Understanding Critical Theory

Key Points

  • Critical theories aim to change and critique society as a whole by finding the underlying assumptions in social life that prevent people from participating in a “true democracy.”
  • Critical Theory developed in the Frankfurt school from scholars such as Horkheimer and Adorno with an emphasis on examining and deconstructing fascism and mass media.
  • Habermaas continued the tradition of Critical Theory through his notion of the lifeworld and the public sphere. He theorized that political and economic institutions had invaded public life, leading to a lack of nuance in discourse and preventing people from participating in a “real democracy.”
  • Critical Theory morphed into critical legal theory in the latter 20th century, which eventually gave rise to branches such as critical race and critical gender theory.

Critical Theory is a social theory that aims to critique and change society as a whole. Critical theories attempt to find the underlying assumptions in social life that keep people from fully and truly understanding how the world works.

These underlying assumptions, in the view of critical theories, create a “False consciousness” that actively undermines people’s progress toward a true democracy.

Critical Theory, first emerging from Horkheimer at the Frankfurt School, bridges its reach to ethics, political philosophy, and the philosophy of history.

Critical theorists claim that the social sciences must integrate philosophy into their methods to make their findings practical to advance the moral cause of freeing humans from circumstances such as domination and oppression (Horkheimer, 1993).

While Critical Theory is most associated with the Frankfurt School, beginning with Horkheimer and Adorno and ending with Marcuse and Habermas.

Critical Theory has extended to many other disciplines, such as feminism, critical race theory, and critiques of colonialism.


Critical Theories of Gender

Critical theories of gender are concerned with the ways in which literature and other cultural media reinforce or undermine the economic, political, social, and psychological oppression of people of various genders.

Critical feminist theories, in particular, focus on issues of power and seek to explain the origins and consequences of gender relations, particularly those that privilege men.

They study the ways that assumptions and ideologies around gender are produced, reproduced, resisted, and changed in and through the everyday experiences of men and women (Coakley and Pike, 2014).

Like critical theories of race, critical theories of gender see their origins in critical legal studies.

Critical Theories of Race

Racism is prevalent in everyday life, and Critical Theory scholars agree that the ideology and assumptions of racism are so ingrained in the political and legal structures of society as to be nearly unrecognizable (Parker and Roberts, 2005).

The critical study of race and ethnicity is centered on examining the experiences of racial oppression in the context of an attempt to challenge existing assumptions about the construction of race.

Critical theories of race can also trace their roots to philosophical, historical, and sociological critiques of oppression, such as Marxism, feminist theory, and postcolonialism (Parker and Roberts, 2005).

Critical Race Theory emerged as an outgrowth of the critical legal studies movement originating at Harvard Law School in the early 1980s.

Law professors and students criticized how the law served to privilege the wealthy and powerful in US society while impeding the poor from using the courts as a means of writing their own wrongs (Parker and Roberts, 2005).

One of the main tenets of critical race theory is that, while classical racism has subsided, everyday racism remains alive, characterized by mundane practices and events infused with varying degrees of racism, such as “microaggressions” and other subtle, automatic, non-verbal exchanges.

For example, an educational institution can commit a microaggression by creating hostile environmental encounters for African Americans, such as seeing black males engaged in black youth culture as predatory (Parker and Roberts, 2005).


One criticism of the Frankfurt school is that it lacked a solid grounding in social reality (Kozlarek, 2001).

Kozlarek (2001) argues that Horkheimer and Adorno take an overly euro-centric stance on the world and that Eurocentrism is a crucial impediment to Critical Theory, and suggests alternatives to the Eurocentric worldview in modern Critical Theory research.

Rather than philosophically constructing ideas of what should be normal and an ideal society, Kozlarek claims, one must ask where the underlying assumptions of Critical Theory come from and what their sociocultural functions were and are.

Critical Theory and the Frankfurt School

Critical Theory has many distinct historical phases spanning several generations; however, it was born in the Frankfurt School.

The Frankfurt School opened as the Institute for Social Research in the 1920s in the social context of rising fascism in Germany and Italy. The theorists of the Frankfurt school went into exile in Switzerland and the United States before returning to Frankfurt in 1953.

According to the theorists in the Frankfurt School, a so-called “Critical Theory” could be distinguished from a “traditional” theory in that critical theories have a specific practical purpose, such as promoting an understanding of the world that leads to human “emancipation from slavery” (Horkheimer, 1973).

