Sociology 319

January 25, 2006


Introduction to Critical Theory


Readings on Critical Theory


  • CST, Chapter 4
  • Excerpt from Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.”   Available at web site:
  • Herbert Marcuse, “The New Form of Control,” Chapter 1 of One-Dimensional Man
  • Jurgen Habermas, “What is Discourse Ethics?” from Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, pp. 196-203.


1. Meaning of Critical Theory


Critical theory has several different meanings in sociology, although it often refers to the writings and analysis of the members of the Frankfurt School.  As critique it is usually considered to be a critique of modernity and the developments and institutions associated with modern society.  It can also be a critique of particular schools of thought within sociology, or of sociology and social science as a whole.  A large part of critical theory has been to critique of art and culture, in particular the consumer culture, advertising, the media, and other forms of popular culture – see the reading from Adorno and Horkheimer.  Later in the semester, when we discuss Giddens, “Dilemmas of the Self,” similar concepts, for example the evaporated self and commodified experience, fit within the critical theory tradition.  In fact, it is in the sphere of culture where critical theory continues to be relevant and innovative.  Marxism can also be considered a form of critical theory, since Marxism provides a critique of capitalist modernism.  Weber’s theory of rationalization of modern society can also be considered a form of critical theory.  Weber argued that rationalization was a force that increasingly dominated western societies and societies around the globe, limiting creativity and the human spirit.  Critical theorists have relied heavily on the Weberian critique of rationalization, and critical theory provides a way of combining the Marxian and Weberian traditions.


As a summary statement, Kellner states,

Critical Theory has been deeply concerned with the fate of modernity, and has offered systematic and comprehensive theories of the trajectory of modernity, combined with critical diagnoses of some of the latter’s limitations, pathologies and destructive effects – while providing defenses of some of its progressive elements.  (Kellner, 1989, p. 3)

Critical theorists are committed to modernity and progress (as opposed to reaction and tradition), but argue that some of the features of the modern era are very negative – lack of autonomy, conformity, totalizing ideologies and authority, and violence.  These developments have often stifled human creativity, limited freedom, and have led to problems for both individuals and society.  In studying the latter, they incorporate ideas and approaches of Freud and psychoanalytic theory.  


Critical theory is usually more closely associated with a group of theorists called the Frankfurt school.  It was German theorists such as Benjamin, Horkheimer, Adorno, Fromm, Marcuse and, more recently, Habermas and Offe, who are usually identified as establishing and developing a critical theory of modern society.  Others such as the Hungarian Marxist Lukacs, and some contemporary North Americans, most notably Craig Calhoun and Douglas Kellner can also be considered critical theorists.  It is primarily this tradition that will be examined in this class.   The coauthor of the second text, Axel Honneth, works within the tradition of critical theory. 


Critical theory differs from the recent post-modern approaches to social theory.  Theorists with the latter perspective may argue that modernity has ended, or that modernity must be rejected in its totality.  Post-modernists may even reject social theory and efforts aimed at social and political reform, whereas critical theorists have developed comprehensive theoretical models and argue that politics can be used to pursue progress.  Critical theorists generally tend to have a comprehensive and overall social theory (of both individual and society) and an idea of progress and a better world, even if they are unable to point toward programs to achieve t.  In contrast, a post-modern approach is more likely to be associated with rejection of comprehensive, universal theory.  


2.  Historical background of the Frankfurt School


When critical theory is mentioned in connection with social theory, it is usually associated with the so-called Frankfurt School.  The term “was launched in 1937 by Max Horkheimer, the Director of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research” (Turner, 1996, p. 56).  The Institute had begun in 1923, with a financial endowment from a wealthy German grain merchant (who lived in Argentina) and was attached to Frankfurt University in Germany.  German universities were generally conservative, but with the proletarian and revolutionary social and political movements following World War I, Marxism and other critical approaches became influential within the universities.  For a time, many Marxists thought that Germany would become a socialist society, following the lead of the revolution in Russia.  When this seemed increasingly unlikely to occur, some intellectuals attracted to Marxism argued that it was necessary to re-examine Marxist theory in light of the changes that had occurred in Europe.  In particular, some of these Marxists considered that while the objective conditions for socialism existed, the subjective consciousness of workers was not favourable to overthrowing capitalism and creating socialism.  In particular, “revolutionary consciousness, culture and organization and a clear notion of socialism seemed to be lacking.”  As a result, it was necessary to reconsider various aspects of Marxism and focus on “consciousness, subjectivity, culture, ideology and the concept of socialism … in order to make possible radical political change” (Kellner, 1989, p. 12). 


