Christianity and Critical Theory, Part 2: What Makes “Critical Theory” Critical Theory?

Adorno Quote

Behind every work of art is an uncommitted crime. ~Theodore W. Adorno

[This post is a continuation of, “Christianity and Critical Theory, Part 1: Marx and Frankfurt.” (And again, this is not an endorsement of these ideas; critique is forthcoming.)]

From Enlightenment to Critical Theory

In what is considered Critical Theory’s most seminal work, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodore W. Adorno critically interrogate the principles, goals, location, and historical effects of the project of Enlightenment. Consistent with the dialectical approach discussed in the last post, they see within the project both the immanent seeds of current human bondage and suffering, as well as the immanent seeds of emancipation therefrom. For Frankfurt theorists in general, social artifacts and systems are not to be analyzed in terms of a-historical transcendent ideologies; rather, they are to be critiqued as the products of contradictory internal forces which produce both the pathologies experienced by its individual actors, as well as the immanent forces of its own dissolution, both of which reside in the tension of existential experience until transformational crisis ensues.

We can look at Marx’s project as a concrete example. The Enlightenment itself was a mass philosophical movement toward the enthroning of reason as the means of mankind’s emancipation from the dominance of myth, religious authoritarianism, pretenses to authority by kings and nobility, and even suffering and misery itself. Reason was thought capable of laying bare transcendent truths, dismantling commonly held subjugating beliefs, and leading to scientific and technological advancements capable of improving the human condition. This basic (and simplified) idea was put in practice in various forms, as can be seen in the disparate writings of Voltaire, D’Alembert, Montesquieu, Kant, Burke, Rousseau, Hobbes, Locke, Mills, etc. Each had an eye toward revolutionary thought and action intended to secure and explicate the rational conditions for lasting liberty, equity, and justice, each accorded natural status and thereby accessible to reason. (As stated in the last post, it was not Marx nor Critical Theorists who created or defined the emancipatory goals of the Enlightenment.)

Without ignoring or countenancing the vast evils spawned by his revolutionary ideas, the lasting brilliance of Karl Marx resides in his unique approach to the very same concerns and aims of his Enlightenment forebears. But rather than appealing to transcendental truths found in Plato’s Heaven, Marx followed Hegel (as discussed last time) looking to immanent historical processes—real human beings in action, their developed institutions, and their material conditions—for both explanations of man’s suffering and social subjugation, and the immanent prospects embedded within that would (for Marx) necessarily lead to their freedom. Rather than looking to this or that social policy, this or that philosophy, or this or that bad actor, Marx argued that it was the entire lifeworld of men, produced by their most basic material conditions, viz., means and modes of production, which entrapped them in a web so systemic and wide, that even their reasoning was constrained and molded by the prevailing social systems produced by Capitalism.

To be clear, it is not so much his materialist critique of Capitalism, his theory of value, or his identification of bourgeoisie vs. proletariat as the incarnation of the internal alienating functions of the “ensemble of social relations” that ground the lasting value of his critique. No, it was the very idea that subjugation was contained in, and reinforced by, the very system of social relations within which man sought to reason toward solutions. The central legacy is, first, that man, seeking to be free, operates within his own created “superstructure,” inexorably produced by the dialectic of his own historical circumstances; second, operating within the resulting web of meanings, values, and historical artifacts, man’s reasoning itself is instrumentalized by social forces peculiar to his historical situation, and therefore only furthers the dialectic tension, producing the coming crisis.

Second Generation Critical Theorists

The first generation of Critical Theorists were committed to this revolutionary method of evaluation, as well as its inextricable marriage to social action and social actors—minus the teleological necessity. But their work left second generation Critical Theorists, like Jurgen Habermas, wondering how such activism and progressive change could any longer be teased out of a Totally Administered State, where reason is instrumental, and truth and morality themselves appeared to tend in practice toward relativism. Horkheimer and Adorno prized “historically effective reason,” objective truth, and the possibility of social domains of unencumbered communication; but their rigid critiques left no room for a system of norms to govern their realization. The Negative Dialectic could accomplish no more than “negation of the negation” (Hegel).

