University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire



The term "Critical Theory" is itself often exclusively identified with the writers and the writings of "the Frankfurt School" from the 1930s through the 1960s (along with its more contemporary successors, such as Jürgen Habermas). At the very least, theorists such as Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse have made an indispensable and enormously influential contribution to Modernist, as well as Postmodernist, conceptions and practices of "Critical Theory." In these notes, I outline, expand upon, refocus and rearticulate key points set forth in arguments from seminal early Frankfurt School texts on "What is Critical Theory" so as to contribute toward a better understanding of what distinguishes "Critical Theory" from "Literary Theory and Criticism," with which critical theory is often problematically conflated in contemporary English Studies, especially by those who have never studied the history of critical theory on its own terms, and do not realize (for instance) how prominent Marxist influences have always been throughout this field, including upon Non-, Post-, and Anti-Marxist forms of critical theory.

Below, I outline the conclusions that Marcuse and Horkheimer reach, elaborating upon these in an explicitly Marxist direction, and emphasizing the principles and commitments that continue to drive work in critical theory, at least Marxist critical theory, to this day.  "Principles" and "commitments" deserves some reflection here; many who are not critical theorists themselves unfortunately tend to view each distinct "theory" as the equivalent of a discrete, finite, closed "critical approach" involving a narrowly conceived and abstractly focused "language of mastery."  The popular analogy between "theory" and "lens" does not help.   According to the commonsense, this means that each theory represents only what can be seen through a "single lens"; i.e., "a theory is a lens."  As a result, it is "obvious" to the commonsense that we should all make use of "multiple theories" all the time and as much as we can in order to "see" more and better, from different angles and perspectives.   However, this is not the way theories tend to work at all,  and especially not critical theory.   Critical theory seeks the truth while recognizing the truth is complex and dynamic; the truth varies according to context and perspective while changing across space and over time.  What's more, the theorist influences these variations and changes in the ways that she seeks the truth, and the way he brings to bear the results of his work in practice.   Critical theory: a continuously ongoing, ultimately open-ended, perpetually restless and ceaselessly unsatisfied process of inquiry -- and intervention.   Working with a critical theory means examining the "object of inquiry" by making use of multiple, different lenses, yet approaching this task with a precise purpose; on the basis of a clear set of presuppositions; and in order to contribute toward definite goals.   The critical theorist knows how to differentiate -- and how to discriminate -- among the "views" provided by different "lenses"; she brings to bear principles that enable her to select among, and rank, the meanings, significances, values, and uses of these different "views."   Think about it this way: the commonsense approaches this situation from theoretical perspectives that are "pluralist" and "eclecticist."  When the commonsense sits in the optometrist's examination chair, he cannot and will not choose among the range of different artificial lenses the optometrist fits in front of his eyes; he finds them all -- equally -- worthwhile, and wants them all, without even having much if any idea in mind about when and where he would look through one versus another or when and where -- and how -- he might look by making use of a variety of different ones.  In contrast, the critical theorist approaches the examination with a clear sense of conviction and a strong set of ambitions; she knows how to choose among different views provided by different lenses, recognizing which prove more or less useful for different ends.

The essays I have outlined below articulate the foundations for a collective intellectual -- and political -- "research project":

1.    Critical theory does not pretend disinterested neutrality, transcendent omniscience, or scrupulous lack of bias; critical theory openly, partisanly, passionately commits -- and engages.

2.    Critical theory finds that capitalism, for all its historically productive (and necessary) accomplishments, produces a form of society that depends upon -- and thereby requires the reproduction and maintenance of -- domination and subjection, not enlightenment and emancipation.

3.    Critical theory seeks to contribute toward the transformation and supersession of capitalism in the interest of enabling enlightenment and emancipation.

4.    Critical theory seeks to contribute toward the development of a form of social organization where people experience freedom in and through their active engagement in social relations with each other, not outside or away from social influence and determination.

5.    Critical theory seeks to contribute toward the development of a form of social organization that overcomes  antagonistic divisions between labor and leisure, reason and passion, pleasure and productivity, and  individual happiness and social responsibility.

