Adorno, Theodor Wiesengrund (1903–69)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD001-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved February 29, 2024, from

3. A genealogy of reason

It is modern scientific rationality, with its commitment to the primacy of method, analysis, subsumption, universality and logical systematicity, that Adorno believes is at the centre of the modern crisis of reason. He contends that knowing and its objects become deformed or distorted when reason is defined in terms radically independent of the objects to which it applies, where by ‘objects’ Adorno means not just objects known, but equally the sensory images of those objects, the articulation of those images in language, the entanglement of natural languages in social practices and the complex histories of those practices. Each of these items could be regarded as a systematic source of error (and in the course of the emergence of modern, enlightened rationality was so regarded), from sceptical worries about the deliverances of the senses to concern about collective prejudices sedimented in linguistic and social practice (see Descartes, R.; Bacon, F.). With respect to the theory of rationality, anxieties about these sources of error led to the view that reason must be fully autonomous, and not determined by anything external to it. It is this thought that underlies the primacy of method. In the theory of language, the same project is pursued in the attempt to eliminate opacity, indeterminacy and vagueness from the meaning of concepts; this is the project of positivism and the analytic tradition generally.

Dialectic of Enlightenment aims to provide a genealogy of enlightened rationality. Enlightenment opposes myth, the enchantment of the natural world through the projection onto it of human fears and hopes. The presumed superiority of reason over myth is hence its freedom from anthropomorphic projections; reason depicts the world objectively rather than through subjective projections. Horkheimer and Adorno contend that this flattering self-image of reason is both formally and substantively fallacious. Both myth and reason emerge in the course of humankind’s struggle to free itself from bondage to mythic powers (themselves projections of primordial fear of the natural world in which humankind was immersed) and to gain control over the natural world in order to satisfy human needs and desires. Both myth and reason employ the principle of immanence, the explanation of every event as the repetition of a given pattern or law (what Adorno elsewhere calls ‘identity thinking’), in order to combat fear of the natural world by bringing it into an explicable order. Repetition, ‘the new is the old’, originally provides for conceptual control over the natural world by revealing an intelligible order and eventually, through the technological application of modern science, for actual control over the natural world. Hence the formal features which provide for the supposed autonomy of enlightened reason are in fact grounded in the anthropogenesis of human reason in its struggle with nature. Enlightened reason is not objective, but subservient to the human desire to control nature; such reason can be construed as the discursive embodiment of the human drive for self-preservation, and hence as instrumental.

Citing this article:
Bernstein, J.M.. A genealogy of reason. Adorno, Theodor Wiesengrund (1903–69), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD001-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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