What is Critical Theory?

Philo and Soc Sci Essays



NB: These notes are taken mostly from Prof. Jean-Philippe Deranty‘s paper titled “Critical Theory.”
Prof. Deranty is a faculty member of the Department of Philosophy, Macquarie University, Sydney Australia.



Critical Theory: Origin, Development, and Key Concepts


Jeffry Ocay


The Institute for Social Research

Critical Theory, the Frankfurt School tradition, can be traced its origins back to the Institute for Social Research. Because of its location (which is also its current one), the Institute is also referred to as the “Frankfurt School”. Founded by Felix Weil, the Institute was officially established on 3 February 1923 (but conceptualized by Weil in 1922) by a decree of the Education Ministry.

Felix Weil’s father, Hermann Weil, provided the initial annual funding of 120, 000 marks (USD 30, 000). The Education Ministry suggested to call the Institute the “Felix Weil Institute of Social Research” but Weil declined. This is because Weil wanted the Institute to become known, and perhaps famous, due to its contributions to Marxism as a scientific discipline, and not due to the founder’s name.

Speaking of contributions to Marxism as a scientific disciple, it’s important to note that at the core of the Institute’s program is the revitalization of Marxism through a re-examination of the very foundations of Marxist theory, with a dual purpose of explaining past errors and preparing for future action in fact, the Frankfurt School is a brainchild of the Erste Marxistische  Arbeitwoche (First Marxist Work Week), which met in the summer of 1922 in Ilminau, Thuringia. The purpose of this meeting, according to Weil, was “the hope that the different trends in Marxism, if afforded an opportunity of talking it out together, could arrive at a “true” or “pure” Marxism.

A Zweite Marxistische Arbeitwoche (a Second Marxist Work Week) was proposed but came to naught because a more ambitious alternative took its place: the founding of the Institute.

Weil also refused to “habilitate” himself and become a Privatdozent or to consider the possibility of further academic advancement leading to the directorship of the Institute, because people may think that he bought the  “venia legendi” or, later, the chair. It important to note that holding a chair (Chair Professor) as a governmentally salaried full professor at the Goethe University Frankfurt (Frankfurt University) is a requirement for the directorship of the Institute.


Early Leaders of the Institute

1) Kurt Albert Gerlach

  • the first director of the Institute who was described by his Friedrich Pollock as a non-party socialist

2) Carl Grünberg

  • the second director of the Institute who was an avowed Marxist. Grünberg was an Austrian and professor of law and political science at the University of Vienna. Interestingly, Grünberg was also the first avowed Marxist to hold a chair professor at a German University

3) Max Horkheimer

  • became director in July 1930, but officially installed in January 1931
  • with Horkheimer, the Institute entered its period of great productivity
  • with the leadership of Horkheimer, the Institute has assumed a new direction: from an attempt to revitalize and reexamine Marxism to an attempt to critique and change the pathological (sick) society as a whole. With this, Critical Theory was born.


What is Critical Theory?

The term Critical Theory first appeared in Max Horkheimer’s famous article titled “Traditional and Critical Theory” published in 1937. This article acts like a Bible for Critical Theory. In this article, Horkheimer identified the distinctive parameters that characterize the collaborative research program of the Institute.

On the one hand, for Horkheimer, traditional theory refers to positivistic and idealistic conception of theoretical inquiry. In other words, traditional theory treats theory as being independent from concrete social and historical realities.

It is important to note that in positivism, especially logical positivism, every rationally justifiable assertion can be scientifically verified or is capable of logical proof.

In fact, positivistic and idealistic conception of theory have the tendency to naturalize the phenomenon studied, e.g., laws and facts. Thus, in traditional theory, laws and facts are interpreted as though they are not strongly influenced by the general social condition in which these laws and facts are found.

On the other hand, Critical Theory is “critical” not in the Kantian sense, that is, a critique of reason’s power by reason alone, but in the sense of Marx’s critique of political economy.

Note that in Kant’s transcendental idealism, “critique” means examining and establishing the limits of the validity of knowledge. Kant’s critique of reason involved the critique of dogmatic theology and metaphysics, and is intertwined with the enhancement of ethical autonomy and the Enlightenment’s critique of superstition and irrational authority.

