Critical Theory Research Paper

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The Frankfurt school of critical theory is one of the major schools of neo-Marxist social theory, best known for its analysis of advanced capitalism. Opposed to the determinism and scientism of Soviet Marxism, critical theory challenged the philosophical foundations of Marxist theory, and formulated an original analysis and diagnosis of the major changes in social structure that took place in the twentieth century.

The philosopher and social theorist Max Horkheimer (1895–1973) was appointed director of the Institute for Social Research in 1930, and shifted its emphasis from historical research to a project of interdisciplinary social research with an empirical intent. Horkheimer wanted to know why the working class supported the Nazi regime when it was not in their interest to do so. He rejected the deterministic view that consciousness was a product of class position, and looked to integrate psychology, more specifically Sigmund Freud’s (1856–1939) psychoanalysis, into a critical theory of society. To carry out his research program, Horkheimer brought into the institute Erich Fromm (1900–1980), a trained psychoanalyst, who fused psychoanalysis with social theory. Horkheimer further expanded the focus of research to include Leo Löwenthal (1900–1993), Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979), later Theodor Adorno (1903–1969), and the lesser-known figures Frederich Pollock (1894–1970), Franz L. Neumann (1900–1954), and Otto Kirchheimer (1905–1965).

The psychological dynamics of rising authoritarian attitudes were the focus of the institute’s early empirical research. A larger project that included the study of working-class attitudes toward authority remained uncompleted when the institute fled Germany to avoid the Nazis and went first to Switzerland and then was relocated at Columbia University in New York.

The term critical theory is often thought of as a code word to avoid the association of the institute’s research with Marxism. Critical theory, however, also drew upon German idealism from Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) onward. Kant saw critique as a theory of the scope and limits of understanding that combated dogmatic conceptions of absolute knowledge. The Hegelian tradition came to see critique as a reflective self-consciousness that encompassed both self and social formation in one grasp. Both were crisis-ridden processes of struggle in which humans won their freedom through freedom from necessity and social domination.

Horkheimer rejected the idealism of G. W. F. Hegel’s (1770–1831) conception, but saw critical theory as a philosophy of engaged theorizing. Traditional theory took an objective observer perspective. It saw the ideal of theory construction as the achievement of a deductive system of propositions that are systematic and logical. In contrast, critical theory has an interest in freedom from unnecessary constraint and the improvement of practical life. It is a partisan in the struggle for a better life. Theory is tied to emancipation and freedom. Marcuse especially emphasized the Hegelian elements found in Karl Marx’s (1818–1883) early manuscripts (then just discovered) and their link to problems of alienation and reification.

The second phase of critical theory, which began at the end of the 1930s, was concerned with the great transformations in economic structure that were occurring in advanced capitalist and socialist societies, such as the rise of state capitalism. Critical theory linked the increasing concentration of economic power by large corporations and government to the need for state administrative activity to support a crisis-ridden economy. Governments were not watchman states. They had to intervene directly in the economy to assure the conditions of successful economic accumulation.

The Frankfurt school analysis of late capitalism, however, went beyond economic analysis to depict state intervention in socialization processes. Intervention in social processes like schooling and social welfare became necessary in order to effectively manage state capitalism. The school also analyzed the emergence of mass media, which developed sophisticated modes of persuasion and manipulation in order to create a more compliant and agreeable citizenry. The Frankfurt school developed a pessimistic diagnosis of the power of advanced capitalism to control the populace and limit the possibilities of constructive social transformation.

The culmination of this stage was the publication of Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944). Here, critical theory becomes a critique of instrumental reason. For Horkheimer and Adorno, reason (and science) no longer retained its link to human freedom, and had, in becoming instrumentalized, transformed into a force for domination and oppression. Marx’s thought itself, and not merely its orthodox deformations, were sometimes guilty of a technological determinism. Horkheimer and Adorno, however, unlike some poststructuralists, never fully rejected reason, or looked to a realm of the ineffable or irrational, but were keenly aware of the paradoxes and contradictions of modern instrumental rationality.

Horkheimer and Adorno looked to other dimensions of reason that were resistant to the forces of instrumental rationalization, notably to art, to find potentials for freedom. A somewhat different and more positive evaluation of the role of mass culture and art was developed by Walter Benjamin (1892–1940), a literary theorist who, though marginal in the institute, came to exert a strong influence on Adorno’s aesthetic theory.

Adorno’s work eclipsed Horkheimer after their return to Germany in 1950. In Negative Dialectics (1966) and Aesthetic Theory (1970), Adorno formulated a critique of reason using the power of the negative. The latter equated rationalization with reification. Positive reason, which always has a residue of instrumentality, is contrasted with a dimension of reason that can never be fully specified but holds truth content.

In the United States, Marcuse made some significant contributions to critical theory in the 1950s and 1960s. Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization (1955) was perhaps the school’s most successful fusion of Marx and Freud. Marcuse developed a dialectic of civilization that linked labor and economic scarcity with social and psychic repression. Marcuse’s acceptance of the death instinct, however, was controversial. His One-Dimensional Man (1964) and An Essay on Liberation (1969) continued the Frankfurt school’s critique of the pathology of technological reason. One-dimensional reason represented a global project of instrumental reason that suppressed the aesthetic aspects of sensibility and feelings. Marcuse’s more politically charged version of the dialectic of enlightenment struck a chord with the New Left in the United States and Europe.

