Critical Theory – Concept, origin, history and representatives

We explain what critical theory is, its origin, history and relationship with Marxism. In addition, its main representatives.

critical theory walter benjamin
Authors like Benjamin reflected on society, politics, and morals.

What is critical theory?

Critical theory can be understood as a form of theorization or reflection on society, politics and morality, which seeks to liberate the individual from the forces that oppress and exploit him, that is, a critical view of the workings of modern capitalism. In that sense, all critical theory seeks to distinguish itself from theories considered “traditional”.

This concept arose in the Europe of the interwar period of the 20th century, and is historically associated with the Frankfurt School, a very important research group in the western thought of the 20th century, constituted at the University of Frankfurt. Adhered to the theories of Hegel, Marx and Freud about society and history.

The term “critical theory” comes from Max Horkheimer’s essay entitled Traditional theory and critical theory (1937), considered as one of the main contributions of this intellectual group, under the premise of building a “heterodox Marxism”, combining Marx and Freud. Put simply, critical theory was intended, more than just interpreting the world, to help transform it.

Thus, for example, critical theory accused scientific thought of serving as a covert tool of oppression, so they warned about blind or excessive faith in scientific progress. They argued that scientific knowledge should not be an end in itself, but should be oriented towards human emancipation.

Although the advent of Nazism and World War II ended the Frankfurt School and the lives of many of its authors, critical theory was taken up again in 1949 after the reestablishment of the Institute for Social Research, headed by Theodor Adorno. and Max Horkheimer. In addition, since 1970, he has been enormously influential in the study of legal, literary, historical, and most of the social sciences.

Main representatives of critical theory

The main authors associated with critical theory are:

  • Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969). A German philosopher of Jewish origins, whose work spanned fields as diverse as musicology, psychology and sociology, he is one of the greatest exponents of the Frankfurt School and one of its refounders after the Second World War.
  • Walter benjamin (1892-1940). One of the great names of the Frankfurt School and an essayist and thinker whose work is still highly valued today, he was a German philosopher, literary critic, translator and writer of Jewish origins. He committed suicide in 1940, after desperately fleeing Nazi persecution through the French Pyrenees, in a Spanish border town.
  • Max horkheimer (1895-1973). German philosopher, psychologist, sociologist and thinker of Jewish origin, he was another of the great names associated with the Frankfurt School. After fleeing to the United States during World War II, he took refuge in Columbia University, where several members of the Frankfurt School received aid.
  • Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979). German philosopher and sociologist of Jewish origins, he fled Nazism to the United States, where he was nationalized in 1940. He was an important political philosopher and was taken as a theoretical reference for student and youth protest groups, such as the hippie movement.
  • Jurgen Habermas (1929-). Academically trained in history, philosophy, psychology, German literature and economics, this German philosopher and sociologist has a world-renowned work, especially important in the philosophy of language, political philosophy, ethics and the theory of law. He was part of the second generation of the Frankfurt School.
  • Erich fromm (1900-1980). A psychoanalyst, social psychologist and humanist philosopher of Jewish-German origin, he was a great defender of democratic Marxism and a member of the Frankfurt School, although at the end of the 1940s he moved away from the group due to interpretative differences regarding Freud’s theory. . Fromm is considered one of the main renovators of psychoanalysis in the middle of the 20th century.