University of Essex
Department of Government 2006-7
Political Theory GV 908
Essay 1 Class Presentation.
Tutor: Dr. David Howarth
Student: Mujib Rahman Rahimi

The Dialectic of Enlightenment (the Concept of Enlightenment) by: Adorno and M. Horkheimer:
‘… The Enlightenment has always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty. Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.  The programme of the Enlightenment was the disenchantment of the world; the dissolution of myths and the substitution of knowledge for fancy. … What men want to learn from nature is how to use it in order wholly to dominate it and other men. That is the only aim. Ruthlessly, in despite of itself, the Enlightenment has extinguished any trace of its own self-consciousness. The only kind of thinking that is sufficiently hard to shatter myths is ultimately self-destruction.’ Adorno and M. Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment (p 3-4).

In discussing the idea of critical theory, mainly the school of Frankfurt, Horkheimer and Adorno in their book the ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment’, I briefly present a background of the term and how it was used. Then I focus on the school of Frankfurt and the emergence of Horkheimer as a leading figure in this School. I try to illustrate the different stages of Horkheimer’s thought evolution from 1931 to 1973. Finally, I present an overview of his concept of Enlightenment followed by a conclusion.

‘critical theory is a metaphor for a certain kind of theoretical orientation which owes its origin to Hegel and Marx, its systematization to Horkheimer and his associates at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, and its development to successors, particularly to the group led by Jurgarn Habermas’.[1]

‘Critical theory offers a distinctive approach to understanding the social and political life of modern societies… Critical theories are chiefly concerned with the evaluating the justice and happiness of societies’.[2]

If we ask very specifically, what critical theory means? Taking into consideration the optimism of the 19th Century that critical theory can change a society, one would say: ‘Critical theory is a tool of reason which, when properly located in a historical group, can transform the world’. (Kearny 2003: P.254)

The term critical theory has a general and specific use. Generally, it refers to critical element in the German philosophy which began with the critical approach of Kant and Hegel. More specifically it refers to the critical philosophy founded in Frankfurt.

Describing the later Ingram rightly points out that: ‘No introductory text can possibly do justice to the enormous complexity, subtlety, and diversity of critical theory, a sophisticated form of cultural criticism, combining Freudian and Marxist ideas, and a utopian brand of philosophical speculation deeply rooted in Jewish and German idealism.’ (Ingram 1990: P.1)

Philosophical Heritage of Critical Theory:
One can trace the back ground of critical theory in the time of Enlightenment, when with the development of science and technology, the problem emerged about the relationship of theory and practice and paved the way for the question, that ‘how dose one reconcile the idealistic and largely ethical heritage of philosophical reason with the materialistic heritage of scientific reason?’. (Ingram 1990: P.24)

The first one who tried to solve this contradiction was Kant (1724-1804), by critique of reason, and arguing that reason was not merely a passive faculty of analysis, but it also was an active faculty of synthesis. He argued that ‘transcendental reason is not wholly transcendent, it is of reality, including the mechanistic world of material objects’ (Ingram 1990: P.25). Hence, he created a gap between moral theory and daily practices of human beings.

Then, Hegel came to bridge the gab by integrating philosophy and history.  He argued that ‘reason was not a transcendent subjective faculty, but consisted of real objective institutions whose development had been propelled by contradictions inherent in the ideas embodied’ (Ingram 1990: P.25), he developed the ‘concept of moving object which, through the process of self-reflection, comes to know itself at ever higher level of consciousness.’ (Kearny 2003: P.254). In this way he was able to introduce a proper relation between theory and practice.

Then, Marx came with a new idea. He certainly got the idea from Hegel, but criticized him and introduced the radical idea of transformation of society in accordance with the emancipatory spirit of Enlightenment, which has been prevented, according to him, by capitalism, through revolution with the theory of class struggle and proletariat.

One can say that in the history of German philosophy there were two basic strains; one argued that, thought or reason is constitutive and the second believed that it has a transformative role.

Critical theory had allied itself with the second category, even though the first strain plays an important role in it. It focuses on the assumption that reflection is emancipatory rather than informatory.

Certainly, the heritage of these great thinkers and their work in the field of philosophy influenced the work of scholars who followed their path, especially the work of scholars in the Institute of Social Research at the University of Frankfurt.

School of Frankfurt and the Idea of Critical Theory:
Although, the idea of critical theory, could be traced back in the history of philosophy, particularly in the history of German philosophy, but the term critical theory owes its origin to the essay written by Max Horkheimer in 1937.

The Institute of Social Research at the University of Frankfurt was established in 1922 under the chairmanship of Karl Gruberg, a devoted professor of law and political science from the University of Vienna to teach Marxism as one of the main discipline at the institute.

In the year 1931 when Karl died, the young assistant of the institute Max Horkheimer was appointed as the head of the Institute. Although, he was not a devoted Marxist like his predecessor, but he was deeply influenced by Marxism and the labour movements in Germany.

During the 1930s, Theordor Adorno, Leo Lowenthal, Eric Fromm, Fredrich Pollach, Herbert Macusse, and Watler Benjamen were some of the most prominent members of the institute.

