Critical theory

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S015-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 22, 2023, from

Article Summary

The term ‘critical theory’ designates the approach to the study of society developed between 1930 and 1970 by the so-called ‘Frankfurt School’. A group of theorists associated with the Institute for Social Research, the School was founded in Frankfurt, Germany in 1923. The three most important philosophers belonging to it were Max Horkheimer, Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno and Herbert Marcuse.

Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse feared that modern Western societies were turning into closed, totalitarian systems in which all individual autonomy was eliminated. In their earliest writings from the 1930s they presented this tendency towards totalitarianism as one result of the capitalist mode of production. In later accounts they give more prominence to the role of science and technology in modern society, and to the concomitant, purely ‘instrumental’, conception of reason. This conception of reason denies that there can be any such thing as inherently rational ends or goals for human action and asserts that reason is concerned exclusively with the choice of effective instruments or means for attaining arbitrary ends.

‘Critical theory’ was to be a form of resistance to contemporary society; its basic method was to be that of ‘internal’ or ‘immanent’ criticism. Every society, it was claimed, must be seen as making a tacit claim to substantive (and not merely instrumental) rationality; that is, making the claim that it allows its members to lead a good life. This claim gives critical theory a standard for criticism which is internal to the society being criticized. Critical theory demonstrates in what ways contemporary society fails to live up to its own claims. The conception of the good life to which each society makes tacit appeal in legitimizing itself will usually not be fully propositionally explicit, so any critical theory will have to begin by extracting a tacit conception of the good life from the beliefs, cultural artefacts and forms of experience present in the society in question. One of the particular difficulties confronting a critical theory of contemporary society is the disappearance of traditional substantive conceptions of the good life that could serve as a basis for internal criticism, and their replacement with the view that modern society needs no legitimation beyond simple reference to its actual efficient functioning, to its ‘instrumental’ rationality. The ideology of ‘instrumental rationality’ thus itself becomes a major target for critical theory.

    Citing this article:
    Geuss, Raymond. Critical theory, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S015-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
    Copyright © 1998-2023 Routledge.

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