Social Justice Usage
Critical Theory has a narrow and a broad meaning in philosophy and in the history of the social sciences. “Critical Theory” in the narrow sense designates several generations of German philosophers and social theorists in the Western European Marxist tradition known as the Frankfurt School. According to these theorists, a “critical” theory may be distinguished from a “traditional” theory according to a specific practical purpose: a theory is critical to the extent that it seeks human “emancipation from slavery,” acts as a “liberating … influence,” and works “to create a world which satisfies the needs and powers” of human beings (Horkheimer 1972, 246). Because such theories aim to explain and transform all the circumstances that enslave human beings, many “critical theories” in the broader sense have been developed. They have emerged in connection with the many social movements that identify varied dimensions of the domination of human beings in modern societies. In both the broad and the narrow senses, however, a critical theory provides the descriptive and normative bases for social inquiry aimed at decreasing domination and increasing freedom in all their forms.
New Discourses Commentary
The term “Critical Theory” commonly causes confusion because it can refer to the Frankfurt School of Marxist critics, including György Lukács, Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse (see also, neo-Marxism and New Left), or it can refer to the use of other similar—but distinct—critical social theories, such as those that have their roots in postmodernism, such as postcolonial Theory, queer Theory, critical race Theory, intersectional feminism, disability studies, and fat studies (see also, Theory and post-Marxism). Sometimes this confusion is expressed disingenuously by academics who dislike criticism of critical theories, and sometimes it is expressed sincerely by those whose fields of philosophy have not kept up with the fast development of Social Justice scholarship.
The Critical Theory of the “Institute for Social Research,” which is better known as the Frankfurt School, focused on power analyses that began from a Marxist (or Marxian) perspective with an aim to understand why Marxism wasn’t proving successful in Western contexts. It rapidly developed a “post-Marxist” position that criticized Marx’s primary focus on economics and expanded his views on power, alienation, and exploitation into all aspects of post-Enlightenment Western culture. These theorists sometimes referred to themselves as “cultural Marxists,” and were referred to that way by others, but the term “cultural Marxism” is now more commonly used to describe (a misconception of) postmodernism (see also, neo-Marxism) or a certain anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. The big-picture agenda of the Frankfurt School was to marry Marxian economic theory to Freudian psychoanalytic theory in order to explain both the rise of fascism and the reasons that the communist revolutions were not taking place in Western democracies as had been predicted.
Max Horkheimer defined a “Critical Theory” in direct opposition to a “Traditional Theory” in a 1937 piece called Traditional and Critical Theory. Whereas a Traditional Theory is meant to be descriptive of some phenomenon, usually social, and aims to understand how it works and why it works that way, a Critical Theory should proceed from a prescriptive normative moral vision for society, describe how the item being critiqued fails that vision (usually in a systemic sense), and prescribe activism to subvert, dismantle, disrupt, overthrow, or change it—that is, generally, to break and then remake society in accordance with the particular critical theory’s prescribed vision. This use of the word “critical” is drawn from Marx’s insistence that everything be “ruthlessly” criticized and from his admonition that the point of studying society is to change it. Of note, then, a Critical Theory is only tangentially concerned with understanding or truth and has, as Hume might have it, abandoned descriptions of what is in favor of pushing for what the particular critical theory holds ought to be. The critical methodology, then, is the central object of concern, and it is the tool by which Social Justice scholarship and activism proceed.
The Critical Theorists of the Frankfurt School primarily looked at systems of power in terms of how they exploited and oppressed the working class and, more broadly, the everyday citizen, or certain everyday citizens (as opposed to members of the various elite classes). Speaking very generally (thus charitably), the purpose of critical theories (including the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School) is to make visible the underexamined or invisible presuppositions, assumptions, and power dynamics of society and question, criticize, and, especially, problematize them. Indeed, the primary objective of critical theories is problematization (identifying something as “problematic,” which means it stands against the normative vision adopted by the critical theorists in question, and this, in turn is understood to mean in support of any unjust assumptions or power dynamics).
One of the ambitions of the Critical Theorists of the Frankfurt School was to address cultural power in a way that allowed an awakening of working-class consciousness out of the ideology of capitalism in order to overcome it. Particularly, these theorists had decided that the reason the communist revolution had not yet successfully spread throughout the West is that something in liberal Western culture must be preventing it. The goal of the Critical Theory (of the Frankfurt School), in that sense, was to identify what those issues were and find ways to dismantle them. As such, the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci’s, concept of hegemony—the dominance of one particular set of ideas over all others in a society—has been influential on the development of Marxist and post-Marxist critical theory and also on the development of the (structuralist) critical methods of postmodernism. Among their conclusions is that the dominance of hegemonic ideas in society leads to the marginalization of other ideas, thus preventing change and maintaining oppression.
