Spring 2014

Marx and Critical Theory

Listed in: Philosophy, as PHIL-366


Daniel A. Koltonski (Section 01)


A "critical theory" has a distinctive aim: to unmask the ideology falsely justifying some form of social or economic oppression—to reveal it as ideology—and, in so doing, to contribute to the task of ending that oppression.  And so, a critical theory aims to provide a kind of enlightenment about social and economic life that is itself emancipatory: persons come to recognize the oppression they are suffering as oppression and are thereby partly freed from it.

Marx's critique of capitalist economic relations is arguably just this kind of critical theory.  As participants in a capitalist market economy, we fall into thinking of the economy in terms of private property rights, free exchange, the laws of supply and demand, etc., and, in so doing, we fall into thinking of capitalist economic relations as justified, as how things should be.  Marx argues that this way of thinking is nothing but ideology: it obscures, even from those persons who suffer them, the pervasive and destructive forms of alienation, powerlessness, and exploitation that, in Marx's view, define capitalist economic relations.  Any prospects for change, reform, or for Marx, revolution requires first that people come to see capitalism for what it is, for they must first see the ways in which they themselves are alienated, powerless and exploited before they can try to free themselves from it.  Later social theorists in what came to be called the Frankfurt School—Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, and Habermas—develop and refine this Marxian project of providing a critical theory of capitalist economic and social relations.  In particular, they argue that the forms of oppression distinctive of "late" capitalism are importantly different than the forms Marx found in the early capitalism of the Industrial Revolution, and so a critical theory about them must also be different.

Readings will be made up mostly of (somewhat difficult but very rich) primary sources, with some secondary readings to aid in the tasks of understanding and interpretation.

Requisite: One course in philosophy or consent of the instructor.  Limited to 25 students.  Spring semester. Visiting Professor Koltonski.

If Overenrolled: Allow everyone to register. Preference to majors, then by class and to those who attend first class.


2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2014