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Critical theory, in sociology and philosophy, is shorthand for critical theory of society or critical social theory, a label used by the Frankfurt School, i.e., members of the Institute for Social Research of the University of Frankfurt, their intellectual and social network, and those influenced by them intellectually, to describe their own work, oriented toward radical social change, in contradistinction to "traditional theory," i.e. theory in the positivistic, scientistic, or purely observational mode. In literature and literary criticism and cultural studies, by contrast, "critical theory" means something quite different, namely theory used in criticism.
The original critical social theorists were Marxists, and there is some evidence that in their choice of the phrase "critical theory of society" they were in part influenced by its sounding less politically controversial than "Marxism". Nevertheless there were other substantive reasons for this choice. First, they were explicitly linking up with the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant, where the term critique meant philosophical reflection on the limits of claims made for certain kinds of knowledge and a direct connection between such critique and the emphasis on moral autonomy. In an intellectual context defined by dogmatic positivism and scientism on the one hand and dogmatic "scientific socialism" on the other, critical theory meant to rehabilitate through its philosophically critical approach an orientation toward revolutionary agency, or at least its possibility, at a time when it seemed in decline.
Second, in the context of both Marxist-Leninist and Social-Democratic orthodoxy, which emphasized Marxism as a new kind of positive science, they were linking up with the implicit epistemology of Karl Marx's work, which presented itself as critique, as in Marx's "Capital: A Critique of Political Economy". That is, they emphasized that Marx was attempting to create a new kind of critical analysis oriented toward the unity of theory and revolutionary practice rather than a new kind of positive science. Critique in this Marxian sense meant taking the ideology of a society (e.g. "freedom of the individual" or "equality" under capitalism) and critiquing it by comparing it with the social reality of that very society (e.g. subordination of the individual to the class structure or real social inequality under capitalism). It also, especially in the Frankfurt School version, meant critiquing the existing social reality in terms of the potential for human freedom and happiness that existed within that same reality (e.g. using technologies for the exploitation of nature that could be used for the conservation of nature).
In the 1960's, Jürgen Habermas raised the epistemological discussion to a new level in his "Knowledge and Human Interests", by identifying critical knowledge as based on principles that differentiated it either from the natural sciences or the humanities, through its orientation to self-reflection and emancipation.
The term critical theory, in the sociological or philosophical and non-literary sense, now loosely groups all sorts of work, e.g. that of the Frankfurt School, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, and feminist theory, that has in common the critique of domination, an emancipatory interest, and the fusion of social/cultural analysis, explanation, and interpretation with social/cultural critique.
Notable figures in critical theory
- Theodor Adorno
- Walter Benjamin
- Judith Butler
- Klaus Eder
- Paulo Freire
- Erich Fromm
- Henryk Grossman
- Carl Gruenberg
- Arkadij Gurland
- Jürgen Habermas
- Axel Honneth
- Max Horkheimer
- Otto Kirchheimer
- Alexander Kluge
- George Kneller
- Leo Lowenthal
- Herbert Marcuse
- Franz Neumann
- Claus Offe
- Friedrich Pollock
- Alfred Sohn-Rethel
- Rudolf Siebert
- Albrecht Wellmer
- Critical Theory
- Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt
- Illuminations - The Critical Theory Project
- "Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas" by David Held (ISBN 0-520-04175-5)
- "The Frankfurt School: An Analysis of the Contradictictions and Crises of Liberal Capitalist Societies" by Richard A. Brosio (ISBN )
- "The Essential Frankfurt School Reader" edited by Andrew Arato & Eike Gebhardt (ISBN 0-8264-0194-5)
- "The Frankfurt School and its Critics" by Tom Bottomore (ISBN 0-415-28539-9)
- "Critique, Norm, and Utopia: A Study of the Foundations of Critical Theory" by Seyla Benhabib (ISBN 0-231-06165-X)
- "Critical Theory and Society: A Reader" edited by Stephen Eric Bronner and Douglas MacKay Kellner (ISBN 0-415-90041-7)
- "Critical Theory: The Essential Readings" by David Ingram and Julia Simon-Ingram (ISBN 1-55778-353-5)
- "The Critical Theory of Religion: The Frankfurt School" by Rudolf J. Siebert (ISBN 0-8108-4140-1)