Critical Theory

views updated Jun 11 2018

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


Adorno, Theodor. [1966] 1973. Negative Dialectics. Trans. E. B. Ashton. New York: Seabury.

Adorno, Theodor. [1970] 1984. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. Christian Lenhardt. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Benhabib, Seyla. 1986. Critique Norm and Utopia: A Study of the Foundations of Critical Theory. New York: Columbia University Press.

Benjamin, Walter. [1961] 1968. Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Harcourt.

Buck-Morss, Susan. 1977. The Origin of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and the Frankfurt Institute. New York: Free Press.

Dubiel, Helmut. 1986. Theory and Politics: Studies in the Development of Critical Theory. Trans. Benjamin Gregg. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Habermas, Jürgen. [1962] 1991. Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Trans. Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Habermas, Jürgen. [1968] 1971. Knowledge and Human Interests. Trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro. Boston: Beacon.

Habermas, Jürgen. [1981] 1984-1987. Theory of Communicative Action. 2 vol. Trans. Thomas McCarthy. Boston: Beacon.

Habermas, Jürgen. 1990. Morality and Ethical Life: Does Hegels Critique of Kant Apply to Discourse Ethics? in Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action. Trans. Christian Lenhardt and Shierry Weber Nicholsen. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Habermas, Jürgen. [1992] 1996. Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy. Trans. William Rehg. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Held, David. 1980. Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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

Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor Adorno. [1944] 2002. The Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr; trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Jay, Martin. 1996. The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute for Social Research, 1923-1950. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kant, Immanuel. 1959. Foundations of Metaphysics of Morals. Trans. Lewis White Beck. Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill.

Kellner, Douglas. 1989. Critical Theory Marxism and Modernity. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Marcuse, Herbert. 1955. Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud. Boston: Beacon.

Marcuse, Herbert. 1964. One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Boston: Beacon.

Wiggershaus, Rolf. 1994. The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance. Trans. Michael Robertson. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Brian J. Caterino

Critical Theory

views updated May 23 2018


The term critical theory was used originally by members of the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany, after they emigrated to the United States in the late 1930s, following the rise of Hitler. The term served as a code word for their version of Marxist social theory and research (Kellner 1990a). The term now refers primarily to Marxist studies done or inspired by this so-called Frankfurt School and its contemporary representatives such as Jurgen Habermas. Critical sociologists working in this tradition share several common tenets including a rejection of sociological positivism and its separation of facts from values; a commitment to the emancipation of humanity from all forms of exploitation, domination, or oppression; and a stress on the importance of human agency in social relations.


The Institute for Social Research was founded in 1923 as a center for Marxist studies and was loosely affiliated with the university at Frankfurt, Germany. It remained independent of political party ties. Max Horkheimer became its director in 1931. Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, Leo Lowenthal, Herbert Marcuse, and, more distantly, Karl Korsch and Walter Benjamin were among the prominent theorists and researchers associated with the institute (Jay 1973). Initially, institute scholars sought to update Marxist theory by studying new social developments such as the expanding role of the state in social planning and control. The rise of fascism and the collapse of effective opposition by workers' parties, however, prompted them to investigate new sources and forms of authoritarianism in culture, ideology, and personality development and to search for new oppositional forces. By stressing the importance and semiautonomy of culture, consciousness, and activism, they developed an innovative, humanistic, and open-ended version of Marxist theory that avoided the determinism and class reductionism of much of the Marxist theory that characterized their era (Held 1980).

"Immanent critique," a method of description and evaluation derived from Karl Marx and Georg W. F. Hegel, formed the core of the Frankfurt School's interdisciplinary approach to social research (Antonio 1981). As Marxists, members of the Frankfurt School were committed to a revolutionary project of human emancipation. Rather than critique existing social arrangements in terms of a set of ethical values imposed from "outside," however, they sought to judge social institutions by those institutions' own internal (i.e., "immanent") values and self-espoused ideological claims. (An example of the practical application of such an approach is the southern civil rights movement of the 1960s, which judged the South's racial caste system in light of professed American values of democracy, equality, and justice.) Immanent critique thus provided members of the Frankfurt School with a nonarbitrary standpoint for the critical examination of social institutions while it sensitized them to contradictions between social appearances and the deeper levels of social reality.

