno, the representatives of the first generation, and Habermas, who represents the second generation. Analogously, Joel Whitebook’s “Psychoanalysis and Critical Theory” traces the reception of psychoanalysis among various generations of Frankfurt School thinkers.

The second part is about historical themes. These essays cover the whole epoch, as early as the founding of the Frankfurt School and Horkheimer’s contribution, until the complex relationship with the West German Student Movement in the late 1960s. After the major figures of the early generation like Theodor Adorno and Horkheimer passed away, the historical narration ceases. Notably, Robin Celikates’ “Critical Theory and The Unfinished Project of Mediating Theory and Practice” anticipates the later development of the Frankfurt School, especially Axel Honneth’s positive reconceptualization of the link between emancipatory theory and practice. The work falls a bit short in its promise to cover the history of later generations. Nonetheless, due to the limit of the book scale, the selection is understandable.

The next part concerns the affinities and contestations within the context of the Frankfurt School. Critical theories are conceived as part of the wider context of intellectual history, with plenty of forerunners and contemporaries. These essays manifest some instances about the crucial academic reception and interaction between these great minds. Titus Stahl’s “Lukács and the Frankfurt School,” Cristina Lafont’s “Heidegger and the Frankfurt School,” and Seyla Benhabib and Clara Picker’s “Arendt and the Frankfurt School” illustrate the fruitful dialogues between different philosophical schools in the early 20th century. As an exception, Martin Saar’s “Critical Theory and Poststructuralism” anticipates the hidden resonance between these two different groups of thinkers in the contemporary academic world.

The subsequent section highlights common and vital topics of the Frankfurt School. Owen Hulatt’s “The Place of Mimesis in the Dialectic of Enlightenment,” for instance, argues for the role of mimesis in Horkheimer and Adorno’s magnum opus. Fabian Freyenhagen reinterprets the core concern of critical theory in terms of social pathology. James Gordon Finlayson revisits the famous Jürgen Habermas-John Rawls debate with some new perspectives.

The last section is on prospects; thus, the essays involved are comparatively original and insightful. As the editors highlight, the critical theory tradition has welcomed another “generation.” Several renowned and influential scholars contribute to this section, innovatively adopt the methodology and approach of critical theory, and remodel different fields and disciplines. Papers such as James D. Ingram’s “Critical Theory and Postcolonialism,” Amy Allen’s “Critical Theory and Feminism,” and Arne Johan Vetlesen’s “Critical Theory and the Environment” fully realize the limitless potentialities of critical theory in response to current issues.

The Routledge Companion to the Frankfurt School is an excellent volume and an invaluable reference for both young scholars and students. To those who wish to have a basic understanding about the history of the Frankfurt School or the latest development of the approach of critical theory, this work provides a timely introduction and guides for further studies. The editors and authors have made an enormous contribution to the literature.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Samuel (Yu-sum) Lee is a doctoral student in Politics at the New School for Social Research.

Date of Review: 
June 29, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Peter E. Gordon is the Amabel B. James Professor of History, Faculty Affiliate in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, and Faculty Affiliate in the Department of Philosophy at Harvard University.

Espen Hammer is Professor of Philosophy at Temple University.

Axel Honneth is the Jack C. Weinstein Professor for the Humanities in the Department of Philosophy at Columbia University and the Director of the Institute for Social Research, Frankfurt am Main.


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