Jürgen Habermas is the preeminent figure in the second generation of critical theory. Habermas modified key aspects of critical theory, especially the critique of instrumental reason, and made significant contributions to a critical theory of democracy, a task neglected by earlier theorists. Habermas’s first book, Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962), took issue with the first-generation reading of the freedom-creating potentials of liberalism. Habermas depicted the rise of a sphere of civil society in early modern Europe as a public sphere of free discussion of political affairs. While Habermas concurred in broad terms with the critique of instrumental reason, he did not equate rationalization with reification. Habermas argued that instrumental reason had a legitimate role and was not inherently repressive. Reliance on technical expertise leaves out the elements of public debate and discussion.

In Knowledge and Human Interests (1968), Habermas reformulated Horkheimer’s idea of emancipatory social theory. Habermas developed three distinct cognitive interests—instrumental, communicative, and emancipatory— and rejected the idea that critical reason is found in negation alone. Returning to a more Hegelian-perspective critique requires an intersubjective process of understanding that emphasizes critical reflection on the formative processes of self and society. The emancipatory interest is a form of reflection on coequal processes of social formation (instrumental and communicative) that frees action from domination.

Theory of Communicative Action (1981) was the first systematic statement of Habermas’s mature theory of society. The cognitive interests were replaced by a broadly interpretive social theory that distinguishes two basic forms of social action: instrumental and communicative. The first is action oriented toward success. The second is action oriented toward mutual understanding.

Habermas’s revision of Marx centers on the conflict between intersubjective forms of understanding and the impingement of system imperatives on social life. In complex modern societies, some functions, such as the economy, have become detached from moral and political regulation in order to efficiently carry out social reproduction. However, in capitalism this rationalization process is one-sided. It replaces realms of communicative action that are constitutive of human subjectivity and intersubjectivity with system imperatives. Habermas coined the phrase “colonization of the life world” to indicate the way in which these communicative spheres are controlled and reified by instrumental and functional imperatives. Reification involves threats to the integrity of communicative subjectivity in the contradictions between democracy and capitalism in modern society.

Most of Habermas’s later work has focused on the formation of a cosmopolitan legal, moral, and political theory. This emphasis maintains a tenuous link to emancipatory theory and social crisis. Habermas’s discourse ethics revises the Kantian principle of universalization in light of intersubjective aspects of communicative rationality. Kant’s categorical imperative applies to the individual who reflects by himself or herself. It asks us to “act only according to a maxim by which you can at the same time will that it shall become a general law” (Kant, 39). In contrast, Habermas’s discourse ethics requires a social, intersubjective perspective. Participants have to reflect on the consequences for all those potentially affected by a norm: “for a norm to be valid, the consequences and side effects of its general observation for the satisfaction each person’s interests must be acceptable to all” (Lenhardt and Nicholson, 197). The only norms that can be valid are those which can be accepted by all participants in discourse.

In Between Facts and Norms (1992), Habermas extends the communicative basis of discourse theory to democratic constitutionalism. Communicative freedom in Habermas’s view incorporates aspects of liberal democracy and republican theory. It stresses the self-determination emphasized by liberal theory and the self-realization of republican theories.

Many critics also see Habermas’s moral and political theory as a return to a Kantian moral theory. It can, however, also be viewed as an attempt to fuse Kantian insights into Hegelian notions of concrete intersubjectivity. In addition, post-structuralists reject the idea of an inclusive intersubjective foundation for ethics, politics, and law. For Jacques Derrida (1930–2004), for example, law is a closed system instituted through violence. Genuine intersubjectivity is rooted, in contrast, in care and compassion for the other, which is always beyond law and justice. On this reading, Habermas replays the earlier notion of a unified social subject. Habermas’s use of systems theory in Theory of Communicative Action has also been criticized by interpretive social theorists who believe that Habermas’s theory of society is inconsistent with his general commitment to interpretive and critical social science.


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  2. Adorno, Theodor. [1970] 1984. Aesthetic Theory. Christian Lenhardt. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  3. Benhabib, Seyla. 1986. Critique Norm and Utopia: A Study of the Foundations of Critical Theory. New York: Columbia University Press.
  4. Benjamin, Walter. [1961] 1968. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Harcourt.
  5. Buck-Morss, Susan. 1977. The Origin of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and the Frankfurt Institute. New York: Free Press.
  6. Dubiel, Helmut. 1986. Theory and Politics: Studies in the Development of Critical Theory. Benjamin Gregg. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  7. Habermas, Jürgen. [1962] 1991. Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  8. Habermas, Jürgen. [1968] 1971. Knowledge and Human Interests. Jeremy J. Shapiro. Boston: Beacon.
  9. Habermas, Jürgen. [1981] 1984–1987. Theory of Communicative Action. 2 vol. Trans. Thomas McCarthy. Boston: Beacon.
  10. Habermas, Jürgen. 1990. Morality and Ethical Life: Does Hegel’s Critique of Kant Apply to Discourse Ethics? in Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action. Christian Lenhardt and Shierry Weber Nicholsen. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  11. Habermas, Jürgen. [1992] 1996. Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy. William Rehg. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  12. Held, David. 1980. Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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  15. Jay, Martin. 1996. The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute for Social Research, 1923–1950. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  16. Kant, Immanuel. 1959. Foundations of Metaphysics of Morals. Lewis White Beck. Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill.
  17. Kellner, Douglas. 1989. Critical Theory Marxism and Modernity. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  18. Marcuse, Herbert. 1955. Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud. Boston: Beacon.
  19. Marcuse, Herbert. 1964. One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Boston: Beacon.
  20. Wiggershaus, Rolf. 1994. The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance. Michael Robertson. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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