Immanent critique, or what Adorno (1973) termed "non-identity thinking," is possible because, as Horkheimer (1972, p. 27) put it, there is always "an irreducible tension between concept and being." That is, in any social organization, contradictions inevitably exist between what social practices are called—for example, "democracy" or "freedom" or "workers' parties"—and what, in their full complexity, they really are. This gap between existence and essence or appearance and reality, according to Adorno (1973, p. 5), "indicates the untruth of identity, the fact that the concept does not exhaust the thing conceived." The point of immanent critique is thus to probe empirically whether a given social reality negates its own claims—as, for example, to represent a "just" or "equal" situation—as well as to uncover internal tendencies with a potential for change including new sources of resistance and opposition to repressive institutions.

Frankfurt School theorists found a paradigmatic example of immanent critique in the works of Karl Marx, including both his early writings on alienation and his later analyses of industrial capitalism. Best articulated by Marcuse (1941), their reading of Capital interpreted Marx's text as operating on two levels. On one level, Capital was read as a historical analysis of social institutions' progressive evolution, which resulted from conflicts between "forces" (such as technology) and "relations" (such as class conflicts) in economic production. Scientistic readings of Marx, however—especially by the generation of Marxist theorists immediately after the death of Marx—essentialized this dimension into a dogma that tended to neglect the role of human agency and stressed economic determinism in social history. But the Frankfurt School also read Capital as a "negative" or "immanent" critique of an important form of ideology, the bourgeois pseudo-science of economics. Here, Marx showed that the essence of capitalism as the exploitation of wage slavery contradicts its ideological representation or appearance as being a free exchange among equal parties (e.g., laborers and employers).

Members of the Frankfurt School interpreted the efforts that Marx devoted to the critique of ideology as an indication of his belief that freeing the consciousness of social actors from ideological illusion is an important form of political practice that potentially contributes to the expansion of human agency. Thus, they interpreted Marx's theory of the production and exploitation of economic values as an empirical effort to understand the historically specific "laws of motion" of market-driven, capitalist societies. At the same time, however, it was also interpreted as an effort—motivated by faith in the potential efficacy of active opposition—to see through capitalism's objectified processes that made a humanly created social world appear to be the product of inevitable, autonomous, and "natural" forces and to call for forms of revolutionary activism to defeat such forces of "alienation."

Members of the Frankfurt School attempted to honor both dimensions of the Marxian legacy. On the one hand, they sought to understand diverse social phenomena holistically as parts of an innerconnected "totality" structured primarily by such capitalistic principles as the commodity form of exchange relations and bureaucratic rationality. On the other hand, they avoided reducing complex social factors to a predetermined existence as shadowlike reflections of these basic tendencies (Jay 1984). Thus, the methodology of immanent critique propelled a provisional, antifoundationalist, and inductive approach to "truth" that allowed for the open-endedness of social action and referred the ultimate verification of sociological insights to the efficacy of historical struggles rather than to the immediate observation of empirical facts (Horkheimer 1972). In effect, they were saying that social "facts" are never fixed once and for all, as in the world of nature, but rather are subject to constant revisions by both the conscious aims and unintended consequences of collective action.

In their concrete studies, members of the Frankfurt School concentrated on the sources of social conformism that, by the 1930s, had undermined the Left's faith in the revolutionary potential of the working class. They were among the first Marxists to relate Freud's insights into personality development to widespread changes in family and socialization patterns that they believed had weakened the ego boundary between self and society and reduced personal autonomy (Fromm 1941). After they emigrated to the United States, these studies culminated in a series of survey research efforts, directed by Adorno and carried out by social scientists at the University of California, that investigated the relation between prejudice, especially anti-Semitism, and "the authoritarian personality" (Adorno et al. 1950). Later, in a more radical interpretation of Freud, Marcuse (1955) questioned whether conflicts between social constraints and bodily needs and desires might provide an impetus for revolt against capitalist repression if such conflicts were mediated by progressively oriented politics.