6.    Critical theory seeks to contribute toward the development of a form of social organization that overcomes everyday alienation in the expenditure of productive energy and creative effort, among fellow producers: alienation between the life of work and the life of home, between the individual and the community, between the human and the natural (including the natural body and the natural life of the human being), between the individual and her participation in the essence of the human species -- i.e., the powers and capacities that human beings have generated across the expanse of human history through their social engagement, their engagement in productive and creative relations with each other.


1. The Beginnings of the Critical Theory of Society Occurred in the 1830s and the 1840s. Critical Theory Developed Out of Attempts to Make Sense of Emergent Capitalist Society and Especially of How and Why Capitalist Society Does Not Fulfill the Foremost Emancipatory Commitments, and Promises, of the European Enlightenment. Critical Theory Starts with Philosophy Because the Enlightenment is a Fundamentally Philosophical Phenomenon, and Philosophy Represents the Most Advanced Form of Human Social Consciousness. Ultimately, Critical Theory Recognizes the Need However to Move Beyond Philosophy, as Philosophy is Rooted in, and Shaped and Formed by, Social Forces and Social Conditions That Extend Far Larger than Philosophy Alone, Ultimately the Most Important of Which are Economic Influences and Determinants.

2. Critical Theory Aims to Enable the Realization of Human Happiness that the Enlightenment Promises Yet Fails to Deliver. Critical Theory Argues that this Realization Requires Transformation of the Material Conditions of Social Existence, not Just a Change of Consciousness. The Realization of Reason in Social Relations Requires the Creation of a Rational Form of Organization of Society.

3. The Earliest Post-Enlightenment Philosophers, the Immediate Predecessors and Sources of Critical Theory, Kant and Hegel, Confronted the Gap Between Reason and Reality in Idealist Fashion, Proposing that the Achievement of Reason, and of the Freedom and Happiness its Realization Should Enable, Can Only Be Sought in the Province of Thought, Ideas, Consciousness, the Ideal, Faith, and Spirit. The Individual, According to this Direction in Philosophy, Can Seek to Achieve an Experience of Genuine Freedom within Him or Her Self, Yet Not Beyond, Not as Part of (a Free) Society. Freedom is Thereby Defined Negatively, as the Escape from, or at least the Minimization of, External Influence: Freedom is Defined Against Social Relationality, not Within and Through Social Relations.

4. In Effect, this Idealist Approach is Ultimately Highly Conservative, as it Accepts the Social Status Quo as it is, as Essentially Unalterable. In Effect, it Rationalizes, Justifies, and Legitimates Bourgeois Society as the Best of all Possible Forms of Society.

5. The Task of Critical Theory is to Work, Contrary to Rationalist Idealism, in the Interest of Realizing the Ideals of the Enlightenment in Actual Social Conditions and Actual Forms of Organization, and to Enable Struggle Directed Toward this End, by Developing the Struggle Concepts that Can Enable those Fighting for Transformation to Think Beyond the Limits of Existing Social Structures and Existing Social Constraints. Critical Theory Critiques all Theory According to the Criteria of to What Extent and in What Way Can It Enable Social Transformation Necessary to Bring About the Creation of a Genuinely Rational and Free Society.

6. Unlike Philosophy, Critical Theory is Concerned Not to Achieve Freedom Solely in Thought, but Rather in Actual Human Social Relations. Critical Theory Focuses upon What Tendencies and Possibilities Exist within Present Social Relations and Forms of Organization that Can Provide the Basis for a Movement in Struggle Toward the Realization of the Goal of Achieving Freedom in Society, a Freedom Gained in and through (not separate and away from) Social Relations. Critical Theory Appropriates What is Useful from Philosophy, and Resituates this in Relation to an Analysis of Concrete Social Forms and their Actual Tendencies for Possible Development. This Often Means Appropriating the Utopian Fantasies or Projections of Philosophy, and Resituating these in Relation to Concrete Conditions, Forces, Relations, and Circumstances Where They May in fact be Transformed -- through the Work of Resistance, Rebellion, and Revolt - from Possibility to Actuality.

