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  • Writer's pictureWalter

Critical Theory's Perspective of Happiness

Updated: Nov 15, 2020

The initial proposal of the Frankfurt School can be simply summarized by highlighting the idea that ‘philosophy without empirical scientific research is empty, just as science without philosophy is blind.’ When Max Horkheimer became the director of the Institute of Social Research at the University of Frankfurt and recruited many of those who came to be known collectively as the Frankfurt School, he stressed that at the time the Frankfurt School was established, none of the dominant philosophical schools contained an adequate social philosophy. He implied that social philosophy encompasses “the entire material and spiritual culture of humanity”[1] in opposition to the separation between social theory, science, and philosophy, which was dominant at the time (and still today).

What Horkheimer envisioned among the talented theorists he gathered around the Institute (Herbert Marcuse being one of them) was to develop an interdisciplinary social theory which could serve as an instrument of social transformation. Consequently, the Institute rejected the claims of the social sciences that supposedly held sufficient knowledge while their specializations seemed detached from the structure and organization of society as a whole. This limited a deep understanding of social experience around subjects such as material conditions, human needs, social struggles against oppression, and individualistic perspective of happiness within a given social context. The head of the Frankfurt School brought the social experience of happiness into the social economic sciences by stressing that “when the desire for happiness, which life from beginning to end proves illusory, was put aside and hope alone was left, the alteration of those conditions which cause unhappiness could become the goal of materialist thought” ... “this materialist view has the negative significance that it rejects a metaphysically grounded morality. But in addition, it has always meant to materialists that man's striving for happiness is to be recognized as a natural fact requiring no justification.”[2]

Some may argue that thinkers within the Frankfurt School had shared similar concerns on fundamental issues, such as happiness. Thus, the purpose of this essay is to explore the notion of happiness from the standpoint of those scholars known for developing critical theory and promoting the dialectical method of learning by evaluating society's contradictions. Though the Frankfurt School engaged numerous philosophers within its multidisciplinary frame, I will focus on two of its significant members, Max Horkheimer and Hebert Marcuse. By bringing them into the discussion, this paper will present how the subject of happiness evolved from the early stages of the Institute with Horkheimer into later developments in the second half of the Twentieth Century and ‘the new left’ with Marcuse. This ‘new-left’ motto comes as a result of the emergence of thinkers who became disappointed with the failure and corrupted communism of places such as the USSR (they still admired Marx but re-evaluated what the ‘old Marx’ meant post Second World War). Of course, Marcuse was among this group of thinkers who also held an enormous influence over both contemporaries such as Erich Fromm, and future generations including political movements during the 1960s. As the Frankfurt School worked on rethinking classical Marxism and ‘upgraded’ it to fit into their socio-historical period, concerns with happiness can be seeing not as indicative of a break with Marx, but rather as an attempt to elaborate Marx's conception from within. This assignment will illustrate the different perspectives on the ends that obstruct or bring happiness, from claims about “the widespread abundance of economic forces”[3] and the concern that the individual should maintain the life of society by taking care of his own personal happiness, to the illusion that happiness implies the full satisfaction of needs.

We can certainly find many writings that criticize modernity. However, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno’s “Dialectic of Enlightenment” (published in 1947) is perhaps “the first great critical encounter with modernity”[4] that came from the Left. In this book, we see how scientific (or instrumental) rationality takes away freedom from the historical process and how it is embedded in key aspects of society; critical thought requires us to take up the cause of “the remnants of freedom, of tendencies toward real humanity, even though they seem powerless in face of the great historical trend.”[5] The work aims to uncover how the influence of Enlightenment rationalism has led to contemporary forms of domination. Horkheimer and Adorno’s most simplified thesis is that Enlightenment rationalism is liberating but also oppressive. As the first chapter concludes, “…and knowledge can now become the dissolution of domination; in the face of such a possibility, and in the service of the present age, enlightenment becomes wholesale deception of the masses.”[6] In other words, while Enlightenment rationalism may liberate human thought from the tyranny of myth, it has also been available in a manner that replicates and intensifies the oppressiveness of myth. Clearly, the original focus of the Frankfurt School on social transformation was set aside, as totalitarianism turned the preservation of individuality into the central preoccupation of critical theory by showing interest in abolishing not only social injustice but also the psychological, cultural, and anthropological sources of unhappiness.