Once in the United States, members of the Frankfurt School emphasized another important source of conformism, the mass media. Holding that the best of "authentic art" contains a critical dimension that negates the status quo by pointing in utopian directions, they argued that commercialized and popular culture, shaped predominantly by market and bureaucratic imperatives, is merely "mimetic" or imitative of the surrounding world of appearances. Making no demands on its audience to think for itself, the highly standardized products of the "culture industry" reinforce conformism by presenting idealized and reified images of contemporary society as the best of all possible worlds (see Kellner 1984–1985).

The most important contribution of the Frankfurt School was its investigation of the "dialectic of enlightenment" (Horkheimer and Adorno [1947] 1972). During the European Enlightenment, scientific reason had played a partisan role in the advance of freedom by challenging religious dogmatism and political absolutism. But according to the Frankfurt School, a particular form of reason, the instrumental rationality of efficiency and technology, has become a source of unfreedom in both capitalist and socialist societies during the modern era. Science and technology no longer play a liberating role in the critique of social institutions but have become new forms of domination. Dogmatic ideologies of scientism and operationalism absolutize the status quo and treat the social world as a "second nature" composed of law-governed facts, subject to manipulation but not to revolutionary transformation. Thus, under the sway of positivism, social thought becomes increasingly "onedimensional" (Marcuse 1964). Consequently, the dimension of critique, the rational reflection on societal values and directions, and the ability to see alternative possibilities and new sources of opposition are increasingly suppressed by the hegemony of an eviscerated form of thinking. One-dimensional thinking, as an instrument of the totally "administered society," thus reinforces the conformist tendencies promoted by family socialization and the culture industry and threatens both to close off and absorb dissent.

The Frankfurt School's interpretation of the domination of culture by instrumental reason was indebted to Georg Lukacs's ([1923] 1971) theory of reification and to Max Weber's theory of rationalization. In the case of Lukacs, "reification" was understood to be the principal manifestation of the "commodity form" of social life whereby human activities, such as labor, are bought and sold as objects. Under such circumstances, social actors come to view the world of their own making as an objectified entity beyond their control at the same time that they attribute human powers to things. For Lukacs, however, this form of life was historically unique to the capitalist mode of production and would be abolished with socialism.

In the 1950s, as they grew more pessimistic about the prospects for change, Horkheimer and Adorno, especially, came to accept Weber's belief that rationalization was more fundamental than capitalism as the primary source of human oppression. Thus, they located the roots of instrumental rationality in a drive to dominate nature that they traced back to the origins of Western thought in Greek and Hebrew myths. This historical drive toward destructive domination extended from nature to society and the self. At the same time, Horkheimer and Adorno moved closer to Weber's pessimistic depiction of the modern world as one of no exit from the "iron cage" of rationalization. In the context of this totalizing view of the destructive tendencies of Western culture—the images for which were Auschwitz and Hiroshima—the only acts of defiance that seemed feasible were purely intellectual "negations," or what Marcuse (1964) termed "the great refusal" of intellectuals to go along with the one-dimensional society. Consequently, their interest in empirical sociological investigations, along with their faith in the efficacy of mass political movements, withdrew to a distant horizon of their concerns. Marcuse, like Benjamin before him, remained somewhat optimistic. Marcuse continuted to investigate and support sources of opposition in racial, sexual, and Third World liberation movements.

Benjamin's Passagen-Werk (Arcades project), originally titled Dialectical Fairy Scene, was an unfinished project of the 1930s that culminated in a collection of notes on nineteenth-century industrial culture in Paris. The Paris Arcade was an early precursor to the modern department store, a structure of passages displaying commodities in window showcases; it reached its height in the world expositions (e.g., the Paris Exposition in 1900). Through an interpretation of Benjamin's notes, Susan Buck-Morss (1995) has brought this unfinished project to life. Benjamin drew on allegory as a method for analyzing the content and form of cultural images. In contrast to Horkheimer and Adorno's "iron cage" view of mass culture, his dialectical approach held out hope for the revolutionary potential of mass-produced culture. Anticipating aspects of Symbolic Interactionism and feminist theories of performativity, Benjamin explored the relationship between mass production as form (e.g., montage as a form of film production) and political subversion. In contrast to Horkheimer and Adorno who lamented the loss of authority in art and the family, Benjamin welcomed the abolition of traditional sources of authority and hailed the rapidity of technological change in mass production as potentially positive. He interpreted mass production as a form of mimicry that reproduced existing relations of authority and domination while lending itself to potentially subversive reinterpretations and reenactments of existing social relations and social meanings (Buck-Morss 1995).

