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Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) [Paperback]

Stephen Eric Bronner
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

5 May 2011 Very Short Introductions
In its essence, Critical Theory is Western Marxist thought with the emphasis moved from the liberation of the working class to broader issues of individual agency. 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 famous and less famous representatives of the critical tradition (such as George Lukacs and Ernst Bloch, Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse and Jurgen Habermas) as well as many of its seminal texts and empirical investigations. Though they shared a Marxist bent, the Frankfurt School's scholars came from a variety of fields-philosophy, economics, psychoanalysis, and even music-and they initially sought not only to do interdisciplinary work but also to combine theory with practice, criticism with empirical data. Forced by the rise of Hitler to flee to the United States, by the late 1930s the Frankfurt School left behind the emphasis on empiricism, beginning instead to specialize in philosophical inquiry into the nature of social control, which combined the work of Hegel, Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche. This VSI is ultimately organized around 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 seeks to provide. ABOUT THE SERIES: The Very Short Introductions series from Oxford University Press contains hundreds of titles in almost every subject area. These pocket-sized books are the perfect way to get ahead in a new subject quickly. Our expert authors combine facts, analysis, perspective, new ideas, and enthusiasm to make interesting and challenging topics highly readable.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 144 pages
  • Publisher: OUP USA; 1ST edition (5 May 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199730075
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199730070
  • Product Dimensions: 17.4 x 11.6 x 0.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 127,598 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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"This is the only book of its kind: it's a readable, yet expertly crafted, tour through the Frankfurt School, along with a forceful account of why the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory still matters a decade into the new millennium. I can't recommend it highly enough." --Jeffrey T. Nealon, professor of English, Penn State University; co-editor of Rethinking the Frankfurt School"The book's forthright critique and call to transformation are a breath of fresh air."-- Joan Braune, Philosophy in Review

About the Author

Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Director for Global Relations, Centre for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights, Rutgers University; author, Reclaiming the Enlightenment: Toward a Politics of Radical Engagement (Columbia, 2004); Of Critical Theory and Its Theorists (Routledge 1994, pb 2002); co-editor, Critical Theory and Society: A Reader (Routledge, 1989).

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Customer Reviews

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not something for nothing 4 April 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Having read a little about critical theory in standard research texts I thought I had a basic handle on the subject; critical theory was about research that did more then merely found things out but instead it aimed to do something about the imbalances and injustices its research subjects were subjected to. Its purported Marxist approach aided in my superficial understanding. After reading this book I understand far less what critical theory is and am much wiser for it.

To be sure Bronner explains that 'critical theory was conceived within the intellectual crucible of Marxism' {p2}, but the extent to which Bronner illustrates that critical theory is an interdisciplinary enterprise rather than just a mash-up of Marxism no attempt on my part could do proper justice to. Bronner explains that the authors of critical theory were less concerned with economic / material concerns than the political and cultural superstructure of society. Indeed Capitalism was not primarily to be opposed because it exploited workers but because it reduced social relations to ones based on competition; the former being an oft cited misreading of Marx.

The picture of critical theory that emerges from Bronner is one that is conceived and exercised as a critique of {late} modernism's championing of scientific rationality and its subsuming of the individual. Horkheimer and Adorno's book 'Dialectic of Enlightenment' is given good airing and Bronner is forthright about showing up the book's failings. You are left though with a view that critical theory is a theory of and for yesterday - a theory that deals in the modernist era rather than the postmodernist.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Trying to be positive about the negative 27 July 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
In the 1920s a group of German Marxist academics attempted to critically engage with western intellectual thought. Like many intellectuals, they were influenced by the ideas around them - Nietzsche, Freud, Kafka, Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism - yet also wanted to go beyond a mere academic work to engage in a way that would help achieve genuine liberation of humanity from the oppression of capitalism and imperialism.

The rise of Hitler and the Nazis forced them to flee first to Geneva and then to the USA. Their experience of Nazism and the accounts of the Stalinist USSR led them to fear that the inheritance of the Enlightenment - that eighteenth century movement of human rights, civil liberties and freedom of thought - was tragically going to lead to totalitarianism - and they attempted to examine how a system of thought which valued freedom and liberty could result in misery and oppression. Their conclusions were that Enlightenment thought resulted in scientific ways of thinking which had no soul - no humanity - had lost the link between fact and value - and so trapped humanity in a machine. People became human resources, collateral damage, cogs in the machine - humanity became the slaves of a giant organisational state that chewed up the population and spat them out.

Their experience in the USA provided no comfort either. They saw the USA - mass consumer culture, mass production, the culture industry - as just another part of this loss of humanity in the jaws of modernity. Through writers such as Freud, Nietzsche, Beckett and Kafka they sought to find the dimensions of humanity that had been lost in capitalist society.

Increasingly they saw the traditional Marxist post-capitalist state as no alternative but just another example of this giant machine society.
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5.0 out of 5 stars thought provoking 2 Jan 2014
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really interesting and relevant content - balanced too addressing criticisms(!) of critical theory itself and examples f different strands of CT.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Helped me through my final year exams! 29 Nov 2013
By 9uyesxf
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If you're like me you get a massive amount out of reading about philosophical theories in a condensed form before going to the actual, original, full texts.

