The critical theory was proposed almost a century ago, and since then it has been revived,1 revised,2 and revisited.3 Nowadays, it is not uncommon for modern political, social,4 and religious5 initiatives and approaches to be based on it. This popularity and the remarkable ability to withstand even the criticism of its foundations6 make the critical theory and interesting topic for research. In this paper, the critical theory is briefly characterised from the historical and ideological perspective, after which its impact on the contemporary political philosophy and the relationships of mutual influence between the two are discussed. It is concluded that the theory’s remarkable longevity may be the consequence of the methodology created within its framework, that is now being applied to diverse7 aspects8 of human activities.
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Critical Theory: History and Definition
A product of Frankfurt School, the critical theory was established in the 1920s, later reviewed in the 1950s, and returned to throughout the post-war history of political philosophy.9 The theory is concerned with improving society through emancipation. Its core basis is the “Hegelian turn” in Marxism, and it focuses on the development of a reasonable society through critical thinking.10 The Kantian concern of the possibility of reason and knowledge was also explored by the School, and the influence of Kantian philosophy is visible in its apologists’ ideas.11 Apart from that, the idea of reflective thinking was combined with “intellectual and moral responsibility.”12
In other words, the apologists of the theory aimed at making thinking less detached and explanatory and more socially oriented. Ideology, in this case, was regarded as an obstacle to human freedom, the contradictions and “masking” ideas of which could be exposed with the help of critical thinking.13 Naturally, the theory criticised the positivist view that denied the critical aspect of knowledge: for the critical theory, reflective thinking is of supreme,14 central15 significance.
The positivist philosophy, in this respect, was regarded as not just faulty, but a downright dangerous way of thinking with the potential of turning knowledge and enlightenment in another ideology tool. The ideal of the critical theory was a “civil society inhabited by rational autonomous individuals and unaffected by the impact of class power”.16 However, they sought to avoid utopism and focus on a practical application of their work: basically, in the field of social justice.
As such, the idea of enlightenment was already discussed by Marxism, but the combination of the theoretical antecedents mentioned above produced the unique critical theory that considered its aim to free individuals and their groups of the coercion enforced by ideology.17 Such was the primary form of the critical theory developed in the 1920s, but it was subject to numerous revisions and developments. One of them that is particularly remarkable was defined by the work the Dialectic of Enlightenment by Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno. It indicated the pessimistic turn in the critical theory, which could be explained in part by the unlucky developments of the XX century. An example of such developments was the turn of the Russian Revolution that had been one of the major inspirations of the theory into the Stalinist dictatorship.18
Created during the World War II, the work contained an attempt at defining the reasons for the issues of the XX century (including revolutions, wars, communism, fascism, and rising consumerism) that the authors had defined as “degradation,” “regression,” “tireless self-destruction of enlightenment,” and “enlightenment’s relapse into mythology”.19 The authors insisted that enlightenment is the only path to freedom, but as a result of “curse of irresistible progress” that is “irresistible regression,” the society has gotten into a vicious circle of the illusion of disillusionment.20
The authors insist that the rational, reason-based and enlightened society needs critical thinking that is different from the current thinking that has become “an instrument of power”.21 An aspect that is of especial concern to the authors consists in the industrialisation of culture that turned the natural means of stimulating critical thinking into the “deception” of enlightenment, the tool for ideology creation, which is demonstrated through the example of fascism and advertising.22 The work illustrates the pessimism of Frankfurt School, but apart from that, it is one of the first critical works on the critical theory. This tendency to revise and rethink the ideas of the theory with the help of its methodology is what appears to have ensured its longevity and persistence in the contemporary political philosophy.