While retaining an analysis of instrumental reason as a source of domination, Benjamin's allegorical approach worked to unveil the forces of contradiction that were crystallized as promise, progress, and ruin in mythical modern images. These images bore the revolutionary potential of the new to fulfill collective wishes for an unrealized social utopia contained in a more distant past. At the same time, they represented progress as the unrealized potential of capitalism to satisfy material needs and desires. For Benjamin, images of ruin represented the transitoriness, fragility, and destructiveness of capitalism as well as the potential for reawakening and a critical retelling of history (Buck-Morss 1995).

Even though some of the most prominent founders of the Frankfurt School abandoned radical social research in favor of an immanent critique of philosophy (as in Adorno 1973), the legacy of their sociological thought has inspired a vigorous tradition of empirical research among contemporary American social scientists. In large measure, this trend can be seen as a result of the popularization of Frankfurt School themes in the 1960s, when the New Left stressed liberation and consciousness raising, themes that continue to influence sociological practice. Stanley Aronowitz (1973), for example, along with Richard Sennet and Jonathan Cobb (1973), have rekindled the Frankfurt School's original interests in working-class culture in the context of consumer society. Henry Braverman (1974) has directed attention to processes of reification in work settings by focusing on scientific management and the separation of conception from labor in modern industry. Penetrating analyses also have been made of the impact of commodification and instrumental rationalization on the family and socialization (Lasch 1977), law (Balbus 1977), education (Giroux 1988), advertising culture (Haug 1986), and mass media (Kellner 1990b), as well as other institutional areas. Feminist theorists have contributed a "doubled vision" to critical theory by showing the "systematic connectedness" of gender, class, and race relations (Kelly 1979) and by criticizing critical theory itself for its neglect of gender as a fundamental category of social analysis (Benjamin 1978; Fraser 1989). Among the most far-reaching and innovative contemporary studies are those of the contemporary German sociologist and philosopher Jurgen Habermas.


Perhaps no social theorist since Max Weber has combined as comprehensive an understanding of modern social life with as deeply reflective an approach to the implications of theory and methods as Jurgen Habermas. Habermas has attempted to further the emancipatory project of the Frankfurt School by steering critical theory away from the pessimism that characterized the closing decades of Frankfurt School thought. At the same time, he has resumed the dialogue between empirical social science and critical theory to the mutual benefit of both. Further, he has given critical theory a new ethical and empirical grounding by moving its focus away from the relationship between consciousness and society and toward the philosophical and sociological implications of a critical theory of communicative action.

In sharp contrast to the Frankfurt School's increasing pessimism about the "dialectic of enlightenment," Habermas has attempted to defend the liberative potential of reason in the continuing struggle for freedom. While agreeing with the Frankfurt School's assessment of the destruction caused by instrumental rationality's unbridled domination of social life, he nonetheless recognizes the potential benefits of modern science and technology. The solution he offers to one-dimensional thought is thus not to abandon the "project of modernity" but rather to expand rational discourse about the ends of modern society. In order to further this goal, he has tried to unite science and ethics (fact and values) by recovering the inherently rational component in symbolic interaction as well as developing an empirical political sociology that helps to critique the political effects of positivism as well as to identify the progressive potential of contemporary social movements.

From the beginning, Habermas (1970) has agreed with the classical Frankfurt School's contention that science and technology have become legitimating rhetorics for domination in modern society. At the same time, he has argued that alternative ways of knowing are mutually legitimate by showing that they have complementary roles to play in human affairs, even though their forms of validity and realms of appropriate application are distinct. That is, plural forms of knowledge represent different but complementary "knowledge interests" (Habermas 1971).