Herbert Marcuse, a key member of the Institute, examines the form of social pathology that pervades advanced industrial societies. He argues that capitalism demands a level of excessive repression that brings social domination and that “the individual's awareness of the prevailing repression is blunted by the manipulated restriction of his [or her] consciousness; this process alters the contents of happiness.”[7] He goes beyond this proposition and takes on Sigmund Freud’s well-known pessimism regarding the prospects for happiness in modern society. Even the preface of his worldly-renowned book “Eros and Civilization” claims from its first paragraph that “psychological categories ... have become political categories.”[8] What we see in Marcuse’s proposal is an attempt to integrate the Frankfurt School’s Marxian concepts of the capitalist economy but also Freud’s psychoanalysis as an intertwined dialogue that addresses the problem of happiness. Furthermore, Marcuse underlines that “Freud’s individual psychology is, in its very essence, social psychology,”[9] hence what we see is that psychoanalysis provided the Frankfurt School with “a mean of empirically investigate subjects”[10] which therefore could be approached only ‘philosophically’ but also gave the area of social theory a brand-new dimension. By combining the ideas of these two thinkers, Marcuse is trying to offer a descriptive scenario of the post-war society. In a friendly-readable way, he describes a capitalist society where everything is bound in a sort of repression that keeps individuals within an illusory feeling of satisfaction and happiness where “with a decline of consciousness, with control of information, and with the absorption of individual into mass communication, the individual does not really know what is going on.”[11] As Critical Theory is concerned with the liberation of humankind and the philosophy that claims that individuals can be more than subjects of production, Marcuse’s proposal relies on anthropological potentialities where humankind’s “concerns such as reason, mind, morality, knowledge, and happiness are not just categories of bourgeois philosophy.”[12] According to Marcuse, the so-called ‘ideal’ in world development resides in the contrast between individuals pursuing their own interests on one side, and “the state that perpetuates itself through the sacrifice of individuals, on the other.”[13] Regarding the pursuit of pleasure and intrinsic good as a primary goal for humans, or hedonism, Marcuse’s argument seems straightforward when he defines the fulfillment of these goals as something that goes “against the internalization of happiness.”[14] To sum up, within the hedonistic principle where one must embrace the pleasures of the moment, the demand for the emancipation of the individual is extended into the dominion of the material conditions of life.

Marcuse’s purpose in “Eros and Civilization” is to contribute to the philosophy of psychoanalysis–not to psychoanalysis itself. In a few words, his primary concern is “to see the philosophical and sociological implications of Freudian concepts”[15] while the main point in “Eros and Civilization” is that within the imagination we can envision a better world, which brings a juxtaposition to Marx’s pessimistic view. However, what Marcuse offers does not have a blind utopian vision insofar as “the resources for creating a qualitatively better form of life already exists.”[16] The importance of Marcuse's challenge to integrate Marxism and psychoanalysis, two key conceptual fields, which were strongly characteristic of twentieth century thought, is that it presents a dialogue on the subject of happiness where the main characters involve Marx and Freud. The problem of happiness emerges from this dialogue where, on the one hand we see the psychological account, and on the other hand, we find the political take.

While we try to comprehend Marcuse’s point, we ought to keep in mind the historical frame that prompted him to see the need for a new point of view from which his critique was launched. The book was published in 1955 where the end of the Second World War and pictures of Auschwitz were still embedded the collective mind of society, while the possibility of nuclear war turned into a new cold war. So, the question remains: How can happiness be addressed after extermination? His idealistic vision of “beautiful illusion and the idea of sustained happiness provided the fitting basis”[17] for an anthropological break of that reality. His suggestions offer a liberating standpoint from the pessimistic times in the Western world where he later challenged the younger generation “to broaden their minds and embrace ethical idealism of a new sort.”[18] During the 1950’s, where wealth (at least in parts of the Western world) within capitalism enjoyed the boost of the post-war era, Marcuse had to come up with a way to explain all this in Marxist ways; emphasizing that the abundance of prosperity and wealth is yet another way of repression where for instance, “the length of the working day is itself one of the principal repressive factors and the reduction of the working day seems the first prerequisite for freedom.”[19] Marcuse argued that Marxism had degenerated into a rigid orthodoxy and neglected the individual’s problems., and needed concrete experience to rejuvenate the theory. Concerned about individual liberation and well-being in addition to social transformation, his intentions of his writings were of great interest, yet many were unpublished and unknown.”[20]

