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Critical theory

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In the humanities and social sciences, critical theory has two quite different meanings with different origins and histories, one originating in social theory and the other in literary criticism. Though until recently these two meanings had little to do with each other, since the 1970s there has been some overlap between these disciplines. This has led to "critical theory" becoming an umbrella term for an array of theories within the academic world of the United Kingdom and the United States. This article focuses primarily on the differences and similarities between them.

Critical theory (social theory)

The first meaning of the term critical theory was that defined by Max Horkheimer of the Frankfurt School of social science in his 1937 essay Traditional and Critical Theory : critical theory is 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 both from the model of science put forward by logical positivism and from what he and his colleagues perceived as the covert positivism and authoritarianism of orthodox Marxism and Communism. It is also central to this notion that critical social theory be directed at the totality of society in its historical specificity, i.e. in the way it had come to be configured at a specific point in time, and that it integrates all of the major social science theories that will help grasp the major dimensions of society, including especially economics, sociology, history, political science, anthropology, and psychology. Although this conception of critical theory originated with the Frankfurt School, it also prevails among some other recent social scientists, such as Pierre Bourdieu, Louis Althusser and arguably Michel Foucault and certain feminist theorists and social scientists.

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 notion of his work Das Kapital (Capital) as "the 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 taking stock of the limitations imposed by the fundamental, irreducible concepts in use in that knowledge. His notion also already associated critique with the disestablishment of false, unprovable, or dogmatic philosophical, social, and political beliefs since for him the 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 his famous 11th Thesis on Feuerbach, "Philosophers have only interpreted the world in certain ways; the point is to change it". [1]

This meaning of "critical theory" originated entirely within the social sciences, and there are works of critical social theory and critical social science that pay no attention and show no awareness of the literary/humanities version of critical theory.

Critical theory (literary criticism)

Template:Main The second meaning of critical theory is that of theory used in literary criticism – hence "critical theory" -- and in the analysis and understanding of literature and is discussed in greater detail under literary theory. It is not necessarily oriented toward radical social change or even toward the analysis of society but is focused primarily on the analysis of texts and textlike phenomena. It originated among literary scholars and in the discipline of literature in the 1960s and 1970s and really came into broad use only since the 1980s, especially as theory used in literary studies became increasingly influenced by Continental philosophy and social theory and thereby became more "theoretical".

This version of "critical" theory derives from the notion of literary criticism as establishing and enhancing the proper aesthetic understanding and evaluation of literature, 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." [2] This notion of criticism ultimately goes back to Aristotle's Poetics as a theory of literature.

This meaning of "critical theory" originated entirely within the humanities, and there are works of literary critical theory that pay no attention and show no awareness of the sociological version of critical theory.

Relationship between the two versions

These two meanings of critical theory derive from two different intellectual traditions associated with the meaning of criticism and critique, both of which 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 1968 in his Erkenntnis und Interesse (Knowledge and Human Interests), critical theory in literary studies is ultimately a form of hermeneutics, i.e. knowledge via interpretation in order to understand the meaning of human texts and symbolic expressions, obeying the practical interest in mutual understanding, while critical social theory is ultimately a form of self-reflective knowledge involving both understanding and theoretical explanation in order 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 intepretation 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.

Overlap between the two versions of critical theory

Nevertheless, a certain amount of overlap has come about, initiated both from the critical social theory and the literary-critical theory sides. It was distinctive of the Frankfurt School version of critical theory from the beginning, especially in the work of Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, and Leo Lowenthal, because of their focus on the role of false consciousness and ideology in the perpetuation of capitalism, to analyze works of culture, including literature, music, art, both "high culture" and "popular culture" or "mass culture." Thus it was to some extent a theory of literature and a method of literary criticism (as in Walter Benjamin's interpretation of Baudelaire, Leo Lowenthal's interpretations of Shakespeare, Ibsen, etc., Adorno's interpretations of Kafka, Valery, Balzac, Beckett, etc.) and (see below) in the 1960s started to influence the literary sort of critical theory.

Within social theory

In the late 1960s Juergen Habermas of the Frankfurt School, redefined critical theory in a way that freed it from a direct tie to Marxism or the prior work of the Frankfurt School. In Habermas's epistemology, critical knowledge was conceptualized as knowledge that enabled human beings to emancipate themselves from forms of domination through self-reflection and took psychoanalysis as the paradigm of critical knowledge. This expanded considerably the scope of what counted as critical theory within the social sciences, which would include such approaches as world systems theory, feminist theory, postcolonial theory, critical race theory, queer theory, social ecology, the theory of communicative action (Habermas), structuration theory, and neo-Marxian theory.

Within literary theory

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.

Language and construction

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.

Language and communication

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 (Lacan, Lorenzer), deconstruction. When, in the 1970s and 1980s, 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 consciousness come about. Whether it is through the transformational rules by which the deep structure of language becomes its surface structure (Chomsky), 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.

See also


  • An accessible primer for the literary aspect of critical theory is Jonathan Culler's Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction ISBN 019285383X
  • A survey of and introduction to the current state of critical social theory is Craig Calhoun's Critical Social Theory: Culture, History, and the Challenge of Difference (Blackwell, 1995) ISBN 1557862885
  • Otto Maria Carpeaux. The collected essays and his History cover and discuss in depth critical theories from all European and American movements up to the late 70's.

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