7. The Ultimate Goal of the Creation and Realization of Freedom in and through Social Relations Underlies and Guides Critical Theory Everywhere throughout its Work. The Key Goal is to Subordinate the Workings of the Economy to Individuals' Needs, Rather than the Other Way Around, and to Make Human Needs Determine the Labor Process rather than the Labor Process Defining - and Delimiting - What Human Needs Will be Recognized and Which Can be Met. Critical Theory Continuously Confronts "the Already Attained" with both "the Not Yet Attained" and "the Newly Threatened." Critical Theory Refuses to Work Strictlly within the Confines of What is Practical within the Present System of Social Relations but Insists Upon Pushing Beyond, and in fact Deliberately Breaking with and Overcoming these Confines.

8. Critical Theory Appropriates from Philosophy What Philosophy at its Most Far-Reaching Imagines or Envisions Concerning the Nature and Prospect of Reason, Freedom, and Happiness, Yet Breaks with Philosophy insofar as Philosophy Rests Content Only to Speculate About and Seek to Experience These in the World of Pure Ideas.

9. Critical Theory is Likewise as Critical of Science (as it is of Philosophy) for Subordinating its Liberating Potential to the Narrow Uses and Interests of Maintaining and Reproducing a Society of Domination, Oppression, Alienation, and Exploitation - for Serving the Interests that is of Capitalist Profit, not the Genuine Satisfaction of Human Needs.

10. Critical Theory Critiques the Pretense of (Theoretical, Philosophical, Ideological, and Scientific) Objectivity, in the Sense of Disinterestedness, Exposing this as a Lie, Everywhere it Asserts Itself, While Simultaneously Openly Declaring and Working to Understand and Explain the Objects of its Investigation and Concern in Accord with its Own Forthrightly Partisan Commitment to, and Interestedness in, Revolutionary Social Change.

11. Critical Theory Critiques Itself Insofar as it Degenerates into Tendencies that Accept Merely Partial and Limited Kinds of Reforms as All that is Forever Realistically Possible - Rather than Seeking Fully and Genuinely Liberating Kinds and Degrees of Transformation as the Ultimate Telos of its Efforts.


1. Traditional Conceptions of Theory Conceive of Theory as Mathematically Positivistic Systems of Self-Consistent, Internally Coherent, Insularly Integrated Sets of Symbols, Propositions, and Facts. Insofar as Traditional Theory is Conceived in Relation to an Object Outside of the Realm of Theory Per Se it is Conceived in Relation to Objects Strictly as They Are, Not as They Can and Especially as They Should Be. Traditionally, Theory is Conceived of as Objectively Disinterested, as Neutral, and as Pure, When, in Fact, by Working with and according to this Very Pretense Traditional Theory Shows Itself as Theory that Works to Rationalize, Justify, and Legitimate the Social Status Quo: to Represent What is as What Must Be, and to Suggest, in Particular, that No Kinds of Fundamental Changes are either Desirable or Possible - if these are Even at all Conceivable. Traditional Theorists Simply Accept Their Places within Existing Systems of Social Arrangements and Carry Out the Tasks that Correspond to Maintaining and Reproducing this System: They Never Call into Question or Challenge the Fundamental Framework, the Overall System and Structure within which They are Carrying Out Their Work.

2. Again and Again, the Results of Traditional Theory Work, Implicitly, to Encourage People to Adapt and Conform to the Status Quo and to Accept the Deepest and Most Disturbing Problems Confronting Human Social Relations as Ultimately Intractable (as "Natural" and "Eternal"). Traditional Theory in Effect Instructs People in Learning How to Play by the Rules, Fit in, Do their Duty, and Give Up Any Aspiration for What Cannot Be Realized within the Confines of the Existing Order, Structured as It Presently Is. Traditional Theory Encourages Proletarians to Identity Their Interests with those of Capital, and of Capitalism -- i.e., to Accept the Irrationalities of Capitalist Waste, Devastation, Destruction, and Dehumanization as Unavoidable and Unalterable.

