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Critical Theory: Contemporary

Critical Theory: Contemporary

Critical theory was originally associated with the
Frankfurt Institute in the 1930s, the key gures of
which included Max Horkheimer,Theodor Adorno,
Walter Benjamin, and Herbert Marcuse. Critical
theory embodied the Hegelian and psychoanalytic reorientation of Western Marxism during the 1930s in
which theory was transformative, rather than contemplative, engaging with historical processes to
enhance human emancipation (Horkheimer 1972).
Unlike more orthodox Marxism, it accorded central
signicance to culture, including mass media, authoritarianism, science and technology, and gender. Central to their thinking was the apparent eclipse of the
revolutionary proletariat in the wake of Stalinism,
Nazism, and mass consumption capitalism. Many of
these themes, expressed for example in Horkheimer and
Adorno (1973), were to become central to social
theory some 25 years later. As this happened, the
distinctive character of critical theory became less
clear, although it remains an important focus of
critical theoretical debate.

1. Contemporary Critical Theory

Much contemporary critical theory though has been
shaped by Ju$ rgen Habermas (b. 1929) who, despite
often being described as the heir to earlier critical
theory, has criticized many of its claims. He regards
the apocalyptic despair of Horkheimer and Adornos
work as having ignored the unfullled potential of
Western modernity to expand rationality and democracy (Habermas 1987, p. 113). They too readily
accepted a Weberian nightmare of an iron cage of total
domination, in which philosophy could only keep
alive the possibility of a better society while lamenting
the lost opportunity for emancipation (Benhabib
1981). For Habermas though, the very possibility of
critique must presuppose the existence of a rational
criteria of a better society against which the present is
being judged (Habermas 1987, p. 113). Habermas
aims to recover and explicate this potential, to which
end he has undertaken an elaborate reconstruction of
the grounds of everyday communication.
1.1 Communicatie Turn
Habermas early work focused on the constriction
of the public sphere through technocratic politics and
commercial mass media. Though less central to later
work, this theme is manifest in Habermas distinction
between two social orders, of lifeworld and system.
The former is the sphere of communication and
culture, mediated by norms and language. The latter
refers to forms of social steering by money and
power, which are not available to normative discourse.

While Habermas insists that the market and state are

essential in modern societies, there is a continual
tension along the boundaries of lifeworld and system
along which new social movements arise. An example
would be environmental protests over nuclear reprocessing that open debates about the rationality and
morality of projects previously driven by technological
and nancial criteria.
In recent work though Habermas has identied
emancipatory practice not by appeal to agents of
change (such as the proletariat) but through universal
pragmaticsthe reconstruction of rationality implicit in speech acts. Habermas argues that the
potential for rational agreement is present whether we
acknowledge it or not, in sociolinguistic rules of
communication. He uses Chomskys linguistics and
Austin and Searles theory of speech acts to reconstruct communicative rules, arguing that the elementary units of communication (speech acts) involve
validity claims that are naively accepted in conversations. For conversations to occur we assume
agreement about grammar and illocution (we recognize something as a promise, an assertion, an order,
etc.). Similarly, judgments about the comprehensibility of actions involve evaluations as to whether
good reasons have been provided. Although moral
choices are often regarded as matters of personal
conviction, Habermas agues that the requirement to
provide good reasons, subject to public scrutiny,
renders these choices capable of truth. The evaluation
of moral choices is comparable to the evaluation of
empirical claims, in that in both our proered reasons
are subject to critical testing (Habermas 1992, p. 76).
Thus Habermas seeks a practical and cognitive basis
for critical theorizing.
These are not timeless linguistic structures, but
unfold historically through the formation of posttraditional (modern) worldviews. Unlike Marxist
theories, which view social development as the succession of modes of production, Habermas theory
refers to stages of cognitive and moral learning, which
parallel childhood development. Premodern forms of
moral authority involve conventional attachments to
externally given value systems, underwritten by sacred
beliefs. Echoing Kant, maturity involves postconventional distance from rules and the capacity to
evaluate and argue whether adherence to a moral
injunction is appropriate. Successful post-traditional
sociality institutionalizes new levels of cognitive and
moral learning, thus normative structures are the
pacemaker of social evolution (Habermas 1979, p.
120). Modern worldviews dissolve sacred authority
into rational justications of morality.
This process of the linguistication of the sacred is
potentially liberating because it releases the argumentative force of language grounded in the capacity
of assent or dissent from any proposition, whether
empirical, moral, or aesthetic. In each of these spheres
any attempt to reach an understanding of the truth of

