Critical Theory can be defined in two ways, one narrow and one more broad.1see James Bohman, “Critical Theory” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =<https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2016/entries/critical-theory/>.Narrowly, Critical Theory refers to a continental philosophy that emerged primarily in between WWI and WWII and developed in the post-WWII era finding its fullest expression in the Frankfurt School of the 1950’s and 60’s. Its most august representatives were men of great learning like Max Horkheimer, Theodore Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse. It was the work of these three primarily, to include the social scientific writings of Erich Fromm and Max Weber that provided the intellectual basis for the broader critical theories that have found popular expression on university campuses, in politics, and now, even in Christian churches and seminaries.
The Basic Tenets of Critical Theory
What are the basic tenets of Critical Theory? First, in contrast to Traditional Theory, all thinking, all rational thought and belief, according to Critical Theory, is a product of historical and material conditions. Thus, any philosophical, intellectual, or theological content or system is nothing more than an outworking of historical, cultural, and material conditions and circumstances, even if there might be a trans-historical rationality that bridges those temporally discreet conditions. Nevertheless, even that trans-historical rationality is entirely immanent and sociologically generated.
For example, the God-concept that existed in the West for thousands of years due to the great monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam was generated not through divine revelation, or even rational discovery of that which is transcendent, but through the more basic physical conditions of the environment and the social and cultural institutions that arose from those environmental conditions. Moreover, if the physical realities, along with the economic and cultural institutions that supervene upon them, are altered, then new ways of thinking and new paradigms of thought can be generated, to include new God-concepts.
On Critical Theory then, all philosophical and theological “investigation” about the world is not an investigation of any universal, transcendent reality, rather it is a byproduct of fundamentally physical, economic, and social conditions of particular communities of people, at particular places, at particular times in history. Reason itself, and the theoretical constructs it produces, are essentially bottom-up. As the physical realities of the environment, and the economic and social institutions that emerge from them are altered, so too are the metaphysical and religious views of people altered.
Second, on Critical Theory, which is an intellectual prodigy of Marxist thought, culture is a product of opposing forces, specifically of privileged “oppressor” classes and underprivileged “oppressed” classes. There is no third class in the middle. The goal then of many idealistic critical theorists is to create a perfectly “classless” society, whereby class could mean any categorization of human beings into different groups (e.g. race, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, physical beauty? etc.) and whereby there are no economic or social disparities between such groups. Thus, Critical Theory is inherently political as it seeks to fabricate the perfect society, i.e. the ideal democracy, where all hierarchies of authority cease to exist and where there are no discrepancies in material conditions or social power between societal subgroups. This project, of course, is one that must be realized by society itself or at least by those elite in society who have the will to realize it.
Critical Theory, especially in its broader more popular form, sees all of social reality therefore as power dynamics. Social life is comprised strictly of oppressors and oppressed, the dominant and the underprivileged. The end goal for any social situation, therefore, is for those persons or groups that find themselves as members of “the oppressed” to be liberated from their oppressors. Thus, it is crucial to not only identify as some kind of oppressed person or group, but also to find either a personal oppressor or system of oppression from which you can be freed. Again, there is no middle ground between these two groups; no third category, or admixture of the two. Work towards liberation, therefore, becomes the primary, if not ultimate, means to finding meaning in one’s life. Liberation replaces salvation in the traditional, religious sense.
The Fluidity of Social Reality & Asserted Normativity
Metaphysically there is nothing actually transcendent, actually permanent, or actually universal on Critical Theory. Everything is immanent, all is historically contingent, and all is subject to change, even our very thoughts about immanence, history, and change. On this picture, therefore, new God-concepts or new concepts of human nature are always constructible. As new societies are constructed so too are new gods and new people. In spite of this picture of the world, conclusions made by critical race theorists are nevertheless often preached as if they were normative. This preaching and propagandizing is carried out through the very institutions that themselves are products of these lower-level, physical realities. For an example of this, see here.
However in spite of this historical and social fluidity, if one identifies or is identified as a member of the oppressor group, then repentance too might be required as morally normative, and some identification with the oppressed demanded. Although it is unclear on Critical Theory why repentance would be normative or morally binding upon a given oppressor, it is nevertheless often asserted to be so. After all, it does seem the oppressor could simply embrace his or her dominant position in society as moral norms themselves are only contingent, social constructs. This is, after all, what Nietzsche or even the Marquis de Sade before him had argued.
Third, since there is no transcendent ontology, and consequently no transcendent teleology on Critical Theory, personal identity is defined either by external physical characteristics possessed by the individual, or by personal preferences and subjective emotional states. There is no other recourse to knowing “what” human beings are or what a particular token of a human being is.
For example, one’s race, gender, socio-economic class or sexual or gender orientation, provide the primary grounds for self-identity. Since there is no designing agent with regard to human nature, human nature can be chosen. One reasonable way to choose one’s own nature is simply to identify it with some prominent feature of one’s physical body, or one’s inner drives, or emotional affections. Put simply, you either are what your body is, or you are what you do with your body. This dynamic of perceiving persons as their bodies, or even merely features of their bodies, has become widespread in popular culture. One example of this might be something like the infamous “pussy hat” worn at feminist rallies, where the anatomical vagina acts as the replacement for the more abstract concept of a feminine essence, or “femininity.”
Conclusion: Critical Theory in Brief
First, most Critical Theory presupposes that there is no transcendent reality: no divine agent (e.g. God) or telos (e.g. divine purpose) that determines what human nature is. Human nature is just what the subject (i.e. the individual person) chooses it to be, or, more traditionally, what the historical group or community has defined it as.
Second, most Critical Theory is also social theory, a social theory that sees power dynamics between groups as the fundamental reality of civilization. Within this struggle for power, liberation from oppression becomes the highest good, whereby oppressors tend to almost always be other people or their institutions, especially now in modern societies, where the forces of nature have been both demystified and, through technology, largely subdued.
Finally, all thought itself, all reason, is but a product of blind, environmental forces, and brute physical conditions that determine the philosophical and theological thoughts of particular agents and their communities.
Most Critical Theory is therefore physicalist in its ontology, relegating metaphysical universals, essences, and agents as throwbacks to a pre-scientific, religious and superstitious past. This, however, in spite of the occasional attempts made to assume some kind of libertarian freedom with regard to human agency. However, as I hope to show in later posts, religious language and symbol is often appropriated as a heuristic tool to either construct one’s subjective identity or to identify a supposed oppressor.
- 1see James Bohman, “Critical Theory” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =<https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2016/entries/critical-theory/>.