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Critical theory is a school of thought that stresses the examination and the 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 in so far as it seeks "to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them." [1]

In philosophy, the term critical theory describes the neo-Marxist philosophy of the Frankfurt School, developed in Europe in the 1930s, that engaged the works of intellectuals such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud.[2] Modern critical theory arose from the anti-positivist sociology of Max Weber and Georg Simmel, the Marxist theories of György Lukács and of Antonio Gramsci, towards that of the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt. Critical theory was established as a school of thought primarily by five Frankfurt School theoreticians: Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, and Jürgen Habermas. In Habermas's work, critical theory transcended its theoretic roots in German idealism, and progressed closer to American pragmatism. The concern for a social "base and superstructure" is one of the remaining Marxist philosophic concepts in much contemporary critical theory.[3]

Whilst critical theorists usually are broadly defined as Marxist intellectuals[4] their tendency to denounce some Marxist concepts, and to synthesise Marxian analysis with other sociologic and philosophic traditions has been attacked as revisionism, by Classical, Orthodox, and Analytical Marxists, and by Marxist-Leninist philosophers. Martin Jay said 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".[5]

These approaches have had an influence in psychology, for example in the delineation of arguments in critical psychology and critical psychiatry


The two meanings of critical theory — from different intellectual traditions associated with the meaning of criticism and critique—derive ultimately from the Greek word kritikos meaning judgment or discernment, and in their present forms go back to the 18th century. While they can be considered completely independent intellectual pursuits, increasingly scholars [attribution needed] are interested in the areas of critique where the two overlap.[citation needed]

To use an epistemological distinction introduced by Jürgen Habermas in Erkenntnis und Interesse [1968] (Knowledge and Human Interests), critical theory in literary studies is ultimately a form of hermeneutics, i.e. knowledge via interpretation to understand the meaning of human texts and symbolic expressions—including the interpretation of texts which are themselves implicitly or explicitly the interpretation of other texts. Critical social theory is, in contrast, a form of self-reflective knowledge involving both understanding and theoretical explanation to reduce entrapment in systems of domination or dependence, obeying the emancipatory interest in expanding the scope of autonomy and reducing the scope of domination.

Critical theory (social theory)

Main article: Critical theory (Frankfurt School)
Main article: Frankfurt School

Critical theory 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.

Core concepts are: (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 disestablishment 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 in the famous 11th of his Theses on Feuerbach, "Philosophers have only interpreted the world in certain ways; the point is to change it."[6]

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.[7] 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.[8]

For Adorno and Horkheimer state intervention in the economy had effectively abolished the tension in capitalism 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.[9]

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."[10] 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. Though 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.[11]

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, though 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” (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002, p. 52). Meaning itself is seen as unstable due to the rapid transformation in social structures and as a result the focus of research is centered on local manifestations rather than broad generalizations.

Postmodern critical research is also characterized by what is called, the crisis of representation, which rejects the idea that a researcher’s work is considered an “objective depiction of a stable other” (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002, p. 53). Instead, in their research and writing, 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” (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002, p. 53).

Often, the term "critical theory" is appropriated when an author (perhaps most notably Michel Foucault) works within sociological terms yet attacks the social or human sciences (thus attempting to remain "outside" those frames of enquiry). Jean Baudrillard has also been described as a critical theorist to the extent that he was an unconventional and critical sociologist; this appropriation is similarly casual, holding little or no relation to the Frankfurt School.

Critical theory (literary criticism)

Main article: Literary theory

The second meaning of critical theory is that of theory used in literary criticism – hence "critical theory" -- and in the analysis and understanding of literature and is discussed in greater detail under literary theory. It is not necessarily oriented toward radical social change or even toward the analysis of society but is focused primarily on the analysis of texts and textlike phenomena. It originated among literary scholars and in the discipline of literature in the 1960s and 1970s and really came into broad use only since the 1980s, especially as theory used in literary studies became increasingly influenced by Continental philosophy and social theory and thereby became more "theoretical".

