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Critical Theory


In the humanities, the term critical theory has had many meanings in different historical contexts. From the end of World War II through the 1960s, the term signified the use of critical and theoretical approaches within major disciplines of the humanities such as art history, literary studies, and more broadly, cultural studies. From the 1970s, the term entered into the rapidly evolving area of film and media studies. Critical theory took on at the same time a more specialized sense describing the work of the Frankfurt School that itself spread steadily through many disciplines of the humanities and social sciences in the English-speaking world from the 1970s on.

While critical theories were entering the humanities throughout the world, a proliferation of new theoretical approaches from France, often associated with structuralism and then poststructuralism and postmodern theory, generated new discourses that were also assimilated to the cover concept of critical theory. Moreover, different groups such as women, gays and lesbians, and people of color also developed specific critical theories within a wide range of disciplines from the 1970s into the early twenty-first century. The situation was further complicated when many of the theoretical discourses (such as deconstruction) were associated with philosophy, which in turn gave rise in the humanities to a tendency to speak of Theory with a capital T when describing the proliferation of critical theories and methods and to privilege them as a necessary instrument of criticism.

To sort out this complex trajectory, it is useful to first broadly sketch the role of critical theory in the various fields of the humanities, then present the Frankfurt School version of critical theory, and finally engage the mutations of critical theory from the theory proliferation of the 1960s and 1970s, the rise of the "posts," the interconnection of critical theory with groups associated with new social movements, its connection with philosophy, and the emergence of Theory as a privileged discourse. While this narrative is partly historical, it is mainly analytical, for in the contemporary context, different people use the term critical theory in diverse and contested ways following the various models and stages of the discourse. Thus there is not one single or dominant understanding of critical theory in the university of the early twenty-first century.

Critical Theory in the Disciplines

As Jürgen Habermas has documented, during the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century various modes of political, literary, and cultural criticism emerged from the salons, public houses, and other sites of the bourgeois public sphere, leading to the production of journals and books that discussed the latest cultural fashions and political trends. Major eighteenth-and nineteenth-century writers such as Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Charles-Pierre Baudelaire, and Edgar Allan Poe practiced forms of criticism, as did nineteenth-century novelists such as Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot.

Critical discourse in a broad range of cultural criticism developed from philosophical and critical responses to genres of art and evaluative responses to specific art works. From Aristotle's Poetics through Matthew Arnold and F. R. Leavis in the literary arts, critical aesthetic theories attempted to define the key features of genres and to distinguish what constituted artistic excellence and experience.

Critical approaches in literature, art, music, dance, and the arts began emerging as a specific discipline in the nineteenth century throughout the Western world. In the first decades of the twentieth century, critics such as György Lukács, Ernst Bloch, and Walter Benjamin began applying Marxist theory to a broad range of the arts. Freudians such as Ernest Jones began using psychoanalytic theory to study culture, while Herbert Read deployed Jungian theory. By the 1950s, a variety of schools of critical theory started using major theoretical discourses of the period to discuss, analyze, interpret, and critique the arts. There was a reaction against this theory turn, however, both from those who wanted a more scientific approach to the aesthetic work, such as I. A. Richards, and from those who wanted a more empathetic immersion in cultural artifacts, such as some members of North American New Criticism, who advocated close readings of literary texts without what they saw as the blinders of theory.

Some critical theories and methods such as Marxism, feminism, psychoanalysis, and semiotics were taken up in the 1960s in the new disciplines of film and media theory, which also developed their own autonomous discourses and methods. Critical approaches to mass communication and culture, however, were first developed by the Frankfurt School, which generated its own concept of critical theory.

The Frankfurt School and Critical Theory

"Critical theory" stood as a code for the quasi-Marxist theory of society developed by a group of interdisciplinary social theorists collectively known as the Frankfurt School. The term Frankfurt School refers to the work of members of the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research) that was established in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1923 as the first Marxist-oriented research center affiliated with a major German university. Max Horkheimer became director of the institute in 1930, gathering around himself many talented theorists, including Erich Fromm, Franz Neumann, Herbert Marcuse, and Theodor W. Adorno. Under Horkheimer, the institute sought to develop an interdisciplinary social theory that could serve as an instrument of social transformation. The work of this era was a synthesis of philosophy and social theory, combining sociology, psychology, cultural studies, and political economy, among other disciplines.

