Students pursuing the critical theory concentration will familiarize themselves with its theoretical and historical background and its current developments and multifaceted applications in various fields in the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.   

Historically, the term “Critical Theory” was first used by members of the Frankfurt School: a group of sociologists, cultural, and literary critics working in Germany between the two World Wars. Dissatisfied with the traditional divisions among the disciplines, particularly between the humanities, arts, and the social sciences, the Frankfurt School scholars argued that the critical study of society requires an approach that cuts across these disciplinary lines. Later, other scholars working along similar lines became incorporated into a more diversely delineated field called "critical theory" in acknowledgement of the pioneering Frankfurt School work.

Major figures in the history of Critical Theory include: the Frankfurt School theorists (e.g., Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer), Antonio Gramsci, French Literary and Critical Theory (e.g., Roland Barthes, George Bataille, Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault), Pierre Bourdieu, Erwin Panofsky, Jürgen Habermas, Edward Said, Slavoj Žižek, Giorgio Agamben, Judith Butler, and other thinkers working in fields such as postcolonial theory, feminism, gender studies, and race and ethnicity studies.   

Equally important, however, is its ‘pre-history’ or theoretical background, which is to be found in the tradition of continental philosophy—from early modern philosophy, German Idealism, and the Enlightenment to Phenomenology, Existentialism, and the philosophy of language—as well as in formalism, structuralism, psychoanalysis, and non-positivist social theories.