Critical Theory

Critical Theory

1. Introduction to Critical Theory

B) Introducing Critical Theory as a general approach to demystify the situation of society. Going back to its roots in Marxist theory, to understand the critique, one must look at the historical context of it in terms of social theory. It is important at this point to differentiate between Classical Critical Theory and more modern conceptions labeled as critical theory. Classical Critical Theory is theory which has evolved from the works of Karl Marx in that it is a theory that attempts to create a better understanding of society for the purposes of altering or changing it. This differs from more recent critical theory stemming from the likes of Jurgen Habermas and Anthony Giddens who, while still being highly critical of many aspects of modern society, lack the Marxist intent to affect change and instead opt for more value-free theory aiming only to make interpretations of the world. Today, many would say that in the pure sense of the term, critical theory can only really be seen in the works of the earlier periods of the Frankfurt School, and some would argue that even some work here moves away from being ‘pure’ in its endeavor.

A) Criteria of quality:

a) Critical reflectivity of the social sciences and of the epistemological status of natural science.

b) The relationship between the material base and the superstructure.

c) The structure/agency problem.

d) The link between theory and practice.

e) The explanation of the dominance of functionalism.

f) The status of interpretive understanding.

2. Key Concepts in Critical Theory

Dysfunctionalists and interruption theorists, however, are interested in deviance and social problems, seeing them as a way of understanding the functional part of society. They believe that if everything was functional, there would be no problems. The theory of deviance, however, will be seen as a static representation and criticism of a particular action or rule at a particular time. The action so deemed deviant may now no longer be deviant, and this is a change that must be explained.

Parsons thinks that societies and social institutions have an underlying function that maintains the entire structure. He argues that change often only affects one part of society and other parts must change in order to support the original change. The end result is that the social system will return to the state of equilibrium. This is an example of a homeostatic mechanism.

Evolutionary theory can be used to understand why some societies and even particular social institutions or rules are the way they are, and why change may or may not be beneficial. Functionalists claim that since the structure works is in place, it must serve a purpose and have benefit to the society. This is in line with the conservative way of thinking that some social issues can be solved by going back to the old way of doing things. They also argue that rapid change can often be bad for society and can lead to unpredictable results. This is because change can be a shot in the dark; there is no guarantee the change is going to be functional and the society may find itself in a worse position than it was prior to the change happening.

The community falls into the pattern of thinking that the solution, in fact, is a cause, that what they are doing is right, and above all, that there is no alternative. Watzlawick says, “A change can occur only when there is an understanding that what is now being done is not only not functional, but also that its costs are higher than the costs of an alternative solution.” This is very similar to more recent ideas of trading times or trading up behavior, in which the patient comes to the decision that the disorder is no longer allowing them to lead a desired lifestyle.

The key concept of theory in critical theory is to change society. Austrian-born Paul Watzlawick’s change-oriented therapy can be looked at as a clinical metaphor. The client is a society in which maladaptive patterns have developed as solutions to problems of survival. The people have forgotten or are unable to use the conventional methods of problem-solving or have avoided them due to the fact that they are seen as too painful.

3. Major Figures in Critical Theory

Herbert Marcuse

Marcuse was a leader of the Frankfurt School and was born in 1898 in Berlin. He worked with both the Free University of Berlin and later with Brandeis University in the United States. Marcuse wrote on a diverse range of topics but is mostly remembered for his books on Hegel and Marxism, the end of the capitalist system, and his ideas on technology, war, and domination. Hegel’s ontology was never intended to hold anything else than Marcuse himself. He believed, with Hegel, that the purpose of philosophy was to change the world and he continued to argue that a radical revision of Hegel’s work would reveal a more closed system of negativity. Marcuse’s Hegelianism would lead him to cross paths with the Marxist tradition. He contributed to the development of ‘Western Marxism’ through his critiques of positivism. He always showed concern for man’s alienation and continually sought to resolve it. He viewed man as homogenized and swallowed up by the machine of capitalist society. Man has become a ‘one-dimensional’ being confined to the work and leisure cycle and thereby robbed of his historical and cultural identity. Marcuse believed that to breach this cycle was an act of class consciousness and he moved towards the working class. He became an advocate of the new left movement and rejected the comfortable society of the post-war years, preferring to stay in the poverty of the third world. His influence within academia began to fade towards the end of his life and the new left movements rarely lived up to his ideals. The dominant mode of production exercised itself over it, resulting only in superficial conflicts. Many continue to dismiss Marcuse as a utopian socialist. He has, to some extent, regained popularity with the rise of the anti-globalization movement.

4. Applications of Critical Theory

Another philosophically systemic approach is found in the realm of ontology. It’s been a claim of many early critical theorists, particularly Lukacs, that the proletariat has false consciousness in that they serve to continue production of a system that oppresses them. They see a reality where it’s possible to get ahead in the system where the actual system does not allow for it. Horkheimer’s works during the time at the school’s American exodus would outline the loss of the individual in the machinery of mass culture. Primarily in art and entertainment, the culture industry would lead to an ever-increasing homogenization of what was once differentiated aspects of local/regional cultures. A sociologist could literally find a goldmine of research topics in this era comparing society to society and culture to culture on this issue. He might even find some empirical data to suggest that now, in the information age, the trend is on a global level. The man hours and resources spent by a hypothetical movement to better the present state of affairs for the global culture would likely be something of a utilitarian philanthropy. The same could be said for any instance of research done on the various forms of oppression. Although the group being studied would be marginalized peoples and the sample rate might be low, it’s still research aimed at a better future and a better understanding of how it went wrong in the first place.

Given the first section of this essay’s delineation of what critical theory is, the reader will already spot many systematic connections on the basis of which a critical theorist would want to bring change. Already obvious are the implications that critical theory has on the issue of reorienting “how we know” or epistemology. The Frankfurt School produced a wide array of work on this topic including Adorno’s “The Essay as Form” and Horkheimer’s “Traditional and Critical Theory”. Throughout the works, there are synonymous claims that traditional theory holds ideological coherence and scientific/rational structure to be one and the same. Critical theory aims to separate the two in an effort to depose the notion that society is moving toward a better world rather than just a more technologically advanced one. If the two concepts can be separated and we can show that society moves without necessarily progressing, it’s feasible that we can pinpoint specific instances in history where alternate decisions could have led to a better state of affairs.

5. Critiques of Critical Theory

The manifold descriptions of modernity within critical theories offer little by way of demarcating it from historical periods. In time, it is likely that Weber and Marx’s sociologies are better employed understanding the difference between early and late modernity by critical rather than grand theories of social change from a pre to post-modern society. Habermas concedes that his own theory does not escape from the modernity it describes, and should future generations of critical theorists demonstrate themselves to not be speaking from within modernity, it may be an indication that they are theorizing something different.

For those schooled within a critical framework, it is often difficult not to see traditional theoretical concepts tautologically. That is, traditional theorists often fail to empirically demonstrate their theories but take the truth of these theories for granted in their investigation of other phenomena. However, following Popper’s famous critique of psychoanalysis, critical theory is probably most vulnerable in that it takes its own theory for granted and has not sought to test this empirically.

Before concluding this essay, it may be helpful to compare one more time the ideal types of traditional, modern, and critical theory. The contrast between the three types is somewhat schematic for reasons of exposition. Nevertheless, it has some verisimilitude to the prominent distinctions in the modes of theorizing in the social sciences and humanities over the course of the last century. – Juergen Habermas

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