Philosophy:Critical theory

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Short description: Approach to social philosophy

A critical theory is any approach to humanities and social philosophy that focuses on society and culture to attempt to reveal, critique, and challenge power structures.[1] With roots in sociology and literary criticism, it argues that social problems stem more from social structures and cultural assumptions rather than from individuals.[citation needed] Some hold it to be an ideology,[2] others argue that ideology is the principal obstacle to human liberation.[3] Critical theory finds applications in various fields of study, including psychoanalysis, film theory, literary theory, cultural studies, history, communication theory, philosophy, and feminist theory.[4]

Critical Theory (capitalized) is a school of thought practiced by the Frankfurt School theoreticians Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Erich Fromm, and Max Horkheimer on the one hand, and on the other any philosophical approach that seeks to liberate people from all forms of oppression and actively works to create a world in accordance with human needs (usually called "critical theory", without capitalization). Philosophical approaches within this broader definition include feminism, critical race theory, post-structuralism, queer theory and forms of postcolonialism.[5][6]

Horkheimer described a theory as critical insofar as it seeks "to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them".[7] Although a product of modernism, and although many of the progenitors of Critical Theory were skeptical of postmodernism, Critical Theory is one of the major components of both modern and postmodern thought, and is widely applied in the humanities and social sciences today.[8][9][10]

In addition to its roots in the first-generation Frankfurt School, critical theory has also been influenced by György Lukács and Antonio Gramsci. Additionally, second-generation Frankfurt School scholars have been influential, notably Jürgen Habermas. In Habermas's work, critical theory transcended its theoretical roots in German idealism and progressed closer to American pragmatism. Concern for social "base and superstructure" is one of the remaining Marxist philosophical concepts in much contemporary critical theory.[11]:5–8


Max Horkheimer first defined critical theory (German: Kritische Theorie) in his 1937 essay "Traditional and Critical Theory", as a social theory oriented toward critiquing and changing society as a whole, in contrast to traditional theory oriented only toward understanding or explaining it. Wanting to distinguish critical theory as a radical, emancipatory form of Marxist philosophy, Horkheimer critiqued 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. He described a theory as critical insofar as it seeks "to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them".[12] Critical theory involves a normative dimension, either by criticizing society in terms of some general theory of values or norms (oughts), or by criticizing society in terms of its own espoused values (i.e. immanent critique).[13] Significantly, critical theory not only conceptualizes and critiques societal power structures, but also establishes an empirically grounded model to link society to the human subject.[14] It defends the universalist ambitions of the tradition, but does so within a specific context of social-scientific and historical research.[14]

The core concepts of critical theory are that it 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)
  • improve understanding of society by integrating all the major social sciences, including geography, economics, sociology, history, political science, anthropology, and psychology

Postmodern critical theory is another major product of critical theory. It analyzes the fragmentation of cultural identities in order to challenge modernist-era constructs such as metanarratives, rationality, and universal truths, while politicizing 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".[15]


Marx explicitly developed the notion of critique into the critique of ideology, linking it with the practice of social revolution, as stated in the 11th section of his Theses on Feuerbach: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it."[16] In early works, including The German Ideology, Marx developed his concepts of false consciousness and of ideology as the interests of one section of society masquerading as the interests of society as a whole.

Adorno and Horkheimer

One of the distinguishing characteristics of critical theory, as Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer elaborated in their Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), is an ambivalence about the ultimate source or foundation of social domination, an ambivalence that gave rise to the "pessimism" of the new critical theory about the possibility of human emancipation and freedom.[17] This ambivalence was rooted in the historical circumstances in which the work was originally produced, particularly the rise of Nazism, state capitalism, and culture industry as entirely new forms of social domination that could not be adequately explained in the terms of traditional Marxist sociology.[18][19]

For Adorno and Horkheimer, state intervention in the economy had effectively abolished the traditional tension between Marxism's "relations of production" and "material productive forces" of society. The market (as an "unconscious" mechanism for the distribution of goods) had been replaced by centralized planning.[20]

Contrary to Marx's 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 to fascism and totalitarianism. As such, critical theory was left, in Habermas's 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".[21] 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, Habermas, a proponent of critical social theory,[22] raised the epistemological discussion to a new level in his Knowledge and Human Interests (1968), 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.[23] Although unsatisfied with Adorno and Horkheimer's thought 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.[11]:6 In Habermas's work, critical theory transcended its theoretical roots in German idealism, and progressed closer to American pragmatism.