Among many other important reactive moves, Jürgen Habermas proposed a way forward: a theory of Communicative Action. Habermas recognized the inability to forge practical action in the midst of alienation, reification, and “distorted rationality,” but conceived of the possibility of “undistorted communication,” modeled on what Stephen Eric Bronner calls the “psychoanalytical encounter,” wherein therapist and client are abstracted from all other compelling interest but the searching, critical, analysis of the pathology at hand. While developing this grounding space for reason and “historically effective action,” Habermas moved decisively into the realm of analytic philosophy, speech-act theory, and linguistic pragmatics. Habermas finds in language itself the inter-subjective field for revolutionary critique and action.

As historical and social beings we find ourselves always already in a linguistically structured lifeworld. In the forms of communication through which we reach an understanding with one another about something in the world and about ourselves, we encounter a transcending power. Language is not a kind of private property. No one possesses exclusive rights over the common medium of the communicative practices we must intersubjectively share. No single participant can control the structure, or even the course, of processes of reaching understanding and self-understanding. How speakers and hearers make use of their communicative freedom to take yes- or no-positions is not a matter of their subjective discretion. For they are free only in virtue of the binding force of the justifiable claims they raise towards one another. The logos of language embodies the power of the intersubjective, which precedes and grounds the subjectivity of speakers. (The Future of Human Nature [2003], p. 10)

Within the social contract of language itself, Habermas sees the prospect of emancipatory mutual understanding, able to create emancipating social objectives, so long as his proposed normative rules of “undistorted communication” are self-consciously and empathetically followed.

Democratic will formation, by means of the common ground of intersubjective language, became the second generation’s practical ground for coordinated revolutionary social change. Habermas himself saw this as a parting of ways with the first generation:

… I do not share the basic premise of Critical Theory, as it took shape during the early 1940s, the premise that instrumental reason has gained such dominance that there is really no way out of a total system of delusion, in which insight is achieved only in flashes by isolated individuals. (As quoted by Joel Anderson, p. 35)

It is yet debated whether this was indeed a material departure.

Third Generation Critical Theorists : What Then is the Core?

The divergence is even wider, many argue, in the now third generation of Critical Theorists, e.g., Axel Honneth, Nancy Fraser, Seyla Benhabib, Agnes Heller, and others. And, further, born of the era of second and third generation Critical Theorists are the many “spin offs,” like Critical Race Theory, Post-Colonial Theory, Queer Theory, and Critical Feminism. As the goals, methods, disciplines, practical research programs, and even the global and cultural situations of these theorists continue to diverge, it has become difficult to distinguish those properly working within the historical ideal of Critical Theory and those associated only by academic connections, mutual book endorsements, shared platforms, and other social relations not of themselves indicative of shared intellectual history.

But in essays like “A Social Pathology of Reason,” by Axel Honneth, “Situating Axel Honneth in the Frankfurt School Tradition,” by Joel Anderson, and “A Method for Critical Research,” by Donald E. Comstock, theorists in the tradition have tried to crystallize the basic enduring principles that make “Critical Theory” Critical Theory, and identify what specific core legacies of Marx and the Frankfurt School continue to color research programs widely considered “Critical.” Without going into the many details and minutia of each such piece, I think we can justifiably summarize their proposed distinguishing elements with the following four themes:

  1. Social Pathology

Critical Theory treats the social ills that confront ordinary men and women as pathological, rather than easily individuized and conceptually isolatable sets of bad actions, ideas, practices, policies, or stereotypes. Just as a pathological liar lies habitually and without even taking note of it, or just as a disease can infect a whole body that yet appears healthy with looming death, so economic exploitation, racism, and sexism can be embedded within whole social systems, producing symptoms that may even seem quite normal and ineradicable, though most feel the existential burdens of its bitter fruit in one form or another.

Further, this pathology affects reason itself, through instrumentalization and socially constructed systems of false conditions (see the last post). Individuals know there is something wrong, but their historical location, with its “ensemble of social relations” and socially constructed set of meanings and values, leaves them often unable (or unwilling) to articulate and contemplate its immanent historical roots.

  1. Historical Immanence

Though rarely couched within the language of “dialectics” in modern Critical studies, the underlying idea that the roots of pathology, as well as the means for its cure, reside in the everyday facts of life and are discoverable in its seemingly mundane artifacts, yet remains. For example, just as Marx argued that the central cause of infant mortality was not to be located in lack of money or poor hospitals, but rather in the current historical system of production that relegates individuals to mere objects of the social calculus of capital formation.

