Critical Theory (from the 1920s)

Critical Theory, also referred to as the Frankfurt School, emerged in the 1920s and took hold in 1931, when Max Horkheimer became director of the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt on the Main. The Frankfurt School established its own theory (i.e. Critical Theory), whose concept of critique looked mainly to Marx, particularly during the first generation, but also to Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis and the German idealist tradition of philosophy.

Critical Theory's critique of society combines the critique of political economy with that of ideology and addresses questions of epistemology, consciousness and subjectivity, but also art, literature and aesthetics. Critical Theory conceives of itself not simply as a critique of bourgeois-capitalist society, but as a critical self-reflection of the societal and historical conditions for theoretical work.

Critical Theory's influence was felt mainly in the German- and English-speaking world. Today, a distinction is drawn between two generations of theorists, and between an "official" and an "unofficial" branch of the second generation. The "official" second generation is mainly associated with the philosopher Jürgen Habermas and the communicative turn within social theory. This communicative turn led to a more normative, discourse-theoretical and lifeworld-oriented critique.

By contrast, the "unofficial" second generation of Alfred Schmidt, Hans-Jürgen Krahl, Hans-Georg Backhaus, Helmut Reichelt, Wolfgang Pohrt and others directed its attention at the unredeemed "absent centre" of the first generation of Critical Theory: the reconstruction and bringing-up-to-date of the critique of political economy.