In the humanities and social sciences, critical theory is a general term for new theoretical developments (roughly since the 1960s) in a variety of fields, informed by structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, Marxist theory, and several other areas of thought. It encompasses many related developments in literary theory (which is often a rough synonym) and cultural studies, aesthetics, theoretical sociology and social theory, continental philosophy more generally.

History of the Term

The term critical theory was first used by the Frankfurt School (i.e. members of the Institute for Social Research of the University of Frankfurt, their intellectual and social network, and those influenced by them intellectually), to describe their own work. Since then, it has become a broad term, encompassing work done across the disciplines grouped as the humanities. Among the fields grouped within the designation are Marxist theory such as the Frankfurt School, psychoanalytic theory such as the work of Jacques Lacan, semiotic and linguistic theory such as Julia Kristeva and Roland Barthes, queer theory, gender studies, cultural studies, and critical race theory. However, the boundaries of critical theory are far from clear. Recently Critical Theory has also been defined as the field of Discourse Theory by Kate Love and Anthony Waller.

It is difficult to say with any firmness when critical theory began as a concept. Some argue that it began with the Frankfurt School, since that was, after all, where the term was first used. Others argue that the term as currently used corresponds with Jacques Derrida's presentation of "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" in 1966 at Johns Hopkins University. Others claim that this is an oversimplification for the purpose of having a clear beginning point to something that doesn't have one, and point out that Michel Foucault and Jacques Lacan had been writing for decades when Derrida presented his paper, and are clearly now considered part of critical theory. Still others point out that the roots of all of these works lies in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Ferdinand de Saussure. Others go back even further. Herbert Marcuse in Reason and Revolution (London, 1941) argues that critical thought began with the "negative philosophy" of G.W.F. Hegel. Others see the origins in the thought of Immanuel Kant, or even in ancient philosophy.

Characteristics of Critical Theory

Despite the difficulties in defining its boundaries or its origins, some statements can be made about critical theory. It is often informed by postmodern and post-structuralist theory, though it is not strictly postmodernist. Its major concerns are questions of identity, both within the private sphere and within the public sphere, and particularly in questions of dissonance between those two identities. A major focus of critical theory, then, is on the process through which these identities are developed. Major thinkers on this question include Lacan, Louis Althusser, and Martin Heidegger.

The second major focus of critical theory is on specific ways that cultural institutions - ranging from media to religion to scientific and academic work - are used to shape identities, dictating what is accepted as true, normal, or acceptable within a culture, offering privilege to some, and marginalizing or denying others. Critical theory looks at the mechanics of this process of privilege and marginalization, and often thinks about the possibility of political action against this process. Major thinkers within this aspect of critical theory include Derrida, Foucault, and the Frankfurt School.