"Instrumental knowledge," based on the ability to predict, represents an interest in the technical control or mastery of nature. "Hermeneutical knowledge" represents an interest in the clarification of intersubjective understanding. Finally, "emancipatory knowledge" is best typified in the self-clarification that occurs freely in the nondirective communicative context provided by psychoanalysis. In the context of a democratic "public sphere," such self-clarification would have a macro-social parallel in the form of ideology critique had this space not been severely eroded by elite domination and technocratic decision making (Habermas 1989). Emancipatory knowledge thus has an interest in overcoming the illusions of reification, whether in the form of neurosis at the level of psychology or ideology at the level of society. In contrast to testable empirical hypotheses about objectified processes, the validity of emancipatory knowledge can be determined only by its beneficiaries. Its validity rests on the extent to which its subjects find themselves increasingly free from compulsion. Thus, a central problem of modern society is the hegemony of instrumental knowledge that, though appropriate in the realm of nature, is used to objectify and manipulate social relations. Instrumental knowledge thus eclipses the interpretive and emancipatory forms of knowledge that are also essential for guiding social life.

When sufficient attention is paid to interpersonal communication, Habermas (1979) contends that every act of speech can be seen as implying a universal demand that interpersonal understanding be based on the free exchange and clarification of meanings. In other words, an immanent critique of language performance (which Habermas terms "universal pragmatics") reveals the presumption that communication not be distorted by differences in power between speakers. Thus, human communication is implicitly a demand for freedom and equality. By this form of immanent critique—consistent with the methodological standards of the Frankfurt School—Habermas attempts to demonstrate the potential validity of emancipatory knowledge so that it can be seen as a compelling challenge to the hegemony of instrumental knowledge. The purpose of Habermas's communication theory is thus highly partisan. By showing that no forms of knowledge are "value free" but always "interested," and that human communication inherently demands to occur freely without distortions caused by social power differentials, Habermas seeks politically to delegitimate conventions that confine social science to investigations of the means rather than the rational ends of social life.

In his subsequent works, Habermas has tried to reformulate this philosophical position in terms of a political sociology. To do so, he has profoundly redirected "historical materialism," the Marxist project to which he remains committed (see Habermas 1979). Habermas contends that Marx gave insufficient attention to communicative action by restricting it to the social class relations of work. This restriction, he argues, inclined the Marxist tradition toward an uncritical attitude toward technological domination as well as toward forms of scientism that contribute to the suppression of critique in regimes legitimated by Marxist ideology. Habermas relates his immanent critique of language performance to historical materialism by showing that sociocultural evolution occurs not only through the increasing rationality of technical control over nature (as Marx recognized) but also through advances in communicative rationality, that is, nondistorted communication. Thus, instrumental rationality and communicative rationality are complementary forms of societal "learning mechanisms." The problem of modernity is not science and technology in and of themselves, because they promise increased control over the environment, but rather the fact that instrumental rationality has eclipsed communicative rationality in social life. In other words, in advanced industrial society, technical forms of control are no longer guided by consensually derived societal values. Democratic decision making is diminished under circumstances in which technical experts manipulate an objectified world, in which citizens are displaced from political decision making, and in which "reason"—identified exclusively with the "value free" prediction of isolated "facts"—is disqualified from reflection about the ends of social life.

More recently, Habermas (1987) has restated this theory sociologically to describe an uneven process of institutional development governed by opposing principles of "system" and "lifeworld." In this formulation, the cultural lifeworld—the source of cultural meanings, social solidarity, and personal identity—is increasingly subject to "colonization" by the objectivistic "steering mechanisms" of the marketplace (money) and bureaucracy (power). On the levels of culture, society, and personality, such colonization tends to produce political crises resulting from the loss of meaning, increase of anomie, and loss of motivation. At the same time, however, objectivistic steering mechanisms remain indispensable because large-scale social systems cannot be guided by the face-to-face interactions that characterize the lifeworld. Thus, the state becomes a battleground for struggles involving the balance between the structuring principles of systems and lifeworlds. Habermas contends that it is in response to such crises that the forces of conservatism and the "new social movements" such as feminism and ecology are embattled and that it is here that the struggle for human liberation at present is being contested most directly. As formulated by Habermas, a critical theory of society aims at clarifying such struggles in order to contribute to the progressive democratization of modern society.


