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Critical theory

Updated: 2017-06-26T23:07Z

Critical theory (or "social critical theory")[1] is a school of thought that stresses the reflective assessment and critique of society and culture by applying knowledge from the social sciences and the humanities. As a term, critical theory has two meanings with different origins and histories: the first originated in sociology and the second originated in literary criticism, whereby it is used and applied as an umbrella term that can describe a theory founded upon critique; thus, the theorist Max Horkheimer described a theory as critical insofar as it seeks "to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them."[2]

In sociology and political philosophy, the term critical theory describes the neo-Marxist philosophy of the Frankfurt School, which was developed in Germany in the 1930s. Frankfurt theorists drew on the critical methods of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. Critical theory maintains that ideology is the principal obstacle to human liberation.[3] Critical theory was established as a school of thought primarily by five Frankfurt School theoreticians: Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, and Erich Fromm. Modern critical theory has additionally been influenced by György Lukács and Antonio Gramsci, as well as the second generation Frankfurt School scholars, notably Jürgen Habermas. In Habermas's work, critical theory transcended its theoretical roots in German idealism, and progressed closer to American pragmatism. Concern for social "base and superstructure" is one of the remaining Marxist philosophical concepts in much of the contemporary critical theory.[4]

While critical theorists have been frequently defined as Marxist intellectuals,[5] their tendency to denounce some Marxist concepts and to combine Marxian analysis with other sociological and philosophical traditions has resulted in accusations of revisionism by Classical, Orthodox, and Analytical Marxists, and by Marxist-Leninist philosophers. Martin Jay has stated that the first generation of critical theory is best understood as not promoting a specific philosophical agenda or a specific ideology, but as "a gadfly of other systems".[6]


The meaning of critical theory derives from the Greek word κριτικός, kritikos meaning judgment or discernment, and in its present form goes back to the 18th century.

Critical theory (German: Kritische Theorie) was first defined by Max Horkheimer of the Frankfurt School of sociology in his 1937 essay Traditional and Critical Theory: Critical theory is a social theory oriented toward critiquing and changing society as a whole, in contrast to traditional theory oriented only to understanding or explaining it. Horkheimer wanted to distinguish critical theory as a radical, emancipatory form of Marxian theory, critiquing both the model of science put forward by logical positivism and what he and his colleagues saw as the covert positivism and authoritarianism of orthodox Marxism and Communism. He described a theory as critical insofar as it seeks "to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them."[7] Critical theory involves a normative dimension, either through criticizing society from some general theory of values, norms, or "oughts", or through criticizing it in terms of its own espoused values.[8][citation needed]

The core concepts of critical theory are as follows:

  1. That critical social theory should be directed at the totality of society in its historical specificity (i.e. how it came to be configured at a specific point in time), and
  2. That critical theory should improve understanding of society by integrating all the major social sciences, including geography, economics, sociology, history, political science, anthropology, and psychology.

This version of "critical" theory derives from Kant's (18th-century) and Marx's (19th-century) use of the term "critique", as in Kant's Critique of Pure Reason and Marx's concept that his work Das Kapital (Capital) forms a "critique of political economy." For Kant's transcendental idealism, "critique" means examining and establishing the limits of the validity of a faculty, type, or body of knowledge, especially through accounting for the limitations imposed by the fundamental, irreducible concepts in use in that knowledge system.

Kant's notion of critique has been associated with the overturning of false, unprovable, or dogmatic philosophical, social, and political beliefs, because Kant's critique of reason involved the critique of dogmatic theological and metaphysical ideas and was intertwined with the enhancement of ethical autonomy and the Enlightenment critique of superstition and irrational authority. Ignored by many in "critical realist" circles, however, is that Kant's immediate impetus for writing his "Critique of Pure Reason" was to address problems raised by David Hume's skeptical empiricism which, in attacking metaphysics, employed reason and logic to argue against the knowability of the world and common notions of causation. Kant, by contrast, pushed the employment of a priori metaphysical claims as requisite, for if anything is to be said to be knowable, it would have to be established upon abstractions distinct from perceivable phenomena.

