Critical Social Theory

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Critical social theory constitutes an effort to rethink and reform Marxist social criticism; it characteristically rejects mainstream political and intellectual views, criticizes capitalism, promotes human liberation, and consequently attempts to expose domination and oppression in their many forms. The extent to which science and technology may be associated with domination and oppression has been a major theme of critical theory.

Background and Method

Critical theory is not so much a particular theory as a tradition of thought historically associated with the Institute for Social Research, founded at the University of Frankfurt, Germany, in 1923. It is thus also commonly known as the Frankfurt School. The rise of Nazism forced Institute members into exile in 1933; the Institute then became affiliated with the Studies in Philosophy and Social Science program at Columbia University in New York City in 1935. The original school was reestablished in Frankfurt in 1953.

The Frankfurt School was a multidisciplinary group that included philosophers, sociologists, economists, political scientists, legal theorists, psychoanalysts, and others. Key members of the first generation were Max Horkheimer (1895–1973), Theodor Adorno (1903–1969), Erich Fromm (1900–1980), Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979), Leo Lowenthal (1900–1993), and Franz Neumann (1900–1954), with Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) as a close associate. Important members of second and third generations include Jürgen Habermas (a student of Adorno), Axel Honneth, Andrew Feenberg (a student of Habermas), Douglas Kellner, Steven Best (a student of Kellner), Albrecht Wellmer, Claus Offe, Nancy Fraser, and Martin Beck Matustik. Distributed now among institutions in the United States (Kellner is at the University of California in Los Angeles, Best at the University of Texas in El Paso, Fraser at the New School in New York) and Canada (Feenberg is at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia) as well as Germany, critical theorists have continued to include as part of their engagements with contemporary issues a critical dialogue with the works of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), Karl Marx (1818–1883), Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855), Max Weber (1864–1920), Gyorgy Lukács (1885–1971), and Sigmund Freud (1856–1939).

The key method of critical theory is immanent critique, which focuses on the internal tensions of the theory or social form under analysis. Using immanent critique, critical theorists identify the internal contradictions in society and in thought, with the aim of analyzing and identifying (a) prospects for progressive social change and (b) those structures of society and consciousness that contribute to human domination. Critical theorists aim to aid the process of progressive social change by identifying not only what is, but also identifying the existing (explicit and implicit) ideals of any given situation, and analyzing the gap between what is and what might and ought to be. When applying immanent critique to science and technology, critical theorists identify both oppressive and the liberatory potentials.

Regarding science and technology, all critical theorists hold that science and technology are intertwined into a single complex or realm of human activity that in the early twenty-first century is commonly called technoscience. Further, they believe that technoscience is not neutral with respect to human values, but rather creates and bears value. They argue that the tools people use shape ways of life in societies where technoscience has become pervasive. Hence, how individuals do things determines who and what they are, and technological development transforms what it is to be human. But while critical theorists agree that the apparently neutral formulations of science and technology often hide oppressive or repressive interests, they differ in their ideas about whether technoscience is of necessity a force for dehumanization, and if not, why and how it might serve as a force for greater freedom.

From Hope to Dystopia: Horkheimer and Adorno

One strand of the critical theory tradition contains an initially hopeful view that technoscientific progress might inevitably drive forward human progress and contribute to the realization of greater freedom. This later gives way to a dystopian view, in which technoscience is equated with domination. In the 1920 and 1930s, many members of the Institute adopted a rather orthodox version of Marxism, arguing that the socialist revolution is a natural and inevitable outcome of the internal contradictions of capitalism. In line with this idea, Horkheimer, the second director of the Institute and the person who first named the members' work "critical theory," argues that progress in the forces of production has created objective possibilities for human liberation. These possibilities have not yet been realized because capitalism limits the progress of science and technology and thus restricts human progress. For Horkheimer, only a social and political revolution can unleash greater progress in the technosciences and harness technoscience to the cause of human liberation (Horkheimer 1972).

