Dialectic Of Enlightenment by Theodor Adorno & Max Horkheimer, “The Concept Of Enlightenment”

[E]nlightenment is totalitarian as only a system can be. Its untruth does not lie in the analytical method, the reduction to elements, the decomposition through which reflection, as its Romantic enemies had maintained from the first, but in its assumption that the trial is prejudged. When in mathematics the unknown becomes the unknown quantity in an equation, it is mad into something long familiar before any value has been assigned. Nature, before and after quantum theory, is what can be registered mathematically: even what cannot be assimilated, the insoluble and irrational, is fenced in the mathematical theorems. In the preemptive identification of he thoroughly mathematized world with truth, enlightenment believes itself safe from the return of the mythical. It equates thought with mathematics. The latter is thereby cut loose, as it were, turned into an absolute authority. – Adorno & Horkheimer, “The Concept Of Enlightenment”, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p.18

Max Horkheimer is on the left, Theodor Adorno on the right.

In 1922, Karl Barth published the (massively) revised Second Edition of his Epistle To The Romans. Even more clear and to the point than the original, 1919 first edition, Barth took aim at those targets he believed had been part and parcel of Protestant Europe’s complicity in the destruction of the First World War. In this book, often cited without actually being read, Barth did the very thing his Seminary teachers had insisted was impossible – he presented St. Paul’s letter to the Roman Church as a contemporaneous document, the audience being European Protestants struggling to understand what has happened to a civilization both sacred and secular thought had declared above the barbarisms of the past. He didn’t engage in the kind of historical criticism that had been the norm for nearly a century in German-influenced Scripture study. He did not treat the epistle with the proper respect due an historical document; rather, by doing, he through down a gauntlet to the liberal theological establishment in the German-speaking and -influenced world, declaring both their too-clever-by-half assumption of supremacy and their much-vaunted intellectualism as having utterly failed to control Europe’s decent into mass death.

The explosion this book set off, making of Barth – at the time a parish minister in Switzerland, known mostly as a supporter both of Christian Socialism as well as active in his support for local unions – something of both a theological celebrity and pariah. His great teacher, the single most learned church historian ever, Adolf von Harnack, was scathing in his dismissal of his former student’s work. In response, Barth noted that von Harnack had written the infamous “apologia” speech Kaiser Wilhelm II had given, defending Germany’s declaration of war, and thus was a main target of Barth’s polemics.

Love him or hate him, Karl Barth was among the first to understand that, as a cultural force in western life, the Enlightenment had created its very own end precisely by its inability to protect the west from its own worst inclinations. Barth knew well, while never articulating very clearly, that the Enlightenment was like Goya’s painting of Saturn devouring his own children. Rather than something liberating, it was a horror that led to its own inevitable destruction.

A generation later, living in exile in the United States, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno surveyed the barbarism that, at the moment they began working (1943) held the continent of Europe in its grip, and understood the Enlightenment, the cultural reflection of the age of bourgeois dominance in the economy, as having become precisely what its forerunners (they focus on Francis Bacon) had declared it was a liberation from: an age of myth and repression. To the rising bourgeoisie, Enlightenment thought was the cultural reflection of the emerging capitalist economy – an opportunity to free oneself from the shackles of slavery to nature and its cultural reflections in the magical thinking of religion. Now, in the middle of the 20th century, it was clear that the Enlightenment cultural project had come full circle, creating both the final expression of capitalist domination (fascism) with the tools of Enlightenment thought brought in as bulwarks against the new barbarians who would both destroy the west as well as the possibility of thought as an escape from the terror.

In the years since it was first published in 1943, Dialectic of Enlightenment has become one of those touchstones of 20th century thought. Like many such works, it is often mentioned without having been read. Because it is neither easy nor light reading (contemporaries made fun of Martin Heidegger’s odd, often impenetrable, writing style without noting that Adorno and Horkheimer had produced a book almost as unreadable), it is often misrepresented as both more and less than it was. I don’t believe the authors envisioned it as much more than a timely bit of philosophical reflection; the subtitle of the whole work is Philosophical Fragments, after all. Trying to make the essays within as something programmatic, I think, misses the simple point that the authors were answering for themselves the fairly simple question many had been asking since the rise of the Nazi’s: How did this happen? How did the most intellectually and culturally gifted people in western Europe sink into a kind of demonic barbarism from which there would be no escape except utter destruction?

Adorno and Horkheimer are associated with the so-called “Frankfurt School”, but I think even as a name with meaning anything more than the physical location of radical post-World War II thought it really doesn’t hold much weight. Both Adorno and Horkheimer were Marxists, although as Georg Lukacs noted, they were very strange Marxists. Far more interested in culture and its products than class conflict, Adorno in particular took aim less as capitalist society and more at the culture it produced, a culture as violent and barbaric as was the society it reflected.