Habermas's ideas about the relationship between modernity and rationalization are in this sense strongly influenced by Max Weber. He further dissolved the elements of critical theory derived from Hegelian German idealism, though his epistemology remains broadly Marxist. 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 "postmodern" 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 thought, which frequently traverses the boundaries between sociology and philosophy.

Modern critical theorists

Contemporary philosophers and researchers who have focused on understanding and critiquing critical theory include Nancy Fraser, Axel Honneth, Judith Butler, and Rahel Jaeggi. Honneth is known for his works Pathology of Reason and The Legacy of Critical Theory, in which he attempts to explain critical theory's purpose in a modern context.[24][25] Jaeggi focuses on both critical theory's original intent and a more modern understanding that some argue has created a new foundation for modern usage of critical theory.[24] Butler contextualizes critical theory as a way to rhetorically challenge oppression and inequality, specifically concepts of gender.[26]

Honneth established a theory that many use to understand critical theory, the theory of recognition.[27] In this theory, he asserts that in order for someone to be responsible for themselves and their own identity they must be also recognized by those around them: without recognition from peers and society, critical theory could not occur.

Like many others who put stock in critical theory, Jaeggi is vocal about capitalism's cost to society. Throughout her writings, she has remained doubtful about the necessity and use of capitalism in regard to critical theory.[28] Most of Jaeggi's interpretations of critical theory seem to work against the foundations of Habermas and follow more along the lines of Honneth in terms of how to look at the economy through the theory's lens.[29] She shares many of Honneth's beliefs, and many of her works try to defend them against criticism Honneth has received.[30]

To provide a dialectical opposite to Jaeggi's conception of alienation as 'a relation of relationlessness', Hartmut Rosa has proposed the concept of resonance.[31][32] Rosa uses this term to refer to moments when late modern subjects experience momentary feelings of self-efficacy in society, bringing them into a temporary moment of relatedness with some aspect of the world.[32] Rosa describes himself as working within the critical theory tradition of the Frankfurt School, providing an extensive critique of late modernity through his concept of social acceleration.[33] However his resonance theory has been questioned for moving too far beyond the Adornoian tradition of "looking coldly at society".[34]

In academia

Postmodern critical social theory

Focusing on language, symbolism, communication, and social construction, critical theory has been applied in the social sciences as a critique of social construction and postmodern society.[9]

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".[15] Meaning itself is seen as unstable due to social structures' rapid transformation. As a result, research focuses on local manifestations rather than broad generalizations.

Postmodern critical research is also characterized by the crisis of representation, which rejects the idea that a researcher's work is an "objective depiction of a stable other". Instead, 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."[35]

The term critical theory is often appropriated when an author works in sociological terms, yet attacks the social or human sciences, thus attempting to remain "outside" those frames of inquiry. Michel Foucault has been described as one such author.[36] Jean Baudrillard has also been described as a critical theorist to the extent that he was an unconventional and critical sociologist;[37] this appropriation is similarly casual, holding little or no relation to the Frankfurt School.[38] In contrast, Habermas is one of the key critics of postmodernism.[39]

Communication studies

When, in the 1970s and 1980s, Habermas redefined critical social theory as a study of communication, with communicative competence and communicative rationality on the one hand, and distorted communication on the other, the two versions of critical theory began to overlap to a much greater degree than before.[citation needed]


Critical theorists have widely credited Paulo Freire for the first applications of critical theory to education/pedagogy, considering his best-known work to be Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a seminal text in what is now known as the philosophy and social movement of critical pedagogy.[40][41] Dedicated to the oppressed and based on his own experience helping Brazilian adults learn to read and write, Freire includes a detailed Marxist class analysis in his exploration of the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. In the book, he calls traditional pedagogy the "banking model of education", because it treats the student as an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge. He argues that pedagogy should instead treat the learner as a co-creator of knowledge.

