What is Critical Theory?

Critical Theory can be defined in two ways, one narrow and one more broad.1see James Bohman, “Critical Theory” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =<https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2016/entries/critical-theory/>.Narrowly, Critical Theory refers to a continental philosophy that emerged primarily in between WWI and WWII, and then developed in the post-WWII era finding its fullest expression in the Frankfurt School of the 1950’s and 60’s. Its most august representatives were men of great learning like Max Horkheimer, Theodore Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse. It was the work of these three primarily, to include the social scientific writings of Erich Fromm and Max Weber, that provided the intellectual basis for the broader critical theories that have found popular expression on university campuses, in politics, and now, even in evangelical Christian churches and seminaries. 

What are the basic tenets of Critical Theory? First, in contrast to Traditional Theory, all thinking, all rational thought, according to Critical Theory, is merely a product of historical and material conditions. Thus, any philosophical, intellectual, or theological content or system is nothing more than an outworking of historical, cultural, and material conditions and circumstances.

For example, the God-concept that existed in the West for thousands of years due to the great monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam was generated not through divine revelation, or even rational discovery, but through the more basic physical conditions of the environment, and the social and cultural institutions that arose from those basic environmental conditions. Moreover, if the physical realities, along with the economic and cultural institutions that supervene upon them, are altered, then new ways of thinking and new paradigms of thought can be generated (i.e. new God-concepts can and will emerge).

On Critical Theory then, all philosophical and theological investigation about the world is not an investigation of any universal, transcendent reality, rather it is a byproduct of fundamentally physical, economic, and social conditions of particular communities of people, at particular places, at particular times in history. Reason itself, and the theoretical constructs it produces, are essentially bottom-up. Alter the physical realities of the environment, and the economic and social institutions that emerge from them, and you alter the metaphysical and religious views of people.

In short, there is nothing actually transcendent, actually permanent, or actually universal; all is immanent, all is historically contingent, and all is subject to change, even our very thoughts about transcendence, history, and change (one can see the self-defeating nature of this kind of theorizing). On this picture, therefore, new God-concepts are always constructible. In spite of this picture, they are often promoted as normative through the very institutions that themselves are products of these lower-level realities. For an example of this, see here.

Second, Critical Theory, especially in its broader, more popular form, sees all of social reality as power dynamics. Social life is comprised strictly of oppressors and oppressed, the dominant and the underprivileged. The end goal for any social situation, therefore, is for those persons or groups that find themselves as members of “the oppressed” to be liberated from their oppressors. Thus, it is crucial to not only identify as some kind of oppressed person or group, but also to find either a personal oppressor or system of oppression from which you can be freed. There is no middle ground between these two groups; no third category, or admixture of the two. Work towards liberation, therefore, becomes the primary, if not ultimate, means to finding meaning in one’s life.

Further, if one identifies, or is identified, as a member of the oppressor group, then repentance becomes normative, and an identification with the oppressed is required. Although, it is unclear on Critical Theory why repentance would be normative or morally binding upon the oppressor. It seems the oppressor could simply embrace his or her dominant position in society, since moral norms themselves are only contingent, social constructs.

Third, since there is no transcendent ontology, and consequently no transcendent teleology on Critical Theory, personal identity is defined either by external physical  characteristics possessed by the individual, or by personal preferences and subjective emotional states.

For example, one’s race, gender, socio-economic class, or sexual or gender orientation, provide the primary grounds for self-identity. Since there is no designing agent with regard to human nature, human nature can be chosen, and one reasonable way to choose one’s own nature is simply to identify it with some prominent feature of one’s physical body, or one’s sexual drives, or emotional affections. Put simply, you either are what your body is, or you are what you do with your body. This dynamic of perceiving persons as their bodies, or even merely features of their bodies, has become widespread in popular culture. One example of this might be something like the infamous “pussy hat” worn at feminist rallies, where the anatomical vagina acts as the replacement for the more abstract concept of a feminine essence, or “femininity.” 

In later posts I will look more closely as to whether Critical Theory can be compatible with historical Christianity. But let’s summarize its main tenets.

First, most Critical Theory presupposes that there is no transcendent reality: no divine agent (e.g. God) or telos (e.g. divine purpose) that determines what human nature is. Human nature is just what the subject (i.e. the individual person) chooses it to be, or, more traditionally, what the historical group or community has defined it as.

Second, most Critical Theory is also social theory, a social theory that sees power dynamics between groups as the fundamental reality of civilization. Within this struggle for power, liberation from oppression becomes the highest good, whereby oppressors tend to almost always be other people or their institutions, especially now in modern societies, where the forces of nature have been both demystified and, through technology, largely subdued.

Finally, all thought itself, all reason, is but a product of blind, environmental forces, and brute physical conditions that determine the philosophical and theological thoughts of particular agents and their communities.

Most Critical Theory is therefore physicalist in its ontology, relegating metaphysical universals, essences, and agents as throwbacks to a pre-scientific, religious and superstitious past. This, however, in spite of the occasional attempts made to assume some kind of libertarian freedom with regard to human agency. However, as I hope to show in later posts, religious language and symbol is often appropriated as a heuristic tool to either construct one’s subjective identity or to identify a supposed oppressor.

As such, can this kind of philosophical project really be integrated into a historical Christian worldview? Whether or not it can, there is evidence that it is being attempted.

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