In sociology, critical theory is most closely associated with the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research, although its origins can be traced back through Hegelianism and Western Marxism generally. The term now describes a very diverse strand of Marxism which, over the past fifty years or so, has drawn on a wide range of other influences including psychoanalysis and systems theory.
The central principles of critical theory can perhaps be defined most clearly in contrast to some of the principles of 20th-century positivism—indeed its proponents sometimes referred to it as negative philosophy. Critical theory employs a dialectical process of thought, in which the whole is greater than the parts, and contradictions continually appear and disappear into new syntheses. For Hegel, history was moving relentlessly towards a rational conclusion; the Marxist appropriation of Hegel gradually eliminated the idea of inevitability and linked the process to human praxis. The most complete statement of this view can be found in the early work of György Lukács.
As opposed to the idea that knowledge comes from our sense-experience, critical theory is a form of rationalism; that is, critical theorists maintain that the source of our knowledge and the source of our common humanity is the fact that we are all rational beings. From the idea of rationality it is possible to deduce the basic form of a rational society. By virtue of being human we all possess the quality or potentiality of rational thought. A rational society, therefore, is one in which we all participate in order to create and transform our environment. This provides us with a standard by which we can criticize societies that exist in the present: a society which excludes groups from economic and political participation, or which systematically renders groups powerless, is an irrational society. In the work of Jürgen Habermas, the major modern representative of the school, a rather different model can be found. Habermas works not from our possession of rational faculties but from the fact that we all use language. He invokes an ‘ideal speech situation’ in which all have equal access to information and public debate. In terms of theoretical argument, critical theory works dialectically, not juxtaposing one set of truth claims to another, but by searching out the internal contradictions and the gaps in a system of thought, and pushing these contradictions to the point where something different emerges. This is sometimes referred to as an internal critique. The fact that we are all symbol-using animals living and working together indicates an ideal in which communication is free and not distorted by social inequalities, external oppression, or internal repression.
The Frankfurt Institute of Social Research was founded in 1923 as a centre for socialist research. Its leading figures emigrated to America with the rise of Hitler and several remained there after the War. The central figures were Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse. (The classic statement is Dialectic of Enlightenment by Adorno and Horkheimer, 1947). A number of other famous names were associated with it, including Leo Lowenthal, Karl Wittfogel, and Erich Fromm. From the beginning, the school was critical of orthodox Marxism, offering an analysis of ideology and politics and abandoning traditional forms of economic explanation. For the classic critical theory of the founders of the Frankfurt School, the main targets were so-called instrumental reason, and the particular totalitarian form of domination that they saw developing in modern industrial society. Instrumental reason sees the world, including other people, in terms of how we can exploit it; involves the separation of fact and value; and the relegation of values to an unimportant role in knowledge and life. This way of thinking is typical of industrial society and (according to critical theorists) is intimately linked to structures of domination. (See the collectively produced Aspects of Sociology, 1956.)
Frankfurt critical theory has the reputation of being pessimistic. The argument is that capitalism has managed to overcome many of its contradictions and the working class has been incorporated into the system. Marcuse saw other minority groups on the fringe of the system—ethnic groups or perhaps even students—as providing possible foci for opposition, but Adorno seemed to see few signs of hope beyond avant-garde culture, which at least forced people to think. Some of the group's most famous work—such as The Authoritarian Personality (Adorno et al., 1950) and Marcuse's Eros and Civilisation (1955)—drew on psychoanalysis to provide a theory of ideology that explains not only how people come to be dominated but also how they come to need to be dominated.
Habermas trained under Adorno, but achieved much of his influence after the first generation of critical theorists had died or ceased to be active. But his work still maintains a critical dimension. Habermas differs from the first generation of critical theorists in his desire to construct a systematic social theory and his willingness to grant instrumental thought a legitimate place in his scheme. He draws on the systematic theory of Talcott Parsons and on psychoanalysis to construct an ‘emancipatory science’. This is a science which not only produces knowledge, but also enables us to become aware of and to change ourselves, and thus to remove inequalities and distortions in communication. In Knowledge and Human Interests (1968), he distinguishes three so-called cognitive interests that human beings share: a technical interest, in knowing and controlling our environment, which gives ise to the empirical (primarily the natural) sciences; a practical interest, in being able to understand each other and work together, which gives rise to the hermeneutic sciences; and an emancipatory interest, which involves our desire to rid ourselves of distortions in understanding and communication, and gives rise to the critical sciences such as psychoanalysis.
Behind this is a fairly radical revision of the orthodox Marxist view of the nature of human existence. Habermas regards work as important but sees it only as generating the first of these cognitive interests. We are also, importantly, symbol-using animals: this generates the other two. For Habermas, this means that we cannot maintain any form of economic-determinist argument, except perhaps for the historically limited period of early capitalism.
Drawing on a wide variety of disciplines he develops a broad evolutionary theory of history. Evolutionary stages are seen in terms of increasing levels of universality, each level setting new problems and offering new possibilities, and each type of society governed by a particular institutional complex. For example, tribal society is dominated by kinship institutions, and late capitalism by state institutions. His analysis of capitalism identifies a number of crises through which the system moves. In early capitalism, which he analyses in terms similar to that of Marx, economic crises present the main problem. Political intervention to deal with economic problems produces what he calls a rationality crisis, based on the impossibility of constructing a stable social order on an unstable market economy, and this in turn can lead to a legitimation crisis in which the state loses legitimacy because it cannot reconcile the conflicting demands made upon it by the requirement to plan the economic system. If, however, the state is successful in reconciling the different interests, the work ethic and competitive drive are weakened, leading to a motivation crisis which also threatens social integration. These ideas are spelled out in Legitimation Crisis (1973) and in the two volumes of his The Theory of Communicative Action (1981).
The best introduction to critical theory is David Held's (1980) book of that name. The history of the Frankfurt School is meticulously documented in Martin Jay's The Dialectical Imagination (1973) and, more recently, Rolf Wiggeraus's The Frankfurt School (1995). Some fairly telling criticisms—especially of the work of those writers at the centre of this tradition (Horkheimer, Marcuse, Adorno, and Habermas)—are spelled out in Alex Honneth's article on ‘Critical Theory’ (in A. Giddens and J. Turner (eds.), Social Theory Today, 1987).