When the individual’s particular interest sets aside the community-collective goals, and sees the concept of happiness as a detachment from communal goals, “the concrete objectivity of happiness is a concept for which hedonism finds no evidence.”[21] Additionally, this viewpoint can be linked to what Freud calls ‘the threatening outside.’ The ‘outside’ is seeing as “an external world that represents pain and unpleasure [unhappiness] where a tendency arises to separate [it] from the ego (what is internal) everything that can become a source of such unpleasure (what emanates from the outside world);”[22] happiness, says Freud, is something essentially subjective, an idea Marcuse used to described “hedonism.”[23] The contrast found between Freud’s and Marcuse’s positions show that, fundamentally, the former stresses that no matter how technologically or economically advanced the society is, the individual’s happiness remain within himself/herself as it is essentially subjective; while the latter proposes that it is the society’s capitalist structure what produces the illusory happiness in an individual. Freud’s position seems to present a static (intrinsic) behaviour, while Marcuse’s standpoint seems to depend on external factors. Based on Marcuse’s assessments, we ought to claim that human instincts (drives) such as happiness are not merely biological and fixed, but rather social, historical, and flexible.

Using the previous analysis, and as a comparative method, it is worth noting that online surveys which nowadays grade the ‘world’s happiest countries’ exhibit that the common pattern among them on what embodies happiness is ‘a steady job within a stable economy.’ To a certain extent, this is a clear example of what Horkheimer sees as ‘the world of capital’ where everything that is useful, appropriate, productive, and valuable functions within the present order, and it shows that happiness is internalized within the materialistic goal. However, it is essential to highlight that most of the websites surveyed are essentially ‘profit-oriented organizations,’ [24] whether the ‘non-for-profit organizations’[25] surveyed aim for sustainable developments that improve the quality of life in areas of society neglected by the profit corporations. Hence, the question that arises is whether Marcuse’s examinations come as a result of “his personal and subjective interpretations or whether it is due to an objective-theoretical position which separates him from his colleagues;”[26] another important thinker of the Frankfurt School, whose specialty was psychology, is Erich Fromm. A prolific writer and “among the first [just as Marcuse did] to link the thought of Freud with that of Marx;”[27] it is evident that Freud was a significant figure in early Frankfurt School as were others on the Left in the 1930s.

The choice of Fromm to bring forth another important side note regarding happiness comes as a result of his developments on ‘materialistic psychology,’ which was one of the original covenants of critical theory and part of a multidisciplinary offer from the Frankfurt School. Fromm offers a more practical viewpoint of psychoanalysis, sometimes leaning toward the spiritual and theological, among “its connection with resisting repression and fostering humanistic values.”[28] While Freud had an early influence on him, Fromm later became part of a group known as the neo-Freudians, where Fromm was critical of many of Freud's ideas. Fromm defines happiness within the psychological frame and presents it as “one of the [most] popular concepts by which mental health is defined today” and “… as the formula used in the Brave New World: everybody is happy nowadays.”[29] Fromm’s arguments appear easy to the reader and much friendlier that of Marcuse; common sense dictates that this technique reaches wider audiences. What may make his arguments complex, though, is his standpoint on happiness is not in contrast to sadness, but in contrast to depression. He stresses the importance of happiness as a result of human activity and “the use of the powers of love and reason which unite us with the world,”[30] while putting his emphasis on the discovery of oneself and our connection with others (an existentialist philosophy also found in Martin Buber), as well as our differences from them. Under the absence of the self, the individual creates the deep anxiety that “confronts him [or her] with the terrifying nothingness”[31] in an era of modern age that has been called “the age of anxiety.”[32]

