Definition of Critical Theory

Critical theory is a common term used in different fields of knowledge to refer to its nature and analyze it systematically. Many thinkers argue that the term is very loose to define in the academic arena but it has its vast area to which critical assumptions can be attributed. It refers to all types of theories that “take a critical view of society and the human sciences” (Macey 74). It also attempts to explain the “objects of knowledge” (Macey 74) that society and the human sciences deal with. In the field of literature, it refers to the methods for studying it. If the theory is defined as the way of studying literature, its limitation is unknown. For this reason, Jonathan Culler defines it as a body of writing and thinking whose”limits are exceedingly hard to define” (3). He goes on telling that theory is neither the comparative study of literature, not intellectual history, moral history, or philosophy, nor social prophecy but the culmination of all of these genres.

Critical theory and its root

Stephen Eric Bronner opines that the root of the critical theory lies in Socrates’s putting the Athenian conventional belief system into question what Plato narrates in his Apology. The Athenian citizenry condemned Socrates for two reasons. The first one is his role in corrupting the morality of the young Athenians and playing the catalytic role to doubt the existing gods and goddesses. Bronner argues, “he (Socrates) subjected long-existing beliefs to rational scrutiny and speculated about concerns that projected beyond the existing order (1) what is very much in the root of the emergence of critical theory. So, putting conventional wisdom into question paves the emergence of critical theory. The second phase which, as he views, can be attributed as the cause of the emergence of critical theory is the modern philosophical ideas generated between the First War War and the Second World War when “exploitation, repression, and alienation”(1) were in the root of the western civilization.    

Critical theory and interdisciplinarity

Culler further analyses the space covered by theory which is interdisciplinarity. Theory does not refer to one field rather it is the combination of multiple disciplines available in the field of knowledge. Thus, the theory genre includes the “works of anthropology, art, history, film studies, gender studies, literature, linguistics, philosophy, political science, psychoanalysis, science studies, social and intellectual history, sociology” (Culler 4) and because of these characteristics, Bronner describes it as “interdisciplinary and uniquely experimental in character” (1). On the other hand, Culler argues that literary studies have adopted many ideas from outside their own domain as these interdisciplinary ideas contribute immensely to understand literature with their “persuasive accounts of textual and cultural matters” (3).  

Critical theory as the critique of common sense

Theory, as commented by Culler, is a “pugnacious (quarrelsome) critique of common sense” (4). The term common sense refers to what is taken as natural and beyond question. Thus, in the field of literature, theory asks questions such as what meaning is or what an author is. By questioning in this way, critical theory puts conventional wisdom into question and explores alternative conceptions. For clarifying his understanding of theory, Culler exemplifies Foucault’s The History of Sexuality in which the author questions the common-sensical definition of sex. Sex, as he comments, is something that was repressed by the earlier people but the people try to liberate it later considering the aspects imposed by different social, political, and religious dogmas and principles. Foucault comes to the conclusion that it is a complex idea produced by a range of social practices, writing, investigations, and talks. All of these aspects are discourses and discursive ideas which define sex. Thus, theory is applied as the critique of the natural definition of sex. 

The thinkers of the Frankfurt School also argues in the homogenous manner. To them, critical theory offers a “critical purchase on what is normally taken for granted” (Macey 75). They illustrate the idea to conclude that critical outlook to the long-existing commonsensical ideas produces a “free and self-determining society by dispelling the illusions of ideology” (75).   

Thinkers in the field of theory

Theory incorporates a lot of revolutionary thinkers such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Sigmund Freud, Luce Irigaray, Jacques Lacan, Judith Butler, Luis Althusser, Gayatri Spivak etc. All of these theorists have contributed substantially in their own fields. They are very fundamental in their projection of thoughts and their dissemination. Some of them are very new and revolutionary in their thoughts which bring tremendous changes in the pattern of human knowledge.

Critical theory and the critical views of the society

Culler again says that the shifting from theory to critical theory is the result of the revolutionary changes in the outlooks of the abstract aspects of knowledge to its pragmatic views. In a loose manner, critical theory can be analyzed as a body of ideas that takes a critical view of societies. It tries to explain the emergence of the objects of knowledge concerning human sciences and societies. According to Raymond Guess, critical theory “provides a guide for human action” (Macey 75) with cognitive materials which collectively function to make the human society emancipatory. It is also self-conscious, self-critical and non-objectifying” (Macey 75) for which there is more elasticity in critical theory to absorbe and affiliate the society more vividly. Thus, society is a constant subject for critical theory to critically analyze it to make it a better place for its inhabitants.      

Critical theory and the Frankfurt School

Critical theory refers to major aspects in the works of the Frankfurt School, particularly in the works of Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Horkheimer relates theory with society more extensively. He argues that theory offers a criticism of the society. He further tries to concentrate on the fact that there is always tension between society and the people living in it. Society is the embodiment of the set structures and rules. The subjects can not comply with the social norms and regulations properly. So, there is always a conflict between these two entities which offers nothing but tension to the people. If this tension goes on, no society can survive. In this circumstance, theory takes initiative to bridge society and its subjects. 

Thus, the Frankfurt School opines that critical theory gives a critical purchase to the objects available in the society. It questions those things which are taken for granted in society or the things which are produced out of common sense and taken without any question. 

Frankfurt School and its criticism of ideology

The Frankfurt School criticizes ideology very severely and offers a free and more self-reasoning society. it promotes self-definition of the human beings. They argue that human beings are subjected to and enslaved everywhere and so, they need to be freed. The conventional institutions such as ideology, religion, and belief systems fail to free the enslaved and shackled human beings. So, critical theory takes the holy responsibility of freeing human beings from the externally and internally imposed bondage. 

Critical theory and its starting points

In the field of critical theory, Marx and Freud are usually taken as starting points. The Frankfurt School of thinkers argues that Marxism should be brought out from abstraction and taken to society and its people. The narrative offered by them is a great shift from conventional Marxism. 

On the other hand, Freud shows how Marxism is a theory of illusion in his The Future of an Illusion (1927). In this text, he tells the story of a Viennese girl who dreams that one day a prince will come to marry her. She is gradually disillusioned with the thought. The Freudian critical theory attempts to rationalize to the girl that this kind of relationship is impossible and offers a critical and self-critical awareness to the lady stating that it is logically impossible for a middle-class lady like her to marry a prince. Thus, critical theory also deals with the social and psychological aspects why the girl is very fragile to this kind of delusion.


Finally, it can be said that critical theory is an ever-shifting paradigm that deals with multiple fields of knowledge, questions the conventional patterns of thoughts and metanarratives, criticizes the long-existing traditions and common-sensical knowledge and above all, opens up new forms of knowledge. Thus, critical theory is a shift of knowledge from fixity to non-fixity, universality to ever-changingness.


  • Culler, Jonathan.Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 1997
  • Bronner, Stephen Eric. Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2011
  • Macey, David. The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory. Penguin Books, 2000 

Abdur Rahim
Abdur Rahim

Assistant Professor, and Member of the Proctorial Body
Department of English Language and Literature (DELL), Premier University, Chattogram,
& Doctoral Fellow, English Department, Jahangirnagar University, Savar, Dhaka.

Phone: +8801715638298


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