Apologetics,  Culture

Critical Theory and the Frankfurt School

Last time we talked about the influence of Marxism and Neo-Marxism on modern society. This is a foundational point, but it is really only part of the picture. The Neo-Marxist desire for cultural destruction needed a tool through which it could destroy Western culture. That tool is Critical Theory. As dynamite is to the field of demolition, so Critical Theory is to the Marxist worldview.  

photo of chemistry tools signifying Critical Theory

The Frankfurt School and Critical Theory

Although Antonio Gramsci is typically credited with being one of the more influential players in moving Classical Marxism into Neo-Marxism, he was far from the only player. Marxism was a powerful ideology, and a thinktank of Marxist philosophers were involved with starting The Institute for Marxism in Frankfurt, Germany. While the school began conceptually in 1923, the Institute decided to avoid the negative name association of Marxism, and went by the name, The Institute of Social Research.

The Frankfurt School attracted some of the best and brightest of the Marxist philosophers. Men such as Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, and Herbert Marcuse. One of the lasting contributions of the Frankfurt School was the popularization and propagation of Critical Theory.

What is Critical Theory?

It would be a mistake to view the idea of Critical Theory as a theory which is critical. Rather, a Critical Theory is a social critique which endeavors to undermine the existing conditions of culture and to change it for the better. In other words, Critical Theory is an activist ideology. In this way, Critical Theory is to be differentiated from what became known as Traditional Theory, simply an attempt to explain society.

According to Max Horkheimer (1895–1973), who was the leader of the Frankfurt School from 1930–1933, a Critical Theory must meet three criteria. It must be (1) explanatory, (2) practical, and (3) normative—all at the same time.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, this means that a Critical Theory, “must explain what is wrong with current social reality, identify the actors to change it, and provide both clear norms for criticism and achievable practical goals for social transformation.” In other words, a Critical Theory is concerned with the transformation of culture, mapping out and implementing a way to accomplish that.

The goal of Critical Theory is to destroy the oppressive structures of Western culture and to pave the way to a creation of world which meets the needs and powers of everyone equally. However, the major problem with Critical Theory is that it does not provide any creative path. It is only concerned with the destructive phase. Therefore, the big takeaway in understanding Critical Theory is that it is intentionally designed to destroy and dismantle. It does not provide alternatives. It only provides the methodology for critique and destruction.

Modern Examples of Critical Theory

Modern Critical Theory focuses on dividing people into oppressor and oppressed groups by focusing on age, race, class, gender, sexual orientation, or physical ability and other characteristics. The assumption is that there is always a marginalized group, and there must be an attempt to liberate that marginalized group from oppression by tearing down the system which facilitates the oppression.

Thus, Critical Theory is not limited to one branch of thought and shows up in many fields of study. As a short list of examples, fields such as Gender Theory, Queer Theory, Postcolonial Theory, and Critical Race Theory all assume a Critical Theory framework for their studies.  Critical Theory is not limited to these examples of course. The fields of Feminism and Social Justice are also major branches of Critical Theory.

How did Critical Theory get from Frankfurt to the United States?

One only has to look around at the curriculum of any major University and see classes such as Gender Studies, Psychology and Race, etc. All of these classes are the outworking of Critical Theory. But if Critical Theory can be traced from Marx to Gramsci and the Frankfurt School, how did the United States wind up so heavily influenced by Critical Theory?

In 1933, following the Nazi rise to power, members of the Frankfurt school fled to Geneva to escape Hitler. Shortly after fleeing Frankfurt, some of the prominent members of the Frankfurt School made their way to the United States. Max Horkheimer, for example, relocated to New York city where Columbia University agreed to host the exiled Frankfurt School. After teaching at Columbia University for six years, Horkheimer moved to Los Angeles where he continued his studies until moving back to Frankfurt in 1950. Others, such as Theodor Adorno, followed similar paths to Horkheimer, influencing both New York as well as California.

A Brief Critique of Critical Theory

Although I have provided a collection of links which provide resources critiquing Critical Theory and Social Justice in the past, and others have provided valuable information on Critical Theory, I think it would be helpful here to provide a brief summary of some of the problems with Critical Theory from a Christian worldview.

Critical Theory emphasizes group identity at the expense of individual culpability.

Critical Theory assumes that if someone belongs to a marginalized group, they are oppressed, and if someone belongs to the dominant group they are an oppressor. Individual actions or motivations are largely irrelevant to the issue. Ethnic minorities cannot be racist, and women cannot be sexist because they are a part of the marginalized group. The biblical idea of individual accountability is largely absent from such a picture, and one’s group identity excuses one’s actions or condemns one’s actions without regard to context.

Critical Theory has an unbiblical epistemology.

Coinciding with the previous point, in the worldview of Critical Theory experience is the epistemological gateway. In other words, experience is the only way one can know something. As an example, since I am a straight, white male, I cannot determine whether an action is racist, sexist, or homophobic, because I am biased and blinded by my whiteness, maleness, and heterosexuality.

This is often referred to as Standpoint Epistemology, meaning that one’s place or standing in life gives them access to special knowledge that others do not have. This concept is related to the idea of Intersectionality, which refers to the different oppressive experiences that someone has. The more oppressive groups one can identify with, the more knowledge one has access to. However, from a biblical perspective, we would be foolish to elevate experience as the best means of attaining knowledge.

Critical Theory defaults to a negative interpretation of everything.

Because of the essentialism of group identity in Critical Theory, each individual action is interpreted by an already-decided-upon playbook. For example, the rule of Critical Race Theory is not whether racism exists in any given situation, but rather how racism has manifested itself. Thus, Critical Theory trains people to look for the negative in every situation, even if it is not necessarily there. This is an inherently unchristian approach, and more than that, it is an approach which can only divide and destroy a society. There can be no positive outcome from following that playbook.

Critical Theory and American Society

Critical Theory is the destructive tool of choice for the Neo-Marxist. Now, obviously not everyone who buys into the frameworks of Critical Theory understands the Marxist connection. Thus, it is usually unhelpful to simply call people Marxists for embracing Critical Theory, even though that is the philosophical heritage. However, from the Christian worldview, we need to be aware of the origins and the methods of the current secular push.

Modern secularists use words like equality, equity, justice, fairness, oppression, or rights. Yet those terms are tainted by a worldview which the Christian cannot associate with! The descriptions of those pushing for Social Justice sound so promising because they are words and ideas that are central to Scripture. But remember, those pushing these ideas are unregenerate, God-hating unbelievers. Their definitions and worldviews are much different than the worldview of a Christian. All that glitters is not gold, and furthermore, we do well to remember Jesus’ words, “a bad tree does not bear good fruit” (Luke 6:43).

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He is a husband, father, and sports enthusiast.

4 Comments

  • Blah blah

    In my PhD program, we have a mandatory class which covers (but not only) critical theory- including intersectionality, critical race theory, queer theory, etc. I have a critical race theory book (same book that you have an image of in one of your other blood posts) with me that I am assigned to read.

  • Charlotte Michie

    Well stated. I have been following this movement for sometime and I get amazed at how uninformed people are about history. This message needs to be given to Church members. I would estimate 10% would not know this history. In my mind the bigger story is how it is being applied today. Covid 19 is the Trojan horse. Again, it appears to me that folks are sleep at the wheel. If someone in authority says it is then they go along without questioning. I think that is how Critical Race Theory and Social Justice pushed by the Southern Baptist Convention got a foothold in the Churches.
    “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not partners with them: for at one time you were darkness, but now are light in the Lord. ” Ephesians 5:7-8

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