In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the heightened influence of poststructuralism sparked intense debate between critical theorists and poststructuralists. Theorists staked out positions that tended to collapse distinct theories into oppositional categories (critical theory or poststructuralism) yet they agreed on several points. Both critical and poststructural theorists critiqued the transcendental claims of Enlightenment thought (e.g., that truth transcends the particular and exists "out there" in its universality), understood knowledge and consciousness to be shaped by culture and history, and attacked disciplinary boundaries by calling for supra-disciplinary approaches to knowledge construction. Polarization, nonetheless, worked to emphasize differences, underplay points of agreement, and restrict awareness of how these approaches might complement one another (Best and Kellner 1991; Fraser 1997).

Because critical theory aspires to understand semiautonomous social systems (e.g., capital, science and technology, the state, and the family) as interconnected in an overarching matrix of domination (Best and Kellner 1991, p. 220), poststructuralists charge that it is a "grand theory" still mired in Enlightenment traditions that seek to understand society as a totality. In viewing the path to emancipation as the recovery of reason through a critical analysis of instrumentalism, scientism, and late capitalism, critical theory is seen as promoting a centralized view of power as emitting from a macro-system of domination. That is, by promoting a view of social subjects as overdetermined by class, critical theory is said to reduce subjectivity to social relations of domination that hover in an orbit of capitalist imperatives. By theorizing that subjectivity is formed through social interaction (e.g., intersubjectivity), Habermas departs from Horkheimer and Adorno's view of the social subject as ego centered—as a self-reflexive critical subject (Best and Kellner 1991). Nonetheless, poststructuralists contend that Habermas, like his predecessors, essentializes knowledge. In other words, the capacity to recover reason either through critical reflexivity (Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse) or through a form of communicative action that appeals to a normative order (Habermas) promotes a false understanding of subjectivity as "quasi-transcendental."

In rebuttal, critical theorists argue that poststructuralist views of power as decentralized and diffuse uncouple power from systems of domination (Best and Kellner 1991). Poststructuralists view social subjectivity as a cultural construction that is formed in, and through, multiple and diffuse webs of language and power. Critics charge that such a diffuse understanding of power promotes a vision of society as a "view from everywhere" (Bordo 1993). Social identities are seen as indeterminate and social differences as differences of equivalency (Flax 1990). This perspective results in analyses that focus on identity to the exclusion of systemic forms of domination. Thus, for example, while feminists who adhere to critical theory tend to analyze gender as a system of patriarchal domination, poststructuralist feminists, by contrast, tend to focus on the cultural production of gendered subjects, that is, on representation and identity. Habermas ([1980] 1997) and others argue that the avoidance of analyses of systems in favor of more fragmentary micro-analyses of discrete institutions, discourses, or practices is an antimodern movement that obscures the emancipatory potential of modernity (Best and Kellner 1991).

Although this debate is still stirring, some scholars are moving away from oppositional positions in favor of more complex readings of both traditions in order to synthesize or forge alliances between approaches (Best and Kellner 1991; Kellner 1995; Fraser 1997). Thus poststructuralism may serve as a corrective to the totalizing tendencies in critical theory while the latter prevents the neglect of social systems and calls attention to the relationship between multiple systems of domination and social subjectivities. In other words, critical theory points to the need to understand systemic forms of domination while poststructuralism warns against the reduction of social subjectivity to macro-overarching systems of domination. Thus drawing on both traditions, Nancy Fraser (1997, p. 219) suggests that a more accurate picture of social complexity "might conceive subjectivity as endowed with critical capacities and as culturally constructed" while viewing "critique as simultaneously situated and amenable to self-reflection."

Theoretical and empirical applications of such a "both/and approach" abound. For instance, in recognizing that all knowledge is partial, black feminist theorists such as Patricia Hill Collins (1990) articulate both critical theoretical tenets and poststructuralist sensibilities by conceptualizing identity as socially constructed, historically specific, and culturally located while stressing systemic forms of domination without reducing identities to single systems of oppression (also see Agger 1998). Postcolonial theories likewise draw on both traditions in order to understand the fluid relationships among culture, systems of domination, social subjectivity, the process of "othering," and identity formation (see Williams and Chrisman 1993). Douglas Kellner's (1997) empirical work on media culture likewise employs a multiperspectival approach that combines insights from cultural studies and poststructuralism with critical theory in order to understand mass media as a source of both domination and resistance, and as a way to account for the formation and communicative positionality of social subjects constituted through multiple systems of race, class, and gender. Habermas's (1996) current theorizing on procedural democracy reflects a move toward the poststructuralism of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe's (1985) theory of radical democracy that stresses the potential collaboration of diverse agents in progressive social movements that aim at defending and expanding citizen participation in public life.