When Fromm points to various technical mistakes made by Marcuse, including seeing “Eros and Civilization” as “a veil for regression due to its utopian propositions,”[33] we see an Erich Fromm who is parting ways from the inner circle of theorists at the Frankfurt School. Furthermore, it seems that any criticism or opinion other than what critical theory fosters such as independence, maturity, and rationality of individuals in a capitalist society that is tainted with speculations or empirical endorsement, “thereby betrays the original vision and rational character of the critical enterprise.”[34] It is important to remember that the fundamental objective of critical theory is to evaluate normative issues that cooperate with the social sciences, as it also must consider social facts as problematic situations from the point of view of various agents; then, in order to find “a way out of the contemporary crisis of social theory, it must develop new perspectives.”[35] Attacks and contra-attacks speak clearly that critical theory changed directions within its circle. If Fromm is correct, critical theory “should offer practical ideas for dealing with exploitation and repression, and rely more strongly on the ethical traditions associated with humanism and the Enlightenment,”[36] instead of embracing metapsychology which affirms the ontology of false conditions. That metapsychology alone will rely on arbitrary manipulation of concepts and ignore the problems linked to personal troubles (such as unhappiness). What Fromm underlines is that this metapsychology must come with clinical practice, otherwise it will not be useful unless it is connected to the real experiences of real people. Claims of Critical Theory will carry no meaning without a useful tool that alleviates personal suffering. Fromm’s take on this is emphatic when he points out that “[people] who can only experience the outer world photographically, and are out of touch with [their] inner world, with [themselves], are alienated people.”[37] Fromm aims to prove that humanistic tradition is still alive, while Marcuse shows that human instincts, in juxtaposition to Freud, are not merely biological and fixed, but rather, social, and historical.

Marcuse disagrees with Freud’s “theoretical conception that denies the historical possibility of a non-repressive civilization,”[38] and he alludes that this implies opposition to the revisionist Neo-Freudian schools (an indirect insinuation of Fromm). Marcuse insists that the repressive society also produces the possibility of the abolition of repression, and that the instincts that can be repressed imply that society and its form of organization plays a role in shaping those instincts. If this is the case, the instincts cannot be fixed, so, as society and its mechanisms of repression change, the instincts change as well. Marcuse claims that “the vicissitudes of the instincts are the vicissitudes of the mental apparatus in civilization; the animal drive become human instincts under the influence of the external reality.”[39] On the one hand, within this transformation there is “a change of the pleasure principle into the reality principle,”[40] and on the other hand, in “Civilization and its Discontents” Freud claims that “it was the program of the pleasure principle that decided the purpose of life;”[41] the outside world does not conform to the impositions of the pleasure principle. Therefore, the pleasure principle reverts, turns internally, and it is repressed. For Marcuse, liberation toward happiness means freeing up the pleasure principle but he acknowledges that a certain degree of repression must be in place to allow for human interaction. Simply put, there has to be a mutual limiting of freedom and happiness if we are to coexist. This is fundamentally what Marcuse stresses on his attempt to apply modifications of Freud's theory. To sum up, for Marcuse, the satisfactions of the consumer society are repressive and the needs are false because “they bind individuals to a social order which actually restricts their freedom and possibilities for happiness, fulfillment and community, while providing commodities and a way of life that impedes development of a more rational social order.”[42] This falsehood rests on production of waste and destruction, while its wealth rests on exploitation; the productivity is repressive because it forces unnecessary social labour and consumption on its population. In addition, the needs produced are false because “expectations are produced that lead one to believe that their gratification will provide genuine happiness.”[43]

The purpose of this essay aimed to explore the notions of happiness from the viewpoint of the multidisciplinary team of the Frankfurt School known for developing critical theory. Though the Institute involved numerous philosophers within its frame, I mainly focused on Max Horkheimer and Hebert Marcuse to provide two significant observations that represent the Critical Theory from its original purpose and the transformative period with the new Left. As we can observe, the evolution of happiness from early stages to later developments was based on natural political transformations in societies. I maintain that each thinker had sufficient arguments to justify their conclusions; however, there are political reasoning behind their arguments that cannot escape subjectivity. Critical Theory is concerned with the liberation of humankind and the philosophy that claims that individuals can be more than subjects of production, and to cite Marcuse, we see that happiness in world development resides in the contrast between individuals pursuing their own interests, on one side, and “the state that perpetuates itself through the sacrifice of individuals, on the other.” [44]


Bronner, Stephen Eric. Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and its Discontents. New York: W. W. Norton Company Inc., 1962.

Fromm, Erich. The Sane Society. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 1990.

Horkheimer, Max and Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.

Horkheimer, Max. Between Philosophy and Social Science: Selected Early Writings. Trans. G. Frederick Hunter, Matthew S. Kramer, and John Torpey. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993.

