What Is Critical Theory?

An Explainer

Critical theory has always been controversial, but never more than now. In the last few years, it’s become a major culture war symbol, spawning an entire industry of commentary that, in its most extreme offerings, either antagonistically sees it as the fountain of all evil, or positively regards it as the most fruitful framework for remaking society.

In what follows, I’ll look to summarize some of the main streams of critical theory and explain what each says about the present. Then, I’ll cover some standard lines of argument against critical theory. Finally, I’ll highlight some of the internal disputes among critical theorists to show that, whatever else it is, critical theory is hardly a monolith.

Origins in the Idea of Critique

An ambitious writer could trace the philosophical origins of critical theory to Socrates; that meticulous thinker who spent his days serving as a “gadfly,” undermining the ideological doxa of his fellow Athenians. But the modern “founder” of critical theory is Immanuel Kant, who, despite his reputation as a square, held to many ideas that were genuinely radical for his time. Kant’s contribution to the underpinnings of critical theory was the notion of a critique. What does this word mean in its Kantian sense?

After Kant’s day, the word “critique” was thrown around a lot—so much so that by the mid-19th century Marx and Engels parodied its overuse in their book The Holy Family, whose subtitle is “a critique of critical criticism.” Yet the idea remained extraordinary. While standard “criticism” just explained why a set of ideas were wrong, misguided, or immoral, critique in this more involved sense would go further and look not just at ideas and practices, but the conditions for the emergence of those ideas and practices.

Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason was a seminal book because he didn’t just analyze the capacities of pure reason, but explained how it emerged from the transcendental structure of human cognition and what its fundamental limitations were. This had radical implications, since Kant claimed to have proved that reason—at least of the pure kind; practical reason was another story—was incapable of providing final guidance on many of our eternal questions (e.g., whether God exists, whether space and time had a beginning, etc.) Such questions might seem rather removed from politics, but Kant recognized they had serious bite to them. When absolutists claimed kings had a “divine right” to rule, or the church argued that established traditions embodied a kind of eternal wisdom which had been deepened over history, Kantian critique showed they were not just reasoning poorly, but speaking of things they could have no knowledge of one away or another.

The idea of a critique, which looked not just to expose bad ideas but diagnose their roots in broader ideologies and practices, took off and began to have a profound influence. We saw everything from critiques of “post-colonial reason” to “the political economy of the sign” and even “everyday life.” As Michel Foucault put it in his sequel to Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?”, this “philosophical attitude [was] translated into the labor of diverse inquiries.”

The most consequential post-Kantian example is Marx’s critique of political economy. Unlike Kant, Marx was a materialist, which meant he was first and foremost concerned with the conditions for the emergence of economic relations of production rather than ideas. But he also analyzed how each historical “mode of production” generated its own “ruling ideology.” In A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, ideology becomes the different legal, political, and artistic expressions of human beings’ understanding of their social world and serves as the means for both defending and criticizing it.

It is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic—in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production. No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.

Much, though by no means all, of early modern critical theory emerged out of the Marxist critique of capitalist political economy. Later figures like Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, and Simone de Beauvoir were keen to extend Marx’s critique to areas of life under capitalism his own work had left largely untouched; from art, to sex, to gender relations. But, contra some 21st-century analysts, the best critical theorists of the time were far from devout disciples merely regurgitating the bearded master’s pieties. As time went on, critical theorists became more and more uncomfortable with the limitations of Marxism; one might say they engaged in a critique of the critique of political economy.

The Frankfurt School theorists were both appalled by the horrors of Soviet Communism, and disappointed that worker’s movements in Germany and Italy had been crushed by the popularity of ultra-right fascism and Nazism. They became determined to explain why millions of petit bourgeois Germans joined with the aristocrats and big industry in voting for Hitler, when it seemed like they would have much more to gain from siding with the workers. For them the answer lay in Marx both underestimating the importance of culture and lacking a sufficiently deep understanding of the human psyche, which was provided by various altered forms of psychoanalysis.

Left-wing feminists like de Beauvoir and later Catherine MacKinnon noted that Marx (though, interestingly enough, not Engels) had lots to say about the exploitation of male workers, but on the issue of female subordination he remained stubbornly silent. The critique of capitalism also had nothing to say about the far more longstanding issue of women’s unpaid labor in the household; an imbalance that persists to this day.