Critical theories in a broader sense are largely understood to be the critical study of various types of power relations within myriad aspects of culture, often under a broad rubric referred to in general as “cultural studies.” These moved the question of power dynamics away from generalized hegemony and into the various hegemonies created and maintained by and over the various identity groups in society (see also, knowledge(s), ways of knowing, epistemic injustice and epistemic oppression). These include postcolonial theory, queer theory, critical race Theory, intersectional feminism, and critical theories of ableism and fatness. They are to be found within many disciplines and subdisciplines within the theoretical humanities, including cultural studies, media studies, gender studies, ethnic/race/whiteness/black studies, sexuality/LGBT/trans studies, postcolonial, indigenous, and decolonial studies, disability studies, and fat studies. Critical theories of various kinds are also to be found within (but not necessarily dominant over) other fields of the humanities, social sciences, and arts, including English (literature), sociology, philosophy, art, history and, particularly, pedagogy (theory of education).
The use of critical theories within these disciplines leads to a highly theoretical, ideological, and interpretive approach to cultural, artistic, and identity issues, all of which are to be studied in a critical way, not necessarily rigorously. The meaning of the word “criticism” here is specific, not as one might expect it to be used in the common parlance, and refers to seeking out ways in which problematics (according to some normative moral vision for society) arise within functional systems, particularly the systems of social and cultural power in liberal, Western, and scientific settings. There is, in the critical method (as noted above), no need to understand these concepts or structures; only a need to pick at the ways in which they can be construed to be imperfect.
The focus on identity, experiences, and activism, rather than an attempt to find truth, leads to conflict with empirical scholars and undermines public confidence in the worth of scholarship that uses this approach. Because critical theories nearly always begin with their conclusion—their own assumptions about power dynamics in society, how those are problematic, and the need for their disruption or dismantling—and then seeks to find ways to read them into various aspects of society (see discourse analysis and close reading), the body of scholarship that has been growing for the last fifty years has become a towering and impressive mountain with very insecure foundations.
Ableism; Alienation; Capitalism; Close reading; Communism; Critical; Critical pedagogy; Critical race Theory; Cultural Marxism; Cultural studies; Decoloniality; Deconstruction; Disability studies; Discourse analysis; Dominance; Enlightenment; Ethnic studies; Exploitation; Fascism; Fat studies; Feminism; Frankfurt School; Gender studies; Hegemony; Identity; Ideology; Indigenous; Injustice; Intersectionality; Knowledge(s); Liberalism; Lived experience; Marxian; Marxism; Media studies; Neo-Marxism; New Left; Normative; Oppression; Postcolonial Theory; Post-Marxism; Postmodernism; Poststructuralism; Power (systemic); Problematic; Problematize; Queer Theory; Revolution; Science; Sexuality; Social Justice; Structuralist; Subversion; Theory; Truth; Ways of knowing; Western
Source: Felluga, Dino Franco. Critical Theory: The Key Concepts (Routledge Key Guides). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
Theory has become so much a part of the way critics understand culture and ideology that critics no longer feel the need to insist upon its life signs. Terry Eagleton puts it well in his provocatively titled After Theory (2003):
If theory means a reasonably systematic reflection on our guiding assumptions, it remains as indispensable as ever. But we are living now in the aftermath of what one might call high theory, in an age which, having grown rich on the insights of thinkers like Althusser, Barthes and Derrida, has also in some ways moved beyond them.
Where we have moved to is often called Cultural Studies, a wide-ranging examination of various cultural phenomena that had been largely ignored because they were considered “low” or overly marginal: pop music, television, and film; the history of science (especially superseded technologies or now discredited forms of medicine like phrenology, alchemy, and quackery); past understandings of sex and desire; or any number of ephemera (Byron’s boots, Victorian wedding cakes, or early modern cartography, and so on). One thing that theory has done for scholars is to free them from the exclusive exploration of literary texts or “high” historical documents, opening their sights outward to the entire social world. High school and university classes have followed suit, so that a given survey of literature or history will now commonly include an examination of debates in the sciences, an exploration of penal structures, or an overview of changing sexual mores. Surveys of literature will often include an expanded canon of “great writers” that introduces a plethora of new voices (female, lower class, colonial, queer, populist, and so on) as literary study has changed in response to the insights of feminism, Marxism, postcolonial studies, queer theory, and cultural studies.
Revision date: 7/8/20