Horkheimer, Adorno, Habermas, and the Dialectic of Enlightenment


Horkheimer and Adorno's 'Dialectic of Enlightenment"

By: Jay 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  

Secondly, just as enlightenment is occupied with the fetish of mathematical quantification of all reality, the ancient world displayed the same type of attempt at domination of nature by magic. Though there are obvious differences between the two, magic sought at least to control and manipulate the natural world: “Magic, like science, is concerned with ends, but it pursues them through mimesis…”6 In fact, the solar, patriarchal myth was a type of enlightenment, seem in its historical context.7 Enlightenment’s attempt at classifying all events as cause and effect relations, which has developed into a sort of hard, materialistic determinism, also had its forerunner in mythological traditions. It was precisely the concept of fate that attempted to classify events as causal and somehow rational.

What is evident in these examples is man’s attempt to liberate himself from the perceived conflict between himself and the natural world; he is alienated from nature. In response, he seeks reconciliation through domination of nature. Domination, however, does not just occur in the realm of nature. It also occurs in the social realm. What develops out of this attempt to control nature, socially speaking, is patriarchy and hierarchy. The chief and heads will protect the tribe from outside forces, contingent upon submission to the headship of the hierarchy. Lastly, there is also domination in terms of the inner desires and urges of the individual. Man must repress his instincts and natural drives if he is to survive. Horkheimer and Adorno use Homer’s character Odysseus as the preeminent example of the emergence of the archetypal enlightened man, who must battle nature, suppress his desires, and return home to his position of patriarchal ruler.8

What has happened, then, in the modern, enlightened, monopolistic capitalist world, according to Horkheimer and Adorno, is that rationality is meaningless as an objective reality: the positivists have destroyed their own worldview through eliminating meaning itself. Monopolistic structures have emerged that attempt to move all things towards a generic standardization and unification, in which thought itself is seen as a mere technological tool, which in relation to the whole is irrational, only serving to appear rational in reifying the dominating structure (purposive rationality). Self-preservation is all that is salvaged from the old order; the system exists only to perpetuate itself. What has resulted, in Horkheimer and Adorno’s analysis, is a kind of Neitzschian power struggle. Thus, enlightenment dissolves the power it was supposed to give, and has turned “into an outright deception of the masses.”9

Their successor in the Frankfurt School, Jurgen Habermas, does not share their negative appraisal of the enlightenment tradition. Form the outset of his essay-lecture, “The Entwinement of Myth and Enlightenment: Horkheimer and Adorno,” Habermas sets the stage for the type of critical response he will offer; “On their [Horkheimer and Adorno] analysis, it is no longer possible to place hope in the liberating force of enlightenment. Inspired by Benjamin’s ironic hope of the hopeless, they still do not want to relinquish the now paradoxical labor of conceptualization.”10 In other words, Habermas will be giving an ideology critique of Critical Theory itself.

Habermas proceeds by first restating the central theses of Horkheimer and Adorno, summarizing The Dialectic of Enlightenment’s major arguments: the attempt at disenchanting the natural world and the collapse of metaphysics and normative standards, the rise of purely instrumental reason and the result-the reign of scientism.11

As mentioned, Habermas disagrees with Horkheimer and Adorno: he thinks they have gone too far and have themselves fell prey to critique, but before going into this, he lays out some preliminary disagreements. Habermas thinks the Dialectic of Enlightenment fails “to do justice to the rational content of cultural modernity that was captured in bourgeoise ideals (and also instrumentalized along with them).”12 Habermas means here the progress achieved by capitalism and self-reflective modern science, universalistic foundations of law and morality, and constitutional and democratic governments, along with avant-garde art.13 Thus, Habermas thinks Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique is “incomplete,” “one-sided,” and “oversimplified.”14

The pith of Habermas’ response lies in his brilliant turning of Critical Theory on its own head. Habermas explains that Critical Theory had as its goal the enlightenment of enlightenment about itself.15 Therefore, according to Habermas, “ideology critique fails to have anything in reserve to which it might appeal.”16 It is this fact that has rendered The Dialectic of Enlightenment the title “black.” Habermas writes:

Horkheimer and Adorno regard the foundations of ideology critique as shattered-and they would still like to hold on to the basic figure of the enlightenment. So what enlightenment has perpetuated on myth, they apply to the process of enlightenment as a whole. Inasmuch as it turns against reason as the foundation of its own validity, critique becomes total. How is the totalization and independence of critique to be understood?17


When critique becomes total, it must include itself, since critique is a product of enlightenment, since it’s a dialectic relationship. When critique becomes total, “reason itself becomes suspected of the baneful confusion of power and validity claims, but still with the intent of enlightening.”18

Habermas also thinks that Horkheimer and Adorno have not just borrowed the methodology of critique from Neitzsche. Habermas thinks they have sold enlightened modernity short, since they have followed Neitzsche in only perceiving everywhere a “binding of reason and domination, of power and validity.”19 Habermas outlines several point for point correspondencies with Neitzsche: principally in seeing art, the informed aesthetic judgment, as the sole organ of knowledge and hope of meaning.20 Habermas proceeds to give Neitzsche the same critical approach he gave Horkheimer and Adorno:

However, if thinking can no longer operate in the element of truth, or validity claims in general, contradiction and criticism lose their meaning. To contradict, to negate, now has only the sense of “wanting to be different.” Neitzsche cannot really be satisfied with this in his critique of culture. The latter is not supposed to be merely a form of agitation, but to demonstrate why it is false or incorrect or bad to recognize the sovereignty of the ideals of science and universalistic morality, which are inimical to life. But once all predicates concerning validity are devaluated, once it is power and not validity claims that are expressed in value appraisals-by what criterion shall critique still be able to discriminate between a power that deserves to be esteemed and one that deserves to be devaluated?21  Thus, Neitzsche himself, whom Horkheimer and Adorno rely heavily upon in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, is prey also to self-refutation by Critical Theory.

In response to this, Habermas thinks Horkheimer and Adorno have been “purists” in seeking for enlightenment ideals in too Platonic a fashion. He writes:  

But they know, or they can know, that this idealization is only necessary because convictions are formed and confirmed in a medium that is not “pure” and not removed from the world of appearances in the style of Platonic Ideas. Only a discourse that admits this might break the spell of mythic thinking without incurring the loss of the light radiating from the semantic potentials also preserved in myth.22


In other words, understanding the dialectical method, Horkheimer and Adorno should not have expected such immediate results, perhaps. They should have known that historical materialism and discourse must admit imperfection; the only way to overcome this is universal pragmatics.

In conclusion, while it must be admitted that Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno have given a brilliant and insightful criticism of enlightenment thinking and its modern products of positivism and scientism, Habermas’ response must also be taken into account, which in an equally brilliant fashion points out the critical flaw immanent in Critical Theory. In the final assessment, it seems that Habermas has shown the inconsistency of Critical Theory, and perhaps justifiably pointed dialectical thinking back in the direction of enlightenment.



Works Cited


Habermas, Jurgen. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures

(MIT Press: Cambridge, Mass, 1996).


Horkheimer, Max & Adorno, Theodor W. The Dialectic of Enlightenment

(Stanford University Press: Stanford, CA, 2002).


1Horkheimer, Max & Adorno, Theodor W. The Dialectic of Enlightenment (Stanford University Press: Stanford, CA, 2002), xviii.

2 Ibid., 1, xv.

3 Ibid., xviii.

4 Ibid., 4-5.

5 Ibid., 5.

6 Ibid., 7. It could be argued, though, that modern science also pursues ends through a type of mimesis. For example, Darwinist homologies between the human fetus and the human race appear to be very mimetic in their attempt to explain biological reality.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid., 26-27.

9 Ibid., 34.

10 Habermas, Jurgen. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures (MIT Press: Cambridge, Mass, 1996), 106.

11 Ibid., 111.

12 Ibid., 113.

13 Ibid., 113.

14 Ibid., 114.

15 Ibid., 118.

16 Ibid., 118.

17 Ibid., 119.

18 Ibid., 119.

19 Ibid., 121.

20 Ibid., 123.

21 Ibid., 125.

22 Ibid., 130.

8 Comments on Horkheimer, Adorno, Habermas, and the Dialectic of Enlightenment

  1. “For example, Darwinist homologies between the human fetus and the human race appear to be very mimetic in their attempt to explain biological reality.”

    Do you mean their claim that the fetus goes through the various stages of evolutionary development during its time in the womb? Mono-cellular, fish, amphibian, reptile, etc?

  2. Yes, I had seen a long Darwinist presentation prior to writing this a few years ago where the presenter was arguing that because there is a similarity in the look of foetuses, there must be a cross-species evolutionary transition. It’s a bad semiotic argument.


  3. Yeah, I remember a Philosophy Prof once mentioning that Carl Sagan champion this. Though she agreed with the theory, she pointed out that it’s a virtual repackaging of Anaximander’s contention that men originally grew out of fish (and or once inhabited the wombs of fish)
    Funny, just reading the Anaximander article reinforces much of the Enlightenment critique you discussed above. The wikipedia entry, follows the typical pattern of praising the pre-Socratics for being amongst the first people who tried to explain the universe without, gods or myths, as if their frequently highly-inaccurate speculations were some how less worthy of being called “myths,” simply because they were mechanistic & atheistic in character. The only reason it’s treated so is because it enforces today’s modern scientistic myths.

  4. Jay – hate to be a jerk and nitpick on such a tiny matter in one article within the overall context of your impressive work, but Nietzsche is misspelled throughout “Horkheimer, Adorno, Habermas, and the Dialectic of Enlightenment.” Seems like its only in this article. Nietzsche is spelled correctly in the keywords, though, so maybe it’s not worth the effort to change the article text – maybe you realize the typo already…

    BTW your contributions regarding, e.g. convergences of film, philosophy and esotericism have proven to me especially insightful and stimulating! Hope you don’t get tired of hearing that. Thank you!

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