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What is Critical Theory? Your ideas, objectives and main authors

What is Critical Theory? Your ideas, objectives and main authors

May 18, 2024

Critical theory is a broad field of studies that emerged in the first half of the XX , and that quickly expands towards the analysis of different characteristics of contemporary societies, both philosophically and historically and politically.

Due to the context in which it emerges, and the proposals developed, critical theory has an important impact on the production of scientific knowledge and its potential in the social dynamics of domination and emancipation.

Next we will see in an introductory way what critical theory is, where it comes from and what are some of its main aims and objectives.

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Critical theory and the political value of knowledge production

The term critical theory groups a set of studies from several generations of Western European philosophers and social theorists . This is related to the last ones assigned to the Frankfurt School, an intellectual movement of Marxist, Freudian and Hegelian tradition founded in Germany at the end of the 20s.

Two of the greatest exponents of the first generation of this school are Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno . In fact, the 1937 work of Horkheimer, called "Traditional theory and critical theory" is recognized as one of the founding works of these studies.

In the second half of the 20th century, philosophers such as Herbert Marcuse and Jürgen Habermas continued the work of critical theory in a second generation of the Frankfurt School, extending their interests towards the analysis of different problems of contemporary society.

The latter emerges in a context where different social movements have already been fighting for the same. In fact, although in the academic context the development of this theory is attributed to the Frankfurt School, in practical terms any social or theoretical movement that subscribes to the objectives described above could be considered a critical perspective, or a critical theory. Such is the case, for example, of feminist or decolonial theories and movements .

In general terms, critical theory is distinguished by being a philosophical approach that is articulated with fields of study such as ethics, political philosophy, philosophy of history and social sciences. In fact, it is characterized precisely by being based on a relationship of reciprocity between philosophy and the social sciences.

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Background and relationship philosophy-social sciences

The academic development of critical theory is related to three of the theoretical antecedents of critical theory: Marx, Freud and Hegel.

On the one hand, Hegel was recognized as the last thinker of modern times capable of provide historical tools for the understanding of humanity.

For its part, Marx made an important criticism of capitalism, and at the same time, He defended to overcome the purely theoretical philosophy to give it a practical sense .

Sigmund Freud, when speaking of a "subject of the unconscious" contributed important critiques the predominance of the modern reason, as well as to the idea of ​​the undivided subject (the individual) of the same age .

So that, the reason had been historicized and socialized, in an important link with the ideology ; what ended up generating important philosophical criticism, but also a broad relativism and skepticism about normativity, ethics and different forms of life.

Part of what critical theory provides in this context is a less skeptical view of the same. Although society and the individual are the product of a process of historical and relative construction; in that process too there is room to question the rules (and generate new ones).

Without these questions, and if everything is considered relative, it would be difficult to produce a transformation of both history and social conditions. This is how the production of knowledge in social sciences is finally linked to the philosophical project of social criticism.

Ruptures with traditional theory

The development of critical theory implies several ruptures with traditional theory. In principle, because the production of knowledge in critical theory has an important socio-political component: beyond describing or explaining phenomena, the intention is to evaluate these phenomena, and from this, understand the conditions of domination and promote social transformation . That is, the production of scientific knowledge has a political and moral sense, and not purely instrumental.

Likewise, takes distance from the scientific and objectivity project that had dominated the production of knowledge in social sciences (which, in turn, came from the natural sciences). In fact, in its most classical perspective, critical theory has as its object the human beings themselves understood as producers of their historical way of life. The object (of study) is at the same time subject of knowledge , and therefore agent in the reality in which he lives.

Classic criteria of critical theory

Horkheimer said that a critical theory had to fulfill three main criteria: on the one hand to be explanatory (of social reality, especially in terms of power). On the other hand, it should be practical, that is, recognize the subjects as agents of their own context and identify their potential to influence and transform that reality.

Finally, it should be normative, as long as it make clear in what way we can form a critical perspective and define achievable objectives . At least in its first generation, and given its Marxist tradition, the latter was mainly focused on the analysis and transformation of capitalism towards a real democracy. As the critical theory develops within different disciplines, the nuances and the diversity of aspects that study vary.

The interdisciplinarity

The above could not be achieved through a single discipline or body of studies, as it was largely the traditional theory in social sciences. Conversely, interdisciplinarity should be promoted , so that it is possible to gather information from both the psychological, cultural, social and institutional elements involved in the current conditions of life. Only then would it be possible to understand traditionally divided processes (such as structure and agency) and give way to a critical perspective of the same conditions.

Bibliographic references:

  • Bohman, J. (2005). Critical Theory. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved October 5, 2018. Available at //
  • Fuchs, C. (2015). Critical Theory. The International Encyclopedia of Political Communication. Retrieved October 05. Available at //

17. The Frankfurt School of Critical Theory (May 2024).

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