Critical theory

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Critical theory is a school of thought that stresses the reflective assessments and critique of society and culture by applying knowledge from the social sciences and the humanities.


  • The error in positivism is that it takes as its standard of truth the contingently given division of labor, that between the science and social praxis as well as that within science itself, and allows no theory that could reveal the division of labor to be itself derivative and mediated and thus strip it of its false authority.
    • Theodor Adorno, "Why still philosophy?" in Critical Models (1998), p. 10
  • For the Romantics and for speculative philosophy, ... to be critical meant to elevate thinking so far beyond all restrictive conditions that the knowledge of truth sprang forth magically, as it were, from insight into the falsehood of these restrictions.
    • Walter Benjamin, "The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism" (1919), Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, volume 1 (1996), p. 142
  • Every presentation of philosophy, whether oral or written, is to be taken and can only be taken in the sense of a means. Every system is only an expression or image of reason, and hence only an object of reason, an object which reason—a living power that procreates itself in new thinking beings—distinguishes from itself and posits as an object of criticism. Every system that is not recognized and appropriated as just a means, limits and warps the mind for it sets up the indirect and formal thought in the place of the direct, original and material thought.
    • Ludwig Feuerbach, “Towards a critique of Hegel’s philosophy” (1839), Z. Hanfi, trans., in The Fiery Brook (1972), p. 67
  • A critique is not a matter of saying that things are not right as they are. It is a matter of pointing out on what kinds of assumptions, what kinds of familiar, unchallenged, unconsidered modes of thought the practices that we accept rest.
    • Michel Foucault, “Practicing criticism, or, is it really important to think?”, interview by Didier Eribon, May 30-31, 1981, in Politics, Philosophy, Culture, ed. L. Kriztman (1988), p. 155
  • When an active individual of sound common sense perceives the sordid state of the world, desire to change it becomes the guiding principle by which he organizes given facts and shapes them into a theory. The methods and categories as well as the transformation of the theory can be understood only in connection with his taking of sides. This, in turn, discloses both his sound common sense and the character of the world. Right thinking depends as much on right willing as right willing on right thinking.
    • Max Horkheimer, "The Latest Attack on Metaphysics" (1937), in Critical Theory: Selected Essays (1982), p. 162
  • The greatest merit of the critical spirit is that it tends to cure fanaticism, and it is logical enough that in our own fanatical times the critical spirit should tend to disappear.
  • In high industrial civilization, ... the “inner” dimension of the mind in which opposition to the status quo can take root is whittled down. The loss of this dimension, in which the power of negative thinking—the critical power of Reason—is at home, is the ideological counterpart to the very material process in which advanced industrial society silences and reconciles the opposition. The impact of progress turns Reason into submission to the facts of life, and to the dynamic capability of producing more and bigger facts of the same sort of life. The efficiency of the system blunts the individuals' recognition that it contains no facts which do not communicate the repressive power of the whole. If the individuals find themselves in the things which shape their life, they do so, not by giving, but by accepting the law of things—not the law of physics but the law of their society.
  • If the progressing rationality of advanced industrial society tends to liquidate, as an “irrational rest,” the disturbing elements of Time and Memory, it also tends to liquidate the disturbing rationality contained in this irrational rest. Recognition and relation to the past as present counteracts the functionalization of thought by and in the established reality. It militates against the closing of the universe of discourse and behavior; it renders possible the development of concepts which destabilize and transcend the closed universe by comprehending it as historical universe. Confronted with the given society as object of its reflection, critical thought becomes historical consciousness as such, it is essentially judgment. Far from necessitating an indifferent relativism, it searches in the real history of man for the criteria of truth and falsehood, progress and regression.
  • The philosopher will ask himself … if the criticism we are now suggesting is not the philosophy which presses to the limit that criticism of false gods which Christianity has introduced into our history.

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