INSTRUMENTAL DOMINATION. While in exile in the United States during the late 1930s and 1940s, Horkheimer and Adorno reconceptualized their views on science and technology. They came to believe that the project of the European Enlightenment has turned into a mythology, and that modern reason and modern autonomy are rooted in the domination of non-human nature, other humans, and people's inner lives (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002). They claim that the ideal of the Enlightenment is an ever-larger rational conversation about goals, values, and desires that expands the realm of human knowledge and action. Thus, they believe, the Enlightenment is an effort to increase human freedom and self-determination. But the course of reason since the Enlightenment has been increasingly to refuse to think about real alternatives. Rationality becomes, they argue, reduced to instrumental thinking: that is, to reasoning about efficient means to already given ends. This mode of thinking—instrumental reasoning—has become, they argue, the mode of thought characteristic of western culture in general, and of the technosciences in particular.

As they investigate the increasing integration of economics and politics, they find that society is ever more structured around the capitalist value of profit making and the technoscientific value of efficiency. Technological advances, including the increasing fragmentation and mechanization of work tasks, transform the work process. Work becomes more repetitive and mind numbing; workers are ever more isolated from one another, and have ever less time to critically reflect on their work or lives.

Thus, for Adorno and Horkheimer, technoscientific development brings with it increasing dehumanization. Modern institutions and ideas, including transnational organizations and democracy, are shaped and guided by instrumental rationality, and exist primarily to preserve themselves. It is no longer possible to ask about, or critically evaluate, ends; these are taken for granted. Because only questions about means can be considered by instrumental rationality, questions about ends are now considered irrational. So the progress of Enlightenment reason, restricted to instrumental rationality, contradicts the very goal sought by the Enlightenment—the increasing liberation of human beings. And modern technoscience, which should contribute to greater human freedom, increasingly becomes a cage of our own making.

CULTURE INDUSTRY. According to Adorno and Horkheimer, technology now carries the values of capitalism and of a consumer society. They coin the term "culture industry" to signify the process of the industrialization of mass-produced culture and the commercial imperatives that drive the system. The culture industry creates distractions, and the semblance of freedom (such as through the choice of which TV show to watch, or which breakfast cereal to purchase). But it offers no real alternative and only serves to distract people from careful reflection on the conditions of their lives. Adorno and Horkheimer attempt to demonstrate that the products of the culture industry commodify and mechanize everyday life, and that consumers of popular culture accept the pre-given ends of their culture and worry about how to organize their lives to acquire as many of these goods as possible. Thus the values of efficiency and instrumentality that characterize the technosciences and industrial production slowly shape the whole of society.

They further claim that in contemporary culture there is little critical awareness of technology because what is thinkable is constrained to those options considered rational under a narrow instrumental definition of rationality. Thus it is difficult for people to think of technology as a bearer of values. The technosciences appear to be value neutral, and the values of efficiency and instrumentality seem to be the only values it is rational to adopt. Hence, the dominant conception of technoscience is as something good if in the right hands. Adorno and Horkheimer argue that so long as instrumental reasoning is the dominant mode of thinking in Western culture, then human liberation will be blocked. Further, because instrumental rationality characterizes the Enlightenment and subsequent cultures at their very core, and is at the essence of technoscience, then technoscience necessarily leads to domination and dehumanization.

This increasingly dystopian view of technoscience is reinforced by the exposure of the great depths of evil that technoscience produced in the service of fascism, and in the Soviet system. By focusing only on means, many engineers, scientists, and technicians made death camps more efficient and produced propaganda and weapons for the oppression and control of people. As Horkheimer and Adorno understand things, all of this was made possible by instrumental reason that comes to see everything, even human beings, as objects of study and manipulation. They see liberal capitalism as also a system of domination because the growth of the culture industry, and the spread of technocratic thinking, only spreads domination over inner and outer nature. This process is all the more insidious because it does not appear as domination, but rather as entertainment, or simply as reality.