In order for a Critical Theory to be a Critical Theory in Horkheimer’s view, it must be explanatory, practical, and normative.

By these, Horkheimer means that the theory must explain what is wrong with the current social reality, identify the people and actors that can change it, and provide both achievable, practical objectives for social transformation and ways of criticizing those objectives (Horkheimer, 1972).

Research that furthers Critical Theory must, in this view, combine psychological, cultural, and social dimensions, as well as an examination of institutional forms of domination.

Horkheimer’s Critical Theory, heavily influenced by Marxism, aimed to transform contemporary capitalist society into a more consensual one.

By this, Horkheimer meant that a capitalist society could only be transformed by becoming more democratic in order to make sure that all of the conditions of social life that are controllable by people can be determined by the consensus of the people living in that society (Horkheimer, 1972).

The Frankfurt School theorists extended the work of Marx, Weber, and Freud, as well as considering the pull of authoritarian regimes, the relationship between art, technology, and mass society, and social psychology.

Initial Concerns of the Frankfurt School

The Frankfurt School theorists extended the work of Marx, Weber, and Freud, as well as considering the pull of authoritarian regimes, the relationship between art, technology, and mass society, and social psychology.


In its initial phases, Critical Theory attempted to differentiate the idea of a “real democracy” from the forms of government then present in western societies.

According to critical theorists, real democracy is rational because it allows individuals to gain control over the social processes that affect themselves and their life choices.

The next phases of Critical Theory were concerned with anti-democratic trends, such as the emergence of fascism in the 1930s. These studies focused on phenomena such as fascist states and authoritarian personalities.

Horkheimer saw these anti-democratic trends and a process called reification as undermining people’s ability to determine their own social circumstances.

Reification is a complex idea where something that is immaterial — like happiness, fear, or evil — is treated as a material thing. In the context of Critical Theory’s early musings about authoritarianism, this meant that the spread of increasingly abstract but fascist social principles led to societies that were more fascist on a concrete level.

To critical theorists in the 1940s, reification happened at two different levels. Firstly, reification happened at a small scale, and theorists could examine the psychological conditions that lead to people supporting democracy or authoritarianism.

Secondly, reification also happened at a larger scale and over a longer time period, where people explained enduring societal trends by projecting their democratic or authoritarian principles onto retellings of history (Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy).

Habermas sought to develop a level of analysis between that of the individual and the entire society. He called this intermediate level the “public sphere” or Offentlichkeit.

Ideology Critique

One of the main concerns of the scholars of the Frankfurt School was the rise of “mass culture” — the technological developments that allow cultural products, such as music, movies, and art, to be distributed on a massive scale.

Horkheimer, Adorno, Benjamin, and Marcuse speculated that technology allowed audiences to consume content passively rather than actively engaging with one another, making people intellectually inactive and politically passive.

Contemporary Critical Theory: Habermas

Habermas was a member of the second generation of Critical Theory. Habermas’s Critical Theory went beyond the theoretical roots of the Frankfurt school and became more life-American pragmatism, which holds that both the meaning and the truth of any idea are a function of its practical outcome.

Haabermas’ work in Critical Theory was concerned with two main issues: developing a justification for the normative dimension of critical social theory and the problem of establishing a connection between the theory and political practice.

These problems were carried over from the Frankfurt school (Roderick, 1986).

The first of these problems dealt with what counts as a rational criticism of society, while the second is directed at how these criticisms can be used to construct a society that is more rational.

Habermas dealt with three kinds of knowledge: empirical knowledge, which is technical or scientific; Hermeneutic or interpretive knowledge, which is interested in human understanding and cooperation; and critical knowledge, which is focused on freeing humans from societal assumptions.

Habermas acknowledged that science cannot be value-free and that those who study society are part of its subject matter. Critical Theory, to Habermas, unmasks the distortions, representations, and politics embedded in our knowledge and speech.

The Lifeworld

Habermas focused on the idea of the lifeworld, which is a person’s everyday life and experiences. The lifeworld encompasses culture, social relations, and everyday communication.

Habermaas’s theory is that the lifeworld is increasingly being taken over by political and economic systems. As politics is about power, attempts at becoming more powerful by politicians and the interests of political parties affect everyday lives.

People also, according to Habermas, are heavily influenced by the system of capitalism – they talk about companies, work at them, and consume constantly. Habermaas believed that the lifeworld could not be reduced to what he calls “media ” — such as the power of the state and money.