In contrast to the banking model, the teacher in the critical-theory model is not the dispenser of all knowledge, but a participant who learns with and from the students—in conversation with them, even as they learn from the teacher. The goal is to liberate the learner from an oppressive construct of teacher versus student, a dichotomy analogous to colonizer and colonized. It is not enough for the student to analyze societal power structures and hierarchies, to merely recognize imbalance and inequity; critical theory pedagogy must also empower the learner to reflect and act on that reflection to challenge an oppressive status quo.[40][42]


While critical theorists have often been called Marxist intellectuals, their tendency to denounce some Marxist concepts and to combine Marxian analysis with other sociological and philosophical traditions has resulted in accusations of revisionism by Orthodox Marxist and by Marxist–Leninist philosophers. Martin Jay has said that the first generation of critical theory is best understood not as promoting a specific philosophical agenda or ideology, but as "a gadfly of other systems".[43]

Critical theory has been criticized for not offering any clear road map to political action (praxis), often explicitly repudiating any solutions.[44] Those objections mostly apply to first-generation Frankfurt School, while the issue of politics is addressed in a much more assertive way in contemporary theory.[45]

Another criticism of critical theory "is that it fails to provide rational standards by which it can show that it is superior to other theories of knowledge, science, or practice." Rex Gibson argues that critical theory suffers from being cliquish, conformist, elitist, immodest, anti-individualist, naivety, being too critical, and being contradictory. Hughes and Hughes argue that Habermas' theory of ideal public discourse "says much about rational talkers talking, but very little about actors acting: Felt, perceptive, imaginative, bodily experience does not fit these theories".[46][47]

Some feminists argue that critical theory "can be as narrow and oppressive as the rationalization, bureaucratization, and cultures they seek to unmask and change.[46][47]

Critical theory's language has been criticized as being too dense to understand, although "Counter arguments to these issues of language include claims that a call for clearer and more accessible language is anti-intellectual, a new 'language of possibility' is needed, and oppressed peoples can understand and contribute to new languages."[47]

Bruce Pardy, writing for the National Post, argued that any challenges to the "legitimacy [of critical theory] can be interpreted as a demonstration of their [critical theory's proponents'] thesis: the assertion of reason, logic and evidence is a manifestation of privilege and power. Thus, any challenger risks the stigma of a bigoted oppressor."[48]

Robert Danisch, writing for The Conversation, argued that critical theory, and the modern humanities more broadly, focus too much on criticizing the current world rather than trying to make a better world.[49] Kittie Helmick, writing for The Critic, argued that:[50]

In academic circles, there is a growing awareness that critical theory has passed its prime. Literary scholars are seeking alternatives to deconstruction and denunciation, taking tentative steps towards devising a collaborative approach to humanities research, peering into possibilities for anchoring their inquiries to physical reality. New ventures range from digital humanities projects, interfacing dozens of scholars worldwide; to cognitive criticism, drawing on neuroscience and psychology ... The endlessly self-referential and self-negating process of exposing problems and undermining premises has exhausted itself. The only question is what will replace it, as it replaced modernism in its turn.