Kind of like erecting a skeleton or scaffolding before hanging the meat and sinew of the theories from that bare, but solid, framework

If that's how you learn best then you should profit from this little book.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.6 out of 5 stars  14 reviews
22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A crash course in political theory 9 Jun 2011
By John Powers - Published on
It is difficult to ask an academic to sum up a tradition, complete with the main theories and an introduction to its most seminal thinkers, in a little over 100 pages. It is an even more difficult task to take on the challenge of doing that for a tradition as complex and rich as Critical Theory. As a tradition Critical theory demands much of the reader- an understanding of the main themes and terminology in Marxist theory, Freudian Psychoanalysis, Weberian Social theory and an aptitude for intertwining each of these strands in an attempt to fabricate a greater social reality. Professor Bronner is extremely proficient at accomplishing this and making it digestible for even a critical theory novice. The language he uses, considering the complexity of the concepts vital to the tradition, is flowing and natural. It is clear that Professor Bronner has a unique control over the various concepts in critical theory. Furthermore, in keeping with the critical theory tradition, he maintains a historicity throughout by trying to capture the milieu in which these ideas came about. So far as I can tell, the purpose of these introductory books is to whet the palate of the reader and to push them to discover more of these traditions. Professor Bronner does this and more and I would recommend this to anybody who wanted to begin to approach society through a 'ruthless critique of everything existing'.
39 of 49 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but infantile. 11 July 2012
By simon matthew - Published on
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This short little volume is an interesting introduction to critical theory, a philosophic mode of analysis that began with with dissident Marxist theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in the 1930s and continues in the present day in the work of thinkers such as Jurgen Habermas. Critical theory is concerned with what has traditionally been known as the "super-structure" in Marxist theory, that is, the culture, institutions, political power structures, roles, rituals, and state formations that accompany the mode of production for the things we live on. Critical theorists seek to analyze this superstructure, often with the intention of analyzing ways in which it can be modified in liberating ways. This volume highlights the incredible diversity in the thought of prominent critical theorists, from the often conservative and elitist writings of Horkheimer, to the sexually libertine musing of Marcuse and their strong retort in the very mild Erich Fromm. Yet this introduction suffers from some very large failings, most prominent of which are the author's cheap digs at figures or institutions he considers insufficiently progressive; he refers to "Tea Baggers" and "Fox News" as if their irrationality need not be demonstrated, something I'm inclined actually to agree with but that is wholly inappropriate for an academic title. I'm no fan of the Glenn Beck, but for someone who touts the virtues of the Habermasian public sphere I think it entirely necessary to engage with the content of his concerns and those of his followers if any progress is to be made.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Short and yet thorough 6 Aug 2011
By Anand Commissiong - Published on
This little book does a wonderful job of concisely giving an intellectual history of critical theory and showing the many commitments it has. One reviewer here suggested that all critical theory seems to be about is alienation and oppression. Perhaps because I studied under Prof. Bronner, but it seems that, insofar as these two areas are of paramount importance for conceptions of justice, I'm not sure what else one could expect to take on in thinking about politics and social relations in the contemporary world. Moreover, these are huge concerns with complicated causes and difficult possible solutions. And the book does an excellent job of laying out the various understandings of the causes of alienation (which is the internal effect) and oppression (which is the external, systemic cause of alienation and suffering) under specifically capitalist, and more generally, modern political systems. In any event, since it sprang out of left or Marxist thought as well as historical-economic circumstances, contemporary critical theory took on a particular character and orientation toward these questions. The cirtical theory that developed in the Frankfurt School in Germany indelibly shaped the method of social analysis. It developed not so much against orthodox Marxism as it was an attempt to deal with the apparent shortcomings in the system that became clear as evidenced by the tenaciously strong influence liberal capitalism still exerted, and the highly problematic, anti-humanist tenor of fasicsm and Soviet-style communism that developed in response. Critical theory's insight was to attempt to show the fuller implications of Marxist thought, especially the ignored or neglected insights of the young Marx. This necessarily took the analysis into new areas of culture, psychoanalysis, and so on. As the title of this review suggests, this book does a thorough job of touching on all of these highly complex threads in a slender 144 pages.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars As Good as You Could Have Expected from a Book on Critical Theory 5 April 2011
By Dr. Bojan Tunguz - Published on
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"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.
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Read 13 Jun 2011
By Calliope - Published on
This is actually a really great read. I don't know what the negative reviews are about. I am familiar with critical theory but really had no prior knowledge. This book provides a good foundation to pursue the study of critical theory further. Although I didn't have much prior knowledge, I did know that the study critical theory is a challenging endeavor at any level. It requires a certain amount of effort on the part of the reader as well as the ability to present the material in an expertly engaged manner to an untrained audience without sacrificing content. This book does just that! I would recommend this book to anyone who interested in an introduction to critical theory. Taken seriously you will learn a lot about the critical tradition after you have read it.
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