Enlightenment Rationality in Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment

Categories: The Enlightenment

In their Dialectic of Enlightenment Horkheimer and Adorno provide a reconstruction of the course of European civilization in which they attempt to demonstrate how Enlightenment rationality instead of fulfilling its promised emancipatory potential has collapsed into a mode of total domination. In order to show these regressive tendencies of Enlightenment reason, Horkheimer and Adorno give an analysis of the notion of ‘instrumental rationality’ by which they refer to the use of reason as an instrument for finding the most efficient means to self-preservation through the manipulation and control of both external as well as the inner nature.

As a consequence of this instrumental systematization of reason, Enlightenment is transformed from a liberating project of reason and truth to an apparatus of totalitarian domination in that it eventually destroys anything which cannot be categorized within its conceptual schemes. Through their analysis of the concept of instrumental reason Horkheimer and Adorno thus elucidate how behind the seemingly progressive development of Western society operates a largely hidden but continuing process of socio-cultural regression.

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Against this critique of Enlightenment rationality, Jürgen Habermas argues that Horkheimer and Adorno’s totalizing conception of reason as instrumental is self undermining for their critical project and does not sufficiently acknowledge the rational and emancipatory potential enshrined in cultural and social modernity. In a different vein, Axel Honneth argues that in their emphasis on the instrumental domination of nature Horkheimer and Adorno have seriously neglected the social domain, namely the interhuman struggle over identity, value and the distribution of social resources.

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Honneth further argues that Horkheimer and Adorno’s one-sided focus on the domination of nature inhibits them from explaining forms of domination grounded in consensually agreed on norms instead of instrumental control.

However, in contrast to Habermas I will argue in this essay that, rather than being rationally self-undermining in reducing reason to domination, Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique of Enlightenment rationality in their Dialectic of Enlightenment constitutes a productive framework for understanding the intertwinement of reason and domination in social life which opens up possibilities for a revitalization of the emancipatory potential of the project of the Enlightenment. Moreover, I will argue following Honneth that Horkheimer and Adorno do not sufficiently appreciate social configurations of power, but that the domination of nature is also socially mediated. In this essay I will first explain the core features of the critique of Enlightenment rationality as presented by Horkheimer and Adorno. Secondly, I will analyse Habermas’ critique of Horkheimer and Adorno as well as Honneth’s objections against their conceptual model of domination. Finally, I will argue that Habermas and Honneth’s objections do not invalidate the core of Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique of reason, since their analysis does not lead to a destabilization of reason but rather lays the preparatory groundwork for a positive concept of Enlightenment and its liberatory potential.

Horkheimer and Adorno provide in the initial chapter ‘The Concept of Enlightenment’ of their Dialectic of Enlightenment the theoretical framework for their critique of enlightenment reason. They begin their argument by claiming that pre-historic humans initially developed forms of behavior directed at imitating nature in order to alleviate their fear in the face of unknown and potentially threatening circumstances. This passive defense was, however, subsequently replaced by their attempt to actively control and master the natural environment. Based on their past experience they were able to discern lawful regularities in nature that enabled them to intervene in natural processes. Humans thus came to structure the natural environment in the mold of their own conceptual schemas as a means to further their own self-preservation. By classifying the variety of natural phenomena under rigid, exceptionless universal laws the immeasurable diversity of nature became reduced to those features that have functional reproducibility from the perspective of active manipulation and control. In this manner the natural environment became objectified with the purpose of increasing human domination: “Men pay for the increase in their power with alienation from that over which they exercise their power. Enlightenment behaves toward things as a dictator toward men. He knows them in so far as he can manipulate them” (Horkheimer and Adorno 27).

