June 3, 2011 3 Comments
Max Horkheimer and Theodore W. Adorno, key figures of the Frankfurt School of Marxist Critical Theory, wrote in their landmark work, “Dialectic of Enlightenment,” that “myth is already enlightenment, and enlightenment reverts to mythology.”1 By this, the authors mean that the historical progression of the enlightenment tradition has actually subverted its original intentions of, as Francis Bacon wrote, making man the sovereign of nature, and has actually produced the opposite: barbarity and domination of the social nature in fascism and Stalinism.2 In response to this, later Frankfurt School writer, Jurgen Habermas, responds to Horkheimer and Adorno with an interesting counter-critique. The purpose of this paper will be to examine Horkheimer and Adorno’s criticism of enlightenment and Habermas’ response.
The project that Horkeimer and Adorno engage in is correctly titled an “immanent critique”; called by Habermas “ideology critique.” This type of critique arises out of Kant and Hegel. In this approach, a system, or ideology is investigated internally to see whether its presuppositions are consistent with one another. If they are not, then the system is considered self-refuting. Thus, Horkheimer and Adorno make the case that the enlightenment tradition fails the test, and the inheritors of the enlightenment tradition, namely the Vienna Circle positivists and nominalists, are involved in promulgating a self-destructive, self-refuting ideology.3
Horkheimer and Adorno set forth their case in the essay, “The Concept of Enlightenment.” They hold that enlightenment thinking has displayed a couple major motifs: demythologizing the natural world through knowledge and control, dominating that demythologized nature through autonomous, instrumental reason. These motifs are inter-connected, and actually interact and affect one another in a dialectical fashion.
First, they argue that the enlightenment tradition has, from mankind’s beginning, been bound up with myth. A study of the social evolution of ancient societies demonstrates, according to Horkheimer and Adorno, myth actually arises as a response to mystery and the domination of man by the natural world. Thus, one can see in the earliest known human societies the mythological scheme actually produces a kind of classification, a seeking for origins, and reductionism, though not self-consciously. In other words, just like enlightenment, “myth seeks to explain.”4Enlightenment, however, since Bacon, Kant, Hume, and up to the positivists, has failed to recognize this dialectical relationship. Instead, For the Enlightenment, anything which cannot be resolved into numbers, and ultimately into one, is illusion; modern positivism consigns it to poetry. Unity remains the watchword from Parmenides to Russell. All gods and qualities must be destroyed.5