AESTHETIC LIBERATION. There is, however, one sphere of culture, they argue, that resists instrumentalization, and this is the fine arts. The great artists have, in their works, preserved and exemplified autonomy, thereby resisting merely instrumental concerns. In his last great work Adorno develops a complex theory of aesthetic resistance as maintaining a critical function, and as preserving the last vestige of humanness in an increasingly technological and inhumane world (Adorno 1998).

There are many questions and responses to this version of critical theory and its dystopian view of technoscience. American pragmatists, especially John Dewey and Larry Hickman, develop a version of instrumentalism that, rather than rejecting critical reflection on the ends of activity, requires it. Pragmatists have further criticized Adorno and Horkheimer for their increasing disengagement from any projects of real social change. Another criticism is that the work of Adorno and Horkheimer is elitist and escapist, especially in recommending the highly formal and abstract work of artists such as Arnold Schönberg (1874–1951). Such a detached view fails to live up to the goal of decreasing oppression. From within critical theory, Benjamin, Marcuse, Habermas, and Feenberg all break with dire pessimism and offer theories of technoscience as potentially aiding human liberation.

Liberatory Possibilities

There is another strand of thinking about technoscience within critical theory, composed of those who reject the pessimism of Horkheimer and Adorno and who maintain that technoscience can be useful in fighting domination. As with critical theory as a whole, this tradition contains multiple particular positions, some of which are at odds with each other. All maintain, however, the method of immanent critique, and the commitment to a critical analysis of culture with the aim of aiding human liberation. The four strands of critical theory that identify liberatory possibilities in technoscience are:

  1. the idea that technological change will sweep away old and oppressive cultural forms (Benjamin);
  2. that technoscience is oppressive under capitalism, but might be otherwise under a different social order, and hence might embody different values (Marcuse);
  3. that technoscience has an internal logic appropriate to its own realm, but that it must be restrained or all of life will fall under its sway (Habermas);
  4. that technoscience always contains internal contradictions, and thus always contains potentials both for oppression and liberation (Feenberg, Kellner, and Best).

WALTER BENJAMIN. The idea that technological change might sweep away oppressive aspects of culture is most clearly stated by Benjamin. For him, there are progressive possibilities in new technologies of cultural production, especially film, radio, and photography. Traditional forms of art maintain their cultural power through the aura of the authentic original. This gives the great works of art a mythic status that has served to present, maintain, and further the power of some, such as the church, the wealthy, and the state, over others.

Benjamin argues that the technologies of mechanical reproduction break down the aura and shatter the myth of authenticity. For example, not only is it difficult to determine which, if any, photographic print is the original, but also mechanical reproduction allows people to replicate the great works from history. Thus high culture loses its mystifying power. Further, media culture could cultivate individuals better able to judge and analyze their culture. By processing the flow of images in film, people develop the ability to better parry and comprehend the erratic and powerful flow of experiences in industrialized, urbanized societies. For Benjamin, the buildings, pictures, and stories of avant-garde artists, work that was often highly dependent on technology, was a form in which humanity was preparing itself to survive even the darkest night of fascism.

HERBERT MARCUSE. The position that technoscience is oppressive under capitalism, but might be otherwise, is clearly articulated in the work of Marcuse. Unlike Adorno and Horkheimer, who see technoscience as having a necessarily oppressive essence, Marcuse believes it is possible to identify and understand the specific historical and social forces that lead to oppressive technoscience.

Under capitalism, Marcuse argues, technology produces a mass culture that habituates individuals to conform to the dominant patterns of thought and behavior, and thus provides powerful instruments of social control and domination. This is so, he claims, because under capitalism, technology reflects particular class interests in what he calls a "one-dimensional society" (Marcuse 1964). Consumer culture, which is made possible by the rapid advances of the technosciences, is seductive, and sexually charged, while work is ever longer and more soul-killing. Rather than the sublimation of desire discussed by Freud, which leads to the great and meaningful products of human culture, Marcuse identifies a process of repressive desublimation in which everything becomes sexualized, but meaning and satisfaction are ever more elusive.

