Critical theory

Koenraad Geldof
Table of contents

The first generation of the Frankfurt school theorists initially wanted to elaborate a new kind of theory that would offer an alternative for what they called ‘traditional theory’. Epistemologically, critical theory had to break with established disciplinary boundaries and it contested the hegemony of the norms of rationality in the natural sciences — norms which were more and more imitated by the human sciences. Socially, critical theory exposes traditional theory as a conformist ideology and it presents itself as a force of production contributing to the construction of a future society. Politically, the final objective of critical theory is not the establishment of new scientific truths, but the birth of a more truthful, better world. These are, in short, the basics of the classical formulation of critical theory as it was given by Max Horkheimer (1937). The problem of language is only indirectly present. Critical theory confronts ideology in two ways: by a new scientific interdisciplinary practice and by criticizing, through conceptual clarification, the central notions of traditional science. Language thus appears as a medium of ideology, while critical theory itself can be seen as a counter-pragmatics of scientific language. Yet, this ambitious program was progressively abandoned. Fascism, stalinism, and the American exile of some of the main figures in the movement eventually altered the general outlook of the initial project. Why is revolution impossible? How could the Nazis assure themselves of the loyalty of millions of people? And how did the American culture-industry manage to induce consumerist behavior on an unseen scale? These were the questions that dominated critical theory till the end of the sixties and that gave rise to the kind of theory paradigmatically exemplified in Horkheimer & Adorno’s Dialectic of enlightenment (1988). The idea of social emancipation through critical science was replaced by the gloomy vision of modernity as total domination by instrumental and formal rationality.

Full-text access is restricted to subscribers. Log in to obtain additional credentials. For subscription information see Subscription & Price.


Adorno, T. W.
1973Ästhetische Theorie. Suhrkamp. Google Scholar
1973–1974Philosophische Terminologie, vols. 1 & 2. Suhrkamp. Google Scholar
1985Negative Dialektik. Suhrkamp. Google Scholar
Foucault, M.
1966Les mots et les choses. Gallimard. DOI logoGoogle Scholar
1969L’archéologie du savoir. Gallimard. DOI logoGoogle Scholar
1971L’ordre du discours. Gallimard. Google Scholar
1972Histoire de la folie. Gallimard. DOI logoGoogle Scholar
1975Surveiller et punir. Gallimard. Google Scholar
Habermas, J.
1981Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns, vols. 1 & 2. Suhrkamp. Google Scholar
1985Zur Logik der Sozialwissenschaften. Suhrkamp. Google Scholar
Horkheimer, M.
1968.[1937] Traditionelle und kritische Theorie. In. M. Horkheimer, Kritische Theorie, vol. 2.: 137–191. Fischer Verlag. Google Scholar
Horkheimer, M. & T. W. Adorno
1988Dialektik der Aufklärung. Fischer Verlag. Google Scholar
Zima, P. V.
1989Ideologie und Theorie. Francke Verlag. Google Scholar