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Critical theory is the examination and critique of society and culture, drawing from knowledge across the social sciences and humanities. The term has two different meanings with different origins and histories: one originating in sociology and the other in literary criticism. This has led to the very literal use of 'critical theory' as an umbrella term to describe theoretical critique.
Critical theory, in the sociological context, refers to a style of Marxist theory with a tendency to engage with non-Marxist influences (for instance the work of Nietzsche and Freud). This tendency has been referred to pejoratively by stricter Marxists as 'revisionism'. Modern critical theory arose from a trajectory extending from the nonpositivist sociology of Weber and Simmel, the neo-Marxist theory of Lukács and Gramsci, toward the milieu associated with Frankfurt Institute of Social Research. It is with the so-called 'Frankfurt School' of theorists that the term is most commonly associated: Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, and Jürgen Habermas. With the latter, critical theory shed further its roots in German Idealism and moved closer to American Pragmatism. The theoretical concern for a cultural 'superstructure' derived from a material 'base' often remains as the only central Marxist tenet in contemporary critical theory.
The two meanings of critical theory—from different intellectual traditions associated with the meaning of criticism and critique—derive ultimately from the Greek word kritikos meaning judgment or discernment, and in their present forms go back to the 18th century. While they can be considered completely independent intellectual pursuits, increasingly scholars are interested in the areas of critique where the two overlap.
To use an epistemological distinction introduced by Jürgen Habermas in Erkenntnis und Interesse  (Knowledge and Human Interests), critical theory in literary studies is ultimately a form of hermeneutics, i.e. knowledge via interpretation to understand the meaning of human texts and symbolic expressions -- including the interpretation of texts which are themselves implicitly or explicitly the interpretation of other texts. Critical social theory is, in contrast, a form of self-reflective knowledge involving both understanding and theoretical explanation to reduce entrapment in systems of domination or dependence, obeying the emancipatory interest in expanding the scope of autonomy and reducing the scope of domination.
From this perspective, much literary critical theory, since it is focused on interpretation and explanation rather than on social transformation, would be regarded as positivistic or traditional rather than critical theory in the Kantian or Marxian sense. Critical theory in literature and the humanities in general does not necessarily involve a normative dimension, whereas critical social theory does, either through criticizing society from some general theory of values, norms, or "oughts," or through criticizing it in terms of its own espoused values.
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|Reason and Revolution
Dialectic of Enlightenment
Eros and Civilization
|Max Horkheimer · Theodor Adorno
Herbert Marcuse · Walter Benjamin
Franz Neumann · Friedrich Pollock
Erich Fromm · Leo Löwenthal
Helmut Reichelt · Jürgen Habermas
|Critical theory · Dialectic · Praxis
Psychoanalysis · Antipositivism
Popular culture · Culture industry
Advanced capitalism · Privatism
Critical theory was first defined by Max Horkheimer of the Frankfurt School of sociology in his 1937 essay Traditional and Critical Theory: Critical theory is a social theory oriented toward critiquing and changing society as a whole, in contrast to traditional theory oriented only to understanding or explaining it. Horkheimer wanted to distinguish critical theory as a radical, emancipatory form of Marxian theory, critiquing both the model of science put forward by logical positivism and what he and his colleagues saw as the covert positivism and authoritarianism of orthodox Marxism and Communism. Core concepts are: (1) That critical social theory should be directed at the totality of society in its historical specificity (i.e. how it came to be configured at a specific point in time), and (2) That critical theory should improve understanding of society by integrating all the major social sciences, including geography, economics, sociology, history, political science, anthropology, and psychology.
This version of "critical" theory derives from Kant's (18th-century) and Marx's (19th Century) use of the term "critique", as in Kant's Critique of Pure Reason and Marx's concept that his work Das Kapital (Capital) forms a "critique of political economy". For Kant's transcendental idealism, "critique" means examining and establishing the limits of the validity of a faculty, type, or body of knowledge, especially through accounting for the limitations imposed by the fundamental, irreducible concepts in use in that knowledge system. Early on, Kant's notion associated critique with the disestablishment of false, unprovable, or dogmatic philosophical, social, and political beliefs, because Kant's critique of reason involved the critique of dogmatic theological and metaphysical ideas and was intertwined with the enhancement of ethical autonomy and the Enlightenment critique of superstition and irrational authority. Marx explicitly developed this notion into the critique of ideology and linked it with the practice of social revolution, as in the famous 11th of his "Theses on Feuerbach," "Philosophers have only interpreted the world in certain ways; the point is to change it".
