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Futures of Critical Theory

reviewed by Gary Shank & Orlando Villella - 2004

coverTitle: Futures of Critical Theory
Author(s): Michael Peters, Mark Olssen & Colin Lankshear (Editors)
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham
ISBN: 074252860X, Pages: 304, Year: 2003
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The roadmap for this collection is laid out by the editors on page 16:


In this volume we explore the possibility and usefulness of enlarging the conventional use of the term ‘critical theory.’  We encompass what we consider to be work that is broadly critical in both a reflective and a reflexive manner belonging to tradition of Western thought starting with Descartes and Kant – rather than confining our scope to the founders of the Frankfurt school.


If you find this thesis clear and intriguing then you will find this book to be interesting and useful.  For the rest of us, an introduction or refresher would be most helpful prior to wading into the various articles in this work.  For our tastes, Geuss’s little book (Geuss, 1981) is still one of the clearest and most accessible introductions to Habermas and the thought of the Frankfurt school in general, and Wink (2000) is geared toward the educational professional who is a neophyte in all matters critical.  In other words, Futures of Critical Theory is not a work for the uninitiated.


Of course critical theory is too important a system of ideas to be ignored.  But is it a movement whose time has run its course?  The cartoon version of critical theory says its foundations were laid by Hegel and others in the 18th century, refined by Marx and others at the end of the 19th century, and systematized by the Frankfurt school in mid 20th century.  The key insight of the Frankfurt school is that ideologies are at the heart of all human actions and social systems.  More often than not, however, these ideologies are unexamined and operate in an “unconscious” manner.  The key to critical theory is the exposure of these ideological programs by raising them into conscious awareness, and then deciding if these ideological underpinnings really benefit those who hold them and perpetuate them.  Overarching critical perspectives, such as Marxist theory, Freudian psychoanalysis, and feminist thought are often used as the “tools” for uncovering and interpreting these various ideological perspectives.  If these ideologies are unhealthy and delusional, as they often are, then they need to be replaced. So critical theory is not just about finding things; it is focused on fixing things as well. Freire (1968/1983) is probably the best-known example of a critical theorist as a practical worker in education.


With its focus on the role of individual consciousness and the use of overarching perspectives and theories, the Frankfurt school stands among those recent modernist philosophical traditions that are essentialist and humanistic in nature.  This puts critical theory into direct contrast with one of the most important intellectual movements of the late 20th century – postmodernism in general, and “French theory” in particular.  Returning to the quote on page 16, we can now see that most of the enlarging and expanding of critical theory is targeted toward the work of theorists who have not necessarily stood in opposition to the Frankfurt school, but who have done their own work following different agendas.  


The biggest disappointment of this collection is the fact that the introductory chapter (purportedly written as a collaboration of all three editors but reading as a patchwork of some of their separate efforts) does not do a better job in laying out a clearer agenda for readers who are not well conversant in either critical theory or French thought of the late 20th century.  In a way, however, all this says is that this book is meant for readers who can enter the discussion as they find it.  For these more sophisticated readers, this book provides a wealth of ideas.  


As one might expect from a postmodern effort, its foci are all over the place. The editors point out that there are three distinct types of articles included.  The first set of articles deals with creating an historical understanding of major thinkers and how their ideas relate to the tasks that have been of traditional and current interest to critical theorists.  The most important historical figure is, of course, Nietzsche, and his ideas regarding the nature of the self and his turn from the sort of modernism that grounds the Frankfurt school are discussed in separate articles.  Other key historical thinkers who are discussed include Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Levinas.  Wittgenstein is examined in relation to both Nietzsche and Foucault, while Levinas’s ethical concerns are examined.  Heidegger is a critical postmodern icon of anti-essentialism, and these ideas are juxtaposed to recent critical concerns dealing with the changing roles and natures of technology in society.  While these applications of the ideas of these 20th century giants are fascinating, readers who are not as familiar with the works of these philosophers get very little in the way of basic grounding.  As before, these articles are not for the beginner.  It is also interesting that the editors did not seek out an historical thinker for the anti-humanist and structuralist material that was such an important point of departure for poststructural thought.  A discussion of Roland Barthes, for example, and his semiological take on popular culture (e.g., Barthes, 1957) would not have been out of place, for instance.


The second set of articles deals with thinkers who are less historical and more contemporary in their use. Foucault’s stance on critique is summarized in a very useful chapter.  Derrida and Deleuze are also examined as critical theorists, with Lyotard rounding off the cast of foundational thinkers.  More focused and more specific treatments are also given to the works of Bourdieu, Irigiray, Giddens, Said, Guattari, and Zizek.  In our opinion, these articles are best read as independent contributions.  There is a general sense that they address, as a body of work, some of the applications of the theorists in question from a critical theoretical perspective.  There is no effort, though, by the authors or the editors to synthesize these works into a broader and more expansive understanding of how these all somehow fit together to form a branch of critical theory that straddles the concerns of the Frankfurt school and the concerns of the Continental theorists as well.  Perhaps that is a work that needs to be written after exploratory works such as this book has been tackled.  


The final set of articles constitutes the closest attempt to forge a more comprehensive picture of an alternative critical theory.  Of particular interest is Cheah’s discussion of sexuality in relation to Irigiray, Braidiotti’s insightful analysis of cyberfeminism, and two different takes on globalization and anti-globalization by Scott and Peters. These and other topics already covered, including modernity, notions of the self, and technology, point to the aptness of a new and expanded type of critical theory.


In summary, here is the key issue at play:  critical theory, as understood by the Frankfurt school, is essentialist, humanist, structuralist, and modernist at heart.  “French thought” is anti-essentialist, anti-humanist, poststructural, and postmodern at heart.  Does it make sense to try to bring these two critical threads together under the general notion of “critical theory” or should they be left in some sort of leftist detente?  This collection of essays pursues the former path, often with interesting if uneven results. For the present, we believe that the editors have a point that the immediate future of critical theory may lay in a resolution between France and Frankfurt.  What is the future of this future, however?  Most likely it will exhibit an evolving dialogue between other voices.  In this future we see this polyvocality challenging dominant power structures, much as Freire did in his own way, to expand the discourse in such areas as queer theory, new forms of feminism, and evolving stages and franchising of capitalism and democracy.  It will remain for others either to build upon these efforts or let the project fade away.  But the present collection itself manages to navigate the tensions between broad and specific perspectives quite well, and for that reason alone it is worth the attention of those who are prepared to read it and follow its varying paths and threads.      




Barthes, R. (1957).  Mythologies.  NY:  Hill and Wang.


Freire, P. (1968/1983).  Pedagogy of the oppressed.  NY:  Continuum.


Geuss, R. (1981).  The idea of a critical theory: Habermas and the Frankfurt school.  Cambridge, UK:  Cambridge University Press.


Wink, J. (2000).  Critical pedagogy: notes from the real world (Second Edition).  NY: Addison Wesley Longman.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 5, 2004, p. 976-979
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11261, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 1:52:50 PM

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About the Author
  • Gary Shank
    Duquesne University
    E-mail Author
    GARY SHANK is an associate professor of Educational Research at Duquesne University. He has studied and written extensively in such areas as semiotic theory and its relation to education, and qualitative research methodology. He is the author of Qualitative Research: A Personal Skills Approach (2002) and the forthcoming Mastering Educational Research Literacy: From Consumer to Critic, both from Prentice Hall.
  • Orlando Villella
    Duquesne University
    ORLANDO VILLELLA is employed in the private sector and also teaches at Duquesne University. He studies and writes in the areas of narrative inquiry and community efficacy in its relation to educational reform and policy
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