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As Good As You Could Have Hoped For From A Book On Critical Theory

  • Apr 5, 2011
"Critical Theory" refers to a particular intellectual superstructure that has been home to a large segment of Western left from the decade or so prior to the World War II until today. Since the 1980s at least, it has also infiltrate much of the humanities and social sciences in the US, and it seems to be providing an overarching conceptual and methodological paradigm for much of what goes on in those departments these days. That, at least, is my impression of what this short book aims to depict as "Critical Theory." I could be totally wrong, though, because just like most of the "Critical Theory" literature itself, this short introduction is full of flowery language that exudes intellectual confidence without making many concrete claims. From reading between the lines my impression is that "Critical Theory" developed in Germany in 1920s (where it was known as "Frankfurt School") as a reaction against orthodox Marxism. Many of the Marxists were disillusioned with the way that communism was implemented in Soviet Union, and became disenchanted with implementing it as a viable social system. They jettisoned the economic aspects of Marxism, distanced themselves even further from any "existing system of thought," and felt free to criticize the existing social systems without any constraints that social sciences, philosophy, economics or any other organization of thought or empirical evidence would impose on them. It is not surprising that within such a mindset intellectuals with dominant personalities will assert themselves and create a new canon of texts that will unite them and their followers and keep them separate from other intellectual and academic trends. Indeed, this short introduction dedicates most of its space to some famous "giants" of the "Frankfurt School": Theodore Adorno, Erich Fromm, Georg Lukács, Max Horkheimer, Jürgen Habermas, and others. The book talks about these authors (for the lack of a better word) in some detail, but in the end aside from alienation and oppression I am not entirely sure what these people were all about. It doesn't help that "Critical Theory" relies heavily on jargon and obscure phraseology for the sense of profundity that it promotes. The author of this book also on a few occasions uses very tendentious language to describe his political opponents, resorting even to crass epithets on one occasion.

Overall, after reading this book I am not much wiser on what "Critical Theory" is all about, but I strongly suspect this is the feature and not a bug of this system of thought.

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Bojan Tunguz ()
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I am a benevolent rascal. I love lounging in bed on a Sunday morning. Rainy days make me melancholy, but in a good kind of way. I am an incorrigible chocoholic. I hate Mondays, but I get over it by Wednesday. … more
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About this book


Critical Theory emerged in the 1920s from the work of the Frankfurt School, the circle of German-Jewish academics who sought to diagnose-and, if at all possible, cure-the ills of society, particularly fascism and capitalism. In this book, Stephen Eric Bronner provides sketches of leading representatives of the critical tradition (such as George Lukács and Ernst Bloch, Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse and Jurgen Habermas) as well as many of its seminal texts and empirical investigations. ThisVery Short Introductionsheds light on the cluster of concepts and themes that set critical theory apart from its more traditional philosophical competitors. Bronner explains and discusses concepts such as method and agency, alienation and reification, the culture industry and repressive tolerance, non-identity and utopia. He argues for the introduction of new categories and perspectives for illuminating the obstacles to progressive change and focusing upon hidden transformative possibilities. Only a critique of critical theory can render it salient for a new age. That is precisely what this very short introduction provides.
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ISBN-10: 0199730075
ISBN-13: 978-0199730070
Author: Stephen Eric Bronner
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA

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