3. Critical Theory Works Directly Against Traditional Theory. Critical Theory Works to Develop Critical Consciousness that Cannot only Imagine but also Commit Itself to Struggling for Social Transformation, and, in particular, for Overcoming the Organization of Social Production Relations, that is Relations of Work, Along Lines of Alienation and Exploitation.

4. Critical Theory Works in the Interest of Proletarian Emancipation, Yet it Recognizes that Proletarian Consciousness is itself in Modern Capitalist Society By and Large Shaped, Formed, Constituted, Directed, and Driven by Bourgeois Ideology; and, as such, it too Must Be Critiqued.

5. Critical Theory Focuses Priority Attention Upon Analysis and Critique of Capitalism as a Complex, Dynamic, Concrete, Systematic Global Social Totality, Showing How the Capitalist Mode of Production Determines the Overall Organization, Expression, and Consciousness of Actual and Possible Social Relations in Capitalist Society.

6. Critical Theory is Itself a Part - a Product - of this Capitalist Society, that is, of its Inescapable Contradictions, and of its Ultimately Transient Historicity. The Development of Capitalist Society Leads to the Development of the Contradictions of Capitalist Society, and of the Critical-Oppositional Element that Reflects Capitalism's Inability to Fulfill the Promise of the Enlightenment - the Promise of  Bringing Forth a Just, Free, Humane, Egalitarian, Democratic, and Rational Society.

7. Critical Theory is Everywhere Motivated by Critique of the Existing Capitalist Order, and Struggle Against it, in the Interest of  Transformation. Critical Theory Approaches All Objects of Investigation and Concern from the Ultimate Vantage Point, and with the Ultimate Evaluative Criterion, of Assessing How, How Far, How Well, and in What Ways These Can Contribute to the Abolition of Social Injustice.

8. Critical Theory Must Be More Critical than Affirmative as the Present Social Order Does Not Conform to the Claims it Makes and the Standards it Professes for Itself; this is a Social Order Whose Perpetuation Requires the Simultaneous Perpetuation, if not indeed Augmentation, of Domination, Oppression, Alienation, Exploitation, Inequality, Irrationality, Injustice, Lack of Democracy and Lack of Freedom.


1. According to Idealist Philosophy, Individual Happiness and Social Rationality are Necessarily, Inevitably at Odds with Each Other. Happiness is to be Found in the Realm of the Private, While the Organization of the Public Requires the Restriction and Even Suppression as well as Sacrifice of Happiness in Order both to Enable the Common Good and the Preservation of (Rational-Instrumental) Reason in the Organization of Society at Large.

2. Philosophers have Long Conceived of Happiness and Reason as Opposites. Hedonism has been a Principal Current in Philosophy that has Represented the Interests of Happiness Against Reason, rather than Vice-Versa. Hedonism has Identified Happiness with Pleasure, and with the Freedom to Experience Pleasure in Sensual and Material, not Just in Intellectual and Spiritual, dimensions of Life. Hedonism therefore Shares the Materialist Critique of (Repressive-Moralistic) Idealist Philosophy with Critical Theory.

3. Cyrenaic Hedonism Advocates the Pursuit and Cultivation of Individual Pleasures as Often, and as Widely, as Possible. There are Significant Problems with this Position: It Treats all Individuals as Alike, and therefore Does not Recognize or Concern itself with the Different Basis or Standing from Which Different Individuals at Present Can Pursue Pleasure (i.e., Different Individuals, Depending Upon Their Social Positions, Enjoy and Suffer Different Degrees of Access to, and Opportunities for Exercising, Available Means of Happiness).  What's more, Cyrenaic Hedonism also Addresses Individuals (and Social Relations) Simply as They Presently Are, Accepting by Default that No Greater, Richer, Better Forms of Happiness Can Be Gained through Substantial Development and Systemic Transformation of either Individuals or Society.  Cyrenaic Hedonism Casts a Blind Eye on Existing Relations of Deprivation, Dehumanization, Alienation, Oppression, and Exploitation, Imagining that All Individuals, Simply as They Are, Can (or Should) Exercise their Free Will to Immediately Pursue and Achieve Happiness. A Further Problem Arises, Moreover, in Advocating that Individuals Simply Give Themselves Over to Pursuing Immediate Pleasures, as These Are Presently Conceivable, and as They Can Most Readily at Present Find These.  Cyrenaic Hedonism Thereby Contributes to the Exacerbation of the Already Deeply Entrenched Isolation and Alienation of Individuals in Present (Advanced Capitalist) Society; Cyrenaic Hedonists Can Only Conceive of Happiness as Individually Subjective, and not as Socially Communal; Cyrenaic Hedonism further Encourages Individuals to Pursue Happiness Primarily through Competition rather than Cooperation with Each Other.