The Institute began its work in Germany and continued through 1933, when the Ntional Socialist Party (Nazis) came to power.  Most of those who were members of the Institute went to the United States in the later 1930s.  Some, including Marcuse, stayed in the United States, while others returned to Germany after World War II.  In the 1940s, the Institute was established in New York City and was affiliated with Columbia University.  After WWII, the Institute was reestablished in Germany and continues to operate there.  Following the death of Horkheimer and Adorno, Jurgen Habermas became the leading critical theorist, a position he continues to hold.


Dates for major critical theorists:


Walter Benjamin (1892-1940)

Max Horkheimer (1895-1973)

Theodor Adorno (1903-1969)

Erich Fromm (1900-1980)

Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979)

Jurgen Habermas (1929-     )

Axel Honneth (1949-       )


3.  Approach of the Frankfurt School


Critical theory is primarily a European social theory, influenced by the German tradition of Marx, Weber, and Simmel, by the experience of fascism, and by the changing aspects of modern capitalism.  Influences include Marxism, psychoanalysis, German idealist philosophy and theology, and other writers such as Nietzsche (Calhoun, p. 515). 


Critical theory began by putting Marxian political economy at the centre of analysis, and early critical theory was materialist and committed to socialism.  One of its major features was the argument that social theory could not take the familiar and observed as given and unchanging.  Rather, all of social life is a reflection of the economic system and the role of social theory was to investigate the ways in which this changed and affected people.  Horkheimer argued that there needed to be a study of “how the categories of our consciousness were shaped and how they in turn constituted both the world we saw and what we took to be possible” (Calhoun, p. 515).  This was not a simplistic or crude materialism where economic position directly structures individual consciousness.  Neither was it an idealist theory, where consciousness is unconnected with material reality.  Rather, critical theory “describes the complex set of mediations that interconnect consciousness and society, culture and economy, state and citizens” (Kellner, 1990). 


Critical theory developed an approach incorporating the economic and material side of social life with an analysis of individuals and their social psychology, attempting to deal with aspects of the agency-structure issue.  Neither the material side nor individual consciousness was primary in determining the other.  Rather, these theorists analyzed culture, law, ethics, fashion, public opinion, sport, life style, and leisure (Kellner, 1989, p. 18), topics which had not previously been incorporated into Marxian or other sociological  analysis.   Members of the Frankfurt school theorists took up the challenge of Hegel and Marx, to develop an understanding of humans as creative beings, through art and aesthetics and through human labour exercised to produce goods and services.  “Marx shared with the young Hegel an attempt to conceptualize the absolute creativity of the human being through the example of art, but unlike Hegel he extended this into a more general analysis of labour” (Calhoun, p. 516). 


These theorists added Weber’s views concerning bureaucracy and rationality to the economic and social analysis of Marx and Hegel, arguing that the tendencies to rationalization could lead to a totally administered society (Calhoun, p. 517).  While they focussed on the individual in a way that other Marxist theory did not, they feared that the individual would be submerged in the administered totality.  We will seem some of these arguments when examining the writing of Marcuse.


Dialectic of Enlightenment.  (Notes for this section are mostly from Kellner, 1989, Chapter 4).  The most famous single work of the critical theorists was the book Dialectic of Enlightenment, published in 1947 by Adorno and Horkheimer (AH).  This book “combined a novel critique of Western civilization and rationality with a powerful critique of ‘the administered society’ … shift[ing] the focus of Critical Theory to philosophy of history, philosophic anthropology and a philosophical critique of culture” (Kellner, 1989, p. 83).  This book distanced these writers from Marxism, emphasized philosophic concerns, and made the domination of nature the main focus of their analysis.  This book and the writings that follow it also represent the strong influence of Adorno, who had a more philosophical approach than did Horkheimer, and who became the leading figure in the Frankfurt School.  The shift in approach may have occurred because these theorists now viewed it as extremely unlikely that the working class would be the agent for revolution and socialism.  At the time they wrote this book, they were in exile in the United States, with little connection to social movements, so this may have contributed to the arguments developed.   The result was to focus the theoretical analysis on the critique of instrumental reason, so that this dialectic of enlightenment replaced class struggle as the central feature of their analysis. 


As background, the Enlightenment was the period in the one hundred years before the French Revolution (1789) where writers such as Rousseau developed a critical approach toward traditional societies and ideas.  According to the Enlightenment writers, all ideas, institutions, and religions should be subject to critique.  On the positive side, these writers argued that it was the application of human reason to social issues, using both reason and empirical study to develop an understanding of the social world.  This was the scientific method, developed so successfully in the study of the natural world, applied to the social world; thus the development of the science of the study of society, or the social sciences.  Reason alone could not lead to a full understanding of society, nor would observation and experimentation by itself be sufficient to develop this understanding.  Rather, it was the combination of the two, being applied to social reality, that could lead to a fuller appreciation of the structure and dynamics of the social world.  Through this understanding, the promise was that humans could better control the social world, creating a better society, and one where there was greater human freedom.

