The meaning of the term critical theory has changed in different historical contexts. From the end of World War II (1939-1945) through the 1960s, the term referred to the use of critical and theoretical approaches within major disciplines of the humanities, including art history, literary studies, and, more broadly, cultural studies. In the 1970s, the term entered into the area of film and media studies. During the same period, critical theory took on a more specialized sense that described the work of the Frankfurt School of Social Research, which from that moment onward spread steadily through many disciplines of the humanities and social sciences in the English-speaking world.
Major authors of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and Edgar Allan Poe as well as nineteenth-century novelists, including Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, practiced forms of criticism. In a broad range of cultural criticism, critical discourse developed from philosophical and critical responses to genres of art and evaluative responses to specific art works. In the early twentieth century, critics started applying Marxist theory to a broad range of the arts, while others used psychoanalytic theory and Jungian theory. By the 1950s, various schools of critical theory began using theoretical discourses of the period to discuss, interpret, analyze and critique the arts.
People who wanted a more scientific approach to the aesthetic work and those who wanted a more empathetic immersion in cultural artifacts reacted against this theory turn. In the 1960s, the new disciplines of film and media theory also took up some critical theories and methods, including Marxism, feminism, semiotics and psychoanalysis, and then developed their own autonomous discourse and methods. The first to develop critical approaches to mass communication and culture was the Frankfurt School, which created its own concept of critical theory.
The term Frankfurt School refers to the work of members of the Institute for Social Research, established in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1923 as a centre for socialist research. "Critical theory," was used as a code for the quasi-Marxist theory of society that was developed by the Frankfurt School. Critical theory drew alike on Hegelian dialectics, Marxian theory, Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche, Max Weber and other trends of contemporary theory. Eventually, the Frankfurt school became best known for its critical theories of "the totally administered society," or "one-dimensional society," that analyzed the growing power of capitalism over all aspects of social life and the development of new forms of social control.
The proponents of critical theory sometimes referred to it as negative philosophy and its central principles can perhaps be defined most clearly by contrasting them to some of the principles of twentieth-century positivism. As opposed to the idea that knowledge comes from people's sense-experience, critical theory is a form of rationalism. According to critical theorists, the source of people's knowledge and the source of their common humanity is the fact that they are all rational beings.
Critical theory may be seen as maintaining that the real ought to be rational. In this context, rationality refers not to formal logic, but to the dialectical process of thought, in which the whole is greater than the parts, while contradictions continually appear and disappear into new syntheses. As part of the critical theory, a possible utopian state is usually projected into the future, although it sometimes seems that it was in the past. From the idea of rationality, a basic form of a rational society can be deduced.
By virtue of being human all people possess the quality of potential for rational thought. Therefore, a rational society is one in which all members participate in order to create and transform the environment. On the basis of this standard, societies that exclude groups from economic and political participation or which systematically render group powerless can be criticized for being irrational societies.
The model of Jurgen Habersman, a major modern representative of the Frankfurt School, is based on the fact that all people use language. His utopia is not based on the notion of a rational society, as is that of traditional critical theory. Instead, his ideal is the concept of an "ideal speech situation," in which everyone has equal access to information and public debate.
In terms of theoretical argument, critical theory does not juxtapose one set of truth claims to another, but searches out the internal contradictions and the gaps in a system of thought and pushes these contradictions to the point where something different emerges. This type of dialectical approach is sometimes referred to as an internal critique.