First Year Focus


Programs in critical theory offer an interrogation of the premises, concepts and categories that structure and sustain individuals and societies, and are also fundamental to both the humanities and the social sciences. Minoring in critical theory is galvanizing complement to the many majors offered at Northwestern.  It offers an ideal opportunity for the exchange of ideas between undergraduates, graduates and faculty with interlinked interests across Northwestern’s numerous departments, disciplines, programs and schools.  

Throughout its many traditions and applications, critical theory generally involves the attempt to better understand power, conflict and crisis, and to achieve change, emancipation, or distance from the beliefs, presuppositions, forces, forms, conventions, conditions, assemblages, and institutions of human life.  

In the eighteenth century, Kant’s writings offer an early, influential form of such criticism.  Kant promoted critique as offering us the means to transcend an immaturity that we have imposed upon ourselves by failing to examine the rational credentials of our beliefs and values — not, he suggested, because we lacked reason but rather  “resolution and courage to use it without direction from another.” Critical theory has sometimes turned back to even longer-standing traditions in philosophy associated with courageous questioning, and  “fearless speech.”  
In the nineteenth and early twentieth-century Marx, Nietzsche and Freud deepened the critical enterprise. They raised the possibility that many of our beliefs and values are manifestations of social and psychological dynamics of which individuals are quite unaware, and which may elude a rational grasp. They devised new modes of criticism like genealogy and psychoanalysis, venturing new understandings of ethics, politics and civilization. They have continued to inspire contemporary variants such as those associated with Michel Foucault, or deconstruction.  
The interest in the historical conditions of various intellectual and normative phenomena naturally extends to understanding the social conditions for critique itself.   

Critical theory therefore includes a long-standing attention to crises and social movements giving rise to critique. Originating in an idea that critical theory was the  “self-clarification of the struggles and the wishes of the age,” these strands of critical theory have sought to identify the conditions of domination, subordination, opposition, and conflict, and to project alternative forms of social organization, politics, or association.  
There is a rich and important diversity among critical theorists concerning the values on which critique might rely. This diversity is fundamental to its tradition of debate. For some contemporary critical theorists the justification of normative commitments is critical. This strand is associated with some prominent contemporary theorists in the Frankfurt school tradition, such as Jürgen Habermas and Rainer Forst, who return in new ways to forms of moral universalism. Others, among them Judith Butler and Gayatri Spivak,  have continued the lineage of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, adding perspectives available from plural traditions, such as those associated with postcolonial studies, with race studies, critical anthropology, with gender studies and queer theory, vulnerability studies or critical disability studies, for example. Critical theory is therefore associated with the range of heritages and resources available for debating the ideals of emancipatory projects, justice and ethics.  
Throughout the twentieth century its modes of criticism were refined in various ways and applied to every form of discourse and media, art, and aesthetics, the human sciences, science and technology. Challenges to its European perspectives, such as those offered by Enrique Dussel and Achille Mbembe, have been a part of ongoing critical theory traditions. Critical theory traditions have been important in Latin America and the global south, as in Europe. Its ongoing developments have continued to include humanistic traditions, and forms of inquiry challenging the central place of the human (examples of recently emerging disciplines have included critical animal studies and affect studies).   Critical theory has thus come to designate a wide-ranging and methodologically pluralistic approach to the various domains of — and challenges to —  human existence. It is a form of inquiry that is especially sensitive to the historicity and contingency of the concepts and values that structure life, community, knowledge, performance, representation, politics, art, technology, media and communication. 

Gateway Course:

CLS 207/PHIL 220:
Introduction to Critical Theory
Mark Alznauer

Introduction to Critical Theory provides students with an introduction to the revolutionary forms of philosophical, social, and literary criticism pioneered by Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. These thinkers treated human beliefs and values as manifestations of social or psychological dynamics of which individuals are largely unaware, and devised new forms of inquiry that were intended to bring these factors to light. For Marx, our ideological commitments were to be explained by reference to the function they play in capitalist society. For Nietzsche, our highest values need to be understood as attempts to rationalize psychological, and even physiological needs. For Freud, much of our psychic life was influenced by fears, wishes and desires that resist being brought to consciousness. All three thought that viewing human beliefs and values in this light had radical consequences for our understanding of history, humanity, society, and civilization. The course concludes with Max Weber, who represents the first great attempt to formulate a methodology for the human sciences that recognizes the potential power of these sorts of explanations, but without committing itself to the particular theories of mind, body, history and society that Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud advocated. This course is an ideal preparation for further courses in critical theory in literature, social and political theory, philosophy, and other areas—and also for possible participation in the Paris Program for Critical Theory.