For Horkheimer and Adorno, it was Bacon’s equation of knowledge as the power of domination and control over nature that is key to understanding how the end result of the Enlightenment project, much like the capitalist society of which it was both a product and defender, had resulted in the kinds of violence and a descent into barbaric primitivism it promised to rescue us. As the authors note several times through the essay, for Bacon the kind of deductive thought Bacon envisaged was a liberation from the control over knowledge that resided at the time as the purview of kings and priests. Because he naively expressed the hope that such knowledge would be available to all, there certainly seemed to be a liberating quality to Bacon’s project.

It was the introduction of power, however, as part of the larger project that subsumed the Enlightenment under the control of the rising capitalist class. Precisely because the bourgeoisie sought to control the growing proletariat, the kind of power Bacon presented as freeing became just another instrument in a long age of increasing instrumental control, both of humanity over nature as well as human control over other human beings. In so doing, they argue, the Enlightenment project had replaced the alleged arbitrariness of ancient power and control through the reification of nature with a priestly class who alone possessed the means for its control and propitiation with the very non-arbitrary power of the machine, of instrumental reason, with the bourgeoisie the possessors of the secrets of control and propitiation. Except what the bourgeoisie sought to control, the industrial workers. Such control was complete and absolute, rendering even thought subservient to the instrumentality of the factory.

Like Plato, contemporary rulers were distrustful of poets and artists, those who sought to express knowledge outside the limits imposed by capitalist means of production. As long as art laid no claim to knowledge, but only isolated aesthetic enjoyment, it was acceptable. Nevertheless, art in all its forms, with poetry at the top of the list precisely because of the danger inherent in poetry undermining the totalitarian logic of the factory and marketplace, were always suspect.

As was true in much of Adorno’s work, the dialectic presented creates a barrier both to clarity of expression as well as precision of understanding. Until one understands that this dialectic, which Adorno was always pushing to the extremes in order to demonstrate the extremity of culture under industrial capitalism, is part and parcel of the larger cultural critique underway, much of the work can seem nearly impossible to understand.

Humans believe themselves free of fear when there is no longer anything unknown. This has determined the path of demythologization, of enlightenment, which equates the living with the nonliving as myth had equated the nonliving with the living. Enlightenment is mythical fear radicalized. The pure immanence of positivism, its ultimate product, is nothing other than a form of universal taboo. Nothing is allowed to remain outside, since the mere idea of the “outside” is the real source of fear. (p.11)

Or again:

Power confers increased cohesion and strength  on the social whole in which it is established. The division of labor, through which power manifests itself socially, serves the self-preservation of the dominated whole. But this necessarily turns the whole, as a whole, and the operation of its immanent reason, into a means of enforcing the particular interest. Power confronts the individual as the universal, as the reason which informs reality. The power of all the members of society, to whom as individuals no other way is open, is constantly summated, through the division of labor imposed on them, in the realization of the whole, whose rationality is thereby multiplied over again. What is done to all by the few always takes the form of the subduing of individuals by the many: the oppression of society always bears the features of oppression by a collective. It is this unity of collectivity and power, and not the immediate social universal, solidarity, which is precipitated in intellectual forms. (p.17)

Precisely because Horkheimer and Adorno understood the processes of history as dialectical rather than linear, it was necessary to present that reality in all its confounding complexity. Once grasped, this method opens up their work, qua literary productboth as a substantive instantiation of the very reality under criticism as well as a kind of poetic protest to the blandness (and falseness) of capitalist Enlightenment and its emphasis upon logic and its rules, a logic that (the authors note in the first quote above) allows nothing outside itself any claim to truth or reality.

A major criticism of much the work of the Frankfurt School has beyond positing a totalitarian intellectual structure that accompanies the totalitarian industrial capitalist structure of which it is both reflection and defender. By refusing to exempt even their own work from the limitations late industrialism imposes upon both culture and thought, some argue, isn’t the very critique offered self-negating? Adorno in particular was prone to argue it wasn’t self-negating so much as limited in scope and of little use programmatically (thus did Lukacs deride their work as a kind of armchair Marxism, a faux-radicalism that sits in its comfortable chair overlooking the abyss around them and commenting with neither experience nor an offer for release upon the chaos around them). Theirs was descriptive rather than proscriptive in part because capitalism and the Enlightenment project offered little in the way of substantive alternatives to their increasingly violent and anti-intellectual demands for rigid conformity.

