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Critical theory

Critical sociology redirects here. For the journal, see 1 Denitions

Critical Sociology (journal).
The two meanings of critical theoryfrom dierent in-
Critical theory stresses the reective assessments and tellectual traditions associated with the meaning of crit-
critique of society and culture by applying knowledge icism and critiquederive ultimately from the Greek
from the social sciences and the humanities. word , kritikos meaning judgment or discern-
ment, and in their present forms go back to the 18th cen-
As a term, critical theory has two meanings with dier-
tury. While they can be considered completely indepen-
ent origins and histories: the rst originated in sociology
dent intellectual pursuits, increasingly scholars are inter-
and political philosophy, while the second originated in
ested in the areas of critique where the two overlap.
literary studies and literary theory.
To use an epistemological distinction introduced by
In sociology and political philosophy, the term critical
Jrgen Habermas in Erkenntnis und Interesse [1968]
theory (or "social critical theory")[1] describes the neo-
(Knowledge and Human Interests), critical theory in lit-
Marxist philosophy of the Frankfurt School, which was
erary studies is ultimately a form of hermeneutics; i.e.,
developed in Germany in the 1930s. The Frankfurt theo-
knowledge via interpretation to understand the meaning
rist Max Horkheimer described a theory as critical insofar
of human texts and symbolic expressionsincluding the
as it seeks to liberate human beings from the circum-
interpretation of texts which themselves interpret other
stances that enslave them.[2] Frankfurt theorists drew on
texts. Critical social theory is, in contrast, a form of self-
the critical methods of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud.
reective knowledge involving both understanding and
Critical theory maintains that ideology is the principal
theoretical explanation which aims to reduce entrapment
obstacle to human liberation.[3] Critical theory was es-
in systems of domination or dependence.
tablished as a school of thought primarily by ve Frank-
furt School theoreticians: Herbert Marcuse, Theodor From this perspective, much literary critical theory, since
Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, and Erich it is focused on interpretation and explanation rather than
Fromm. Modern critical theory has additionally been in- on social transformation, would be regarded as positivis-
uenced by Gyrgy Lukcs and Antonio Gramsci, as well tic or traditional rather than critical theory in the Kan-
as the second generation Frankfurt School scholars, such tian or Marxian sense. Critical theory in literature and
as Jrgen Habermas. In Habermass work, critical the- the humanities in general does not necessarily involve a
ory transcended its theoretical roots in German idealism, normative dimension, whereas critical social theory does,
and progressed closer to American pragmatism. Con- either through criticizing society from some general the-
cern for social "base and superstructure" is one of the re- ory of values, norms, or oughts, or through criticizing
maining Marxist philosophical concepts in much of the it in terms of its own espoused values.[8]
contemporary critical theory.[4] While critical theorists
have been frequently dened as Marxist intellectuals,[5]
their tendency to denounce some Marxist concepts and
to combine Marxian analysis with other sociological and
2 In social theory
philosophical traditions has resulted in accusations of
revisionism by Classical, Orthodox, and Analytical Marx- Main article: Frankfurt School
ists, and by Marxist-Leninist philosophers. Martin Jay
has stated that the rst generation of critical theory is Critical theory (German: kritische Theorie) was rst de-
best understood as not promoting a specic philosophi- ned by Max Horkheimer of the Frankfurt School of so-
cal agenda or a specic ideology, but as a gady of other ciology in his 1937 essay Traditional and Critical The-
systems.[6] ory: Critical theory is a social theory oriented toward
In literary studies and literary theory, the term critical critiquing and changing society as a whole, in contrast
theory (or "literary critical theory")[1] refers to theo- to traditional theory oriented only to understanding or
ries of literary criticism.[7] explaining it. Horkheimer wanted to distinguish criti-
cal theory as a radical, emancipatory form of Marxian
theory, critiquing both the model of science put forward
by logical positivism and what he and his colleagues saw
as the covert positivism and authoritarianism of orthodox


Marxism and Communism. of society, a tension which, according to traditional crit-

