Critical Theory

… a core concept in Socioeconomic and Political Context and Atlas105.

Concept description

The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines critical theory as a “Marxist inspired movement in social and political philosophy originally associated with the work of the Frankfurt school.”

It adds:

“Drawing particularly on the thought of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, critical theorists maintain that a primary goal of philosophy is to understand and to help overcome the social structures through which people are dominated and oppressed. Believing that science, like other forms of knowledge, has been used as an instrument of oppression, they caution against a blind faith in scientific progress, arguing that scientific knowledge must not be pursued as an end in itself without reference to the goal of human emancipation. Since the 1970s, critical theory has been immensely influential in the study of history, law, literature, and the social sciences.”

Writing in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, James Bohman (2016, reference below) summarizes:

“”Critical Theory” in the narrow sense designates several generations of German philosophers and social theorists in the Western European Marxist tradition known as the Frankfurt School. According to these theorists, a “critical” theory may be distinguished from a “traditional” theory according to a specific practical purpose: a theory is critical to the extent that it seeks human “emancipation from slavery”, acts as a “liberating … influence”, and works “to create a world which satisfies the needs and powers” of human beings (Horkheimer 1972, 246). Because such theories aim to explain and transform all the circumstances that enslave human beings, many “critical theories” in the broader sense have been developed. They have emerged in connection with the many social movements that identify varied dimensions of the domination of human beings in modern societies. In both the broad and the narrow senses, however, a critical theory provides the descriptive and normative bases for social inquiry aimed at decreasing domination and increasing freedom in all their forms.

“Critical Theory in the narrow sense has had many different aspects and quite distinct historical phases that cross several generations, from the effective start of the Institute for Social Research in the years 1929–1930, which saw the arrival of the Frankfurt School philosophers and an inaugural lecture by Horkheimer, to the present. Its distinctiveness as a philosophical approach that extends to ethics, political philosophy, and the philosophy of history is most apparent when considered in light of the history of the philosophy of the social sciences. Critical Theorists have long sought to distinguish their aims, methods, theories, and forms of explanation from standard understandings in both the natural and the social sciences. Instead, they have claimed that social inquiry ought to combine rather than separate the poles of philosophy and the social sciences: explanation and understanding, structure and agency, regularity and normativity. Such an approach, Critical Theorists argue, permits their enterprise to be practical in a distinctively moral (rather than instrumental) sense. They do not merely seek to provide the means to achieve some independent goal, but rather (as in Horkheimer’s famous definition mentioned above) seek “human emancipation” in circumstances of domination and oppression. This normative task cannot be accomplished apart from the interplay between philosophy and social science through interdisciplinary empirical social research (Horkheimer 1993). While Critical Theory is often thought of narrowly as referring to the Frankfurt School that begins with Horkheimer and Adorno and stretches to Marcuse and Habermas, any philosophical approach with similar practical aims could be called a “critical theory,” including feminism, critical race theory, and some forms of post-colonial criticism.”

Note that Critical Theory is a substantially different concept from Critical Thinking.

Atlas topic, subject, and course

The Study of the Socioeconomic Context for Politics and Policy (core topic) in Socioeconomic and Political Context and Atlas105.


Encyclopaedia Britannica, Critical theory, at, accessed 6 December 2018.

James Bohman (2016), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), at, accessed 6 December 2018 (including the two Horkheimer citations Horkheimer, M., 1972, Critical Theory, New York: Seabury Press; reprinted Continuum: New York, 1982; Horkheimer, M., 1993. Between Philosophy and Social Science, Cambridge: MIT Press).

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 6 December 2018.

Image: Tony Ward, Critical Theory, SlideShare, at, accessed 6 December 2018. The quotation (“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral”) is from Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Brazilian educator and philosopher, Paulo Freire, at, accessed 6 December 2018.