Contemporary Political Philosophy
The modern political philosophy is pluralistic, multidimensional, and incorporative, which makes describing it a challenging task. Still, the varied points of view that it includes may be united in three general dimensions, two of which trace back to the ancient Greek philosophy, and the third one is a relatively new endeavour at globalisation. The two “classic” approaches either regard politics as something “superficial” or vice versa a “constitutive dimension of the human condition.”23
Apart from that, nowadays the tendency is evident for political philosophy to focus on humankind-generated issues such as geopolitical conflicts, social and economic inequality, and environmental damage. This focus corresponds to the idea of humankind being its own worst enemy, and struggling with these issues is considered to be the primary task of the modern governments. Also, it is noteworthy that the specifics of political philosophy consist of the need for its practical applicability.24
As a result, contemporary political thinking is fighting to find a balance between sociological and philosophical aspects, that is, to avoid both practical and ideological reductionism and stay “contemplative and reflexive, yet practical and prescriptive.”25 The issues that are being discussed within the multiple frameworks of CPP are numerous, but the relatively general tendency consists in the adjustment of the relatively modern concepts (liberalism, social justice, democracy) to the practice of politics and the detection and elimination of the inconsistencies within the current theories and ideologies.26
Critical Theory and Contemporary Political Philosophy
The Impact of the Critical Theory on Contemporary Political Philosophy
It cannot be denied that the critical theory has had an impact on the political philosophy as we know it now. The ideas of empowerment, including self-reflection and improvement, advocacy for social change,27 rejection of ideological coercion for the sake of understanding what an individual or a group wants or needs are the pillars of the critical theory. They are of significance for modern trends in the political philosophy and the relatively modern concepts of democracy, liberalism, and emancipation. It should be amended that the critical theory is, in turn, a product of varied Marxism-inspired theories, which indicates that not every liberation and the emancipation-related idea is the result of its influence: at the very least, not only the critical theory might have contributed to its development.
However, the contribution of this “well-integrated interpretative and explanatory framework” should not be underestimated, and its influence should not be limited to the pure critical society-oriented thinking.28 Still, critical thinking is the specific contribution of the theory, and it cannot be denied that this contribution has influenced contemporary political philosophy and promoted the development of new theories and frameworks.
Á Vita, for example, discusses a critical view of social justice that he terms as the “critical theory of justice” or “critical social justice.”29 In short, it criticises the focus on political and social institutions and emphasises the importance of societal norms and values as the foundation of the former.30
An obvious application area for this proposal is feminism. It may be concluded that feminism has been aiming at this exact change even though it might not have used the terminology of the critical theory. Feminism has been promoting criticism of the existing ideologies and change in the political philosophy and most other relevant fields, including religion, one of the most difficult doctrines to challenge.31 The feminist critical theory is a vivid example of the critical theory being used for theory and practice. It is concerned with the critical review of political and cultural norms as well as self-development and reflection, which corresponds to the initial aims of the critical theory.32
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Moreover, the same can be essentially said about the advocacy for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender human rights.33 The development of such movements and especially political philosophy underpinning them requires a critical assessment of the existing ideologies and norms and the rejection of ideological coercion in the favour of the social justice and the satisfaction of the needs of the society. As a result, the movements that are concerned with these and other similar aspects of the life of the human society illustrate the impact of the critical theory on the political philosophy and the public opinion in general. What is more, these movements, initiatives, and resulting changes are developing and advancing the critical theory by providing new contexts of its application and interpretation.
The Interpretation of the Critical Theory in Contemporary Political Philosophy. The Future of the Critical Theory
Nowadays, the critical theory is being developed,34 critically discussed,35 revised,36 revisited,37 and adjusted to the needs of the modern world.38 It is even used to ground the advocacy for animal rights,39 which offers a new perspective on the initial aim and ideal of the theory. It can be concluded that the critical theory is being affected by modern political philosophy and is advanced and developed by it. What also appears to be of importance, though, is that all the researchers and theorists who revise the theory proceed to treat it the way Horkheimer and Adorno did: as a subject to critical review. In other words, the critical theory’s framework and methodology are being used to perfect the theory and framework themselves.40
Apart from being in line with the spirit of the theory, such metacritique seems to indicate that it has a potential for further development: in other words, it has the chance for a future.41 Moreover, it is noteworthy that the critical theory methodology is being used to criticise other ideas, including Marxism-based ones.42 Such a development, ironical as it may be, indicates that the methodology applies to political philosophy and theory. As a result, it appears that the theory has the potential of proceeding to contribute to the development of political thought in the future.
As another significant step in the development of political philosophy, critical theory has contributed to the evolution of modern political thinking in several ways. Its key features and ideas include the focus on social transformation, the practical application of theory, the emancipation from ideological coercion, and the enlightenment and critical thinking as the tools for these changes. The impact of the theory on the contemporary political philosophy is noticeable both in its contribution to emancipatory trends and especially in the form of critical thinking promotion. The latter can be regarded as a most significant development: it has given rise to a methodology that appears to apply to the theory itself and varied other social, political, and cultural ideas.
While the roots of critical theory can be traced to Marxism and Hegelianism, it is this theory that has managed to unite them and apply the mixture to the social change promotion. The methodology framework of critical theory methodology can be regarded as a tool that is likely to outlive several ideologies and theories due to its near-universal character. The critical theory appears to have the potential for future change, and it is being developed in the context of modern politics, which indicates that the relationship between the theory and the contemporary political philosophy is mutual.
Braidotti, R, ‘In Spite of the Times: The Postsecular Turn in Feminism’, Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 25, no. 6, 2008, pp. 1-24.
Brookfield, S, ‘Foundations of Critical Theory’, Advances in Developing Human Resources, vol. 16, no. 4, 2014, pp. 417-428.
Eagan, J, ‘Foreclosure and dispossession: The case for a feminist critical theory for public administration’, International Journal of Organization Theory and Behavior, vol. 17, no. 1, 2014, pp. 37-64.
Frega, R, ‘Between pragmatism and critical theory: Social philosophy today’, Human Studies, vol. 37, no. 1, 2014, pp. 57-82.
Gilani-Williams, F, ‘Islamic critical theory: A tool for emancipatory education’, International Journal of Islamic Thought, vol. 5, 2014, pp. 16-27.
Goodin, R, P Pettit, & T Pogge, A companion to contemporary political philosophy, John Wiley & Sons, Chichester, 2012.
Haber, S, ‘Emancipation from Capitalism?’, Critical Horizons, vol. 15, no. 2, 2014, pp. 194-205.
Horkheimer, M, T Adorno, & G Schmid Noerr, trans. E. Jephcott, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2002.
Kollman, K, & M Waites, ‘The global politics of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender human rights: an introduction’, Contemporary Politics, vol. 15, no. 1, 2009, pp. 1-17.
Kompridis, N, ‘Re-Envisioning Critical Theory’, Critical Horizons, vol. 15, no. 1, 2014, pp. 1-13.
Koopman, C, ‘The direction of contemporary critical theory: A response to Amy Allen’s The Politics of Our Selves’, The Diversity of Social Theories, vol. 29, 2015, pp. 37-64.
Leca, J, ‘Political philosophy in political science: sixty years on Part II: current features of contemporary political philosophy’, International Political Science Review, vol. 32, no. 1, 2011, pp. 95-113.
Maurizi, M, ‘Critical theory and animal liberation’, Society & Animals, vol. 21, no. 5, 2013, pp. 489-493.
Rees, R, ‘Systematic theology and the future of feminism’, Pacifica: Journal of the Melbourne College of Divinity, vol. 24, no. 3, 2011, pp. 300-304.
Steinvorth, U, ‘On critical theory’, Analyse & Kritik, vol. 30, no. 2, 2008, pp. 399-423.
Strydom, P, Contemporary critical theory and methodology, Abingdon, Routledge, Abingdon, 2011.
Tormey, S, & J Townshend, Key thinkers from critical theory to post-Marxism, SAGE Publications, London, 2006.
Vita, Á, ‘Critical theory and social justice’, Brazilian Political Science Review, vol. 8, no. 1, 2014, pp. 109-126.
Wellmer, N, ‘On critical theory’, Social Research, vol. 81, no. 3, 2014, pp. 705-711.
Zambrana, J, ‘Paradoxes of neoliberalism and the tasks of critical theory’, Critical Horizons, vol. 14, no. 1, 2013, pp. 93-119.