Core concepts are: (1) That critical social theory should ical theory, constituted the primary contradiction within
be directed at the totality of society in its historical speci-capitalism. The market (as an unconscious mecha-
city (i.e. how it came to be congured at a specic point nism for the distribution of goods) and private property
in time), and (2) That critical theory should improve un- had been replaced by centralized planning and socialized
derstanding of society by integrating all the major so- ownership of the means of production.[12]
cial sciences, including geography, economics, sociology, Yet, contrary to Marx's famous prediction in the Pref-
history, political science, anthropology, and psychology. ace to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,
This version of critical theory derives from Kant's this shift did not lead to an era of social revolution,
(18th-century) and Marx's (19th-century) use of the but rather to fascism and totalitarianism. As such, crit-
term "critique", as in Kants Critique of Pure Reason ical theory was left, in Jrgen Habermas' words, without
and Marxs concept that his work Das Kapital (Capi- anything in reserve to which it might appeal; and when
tal) forms a critique of political economy. For Kants the forces of production enter into a baneful symbiosis
transcendental idealism, critique means examining and with the relations of production that they were supposed
establishing the limits of the validity of a faculty, type, to blow wide open, there is no longer [13] any dynamism upon
or body of knowledge, especially through accounting for which critique could base its hope. For Adorno and
the limitations imposed by the fundamental, irreducible Horkheimer, this posed the problem of how to account
concepts in use in that knowledge system. for the apparent persistence of domination in the absence
of the very contradiction that, according to traditional
Kants notion of critique has been associated with the critical theory, was the source of domination itself.
overturning of false, unprovable, or dogmatic philosophi-
cal, social, and political beliefs, because Kants critique of In the 1960s, Jrgen Habermas raised the epistemological
discussion to a new level in his Knowledge and Human
reason involved the critique of dogmatic theological and
metaphysical ideas and was intertwined with the enhance- Interests, by identifying critical knowledge as based on
principles that dierentiated it either from the natural sci-
ment of ethical autonomy and the Enlightenment critique
of superstition and irrational authority. Ignored by many ences or the humanities, through its orientation to self-
reection and emancipation. Though unsatised with
in critical realist circles, however, is that Kants imme-
diate impetus for writing his Critique of Pure Reason Adorno and Horkeimers thought presented in Dialectic
of Enlightenment, Habermas shares the view that, in the
was to address problems raised by David Hume's skep-
tical empiricism which, in attacking metaphysics, em- form of instrumental rationality, the era of modernity
ployed reason and logic to argue against the knowability marks a move away from the liberation [14] of enlightenment
of the world and common notions of causation. Kant, by and toward a new form of enslavement.
contrast, pushed the employment of a priori metaphysi- His ideas regarding the relationship between modernity
cal claims as requisite, for if anything is to be said to be and rationalization are in this sense strongly inuenced
knowable, it would have to be established upon abstrac- by Max Weber. Habermas dissolved further the elements
tions distinct from perceivable phenomena. of critical theory derived from Hegelian German Ideal-
Marx explicitly developed the notion of critique into the ism, though his thought remains broadly Marxist in its
critique of ideology and linked it with the practice of so- epistemological approach. Perhaps his two most inu-
cial revolution, as stated in the famous 11th of his Theses ential ideas are the concepts of the public sphere and
on Feuerbach: The philosophers have only interpreted communicative action; the latter arriving partly as a re-
the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.[9] action to new post-structural or so-called "post-modern"
challenges to the discourse of modernity. Habermas en-
One of the distinguishing characteristics of critical the- gaged in regular correspondence with Richard Rorty and
ory, as Adorno and Horkheimer elaborated in their a strong sense of philosophical pragmatism may be felt in
Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), is a certain ambiva- his theory; thought which frequently traverses the bound-
lence concerning the ultimate source or foundation of so- aries between sociology and philosophy.
cial domination, an ambivalence which gave rise to the
"pessimism" of the new critical theory over the possi-
bility of human emancipation and freedom.[10] This am- 2.1 Postmodern critical theory
bivalence was rooted, of course, in the historical circum-
stances in which the work was originally produced, in par-
While modernist critical theory (as described above) con-
ticular, the rise of National Socialism, state capitalism,
cerns itself with forms of authority and injustice that ac-
and mass culture as entirely new forms of social domi-
companied the evolution of industrial and corporate cap-
nation that could not be adequately explained within the
italism as a political-economic system, postmodern crit-
terms of traditional Marxist sociology.[11]
ical theory politicizes social problems by situating them
For Adorno and Horkheimer, state intervention in econ- in historical and cultural contexts, to implicate themselves
omy had eectively abolished the tension between the in the process of collecting and analyzing data, and to rel-
"relations of production" and material productive forces ativize their ndings.[15] Meaning itself is seen as unsta-

