Understanding Critical Theory

Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx During Press Operations
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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. Critical theories aim to dig beneath the surface of social life and uncover the assumptions that keep us from a full and true understanding of how the world works.

Critical theory emerged out of the Marxist tradition and it was developed by a group of sociologists at the University of Frankfurt in Germany who referred to themselves as The Frankfurt School.

History and Overview

Critical theory as it is known today can be traced to Marx's critique of the economy and society put forth in his many works. It is inspired greatly by Marx's theoretical formulation of the relationship between economic base and ideological superstructure and tends to focus on how power and domination operate, in particular, in the realm of the superstructure.

Following in Marx's critical footsteps, Hungarian György Lukács and Italian Antonio Gramsci developed theories that explored the cultural and ideological sides of power and domination. Both Lukács and Gramsci focused their critique on the social forces that prevent people from seeing and understanding the forms of power and domination that exist in society and affect their lives.

Shortly following the period when Lukács and Gramsci developed and published their ideas, The Institute for Social Research was founded at the University of Frankfurt, and the Frankfurt School of critical theorists took shape. It is the work of those associated with the Frankfurt School, including Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, Walter Benjamin, Jürgen Habermas, and Herbert Marcuse, that is considered the definition and heart of critical theory.

Like Lukács and Gramsci, these theorists focused on ideology and cultural forces as facilitators of domination and barriers to true freedom. The contemporary politics and economic structures of the time greatly influenced their thought and writing, as they existed within the rise of national socialism, including the rise of the Nazi regime, state capitalism, and the rise and spread of mass-produced culture.

Max Horkheimer defined critical theory in the book Traditional and Critical Theory. In this work, Horkheimer asserted that a critical theory must do two important things: it must account for the whole of society within a historical context, and it should seek to offer a robust and holistic critique by incorporating insights from all social sciences.

Further, Horkheimer stated that a theory can only be considered a true critical theory if it is explanatory, practical, and normative, meaning that the theory must adequately explain the social problems that exist, it must offer practical solutions for how to respond to them and make change, and it must clearly abide by the norms of criticism established by the field.

With this formulation Horkheimer condemned "traditional" theorists for producing works that fail to question power, domination, and the status quo, thus building on Gramsci's critique of the role of intellectuals in processes of domination.

Key Texts

Texts associated with the Frankfurt School focused their critique on the centralization of economic, social, and political control that was transpiring around them. Key texts from this period include:

  • Critical and Traditional Theory (Horkheimer)
  • Dialectic of the Enlightenment (Adorno and Horkheimer)
  • Knowledge and Human Interests (Habermas)
  • The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Habermas)
  • One-Dimensional Man (Marcuse)
  • The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (Benjamin)

Critical Theory Today

Over the years, the goals and tenets of critical theory have been adopted by many social scientists and philosophers who have come after the Frankfurt School. We can recognize critical theory today in many feminist theories and feminist approaches to conducting social science, in critical race theory, cultural theory, in gender and queer theory, and in media theory and media studies.