Or, to take a more current example, Critical Theorists do not look at the murder of Treyvon Martin as a mere neighborhood scuffle in the street between a “trespasser” and a man concerned for his safety, but rather see it as an event which manifests local (and society-wide) racial assumptions, fear of the other, white flight, prejudicial public school policies, and a legal system designed to benefit the enfranchised. The “event” was just the immanent artifact of the social system that produced it. We could, of course, even go further and ground this instantiated complex social event in the United States’ own history of production and the intentional racial marginalization it both relied upon and produced.

Last, this immanence eschews transcendence. Though it often relies on transcendental arguments—“y is a necessary precondition for the existence of x, x exists, therefore y exists”—it does not rely on transcendental explanations nor transcendental prescriptions. Human experience exists in human history; this history contains both the problems and the solutions and they mean very little when abstracted from it. (Please see last post for more on this.)

  1. Anti-Essentialism

As we quoted from Max Horkheimer in our last post, “the critical theory of society…has for its objective men as producers of their own historical way of life in its totality”; that is, men and women are not subject to Marx’s natural deterministic teleology, nor Hegel’s previous version built around Spirit. Man himself creates and recreates his environment, social systems, symbols, ways of thinking, collective meanings, and the institutions, policies, and actions they produce. The furniture of social reality is socially constructed, not fixed, natural, or deterministic.

Though alienation and reification have objectified individuals, concretizing them into the collection of their social relations, men and women are, in reality, the true subjects and artificers of human history.

  1. Social Change as Rational Participation

Last, though solutions to the pathologies indicated above diverge massively among Critical Theorists, there is a common core. First, if we assume that social ills are pathological, history and explanation are immanent, and the furniture of social reality is socially constructed, then critiquing society definitionally requires engagement in shaping it, and vise versa.

Since all knowledge is rooted in social practices and social practices are ordered, in part, by social science explanations, theory and action are inseparable and all facts and theories are warranted as valid from a particular framework of social practices. The only legitimate activity of a critical social scientist is to engage in the collective enterprise of progressive enlightenment…. (Comstock, p. 630)

Second, a major assumption throughout is that reconstruction of social reality can cure the pathology, bringing about emancipation. This was true of Marx’s expectation of the proletarian revolution, true of Horkheimer and Adorno’s critical negation, true of Herbert Marcuse’s belief that the elimination of the “myth” of scarcity would cure mankind’s psychological propensity to barbarism, true of Honneth’s belief that dismantling the exchange society will overcome the “social suffering caused by deficient rationality” (p.338), and true in many ways of those who currently believe that massive education projects will rid Americans of their Colonial trappings through conscientizacao.

Though the internal life of man was built into the Critical equation, via Freud in particular, theorists continue to argue that the pathology of interior life is asymmetrically coordinated with structural social externalities. As Honneth argues, “[f]rom the fact that a deficit in social rationality leads to symptoms of a social pathology, one first infers that subjects suffer from the state of society” (p. 353). The solution is to “reactivate” human rationality through social transformation. Critical Theory thus still retains its task of critiquing all that is, unmasking its historically immanent preconditions, exposing its contradictions, and effecting the social change necessary to liberate the individual’s reason from that which distorts it.

Not surprisingly, these four distinguishing characteristics were captured long ago by Max Horkheimer in his seminal essay, “Traditional and Critical Theory,” wherein we are first introduced to the phrase “critical theory” itself:

[T]here is a human activity which has society itself for its object. The aim of this activity is not simply to eliminate one or other abuse, for it regards such abuses as necessarily connected with the way in which the social structure is organized. Although it itself emerges from the social structure, its purpose is not, either in its conscious intention or in its objective significance, the better functioning of any ele­ment in the structure. On the contrary, it is suspicious of the very categories of better, useful, appropriate, productive, and valuable, as these are understood in the present order, and re­fuses to take them as nonscientific presuppositions about which one can do nothing. … [T]he critical attitude of which we are speaking is wholly distrustful of the rules of conduct with which society as presently constituted provides each of its members. The separation between individ­ual and society in virtue of which the individual accepts as natural the limits prescribed for his activity is relativized in critical theory. The latter considers the overall framework which is conditioned by the blind interaction of individual activities (that is, the existent division of labor and the class distinctions) to be a function which originates in human action and therefore is a possible object of planful decision and rational determina­tion of goals. (pp. 206-207)


