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Study information

Critical Theory: The Frankfurt School and Communicative Capitalism

Module titleCritical Theory: The Frankfurt School and Communicative Capitalism
Module codePHL2040
Academic year2024/5
Module staff

Dr Christine Hauskeller (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Module description

The 20th century confronted modernity with its inherent paradoxical nature. Rationality, science and technology seemed not to deliver the promise of more freedom, equality and fairness. The advanced modern German society turned into a barbaric state, a mass-murdering ideological war machine. Totalitarianism, economic exploitation, ideology and great wars characterize the seemingly enlightened 20th century. The social place of each individual is insecure; she is individualized and alienated from her work and society, easily replaceable. Depression and aloneness become major social problems in a world of global trade and mass-media. The promise of happiness is increasingly reduced to private love and sex relations.

Critical Theory as advanced by the Frankfurt School and developed by many philosophers and social theorists since then, is being rediscovered in its relevance for philosophical and sociological understandings of our present time. Concepts such as Alienation or Fetishization, and the critique of ideologies in the interactions between the modern state and changing forms of capitalism are rediscovered and applied to today’s problems. Racism and identity politics, authoritarianism and populism, big data capitalism and monetization of our most personal experiences, as we post them online, become means of alienation and the accumulation of wealth for the online industry.

Students choosing this module may benefit from having read some German philosophy of the 20th century, especially having some background in materialist social and political theory, as well as Neo-Kantian moral philosophy.

Module aims - intentions of the module

The aims of this module are:
• to introduce you to 20th century Critical Theory and its Freudo-Marxist concepts
• to practise critical methods and critical reflection
• to learn about philosophical examination of modern-day social changes and problems
• to introduce you to 20th century philosophers who have been greatly influential on current philosophical and political thought.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the theories and texts (readings) for the course
  • 2. Demonstrate sound understanding of the methodological and conceptual problems of critiquing modernity

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 3. Demonstrate critical understanding of the interrelation between epistemology, values, and material social conditions
  • 4. Demonstrate knowledge of a specific current type of philosophical social and political analysis

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 5. Demonstrate the ability to critically analyse texts with guidance, and discuss complex problems
  • 6. Demonstrate the ability to write short, explanatory summaries of academic texts
  • 7. Demonstrate the ability to research independently and write a critical philosophical essay on a module theme

Syllabus plan

This module studies concepts developed by the philosophers in the Freudo-Marxist Frankfurt School in the 20th century and the relevance or uptake of these concepts in contemporary critiques of society and capitalism.

The module aims to introduce you to critical analyses and reflections on the relationship between social structure and organisation and the individual in Modernity. This will be achieved through lectures on works by some predecessor theories, and some main proponents of critical theory, such as Karl Marx, Herbert Marcuse, Theodor W. Adorno, and Erich Fromm.

Three lecture sessions will introduce you to recent works in Critical Theory on alienation and freedom, the role of religion in the 21st Century and the formation of the self and social and political agency, looking at works by philosphers such as Jodi Dean, Jürgen Habermas, Axel Honneth, Nancy Fraser and Christian Fuchs.

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled Learning and Teaching2211 x 2 hours per week comprising of lectures and seminars
Guided Independent Study70Reading and research
Guided Independent Study20Preparation and writing of 2 reading summaries
Guided Independent Study38Preparation and writing of essay

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Essay plan500 words1-7Written

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Essay702,000 words1-7Written
2 x Reading Summaries302 x 500 words1-7Written

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
EssayEssay (2,000 words)1-7August/September reassessment period
2 x Reading SummariesReading Summaries (2 x 500 words)1-7August/September reassessment period

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

- Beverly Best, Werner Bonefeld and Chris O’Kane, The SAGE HANDBOOK of Critical Theory, 2018.
- Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer: ‘The Dialectic of Enlightenment’ (1944/2002) Stanford University Press.
- Theodor W. Adorno: ‘Minima Moralia’ (2005), Verso.
- Jodi Dean, J. (2005). ‘Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics’, Cultural Politics, 1(1), pp. 51-74.
- Erich Fromm: ‘Escape from Freedom’ (2011), Ishi Press.
- Nancy Fraser Redistribution and Recognition (2013).
- Christian Fuchs, Anxiety and Politics in the New Age of Authoritarian Capitalism, Triple C (2017).
- Axel Honneth, ‘Disrespect. The Normative Foundations of Critical Theory’ (2007), Polity Press.
- Threbor Scholz, Digital Labor, Tayor and Francis, 2013.
- Ritu Vij, The global subject of precarity (2019).

Indicative learning resources - Other resources

- Film ‘Hannah Arendt’ (2012) by Margarete von Trotta (organised viewing for the course by Dr Hauskeller).

- BBC4 The Frankfurt School (14 Jan 2010), by Melvyn Bragg and guests.

- BBC Mini-Series: The Century of the Self 2002, parts 1-4.

Key words search

Frankfurt School, Critical Theory, Social Philosophy

Credit value15
Module ECTS


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