Marx explicitly developed the notion of critique into the critique of ideology and linked it with the practice of social revolution, as stated in the famous 11th of his Theses on Feuerbach: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it."[9]

One of the distinguishing characteristics of critical theory, as Adorno and Horkheimer elaborated in their Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), is a certain ambivalence concerning the ultimate source or foundation of social domination, an ambivalence which gave rise to the "pessimism" of the new critical theory over the possibility of human emancipation and freedom.[10] This ambivalence was rooted, of course, in the historical circumstances in which the work was originally produced, in particular, the rise of National Socialism, state capitalism, and mass culture as entirely new forms of social domination that could not be adequately explained within the terms of traditional Marxist sociology.[11]

For Adorno and Horkheimer, state intervention in economy had effectively abolished the tension between the "relations of production" and "material productive forces of society," a tension which, according to traditional critical theory, constituted the primary contradiction within capitalism. The market (as an "unconscious" mechanism for the distribution of goods) and private property had been replaced by centralized planning and socialized ownership of the means of production.[12]

Yet, contrary to Marx's famous prediction in the Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, this shift did not lead to "an era of social revolution," but rather to fascism and totalitarianism. As such, critical theory was left, in Jürgen Habermas' words, without "anything in reserve to which it might appeal; and when the forces of production enter into a baneful symbiosis with the relations of production that they were supposed to blow wide open, there is no longer any dynamism upon which critique could base its hope."[13] For Adorno and Horkheimer, this posed the problem of how to account for the apparent persistence of domination in the absence of the very contradiction that, according to traditional critical theory, was the source of domination itself.

In the 1960s, Jürgen Habermas raised the epistemological discussion to a new level in his Knowledge and Human Interests, by identifying critical knowledge as based on principles that differentiated it either from the natural sciences or the humanities, through its orientation to self-reflection and emancipation. Although unsatisfied with Adorno and Horkeimer's thought presented in Dialectic of Enlightenment, Habermas shares the view that, in the form of instrumental rationality, the era of modernity marks a move away from the liberation of enlightenment and toward a new form of enslavement.[14] In Habermas's work, critical theory transcended its theoretical roots in German idealism, and progressed closer to American pragmatism.

Habermas is now influencing the philosophy of Law in many countries - for example the creation of the social philosophy of Law in Brazil, and his theory also has the potential to make the discourse of law one important institution of the modern world as a heritage of the Enlightenment.[15]

His ideas regarding the relationship between modernity and rationalization are in this sense strongly influenced by Max Weber. Habermas dissolved further the elements of critical theory derived from Hegelian German Idealism, although his thought remains broadly Marxist in its epistemological approach. Perhaps his two most influential ideas are the concepts of the public sphere and communicative action; the latter arriving partly as a reaction to new post-structural or so-called "post-modern" challenges to the discourse of modernity. Habermas engaged in regular correspondence with Richard Rorty and a strong sense of philosophical pragmatism may be felt in his theory; thought which frequently traverses the boundaries between sociology and philosophy.

Postmodern critical theory

While modernist critical theory (as described above) concerns itself with "forms of authority and injustice that accompanied the evolution of industrial and corporate capitalism as a political-economic system," postmodern critical theory politicizes social problems "by situating them in historical and cultural contexts, to implicate themselves in the process of collecting and analyzing data, and to relativize their findings".[16] Meaning itself is seen as unstable due to the rapid transformation in social structures. As a result, the focus of research is centered on local manifestations, rather than broad generalizations.

Postmodern critical research is also characterized by the crisis of representation, which rejects the idea that a researcher's work is an "objective depiction of a stable other." Instead, many postmodern scholars have adopted "alternatives that encourage reflection about the 'politics and poetics' of their work. In these accounts, the embodied, collaborative, dialogic, and improvisational aspects of qualitative research are clarified".[17]

The term "critical theory" is often appropriated when an author works within sociological terms, yet attacks the social or human sciences (thus attempting to remain "outside" those frames of inquiry). Michel Foucault is one of these authors.[18]

Jean Baudrillard has also been described as a critical theorist to the extent that he was an unconventional and critical sociologist;[19] this appropriation is similarly casual, holding little or no relation to the Frankfurt School.[20] Jürgen Habermas of The Frankfurt School is one of the key critics of Post-modernism.[21]

Critical theory is focused on language, symbolism, communication, and social construction.

