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CRITICAL THEORY AND STRUCTURALISM

What is the difference between critical theory and structuralism?

There is no clear distinction of practice that practitioners of both schools of thought would accept. Many structuralists denied being structuralists and some critical theorists were unaware of the term "critical theory." But from the standpoint of a reader, it may help to keep in mind that both structuralism and critical theory provide analyses of society that need not be accepted by the members of society being analyzed. The term "critical theory" is associated with the Frankfurt School, which developed the twentieth century version of scholarly Marxism. The term "structuralism" refers to a study of mental structures in society. Critical theory seeks to provide analyses that further progressive and egalitarian social goal, structuralism also uses critical theory. Although the members and followers of the Frankfurt School were not narrowly political, their Marxist legacy tended to point them in certain political directions. While structuralists might have shared certain goals with Marxian critical theorists, their subjects were other social institutions besides government. They also took up Freudian psychology and were instrumental in laying the foundations for a new focus on language and symbols as an important philosophical subject. In some quarters, given the successors or intellectual heirs of structuralism, language and the "symbolic order" became the only intellectual subject. That is, the structuralists paved the way for intellectual postmodernism, which is also known as "post-structuralism."

Critical Theorists

What was the Frankfurt School?

The Frankfurt School was the intellectual activity associated with the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. The Institute was made possible by a

The president of Italy visits Antonio Gramsci museum. Gramsci (whose photo is seen in the background on the right) came up with the idea that a society's dominant class defines the ideology of all classes within that society (AP).

The president of Italy visits Antonio Gramsci museum. Gramsci (whose photo is seen in the background on the right) came up with the idea that a society's dominant class defines the ideology of all classes within that society (AP).

gift from Felix Weil (1898-1975) in 1923, following the First Marxist Week, which was very well-received by intellectuals. The Institute was, in addition, funded by Frankfurt University and, during the Nazi period (1933-1944), Max Horkmeier (1895-1973) and Theodore Adorno (1903-1969) secured the support of Columbia University to set up its exiled version as The International Institute of Social Research in New York City.

The Institute in Frankfurt was reinstated after World War II ended in 1945. Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) and Erich Fromm (19001980), were also among its first generation of members. Jürgen Habermas (1923-) remains its most famous contemporary member. Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) had political interests that implied she had more in common with the Frankfurt School than any other movement, despite striking out on her own as an American philosopher after leaving Germany. Although not part of the Frankfurt School because he was imprisoned by the Italian fascist government in 1926, the Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) deserves mention in this context.

Who was Antonio Gramsci?

While Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) was in prison he worked out his version of Marxism, which was mainly a revolt against Karl Marx's (1818-1883) historical determinism. Gramsci's Prison Notebooks (compiled after his death, beginning in 1971) was edited for publication by Palmiro Togliatti, who succeeded him as leader of the Italian communists. According to Togliatti, education and persuasion were the paths to reform toward a classless society, rather than Bolshevism or direct political revolution.

Gramsci's most influential idea has been what Togliatti called Gramsci's "theory of hegemony," whereby the dominant class in society creates not only its own ideology, but also that of the classes dominated by it—all classes share the ideology of the dominant class. Hence, education and persuasion are important to change the social mass mind, so that political change can evolve. In this sense, it could be said that Gramsci was not only a member in spirit of the Frankfurt School, he was also a structuralist.

 
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