Critical Theory: Contemporary

a proposition, the sincerity of the speaker, or the
appropriateness of the utterance can be disputed.
Habermas claims that entering into dialog about the
validity of utterances involves a specic type of
discussion (Diskurs) oriented towards examining these
conditions (Habermas 1984, p. 28). But here is the nub
of the argument. Such practices will be successful only
if we assume equality of access to speech acts and
freedom to move from level to level in Diskurs, since it
is only under such conditions that consensus could be
motivated by the force of better argument. This
enables Habermas to introduce the general symmetry
requirement (also called the ideal speech situation)
which states that if a consensus is to be reached guided
only by the force of better argument, then whether we
recognize it or not we routinely assume certain
conditions. That is:
everyone has an equal chance to deploy,
initiate, and perpetuate speech acts;
utterances are comprehensible;
their propositional content is true;
what is said is legitimate and appropriate;
it is sincerely spoken.
Habermas realized, of course, that these conditions
of communicative competence are counterfactual and
rarely present in actual speech, but it is precisely this
that justies two further claims. The rst is that the
goal of normal communication is disturbed by power
relations, which intrude to prevent questions being
raised or validity claims being tested. Second, these
constraints on communication are self-defeating since
they contradict the underlying assumptions that make
dialog possible at all. From this it follows that
rationality can be measured by the degree of openness
or closure in communication. The goals of truth,
freedom, and justice are not mere utopian dreams, but
are anticipated in ordinary communication; and therefore the goal of emancipation is presupposed in the
constitution of the species as linguistic beings
(Habermas 1991, p. 244). If the unspoken authority of
all communications can potentially be challenged,
then perhaps democratic social relations are already
implicit in everyday communications. For this insight
to have practical signicance though, it would need to
be linked to the formation of emancipatory social
movements: feminism, ecology, civil rights, and
democratization movements (Ray 1993, pp. 5778).

1.2 How Critical is Critical Theory?

Contemporary critical theory has developed a wide
range of debates and projects in the course of which
Habermas has been extensively criticized. For some
(Hullot-Kentor 1989) he has abandoned the earlier
critical thrust of Horkheimer and Adorno. For others,
he privileges communicative functions of language
over others, such as irony or aesthetic expression
(Thompson 1982) and has misunderstood or misused

speech act theory (Rasmussen 1990, p. 37). One of the

most frequent criticisms is that if Habermas envisages
domination-free dialog as an attainable state, this is an
implausible utopian dream (Jay 1988, p. 31). If it is not
an attainable state then the force of his critique is lost.
Similarly, Habermas emphasis on communication
and language is idealist and perhaps ignores the
importance of material structures (Dux 1991). Brian
Fay suggests that emancipation through rational
reection encounters limitations imposed by embodiment, since authority is inscribed into conditioned
patterns of activity, which cannot readily be subject to
rational refection (Fay 1987, p. 148). Two areas of
controversy in particular serve to highlight the relevance of critical theory to contemporary debates.