Self-examination, a scrutiny of their own actions and their own society, was an essential function of thought.  By gaining an understanding of the main forces and tendencies of their epoch, human beings could determine their direction and control their consequences.  Through reason and science, humanity could attain ever greater degrees of freedom and, hence, ever greater degrees of perfection.  Intellectual progress, an idea permeating the thinking of that era, would serve to further humanity’ general progress.  (Zeitlin, p. 2). 


Adams and Sydie address this on p. 63, where they distinguish objective from subjective reason.  The reason of the Enlightenment involved both of these, with objective reason as a way of “determining social ends,” while subjective reason was the instrumental form of reason, with consideration of the best means of achieving some ends.   For AH, the creative forms of reason that emerged from the Enlightenment had been lost and modern applications of reason tended to be primarily of the subjective form.  Thus reason had lost its critical edge as a critique of institutions and ideologies.  Rather, reason had been subverted into merely a means for improving efficiency of achieving goals, planning and administration, and developing organizations.  This could be perverted to destroy freedom and humanity, as evidenced by the Nazi use of efficient means to eliminate Jews and other members of populations that were considered undesirable.  


The question Adorno and Horkheimer (AH) asked was “why humanity, instead of entering into a truly human condition, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism” (Kellner, 1989, p. 85).  AH considered scientific thought to have become increasingly formalist, conformist, and instrumental, rather than raising critical questions concerning society and being skeptical toward systems of thought.  They consider the enlightenment to have been a long development from the Greeks on, where enlightened thought “emancipates human beings from the despotism of myth and helps them to control and dominate nature” (Kellner, 1989, p. 87).  


While rationality and domination of nature to pursue human interests is usually considered the aim of enlightenment, AH argue that “what men want to learn from nature is how to use it in order to wholly dominated it and other men.  This is the only aim” (Kellner, 1989, pp. 87-8).  As a result, they demonstrated how enlightenment reason was no longer liberating, but became a form of totalitarian thought – with reason serving the interests of domination of members of society by powerful interests.  While AH considered there to be a progressive element to enlightenment thought and reason, they regarded such reason as mostly instrumental and based on a formal rationality, rather than being critical reason.  As a result, truth becomes identified with certain forms of science and technology, mathematics, logic, calculation, efficiency, quantification – with these forms of rationality privileged over other forms.  AH provided the first real critique of science and technology from a radical or critical point of view; Marxists had generally defended these as progressive.  But AH saw these as limiting forms of thought, where everything needed to be calculated and have formal equivalence, thus creating a new form of totalitarian thought, thus limiting human creativity, individuality, and uniqueness.  The influence of Weber’s analysis of rationalization and the development of more efficient means of administration and bureaucracy is notable here, with AH taking his arguments much beyond Weber’s analysis.


Not only does enlightenment limit thought and reason, it leads

logically to fascism, which applied enlightenment principles of order, control, calculability, domination and system to the totalitarian administration of society: ‘For the rulers, men become material, just as nature as a whole is material for society.  After the short intermezzo of liberalism, in which the bourgeois kept one another in check, domination appears as an archaic terror in a fascistically rationalized form’ (Kellner, 1989, p. 97). 

The idea here is that forms of pure reason developed by Kant and other philosophers were applied by the bourgeoisie in the economic sphere to the problem of organizing production more efficiently, then to more rational forms of prisons, and ultimately by the Nazis to the rational organization of concentration camps. 


Taken to this extreme, there are obvious deficiencies to the approach of AH, in that capitalism has not uniformly taken the route that developed in Nazi Germany.  AH were undoubtedly overly impressed with what happened in Germany and viewed it as the future of modernity everywhere.  At the same time, the tendencies that AH describe do exist in capitalism and modernity, and it is worth considering their analysis in order to focus on the positive and negative features of modernity. 


Art and Culture.  (Notes primarily from Kellner, 1989, Chapter 5, “From ‘Authentic Art’ to the Culture Industries”).  In contrast to Marxian theories, critical theorists made analysis of art and culture a central focus of their studies, and noted developments in culture that were not purely economic in origin.  Rather, the dialectic of enlightment was used as critique of culture.  Kellner notes that they argued that

Culture, once a refuge of beauty and truth, was falling prey, they believed, to tendencies toward rationalization, standardization and conformity, which they saw as a consequence of the triumph of instrumental rationality that was coming to pervade and structure ever more aspects of life.  Thus while culture once cultivated individuality, it was now promoting conformity and was a crucial part of the ‘totally administered society’ that was producing ‘the end of the individual’. (Kellner, 1989, p. 121).


