What is Critical Theory?

What is Critical Theory?

June 29, 2021 Off By Felso

Critical theory is the nomenclature developed and used by the Frankfurt School, which expresses the general approach of the school. Critical theory, in this context, denotes both a critical acquisition of theoretical tools and a critique of the use of theory (See: Frankfurt School and Critical Theory).

The work of Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, and Jürgen Habermas is geared towards “developing a critical theory of society” overall. Despite the differences of opinion among them, the general theoretical tendency and studies of the school can be gathered under such a title.

Horkheimer, Adorno and Habermas make a critique of rationalism and therefore of reason. They develop a number of important criticisms against the instrumentalization of reason. In the same way, they make expansions at this point by continuing the philosophical interest in the conditions of possibility of knowledge. It can be said that these thinkers continued a Hegelian philosophical trend (See: What is Hegelianism?).

From there they made a critical reconstitution of the theory known within Marxism as Hegelian-Marxism, with an emphasis on specific historical forms. However, it should be noted that in every context, the school’s relationship with Marxism is of a specific nature.

While the Frankfurt School is critically acquiring theory, they also tend to use a critical perspective in the evaluation of all social practices. In a sense, this is a perspective that includes a critique of ideology; a perspective that includes the critique of ideology, which is systematically distorted interpretations of reality that conceals and legitimizes power relations.

School members focused on how social interests, conflicts and contradictions are expressed in thought and how these are reproduced in systems of domination. In doing so, they hoped that they would be illuminating about the roots of domination, and thus would advance in regressing the ideology.

In the most general sense, critical theory can be defined as a constant attention to the tendency of thought to close itself, which is mostly emphasized by Adorno.


As a general trend, critical theory can be said to preserve the basic categories of the German philosophical tradition (reason, truth, beauty, etc.). However, all of these take on a different content and usage quality.

The criticism developed by the Frankfurt school and the majority of the results it reached were a turning point and had a significant impact on the later ones in the history of 20th century thought.

The criticism brought by the school to the concepts and categories of Modernity is full of expansions that form the roots of today’s post-modern thought. In another context, Habermas tries to define “critical theory” outside of post-modernity, but when the implications of critical theory are examined, it is seen that post-modern thought extends to the Frankfurt school in many ways.

It should be noted that, since critical theory aims to open closed ways of thinking and to destroy traditional approaches that hinder critical approach, it uses traditional philosophical categories, reformulates them, or problematizes many theoretical categories on another level.

The creators of the theory somehow put history or historicity at the center of philosophy and social criticism. This includes, first of all, the claim that all knowledge is historically conditioned. However, the assumption of “critical theory” necessarily asserts that truth can be evaluated independently of specific social conditions.

Horkheimer and Adorno, as well as Habermas, have argued for the possibility of an autonomous point of criticism, which is inevitable in order to make room for ‘critical theory’.

Most critical theorists have engaged in a critical dialogue with important philosophers and social theorists of the past or present. They were particularly interested in the work of Kant, Hegel, Marx, Weber, Lukacs, Freud. They reuse them through critical reading. Habermas lately includes the philosophy of language and even the philosophy of science. It tries to preserve the understanding of ideology critique by interfering with the aspects of critical theory that can extend to post-modernism.

Prepared by: Sociologist Ömer Yıldırım