|Horkheimer (front left); Adorno (front right); 1965|
Max Horkheimer, who took up the directorship of the Frankfurt School in 1930, is credited with first coning the term critical theory. In his 1937 book Critical Theory: Selected Essays, (Chapter 6, “Traditional and Critical Theory”), Horkheimer explains the difference between traditional and critical theories. He notes that while traditional theory is devoted to analysis and understanding of the social problems, the critical theory “urges a transformation of society as a whole.” He also points out that critical theory is “dominated at every turn by a concern for reasonable conditions of life.”
Here’s excerpt from Horkheimer’s essay, where he is suggesting that since critical theory deals with the actual and present condition of mankind, it always starts with the exchange economy:
The critical theory of society also begins with abstract determinations; in dealing with the present era it begins with the characterization of an economy based on exchange. The concepts Marx uses, such as commodity, value, and money, can function as genera when, for example, concrete social relations are judged to be relations of exchange and when there is question of the commodity character of goods. But the theory is not satisfied to relate concepts of reality by way of hypotheses. The theory begins with an outline of the mechanism by which bourgeois society, after dismantling feudal regulations, the guild system, and vassalage, did not immediately fall apart under the pressure of its own anarchic principle but managed to survive. The regulatory effects of exchange are brought out on which bourgeois economy is founded. The conception of the interaction of society and nature, which is already exercising its influence here, as well as the idea of a unified period of society, of its self-preservation, and so on, spring from a radical analysis, guided by concern for the future, of the historical process. The relation of the primary conceptual interconnections to the world of facts is not essentially a relation of classes to instances. It is because of its inner dynamism that the exchange relationship, which the theory outlines, dominates social reality, as, for example, the assimilation of food largely dominates the organic life of plant and brute beast.He also claims that critical theory offers the possibility of improving social relations:
There is still need of a conscious reconstruction of economic relationships. Indiscriminate hostility to theory, therefore, is a hindrance today. Unless there is continued theoretical effort, in the interest of a rationally organized future society, to shed critical light on present-day society and to interpret it in the light of traditional theories elaborated in the special sciences, the ground is taken from under the hope of radically improving human existence. The demand therefore for a positive outlook and for acceptance of a subordinate position threatens, even in progressive sectors of society, to overwhelm any openness to theory. The issue, however, is not simply the theory of emancipation; it is the practice of it as well.Horkheimer’s critical theory can be seen as an attempt to achieve Marxist sociological and cultural aims without unleashing state oppression and violence on society. He denounces some of the Marxist concepts and combines several Marxist viewpoints with other philosophical and sociological systems. In the final paragraph of his essay, he expresses his concern for social justice: “The future of humanity depends on the existence today of the critical attitude.”
Today critical theory is no longer a homogeneous discipline or a unified movement. The modern critical theorists are active in several left-leaning social, political and artistic movements: Structuralism, Narratology, Marxism, Poststructuralism, Historicism, Psychoanalytic criticism, Deconstruction, Feminism, Gender and Queer theory, and Postmodernism.