Critical theory, in sociology and philosophy, is shorthand for critical theory of society or critical social theory, a label used by the Frankfurt School (i.e. members of the Institute for Social Research of the University of Frankfurt, their intellectual and social network, and those influenced by them intellectually), to describe their own work, oriented toward radical social change, in contradistinction to "traditional theory," i.e. theory in the positivistic, scientistic, or purely observational mode. In literature and literary criticism, by contrast, "critical theory" means something quite different, namely theory used in criticism.

Although the original critical social theorists were Marxists and there is some evidence that in their choice of the phrase "critical theory of society" they were in part influenced by its sounding less politically controversial than "Marxism", nevertheless there were substantial substantive reasons for this choice. First, they were explicitly linking up with the "critical philosophy" of Immanuel Kant, where the term "critique" meant philosophical reflection on the limits of claims made for certain kinds of knowledge and a direct connection between such critique and the emphasis on moral autonomy. In an intellectual context defined by dogmatic positivism and scientism on the one hand and dogmatic "scientific socialism" on the other, critical theory meant to rehabilitate through such a philosophically critical approach an orientation toward revolutionary agency, or at least its possibility, at a time when it seemed in decline.

Second, in the context of both Marxist-Leninist and Social-Democratic orthodoxy, which emphasized Marxism as a new kind of positive science, they were linking up with the implicit epistemology of Karl Marx's work, which presented itself as critique, as in Marx's "Capital: a critique of political economy", wanting to emphasize that Marx was attempting to create a new kind of critical analysis oriented toward the unity of theory and revolutionary practice rather than a new kind of positive science. In the 1960s, Jürgen Habermas raised the epistemological discussion to a new level in his "Knowledge and Human Interests", by identifying critical knowledge as based on principles that differentiated it either from the natural sciences or the humanities, through its orientation to self-reflection and emancipation.

The term "critical theory", in the non-literary-criticism sense, now loosely groups all sorts of work, e.g. that of the Frankfurt School, Foucault, Bourdieu, and feminist theory, that has in common the critique of domination, an emancipatory interest, and the fusion of social/cultural analysis, explanation, and interpretation with social/cultural critique.

Notable figures in critical theory:

See also: Marxism, Frankfurt School, cultural studies, Race Theory, queer theory, feminism.

What are our priorities for writing in this area? To help develop a list of the most basic topics in Critical Theory, please see Critical Theory basic topics.