The idea of a critical theory has colonized the social consciousness of academia, and become an integral part of the pursuit of higher knowledge. Competing ideas have thereby become standard bearers in that critical theory acts as a measure of true understanding . The only problem, however, is that many of the distinct theories similarly answering to the description raise two related questions – namely, ‘what is a critical theory?’ and what is ‘critical’ about the ‘theory’ (or theories) in question? We explore the problematic connection between criteria and critique, and consider the critical theories of Derrida, Lyotard and Habermas via hermeneutics’s conception of the circular relation between thought and language. The approach is performative in that the competing critical theories are interpreted as parts that form a complex whole, and are understood (questioned) with respect to each other. We argue that the critical issue between them is a normative conception of our practical and/or linguistic identities . The methodological approach to the circle therefore serves a critical function in that it is performed (enabled and directed) through the very idea(s) in question.