One of the distinguishing characteristics of critical theory, as Adorno and Horkheimer elaborated in their Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), is a certain ambivalence concerning the ultimate source or foundation of social domination, an ambivalence which gave rise to the “pessimism” of the new critical theory over the possibility of human emancipation and freedom. This ambivalence was rooted, of course, in the historical circumstances in which the work was originally produced, in particular, the rise of National Socialism, state capitalism, and mass culture as entirely new forms of social domination that could not be adequately explained within the terms of traditional Marxist sociology. For Adorno and Horkheimer state intervention in the economy had effectively abolished the tension in capitalism between the "relations of production" and "material productive forces of society," a tension which, according to traditional critical theory, constituted the primary contradiction within capitalism. The market (as an "unconscious" mechanism for the distribution of goods) and private property had been replaced by centralized planning and socialized ownership of the means of production. Yet, contrary to Marx’s famous prediction in the Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, this shift did not lead to "an era of social revolution," but rather to fascism and totalitarianism. As such, critical theory was left, in Jürgen Habermas’ words, without "anything in reserve to which it might appeal; and when the forces of production enter into a baneful symbiosis with the relations of production that they were supposed to blow wide open, there is no longer any dynamism upon which critique could base its hope." For Adorno and Horkheimer, this posed the problem of how to account for the apparent persistence of domination in the absence of the very contradiction that, according to traditional critical theory, was the source of domination itself.
In the 1960s, Jürgen Habermas raised the epistemological discussion to a new level in his Knowledge and Human Interests, by identifying critical knowledge as based on principles that differentiated it either from the natural sciences or the humanities, through its orientation to self-reflection and emancipation. Though unsatisfied with Adorno and Horkeimer's thought presented in Dialectic of Enlightenment, Habermas shares the view that, in the form of instrumental rationality, the era of modernity marks a move away from the liberation of enlightenment and toward a new form of enslavement. His ideas regarding the relationship between modernity and rationalization are in this sense strongly influenced by Max Weber. Habermas dissolved further the elements of critical theory derived from Hegelian German Idealism, though his thought remains broadly Marxist in its epistemological approach. Perhaps his two most influential ideas are the concepts of the public sphere and communicative action; the latter arriving partly as a reaction to new post-structural or so-called 'post-modern' challenges to the discourse of modernity. Habermas engaged in regular correspondence with Richard Rorty and a strong sense of philosophical pragmatism may be felt in his theory; thought which frequently traverses the boundaries between sociology and philosophy.
While modernist critical theory (as described above) concerns itself with “forms of authority and injustice that accompanied the evolution of industrial and corporate capitalism as a political-economic system,” postmodern critical theory politicizes social problems “by situating them in historical and cultural contexts, to implicate themselves in the process of collecting and analyzing data, and to relativize their findings” (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002, p. 52). Meaning itself is seen as unstable due to the rapid transformation in social structures and as a result the focus of research is centered on local manifestations rather than broad generalizations.
Postmodern critical research is also characterized by what is called, the crisis of representation, which rejects the idea that a researcher’s work is considered an “objective depiction of a stable other” (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002, p. 53). Instead, in their research and writing, many postmodern scholars have adopted “alternatives that encourage reflection about the ‘politics and poetics’ of their work. In these accounts, the embodied, collaborative, dialogic, and improvisational aspects of qualitative research are clarified” (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002, p. 53). For an example of postmodern critical work, see Rolling’s piece, entitled Secular Blasphemy: Utter(ed) Transgressions Against Names and Fathers in the Postmodern Era (2008).
Often, the term 'critical theory' is appropriated when an author (perhaps most notably Michel Foucault) works within sociological terms yet attacks the social or human sciences (thus attempting to remain 'outside' those frames of enquiry). Jean Baudrillard has also been described as a critical theorist to the extent that he was an unconventional and critical sociologist; this appropriation is similarly casual, holding little or no relation to the Frankfurt School.