Notes on “The Culture Industry” by Adorno and Horkheimer


This is an excerpt from The Dialectic of Enlightenment.  On the handout, I included only the first few pages of the excerpt that is available on the web site.  Some of the main issues raised by AH, in the paragraphs on the handout, are as follows.  Paragraphs numbered from 1 to 21 in the handout.


¶1        Triumph of the modern era – end of traditional societies and pre-capitalist forms of organization.  Associated with modern technology and forms of social organization.  Given the individuality and multiple sources of change in the modern era, this might be expected to have led to great diversity of culture and, possibly, chaotic forms of culture.  But rather than the new form being chaotic, there is a sameness, uniformity (¶2, 1st line), and totalization of culture.  Later, in ¶3, there is reference to the “absolute power of capitalism,” which organizes and governs this totalization.


¶2        Cultural systems such as films, radio, magazines, and television (limited in 1947) are referred to as iron systems.  This is reminiscent of Weber’s iron cage as the box that modern society has constructed, through the development of bureaucratic forms of organization, where individuality and freedom are limited. 

            One area where uniformity emerges is in architecture and organization of urban areas.  Reference to the similarity of commercial buildings, housing, and city planning.   Some of these are poorly built (flimsy) and deteriorate quickly (slums).  At the same time, planners claim great technical progress – another theme introduced and analyzed further in ¶4. 

            Planning is a theme here as well, again reminiscent of Weber, where rationalization of society creates planning, bureaucracy, and large-scale organizations.   These are associated with administering modern society in a planned, calculated manner.  In ¶3, there is reference to “well-organised complexes.”


¶3        This paragraph first focuses on the connection between individual and society, with the individual increasingly drawn into these planned, totalizing social systems that are “well-organised” (2nd line).  While there are forces that create individual separation (separate housing units), these are not associated with real individuality and independence, but with subservience to the system.   There also may be an ideology or claim of individualism.  In fact, individuals are part of the complex, organized in a monopolistic manner, where “mass culture is identical.”  While the claim may be that society allows for individualism, individuals (microcosm) are part of a false unity with the system with the whole (macrocosm).  This is false in the sense that it subordinates the individual to the whole.

            The last part of the paragraph comments on the organization of culture (movies, radio), as it becomes an industry or business, and a monopolistic one.   Instead of culture being used for creative ends, it is used to increase profits and incomes.


¶4        Here AH address the question of whether the planning, standards, uniformity, and system are necessary for technical reasons.  This is often the claim, given the need to produce culture for many people at many places.  AH question this and argue that this results in manipulation of needs so that the system becomes more uniform, stronger, and creates greater power and profits for those in charge.  The result is standardization and mass production, so that work is adjusted to the system, rather than the reverse.


¶5, 6    Returning to the effect on the individual, there is a suppression of the ability or will to resist this central control.  While the telephone might involve an active subject or actor, this is not the case with radio, film, and television.  These new forms are democratic in that they are available to everyone on an equal basis, but at the cost of denying freedom to producers or consumers of the media.  This means that spontaneity and creativity are removed or controlled by those in charge of the culture industry.   At the top of p. 3, all artistic activities are treated the same and become part of the production.


¶7, 8    Here AH address economic issues.  While there are technological features of the culture industry that may require planning, these are pushed in a particular direction by company directors, with alternatives suppressed.   Here they note the strength of capitalist economic power in general, and how this dictates the manner that the culture industry is operated.  This might mean attention to profits and the bottom line, rather than to artistic creativity, since it is the investment that is to be protected and provide a return.   Here their analysis is very similar to a Marxist approach, although they do not explicitly mention profits and exchange values.


¶9, 10  They apply the same analysis to politics and propagands, where these are marketed in the same way as culture.   The means become one of quantification and statistical analysis – what we might term market research, where the aim is to determine consumers purchasing and voting habits.  But in the end, all of the different commodities have a sameness, with the “universal criterion” being the amount of production and investment. 


¶11      The similarity and uniformity extends across the different media formats.  Here they mention television, still in its infancy in 1944.  But they foresee the “fusion of all the arts in one work” and where words, image, and music are combined.


