Critical Theory and the Frankfurt School

The following article serves as an introduction to Critical Theory. It is not meant to be comprehensive but focuses on core issues and tries to dispel some common misconceptions.

What is Critical Theory?

Critical Theory is a sociological theory founded on teachings from the philosophers Hegel, Marx and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud. Its main objective is a society of reasonable and emancipated people. To achieve this, its founders developed the technique of Critique of Ideology from Marx and Engels which can be used to uncover and debunk the influence of ideologies. For Marx, ideology refers to mismatches between the self-image of a society and its reality. Thus, Critical Theory is not merely a theory, but a practice to disclose society’s real drivers, understand them in their totality and cause real change.

The name Critical Theory itself was developed to set itself apart from the scientific traditional theory. It stems from the insight that because our modern society is a result of the process of thousands of years of reason and enlightenment, that started with mastering and subduing nature, this aspect of subduing is baked into our ideological DNA, resulting in perpetual conflicts and separating us from just being human. This process was described in the fundamental piece Dialectic of Enlightenment.
Traditional theory will therefore only be able to perpetuate the mechanism of power and oppression that started with subduing nature, which over the course of history transformed into people oppressing people, instead. Each perpetuation step is called affirmation, resulting in a Positivistic ideology. To stop this cycle of perpetuation called Dialectic, modern science must impose self-reflection upon itself to break this cycle. The process of self-reflection to break this reproduction cycle is called Negative Dialectics and described in the book of the same name, making it one of the fundamental works of Critical Theory.
The incorporation of the dialectical method implies that Critical Theory is not an idealistic, but a strictly materialistic theory, which also means that human needs are put at the center of interest, not abstract ideas. However, Critical Theory rejects the deterministic notion of Dialectical Materialism which states that because of an assumed dialectical nature of history, human advance is always implied and inevitable.

Later works of Critical Theory also involve critical assessments of the role of modern media and popular culture. These works built upon critique of ideology and the dialectal view on the development of history, yet don’t don’t add anything fundamental to Critical Theory itself.

Critical Theory is Critical Practice

Critical Practice is the detection, uncovering and debunking of ideologies – hidden motives that drive the actions of an ideology’s proponent. To detect and dispel ideology at work, we must

  1. before even starting, reflect upon our own actions and motives;
  2. compare whether the motives stated by observed individual or group match reality;
  3. if not, question or probe to find out what the unconscious motives are;
  4. identify and debunk the real driver, thus outlining the ideology;
  5. if desirable, show how adjust motives with actions.

Critique of Ideology in Practice: Islam and the Regressive Left

A typical observation in contemporary debates is the unconditional defense of Muslims through liberals, especially orthodox Muslims and their religious practices including the wearing of hijabs or niqabs, often attacking critics of such practices with accusations of „Islamophobia“ or racism. Instead, the creation of safe-spaces for Muslims is demanded where Muslims shall have a right to practice their Muslim identity without being questioned or criticized for it.
When probed for the apologist’s motives, they commonly refer to universal values such as the ones from the Enlightenment, more specifically the emancipation of man, or the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantees freedom exercise of religion and freedom of speech, among other things. However, there is a mismatch between this noble motive and reality as real world Islam itself is most often oppressive towards women, curbs free speech and advocates the inferiority of adherents of other religions, and especially atheists. These practices are in direct contradiction with the values ostensibly defended. We can therefore conclude an ideology at work. To find out the real driver and dispel the ideology, we must probe and question its adherents. A common pattern is to collect as many arguments as possible and use inductive and deductive reasoning to draw probable or definitive conclusions. Collecting more arguments is possible through debate and finding the arguments which are fallacies. Common fallacies in Islamophobia debates include Texas sharpshooter („one billion Muslims are peaceful“) / no true Scotsman („Islamists and Jihadists are not the real Muslims“ / „liberal and secular Muslims are not the real Muslims“), and, very commonly, a special form of Whataboutism called cultural relativism, for instance stating that in the West, women are also subject to misogyny, therefore it’s not our right to criticize pristine cultures such as Islam as we aren’t doing better.
The latter arguments reveal the ideological driver: If Islamic practices are not being judged and criticized through probing against objective, universal values that also apply universally and independently from its adherents, the underlying ideology of the Islam apologist must really be anti-universal and particularist. In case of the safe-space demand for a Muslim identity1, the ideology takes its full form. If „Muslim“ is an identity that deserves complete shielding from criticism, it puts people into a forced Muslim collective. The safe-space demand also interrelates with a permanent state of victim mentality in direction contradiction with the dictum of the Enlightenment:

Enlightenment is the emancipation of man from a state of self-imposed tutelage… of incapacity to use his own intelligence without external guidance. Such a state of tutelage I call ’self-imposed‘ if it is due, not to lack of intelligence, but to lack of courage or determination to use one’s own intelligence without the help of a leader. Sapere aude! Dare to use your own intelligence! This is the battle-cry of the Enlightenment. — Immanuel Kant, 1785

As universal values are what makes up modernity and the Western world, this ideology can be called anti-Western or anti-modern, therefore hinting at a deep rejection of civilization and globalization in favor of postmodernist cultural collectivism.
Adjusting motives with action would be to actually apply universal values and criticize the mismatch of Islamic practices and teachings, showing how they are deeply incompatible and starting to support secular Muslims who want to reform the religion to make it compatible with universal values, something which evidently puts them at danger with conservative and Islamist Muslims.

Sam Harris attacking Ben Affleck’s Islam apologist ideology

Meaning Lost in History and Translation

Critical Theory was developed when Max Horkheimer took over the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research in 1931. This circumstance led to the late alternative name Frankfurt School for Critical Theory, but was never endorsed by any of its proponents.

Outside German-speaking circles, the term critical theory got picked up and ripped out of context by proponents of incompatible or even antagonistic schools of thought, especially Post-structuralism. Post-structuralism is a late postmodernist philosophy from 1968 that rejects all notions of objective truth, the totality of society and negativity, therefore also the concept of critique of ideology. This doesn’t stop its proponents to occasionally use Critical Theory quotes out of context, especially those related to modern culture. This helped to create a right-wing conspiracy theory called Cultural Marxism that creates the false impression that Critical Theory was responsible for phenomena linked to the excessive political correctness of the postmodernist left.


  1. There is room to argue for safe-spaces to be special forms of the appeal to nature fallacy: Muslims just are that way, therefore it is true 

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