One could argue that the School was pro Marxist at the beginning of its establishment, even under the leadership of Horkheimer. However, it wroth mentioning that Horkheimer was trying to give and independent mark to the School. But after the rise of Fascism, Stalinization of Soviet Union and the failure of Marx prediction of revolution in the west after the interference of state in the economy and providing social welfare, especially when Horkheimer and Adorno were forced to leave Germany and go to Switzerland and then to USA, their believes and methods were significantly changed.

In this period under the influence of Max Weber and Freud ideas of instrumental reason and psychoanalysis, as Kearany puts it, ‘critical theory in the post 1937 period would be characterised by two essentially related perspectives, one which broadened its critique of modes of the rationality under the heading ‘critique of instrumental reason’ and the other which attempted a grand analysis of culture and civilization under the heading ‘dialectic of enlightenment’.

They were of the opinion that ‘a philosophically enlightened social science was possible. By the end of the Second World War their optimism had noticeably waned. Most distressing was their growing conviction that the rationalist heritage of the Enlightenment could not be realized and that tension between philosophy and science, morality and facticit could not be resolved. Moreover, they began to think that the cause for this failure extended beyond capitalism itself- to the very heart of rationality.’ (Ingram 1990: P.45)

The Concept of Enlightenment:
It was in their exile in southern California that Horkheimer and Aderno collaborated in writing the Dialectic of Enlightenment, which considered to be one of the most fascinating books of the modern age.

The English translation of this book starts with an introduction and contains the following chapters:

  1.          The Concept of Enlightenment.
  2.         Excursus I: Odysseus or Myth and Enlightenment
  3.          Excursus II: Juliette or Enlightenment and Morality
  4.          The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception
  5.          Elements of Anti-Semitism: Limits of Enlightenment
  6.          Notes and Drafts

In this brief essay I discuss the first chapter of this book, the concept of enlightenment, which deals with the emancipatory sprit of enlightenment, a period in the western philosophy distinguished by faith in reason and rejection of believe in revealed or institutional religion, for the freedom of human from myths, and the vigorously argument of Horkheimer and Adorno, regarding the failure of this mission and the instrumentality of the Enlightenment, which needs to be enlighten itself.

According to Horkheimer and Adorno, ‘the Enlightenment has always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty… the programme of the Enlightenment was the disenchantment of the world; the dissolution of myths and the substitution of knowledge for fancy.’ But, instated they point out pessimistically, that ‘mankind, instead of entering into a truly human condition, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism.’ Therefore, the main question they pose in the beginning of the book Dialectic of Enlightenment appears to be: Is enlightenment, the core subject of critical theory, self-destructive?

They believe, the answer is yes. According to them the very promise of human emancipation has become the main principle of domination; domination of nature and other humans. In their thesis they argue that in the modern world knowledge is power, because it seeks to dominate and used as an instrument to increase this domination.

The chapter begins with a review of Bacon’s idea of ‘Scientific Attitude or Experimental Philosophy’. According to Bacon: the relation of mind and nature is patriarchal, the human mind when frees from superstition or myths can get more control over the disenchanted nature. What man wants to learn form nature is how to deal with it in order to dominate it and other man. This is the only objective. Knowledge is power, it knows no obstacles in the enslavement of men or in compliance with the world rulers and the technology is the essence of this knowledge.

According to Horkheimer and Adorno, this is what the enlightenment has became; an instrument for control of man and nature. Instead of emancipating humans form myths, it has created new myths and controls over man. Here the term, dialectic used to ‘circle back upon itself in such a manner that its subject, enlightenment, both illuminates and destroys.’ (Kearny 2003: P.267)

According to this thesis, myth has transformed into enlightenment by the price of turning the nature into mere objectivity. The more power you get the more alienated you become from the nature. The modern science in this circle replaces the magic with its desire to control, thus ‘the principle of immanence, the explanation of every event as repetition that the enlightenment upholds against mythic imagination, is the principle of myth itself.’

They present the mathematization of nature and the pure positivistic approaches to science and nature, capitalist society, division of labour, mass culture and the combine force of media, bureaucracy, and economy on the modern individual to dominate him, as clear examples of this mislead enlightenment to enhance the enslavement of humans and create more misery and catastrophe to their world.

Aderno and Horkheimer, locate the origin of dialectic of enlightenment in the very dawn of civilization itself by referring to the first written text of western civilisation, those of Homer’s as it is associated with the rationality itself.

According to Aderno and Horkheimer, an ‘organ of this kind of adoptions, as a mere construction of means, the Enlightenment is as destructive as its romantic enemies accuse it of being… in the face of such a possibility, and in the service of the present age, enlightenment becomes wholesale deception of the masses.

The critical theory or School of Frankfurt considered as one of the most important schools of social philosophy in the modern world, which is identified by the very idea of critique.

The main concern of critical theory is to provide a better vision for future by criticising the present and exposing its negative aspects in relation to justice and happiness of mankind.

According to my understanding, the idea of instrumentality of reason for the purpose of domination and also the idea of transformation of myths to enlightenment are fascinating and persuasive in the Dialectic of Enlightenment.

What I would disagree with the mission of the book is the very pessimistic approach it has adopted in analysing the world.

[1]  . Kearny Richard, Continental Philosophy in the 20th Century, published by: Routledge, London and New York 2003. (P.254)
[2] . Ingram David, Critical Theory and Philosophy, published by Paragon House, USA 1990. (P. xix)

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