It has always fascinated me that European Protestant radicals understood the moral vacuum that the Enlightenment had become a generation before secular radicals presented it as the source of its own destruction. In part it was the very division of labor, expressed in the University in the division of the pursuit of knowledge that led to this gap. Barth took a look at the reality of European society destroying itself in the trenches on the one hand, and the grandiose promises of liberal Protestantism as a source of universal brotherhood and peace and knew that one or the other had to be wrong. Barth was, however, focused (at least at that time) on the ways the Enlightenment project in Protestantism had failed in the practice of the actual churches who had, like the socialists in the warring nations, foregone their solidarity for a fervent and suicidal nationalism.

Adorno and Horkheimer, exiles in the United States from the horrors of Nazi Germany, saw the triumph of German arms across Europe as the final expression both of industrial capitalism and Enlightenment. Because they were Marxists (unlike Barth who, while sympathetic to socialism was hardly a secular political radical), they missed the dissolution of the Enlightenment in the horrors of the First World War because they understood that war as capitalism by other means rather some self-destructive impulse embedded within capitalism itself. It took the nightmares of fascism and totalitarianism to make clear that capitalism was nothing more than a degenerate shadow of its former self, the Enlightenment nothing more than an apologia for mass death.

Because of the division of labor, and the disdain with which theology was held (and is still held) by the secular University, the self-destructiveness of the Enlightenment either was missed or dismissed (as it was by von Harnack and others) as a return to an anti-intellectualism that reveled in myth and mystery. Thus is post-modernism still derided by those last, desperate believers in the Enlightenment project as a going concern in western society. Even as industrial capitalism is replaced by the service economy (which includes as its highest embodiment a group once understood as leeches upon the body politic, the investment banker), there are those who insist the Enlightenment is our only hope of escape, with post-modernism being little more than the old myth and religion gussied up in fancy words and phrases.

We live in an age in which the critiques of capitalism, its religious expression in western Europe in liberal Protestantism and cultural expression in the Enlightenment, have borne themselves out. We continue to scramble in the dust, understanding that ours should not be the creation of any edifice that upholds a society continuing its bent toward self-destruction. I believe that, while a creation and creature of its historical moment, “The Concept of Enlightenment” can at the very least offer us the possibility of escaping the traps that still exist in a capitalist society gone senile.


Isaiah Berlin, “The Decline Of Utopian Ideas In The West”

Beginning as a literary historian and essayist, [Herder] maintained that values were not universal; every human society, every people, indeed every age and civilization, possesses its own unique ideals, standards, way of living and thought and action. There are no immutable, universal, eternal rules or criteria of judgement in terms of which different cultures and nations can be graded in some single order of excellence, which would place the French – if Voltaire was right – at the top of the ladder of human achievement and the Germans far below them in the twilight regions of religious obscurantism and within the narrow limits of provincialism and dim-witted rural existence. Ever society, every age, has its own cultural horizons. every nation has its own traditions, its own character, its own face. every nation has its own centre of moral gravity, which differs from that of every other: there and only there its happiness lies – in the development of its own national needs, its own unique character. – Isaiah Berlin, “The Decline Of Utopian Ideas In The West”, in Crooked Timber Of Humanity, p. 37


Thomas More's Utopia, a vision of the perfect society, which many found truly boring.

Thomas More’s Utopia, a vision of the perfect society, which many found truly boring.

One of the most creative and interesting, if relatively obscure, twentieth century Marxist thinkers is Ernst Bloch. While best known, at least in theological circles, for his massive The Principle Of Hope, his first major work was entitled The Spirit Of Utopia. Rather than denying the utopian roots of Marxist thought, Bloch embraced it, tracing lines from literary and philosophical utopias through Marxist thought to the promise these ideas held for declining bourgeois society. The Principle Of Hope is little more than an expansive extrapolation of this idea, offering the interesting idea that even our dreams, day and night variety, hold the key to revolutionary thought and praxis; that human culture has always been about expressing this desire for a human society both free and just. It would take a lifetime to delve through the depths and nuances of Bloch’s thought and writings, but he can certainly lay claim to being the foremost proponent of a kind of Utopian Communism despite Marx’s (and later Lenin’s) dismissal of such as unscientific.

Isaiah Berlin, on the other hand, wants us to take a look at Utopias through a slightly different set of lenses. Berlin highlights utopias from Plato’s Republic through those of the Renaissance, up to and including the systematic philosophical presentations of thinkers like Hegel and Marx. At the heart of all these notions sits three propositions:

The first proposition is this: to all genuine questions there can only be one correct answer, all the other answers being incorrect. . . .