In conclusion, one example from a “spin off” might help to test our representation of what makes “Critical Theory” Critical Theory, distinguishing it as a research program from competing (and often similar) systems. I suppose this could all be skipped if your allotted reading time is waning, but I do think this list of tenets is telling, not only for testing consistency with our four themes above, but also with respect to Shenvi and Sawyer’s characterization of Critical Theory. Nowhere in the following example do we see anything like, “first divide up every person into either oppressor or oppressed, and then treat them by their group identity rather than their individuality.” This characterization is only true or false of Critical theory in as much as it is true or false of any post-Enlightenment project of emancipation.

Example: Critical Race Theory

In their introductory text, Critical Race Theory, Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic summarize what they believe to be the guiding principles of Critical Race Theory. At the beginning of the book, they note:

Unlike traditional civil rights discourse, which stresses incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law. (Critical Race Theory, pp. 2-3. NYU Press. Kindle Edition.)


Unlike some academic disciplines, critical race theory contains an activist dimension. It tries not only to understand our social situation but to change it, setting out not only to ascertain how society organizes itself along racial lines and hierarchies but to transform it for the better. (p.8)

They then go on to list six principle “tenets” of the theory, as they understand it:

  1. The ordinariness of racialization:

First, racism is ordinary, not aberrational—“normal science,” the usual way society does business, the common, everyday experience of most people of color in this country. Second, most would agree that our system of white-over-color ascendancy serves important purposes, both psychic and material, for the dominant group. The first feature, ordinariness, means that racism is difficult to address or cure because it is not acknowledged. (p. 8)

  1. Interest convergence:

Because racism advances the interests of both white elites (materially) and working-class whites (psychically), large segments of society have little incentive to eradicate it. (p. 9)

  1. The socially constructed nature of race.

race and races are products of social thought and relations. Not objective, inherent, or fixed, they correspond to no biological or genetic reality; rather, races are categories that society invents, manipulates, or retires when convenient.

  1. Differential racialization.

Critical writers in law, as well as in social science, have drawn attention to the ways the dominant society racializes different minority groups at different times, in response to shifting needs such as the labor market. At one period, for example, society may have had little use for blacks but much need for Mexican or Japanese agricultural workers. At another time, the Japanese, including citizens of long standing, may have been in intense disfavor and removed to war relocation camps, while society cultivated other groups of color for jobs in war industry or as cannon fodder on the front. In one era, Muslims are somewhat exotic neighbors who go to mosques and pray several times of day—harmless but odd. A few years later, they emerge as security threats. (p. 10)

  1. Intersection and anti-essentialism.

No person has a single, easily stated, unitary identity. A white feminist may also be Jewish or working class or a single mother. An African American activist may be male or female, gay or straight. A Latino may be a Democrat, a Republican, or even black—perhaps because that person’s family hails from the Caribbean. An Asian may be a recently arrived Hmong of rural background and unfamiliar with mercantile life or a fourth-generation Chinese with a father who is a university professor and a mother who operates a business. Everyone has potentially conflicting, overlapping identities, loyalties, and allegiances. (p. 10-11)

  1. Unique voice of color.

Coexisting in somewhat uneasy tension with antiessentialism, the voice-of-color thesis holds that because of their different histories and experiences with oppression, black, American Indian, Asian, and Latino writers and thinkers may be able to communicate to their white counterparts matters that the whites are unlikely to know. (p. 11)

Food for thought, no?

We will next begin a Biblical evaluation of these ideas and also compare them with the current evangelical activism deemed “Cultural Marxism” and “Critical Theory” by its detractors.

Click to Continue to Christianity and Critical Theory, Part 3: “Oppressor” and “Oppressed”

6 thoughts on “Christianity and Critical Theory, Part 2: What Makes “Critical Theory” Critical Theory?

  1. Marisol S May 28, 2019 / 7:22 am

    Thanks for posting. I think it’s important for Christians to thoroughly understand critical theory. I highly recommend reading the work of Derrick Bell, who is known to be one of the originators of CRT, a theoretical framework that uses CT.


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