A critical theory is a theory that emphasizes the reflective assessment and critique of society and culture by applying knowledge from the social sciences and the humanities. It is also a perspective that does not place its hopes in political revolution alone, but which seeks to intervene in the realms of ideology and culture in order to make social change possible.
The critical theory emerged as a self-reflective response to the limitations of traditional theory. While traditional theory takes an objective approach to understanding human experience, the critical theory involves an examination of the societal structures that shape our views. Critical theorists believe that these structures are flawed or even oppressive, and therefore need to be changed through patient effort rather than spontaneous revolution. In this sense, critical theory provides a foundation for many other critical approaches such as feminism, postmodernism, and postcolonialism.
The term was first used in sociology by Max Horkheimer (1895–1973) in his 1937 essay Traditional and Critical Theory: Toward a New Consciousness (Zur Kritik der instrumentellen Vernunft), where he defines it as “a self-correcting materialist dialectics”. Theodor W. Adorno (1903–1969) later used the term when referring to himself as “a critical theorist”.