Reflection on Critical Theory and Its Role in the Social System

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What Makes a Theory Critical?

To be able to understand the rationale behind the critical theory, the first question we need to answer is what makes a theory critical. As it is shown in Figure 1, a theory becomes a critical theory when it is explanatory, practical, and normative. Horkheimer (2002) stated that the theory should explain the existing social problems, offer practical solutions to respond to them in line with the norms of criticism put forward by the field. He (2002) also stated that critical theory should pursue “the human emancipation from slavery”, should have “liberating influence” and should work for the sake of creating “a world which satisfies the needs and powers of the human being”.

Historical Background

Critical Theory is traced back to Marx’s critiques of the economy and society. Marxism is a political and economic philosophy that views how things are. Conflict is at the centre of Marxism because he states that societies conflict with each other. This conflict is between the rich and the poor. He says that we live in a system where our society is based on few people who own factories and businesses. Since he formulated his theories during the Industrial Revolution when the capitalist system emerged, he realized that the poor stayed poor but the owners of the factories got richer and richer. This means that the capitalist society is based on a system which encourages inequality. However, he says that at some point, the working class will realize that they have the power to change things through education and personal development. This change will come when the working class rises up and makes a revolution against this inequality.

The new established system should provide a social system where all people should be treated equally and all factories and businesses should be owned by each member of society. However, Marx’s idea of revolution failed. After Marx’s failed prediction of revolution, Marxist scholar Carl Grünberg founded Frankfurt School in 1923. Frankfurt School was a group of scholars who developed the Critical Theory and put forward the truth through the reasoned arguments. The main concern of the Frankfurt School was “mass culture”. With the development of technology, cultural products such as music, film and art were distributed. These cultural products created a sameness in the cultural experience. Society passively and unconsciously was exposed to the produced ideologies and values. In doing so, not only a creation of false needs increased but also consumerism increased. This situation explained why Marx’s revolution never came and capitalism was dominant.

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The main purpose of the Frankfurt School was to change society for better through action orientation and critique of society. The scholars who supported this idea were Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Erich Fromm, and Herbert Marcuse. Firstly, Horkheimer put forward the conflict theory which can be used as “a platform to enlighten and emancipate people”. He also suggested that scholars should use their criticism in order to help people understand their place in the structure of society and encourage them to change. Secondly, Adorno claimed that the language that was used by the researchers to explain society was politically constructed. In doing so, the main structure/ order of society maintained. This led us to be alienated and to stay in isolation. This is also supported by Marx. When we stay like this, we cannot become whole to start the revolution. Like Adorno, Marcuse said that technology and capitalism made us dehumanize. That led people to think that they were alone and a piece of the big picture. Even if they took an action against the system, this cannot make a change in society. Finally, Fromm also rejected capitalism as the others did since it is dehumanizing and leads to alienation. He says that some roles are attributed to us in society we live in. We, as individuals, forget the fact that we are individual as a human but we always try to fulfil the expectations of the given roles by society.

What is Critical Theory?

When we define the critical theory, we have to define the traditional theory, too. Traditional theory only analyses society to explain what is there whereas critical theory aims to change society. According to Horkheimer, the traditional theorists produced works that failed to question domination, power and existing social order. However, he questioned the notion of objectivity while explaining and describing social reality. “The facts which our senses present to us are socially preformed in two ways: through the historical character of the object perceived and through the historical character of the perceiving organ” (Horkheimer, 1937, in Ingram and Simon-Ingram 1992, p. 242). As we understood from the quotation, the objectivity is a myth because each person can interpret the same event in a different way. Receivers might have different historical background. Depending on this background, their deduction might be different. There is no pure truth or reality that is conveyed. He rejects the idea of objectivity that is claimed to be used by traditional theorists.

The Critical Theory tries to explain social injustice and inequality. Critical theorists emphasized the importance of human agency to start a revolutionary social change. People, as human agents, can overcome this injustice and inequality. According to Horkheimer, these theorists sought “human emancipation” under the circumstances of domination and oppression. He also claimed that no one can determine what is good for society and what a good and a free society is. However, the critical theorists were able to bring the negative aspects of society which they wanted to change. They criticized and led people to question the circumstances they encountered.

Critical Theory Today

In time, critical theory started to be used as an umbrella term to define any theory emphasizing critique. That means that there are “critical theories” right now. When we use the capital “C” and “T” in “Critical Theory”, it refers to what was put forward by Frankfurt School. Critical theories are a broader term which includes the past and present members of Frankfurt School and several critical schools of thought. When we mentioned Critical Theory in the past, we also referred to Marxism because it was so dominant in Critical Theory. However, it is no longer dominant as much as in the past. Today, we need more rooms to non-Marxist critical theories.

My Reflection on Critical Theory

Critical Theory is to search for equal and just social system through questioning and challenging the existing order. While searching details of Critical theory on the internet, I realized that there might be a connection between a video called “Education is a System of Indoctrination of the Young” and Critical Theory. In this video, Chomsky criticizes education system. He says that the main purpose of education makes the young generation more obedient. This means they become passive and unable to question. According to Marxism, people unconsciously accept the power exercised by the more powerful people. Education is one of the means to make them unconsciously obedient. How they inhibit the young to question the system is to give them “stupid assignments”. When one of the students questions “the stupidity of these assignments”, this student most probably is considered to have behavioural problems. He or she will be alienated from the group whose members accept and do without questioning this stupidity.

Additionally, he gives Japan as an example. The reason why Japan uses this kind of educational system is to train “very obedient workers”. This is what we call Structural-Functional View of Life. What they do is to create the most suitable people for the existing structures or sectors of society. Finally, he also talks about the 1960s when the students burned libraries and books. He says that the students started raising questions and were not obedient anymore. As a result, schools are similar to factories. They have the power to create people who are not able to question and know what to do when they want to change. The capitalist system is still dominant and people unconsciously are the followers of it because they do not know otherwise and how to question.

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