Critical theory

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S015-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 17, 2019, from

5. The dialectic of enlightenment

Horkheimer and Adorno held that the final framework for social criticism had to be a speculative philosophy of history. In The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) they set out to provide the global interpretation of human history they believe is necessary.

Human history is a dialectic of ‘enlightenment’ on the one hand and ‘myth/barbarism’ on the other. ‘Enlightenment’ as used by Adorno and Horkheimer means both: (1) a certain theory – that is a specification of goals for society, a set of views about individual morality, the nature of knowledge, rationality and so on; and (2) the actual state of society which results from the massive application of this theory. ‘Myth’ is the opposite of enlightenment in sense (1); ‘barbarism’ the opposite of enlightenment in sense (2).

Enlightenment as a theory comprises five central tenets.

  1. Commitment to certain ideals; autonomy, individuality, non-coercion, human happiness and so on.

  2. Commitment to the view that ‘genuine’ knowledge is knowledge that is (a) ‘objectifying’, based on a clear and strict separation between the human subject and nature (as object of knowledge); (b) ‘identifying’, subsuming individual instances (of whatever it is that is to be known) under unitary general concepts and thus presenting them as in some sense ‘the same’; (c) inherently technologically or instrumentally efficacious.

  3. Commitment to the view that an increase in genuine knowledge in a society would lead to a greater realization of the ideals of the Enlightenment (as formulated in 1 above).

  4. Commitment to a principle of universal criticism; that is nothing is to be taken on faith or authority or because of ’ tradition’ but every belief must show a warrant that will be recognized by the Tribunal of Reason.

  5. Commitment to seeing itself (that is, to seeing enlightenment) as absolutely different from and opposed to barbarism and myth.

Horkheimer and Adorno have a number of criticisms of this theoretical position. First of all they claim that item 5 is false. The enlightenment is wrong to see itself as utterly and radically different from myth. Rather the relation between myth and enlightenment is a ‘dialectical’ one. Both have a common origin as reactions to the same phenomenon: primeval terror. Human history in fact is nothing but a series of attempts to deal with our overwhelming fear of what is other or unknown. Myth arises from a mimetic reaction to this terror: by making ourselves like that which we fear, by identifying with it, we attempt to do away with its otherness, as primitive hunters might try to deal with their fear of a predator by mimicking its movements in a dance. Another way to react to fear of the unknown is by separating it strictly from the self and subjecting it to a system of identifying categories the better to keep track of it and perhaps eventually control it. This second reaction is that of enlightenment: a rigid fixation on self-preservation as the absolute overriding goal and an incipiently paranoid concern to classify everything so as to be able to subordinate it to the attainment of that goal. Looked at, then, from sufficient distance enlightenment and myth seem similar. Both are attempts to use a form of identity to deal with the angst induced by difference. The direction (as it were) of ‘identification’ runs, however, in the opposite direction in the two cases. In myth we make ourselves like the other; in enlightenment we try to make the other like our category (by subsuming it). Close inspection of myths moreover reveals them to be historically superseded forms of enlightenment. The pantheon of Olympian gods – archetype of mythic thinking in the West – is not just a creation of the mimetic impulse, but must also be seen as a form of enlightenment relative to the religious beliefs and practices associated with the nameless, chthonic deities of pre-Homeric Greece. What counts as myth and what as enlightenment is not given absolutely once and for all, but is historically relative.

Adorno and Horkheimer’s second criticism is that the enlightenment tends to overlook or downplay the price humanity has had to pay for enlightenment. The instrumentally manipulative attitude the enlightenment bids us adopt towards nature will necessarily tend to extend itself to our relations with our fellow humans. Furthermore, effective instrumental control of nature requires that I control and finally repress my own spontaneity. Spontaneity is, however, an essential part of a human’s capacity for happiness. Modern subjectivity itself is a result of this process of enlightenment, in which self-preservation is ensured at the cost of impairing our capacity for happiness.

The third line of criticism is that enlightenment has an inherent tendency to destroy itself. The original substantive ideals of the enlightenment (autonomy, individuality and so on) are not themselves exempt from the demands of the principle of universal criticism; that is, from the requirement of giving an account of themselves before the Tribunal of Reason. It becomes increasingly clear, however, that it is not possible to argue from the results of empirical science or from some more general principles of instrumental reason (that is, from some bit of what the enlightenment itself would consider ‘genuine knowledge’) to the validity of those ideals. In the end the ideals themselves come to look like myths or prejudices which ought to be discarded. The Marquis de Sade, a legitimate child of the enlightenment, finds no ‘rational’ arguments against cruelty (and much to be said in its favour).

Fourth, the history of the twentieth century has shown that the increase in technological control over the world and the spread of scientific knowledge does not in fact necessarily make people more autonomous, more highly individuated or more happy.

Their final criticism starts from the rigidity and paranoia of the enlightenment project, from its need to encompass everything in a single, definitive, closed system of concepts. This means that enlightenment is potentially totalitarian and has an inherent tendency to absolutize itself; that is, (falsely) to declare itself to be not just a given historically relative stage in the global process of enlightenment, but rather the final and definitive form of enlightenment. In thus absolutizing itself and resisting change, the given stage of enlightenment turns itself into a form of myth. This transformation is the final stage of the ‘dialectic of enlightenment’.

Despite this battery of criticisms Horkheimer and Adorno do not reject the enlightenment outright. Rather they see their task as one of furthering the underlying enlightenment project by enlightening the enlightenment about itself. By analysing its inherent tendency towards totalitarianism, they hope to save its ideals (even if only in negative form) and prevent it from turning itself into a form of myth and barbarism (see Totalitarianism §4).

Citing this article:
Geuss, Raymond. The dialectic of enlightenment. Critical theory, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S015-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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