However, for Marcuse, technology could, through its advance and transformation, mechanize most socially necessary work, and thus free human beings for greater creative self-expression and social experimentation. Technology would cease to be autonomous, as it is in the one-dimensional society, and would become subordinate to a substantive notion of the good life, one that is fundamentally aesthetic in nature. Marcuse has an aesthetic model of human beings as free, self-creative beings. He believes that only spontaneous creative activity could break out of the one-dimensionality of life under capitalism. Hence, a new form of technoscience, one that embodies not mere instrumentality, but also allows for spontaneity and creativity, might further human liberation. Because of the centrality of one-dimensional intrumental rationality in modern society, Marcuse hypothesized that the likely sources of the ideas and energies for radical social change, including new forms of science and technology, would come not from the working class as traditionally conceived, but would be found in those most marginalized in society—people of color, women, and the disenchanted young. Among others, Angela Davis was both inspired by, and inspiration for Marcuse's work.

Critics rightly note that this alternative is highly speculative and underdeveloped. In his development of still another strand of critical theory that sees technoscience in a potentially positive light, Habermas criticizes Marcuse's position as hopeless romanticism, and one that dangerously will restrict the careful use of instrumental reasoning in the areas where it is appropriate to use it.

JÜRGEN HABERMAS. The third version of critical theory that views technoscience as having some liberatory potential is exemplified in the work of Habermas. He argues that technoscience brings great benefits to humans in modern cultures, and that insofar as it is concerned with technoscientific questions it should remain true to its own internal values. A problem arises when individuals allow technoscience and technoscientific values to take over other realms of human life that should not be organized around values of productivity and efficiency. Habermas criticizes the tendency of modern societies to subject all areas of human life to instrumental reasoning. For example, the sorts of thinking best suited to determining how to build a bridge are not the same as those best suited to nurturing friendship, neither are the skills and modes of thinking that characterize consumption those best suited to responsible citizenship. Habermas claims that it is dangerous to allow the values of either realm to seep into the other. On the one hand, the result is dehumanization of human relationships, and many of the destructive possibilities identified by other critical theorists. On the other, the consequence is bad science, and the pursuit of technical knowledge will be subordinated to ideology. Thus, technoscience, properly constrained, is necessary to human liberation, and to decreasing suffering and oppression.

Some critics argue that his position offers no concrete criteria for changing technology. Others claim that his position is hopelessly naïve, and that the technosciences cannot be constrained in the manner he suggests, so that Habermas's theory is actually a justification of the status quo.

ANDREW FEENBERG. The most recent work in critical theory of technology adopts a fourth position and argues that technoscience always contains contradictory possibilities. This is so because there are many dimensions to technoscience, many of which traditional accounts fail to identify. For this reason Feenberg argues that technology should be reconceived of through instrumentalization theory. This theory distinguishes between the understanding of technology by technical experts and philosophers of technology, and the understanding of technology within a specific social context by those who use it and are affected by it. Users of technology often deploy it in unintended and often unanticipated but imaginative ways. These uses often challenge existing technological systems and social orders. By better understanding and developing these contradictory potentials, he argues, the critical theorist can further the goal of assisting the cause of human liberation. Feenberg continues the Frankfurt school interest in popular culture, but is more sensitive to the political complexity of contemporary culture, and thus to the ambipotent nature of technological change. His work engages not only theorists such as Habermas and Heidegger, but included empirically rich case studies of French communications technologies, Japanese conceptions of technology, science fiction, and film. Feenberg returns the tradition of critical social theory to its multi-disciplinary roots, and is active in empirical research on the development and uses of technology, especially educational technologies.

DOUGLAS KELLNER AND STEVEN BEST. Kellner and Best bring critical theory into dialogue with postmodern and poststructuralist thinkers such as Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, and Arthur Croker. Along with Feenberg, they also bring critical theory into dialogue with the pragmatist tradition. Kellner and Best also continue and revitalize the tradition of culture industry critique. However, unlike Adorno, they work to identify the contradictory potentials present in popular culture. Kellner has long explored the oppositional possibilities within technology, especially in alternative media and education. Best is also expanding critical theory into environmental philosophy.