The second assumption is that a method exists for the discovery of these correct answers. Whether any[one] knows or can, in fact, know it, is another question; but it must, at least in principle, be knowable, provided that the right procedure for establishing it is used.

The third assumption, and perhaps the most important in this context, is that all the correct answers must, at the very least, be compatible with one another.(p.24)

From these seemingly self-evident logical truths spring centuries of western speculation about what a truly just society would look like. With the success of a revised scientific method in the 17th century, it became clear, particularly to the French philosophes that such techniques should be applied to human social life. Once human nature was scientifically understood, constructing the perfect human society would the, in principle, be achievable. For Berlin, however, the idea of an achievable utopia rests upon one more sinister, and logically inescapable, truth:

[T]he doctrine common to all [Utopian] views and movements is the notion that there exist universal truths, true for all [people], everywhere, at all times, and that these truths are expressed in universal rules, that natural law of the stoics and the medieval church and the jurists of the Renaissance, defiance of which alone leads to vice, misery, and chaos.{p.30)

If, in the words of our won Declaration of Independence, there exist “self-evident truths”, their rejection or denial is more than simple error. Something sinister is afoot, a desire for power for its own sake rather than the good of all persons. Equating truth with virtue, the denial of universal truths is the denial of universal human good. Rooted not in faulty reason but a vicious desire for the oppression of others, difference becomes error becomes a moral and legal threat to the very existence of the commonwealth, rooted as it is in universal, timeless, truths that extend to human nature. Such persons need more than simple correction: they need to be removed from society, by force if they do not accept the truths they deny.

Berlin continues:

[I]f the doctrine of the French Enlightenment – and indeed, the central western assumption, of which I have spoken, that all true values are immutable and timeless and universal – needs revising so drastically, then there is something radically wrong with the idea of a perfect society. The basic reason for this is not to be found among those which usually advanced against Utopian ideas – that such a society cannot be attained because [people] are not wise or skillful or virtuous enough, or cannot acquire the requisite degree of knowledge, or resolution, or, tainted as they are with original sin, cannot attain perfection in this life – but is altogether different. The idea of a single, perfect society of all [humanity] must be internally self-contradictory, because the Vlahalla of the Germans is necessarilyy different from the ideal of future life of the French . . . But if we are to have as many types of perfection as there are types of culture, each with its ideal constellation of virtues, then the very notion of the possibility of a single perfect society is logically incoherent.(p.40)

In these early decades of the 21st century, we continue to be assaulted – in ever expanding ways – with these conflicts, even within what are considered comfortably liberal, pluralistic societies in the west: Utopias of various religious, racial, ethnic, and nationalist stripes on the one hand, while the far more tentative, certainly less heroic vision of liberal pluralism insists that our human survival rests in no small part on accepting difference as just that, rather than error.

[I]f one believe [Utopian] doctrine to be an illusion, if only because some ultimate values may be incompatible with one another, and the very notion of an ideal world in which they are reconciled to be a conceptual . . . impracticability, then, perhaps, the best that on can do is to try to promote some kind of equilibrium, necessarily unstable, between the different aspirations of differing groups of human beings . . . But this is not, prima facie, a wildly exciting programme: a liberal sermon which recommends machinery designed to prevent people from doing each other too much harm, giving each human group sufficient room to realise its own idiosyncratic, unique, particular ends without too much interference with the ends of others, is not a passionate battle-cry to inspire [people] to sacrifice and martyrdom and heroic feats. (p.47)

If this essay sounds remarkably like the first, there’s good reason. The essays in this volume center on these ideas: the age-old search for a human polis without a source of social tension and conflict usually results in terrorist regimes from the ethnic cleansers through Stalinist terror to the nightmares of Kampuchea. While certainly less exciting, the promotion of the liberal virtues of pluralism (distinct from relativism), diversity, trading off social security for the greater social good of allowing others to live as they choose at least has the virtue of rarely resulting in masses of human beings being murdered. With Christian, Muslim, and Hindu fundamentalism morphing to Christian, Muslim, and Hindu terrorism against their religious foes; with even “moderate” Christian denominations like my own United Methodist continuing to hear demands for doctrinal orthodoxy as the final determinant of who can and cannot be called a Christian; with the shrill voices of American exceptionalism silencing the quiet mention that other folks like their own countries just fine and don’t need us sticking our overlarge, overarmed noses in to their lives; with all this, liberal pluralism might not be the call to arms some believe we need. It is, however, a good way to keep people and societies and countries alive and intact and relatively stable.

Social conflict and change, of course, will always exist. The means through which it is managed, however, need not be violent. Recognizing the full humanity and legitimacy of others different from ourselves is the beginning of the possibility of human survival.