Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer – Dialectic of Enlightenment – Summary and Review
Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote "Dialectic of Enlightenment" following the atrocities of World War Two. In the introduction to "Dialectic of Enlightenment" Adorno and Horkheimer set forth their goal as an attempt to figure out why "humanity has sunk into a new kind of barbarism instead of shifting into a new state of the human condition". Adorno and Horkheimer saw Nazism and Fascism as phenomena that stems from the destructive dialectic of enlightenment which caused the west to be taken over by instrumental rationality. According to them, fascist totalitarianism is the most extreme conclusion of western enlightenment.
The dialectic of enlightenment is perceived by Adorno and Horkheimer not just in its historical context of the 18th century, but rather in the broad sense of the human attempt to enforce order and meaning on reality, to try and understand the world for the purpose of taking over it, an attempt driven by western rationality for centuries. They argue that by the rational conquest of nature man has attempt to quell his fears from it, but this attempt has led the dangerous developments. The fear driven violence directed by man towards nature has also led it to be directed towards other humans. The rational program of the enlightenment was an attempt to establish man as a differentiated and independent subject from nature. However, the main thesis of "Dialectic of Enlightenment" is that this program involved man taking over its own nature and the repression of urges, feelings, desires and so forth (note here the application of Freudian thinking to culture). Moving away from nature has thus led, according to Adorno and Horkheimer, to a state in which the principle of oppression has taken over all of human life. This oppression is manifested in the limits of human rationality which has become, as it were, "a one track mind" designed for the sole purpose of subduing and exploiting nature, humans included.
Adorno and Horkheimer establish much of their notions in "Dialectic of Enlightenment" on Max Weber's understanding of instrumental rationality. According to Weber instrumental rationality is the practice of matching means to ends which subjugates subjects to its own needs for the purpose of utilizing everything and anything. Instrumental rationally is opposed to objective and autonomous rationality, which is free and creative and is engaged with the examination of values and ascertaining goals. This type of rationality has been pushed aside by instrumental rationality which supposedly freed man from nature but in to process submerged him in growing violence.
In "Dialectic of Enlightenment" Adorno and Horkheimer argue that enlightenment motivations, already present in ancient societies trying to promote rational thought, have denounced any type of thinking which is not purposeful as primitive. This criterion of purposefulness has turned out to be destructive for it castes aside anything that didn't fall in line with this type of instrumental thinking. The rationality of the enlightenment regarded anything, people included, as an alienated objects to be used and controlled. This is true, according to Adorono and Horkheimer, for both the Nazi regime and capitalism. One of the main features of this violent rationality is the unifying principle which governs it, the one which sees all different things on the basis of a single principle. Rationally urges people to be the same and give up their own autonomous identity. The dialectic of enlightenment has led to growing conformity while erasing any heterogeneity in the name of a false identity which represses any contradiction and difference. This line of thought also makes men exchangeable, since they are all valued by the same instrumental logic, and this leads the for giving up "thou shall not kill" which is based on the singularity of each individual. The main argument posed by Adorno and Horkheimer in "Dialectic of Enlightenment" is that both Fascism and capitalism which see all human beings as numbers. One of the most notable concepts raised by Adorno and Horkheimer in "Dialectic of Enlightenment" is that of the "culture industry" and popular culture's role in subduing the masses.