- R Goodin, P Pettit & T Pogge, A companion to contemporary political philosophy, John Wiley & Sons, Chichester, 2012, p. 389.
- N Kompridis, ‘Re-Envisioning Critical Theory’, Critical Horizons, vol. 15, no. 1, 2014, pp. 1-13.
- S Brookfield, ‘Foundations of Critical Theory’, Advances in Developing Human Resources, vol. 16, no. 4, 2014, pp. 417-428.
- K Kollman & M Waites, ‘The global politics of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender human rights: an introduction’, Contemporary Politics, vol. 15, no. 1, 2009, pp. 1-17, p. 12.
- Gilani-Williams, F, ‘Islamic critical theory: A tool for emancipatory education’, International Journal of Islamic Thought, vol. 5, 2014, pp. 16-27.
- S Haber, ‘Emancipation from Capitalism?’, Critical Horizons, vol. 15, no. 2, 2014, pp. 194-205, pp. 195-199.
- P Strydom, Contemporary critical theory and methodology, Abingdon, Routledge, Abingdon, 2011, p. 109.
- J Zambrana, ‘Paradoxes of neoliberalism and the tasks of critical theory’, Critical Horizons, vol. 14, no. 1, 2013, pp. 93-119, p. 116.
- Goodin, Pettit & Pogge, loc. cit.
- S Tormey & J Townshend, Key thinkers from critical theory to post-Marxism, SAGE Publications, London, 2006, p. 168.
- Goodin, Pettit & Pogge, loc. cit.
- Tormey & Townshend, loc. cit.
- R Frega, ‘Between pragmatism and critical theory: Social philosophy today’, Human Studies, vol. 37, no. 1, 2014, pp. 57-82, p. 58.
- Goodin, Pettit & Pogge, loc. cit.
- Ibid, p. 388.
- Ibid, p. 389.
- S Tormey & J Townshend, p. 169.
- M Horkheimer, T Adorno & G Schmid Noerr, trans. E. Jephcott, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2002, pp. xiv-xv.
- Ibid, p. 28.
- Ibid, p. 31.
- Ibid, pp. 129-136.
- J Leca, ‘Political philosophy in political science: sixty years on Part II: current features of contemporary political philosophy’, International Political Science Review, vol. 32, no. 1, 2011, pp. 95-113, pp. 98-99.
- Zambrana, p. 117.
- Leca, p. 100.
- N Wellmer, ‘On critical theory’, Social Research, vol. 81, no. 3, 2014, pp. 705-711, pp. 705-706.
- Tormey & Townshend, loc. cit.
- Á Vita, ‘Critical theory and social justice’, Brazilian Political Science Review, vol. 8, no. 1, 2014, pp. 109-126, p. 109.
- Ibid, pp. 122-124.
- R Braidotti, ‘In Spite of the Times: The Postsecular Turn in Feminism’, Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 25, no. 6, 2008, pp. 1-24.
- Eagan, ‘Foreclosure and dispossession: The case for a feminist critical theory for public administration’, International Journal of Organization Theory and Behavior, vol. 17, no. 1, 2014, pp. 37-64, p. 98.
- Kollman & Waites, loc. cit.
- U Steinvorth, ‘On critical theory’, Analyse & Kritik, vol. 30, no. 2, 2008, pp. 399-423.
- C Koopman, ‘‘The direction of contemporary critical theory: A response to Amy Allen’s The Politics of Our Selves’, The Diversity of Social Theories, vol. 29, 2015, pp. 37-64.
- Kompridis, pp. 1-13.
- Brookfield, pp. 417-428.
- Zambrana, loc. cit.
- M Maurizi, ‘Critical theory and animal liberation’, Society & Animals, vol. 21, no. 5, 2013, pp. 489-493.
- Strydom, p. 109.
- Rees, R, ‘Systematic theology and the future of feminism’, Pacifica: Journal of the Melbourne College of Divinity, vol. 24, no. 3, 2011, pp. 300-304.
- Haber, loc. cit.