4. Epicurean Hedonism Advocates Enjoyment in Moderation, as Whatever is Most Likely to Maintain and Preserve Permanently Balanced Health. It Focuses Upon a Primarily Negative Conception of Happiness, on Happiness Defined in Accord with Avoiding or Minimizing Pain. Epicurean Hedonism Seeks "the Sage's Tranquility" as its Goal. There are Likewise Significant Problems with this Position: It is Again Socially Conservative, not Inquiring into Who Maintains the Actual Conditions of Possibility to Realize this Form of Happiness and Who Does Not; It in No Way Conceives of any Necessity of Social Tranformation to Enable the Achievement of Happiness; It Again Privileges Isolated, Privatized, and Reified Forms of Intra-Individual Happiness Over Collective, Public, Communal Forms of Inter-Individual Happiness; and It Artificially and Destructively Accepts a False Judgement About Human Sensual and Material Needs as Fundamentally Base, rather than as Intrinsic to Who and What Humans Can and Should Be(come) to Fully Experience Their Humanity.

5. Hedonism Embodies a Correct Judgment about Society, without Recognizing this in the Same Terms that Critical Theory does: i.e., that the Receptivity of Sensuality is opposed to the Spontaneity of Reason insofar as the Source of Happiness in Present Society Results from the Organization of Social Production in Terms of Antagonistic Work Relations. In Class Society, in Particular in Capitalist Society, Happiness is By and Large, for Most People, Most of the Time, Restricted to the Sphere of Consumption, Which is Fetishized as Largely Separate (or Separable) from the Sphere of Production.  Consumption Thereby Becomes itself a Means by Which the Stability of this Social System is Maintained and Reproduced Such that Individuals are Left Isolated, Social Relations are Left Reified, and Gratification is Continually Rendered Fragile and Precarious. In Contrast with this State of Affairs, the Truth of Hedonism Would be Its Simultaneous Abolition by and Preservation within a New Principle of Social Organization, Actually Overcoming these Kinds of Problems, not Simply "Overcoming" them in the Sphere of Thought within the Space of Philosophers' Heads.

6. The Moralization of Pleasure in Present (Capitalist) Society - i.e., its Severe Restriction and Punitive Confinement - is a Reflection of the Ways in Which Pleasure  Has to be Experienced according to the Terms Established by Ultiimately Antagonistic Social Relations. However, "Amoral" Rebellion Against this State of Affairs is Simply a (Partial, Limited, Temporary) Retreat and Escape, Not a Useful Contribution Toward Transformation. What is Needed are not simply More "Bad Subjects" who Merely Reject the Socially Constructed Roles and Requirements Set up for "Good Subjects," but Instead More "Critical Subjects" who Work to Intervene in the Process of the Construction of Prevailing Lines of Subjectivity and the Interpellation of Individuals into the Position of Good Subject According to the Standards of What Works to Maintain and Reproduce the Existing (Capitalist) Social Order. The Ultimate Goal Should Not Be to Restrict  Happiness to the Realm of the Individual and the Private, as Opposed to the Social and the Public, but rather to Transform the (Capitalist) System of Organization of Social Relations so that These Interests (Individual/Private versus Social/Public) are Not Necessarily Set at Odds with Each Other.

7. It is Necessary to Recognize that the Concrete Social-Historical Forms in Which Freedom is Made Available, to Whom, When, Where, How, How Far, and Why Determine the Concrete Social-Historical Forms in Which Happiness is Experienced. The Quantitative Expansion and Qualitative Enrichment of Human Happiness Requires Human Social Emancipation - It Requires, in other words, the Quantitative Expansion and Qualitative Enrichment of Human Freedom Experienced in and through Social Relations.

