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. It differs from traditional theory, which focuses only on understanding or explaining society. Critical theories aim to dig beneath the surface of social life and uncover the assumptions that keep human beings from a full and true understanding of how the world works.

Critical theory emerged out of the Marxist tradition and 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 critiques of the economy and society. It is inspired greatly by Marx's theoretical formulation of the relationship between economic base and ideological superstructure and focuses on how power and domination operate.

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 understanding how power affects their lives.

Shortly after Lukács and Gramsci published their ideas, the Institute for Social Research was founded at the University of Frankfurt, and the Frankfurt School of critical theorists took shape. The work of the Frankfurt School members, including Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, Walter Benjamin, Jürgen Habermas, and Herbert Marcuse, is considered the heart of critical theory.

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

The Purpose of Critical Theory

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 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. The theory must adequately explain the social problems that exist, offer practical solutions for how to respond to them, and abide by the norms of criticism established by the field.

Horkheimer condemned "traditional" theorists for producing works that fail to question power, domination, and the status quo. He expanded 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, many social scientists and philosophers who rose to prominence after the Frankfurt School have adopted the goals and tenets of critical theory. We can recognize critical theory today in many feminist theories and approaches to conducting social science. It is also found in critical race theory, cultural theory, gender, and queer theory, as well as in media theory and media studies.