Types of Critical Theories

What are Critical Theories?

In all of the major academic disciplines, established schools of thought exist. They’re called critical theories.

  • Critical theories provide a specific framework of perspective for interpreting texts, politics, religion, events, the natural world, human development and behavior -- whatever the subject of inquiry is.
  • Critical theories also provide a way to form insightful, meaningful conclusions based on a justified rationale.
  • Oftentimes, one critical theory contradicts or rejects another, and an insightful academic debate is born.

Aspects of Critical Theories:

Literary Criticism and Aesthetics

Literary criticism and theory has a long and varied past.

  • For centuries, scholars, thinkers, authors and readers have pondered fundamental questions about how, why and what we read.
  • In modern times, most literary criticisms and theories fall into the categories of aesthetics and politics.
  • Formalism, an example of aesthetic criticism, examines and critiques the inherent qualities of a literary text, while reducing or minimizing its historical, political or cultural contexts.
  • Similarly, New Criticism is a critical theory that explores literary texts as self-contained works that stand apart from any influences of the world, including its author.

Both formalism and New Criticism fall into the categories of aesthetics, as questions and answers about texts that stem from these schools of thought are more concerned with the literary or pleasurable qualities of a text rather than is influences and statements about society or culture.

The Cultural Work of Literary Criticism

Feminism, New Historicism and Psychoanalytic theory are examples of literary criticism that perform the cultural work of exposing and challenging ideologies contained within a text, focusing on the political implications that inform and are represented within a work.

  • Feminists take for their study the subjects of marginalization and minority cultures, while New Historicists look at a text in relation to its historical context and influences.
  • Psychoanalytic theory seeks to understand and critique literature and its implications about culture from a Freudian perspective, often examining literary content and its reflection of society or government as a symbolism of basic human motives.


In history, major critical theories abound. As literary theory is used to interpret and explain texts, scholars use historical theories to understand and critique historical events.

  • In ancient times, Greek scholars took materialist and philosophical approaches to understanding and preserving historical contexts.
  • Marxism and capitalism are two familiar political philosophies that also serve as critical theories for interpreting and analyzing past historical trends, as well as current events.

Rhetoric and Philosophy

Rhetoric and philosophy both seek to study and understand the nature of human thought and how those thoughts are conveyed.

  • The theories of Kenneth Burke underpin much of current rhetorical and philosophical discourse.
  • While his theories vary, Burke’s theories often examined the nature of language as a symbolic action that motivates thought and behavior.
  • Other major theories of rhetoric and philosophy include:
    • Realism, which regards absolute truth as independent of yet knowable to people
    • Relativism, which holds that reality and truth are manifold, dependent upon human influence and interpretation
    • Existentialism, which, as immortalized in the philosopher Descartes’ quote, “I think, therefore I am," maintains that people actively construct existence, truth and reality through thought
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