All this laid the seeds for the shift in critical theory that took place with post-structuralism and postmodernism.

The Postmodern Era

What is generally called postmodernism owes a debt to the “spirit” of Marxism, as Derrida put it in his 1993 book Specters of Marx. But it also owes a deeper debt still to reactionary German thinkers like Nietzsche and Heidegger and a push against structuralist linguistics, which is a theory of language that holds that the meaning of words can’t be found just in what individual terms themselves “mean”—it can only be understood within more holistic relations with other words, i.e., structures.

For a time structuralism was the hottest thing in French intellectual circles since cigarettes and pre-burnt American flags, meaning figures like Derrida and Foucault made their names taking it down several pegs. But both belong very much in the broader tradition of “critique” in that they tried to show how certain ideas and practices had emerged from language and history, while demonstrating these were neither as legitimate or eternal as their proponents insisted.

The early work of figures like Derrida and Foucault was keen on showing that truth, which depended on language, was rather like Nietzsche’s imagery of a “moving army of metaphors.” Earlier theories of language, like St. Augustine’s in his Confessions, had insisted words either paint a picture of the real world or express our will within it. The postmodern theorists preferred Nietzsche’s take, insisting that in fact the stability of our interpretations of words was more questionable than it first appeared. Far from painting a picture of the real world, they thought, words did quite a bit more. They unpacked our feelings about ourselves and others, labeled and ranked ideas and people according to terms like “pleasant” and “useful” and “how much is this going to cost me?”, and of course expressed our moral opinions about good and evil.

The problem was that in insisting that words had a final meaning, or that only certain kinds of words were appropriate for describing a given situation, we often inhibited or even prohibited the expression of other interpretations.

What does all this postmodern language theory have to do with politics, or indeed with any “critical” approach?

First, through demonstrating the one-sidedness of dominant kinds of language arranged as eternally valid knowledge—“discourses” in Foucault’s well known term—the postmodern theorists sought to demonstrate different ways of understanding and being in the world which had been marginalized. They sought to allow the “subaltern” to speak, as Gayatri Spivak might put it. There was a kind of admiration for the silenced, a fascination with counter-culture and alterity on the part of postmodern theory that gave it an edginess underneath all the windy terminology like “deterritorialize” and “phallogocentrism.”

Second, and related, postmodern theory was often reliant on an annoyingly crypto-normative outlook that celebrated the new and different over the tried and tested. This naturally made it attractive to many on the political left. I say “crypto-normative” because postmodern theorists typically didn’t like talking about their own moral perspectives, but it nonetheless came through in badly coded language like “emancipation,” “radical” this and that, “creation,” and “difference.”

Near the end of their lives Derrida and Foucault began to wean themselves off this frustrating crypto-normativity and just said what they wanted—though their ruminations about an impossible yet inevitable democracy still to come was of limited use to constructive left-wing theorizing. Postmodern critical theory was far stronger on offering interesting critiques than solutions.

Critiquing Critical Theory

Critiques of critical theory have been around since the philosophes first put caffeinated pen to paper. Often the attack is personal, as when Edmund Burke dismissed the unchivalrous “sophisters, economists, and calculators” of the French Revolution for their indifference when called to defend Marie Antoinette’s honor from the “swinish multitude.”

It is easy to dismiss many of these as little more than ad hominem vitriol; after all, reactionaries need to overreact every now and again. The more refined criticisms usually disdain critical theorists for their attraction to “abstract” or “speculative” theories that bear little resemblance to the real world. When launched by conservatives eager to defend the status quo, these attacks may even have a ring of truth buried within the outrage. Anyone who wants to change reality is—by definition—not a strict realist. But of course any reasonably competent critical theorist could respond that the world is deficient in many respects, and that not seeking to improve it is morally indefensible. As Mary Wollstonecraft put it when responding to Burke: “the ivy is beautiful, but, when it insidiously destroys the trunk from which it receives support, who would not grub it up?”

Another common accusation is that the outcome of the critical attitude is invariably bad. Spending too much time with the Adornos, Lyotards, and Spivaks of the world either makes one a nihilist, illiberal, a progressive extremist, or, worst of all in some quarters, a Democrat.

