Dialectic of Enlightenment  

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"[Juliette] demonizes Catholicism as the most-up-to-date mythology, and with it civilization as a whole […] her procedures are enlightened and efficient as she goes about her work of sacrilege […] She favours system and consequence."

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Dialectic of Enlightenment (Dialektik der Aufklärung) is a book of philosophy and social criticism written by Frankfurt School philosophers Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno and first published in 1944.

One of the core texts of Critical theory, it explains the socio-psychological status quo that had been responsible for what the Frankfurt School considered the failure of the Age of Enlightenment. Together with The Authoritarian Personality (1950; also co-authored by Adorno) and Frankfurt School member Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man (1964), it has had a major effect on 20th century philosophy, sociology, culture, and politics, inspiring especially the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s.

Contents

Historical context

One of the distinguishing characteristics of the new Critical Theory, as Adorno and Horkheimer tried to elaborate it in Dialectic of Enlightenment, is a certain ambivalence concerning the ultimate source or foundation of social domination, an ambivalence which gave rise to the “pessimism” of the new Critical Theory over the possibility of human emancipation and freedom. This ambivalence was rooted, of course, in the historical circumstances in which the work was originally produced, in particular, the rise of National Socialism, state capitalism, and mass culture as entirely new forms of social domination that could not be adequately explained within the terms of traditional Critical Theory.

For Adorno and Horkheimer (relying on the economist Friedrich Pollock’s thesis on National Socialism), state intervention in the economy had effectively abolished the tension in capitalism between the "relations of production" and "material productive forces of society," a tension which, according to traditional Critical Theory, constituted the primary contradiction within capitalism. The market (as an "unconscious" mechanism for the distribution of goods) and private property had been replaced by centralized planning and socialized ownership of the means of production.

Yet, contrary to Marx’s famous prediction in the Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, this shift did not lead to "an era of social revolution," but rather to fascism and totalitarianism. As such, traditional Critical Theory was left, in Jürgen Habermas’ words, without "anything in reserve to which it might appeal; and when the forces of production enter into a baneful symbiosis with the relations of production that they were supposed to blow wide open, there is no longer any dynamism upon which critique could base its hope." For Adorno and Horkheimer, this posed the problem of how to account for the apparent persistence of domination in the absence of the very contradiction that, according to traditional Critical Theory, was the source of domination itself.

Content summary

The work contains:

Themes

The problems, posed by the rise of fascism with the demise of the liberal state and the market (together with the failure of a social revolution to materialize in its wake), constitute the theoretical and historical perspective that frames the overall argument of the book – the two theses that “Myth is already enlightenment, and enlightenment reverts to mythology.” The history of human societies, as well as that of the formation of individual ego or self, is re-evaluated from the standpoint of what Horkheimer and Adorno perceived at the time as the ultimate outcome of this history: the collapse or “regression” of reason, with the rise of National Socialism, into something resembling the very forms of superstition and myth out of which reason had supposedly emerged as a result of historical progress or development.

To characterize this history, Horkheimer and Adorno draw on a wide variety of material, including the philosophical anthropology contained in Marx’s early writings, centered on the notion of “labor,” Nietzsche’s genealogy of morals (and the emergence of conscience through the renunciation of the will to power), Freud’s account in Totem and Taboo of the emergence of civilization and law in murder of the primordial father, ethnological research on magic and ritual in primitive societies, as well myth criticism, philology and literary analysis.

See also




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