(see also: Marxist Sociology)


Adorno, Theodor 1973 Negative Dialectics. New York: Seabury Press.

——, E. Frenkel-Brunswick, D. Levinson, and R. N. Sanford 1950 The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Harper.

Agger, Ben 1998 Critical Social Theory: An Introduction. Boulder. Colo.: Westview Press.

Antonio, Robert J. 1981 "Immanent Critique as the Core of Critical Theory." British Journal of Sociology 32:330–345.

Aronowitz, Stanley 1973 False Promises. New York: Mc-Graw-Hill.

Balbus, Isaac 1977 "Commodity Form and Legal Form: An Essay on 'Relative Autonomy'." Law and SocietyReview 11:571–588.

Benjamin, Jessica 1978 "Authority and the Family Revisited: Or, A World without Fathers?" New GermanCritique 13 (Winter):35–57.

Best, Steven, and Douglas Kellner 1991 Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations. New York: The Guilford Press.

Bordo, Susan 1993 Unbearable Weight: Feminism, WesternCulture, and the Body. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Braverman, Harry 1974 Labor and Monopoly Capital. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Buck-Morss, Susan 1995 The Dialectics of Seeing: WalterBenjamin and the Arcades Project. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

Flax, Jane 1990 Thinking Fragments: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and Postmodernism in the Contemporary West. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Fraser, Nancy 1997 Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflectionson the "Postsocialist" Condition. New York: Routledge.

——1989 Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse, and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Fromm, Erich 1941 Escape from Freedom. New York: Avon.

Giroux, Henry A. 1988 Schooling and the Struggle forPublic Life. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Habermas, Jurgen 1996 Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

——1989 The Structural Transformation of the PublicSphere. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

——1987 The Theory of Communicative Action II:Lifeworld and System—A Critique of Functionalist Reason. Boston: Beacon Press.

——1986 "Three Normative Models of Democracy." In Seyla Benhabib, ed., Democracy and Difference. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

——(1980) 1997 "Modernity: An Unfinished Project." In d' Entregrave;ves, Maurizio Passerin and Seyla Benhabib, eds., Habermas and the UnfinishedProject of Modernity. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

——1979 Communication and the Evolution of Society. Boston: Beacon Press.

——1971 Knowledge and Human Interests. Boston: Beacon Press.

——1970 Toward a Rational Society. Boston: Beacon Press.

Haug, W. F. 1986 Critique of Commodity Aesthetics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Held, David 1980 Introduction to Critical Theory. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hill Collins, Patricia 1990 Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge.

Horkheimer, Max 1972 Critical Theory: Selected Essays. New York: Herder and Herder.

——, and Theodor Adorno (1947) 1972 Dialectic ofEnlightenment. New York: Seabury Press.

Jay, Martin 1984 Marxism and Totality. Berkeley: University of California Press.

——1973 The Dialectical Imagination. Boston: Little, Brown.

Kellner, Douglas 1995 Media Culture: Cultural Studies,Identity, and Politics Between the Modern and thePostmodern. New York: Routledge.

——1984–85 "Critical Theory and the Culture Industries: A Reassessment." Telos 62:196–209.

——1990a "Critical Theory and the Crisis of Social Theory." Sociological Perspectives 33:11–33.

——1990b Television and the Crisis of Democracy. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.

Kelly, Joan 1979 "The Doubled Vision of Feminist Theory." Feminist Studies 5:216–227.

Laclau, Ernesto, and Chantal Mouffe 1985 Hegemonyand Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical DemocraticPolitics. London: Verso.

Lasch, Christopher 1977 Haven in a Heartless World. New York: Basic Books.

Lukacs, Georg (1923) 1971 History and Class Consciousness. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

Marcuse, Herbert 1964 One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press.

——1955 Eros and Civilization. Boston: Beacon Press.

——1941 Reason and Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sennett, Richard, and Jonathan Cobb 1973 The HiddenInjuries of Class. New York: Vintage Books.