8. The Contribution of Critical Theory Toward this End: Critical Theory Inquires into the Truth and Universality of Happiness through the Elucidation of Concepts with which it Seeks to Determine What Might Constitute the Rational Form of Society, and, in Seeking to Determine this, Critical Theory also Seeks Ways to Bring it About by Pressing Forward and Developing the Tendencies Inherent within the Present Order of Social Existence that Prefigure and Incline in that Future Direction: i.e., Critical Theory Advocates for Movement toward the Construction of  a Liberated Society.  Fundamental to this Kind of (Liberated) Society: Each Individual Gives to the Processes of Social Production According to his or her Abilities, and Shares in the Social Product According to her or his Needs. This is in Line with the Classic Hedonistic Definition of Happiness as Involving the Comprehensive Gratification of Needs and Wants.

9. Critical Theory Proceeds Further, Moreover, to Propose that We Cannot and Should Not Calculate the Wants and Needs, as well as what Will be Required to Meet and Fulfill these, for Free Human Beings, in Accord with what Human Beings Living in (Present) Conditions of Unfreedom, and Especially in Alienation, Isolation, Competition, and Opposition from and versus Each Other, Experience as Wants and Needs. In Advanced Capitalist Society Enormous Wealth has Been Invested in the Cultivation of Enjoyment, Pleasure, and Happiness, Yet Due to the Capitalist Organization of Social Relations, Many (if not in fact Most) of The World's Population Have Been Rendered Largely Incapable of Experiencing Much of this Enjoyment, Pleasure, and Happiness to any Extensive, Lasting, and Significantly Fulfilling Degree. Enjoyment and Pleasure Experienced First and Last through Commodity Consumption is, in Addition, Largely Alienated Enjoyment and Pleasure: It is Mostly a Means that is of Compensating for or Temporarily Escaping the Frustrations and Emptinesses of Work and of the Deprivation of Meaningful Avenues for Public, Social Participation, as Free Citizens, in Collective Self-Determination. The Commoditization of Social Relations further Effects Relations among Human Beings, with Humans Increasingly Inclined to Regard and Treat Most Others, Including their Intimate Partners, as Primarily Means to Ends Rather than as Ends in their Own Right.

10. Sexual Pleasure(s) are Stunted in (Advanced) Capitalist Society by Their Restriction, Repression, Denigration, Tight Management and Control, and Overburdened with the Need often to Serve Primarily as Compensation or Escape, rather than as Means of Expressing, Fulfilling, Sharing, and Communicating the Participation of Each Individual in the Collective Essence of Human Capacity and Potentiality. An Augmentation of Sexual Pleasure(s) would Require Freedom in Choice of Object, Freedom in the Knowledge about and the Opportunity to Seek a Wide Range of Potential such Pleasure(s), and a Freedom of the Time and Place in and according to which these Pleasures Could be Pursued and Achieved. The Present Divisions Between Labor and Leisure, Between Private and Public, and Between the Pleasurable and the Socially Productive - or Socially Responsible -- Would Need to be Broken Down and Overcome.

11. The Liberation of Human Potentialities, and the Realization of Human Freedom and Happiness this Freedom Can Enable, is, of Necessity, the Result of Social Practice - i.e., of Social Struggle and Social Transformation. Happiness Will be Experienced, Understood, Pursued, and Enjoyed in Fundamentally Different, and Far Richer Ways, by Free Individuals - by People Who Have Freed Themselves through the Process of Creating a Free Society. Critical Theory Judges Present Means of Satisfaction, Enjoyment, Pleasure, and Happiness According to the Measure of How this Compares and Contrasts with a Society Organized with the Foremost Concern of Enabling the Maximal Happiness of All of its Members, in and through their Relations with Each Other, as Part of an Egalitarian Social Order Where the Free Development of Each is the Condition for the Free Development of All, and Where All Human Beings Participate Collectively in the Self-Determination of Who and What They Will be About. Happiness, Freedom, and Rationality Will Work Hand in Hand in this Kind of Society Rather than Remain Split Up and at Odds with Each Other.