In a series of studies carried out in the 1930s, the Institute for Social Research developed theories of monopoly capitalism, the new industrial state, the role of technology and giant corporations in monopoly capitalism, the key roles of mass culture and communication in reproducing contemporary societies, and the decline of democracy and of the individual. Critical theory drew alike on Hegelian dialectics, Marxian theory, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Max Weber, and other trends of contemporary thought. It articulated theories that were to occupy the center of social theory for the next several decades. Rarely, if ever, has such a talented group of interdisciplinary intellectuals come together under the auspices of one institute. They managed to keep alive radical social theory during a difficult historical era and provided aspects of a neo-Marxian theory of the changed social reality and new historical situation in the transition from competitive capitalism to monopoly capitalism.

During World War II, the institute split up because of pressures from the war. Leo Lowenthal, Marcuse, Neumann, and others worked for the U.S. government as their contribution to the fight against fascism. Adorno and Horkheimer, meanwhile, moved to California, where they worked on their collective book, Dialectic of Enlightenment, which discussed how reason and enlightenment in the contemporary era turned into their opposites, transforming what promised to be instruments of truth and liberation into tools of domination. In their scenario, science and technology had created horrific tools of destruction and death, culture was commodified into products of a mass-produced culture industry, and democracy terminated into fascism, in which masses chose despotic and demagogic rulers. Moreover, in their extremely pessimistic vision, individuals were oppressing their own bodies and renouncing their own desires as they assimilated and created their own repressive beliefs and allowed themselves to be instruments of labor and war.

After World War II, Adorno, Horkheimer, and Friedrich Pollock returned to Frankfurt to reestablish the institute in Germany, while Lowenthal, Marcuse, and others remained in the United States. In Germany, Adorno, Horkheimer, and their associates published a series of books and became a dominant intellectual current. At this time, the term Frankfurt School became widespread as a characterization of this group's version of interdisciplinary social research and of the particular critical theory developed by them. They engaged in frequent methodological and substantive debates with other social theories, most notably "the positivism dispute" in which they criticized more empirical and quantitative approaches to theory and defended their own more speculative and critical brand of theory.

The Frankfurt School eventually became best known for their critical theories of "the totally administered society," or "one-dimensional society," which analyzed the increasing power of capitalism over all aspects of social life and the development of new forms of social control. During the 1950s, however, there were divergences between the work of the reestablished institute and the developing theories of Fromm, Lowenthal, Marcuse, and others who did not return to Germany, which were often at odds with both the current and earlier work of Adorno and Horkheimer. Thus it is misleading to consider the work of various critical theorists during the postwar period as members of a monolithic Frankfurt School. Whereas there was both a shared sense of purpose and collective work on interdisciplinary critical theory from 1930 to the early 1940s, thereafter critical theorists frequently diverged, and during the 1950s and 1960s Frankfurt School as a term can really be applied only to the work of the institute in Germany under Horkheimer and Adorno.

From Structuralism to Poststructuralism and Beyond

The development of structuralism and poststructuralism in France in the 1950s and 1960s and rapid global transmission of books and ideas contributed to the development of an interdisciplinary mode of theory that became prevalent in the humanities. Structuralism is often associated with the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose studies of myth, culture, and language discerned a binary structure in myth, for example, between nature and culture or the raw and the cooked. For Lévi-Strauss, culture was articulated into systems that could be described with the precision and force of a science.

Structuralism spread through the human sciences in the 1960s and 1970s, moving from Lévi-Strauss's anthropology and study of myth, to structuralist theories of language (often combined with semiotics), to structuralist Marxism that produced structuralist accounts of the capitalist economy (Louis Althusser) and state (Nicos Poulantzas).

The human sciences were conceptualized by structuralists as self-contained systems with their own grammar, rules, and structuring binary oppositions. Texts were seen as structured networks of signs determined not by what they referred to so much as through their differential relation to other signs. Structuralist critical theory thus focused on detecting the system of binary oppositions through which textual systems were structured, and it delineated oppositions between synchronic and diachronic arrangements, or langue/parole, with the former referring to the synchronic social system of language and the latter referring to specific speech at a particular time.

Whereas structuralism had ambitions of attaining the status of a super science, which could arbitrate among competing truth claims and provide a foundational discipline, poststructuralism challenged any single discipline's claim to primary status and promoted more interdisciplinary modes of theory. Poststructuralism turned to history, politics, and an active and creative human subject, away from the more ahistorical, scientific, and objectivist modes of thought in structuralism.

The poststructuralist moment was a particularly fertile one as important theorists such as Roland Barthes, Jean-François Lyotard, and Michel Foucault wrote new poststructuralist works and younger theorists such as Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, Paul Virilio, and others entered into productive periods. The poststructuralist turn was evident in the famous 1966 conference on "Critical Languages and the Sciences of Man" at Johns Hopkins University, which featured an important intervention by Derrida, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences." Rejecting structuralist theories of language, Derrida stressed the instability and excess of meaning in language, as well as the ways in which heterogeneity and difference were generated. Derrida also questioned the binary opposition between nature and culture upon which Lévi-Strauss had erected his system, thus undermining a certain glorification of the human sciences in the humanities and opening the discipline for a greater appreciation of philosophy, literature, and less-scientific modes of discourse.

Derrida became one of the most prolific writers of his generation and generated great interest in philosophy throughout the humanities, but he also crossed boundaries between disciplines and contributed to both a proliferation of critical theories and more interdisciplinary humanities. Derrida's de-construction took apart philosophical and closed scientific systems, showing that their foundational beliefs affirmed one side or another of the binary oppositions, for example, nature, with Jean-Jacques Rousseau; or culture, with cultural anthropologists who described the constructed nature of society and culture (a theme that would move into poststructuralism and many of the humanities).

Poststructuralism stressed the openness and heterogeneity of the text, how it is embedded in history and desire, its political and ideological dimensions, and its excess of meaning. This led critical theory to more multilevel interpretive methods and more radical political readings and critiques. Foucault described how texts and discourses are embedded in power; Edward W. Said articulated the "Orientalism" of Western-centric ideology and the construction of non-Western cultures in both colonial and postcolonial discourses; and feminists described how patriarchy and the concepts of totalitarianism and subordination are inscribed in texts.

Following the poststructuralist moment of the late 1960s and 1970s, there was a proliferation of new theoretical moments of critical theory that connected with new social movements, producing a proliferation of "posts" and theory wars from the 1970s into the early twenty-first century. Baudrillard, a French theorist, took up poststructuralism and deconstruction in idiosyncratic ways. His early work analyzed the "system of objects" and "political economy of the sign" in the media and consumer society, showing how the system of commodities and consumer values were organized in a hierarchal system. Yet by the mid-1970s, Baudrillard entered a deconstructive and poststructuralist phase, taking apart in sequence the claims of Marxism and political economy, Freud and psychoanalysis, Foucault, and other forms of theory. For Baudrillard, the consumer and media society was generating novel forms of sign and signification, technology, and cultural spaces, which produced a break with modernity itself. While modern societies, he argued, were organized around production and political economy, postmodern societies were organized around technology and generated new forms of culture, experience, and subjectivities.

In Le différend, Lyotard valorized those voices that had been suppressed or muted in social and academic spheres. He advocated "the end of grand narratives" in the humanities and politics, and the production of small, "minor narratives" and microanalysis. This theme was also taken up by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari who proliferated a dazzling range of critical theories to engage salient cultural, social, economic, and political phenomena of the day.

French poststructuralist critical theory is extremely hard to categorize as it combines social theory, cultural and political commentary, philosophy, literary stylistics, and many social and human sciences in its work, crossing boundaries between academic disciplines and fields. This interdisciplinary focus links French critical theory to Frankfurt School critical theory and to certain types of feminism and other cultural theories that practice "border crossing" (that is, they cross the borders between disciplines and the traditional division of topics and academic labor).