Williams, Patrick, and Laura Chrisman 1993 ColonialDiscourse and Post Colonial Theory: A Reader. New York: Columbia University Press.



Critical Theory

views updated May 29 2018


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

critical theory

views updated May 14 2018

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’.

Critical Theory

views updated Jun 08 2018


"Critical theory" is used to refer to the diverse body of work produced by members and associates of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research after Max Horkheimer became its director in 1930. The first generation of what came to be called the Frankfurt school included, in addition to Horkheimer, such prominent figures as Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, Erich Fromm, Leo Löwenthal, Franz Neumann, Otto Kirchheimer, and Frederick Pollock. The most influential members of the second generation are Jürgen Habermas, Karl-Otto Apel, and Albrecht Wellmer. As the variety of backgrounds and interests might suggest, critical social theory was conceived as a multidisciplinary program linking philosophy to history and the human sciences in a kind of "philosophically oriented social inquiry," as Horkheimer put it. Though very strongly influenced by Immanuel Kant and neo-Kantianism, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and German idealism, Max Weber and Sigmund Freud, it was understood as a renewal of Marxism inspired in part by the earlier work of Georg Lukács and Karl Korsch. This updated Marxism would take account of the altered historical realities of advanced capitalism and integrate areas of inquiry neglected by traditional Marxism, such as philosophy and political theory, cultural studies (including studies of mass culture), and social psychology (appropriating psychoanalysis for social theory). With the rise of National Socialism, the institute moved briefly to Geneva and Paris in 1933 and then in 1934 to Columbia University in New York, where its journal, the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, continued to be published until 1941, the last volume in English. Early in the 1950s, Horkheimer and Adorno reestablished the institute in Frankfurt. Habermas became an assistant there in 1955.

The original project of a critical social theory advanced by Horkheimer was a version of Karl Marx's Aufhebung of philosophy in social theory and practice. Philosophy was to become a sociohistorical, practically oriented critique of reason and its claimed realizations. While the dominant forms of reason were often distorted in the interests of dominant classes, the aim of critical theory was, not simply to negate them, but, by examining their genesis and functions, to transform them and enlist them in the struggle for a better world. The insistence on the "truth content" of the "bourgeois ideals" of freedom, truth, and justice, the refusal to abandon them as mere ideology, was severely tested by the horrors of World War II. Early in the 1940s, in their collaborative reflections on the "dialectic of enlightenment," Horkheimer and Adorno offered a much more pessimistic view of the history of reason. Keying on a tendency that Weber had emphasized, the relentless spread of "instrumental" rationality, they revered Marx's positive evaluation of scientific-technological progress. It was now seen as the core of a domination that had spread to all spheres of life and, in the process, had immobilized the potential agents of social change. In this "totally administered society" with what Marcuse later called its "one-dimensional man," critical theory could at best reveal the unreason at the heart of what passed for reason, without offering any positive account of its own.

Habermas's work since the 1960s might be viewed as an attempt to avoid this impasse by introducing into critical theory a fundamental shift in paradigms from the philosophy of the subject to the theory of communication and from means-ends rationality to communicative rationality. This serves as the basis for an altered diagnosis of the ills of modernityas rooted, not in rationalization as such, but in a one-sided rationalization driven by economic and administrative forcesand an altered prescription for their cure, the democratization of public opinion and will formation in an effectively functioning public sphere, where issues of general concern are submitted to rational, critical public debate.

See also Adorno, Theodor; Apel, Karl-Otto; Benjamin, Walter; Freud, Sigmund; Habermas, Jürgen; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Horkheimer, Max; Kant, Immanuel; Lukács, Georg; Marxist Philosophy; Marx, Karl; Neo-Kantianism; Weber, Max.


Arato, A., and E. Gebhardt, eds. The Essential Frankfurt School Reader. New York: Urizen Books, 1978.

Bronner, S., and D. Kellner, eds. Critical Theory and Society: A Reader. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Ingram, D., and J. Simon-Ingram, eds. Critical Theory: The Essential Readings. New York: Paragon House, 1992.

Jay, M. The Dialectical Imagination. Boston: Little Brown, 1973.

Wiggershaus, R. The Frankfurt School. Translated by M. Robertson. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994.

Thomas McCarthy (1996)

About this article

Critical theory

All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic