In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Critical Theory

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Philosophy Critical Theory
Claudio Corradetti
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0374


Critical theory is a philosophical movement that developed from the Frankfurt School, initially hosted at the Institute of Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung) and with a chair at Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. In 1923 Felix Weil, the son of an entrepreneur who made a fortune in Argentina, provided a conspicuous donation to establish the institute with the aim of developing Marxist studies in Germany. In 1933 the Nazis closed the institute, which temporally moved to Columbia University in New York. Starting from core Marxian concepts, such as the notions of fetishization, commodification, and reification, critical theorists developed a distinct method of analysis of society oriented toward emancipatory counterreactions to instances of power domination. Critical theorists expanded on a broad range of issues, including the critique of capitalism, pathologies of society, psychoanalysis of masses, and authoritarian power. Some of the most prominent figures of the first generation of critical theorists were Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Walter Benjamin. Since the 1970s, the second generation, led by Jürgen Habermas, contributed greatly to the dialogue between the so-called Continental and analytical traditions, intersecting different disciplinary domains from political sociology to political theory, broadly construed. Later generations of critical-theory scholars coalesced among those who studied directly or associated their career with Habermas. A sample of some of the most representative scholars is included in the list of publications herein. All in all, the first generation of critical theorists was largely preoccupied with the functional and conceptual requalification of dialectics, starting from a revisitation of Karl Marx’s dialectical materialism by Georg Lukács. With Habermas, instead, a shift occurred in the analysis of the understanding of the conditions of action coordination and speech acts. Habermas’s reception of the “linguistic turn” posed a dilemma to his followers: either to be faithful to a context-neutral notion of universality, or to embrace a postmodern, context-dependent pluralization of standards of validity along the lines traced by Michel Foucault and others. The post-Habermasian generation of critical theorists has flourished along different directions. To mention only a few of these theorists, whereas Axel Honneth has engaged in a life-span program based on the Hegelian notion of recognition, Seyla Benhabib and Jean Cohen have recast some crucial modern notions such as those of citizenship, human rights, sovereignty, democracy, and cosmopolitanism. Finally, Nancy Fraser and Rahel Jaeggi, respectively, have remained more sensible to classical social thinking by updating a critical research program on the criticism of capitalism, lifeforms, and social contestation, some among the original inspirations of critical social theory.

Introductory Works

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