What Is Critical Theory?

What Is Critical Theory?

The phrase, the world wants to be deceived, has become truer than had ever been intended. People are not only, as the saying goes, falling for the swindle; if it guarantees them even the most fleeting gratification they desire a deception which is nonetheless transparent to them. They force their eyes shut and voice approval, in a kind of self-loathing, for what is meted out to them, knowing fully the purpose for which it is manufactured. Without admitting it they sense that their lives would be completely intolerable as soon as they no longer clung to satisfactions which are none at all

- Theodore Adorno, Culture Industry Reconsidered

Podcast of the Day

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Frankfurt School. This group of influential left-wing German thinkers set out, in the wake of Germany's defeat in the First World War, to investigate why their country had not had a revolution, despite the apparently revolutionary conditions that spread through Germany in the wake of the 1918 Armistice. To find out why the German workers had not flocked to the Red Flag, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin and others came together around an Institute set up at Frankfurt University and began to focus their critical attention not on the economy, but on culture, asking how it affected people's political outlook and activities. But then, with the rise of the Nazis, they found themselves fleeing to 1940s California. There, their disenchantment with American popular culture combined with their experiences of the turmoil of the interwar years to produce their distinctive, pessimistic worldview. With the defeat of Nazism, they returned to Germany to try to make sense of the route their native country had taken into darkness. In the 1960s, the Frankfurt School's argument - that most of culture helps to keep its audience compliant with capitalism - had an explosive impact. Arguably, it remains influential today.

Listen to Melvyn Bragg and guest discuss The Frankfurt School on the In Our Time podcast

Video of the Day

Short Article of the Day

. . . Culture itself was subject to a kind of factory production in the cinema and recording industries. The Frankfurt theorists maintained a deep distrust of what passed as ‘popular culture’, which neither enlightened nor truly entertained the mass of society, but only kept people in a state of permanently unsatiated demand for the dross with which they were going to be fed anyway.

Continue reading Stuart Walton's article: How the Frankfurt School Diagnosed the Ill of Western Civilization

Further Reading

It follows from Horkheimer's definition that a critical theory is adequate only if it meets three criteria: it must be explanatory, practical, and normative, all at the same time. That is, it must explain what is wrong with current social reality, identify the actors to change it, and provide both clear norms for criticism and achievable practical goals for social transformation. Any truly critical theory of society, as Horkheimer further defined it in his writings as Director of the Frankfurt School's Institute for Social Research, “has as its object human beings as producers of their own historical form of life” (Horkeimer 1993, 21). In light of the practical goal of identifying and overcoming all the circumstances that limit human freedom, the explanatory goal could be furthered only through interdisciplinary research that includes psychological, cultural, and social dimensions, as well as institutional forms of domination. Given the emphasis among the first generation of Critical Theory on human beings as the self-creating producers of their own history, a unique practical aim of social inquiry suggests itself: to transform contemporary capitalism into a consensual form of social life. For Horkheimer a capitalist society could be transformed only by becoming more democratic, to make it such that “all conditions of social life that are controllable by human beings depend on real consensus” in a rational society (Horkheimer 1972, 249–250).

Continue reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Critical Theory by James Bohman

Related Topics

Capitalism | CultureFreudHegelNietzsche | Power | RevolutionSociology

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