See also





  1. "Critical theory" (in en). 
  2. Disco, Cornelis. "Critical theory as ideology of the new class: Rereading Jürgen Habermas." Theory and Society (1979): 159-214.
  3. Geuss, Raymond (1981). The Idea of a Critical Theory. Cambridge University Press. pp. 2–3. ISBN 0521240727. "The very heart of the critical theory of society is its criticism of ideology. Their ideology is what prevents the agents in the society from correctly perceiving their true situation and real interests; if they are to free themselves from social repression, the agents must rid themselves of ideological illusion." 
  4. "The Left Hemisphere" (in en). 
  5. Bohman, James; Flynn, Jeffrey; Celikates, Robin. "Critical Theory". in Zalta, Edward N.. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2019 ed.). 
  6. "Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide" (in en). 
  7. Horkheimer 1982, 244.
  8. Ritzer, George, Sociological Theory, From Modern to Postmodern Social Theory (and Beyond), McGraw-Hill Higher Education, New York, New York, 2008, pp. 567–568.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Agger, Ben (2012), "Ben Agger", North American Critical Theory After Postmodernism, Palgrave Macmillan UK, pp. 128–154, doi:10.1057/9781137262868_7, ISBN 978-1349350391 .
  10. Critical Theory and Society: A Reader. Routledge. 1990. 
  11. 11.0 11.1 Outhwaite, William. [1988] 2009. Habermas: Key Contemporary Thinkers (2nd ed.). ISBN:978-0745643281.
  12. Horkheimer 1982, p. 244.
  13. Bohman, James (8 March 2005). "Critical Theory". in Zalta, Edward N.. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016 ed.). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. 
  14. 14.0 14.1 Bohman, James; Flynn, Jeffrey; Celikates, Robin (2021), Zalta, Edward N., ed., Critical Theory (Spring 2021 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University,, retrieved 2022-06-10 
  15. 15.0 15.1 Lindlof, Thomas R.; Taylor, Bryan C. (2002) (in en). Qualitative Communication Research Methods. Sage. p. 49. ISBN 978-0761924944. "forms of authority and injustice that accompanied the evolution of industrial and corporate capitalism as a political-economic system." 
  16. "Theses on Feuerbach". Marxists Internet Archive. 
  17. Adorno, Theodor W., and Max Horkheimer. [1947] 2002. Dialectic of Enlightenment, translated by E. Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford University Press. p. 242.
  18. Habermas, Jürgen. 1987. "The Entwinement of Myth and Enlightenment: Horkheimer and Adorno". In The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures, translated by F. Lawrence. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. p. 116: "Critical Theory was initially developed in Horkheimer's circle to think through political disappointments at the absence of revolution in the West, the development of Stalinism in Soviet Russia, and the victory of fascism in Germany. It was supposed to explain mistaken Marxist prognoses, but without breaking Marxist intentions."
  19. Dubiel, Helmut. 1985. Theory and Politics: Studies in the Development of Critical Theory, translated by B. Gregg. Cambridge, MA.
  20. Dialectic of Enlightenment. p. 38: "[G]one are the objective laws of the market which ruled in the actions of the entrepreneurs and tended toward catastrophe. Instead the conscious decision of the managing directors executes as results (which are more obligatory than the blindest price-mechanisms) the old law of value and hence the destiny of capitalism."
  21. "The Entwinement of Myth and Enlightenment", p. 118.
  22. Katsiaficas, George N., Robert George Kirkpatrick, and Mary Lou Emery. 1987. Introduction to Critical Sociology. Irvington Publishers. p. 26.
  23. Laurie, Timothy, Hannah Stark, and Briohny Walker. 2019. "Critical Approaches to Continental Philosophy: Intellectual Community, Disciplinary Identity, and the Politics of Inclusion". . Parrhesia 30:1–17. doi:10.1007/s10691-011-9167-4. (Discusses critical social theory as a form of self-reflection.)
