University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire



"Critical theory" refers to a series of pathways for intellectual inquiry that first emerged with the end of the 18th century European Enlightenment and in particular with the initial widespread waning of intellectual confidence that the newly hegemonic bourgeois society would succeed in realizing Enlightenment ideals. In short, critical theory represents the intellectual articulation of the conviction that modern capitalist society cannot - at least not without significant reformation or substantial transformation - realize the Enlightenment ideal of an enlightened - that is, a rational, just, and humane - society. According to Enlightenment consensus, this (ideal) society is to be one which will genuinely embody the highest values of human civilization, and which will thereby insure steady progress in the attainment of liberty, justice, prosperity, and contentment for all of its citizens.

Critical theory begins by inquiring into what prevents the realization of this Enlightenment ideal. In doing so, critical theory questions and challenges the seeming obviousness, naturalness, immediacy, and simplicity of the world around us, and, in particular, of what we are able to perceive through our senses and understand through the application of our powers of reason. Critical theory is therefore 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.

Critical theory has always occupied tenuous positions within traditional (academic) disciplines, and has always moved restlessly across disciplinary borders; after all, when we think of what critical theory has influenced, we must include such diverse disciplines as sociology, political science, philosophy, economics, history, anthropology, psychology, and even biology and physics, as well as studies in English and other national, regional, and ethnic languages and literatures. Critical theory, in sum, is by no means merely a province of English Studies, and neither need it be, should it be, nor can it be confined to English Studies alone, or to language and literature studies more generally. Yet the questions that we ask of the texts we read and write and of the discourses we produce and disseminate, in English Studies, are always already sedimented with the weight of extensive historical exchange -- and interchange -- with critical theory, and the answers we seek to these questions eventually require us to engage with and draw upon critical theories far more directly than simply to acknowledge this sedimentation. These questions include, at their most fundamental, why should we, or anyone for that matter, read and write these texts, the texts we privilege, and why should we, or anyone else, be interested in producing and disseminating these discourses, the discourses that are of the greatest importance to us, and why so here and now? What is the value of these texts and discourses? What is their relevance? What is their usefulness? How and why are they different, including different in their kind or degree of value and use, from other kinds of texts and discourses in circulation within contemporary society and culture at large? Any self-reflexive program or department in English Studies today must, therefore, of necessity, include substantial education of its students in critical theory.

Yet the value of education in critical theory extends still further beyond the limits of work conducted within the confines of a particular academic discipline and its attendant array of fields of intellectual inquiry. Throughout the everyday lives of each and every one of us, our ability to make sense of the world around us -- and to orient ourselves to engage in relation to it on the basis of how we make sense -- means that we are continually working with "theories" of one kind or another. At the same time, because our everyday lives also demand that we make numerous judgements according to various standards and criteria and that we then proceed according to the judgements we have made, we are also continually thinking and acting in ways which are at least rudimentarily "critical" as well. Nevertheless, in our everyday lives most of us do not all that often reflect upon precisely what theories are guiding and sustaining us, how so, and why so, nor do we frequently examine how and why we think and act critically in the ways that we do. Moreover, if asked to produce a rigorous intellectual explanation, precisely accounting for and meticulously justifying the theoretical and critical influences upon and determinants of our everyday ways of thinking, understanding, feeling, believing, interacting, communicating, acting, and behaving, most of us would have a very difficult time.A principal aim of studying and learning to think, read, write, and act theoretically is to develop the ability to recognize, understand, explain, account for, and justify the theories that guide and sustain us throughout our everyday lives. Likewise, a principal aim of studying and learning to think, read, write, and act critically is to develop the ability to recognize, understand, explain, account for, and justify the kinds of judgements, the ways in which we make judgements, and the standards and criteria we use in making judgements throughout everyday life.

Because the theories that guide and sustain us and the ways in which we think and act critically in our everyday lives are rarely simply the result of our own uniquely individual creation and rarely a matter simply of our own autonomously free choice -- especially when we either are not conscious of their effects upon us or are unable to explain, account for, and justify these in a sustained and rigorous fashion -- we are always working according to the influence and the determination of theoretical and critical approaches which are much larger than the space "inside" of our own "heads" or "minds": we are always working according to theoretical and critical approaches which occupy particular places within particular societies and cultures and which are formed as particular products of particular histories and politics. A course in "critical theory" presents an opportunity not only, therefore, to learn about the theoretical and critical approaches of what might often at least initially seem like an elite caste of distant and specialized others -- specific, and frequently famous, named "theorists" and "critics" -- but also, and more importantly, to reflect upon how and why all of us work with the kinds of theoretical and critical approaches we do; where these come from and what gives rise to them; where they lead and what follows from them; which such approaches predominate in what areas of everyday life today, in what places within what societies and cultures, with what uses and effects, toward the advancement of what ends and toward the service of what interests; and what alternative approaches are possible, what alternatives are desirable, what alternatives are necessary, and how do we get from here to there. 

In sum, education in critical theory enables the development and refinement of our ability to engage as critical citizens, that is as empowered agents able effectively to question, challenge, and contribute toward the progressive transformation of the prevailing status quo within the communities, societies, and cultures that we work to help maintain and reproduce every day, and in relation to which we are, as such, always not only inescapably interested -- but also vitally important -- participants.

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Professor Bob Nowlan

Last Updated September 21, 2001