———. Critical Theory: Selected Essays. Trans. Matthew J. O’Connell. New York: Continuum, 1992.

Habermas, Jürgen. “Psychic Thermidor and the Rebirth of Rebellious Subjectivity.” In Habermas and Modernity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985.

Helliwell, John F. and Richard Layard. “World Happiness Report 2018.” WHR. Last modified March 20, 2019.

Hetter, Katia. “This is the world's happiest country in 2019.” CNN. Last modified March 26, 2019.

Kellner, Douglas. Critical Theory, Marxism, and Modernity. Cambridge and Baltimore: Polity and John Hopkins University Press, 1989.

———. Herbert Marcuse and the Crisis of Marxism. London and Berkeley: Macmillian and University of California Press, 1984.

Madden, Duncan. “Ranked: The 10 Happiest Countries In The World.” Forbes. Last modified March 28, 2019.

Marcuse, Herbert. Eros and Civilization: Philosophical Inquiry Into Freud. Beacon Press: Boston, MA, 1955.

Marcuse, Herbert. “Critical Theory and Philosophy.” In Negations: Essays in Critical Theory. Trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro, 99-117. Boston: Beacon Press, 1968.

———. “On Hedonism.” In Negations: Essays in Critical Theory, trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro, 119-149. Boston: Beacon Press, 1968.

Whitebook, Joel. “Reason and Happiness: Some Psychoanalytic Themes in Critical Theory.” In Habermas and Modernity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985.

[1] Max Horkheimer, “The Present Situation of Social Philosophy and the Tasks of an Institute for Social Research,” in Between Philosophy and Social Science, trans. G. Frederick Hunter, Matthew S. Kramer, and John Torpey (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993), 7. [2] Max Horkheimer, “Traditional and Critical Theory,” in Critical Theory: Selected Essays, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell (New York: Continuum, 1992), 44. [3] Horkheimer, “Traditional and Critical Theory”, 45. [4] Stephen Eric Bronner, Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 53. [5] Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, translated by Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002) xii. [6] Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 42. [7] Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955, 104. [8] Marcuse, Eros and Civilization, xxviii. [9] Ibid., 15. [10] Joel Whitebook, “Reason and Happiness: Some Psychoanalytic Themes in Critical Theory”, in Habermas and Modernity, Bernstein, Richard J. 1985. Cambridge: Polity, 141. [11] Marcuse, Eros, 94. [12] Herbert Marcuse, “Critical Theory and Philosophy.” In Negations: Essays in Critical Theory, translated by Jeremy J. Shapiro, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), 108. [13] _______. “On Hedonism,” in Negations: Essays in Critical Theory, translated by Jeremy J. Shapiro, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), 149. [14] Marcuse, “On Hedonism,” 121. [15] Ibid., 7. [16] Ibid., 4. [17] Bronner, Critical Theory, 72. [18] Ibid., 74. [19] Marcuse, Eros, 148. [20] Douglas Kellner, Herbert Marcuse and the Crisis of Marxism (London and Berkeley: Macmillian and University of California Press, 1984), 154. [21] Marcuse, “On Hedonism,” 125. [22] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents (New York: W. W. Norton Company Inc., 1962), 14. [23] “... happiness remains something exclusively subjective...” Marcuse, “On Hedonism,” 125. [24] E.g. CNN, Forbes, The Guardian, or NY Times. [25] E.g. The United Nations or UNICEF reports are produced by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. [26] Jürgen Habermas, “Psychic Thermidor and the Rebirth of Rebellious Subjectivity,” in Habermas and Modernity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985), 70. [27] Bronner, Critical Theory, 10. [28] Ibid., 12. [29] Erich Fromm, The Sane Society (New York: Holt Paperbacks, 1990) 200. [30] Fromm, The Sane Society, 202. [31] Ibid., 204. [32] Ibid. [33] Bronner, 75. [34] Ibid. [35] Douglas Kellner, Critical Theory, Marxism, and Modernity (Cambridge and Baltimore: Polity and John Hopkins University Press, 1989), 29. [36] Ibid., 77. [37] Fromm, The Sane Society, 204. [38] Marcuse, Eros, 5. [39] Ibid., 11-12. [40] Ibid. [41] Freud, Civilization, 25. [42] Kellner, Herbert Marcuse, 244-245. [43] Ibid. [44] Marcuse, Negations, 149.

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