12. What is Needed is to Reorganize Society in Accord with the Fulfillment of the Particular Interest of that Class (Including the Majority of the World's Population) that Cannot Realize its Particular Interest without Bettering and Making More Humane the Conditions of Life of the Whole and without Liberating the Entire Society (the International Proletariat). Hedonism Must be Put into Concrete Practice Such that Human Beings Work to Transform, Reorganize, and Reconstruct Human Social Relations Such that Hedonism Becomes Not a Selfish Retreat from Social Responsibility, Engagement, and Interaction but Rather the Principle According to Which Social Relations are Experienced, and Where Social Relations become the Means, as well as the Province, by and through Which the Achievement of What Hedonistic Philosophy Promotes is in fact Actually Made Possible in Everyday Material Social Existence.


    Conventionally many of those working in English today understand "critical theory" as  "literary theory and criticism."   Some qualify this notion by expanding and redefining the object "literature" to include all "texts of culture," all sites at which "meaning" is located and upon which "meaning-practices" are performed and from which "meaning-effects" emanate: "critical theory," in other words, is understood to include all kinds of theory and criticism which are in some way concerned with objects of any kind that can -- again, in some way -- be "read" as having been "written" to signify, to express, to communicate, to provide source for and stimulus to the operations of human intelligibility.  On the other hand, however, some continue to use the term "critical theory" (and the numbers of those who do this increases significantly among those working in disciplines outside of English, and, especially, in the social sciences) strictly to refer to the specific tradition of sociological analysis and ideological critique associated with the Frankfurt School, and including the work of Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, and Jürgen Habermas -- among others.

    Ultimately, neither of these definitions is entirely satisfactory: the former is too vague and the latter is too narrow.  However, the latter much more accurately reflects the spirit of what distinguishes critical theory in practice from “traditional” (or, more tendentiously, “non-critical”) theory – and philosophy.  (In short, much literary theory does not in fact qualify as critical theory.)   Recognizing – and respecting – the genealogy of the work of the Frankfurt School (as well as the commitments and accomplishments of these critical theorists), yet extending beyond the confines of this single group of intellectuals and their specific intellectual projects, I suggest that "critical theory" refers to the broad array of disparate modes of intellectual inquiry that have emerged since the European Enlightenment to question and challenge the seeming obviousness, naturalness, immediacy, and simplicity of the world around us, and of what we are able to perceive through our senses and understand through the sheer application of our reason and rationality (and, in the last instance, this is especially true when "reason" and "rationality" are treated as "Reason" and "Rationality" -- are assumed, even tacitly, to be abstractly universal and eternal dimensions of "the human qua human").

    Critical theory is concerned with discovering and uncovering, and with describing and explaining "mediations" -- environmental, ecological, physical, physiological, psychological, intellectual, emotional, historical, social, cultural, economic, political, ideological, linguistic, semiotic, aesthetic, religious, ethical, etc. -- between "object" and "subject," "event" and "impression," "impression" and "perception," "perception" and "cognition," "cognition" and "reflection," "reflection" and "response," "response" and "reaction," "reaction" and "action," and "action" and "practice."  At the same time, "critical theory" also always involves questioning and challenging the passive acceptance that "the way things are" -- or "the way things seem" -- simply "is" the "natural" way they necessarily "should" or "must" be.  In other words,  critical theory questions and challenges the conviction that what is, or what is in the process of becoming, or what appears to be, or what is most commonly understood to be, or what is dominantly conveyed to be, is also at the same time right and true, good and just, and necessary and inevitable: critical theory does not, at least not automatically, accept any of this.  Critical theory is always particularly concerned with inquiring into the problems and limitations, the blindnesses and mistakes, the contradictions and incoherences, the injustices and inequities in how we as human beings, operating within particular kinds of structures and hierarchies of relations with each other, facilitated and regulated by particular kinds of institutions, engaged in particular kinds of processes and practices, have formed, reformed, and transformed ourselves, each other, and the communities, cultures, societies, and worlds in which we live.

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