2. Critical Theory and Feminism

Some of the most interesting critiques of Habermas
have come from feminist critical theorists, who share
his commitment to the explication of power, knowledge, and morality, but dier with him on other issues.
A central issue is that Habermasian theory stands in
the Enlightenment tradition which many feminists
have rejected (Meehan 1995). Universal pragmatics
deals with highly abstract and depersonalized speech
rules. By contrast, feminist critics have identied
discursive forms that represent experience of embodied female subjects. For example, Nancy Fraser
(1985) argues that Habermas fails to examine the
gendering of his core concepts such as citizenship,
universalism, public sphere, and civil society. The role
of citizen is premised on male occupation of the public
sphere in which a civil contract amongst brothers is
contrasted with the feminization of the private sphere.
Seyla Benhabib criticizes what she sees as the
disembodied transcendental rational ego that is the
subject of ideal speech. Drawing on communitarian
critics of the unencumbered self (Taylor, MacIntyre),
she sees in Habermass attempt to reconstruct universal morality an autonomous male ego, which
universalism privileges as a point of reference. Since
subjects are nite and social, contexts of gender and
community are central and people are not only
generalized others (moral persons with reason) but
also concrete others. The negotiation between the
generalized other and collective concrete others takes
place in a male public sphere from which women
disappear (Benhabib 1992, p. 13). Nonetheless,
Benhabib applauds Habermas shift to communication, which departs from reason as a psychological
attribute of consciousness to an intersubjective view of
ethics and dialog.
A similar point is made by Kate Soper, who notes
the all male monastical atmospherics of the Frankfurt
School, but sees nonadversarial dialog as similar to
consciousness-raising, and his distinction between
normatively secured and communicatively achieved

Critical Theory: Contemporary

dialog as a means of opening up unquestioned conventions (e.g., family) to explicit discussion. Indeed,
there is some anxiety among these critics that the
theory risks losing sight of universalism in favor of
Romantic particularism. Benhabib asks, would a
moral theory restricted to the standpoint of the
concrete other be sexist, racist, culturally relative, and
discriminatory? No, she replies, rights must be an
essential component of any such theory. The problem
here (cf. Soper 1992) is that rights must involve
abstraction from particularity otherwise the grounding for the demand for equal treatment is removed.

3. The Debate oer Modernity

Critical theory seeks to salvage Enlightenment
rationality. Habermasappears to be the only contemporary theorist willing to defend the tradition of
modernity, and is frequently called to do so in debates
with theorists like Lyotard, Gadamer, and Foucault.
Yet critical theory shares with postmodernism an
attention to knowledge and communication media,
the fragmentation of culture and identity, and the end
of historical narratives. Nonetheless, for critical theory, postmodernism denies the grounds of its own
critique and permits celebration of spontaneous power
of imagination. That, on the contrary, modernity is
not exhausted but unfullled, was demonstrated by
the anticommunist rectifying revolutions (die Nachholende Reolution) of 1989. They posed anew the core
issues of modernityrights, civil society, market
governance, cultural autonomy, and democratic association (Habermas 1990, 1994, p. 62).
The robust defense of modernity and enlightenment
is, paradoxically, as much a challenge to earlier critical
theory as to postmodernism. An evaluation of contemporary critical theory should assess its success in
identifying emancipatory impulses neglected by earlier
theorists. Habermas gestures towards social movements as representing new communicative structures,
although he says very little about these in detail. The
key issue is whether the theory of communicative
action is a plausible reconstruction of the emancipatory potentials inherent in everyday speech. Even
if we nd these arguments persuasive, the question
remains whether these are cultural conventions or
deeper structures constitutive of discourse.
See also: Adorno, Theodor W (190369); Communication: Philosophical Aspects; Critical Theory:
Frankfurt School; Cultural Critique: Anthropological; Feminist Theory: Ecofeminist and Cultural Feminist; Feminist Theory: Marxist and Socialist; Feminist
Theory: Postmodern; Marxist Social Thought, History of; Modernity; Postmodernism: Philosophical
Aspects; Rationality in Society; Theory: Sociological

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L. Ray
Copyright # 2001 Elsevier Science Ltd.
All rights reserved.

Critical Theory: Frankfurt School

Critical theory has a narrow and a broad meaning in
the history of the social sciences. Critical theory in
the narrow sense designates several generations of
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 specic practical


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