The proliferation of theories also produced a tendency to use the term Theory (with a capital T ) to describe the wealth of conflicting critical theories. In this sense, Theory replaces philosophy as the most abstract and general mode of theoretical discourse. Theory has emerged as an autonomous enterprise in many academic disciplines, giving rise to a tendency to do work in Theory, which engages various critical theories, problems, and concepts, or explores the nature and function of theory itself in the academic disciplines.

Critical theory turned to a "politics of representation" during the 1960s and 1970s. This enterprise involved analysis of the ways in which images, discourses, and narratives of a wide range of cultural formsfrom philosophy and the sciences to the advertising and entertainment of the media culturewere embedded in texts and reproduced social domination and subordination. British cultural studies, for instance, showed how problematic representations of gender, race, class, sexuality, and other identity markers were found throughout cultural forms. Cultural studies developed different critical theories and methods to analyze the production of texts, their multiple meanings, and their complex uses and effects.

Critical theories were also developed within feminism, critical race theory, gay and lesbian theory, and other groupings associated with new political movements, making critical theory part of political struggle inside and outside the university. Feminists, for instance, demonstrated how gender bias infected disciplines from philosophy to literary study and was embedded in texts ranging from the classics of the canon to the mundane artifacts of popular culture. In similar ways, critical race theorists demonstrated how racist images and discourses permeated cultural artifacts, while gay and lesbian theorists demonstrated how their sexual orientation was negatively represented and marginalized.

These critical theories also stressed giving voice to groups and individuals marginalized in the dominant forms of Western and then global culture. Critical theory began going global in the post-1960s disseminations of critical discourses. Post-colonial theory in various parts of the world developed particular critical theories as a response to colonial oppression and to the hopes of national liberation. Frantz Fanon in Algeria, Wole Soyinka in Nigeria, Gabriel García Márquez in Latin America, Arundhati Roy in India, and others all gave voice to specific experiences and articulated critical theories that expanded the global and multicultural reach of critical theory.

The past decades have thus witnessed a proliferation of critical theory to the extent that the very concept is a contested area. In the early twenty-first century, conflicting models of critical theory are used by different individuals and groups in various fields of inquiry in different parts of the world. There is also a tendency to combine critical theories in one's work, following a recommendation by Foucault in the 1970s that many have taken up. Others who took up the anti-theory discourse of Richard Rorty and various critics of Theory have called for rigorous empirical and contextual engagement with topics and subject matter. Critical theory is thus a multidimensional term that continues to take on differing connotations and uses and is embedded in many different disciplines and debates.

See also Literary Criticism ; Literary History ; Literature ; Postcolonial Literature ; Structuralism and Poststructuralism .


Althusser, Louis, and Étienne Balibar. Reading "Capital." Translated by Ben Brewster. London: Verso, 1997.

Baudrillard, Jean. The System of Objects. Translated by James Benedict. London: Verso, 1996.

Bhavnani, Kum-Kum, ed. Feminism and "Race." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Corber, Robert J., and Stephen Valocchi, eds. Queer Studies: An Interdisciplinary Reader. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2003.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference. Translated by Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 19721977. Edited and translated by Colin Gordon. New York: Pantheon, 1980.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Translated by Thomas Burger with the assistance of Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989.

Horkheimer, Max. Critical Theory. Translated by Matthew J. O'Connell et al. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972.

Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Translated by John Cumming. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Raw and the Cooked. Translated by John and Doreen Weightman. New York: Harper and Row, 1969.

Lewis, Reina, and Sara Mills, eds. Feminist Postcolonial Theory: A Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Differend: Phrases in Dispute. Translated by Georges Van Den Abbeele. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon, 1978.

Tong, Rosemarie Putnam. Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction. 2nd ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1998.

Douglas Kellner

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Critical Theory

Critical Theory


The Frankfurt school of critical theory is one of the major schools of neo-Marxist social theory, best known for its analysis of advanced capitalism. Opposed to the determinism and scientism of Soviet Marxism, critical theory challenged the philosophical foundations of Marxist theory, and formulated an original analysis and diagnosis of the major changes in social structure that took place in the twentieth century.

