What’s Critical Theory?

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Critical theory is a Marxist inspired movement (in social and political philosophy) and approach to the study of society which developed between 1930 and 1970. It is associated with the work of the Frankfurt school. The Frankfurt School refers to the work of members of the Institute for Social Research which was established in 1923, Frankfurt, Germany.

The Frankfurt School

The Frankfurt School initially consisted of a group of interdisciplinary social theorists of whom three very important ones were Max Horkheimer, Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse. The institute was a Marxist-oriented research body with the aim of developing Marxist studies in Germany. Following the Russian revolution of 1917, Marxists thought that Germany would soon adopt socialism and become socialist, and thus the institute specifically devoted itself to the study of German society in the light of Marxist theory. This goal ended in 1933 when the institute was forced to close after the Nazi regime had rose to considerable power, although the institute managed to live on after moving to Columbia University, New York, United States.

Key social and philosophical preoccupations of the Frankfurt School were the critique of modernity, capitalist society, and social emancipation. Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse (all part of the first generation of theorists in the tradition), for example, feared that modern Western societies were turning into closed, totalitarian systems that would eventually eliminate individual autonomy. They saw totalitarianism as the result of the capitalist mode of production. The second generation of Frankfurt theorists was led by Jurgen Habermas who went on to become the leading critical theorist of the movement. Habermas opened up dialogue between continental and analytic traditions, and assisted in the Frankfurt School becoming more global. Its expansion eventually led to its methodological approaches influencing other European academic contexts and disciplines, and thanks to efforts of Richard Bernstein, critical theory enjoyed development in American universities. This was followed by a third generation of theorists who came about in the United States and at Germany as well as from a spontaneous convergence of independent scholars.

Critical Theory in the Narrow and Broad Sense

There are two main ways to understand as well as refer to critical theory, namely in the “broader” and “narrower” sense. The narrow sense denoting critical theory as it was first understood and articulated by the Frankfurt school itself, whereas the broader sense denoting all its uses beyond the Frankfurt school. The latter includes many different aspects and distinct historical phases that cross several generations. Critical theory has drawn on the thoughts of a number of theorists and movements such as Hegelian dialectics, Marxist theory, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Max Weber, and others. In terms of its broader usage, it became understood, within Marxist theory, as an approach to culture which considered the social, historical, and ideological forces and structures which produced and constrained it. For instance, Marxist theory critiqued society in hope to change it as a whole. Karl Marx believed that the liberation and the emancipation of the people (the proletariat class) was possible should they come to recognize the oppression which victimized them.

Given the expansion of critical theory it is widely adopted by social scientists, theorists, and philosophers, all active long after the Frankfurt School. In this broader sense, one can see its frequent use within media theory, media studies, feminist theory, critical race theory, cultural theory, and gender theory.


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