Critical ethnography is "a type of reflection that examines culture, knowledge, and action...Critical ethnographers describe, analyze, and open to scrutiny otherwise hidden agendas, power centers, and assumptions that inhibit, repress, and constrain" (Thomas, 1993, pp. 2–3). While "conventional ethnography" "describes what is", critical ethnography "asks what could be"….Conventional ethnographers study culture for the purposes of describing it; critical ethnographers do so to change it" (Thomas, 1993, p. 4).
The second meaning of critical theory is that of theory used in literary criticism ("critical theory") and in the analysis and understanding of literature. This is discussed in greater detail under literary theory. This form of critical theory is not necessarily oriented toward radical social change or even toward the analysis of society, but instead specializes on the analysis of texts. It originated among literary scholars and in the discipline of literature in the 1960s and 1970s, and has really only come into broad use since the 1980s, especially as theory used in literary studies has increasingly been influenced by European philosophy and social theory.
This version of "critical" theory derives from the notion of literary criticism as establishing and enhancing the understanding and evaluation of literature in the search for truth. Some consider literary theory merely an aesthetic concern, as articulated, for example, in Joseph Addison's notion of a critic as one who helps understand and interpret literary works: "A true critic ought to dwell rather upon excellencies than imperfections, to discover the concealed beauties of a writer, and communicate to the world such things as are worth their observation." This notion of criticism ultimately goes back to Aristotle's Poetics as a theory of literature.
From the literary side, starting in the 1960s literary scholars, reacting especially against the New Criticism of the previous decades, which tried to analyze literary texts purely internally, began to incorporate into their analyses and interpretations of literary works initially semiotic, linguistic, and interpretive theory, then structuralism, Lacanian psychoanalysis, post-structuralism, and deconstruction as well as Continental philosophy, especially phenomenology and hermeneutics, and critical social theory and various other forms of neo-Marxian theory.
Thus literary criticism became highly theoretical and some of those practicing it began referring to the theoretical dimension of their work as "critical theory", i.e. philosophically inspired theory of literary criticism. And thus incidentally critical theory in the sociological sense also became, especially among literary scholars of left-wing sympathies, one of a number of influences upon and streams within critical theory in the literary sense.
Furthermore, along with the expansion of the mass media and mass/popular culture in the 1960s and 1970s and the blending of social and cultural criticism and literary criticism, the methods of both kinds of critical theory sometimes intertwined in the analysis of phenomena of popular culture, as in the emerging field of cultural studies, in which concepts deriving from Marxian theory, post-structuralism, semiology, psychoanalysis and feminist theory would be found in the same interpretive work. Both strands were often present in the various modalities of postmodern theory.
The two points at which there is the greatest overlap or mutual impingement of the two versions of critical theory are in their interrelated foci on language, symbolism, and communication and in their focus on construction.
From the 1960s and 1970s onward, language, symbolism, text, and meaning became foundational to theory in the humanities and social sciences, through the short-term and long-term influences of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ferdinand de Saussure, George Herbert Mead, Noam Chomsky, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and other thinkers in the traditions of linguistic and analytic philosophy, structural linguistics, symbolic interactionism, hermeneutics, semiology, linguistically oriented psychoanalysis (Jacques Lacan, Alfred Lorenzer), and deconstruction. When, in the 1970s and 1980s, Jürgen Habermas also redefined critical social theory as a theory of communication, i.e. communicative competence and communicative rationality on the one hand, distorted communication on the other, the two versions of critical theory began to overlap or intertwine to a much greater degree than before.
Both versions of critical theory have focused on the processes of synthesis, production, or construction by which the phenomena and objects of human communication, culture, and political consciousness come about. Whether it is through the universal pragmatic principles through which mutual understanding is generated (Habermas), the semiotic rules by which objects of daily usage or of fashion obtain their meanings (Barthes), the psychological processes by which the phenomena of everyday consciousness are generated (psychoanalytic thinkers), the episteme that underlies our cognitive formations (Foucault), and so on, there is a common interest in the processes (often of a linguistic or symbolic kind) that give rise to observable phenomena. Here there is significant mutual influence among aspects of the different versions of critical theory. Ultimately this emphasis on production and construction goes back to the revolution wrought by Kant in philosophy, namely his focus in the Critique of Pure Reason on synthesis according to rules as the fundamental activity of the mind that creates the order of our experience.