Like many philosophical schools of thought, critical theory draws it's legacy from the Socratic tradition of subjecting long standing believes to rational scrutiny without respect for tradition or deference to the existing order. It is multidisciplinary but draws heavily on psychoanalysis and aesthetics. It is commonly considered a form of Marxism, but is contemptuous of economic determinism preferring the concepts of alienation and rectification emphasized by the young Marx.
Critical theory is aimed at human emancipation from a dominant culture which produces habits and traditions of subservience to a ruling class. It refuses to associate human freedom with any specific institution or method, claiming the character of critical theory itself will alter as social change gives rise to new conditions and new challenges. It's supporters therefore reject of the traditional fact-value split in favor of 'the totality'. The totality is various interlocking movements such as the state and the economy which are important alone but also influence each other. Facts are not isolated depictions of reality, but are a historical product of a social action which can only becoming meaningful when placed with a value-laden context of the totality itself.
Critical theory has a number of recurring themes. I'll briefly summarize:
Alienation is the psychological effects of exploitation and the division of labor.
Reification is concerned with how people are treated instrumentally as things through concepts that have been ripped from their historical context.
Alienation and reification are thus analyzed in terms of how they imperiled the exercise of subjectivity, robbed the world of meaning and purpose and turned the individual into a cog in the machine. The nightmare was a bureaucratically administered mass society integrating all forms of resistance and obliterating genuine individuality through conformity. The effects of alienation and reification are thus understood as a philosophical and psychological problem and so require philosophical and psychological solutions.
The culture industry is the commercial marketing and production of culture designed for mass appeal for economic profit and passive consumption by homogenized audiences. This has the effect of replacing the intellectual stimulation of high art by standardizing experience and thereby rending everyday people more and more receptive to tradition and authority. The cultural industry is the progressive dumbing down of culture resulting in the closure of our minds to the realm of possibilities. It distracts us from taking steps towards our emancipation.
If alienation, rectification and the culture industry are closing our minds to the possibility of a better future, then critical theory must propose new forms of high art to elicit Utopian longing from the audience.
Critical theory is a blend of abstract and frequently obtuse aesthetic and psychoanalytic theory. But perhaps theory is too strong a word because critical theory refuses to articulate any particular method. We are not told for example how to evaluate truth claims, what distinguishes high art from the low art or what form resistance to the ruling class should take. They denounce metaphysics for ignoring the material world, yet in turn assert grandiose sounding phrase from Freud merged with Marx without even attempting to support their claims.
The critical theorist is an once fashionable but absurd art critic pontificating at length to a baffled but smitten audience. It's the high art equivalent of two old Irish men solving the worlds problems from a bar stool.
I will not be pursuing critical theory any further.