ble due to the rapid transformation in social structures. through which mutual understanding is achieved
As a result, the focus of research is centered on local man- (Habermas).
ifestations, rather than broad generalizations.
The semiotic rules by which objects obtain symbolic
Postmodern critical research is also characterized by the meanings (Barthes).
crisis of representation, which rejects the idea that a re-
searchers work is an objective depiction of a stable The psychological processes by which the phe-
other. Instead, many postmodern scholars have adopted nomena of everyday consciousness are generated
alternatives that encourage reection about the 'politics (psychoanalytic thinkers).
and poetics of their work. In these accounts, the embod-
ied, collaborative, dialogic, and improvisational aspects The episteme that underlies our cognitive formations
of qualitative research are claried.[16] (Foucault),

The term critical theory is often appropriated when an

There is a common interest in the processes (often of
author works within sociological terms, yet attacks the so-
a linguistic or symbolic kind) that give rise to observ-
cial or human sciences (thus attempting to remain out-
able phenomena and here there is some mutual inu-
side those frames of inquiry). Michel Foucault is one
ence among the dierent versions of critical theory. Ul-
such author.[17]
timately, this emphasis on production and construction
Jean Baudrillard has also been described as a critical the- goes back to the revolution in philosophy wrought by
orist to the extent that he was an unconventional and Kant, namely his focus in the Critique of Pure Reason on
critical sociologist; this appropriation is similarly casual, synthesis according to rules as the fundamental activity
holding little or no relation to the Frankfurt School. of the mind that creates the order of our experience.

3 Language and construction 4 Education

The two points at which there is the greatest overlap or Critical theorists have widely credited Paulo Freire for
mutual impingement of the two versions of critical theory the rst applications of Critical theory towards education.
are in their interrelated foci on language, symbolism, and They consider his best-known work, Pedagogy of the Op-
communication and in their focus on social construction. pressed, a seminal text in what is now known as the phi-
losophy and social movement of Critical pedagogy.
3.1 Language and communication Since 2010, the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities has
organized annually the London Critical Theory Summer
From the 1960s and 1970s onward, language, symbol- School.
ism, text, and meaning came to be seen as the theoreti-
cal foundation for the humanities, through the inuence
of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ferdinand de Saussure, George 5 See also
Herbert Mead, Noam Chomsky, Hans-Georg Gadamer,
Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and other thinkers Main article: Outline of critical theory
in linguistic and analytic philosophy, structural linguis-
tics, symbolic interactionism, hermeneutics, semiology,
linguistically oriented psychoanalysis (Jacques Lacan,
Alfred Lorenzer), and deconstruction. 5.1 Lists
When, in the 1970s and 1980s, Jrgen Habermas rede-
ned critical social theory as a theory of communication, Information criticism
i.e. communicative competence and communicative ra- List of critical theorists
tionality on the one hand, distorted communication on the
other, the two versions of critical theory began to overlap List of works in critical theory
to a much greater degree than before.

5.2 Subelds
3.2 Construction
American studies in Britain
Both versions of critical theory have focused on the pro-
cesses by which human communication, culture, and Black feminism
political consciousness are created. This includes: Comparative literature

Whether it is through universal pragmatic principles Continental philosophy


Critical discourse analysis 6 Footnotes

Critical ethnography
[1] Critical theory in Anthony Elliott (ed.), The Routledge
Critical legal studies Companion to Social Theory, Routledge, 2009.

Critical management studies [2] Horkheimer 1982, p. 244.

