UC Berkeley’s Program in Critical Theory

Critical Theory is often associated with the Frankfurt School, the term eventually coined to identify a core group of intellectuals working in and around the Institute for Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung), founded in 1923 and affiliated to this day (except for its exile during and in the immediate aftermath of the National Socialist regime) with the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University of Frankfurt. The Institute’s founders sought to develop new methodologies combining theoretical and empirical approaches to explore the unprecedented complexities, difficulties, and suffering engendered by modern, industrial-capitalist society and the often authoritarian political responses to it. With regard to Left responses to modernity, the Frankfurt School sought to develop alternatives to the determinist rigidities of orthodox versions of Marxian theory, whether Social Democratic or Leninist. As members of the Frankfurt School themselves often acknowledged, many of the fundamental concepts supporting critique had already emerged in recognizably modern form in the work of eighteenth and nineteenth-century figures like Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and others. In addition, twentieth-century contributions to critical thinking by Sigmund Freud, Max Weber, Georg Simmel, and Georg Lukács, among others, would prove crucial for the Frankfurt School. In light of this history and ongoing development of the idea of critique, UC Berkeley’s Designated Emphasis (“DE”) in Critical Theory offers courses on foundational nineteenth-century theories and discourses of critique; on the Frankfurt School; and on other modern and contemporary forms of critical theory, including  critical race theory, postcolonial theory, feminism, gender studies, queer theory,  critical legal theory, and modes of critique arising from structuralism and poststructuralism.

In general, critical theory is an effort to understand the social organization of economics, politics, culture and the arts—and, indeed, of everyday life—in order to establish the grounds from which existing social dispensations and their values can be grasped and questioned, and from which alternative social practices and formations can be projected. Critique is thus central to the democratic processes by which we assess a given sociopolitical formation’s legitimacy, viability, and efficacy. Critique also animates contemporary democratic notions of dissent, freedom of expression, and political participation, in which various values and norms are challenged, reformulated, and justified publicly through reflective analysis and open debate. Critique likewise helps us analyze, articulate, and contest the ways in which cultural, artistic, and aesthetic activities and institutions relate to the economic and political spheres. The Program in Critical Theory hence believes that though critique’s first influentially modern formulations may have emerged in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Europe, critique remains timely today.

The Critical Theory Program’s three core-course requirements are intended to establish an historical and normative framework for understanding critical theory in its current breadth. As noted above, the three courses (a) explore the concept of critique in German Idealism and Marxism (b) provide intensive exposure to the Frankfurt School and its legacies; and (c) robustly engage contemporary forms of critical theory, as well as to debates on social norms. In addition to the three core courses, the Critical Theory Program also requires DE students to take two electives. As with the core courses, various elective courses are offered each semester by Critical Theory faculty in Anthropology, Comparative Literature, Education, English, Ethnic Studies, Film and Media Studies, French, Gender and Women’s Studies, Geography, German, History, History of Art, Interdisciplinary Studies, Italian, Law, Music, Performance Studies, Philosophy, Political Science, Public Health, Rhetoric, Spanish and Portuguese, Sociology, and South and Southeast Asian Studies, among others.

The Designated Emphasis in Critical Theory now serves over 90 graduate students enrolled in established Ph.D. programs across the social sciences, arts, and humanities at UC Berkeley. (Please note: Critical Theory is not an independent degree-granting program. Students wishing to apply to the DE must already be enrolled in a UC Berkeley Ph.D program.) Students admitted to the DE who complete its requirements will receive a parenthetical notation to that effect on their doctoral degrees, stating that they have been certified as having obtained a Designated-Emphasis Specialization in Critical Theory. The Program in Critical Theory and its DE offers graduate fellowships, hosts international scholars, and presents lectures, seminars, and other events for faculty, graduate and undergraduate students, as well as interested members of the larger San Francisco Bay Area community. The Program also maintains important collaborative relations with other critical theory institutes and programs nationally and internationally.

Petitions for admission to the DE are accepted each spring for admission to the program the following fall. There are no more than 15 new students admitted each year. For information on admissions and programs, please contact critical_theory@berkeley.edu.