Contemporary critical theorists agree that there are liberatory possibilities in technoscience, but only the careful use of human will and consciousness can bring these to fruition. The future of critical theory promises an ever-greater dialogue with other applied traditions in philosophy, especially with pragmatism. Although some, such as Larry Hickman, have argued that critical theory is still too tied to an anti-technology paradigm that limits its practical usefulness, critical theorists are becoming more involved in concrete issues, from the alternative media work of Kellner to the work on computer-based learning of Feenberg, and this trend too promises to make critical theory more empirically rich, and thus better able to work toward the goal of increasing the realm of human freedom.


SEE ALSO Autonomous Technology;Capitalism;Efficiency;Fascism;Freedom;Habermas, Jürgen;Marcuse, Herbert;Marxism;Marx, Karl;Neutrality in Science and Technology;Popular Culture;Socialism;Utopia and Dystopia;Work.


Adorno, Theodor. (1983). Negative Dialectics. New York: Continuum. Explores the limits of conceptualization, and hence of any instrumental understanding.

Adorno, Theodor. (1998). Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Adorno's account of how the aesthetic dimension offers the possibility of resistance to instrumental rationality.

Adorno, Theodor, and Max Horkheimer. (2002). Dialectic of Enlightenment, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. An account of how enlightenment rationality turns in on itself and leads to an irrational society.

Benjamin, Walter. (1968). Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World. Collected essays, including his important work on art in the age of mechanical reproduction.

Feenberg, Andrew. (1995). Alternative Modernity: The Technical Turn in Philosophy and Social Theory. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Feenberg, Andrew. (1999). Questioning Technology. New York: Routledge. A critical account of philosophy of technology and of the possibilities of democratic interventions in the course of technology.

Feenberg, Andrew. (2002). Transforming Technology. New York: Oxford University Press. An examination of the multivalent possibilities of technological change and its effects on labor, education, the environment, and politics.

Habermas, Jürgen. (1970). Toward a Rational Society: Student Protest, Science, and Politics, trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro. Boston: Beacon Press. An early explication of Habermas's account of positive possibilities of science and technology, offered in the context of a discussion of education, science, communication, and political action.

Habermas, Jürgen. (1971). Knowledge and Human Interests, trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro. Boston: Beacon Press. Habermas discusses the quasi-transcendental anthropological interests in communication, survival and control, and liberation, and how these interests shape our quest for knowledge.

Habermas, Jürgen. (1984–1987). The Theory of Communicative Action, 2 vols., trans. Thomas McCarthy. Boston: Beacon Press. Habermas works out implications of, and revises, his account of communicative rationality, and thus the promises and limits of science and technology.

Habermas, Jürgen. (2003). The Future of Human Nature. Cambridge, UK: Polity. A critique of biotechnology.

Horkheimer, Max. (1947). The Eclipse of Reason. New York: Continuum. An extended argument that objective reason has been overcome by partial, instrumental, and subjective reason.

Horkheimer, Max. (1972). Critical Theory: Selected Essays, trans. Mathew J. O'Connell. New York: Herder and Herder. Critique of instrumental rationality, and his important account of how critical theory differs from traditional theory.

Kellner, Douglas, and Steven Best. (2001). The Postmodern Adventure: Science, Technology, and Cultural Studies at the Third Millennium. New York: Guilford Press. A critique not only of post-modernist celebrations of science and technology, but also a critique of wholesale rejections of science and technology.

Marcuse, Herbert. (1955). Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud. Boston: Beacon Press. Marcuse brings Freud and Marx together and examines ways in which contemporary society deals with desire.

Marcuse, Herbert. (1964). One Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press. A discussion of how an affluent capitalist society can buy off, or co-opt, its members and thus diffuse opposition. Central is an account of the force of instrumental rationality and how contemporary science and technology restrict thinking and creativity.

Marcuse, Herbert. (1978). The Aesthetic Dimension. Boston, Beacon Press. Marcuse's argument that art can transform how people see the world, and offers help in imagining new and better possibilities.

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Critical Social Theory

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