But Critical Theory stems from a Marxist inspiration. 

Marx uses the term “critical” in his famous work Capital (Das Kapital), subtitled A Critique of Political Economy, as a way to demonstrate why and in what sense capitalism is suspect. In other words, Marx uses the term critical both to demonstrate the origins of political economy in order to expose its limitations and to supply a better explanation of the nature and dynamics of capitalism.

Thus, being “critical” necessarily implies being dialectical. Thus, next to Marx, Hegel is the second reference for Critical Theory.

Now, given that Critical Theory is founded on concrete social realities, that is to say, that the critical theorists need to understand the social in great details, then the critical theorists of society must follow the examples great sociologists like Emile Durkheim and Max Weber and study social facts and laws, but they must to so in a dialectical fashion, that is:

First:   critical theorists of society must highlight in what way these social and laws combine to form an 1) unjust    and inhumane society and in way 2) social life, as it were, contradicts itself

Second:  critical social theorists must pinpoint forces in the social world (or agents of social transformation) that    carry the promise of a more humane and just society (emancipation/liberation)

According to Jean-Philippe Deranty: two fundamental implications derive from this vision of the dialectical nature of a critical theory of society.

These two implications are the two features, which, taken together, demarcate Critical Theory from other forms of social and political theory. In fact, they serve as the litmus test in deciding whether a contemporary social theory can be called “Critical Theory”, of course, the Frankfurt School tradition.


The first implication, according to Deranty, concerns methodology

Critical Theory’s methodology is dialectical because it envisages a substantial link between theory (philosophy, for Adorno) and empirical social and human sciences (esp. sociology, political science, economics and psychology).

Here, theory provides the general conceptual grammar that can unite the diverse descriptions borrowed from the social sciences.

Note that throughout the generations of Critical Theory, this relationship between philosophy and empirical science remains one of mutual correction and enrichment.

THUS:  such conceptual framework (theory) is not constructed a priori, but is informed by the most relevant human and social sciences. Reciprocally, the empirical information (praxis) receives a new systematic meaning by being integrated and unified in a framework that it cannot independently establish.

The second implication concerns the unity of theory and praxis

The historical self-awareness of Critical Theory means that it is conscious of participating in the very historical time it studies. Thus, again, the relation between (social) theory and (social) reality is a relation of reciprocal dependence.

On the one hand, theory receives its fundamental impetus from extra-theoretical interests. This means that theoretical endeavors find leading clues about the reality they study in the experience of individual and collective dissatisfaction with existing social order, as well as in the aspirations expressed most notably by social movements for a more humane and just social order.

On the other hand, theory also aims to have practical relevance by clarifying the core concepts, norms, and values with which to describe social experience, in both its negative and positive aspects.


Brief Sketch on the Development of Critical Theory


I have attached herewith a video which presents an overview of Axel Honneth’s Theory of Recognition. This video was submitted by my MA in Philosophy Student Jairoh Tuada.


For more information on Critical Theory the Frankfurt School tradition, visit the following:

Hegelian recognition, critical theory, and the social sciences:

The Return of Work in Critical Theory:

See also the video on the key concepts of Axel Honneth’s model of Critical Theory:


4 thoughts on “What is Critical Theory?”

  1. This greatly helpful. But it would be nice if you can upload later some notes on the critical theory of Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, Habermas and Honneth. This will be very useful to students who are studying critical theory. Anyway, thanks for this, Jeffry. Keep posting.

    1. Thanks heaps, Loyd. I have notes on Adorno, Marcuse, Habermas and Honneth. But I need to polish them. Don’t worry, I will upload them as soon as they are ready. Please visit this site regularly. Thanks again and all the best!

  2. It would be nice too if you can post some notes on postmodernism, particularly Michel Foucault. We can appreciate more the beauty of critical theory if we know the responses of the postmodern thinkers to its basic concepts. Thanks anyway for sharing this post.

    1. Thanks for your constructive comments, Kaye. Yes, I agree with you. It would be better if we could discuss critical theory vis-a-vis postmodernism. I will work on it soon. Thanks again. Cheers!

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