7 junio, 2024

Critical theory: what it is, origin, characteristics and representatives

We explain what critical theory is, its historical origin, its characteristics and its main representatives

What is critical theory?

It is known as critical theory in sociology, philosophy and other social and political sciences, to the theoretical body developed from the 1930s onwards by a group of thinkers affiliated with the Frankfurt School.

Starting from a Marxist theoretical base, critical theory arises in opposition to the positivist theoretical body and to any approach or search for knowledge that rejects the influence of the social body and the different relationships that individuals establish with their environment.

The critique focused especially on the various negative aspects of contemporary society, trying to explain the dynamics that had led the West to totalitarianism such as Nazism or Soviet Communism.

Among its main representatives are Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Jürgen Habermas and Erich Fromm, among many others.

Origin of critical theory

In 1923, with financial contributions from the German-Argentine merchant Hermann Weil, his son Félix and the thinker Friedrich Pollock, the Institute for Social Research, attached to the University of Frankfurt, was founded with the initial objective of promoting Marxist studies in Germany.

The studies of the Institute take a turn in 1931, when Max Horkheimer joins and directs the focus towards critical theory, for which he is considered the founder of the Frankfurt School, and to which Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Eric Fromm, and later Jurgen Habermas. And although he did not participate directly, the figure of the thinker Walter Benjamin is associated with this school.

The interwar period in Europe is marked by a strong economic crisis, the rise of large monopolistic corporations, fierce financial speculation (which leads to the 1929 crash) and by the shadow of Soviet communism and the rise of National Socialism in Germany.

It is in this context that thinkers such as Horkheimer, Adorno and others develop a critical theory of society, of traditional theoretical models, which includes questioning thinkers such as Max Weber or the Viennese school of logical positivism.

In 1933 the Institute was closed by the Nazis and its members moved first to Geneva and then to New York, where they received support from Columbia University. After the end of World War II, they returned to Frankfurt (1951), from where they continued their research work.

In 1937 Max Horkheimer gave shape to critical theory with his book Traditional theory and critical theory.

Characteristics of critical theory

the young marx

The followers of the Frankfurt School initially consider themselves heterodox Marxists, and take up one of the statements of the young Karl Marx in his Theses on Feuerbachby making critical thinking a weapon that must go beyond contemplation and analysis, and also serve as a tool for transformation.

Analysis of late capitalism

An analysis of capitalist society is proposed using theoretical tools of Marxism, but reworking them and emphasizing aspects such as reification, commodification and criticism of mass culture.

A critical look at the economic policy of the Soviet Union led to the coining of the term, by Friedrich Pollock, «state capitalism.»

Marxism and psychoanalysis

Seeking to understand the relationships established between modern society and individuals, an approach was given between the methods of psychoanalysis and Freudian theory with Marxist concepts. In this direction, the social psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm played a key role.

science and society

Critical theory affirms that there are no pure sciences and that these are subject to different forms of social dynamics. It also postulates that science should play a transforming role in society, and not act as another form of reaffirmation of the established order.

Critical theory, civilization and mass culture

The subject of the cultural industry has been a concern of the Frankfurt School since its inception, and has a fundamental representative in Walter Benjamin, author of the essay «The work of art in the age of its technical reproducibility», from 1936, on the end of originality, the social and political role of art and the importance of forms such as cinema and photography in the propaganda of authoritarian systems.

The role of the cultural industry, of traditional culture and of the artistic avant-garde was also addressed by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in texts such as the Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944).

Representatives of critical theory

Max Horkheimer (Germany, 1895-1973)

A German philosopher, psychologist and sociologist, he is considered the initiator of critical theory and its main promoter from 1930, when he was elected director of the Institute for Social Research, better known as the Frankfurt School.

His main works include: Traditional theory and critical theory (1931), Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944, co-written with Theodor Adorno) and Critique of instrumental reason (1946).

Theodor Adorno (Germany, 1903-Switzerland, 1969)

Philosopher, sociologist, psychologist, musicologist and teacher, he is considered, together with Horkheimer, one of the highest representatives of the Frankfurt School. In addition to the works written with Horkheimer, his productions include minimal morality (1951), the negative dialectic (1966) and his aesthetic theory (1970).

Walter Benjamin (Germany, 1892-Spain, 1940)

Philosopher, translator, literary critic, essayist and writer, he maintained a close relationship with the Frankfurt School, although he was not formally part of it (and due to his importance we include him among its representatives).

He is the author of The origin of the German Baroque drama (1928), and two of his most influential and well-known essays are: «The work of art in the age of its technical reproducibility», and the «Theory of translation».

Herbert Marcuse (Germany, 1898-1979)

Philosopher and sociologist, he is the representative of the Frankfurt School most closely linked to the student movement and the political turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s. His main work is The One Dimensional Man (1964).

Erich Fromm (Germany, 1900-Switzerland, 1980)

Psychoanalyst, social psychologist and philosopher, and one of the best-known representatives of the Frankfurt School, although he broke with it in 1940. Two of his best-known and most transcendent works are after his membership in this current: the fear to the freedom (1941) and The art of Loving (1956).

Jurgen Habermas (Germany, 1929)

Philosopher and sociologist, he is the greatest exponent of the so-called second generation of the Frankfurt School. He was a disciple of Adorno and Horkheimer, although with a later independent philosophical development.

From his extensive work we can mention: knowledge and interest (1968), The philosophical discourse of modernity (1985) and Facticity and validity (1992), among others.


Galafassi, G. P. (2002). The critical theory of the Frankfurt School and the crisis of the idea of ​​reason in modernity. Taken from redalyc.org.
Frankenberg, G. (2011). critical theory. Taken from right.uba.ar.
Critical Theory (2021). Taken from es.wikipedia.org.
Corradetti, C. (2021). Frankfurt School and Critical Theory. Taken from iep.utm.edu.
Uribe Rosales, VP (2021). Frankfurt School. Taken from uaeh.edu.mx.

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