  24. 24.0 24.1 Fazio, Giorgio (21 May 2021). "Situating Rahel Jaeggi in the Contemporary Frankfurt Critical Theory". Critical Horizons 22 (2): 116. doi:10.1080/14409917.2019.1676943. 
  25. Nancy Fraser (1985). What’s critical about critical theory? The case of Habermas and gender. New German Critique, 35, 97-131.
  26. "Judith Butler Wants Us to Reshape Our Rage". The New Yorker. 9 February 2020. 
  27. Boston, Timothy (May 2018). "New Directions for a Critical Theory of Work: Reading Honneth Through Deranty.". Critical Horizons 19 (2): 111. doi:10.1080/14409917.2018.1453287. 
  28. Condon, Roderick (April 2021). "Nancy Fraser and Rahel Jaeggi, Capitalism: A Conversation in Critical Theory.". Irish Journal of Sociology 29 (1): 129. doi:10.1177/0791603520930989. 
  29. Marco, Marco; Testa, Italo (May 2021). "Immanent Critique of Capitalism as a Form of Life: On Rahel Jaeggi's Critical Theory". Critical Horizons 22 (2): 111. doi:10.1080/14409917.2020.1719630. 
  30. Fazio, Giorgio (21 May 2021). "Situating Rahel Jaeggi in the Contemporary Frankfurt Critical Theory". Critical Horizons 22 (2): 116. doi:10.1080/14409917.2019.1676943. 
  31. Jaeggi, Rahel; Neuhouser, Frederick (2014). Alienation. New directions in critical theory. New York: Columbia university press. ISBN 978-0-231-15198-6. 
  32. 32.0 32.1 Rosa, Hartmut (2016). Resonanz: eine Soziologie der Weltbeziehung (3. Aufl ed.). Berlin: Suhrkamp. ISBN 978-3-518-58626-6. 
  33. Rosa, Hartmut (2013-12-31). Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity. Columbia University Press. doi:10.7312/rosa14834. ISBN 978-0-231-51988-5. 
  34. Brumlik, Micha (2016). Resonanz oder: Das Ende der kritischen Theorie.. pp. 120–123.. 
  35. Lindlof & Taylor, 2002, p. 53.
  36. Rivera Vicencio, E. (2012). "Foucault: His influence over accounting and management research. Building of a map of Foucault's approach". International Journal of Critical Accounting 4 (5/6): 728–756. doi:10.1504/IJCA.2012.051466. Retrieved 4 July 2015. 
  37. "Introduction to Jean Baudrillard, Module on Postmodernity". 
  38. Kellner, Douglas (22 April 2005). "Jean Baudrillard". in Zalta, Edward N.. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2015 ed.). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. 
  39. Aylesworth, Gary. "Postmodernism". in Zalta, Edward N.. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 ed.). 
  40. 40.0 40.1 "Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed : Book Summary" (in en-US). 2014-07-09. 
  41. For a history of the emergence of critical theory in the field of education, see Gottesman, Isaac. 2016. The Critical Turn in Education: From Marxist Critique to Postructuralist Feminism to Critical Theories of Race. New York: Routledge.
  42. See, e.g., Kołakowski, Leszek. [1976] 1979. Main Currents of Marxism 3. W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN:0393329437. ch. 10.
  43. Jay, Martin (1996). The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923–1950. University of California Press. p. 41. ISBN 978-0520204232. Retrieved 7 May 2020. 
  44. Corradetti, Claudio. "The Frankfurt School and Critical Theory". . Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  45. Bohmann, Ulf; Sörensen, Paul (2022-06-20). "Exploring a Critical Theory of politics". Civitas - Revista de Ciências Sociais 22: e42204. doi:10.15448/1984-7289.2022.1.42204. ISSN 1984-7289. 
  46. 46.0 46.1 "Understanding Critical Theory" (in en-US). 2022-11-03. 
  48. Pardy, Bruce (June 24, 2023). "How Canada's secular religion of cultural self-hate took hold". National Post. 
  49. Danisch, Robert (2023-01-10). "The humanities should teach about how to make a better world, not just criticize the existing one" (in en). 
  50. Helmick, Kittie (2022-10-22). "Critical theory is dead" (in en-GB). 


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