Critical pedagogy [3] Geuss, Raymond (1981). The Idea of a Critical Theory.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Critical philosophy
[4] Outhwaite, William. 1988. Habermas: Key Contempo-
Critical psychiatry rary Thinkers 2nd Edition (2009), pp. 5-8 (ISBN 978-0-
Critical psychology
[5] See, e.g., Leszek Koakowski's Main Currents of Marxism
Critical race theory (1979), vol. 3 chapter X; W. W. Norton & Company,
ISBN 0393329437
Critical thinking
[6] Jay, Martin (1996) The Dialectical Imagination: A History
Critique of technology of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research,
19231950. University of California Press, ISBN 978-0-
Cultural materialism 520-20423-2, p. 41
Cultural studies [7] Raymond A. Morrow, David D. Brown, Critical Theory
and Methodology, SAGE Publications, 1994, p. 32.
Culture theory
[8] Bohman, James (2016-01-01). Zalta, Edward N., ed.
Engaged theory
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016 ed.).
Feminist theory Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.

FoucaultHabermas debate [9] Theses on Feuerbach. XI. Marxists Internet Archive.

Retrieved 11 April 2015.
[10] Adorno, T. W., with Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of En-
Living educational theory lightenment. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford
UP, 2002. 242.
Humanist Marxism
[11] Critical Theory was initially developed in Horkheimers
Literary theory circle to think through political disappointments at the ab-
sence of revolution in the West, the development of Stal-
Political philosophy inism in Soviet Russia, and the victory of fascism in Ger-
many. It was supposed to explain mistaken Marxist prog-
Political radicalism
noses, but without breaking Marxist intentions. The En-
Postcolonialism twinement of Myth and Enlightenment: Horkheimer and
Adorno. in Habermas, Jrgen. The Philosophical Dis-
Queer theory course of Modernity: Twelve Lectures. trans. Frederick
Lawrence. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987. 116. Also,
Rule according to higher law see Helmut Dubiel, Theory and Politics: Studies in the
Development of Critical Theory, trans. Benjamin Gregg
Semiotics of culture (Cambridge, Mass. and London, 1985).
Social criticism [12] "[G]one are the objective laws of the market which ruled
TartuMoscow Semiotic School in the actions of the entrepreneurs and tended toward
catastrophe. Instead the conscious decision of the man-
aging directors executes as results (which are more oblig-
atory than the blindest price-mechanisms) the old law of
5.3 Journals related to critical theory or
value and hence the destiny of capitalism. Dialectic of
critical sociology Enlightenment. p. 38.

Constellations [13] The Entwinement of Myth and Enlightenment, p. 118.

Representations [14] Outhwaite, William. 1988. Habermas: Key Contempo-

rary Thinkers 2nd Edition (2009). p6. ISBN 978-0-7456-
Critical Inquiry 4328-1
Telos [15] Lindlof & Taylor, 2002, p. 52

Law and Critique [16] Lindlof & Taylor, 2002, p. 53


[17] Rivera Vicencio, E. (2012). Foucault: His inuence over Lindlof, T. R., & Taylor, B. C. (2002). Qualita-
accounting and management research. Building of a map tive Communication Research Methods, 2nd Edition.
of Foucaults approach. Int. J. Critical Accounting. 4 Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
(5/6): 728756.
Morgan, Marcia. (2012). Kierkegaard and Critical
Theory. New York: Lexington Books.
7 References An example of critical postmodern work is Rolling,
Jr., J. H. (2008). Secular blasphemy: Utter(ed)
Horkheimer, Max. 1982. Critical Theory Selected transgressions against names and fathers in the post-
Essays. New York: Continuum Pub. modern era. Qualitative Inquiry, 14, 926948.

An accessible primer for the literary aspect of crit- Thomas, Jim (1993). Doing Critical Ethnography.
ical theory is Jonathan Cullers Literary Theory: A London, New York (NY): Sage 1993, pp. 15 &
Very Short Introduction ISBN 0-19-285383-X 1725