This version of "critical" theory derives from the notion of literary criticism as establishing and enhancing the proper aesthetic understanding and evaluation of literature, as articulated, for example, in Joseph Addison's notion of a critic as one who helps understand and interpret literary works: "A true critic ought to dwell rather upon excellencies than imperfections, to discover the concealed beauties of a writer, and communicate to the world such things as are worth their observation." [1] This notion of criticism ultimately goes back to Aristotle's Poetics as a theory of literature.

This meaning of "critical theory" originated entirely within the humanities, and there are works of literary critical theory that pay no attention and show no awareness of the sociological version of critical theory.

Overlap between the two versions of critical theory

Nevertheless, a certain amount of overlap has come about, initiated both from the critical social theory and the literary-critical theory sides. It was distinctive of the Frankfurt School version of critical theory from the beginning, especially in the work of Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, and Leo Lowenthal, because of their focus on the role of false consciousness and ideology in the perpetuation of capitalism, to analyze works of culture, including literature, music, art, both "high culture" and "popular culture" or "mass culture." Thus it was to some extent a theory of literature and a method of literary criticism (as in Walter Benjamin's interpretation of Baudelaire, Leo Lowenthal's interpretations of Shakespeare, Ibsen, etc., Adorno's interpretations of Kafka, Valery, Balzac, Beckett, etc.) and (see below) in the 1960s started to influence the literary sort of critical theory.

Within social theory

In the late 1960s Juergen Habermas of the Frankfurt School, redefined critical theory in a way that freed it from a direct tie to Marxism or the prior work of the Frankfurt School. In Habermas's epistemology, critical knowledge was conceptualized as knowledge that enabled human beings to emancipate themselves from forms of domination through self-reflection and took psychoanalysis as the paradigm of critical knowledge. This expanded considerably the scope of what counted as critical theory within the social sciences, which would include such approaches as world systems theory, feminist theory, postcolonial theory, critical race theory, queer theory, social ecology, the theory of communicative action (Habermas), structuration theory, and neo-Marxian theory.

Language and construction

The two points at which there is the greatest overlap or mutual impingement of the two versions of critical theory are in their interrelated foci on language, symbolism, and communication and in their focus on construction.

Language and communication

From the 1960s and 1970s onward, language, symbolism, text, and meaning became foundational to theory in the humanities and social sciences, through the short-term and long-term influences of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ferdinand de Saussure, George Herbert Mead, Noam Chomsky, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and other thinkers in the traditions of linguistic and analytic philosophy, structural linguistics, symbolic interactionism, hermeneutics, semiology, linguistically oriented psychoanalysis (Lacan, Lorenzer), deconstruction. When, in the 1970s and 1980s, Habermas also 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, the two versions of critical theory began to overlap or intertwine to a much greater degree than before.


Both versions of critical theory have focused on the processes of synthesis, production, or construction by which the phenomena and objects of human communication, culture, and consciousness come about. Whether it is through the transformational rules by which the deep structure of language becomes its surface structure (Chomsky), the universal pragmatic principles through which mutual understanding is generated (Habermas), the semiotic rules by which objects of daily usage or of fashion obtain their meanings (Barthes), the psychological processes by which the phenomena of everyday consciousness are generated (psychoanalytic thinkers), the episteme that underlies our cognitive formations (Foucault), and so on, there is a common interest in the processes (often of a linguistic or symbolic kind) that give rise to observable phenomena. Here there is significant mutual influence among aspects of the different versions of critical theory. Ultimately this emphasis on production and construction goes back to the revolution wrought by Kant in philosophy, 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.

See also


  • An accessible primer for the literary aspect of critical theory is Jonathan Culler's Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction ISBN 019285383X
  • 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 1557862885
  • Otto Maria Carpeaux. The collected essays and his History cover and discuss in depth critical theories from all european and american movements up to the late 70's.

External links

pt:Teoria Crítica zh:批判理論

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