The philosopher and social theorist Max Horkheimer (18951973) was appointed director of the Institute for Social Research in 1930, and shifted its emphasis from historical research to a project of interdisciplinary social research with an empirical intent. Horkheimer wanted to know why the working class supported the Nazi regime when it was not in their interest to do so. He rejected the deterministic view that consciousness was a product of class position, and looked to integrate psychology, more specifically Sigmund Freuds (18561939) psychoanalysis, into a critical theory of society. To carry out his research program, Horkheimer brought into the institute Erich Fromm (19001980), a trained psychoanalyst, who fused psychoanalysis with social theory. Horkheimer further expanded the focus of research to include Leo Löwenthal (19001993), Herbert Marcuse (18981979), later Theodor Adorno (19031969), and the lesser-known figures Frederich Pollock (18941970), Franz L. Neumann (19001954), and Otto Kirchheimer (19051965).

The psychological dynamics of rising authoritarian attitudes were the focus of the institutes early empirical research. A larger project that included the study of working-class attitudes toward authority remained uncompleted when the institute fled Germany to avoid the Nazis and went first to Switzerland and then was relocated at Columbia University in New York.

The term critical theory is often thought of as a code word to avoid the association of the institutes research with Marxism. Critical theory, however, also drew upon German idealism from Immanuel Kant (17241804) onward. Kant saw critique as a theory of the scope and limits of understanding that combated dogmatic conceptions of absolute knowledge. The Hegelian tradition came to see critique as a reflective self-consciousness that encompassed both self and social formation in one grasp. Both were crisis-ridden processes of struggle in which humans won their freedom through freedom from necessity and social domination.

Horkheimer rejected the idealism of G. W. F. Hegels (17701831) conception, but saw critical theory as a philosophy of engaged theorizing. Traditional theory took an objective observer perspective. It saw the ideal of theory construction as the achievement of a deductive system of propositions that are systematic and logical. In contrast, critical theory has an interest in freedom from unnecessary constraint and the improvement of practical life. It is a partisan in the struggle for a better life. Theory is tied to emancipation and freedom. Marcuse especially emphasized the Hegelian elements found in Karl Marxs (18181883) early manuscripts (then just discovered) and their link to problems of alienation and reification.

The second phase of critical theory, which began at the end of the 1930s, was concerned with the great transformations in economic structure that were occurring in advanced capitalist and socialist societies, such as the rise of state capitalism. Critical theory linked the increasing concentration of economic power by large corporations and government to the need for state administrative activity to support a crisis-ridden economy. Governments were not watchman states. They had to intervene directly in the economy to assure the conditions of successful economic accumulation.

The Frankfurt school analysis of late capitalism, however, went beyond economic analysis to depict state intervention in socialization processes. Intervention in social processes like schooling and social welfare became necessary in order to effectively manage state capitalism. The school also analyzed the emergence of mass media, which developed sophisticated modes of persuasion and manipulation in order to create a more compliant and agreeable citizenry. The Frankfurt school developed a pessimistic diagnosis of the power of advanced capitalism to control the populace and limit the possibilities of constructive social transformation.

The culmination of this stage was the publication of Horkheimer and Adornos Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944). Here, critical theory becomes a critique of instrumental reason. For Horkheimer and Adorno, reason (and science) no longer retained its link to human freedom, and had, in becoming instrumentalized, transformed into a force for domination and oppression. Marxs thought itself, and not merely its orthodox deformations, were sometimes guilty of a technological determinism. Horkheimer and Adorno, however, unlike some post-structuralists, never fully rejected reason, or looked to a realm of the ineffable or irrational, but were keenly aware of the paradoxes and contradictions of modern instrumental rationality.

Horkheimer and Adorno looked to other dimensions of reason that were resistant to the forces of instrumental rationalization, notably to art, to find potentials for freedom. A somewhat different and more positive evaluation of the role of mass culture and art was developed by Walter Benjamin (18921940), a literary theorist who, though marginal in the institute, came to exert a strong influence on Adornos aesthetic theory.