Language and communication

From the 1960s and 1970s onward, language, symbolism, text, and meaning came to be seen as the theoretical foundation for the humanities, through the influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ferdinand de Saussure, George Herbert Mead, Noam Chomsky, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and other thinkers in linguistic and analytic philosophy, structural linguistics, symbolic interactionism, hermeneutics, semiology, linguistically oriented psychoanalysis (Jacques Lacan, Alfred Lorenzer), and deconstruction.

When, in the 1970s and 1980s, Jürgen Habermas redefined critical social theory as a theory of communication, i.e. communicative competence and communicative rationality on the one hand, distorted communication on the other.


Critical theory has focused on the processes by which human communication, culture, and political consciousness are created. This includes:

  • Whether it is through universal pragmatic principles through which mutual understanding is achieved (Habermas).
  • The semiotic rules by which objects obtain symbolic meanings (Barthes).
  • The psychological processes by which the phenomena of everyday consciousness are generated (psychoanalytic thinkers).
  • The episteme that underlies our cognitive formations (Foucault),

There is a common interest in the processes (often of a linguistic or symbolic kind) that give rise to observable phenomena and here there is some mutual influence among the different versions of critical theory. Ultimately, this emphasis on production and construction goes back to the revolution in philosophy wrought by Kant, namely his focus in the Critique of Pure Reason on synthesis according to rules as the fundamental activity of the mind that creates the order of our experience.


Critical theorists have widely credited Paulo Freire for the first applications of critical theory towards education. They consider his best-known work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a seminal text in what is now known as the philosophy and social movement of critical pedagogy.

Since 2010, the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities has organized annually the London Critical Theory Summer School.

See also



Journals related to critical theory or critical sociology


  1. ^ "Critical theory" in Anthony Elliott (ed.), The Routledge Companion to Social Theory, Routledge, 2009.
  2. ^ (Horkheimer 1982, 244)
  3. ^ [Geuss, R. The Idea of a Critical Theory, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press]
  4. ^ Outhwaite, William. 1988. Habermas: Key Contemporary Thinkers 2nd Edition (2009), pp. 5-8 (ISBN 978-0-7456-4328-1)
  5. ^ See, e.g., Leszek Kołakowski's Main Currents of Marxism (1979), vol. 3 chapter X; W. W. Norton & Company, ISBN 0393329437
  6. ^ Jay, Martin (1996) The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923–1950. University of California Press, ISBN 978-0-520-20423-2, p. 41
  7. ^ Horkheimer 1982, p. 244.
  8. ^ Bohman, James (2016-01-01). Zalta, Edward N., ed. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016 ed.). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. 
  9. ^ "Theses on Feuerbach". §XI. Marxists Internet Archive. Retrieved 11 April 2015. 
  10. ^ Adorno, T. W., with Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002. 242.
  11. ^ "Critical Theory was initially developed in Horkheimer's circle to think through political disappointments at the absence of revolution in the West, the development of Stalinism in Soviet Russia, and the victory of fascism in Germany. It was supposed to explain mistaken Marxist prognoses, but without breaking Marxist intentions." "The Entwinement of Myth and Enlightenment: Horkheimer and Adorno." in Habermas, Jürgen. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures. trans. Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987. 116. Also, see Helmut Dubiel, Theory and Politics: Studies in the Development of Critical Theory, trans. Benjamin Gregg (Cambridge, Mass. and London, 1985).
  12. ^ "[G]one are the objective laws of the market which ruled in the actions of the entrepreneurs and tended toward catastrophe. Instead the conscious decision of the managing directors executes as results (which are more obligatory than the blindest price-mechanisms) the old law of value and hence the destiny of capitalism." Dialectic of Enlightenment. p. 38.
  13. ^ "The Entwinement of Myth and Enlightenment," p. 118.
  14. ^ Outhwaite, William. 1988. Habermas: Key Contemporary Thinkers 2nd Edition (2009). p6. ISBN 978-0-7456-4328-1
  15. ^ Bittar, Eduardo C. B., Democracia, Justiça e Emancipação Social, São Paulo, Quartier Latin, 2013.
  16. ^ Lindlof & Taylor, 2002, p. 52
  17. ^ Lindlof & Taylor, 2002, p. 53
  18. ^ Rivera Vicencio, E. (2012). "Foucault: His influence over accounting and management research. Building of a map of Foucault's approach". Int. J. Critical Accounting. 4 (5/6): 728–756. 
  19. ^ "Introduction to Jean Baudrillard, Module on Postmodernity". Retrieved 2017-06-16. 
  20. ^ Kellner, Douglas (2015). Zalta, Edward N., ed. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2015 ed.). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. 
  21. ^ Aylesworth, Gary (2015). "Postmodernism". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Retrieved 24 June 2017. 