Another short introductory volume with illustra- An example of critical qualitative research is Tracy,
tions: Introducing Critical Theory Stuart Sim & S. J. (2000). Becoming a character for commerce:
Borin Van Loon, 2001. ISBN 1-84046-264-7 Emotion labor, self subordination and discursive
construction of identity in a total institution. Man-
A survey of and introduction to the current state of agement Communication Quarterly, 14, 90128.
critical social theory is Craig Calhouns Critical So-
Luca Corchia, La logica dei processi culturali. Jr-
cial Theory: Culture, History, and the Challenge of
gen Habermas tra losoa e sociologia, Genova,
Dierence (Blackwell, 1995) ISBN 1-55786-288-5
Edizioni ECIG, 2010, ISBN 978-88-7544-195-1.
Problematizing Global Knowledge. Theory, Culture
& Society. Vol. 23 (23). (Sage, 2006) ISSN 0263-
2764 8 External links
Raymond Geuss The Idea of a Critical Theory.
Habermas and the Frankfurt School. (Cambridge 8.1 Archival collections
University Press, 1981) ISBN 0-521-28422-8
Guide to the Critical Theory Oprint Collection.
Charles Arthur Willard Liberalism and the Problem Special Collections and Archives, The UC Irvine Li-
of Knowledge: A New Rhetoric for Modern Democ- braries, Irvine, California.
racy. University of Chicago Press. 1996. Guide to the Critical Theory Institute Audio and
Video Recordings, University of California, Irvine.
Charles Arthur Willard, A Theory of Argumenta-
Special Collections and Archives, The UC Irvine Li-
tion. University of Alabama Press. 1989.
braries, Irvine, California.
Charles Arthur Willard, Argumentation and the So-
University of California, Irvine, Critical Theory In-
cial Grounds of Knowledge. University of Alabama
stitute Manuscript Materials. Special Collections
Press. 1982.
and Archives, The UC Irvine Libraries, Irvine, Cal-
Harry Dahms (ed.), No Social Science Without Crit- ifornia.
ical Theory. Volume 25 of Current Perspectives in
Social Theory (Emerald/JAI, 2008).
8.2 Other
Charmaz, K. (1995). Between positivism and post-
Critical Theory, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philoso-
modernism: Implications for methods. Studies in
Symbolic Interaction, 17, 4372.
The Frankfurt School and Critical Theory.
Conquergood, D. (1991). Rethinking ethnogra-
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
phy: Towards a critical cultural politics (PDF).
Communication Monographs. 58 (2): 179194. Gerhardt, Christina. Frankfurt School. The In-
doi:10.1080/03637759109376222. ternational Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest.
Ness, Immanuel (ed). Blackwell Publishing, 2009.
Gandler, Stefan (2009) (in German), Fragmentos de Blackwell Reference Online.
Frankfurt. Ensayos sobre la Teora crtica, Mx-
ico: Siglo XXI Editores/Universidad Autnoma de Theory: Death Is Not the End N+1 magazines
Quertaro, ISBN 978-607-03-0070-7 short history of academic critical theory.

Critical Legal Thinking A Critical Legal Studies

website which uses critical theory in an analysis of
law and politics.

L. Corchia, Jrgen Habermas. A Bibliography:

works and studies (1952-2013), Pisa, Edizioni Il
Campano Arnus University Books, 2013, 606

9 Text and image sources, contributors, and licenses

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Yorick, Sethmahoney, Charles Matthews, Pedant17, Jjshapiro, VeryVerily, AaronSw, Rbellin, Matthewstapleton, Fredrik, Voyager640,
Sunray, AndreasB, Stirling Newberry, Cobra libre, Ds13, Romanpoet, Filceolaire, Pteron, Mboverload, Khalid hassani, Mporch, Fred-
condo, Piotrus, Phil Sandifer, Huntington, Halo, Picapica, Esperant, Stevenmattern, DanielCD, Buyg, Mercurius~enwiki, Rich Farm-
brough, Pluke, User2004, Dbachmann, FantasMic~enwiki, Bender235, Physicistjedi, Pearle, Burn, Pedro Aguiar, Mhazard9, Planders,
Woohookitty, StradivariusTV, Kzollman, Je3000, Bluemoose, Graham87, BD2412, Rjwilmsi, Josiah Rowe, Tangotango, Kevmitch,
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inWiki, Cognition, StarTrekkie, M3taphysical, Thegreyanomaly, Maunus, Smaines, Igin, Jbetteridge, Veinor, SmackBot, Gilliam, Bat-
tlecry, Tsop, Jwy, Elbelz, Kvcad, Dreadstar, Andrew c, Jon Awbrey, Metamagician3000, Navidnak, Kukini, Byelf2007, SoeElisBexter,
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