Some social conservatives associate it with anxieties about cultural decline and the corrosion of moral standards. Some conservative post-liberals, who are really just pre-liberals, see it as the culmination of liberalism’s failure to rein in progressivist excesses. Classical liberals typically lament the lack of commitment to foundational American individualism.

On rare occasions, you get more refined criticisms—commentators like Roger Scruton, John Milbank, or Alan Sokal have launched sustained intellectual analyses of critical theory that manage to strike real blows against it. These tend to take aim at the problematic philosophical roots of critical theory in various forms of subjectivism, nominalism, and historicism to show how these foundations can’t underwrite many of the moral and political applications of critical theory today.

Less discussed are the divides within critical theory. Often treated as an intellectual framework whose adherents all share a uniform ideological bent, it turns out that critical theorists can be quite critical of each other.

Critical Theorists Critiquing Each Other

Since the transition to postmodern critical theory in the 1960s, big “structural” struggles have been out of vogue while the micro-politics of the local and particular—what David Harvey calls “militant particularism”—have been in play. This kind of critical theorizing has provided tremendous inspiration to many movements for inclusion in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere by providing theoretical guidance, through a critique of traditional moral views, on the question of why certain groups have been excluded. But it has also produced real division on the political left, which has fractured into various militant particularisms, each pursuing its own agenda.

There is enough of an elective affinity between these approaches that they politically hang together in a loose way—but not always comfortably. The current debate between trans activists demanding recognition for non-binary individuals, and trans-exclusionary radical feminists, is a case in point. These hostilities are sometimes seen as springing from philosophical differences, but philosophical divisions are tricky things, since often they relate back to fundamental epistemological and moral convictions about the world.

Take Wendy Brown’s innovative critique of identity politics in her classic Wounded Attachments. Brown is obviously sympathetic to the plight of those who have been victimized, and is strident in her demands for political and social change. But she also accepts part of the Nietzschean critique of victimhood, arguing that to be defined by opposition to what you oppress is still to be defined by an oppressor. Rather than venerating victimization and its experiences, she writes, we need to transition to conceiving a new sense of identity that moves past the oppressor/victim relation. Obviously, this perspective is not welcomed with open arms by many critical theorists.

On a much grander scale, many contemporary critical theorists are also wary of the skepticism they detect in much of postmodern theory. In its heyday, Marxism was a grand “meta-narrative” of society and history that provided a sweeping vision of both how the world was and how to change it. Postmodern philosophers like Jean Francois Lyotard challenged the very possibility of conceiving such meta-narratives, which is one of the reasons for transitioning to a militant particularist stance. These days, some of the more big picture differences have come roaring back, driven in no small part by global anxieties about neoliberalization and the resurrection of democratic socialism as a viable movement.

Is critical theory a research program? A methodology? A posture toward power? A belligerence toward anything that marginalizes the disempowered? A cultural ethos? An ideology? What exactly is it?

One difficulty with an explainer on a topic like critical theory is that people mean vastly different things by it. Some academics use it to describe a specific analytical approach and nothing more. On the opposite end, critics see it as a symbol of how academic theory can lead to cultural decadence. Some even see it as the most pernicious instrument in the progressive lineup—the thing that will bring down civilization itself.

I have tried to show that its intellectual origins are in the concept and practice of critique. Set aside certain practitioners you may not like, and alleged “applications” of it you may find morally offensive (such as antiracist sensitivity training), and consider that critical theory may simply be a tool to get us to ask some important questions, questions you would hope someone would ask if you found yourself among society’s marginalized and underprivileged. Questions like: Are society’s institutions structurally set up in a just way? Who is excluded from our politics and should they be? Is it possible that prominent moral traditions serve some people’s interests over others? Are the patterns and features of society implicitly engineered to benefit certain identity categories over others? If so, what’s the best way to rectify that?

Does this make critical theory too … well, critical? Perhaps. But that’s just what critique is—criticality is built into the very notion. It’s not easy to hear that society, or a certain subculture within it, may need to see big changes—but then again, when exactly did this is hard for me to accept become a sound intellectual reason for rejecting an idea?