Adornos work eclipsed Horkheimer after their return to Germany in 1950. In Negative Dialectics (1966) and Aesthetic Theory (1970), Adorno formulated a critique of reason using the power of the negative. The latter equated rationalization with reification. Positive reason, which always has a residue of instrumentality, is contrasted with a dimension of reason that can never be fully specified but holds truth content.

In the United States, Marcuse made some significant contributions to critical theory in the 1950s and 1960s. Marcuses Eros and Civilization (1955) was perhaps the schools most successful fusion of Marx and Freud. Marcuse developed a dialectic of civilization that linked labor and economic scarcity with social and psychic repression. Marcuses acceptance of the death instinct, however, was controversial. His One-Dimensional Man (1964) and An Essay on Liberation (1969) continued the Frankfurt schools critique of the pathology of technological reason. One-dimensional reason represented a global project of instrumental reason that suppressed the aesthetic aspects of sensibility and feelings. Marcuses more politically charged version of the dialectic of enlightenment struck a chord with the New Left in the United States and Europe.

Jürgen Habermas is the preeminent figure in the second generation of critical theory. Habermas modified key aspects of critical theory, especially the critique of instrumental reason, and made significant contributions to a critical theory of democracy, a task neglected by earlier theorists. Habermass first book, Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962), took issue with the first-generation reading of the freedom-creating potentials of liberalism. Habermas depicted the rise of a sphere of civil society in early modern Europe as a public sphere of free discussion of political affairs. While Habermas concurred in broad terms with the critique of instrumental reason, he did not equate rationalization with reification. Habermas argued that instrumental reason had a legitimate role and was not inherently repressive. Reliance on technical expertise leaves out the elements of public debate and discussion.

In Knowledge and Human Interests (1968), Habermas reformulated Horkheimers idea of emancipatory social theory. Habermas developed three distinct cognitive interestsinstrumental, communicative, and emancipatoryand rejected the idea that critical reason is found in negation alone. Returning to a more Hegelian-perspective critique requires an intersubjective process of understanding that emphasizes critical reflection on the formative processes of self and society. The emancipatory interest is a form of reflection on coequal processes of social formation (instrumental and communicative) that frees action from domination.

Theory of Communicative Action (1981) was the first systematic statement of Habermass mature theory of society. The cognitive interests were replaced by a broadly interpretive social theory that distinguishes two basic forms of social action: instrumental and communicative. The first is action oriented toward success. The second is action oriented toward mutual understanding.

Habermass revision of Marx centers on the conflict between intersubjective forms of understanding and the impingement of system imperatives on social life. In complex modern societies, some functions, such as the economy, have become detached from moral and political regulation in order to efficiently carry out social reproduction. However, in capitalism this rationalization process is one-sided. It replaces realms of communicative action that are constitutive of human subjectivity and intersubjectivity with system imperatives. Habermas coined the phrase colonization of the life world to indicate the way in which these communicative spheres are controlled and reified by instrumental and functional imperatives. Reification involves threats to the integrity of communicative subjectivity in the contradictions between democracy and capitalism in modern society.

Most of Habermass later work has focused on the formation of a cosmopolitan legal, moral, and political theory. This emphasis maintains a tenuous link to emancipatory theory and social crisis. Habermass discourse ethics revises the Kantian principle of universalization in light of intersubjective aspects of communicative rationality. Kants categorical imperative applies to the individual who reflects by himself or herself. It asks us to act only according to a maxim by which you can at the same time will that it shall become a general law (Kant, 39). In contrast, Habermass discourse ethics requires a social, intersubjective perspective. Participants have to reflect on the consequences for all those potentially affected by a norm: for a norm to be valid, the consequences and side effects of its general observation for the satisfaction each persons interests must be acceptable to all (Lenhardt and Nicholson, 197). The only norms that can be valid are those which can be accepted by all participants in discourse.

In Between Facts and Norms (1992), Habermas extends the communicative basis of discourse theory to democratic constitutionalism. Communicative freedom in Habermass view incorporates aspects of liberal democracy and republican theory. It stresses the self-determination emphasized by liberal theory and the self-realization of republican theories.

Many critics also see Habermass moral and political theory as a return to a Kantian moral theory. It can, however, also be viewed as an attempt to fuse Kantian insights into Hegelian notions of concrete intersubjectivity. In addition, post-structuralists reject the idea of an inclusive intersubjective foundation for ethics, politics, and law. For Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), for example, law is a closed system instituted through violence. Genuine intersubjectivity is rooted, in contrast, in care and compassion for the other, which is always beyond law and justice. On this reading, Habermas replays the earlier notion of a unified social subject. Habermass use of systems theory in Theory of Communicative Action has also been criticized by interpretive social theorists who believe that Habermass theory of society is inconsistent with his general commitment to interpretive and critical social science.

SEE ALSO Alienation; Critical Race Theory; Cultural Capital; Culture; Derrida, Jacques; Discourse; Ethics; Frankfurt School; Freedom; Freud, Sigmund; Habermas, Jürgen; Hegelians; Ideology; Kant, Immanuel; Law; Liberalism; Marcuse, Herbert; Marx, Karl; Marxism; Neumann, Franz; Psychoanalytic Theory; Psychology; Social Psychology; Working Class


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Brian J. Caterino

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critical theory

critical theory In sociology, critical theory is most closely associated with the Frankfurt School of Social Research, although its origins can be traced back through Hegelianism and Western Marxism generally. The term now describes a very diverse strand of Marxism which, over the past fifty years or so, has drawn on a wide range of other influences including psychoanalysis and systems theory.

The central principles of critical theory can perhaps be defined most clearly in contrast to some of the principles of twentieth-century positivism—indeed its proponents sometimes referred to it as negative philosophy. As opposed to the idea that knowledge comes from our sense-experience, critical theory is a form of rationalism; that is, critical theorists maintain that the source of our knowledge and the source of our common humanity is the fact that we are all rational beings. Hegel stated that the ‘real is rational’. Critical theory may be seen as stating that the real ought to be rational. Rationality, in this context, refers not to formal logic, but to a dialectical process of thought, in which the whole is greater than the parts, and contradictions continually appear and disappear into new syntheses. For Hegel, history was moving relentlessly towards a rational conclusion; the Marxist appropriation of Hegel gradually eliminated the idea of inevitability and linked the process to human praxis. The most complete statement of this view can be found in the work of György Lukács.

Critical theory usually involves the projection of some possible utopian state into the future, although (particularly in the work of the Frankfurt School) it sometimes seems that the utopian state was in the past. From the idea of rationality it is possible to deduce the basic form of a rational society. By virtue of being human we all possess the quality or potentiality of rational thought. A rational society, therefore, is one in which we all participate in order to create and transform our environment. This provides us with a standard by which we can criticize societies that exist in the present: a society which excludes groups from economic and political participation, or which systematically renders groups powerless, is an irrational society. In the work of Jürgen Habermas, the major modern representative of the school, a rather different model can be found. Habermas works not from our possession of rational faculties but from the fact that we all use language. His utopia is an ‘ideal speech situation’ in which all have equal access to information and public debate. In terms of theoretical argument, critical theory works dialectically, not juxtaposing one set of truth claims to another, but by searching out the internal contradictions and the gaps in a system of thought, and pushing these contradictions to the point where something different emerges. This is sometimes referred to as an internal critique.

The Frankfurt School for Social Research was founded in 1923 as a centre for socialist research. Its leading figures emigrated to America with the rise of Hitler and several remained there after the War. The central figures were Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse. A number of other famous names were associated with it, including Leo Lowenthal, Karl Wittfogel, and Erich Fromm. From the beginning, the school was critical of orthodox Marxism, offering an analysis of ideology and politics and abandoning traditional forms of economic explanation. For the classic critical theory of the founders of the Frankfurt School, the main targets were so-called instrumental reason, and the particular totalitarian form of domination that they saw developing in modern industrial society. Instrumental reason sees the world, including other people, in terms of how we can exploit it; involves the separation of fact and value; and the relegation of values to an unimportant role in knowledge and life. This way of thinking is typical of industrial society and (according to critical theorists) is intimately linked to structures of domination.

Frankfurt critical theory has the reputation of being pessimistic. The argument is that capitalism has managed to overcome many of its contradictions and the working class has been incorporated into the system. Marcuse saw other minority groups on the fringe of the system—ethnic groups or perhaps even students—as providing possible foci for opposition, but Adorno seemed to see few signs of hope beyond avant-garde culture, which at least forced people to think. Some of the group's most famous work—such as The Authoritarian Personality ( Adorno et al. , 1950)
and Marcuse 's Eros and Civilisation (1955)
—drew on psychoanalysis to provide a theory of ideology that explains not only how people come to be dominated but also how they come to need to be dominated.

Habermas's work is of a rather different quality, much closer to the systematic theory of Talcott Parsons, but it still maintains a critical dimension. Habermas differs from the first generation of critical theorists in his desire to construct a systematic social theory and his willingness to grant instrumental thought a legitimate place in his scheme. He allows an authentic place for instrumental reason, and uses psychoanalysis as a model for an ‘emancipatory science’, a science which not only produces knowledge, but also enables us to become aware of and to change ourselves, and thus to remove inequalities and distortions in communication. In Knowledge and Human Interests (1968), he distinguishes three so-called cognitive interests that human beings share: a technical interest, in knowing and controlling our environment, which gives rise to the empirical (primarily the natural) sciences; a practical interest, in being able to understand each other and work together, which gives rise to the hermeneutic sciences; and an emancipatory interest, which involves our desire to rid ourselves of distortions in understanding and communication, and gives rise to the critical sciences such as psychoanalysis.

Behind this is a fairly radical revision of the orthodox Marxist view of the nature of human existence. Habermas regards work as important but sees it only as generating the first of these cognitive interests. We are also, importantly, symbol-using animals: this generates the other two. For Habermas, this means that we cannot maintain any form of economic-determinist argument, except perhaps for the historically limited period of early capitalism.

Drawing on a wide variety of disciplines he develops a broad evolutionary theory of history. Evolutionary stages are seen in terms of increasing levels of universality, each level setting new problems and offering new possibilities, and each type of society governed by a particular institutional complex. For example, tribal society is dominated by kinship institutions, and late capitalism by state institutions. His analysis of capitalism identifies a number of crises through which the system moves. In early capitalism, which he analyses in terms similar to that of Marx, economic crises present the main problem. Political intervention to deal with economic problems produces what he calls a rationality crisis, based on the impossibility of constructing a stable social order on an unstable market economy, and this in turn can lead to a legitimation crisis in which the state loses legitimacy because it cannot reconcile the conflicting demands made upon it by the requirement to plan the economic system. If, however, the state is successful in reconciling the different interests, the work ethic and competitive drive are weakened, leading to a motivation crisis which also threatens social integration.

Habermas's ideal is not based on the notion of a rational society, as is that of traditional critical theory, but on the concept of the ideal speech situation. The fact that we are all symbol-using animals living and working together indicates an ideal in which communication is free and not distorted by social inequalities, external oppression, or internal repression. Many of these ideas are spelled out in Legitimation Crisis (1973) and Communication and the Evolution of Society (1976).

The best introduction to critical theory is David Held's (1980) book of that name. The history of the Frankfurt School is meticulously documented in Martin Jay's The Dialectical Imagination (1973) and, more recently, Rolf Wiggeraus's The Frankfurt School (1995). Some fairly telling criticisms—especially of the work of those writers at the centre of this tradition (Horkheimer, Marcuse, Adorno, and Habermas)—are spelled out in Alex Honneth 's article on ‘Critical Theory’ (in A. Giddens and and J. Turner ( eds.) , Social Theory Today, 1987)
. The most notable of these accuses critical theory of ‘philosophico-historical reductionism’: a chronic tendency to retreat from ‘the embrace of the empirical social sciences’ and into ‘the exclusive domain of philosophy’.

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