The next several paragraphs deal with the effect of this on the individual.  The individual is robbed of spontaneity and freedom and “the individual of his function” (¶13).  Instead of people using reason as a means of understanding the world around them, everything the individual faces is planned and rationalized.  “There is nothing left for the consumer to classify” (¶15) but all aspects are planned for the consumer.   In ¶16, AH note that earlier cultural works expressed ideas and were associated with freedom, rebellion, protest, and free expression.   All this has been lost as the culture industry standardizes and totalizes the products.  


In ¶17 this is connected to critique more generally (note the idea of negative critique, CST, p. 65).  AH argue that this modern setting there is “no antithesis” or no contradiction in artistic works or thought, but rather a uniformity in that all the parts are planned to fit together.  This destroys the possibility of creativity that should be inherent in art and in reason. 


¶18, 19            AH may draw attention to the same phenomenon as Baudrillard and other postmodern writers have stressed – the difficulty of separating the image and the world so that the two appear to reflect each other.  Thus “real life becom[es] indistinguishable from the movies.”  Rather than imagination, reflection, and creativity, the media stunt these in consumer, so there is no possibility of creativity.  The result is that industry takes over the minds of individuals, moulding individuals and their needs to the needs of the “huge economic machinery.”  


This reading provides an example of how the critical theorists addressed issues of modern life, and illustrates some of the ways they analyze these issues.  Among the issues addressed here are:


  • Totalizing aspect of social system. 
  • Sameness and uniformity in modern society.
  • Power of system and those who direct it, especially economic power.
  • Reason and how is perverted.  Rational and irrational. 
  • Loss of critical edge, creativity, and sponteity associated with reason.
  • Individual subject is shaped by society, so independence and autonomy lost.
  • Culture as a subject of study, and with an important influence on individuals.
  • Culture as an arena of rationalization as culture becomes industrialized and subject to economic forces.
  • Lacks directives for changing the totalizing and standardizing effects, although undoubtedly AH hoped that their critique of the culture industry would make people aware of its nature and effects.   This critique might lead to some form of  resistance. 


For the most part, critical theorists developed critiques of mass or popular culture.  For example, Adorno “criticized popular music production for its commodification, rationalization, fetishism and reification of musical materials” (Kellner, 1989, p. 124).  In particular, Adorno attacked jazz as being standardized and commercialized, arguing that “seeming spontaneity and improvisation are themselves calculated in advance, and the range of what is permissible is as circumscribed as in clothes or other realms of fashion” (Kellner, 1989, p. 126).  While Adorno’s critique has some truth to it, he is unable to explain innovation and new developments using this one-sided approach.  Adorno tended to look on traditional forms of ‘high culture’ such as the art of art galleries or the music of German composers as more authentic and creative than were forms of popular culture.  In my view, Adorno adopted a very elitist approach to culture, one that would lead to limiting accessibility to and understanding of culture by large parts of the population.


Walter Benjamin, one of the individuals associated with the Institute, disagreed with Adorno and argued that there were not such dramatic differences between high culture and popular culture.  Benjamin was interested in the copy, the mechanical reproduction of artistic images, a relatively new development in the early part of the twentieth century.  While Benjamin regarded the copy as questioning the authenticity of the original work of art and the aura and aesthetic quality of the work of art, he also argued that

For the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.  To an even greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. (Kellner, 1989, p.124).

Benjamin considered there to be progressive features of this new development, with the new forms becoming more accessible to more people, becoming more politicized, and possibly leading the situation where many images could be brought to the masses could raise political consciousness.  This was particularly the case with film where Benjamin is somewhat reminscent of Simmel:

By close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring commonplace milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film, on the one hand, extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives; on the other hand, it manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action.  Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished room, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly.  Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling.  (Kellner, 1989, p.125).

The copy and mechanical reproduction have proceeded much further than in Benjamin’s day, with digital images being endlessly reproducible and splicable, thus presenting many new possibilities. 




Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction., March 8, 2000.

Calhoun, Craig.  2000.  “Social Theory and the Public Sphere,” in Bryan S. Turner, The Blackwell Companion to Social Theory, second edition.  Oxford, Blackwell Publishers.

Kellner, Douglas. 1989. Critical Theory, Marxism and Modernity. Oxford: Polity Press.

Kellner, Douglas. 1990?. Critical Theory and the Crisis of Social Theory.  from Illuminations,

Kellner, Douglas. 1995. Media Culture: Cultural studies, identity and politics between the modern and the postmodern. London and New York: Routledge.

Turner, Bryan S.  1996.  The Blackwell Companion to Social Theory.  Oxford, Blackwell Publishers.

Zeitlin, Irving M.  1997.  Ideology and the Development of Sociological Theory, sixth edition.  Upper Saddle River, N. J., Prentice Hall.


Last edited January 27, 2006