However, the modern state and economic systems have imposed their media on the lifeworld, and as money and politics seek to dominate the local lifeworld of people, they impede them from achieving a “true democracy.”

To Habermas, value rationality — attempts to achieve value-based goals that make life meaningful, such as being a good father — is tied to the lifeworld. Meanwhile, instrumental rationality — such as calculations of the means necessary to achieve a particular end — is tied to the state and economy.

The everyday relationships of people in society in modernity have been overtaken by a social structure that promotes money and power as keys to success and what is seen as morally right.

Habermaas emphasized that money and power, and the instrumental relationships that people form in trying to achieve them, cannot be the sole foundation for consensus and communication.

The Colonization of the Public Sphere

Another idea that Habermaas considers is the colonization of the public sphere. Habermaas believed that news sources motivated by profit, promoting entertainment, and oversimplification dominated public life.

Rather than focusing on the nuances of issues through lengthy public debate, these colonizers encouraged arguments between people with simplified perspectives.

Habermaas sets an ideal for public discourse, which he calls ideal speech communities. Habermaass differentiated communicative action — any action that someone takes with the intent to communicate — from strategic speech — which is instrumentally based and permeates the lifeworld under capitalist-based societies.

Rather than trying to simply communicate with people, those who use strategic speech are trying to manipulate people into achieving an end.

Habermaas believed that the promise and hope of enlightenment and modernity is a society where people can talk in order to reach a consensus and reasoned decisions. To have this, everyone needs an equal chance to speak without coercion, where any topic can be discussed, and where everyone can keep their speech free from ideology.

Such a situation constitutes the ideal speech community, which is the basis for and gives rise to civil society.
This civil society must develop in the context of a liberal political culture that promotes equality and draws strong boundaries between large institutions and the lifeworld.

In the public sphere of real democracy, the state’s power is limited, and people can use persuasion but cannot obtain political power in the public sphere (Roderick, 1986).

Critical Evaluation

As a broad-ranging philosophical project, Critical Theory has experienced many tensions between theorists both in the same generation and across different generations of the tradition.

Critical Theory has also drawn criticism from outside.

Perhaps the most major criticism of Critical Theory is that it fails to provide rational standards by which it can show that it is superior to other theories of knowledge, science, or practice.

Gibson (1986), for example, says that critical theories suffer from cliquishness, conformity, elitism, immodesty, anti-individualism, contradictoriness, criticalness, and naivety.

As Hughes and Hughes say of Habermas’s theory of ideal public discourse, it “says much about rational talkers talking, but very little about actors acting: Felt, perceptive, imaginative, bodily experience does not fit these theories” (1990).

Critical Theory has also been criticized from a feminist perspective. This feminist criticism of Critical Theory contends that critical theories can be as narrow and oppressive as the rationalization, bureaucratization, and cultures they seek to unmask and change.

Ellsworth (1989), for example, acknowledges that critical theories are often so tied to their vision of the truth that they fail to see themselves as one of many voices and that the enlightening of the false consciousness of others may be a form of domination rather than liberation.


Coakley, J., & Pike, E. (2014). EBOOK: Sports in Society. McGraw Hill.

Critical Theory. (2005). In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/critical-theory/

Ellsworth, E. (1989). Why doesn’t this feel empowering? Working through the repressive myths of critical pedagogy. Harvard educational review, 59(3), 297-325.

Gibson, R. (1986). Critical Theory and education. Hodder and Stoughton.

Habermas, Jürgen (1990a): Moral consciousness and communicative action. Christian Lenhardt and Shierry Weber Nicholsen (trans.). Maldon, MA: Polity Press.

Horkheimer, M. (1972). Critical Theory: Selected essays (Vol. 1). A&C Black.

Horkheimer, M. (1993). The present situation of social philosophy and the tasks of an institute for social research. Between philosophy and social science: Selected early writings, 11.

Horkheimer, M., & Adorno, T. (1973). The Dialectic of Enlightenment (London, Allen Lane).

Kozlarek, O. (2001). Critical Theory and the challenge of globalization. International Sociology, 16(4), 607-622.

Parker, L., & Roberts, L. (2005). Critical theories of race. RESEARCH METHODS, 74.

Roderick, R. (1986). Habermas and the foundations of Critical Theory. Macmillan International Higher Education.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Charlotte Nickerson

Research Assistant at Harvard University

Undergraduate at Harvard University

Charlotte Nickerson is a student at Harvard University obsessed with the intersection of mental health, productivity, and design.