  • Horkheimer, Max. 1982. Critical Theory Selected Essays. New York: Continuum Pub.
  • An accessible primer for the literary aspect of critical theory is Jonathan Culler's Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction ISBN 0-19-285383-X
  • Another short introductory volume with illustrations: "Introducing Critical Theory" Stuart Sim & Borin Van Loon, 2001. ISBN 1-84046-264-7
  • A survey of and introduction to the current state of critical social theory is Craig Calhoun's Critical Social Theory: Culture, History, and the Challenge of Difference (Blackwell, 1995) ISBN 1-55786-288-5
  • Problematizing Global Knowledge. Theory, Culture & Society. Vol. 23 (2–3). (Sage, 2006) ISSN 0263-2764
  • Raymond Geuss The Idea of a Critical Theory. Habermas and the Frankfurt School. (Cambridge University Press, 1981) ISBN 0-521-28422-8
  • Charles Arthur Willard Liberalism and the Problem of Knowledge: A New Rhetoric for Modern Democracy. University of Chicago Press. 1996.
  • Charles Arthur Willard, A Theory of Argumentation. University of Alabama Press. 1989.
  • Charles Arthur Willard, Argumentation and the Social Grounds of Knowledge. University of Alabama Press. 1982.
  • Harry Dahms (ed.), No Social Science Without Critical Theory. Volume 25 of Current Perspectives in Social Theory (Emerald/JAI, 2008).
  • Charmaz, K. (1995). Between positivism and postmodernism: Implications for methods. Studies in Symbolic Interaction, 17, 43–72.
  • Conquergood, D. (1991). "Rethinking ethnography: Towards a critical cultural politics" (PDF). Communication Monographs. 58 (2): 179–194. doi:10.1080/03637759109376222. 
  • Gandler, Stefan (2009) (in German), Fragmentos de Frankfurt. Ensayos sobre la Teoría crítica, México: Siglo XXI Editores/Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro, ISBN 978-607-03-0070-7 
  • Lindlof, T. R., & Taylor, B. C. (2002). Qualitative Communication Research Methods, 2nd Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Morgan, Marcia. (2012). Kierkegaard and Critical Theory. New York: Lexington Books.
  • An example of critical postmodern work is Rolling, Jr., J. H. (2008). Secular blasphemy: Utter(ed) transgressions against names and fathers in the postmodern era. Qualitative Inquiry, 14, 926–948.
  • Thomas, Jim (1993). Doing Critical Ethnography. London, New York (NY): Sage 1993, pp. 1–5 & 17–25
  • An example of critical qualitative research is Tracy, S. J. (2000). Becoming a character for commerce: Emotion labor, self subordination and discursive construction of identity in a total institution. Management Communication Quarterly, 14, 90–128.
  • Eduardo C. B. Bittar, Democracy, Justice and Human Rights: Studies of Critical Theory and Social Philosophy of Law. Saarbruken: Lambert, 2016.
  • Luca Corchia, La logica dei processi culturali. Jürgen Habermas tra filosofia e sociologia, Genova, Edizioni ECIG, 2010, ISBN 978-88-7544-195-1.

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