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Critical theory is the examination and critique of society and culture, drawing from knowledge across the social sciences and humanities. The term has two quite different meanings with different origins and histories, one originating in social theory (particularly in 20th century Marxist and anti-positivist sociology) 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 in English-speaking academia. This article focuses primarily on the differences and similarities between the two senses of the term critical theory.

Two primary definitions

There are two meanings of critical theory which derive from two different intellectual traditions associated with the meaning of criticism and critique. Both 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 the German sociologist Jürgen Habermas in Erkenntnis und Interesse [1968] (Knowledge and Human Interests), critical theory in literary studies is ultimately a form of hermeneutics, i.e. knowledge via interpretation to understand the meaning of human texts and symbolic expressions. Critical social theory is, in contrast, a form of self-reflective knowledge involving both understanding and theoretical explanation 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 interpretation 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.

In social theory

The initial meaning of the term critical theory was that defined by Max Horkheimer of the Frankfurt School of sociology in his 1937 essay Traditional and Critical Theory: 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. Horkheimer wanted to distinguish critical theory as a radical, emancipatory form of Marxian theory, critiquing 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.

Core concepts are: (1) That critical social theory 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), and (2) That critical theory should improve understanding of society by integrating all the major social sciences, including geography, economics, sociology, history, political science, anthropology, and psychology. Although this conception of critical theory originated with the Frankfurt School, it also prevails among other recent social scientists, such as Pierre Bourdieu, Louis Althusser and arguably Michel Foucault, as well as certain feminist theorists and social scientists.

The Praxis school was a Marxist humanist philosophical movement. It originated in Zagrebmarker and Belgrademarker in the SFR Yugoslavia, during the 1960s that in many ways closely linked to Frankfurt School and critical theory. Prominent figures among the school's founders include Gajo Petrović and Milan Kangrga of Zagreb and Mihailo Marković of Belgrade. From 1964 to 1974 they published the Marxist journal Praxis, which was renowned as one of the leading international journals in Marxist theory.

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 concept that his work Das Kapital (Capital) forms a "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 accounting for the limitations imposed by the fundamental, irreducible concepts in use in that knowledge system. Early on, Kant's notion associated critique with the disestablishment of false, unprovable, or dogmatic philosophical, social, and political beliefs, because Kant's 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 the famous 11th of his "Theses on Feuerbach," "Philosophers have only interpreted the world in certain ways; the point is to change it".

In the 1960s, Jürgen Habermas raised the epistemological discussion to a new level in his Knowledge and Human Interests, 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.

The term critical theory, in the sociological or philosophical and non-literary sense, now loosely groups all sorts of work, including that of the Frankfurt School, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, disability studies and feminist theory, that has in common the critique of domination, an emancipatory interest, and the fusion of social/cultural analysis, explanation, and interpretation with social/cultural critique.

Postmodern critical theory

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” (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002, p. 52). Meaning itself is seen as unstable due to the rapid transformation in social structures and as a result the focus of research is centered on local manifestations rather than broad generalizations.

Postmodern critical research is also characterized by what is called, the crisis of representation, which rejects the idea that a researcher’s work is considered an “objective depiction of a stable other” (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002, p. 53). Instead, in their research and writing, 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” (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002, p. 53). For an example of postmodern critical work, see Rolling’s (2008) piece, entitled Secular Blasphemy: Utter(ed) Transgressions Against Names and Fathers in the Postmodern Era.

Critical ethnography

Critical ethnography is "a type of reflection that examines culture, knowledge, and action...Critical ethnographers describe, analyze, and open to scrutiny otherwise hidden agendas, power centers, and assumptions that inhibit, repress, and constrain" (Thomas, 1993, pp. 2–3). While "conventional ethnography" "describes what is", critical ethnography "asks what could be"….Conventional ethnographers study culture for the purposes of describing it; critical ethnographers do so to change it" (Thomas, 1993, p. 4).

In literary criticism

The second meaning of critical theory is that of theory used in literary criticism ("critical theory") and in the analysis and understanding of literature. This is discussed in greater detail under literary theory. This form of critical theory is not necessarily oriented toward radical social change or even toward the analysis of society, but instead specializes on the analysis of texts. It originated among literary scholars and in the discipline of literature in the 1960s and 1970s, and has really only come into broad use since the 1980s, especially as theory used in literary studies has increasingly been influenced by European philosophy and social theory.

This version of "critical" theory derives from the notion of literary criticism as establishing and enhancing the understanding and evaluation of literature in the search for truth. Some consider literary theory merely an aesthetic concern, 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." 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. There are works of literary critical theory that show no awareness of the sociological version of critical theory.

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's 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 and Kafka, 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 Jürgen 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' 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 legal theory, critical race theory, performance studies, transversal poetics, queer theory, social ecology, the theory of communicative action (Jürgen Habermas), structuration theory, psychoanalysis 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 (Jacques Lacan, Alfred Lorenzer), and deconstruction. When, in the 1970s and 1980s, Jürgen 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 political 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


Related subjects

Journals related and/or dedicated to Critical Theory



  • An accessible primer for the literary aspect of critical theory is Jonathan Culler's Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction ISBN 0-19-285383-X
  • Another short introductory volume with illustrations: "Introducing Critical Theory" Stuart Sim & Borin Van Loon, 2001. ISBN 1-84046-264-7
  • 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 1-55786-288-5
  • Problematizing Global Knowledge. Theory, Culture & Society. Vol. 23 (2–3). (Sage, 2006) ISSN 0263-2764
  • Raymond GeussThe Idea of a Critical Theory. Habermas and the Frankfurt School. (Cambridge University Press,1981) ISBN 0-521-28422-8
  • Charles Arthur Willard Liberalism and the Problem of Knowledge: A New Rhetoric for Modern Democracy. University of Chicago Press. 1996.
  • Charles Arthur Willard, A Theory of Argumentation. University of Alabama Press. 1989.
  • Charles Arthur Willard, Argumentation and the Social Grounds of Knowledge. University of Alabama Press. 1982.
  • Harry Dahms (ed.) No Social Science Without Critical Theory. Volume 25 of Current Perspectives in Social Theory (Emerald/JAI, 2008).
  • Charmaz, K. (1995). Between positivism and postmodernism: Implications for methods. Studies in Symbolic Interaction, 17, 43–72.
  • Conquergood, D. (1991). Rethinking ethnography: Towards a critical cultural politics. Communication Monographs, 58, 179–194.
  • Lindlof, T. R., & Taylor, B. C. (2002). Qualitative Communication Research Methods, 2nd Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • An example of critical postmodern work is Rolling, Jr., J. H. (2008). Secular blasphemy: Utter(ed) transgressions against names and fathers in the postmodern era. Qualitative Inquiry, 14, 926–948.
  • Thomas, J. (1993). Doing Critical Ethnography. pp. 1–5 & 17–25
  • An example of critical qualitative research is Tracy, S. J. (2000). Becoming a character for commerce: Emotion labor, self subordination and discursive construction of identity in a total institution. Management Communication Quarterly, 14, 90–128.
  • Luca Corchia, La logica dei processi culturali. Jürgen Habermas tra filosofia e sociologia, Genova, Edizioni ECIG, 2009, ISBN 978-88-7544-175-3.

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