Since the human subject involved in the domination of nature only recognizes those aspects of natural phenomena that can be categorized in a conceptual scheme of manipulation, he delimits his cognitive gaze to those features of the natural world which can be of service in the project of human domination. A further corollary to this process is that the enlightened subject also represses all those original instincts that cannot be of use in the objectification of the natural environment. In order to further the domination and control of external nature it is therefore necessary that the subject also controls his inner nature. The objectification of external nature thus necessitates that the enlightened subject eventually objectifies himself by acting in a way that is solely motivated by bare self-preservation while losing sight of the underlying goals that provide meaning to such self-preservation (Lawrence 32). The tragic irony is that the project of the domination of external nature thus leads to the annihilation of the subject because the subject needs to repress precisely those aspects of himself which constitute the very life goals which were supposed to be the motivating factors for self-preservation in the first place (Horkheimer and Adorno 43). Horkheimer and Adorno thus argue that the progressive process of the mastery of nature results in a retrogressive process in which humans become estranged from the goals of their own existence by becoming solely absorbed with self-preservation and thus become estranged from their own nature through their relentless instrumental domination of external nature. They thus conclude that enlightenment reason contains the potential of the regression to blind domination within itself and thereby highlight the entanglement of reason and domination in the history of Western civilization.

Contrary to Horkheimer and Adorno, Jürgen Habermas argues in his essay ‘The Entwinement of Myth and Enlightenment’ that Horkheimer and Adorno’s analysis of Enlightenment rationality fails to appreciate several rational characteristics of cultural modernity. Habermas claims in particular that Horkheimer and Adorno’s totalizing critique of reason does not do justice to (1) the emancipatory potential of self-reflective modern science in producing knowledge beyond that which is centered on mere technological utility, (2) the universal legal foundations of constitutional democracies enabling a measure of political freedom and (3) the illuminating and self-realizing effects of subjective aesthetic experiences (Habermas 111-113). Habermas further claims that Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique of enlightenment “holds out scarcely any prospect for an escape from the myth of purposive rationality that has turned into objective violence’ (Habermas 114). In order to demonstrate this point, Habermas provides an outline of the several phases of ideology critique. In the first phase ideology critique attempts to show that apparently pure rational theories about the world are in fact deeply contaminated by power relations. In the second phase, however, ideology critique itself loses its credibility in generating truth claims about the power contaminated nature of seemingly purely rational theories. Eventually this skepticism extends to the capacity of reason which leads to the paralysis of critical thought (Habermas 116) .

Habermas claims that Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique of enlightenment thought is an exemplification of this last phase in that they have seemingly provided a radical critique of enlightenment reason that is self-undermining in the sense that they have to presuppose the validity of the reason in order to be able to mount a totalized critique of that reason. Precisely because their critique of enlightenment reason seems to be so thorough as to be totalizing in the sense that every aspect of rationality comes under suspicion, they construct a form of critique that is independent of its own foundations and as such becomes self-undermining (Habermas 119). The core of Habermas’ critique is thus that Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique of enlightenment reason is self-referentially incoherent in the sense that their totalized self-critique of reason undercuts the possibility of critical reflection itself and thereby undercutting their very own critique of enlightenment reason. Furthermore, even as Nietzsche’s genealogy of morals can be seen as a critique that attacks the presuppositions of its own validity by exposing all truth claims as mere assertions of power, Habermas argues that Horkheimer and Adorno find themselves in essentially the same aporetic situation by mounting a critique against reason that relinquishes its own foundations that function as the possibility conditions of any form of rational critique. Although Horkheimer and Adorno attempt to ground their critique in the critical potential of mimesis, this will still not serve as a adequate solution since mimesis cannot be grasped in theoretical terms and can therefore not function as the foundation of critical reflection and theory (Hohendalh 12-13).

While Habermas thus argues that Horkheimer and Adorno have led critical theory into a blind alley due to their totalizing, self-contradictory critique of enlightenment reason by reducing the content of enlightenment rationality to mere power claims, it rather seems that they do not want to mount a totalizing critique of reason, but rather to clarify the complex paradox of how enlightenment reason is inextricably intertwined with assertions of power and forms of domination (Allen 17). Although Horkheimer and Adorno provide a conceptual analysis of the concept of enlightenment, they do not suggest that enlightenment reason necessarily and inevitably regresses into domination, but rather that it contains the potential for such regression. Their analysis is therefore better interpreted as an examination of the entanglement of enlightenment reason and forms of domination rather than the claim that there is a seamless equivalence between reason and domination. If Horkheimer and Adorno do not totally reduce enlightenment reason to power claims, then Habermas’ claim that they have mounted a self-contradictory critique of reason seems incorrect. While Habermas suggests that Horkheimer and Adorno have provided a too pessimistic evaluation of the history of enlightenment reason, it rather seems that Habermas has given a too bleak appraisal of Horkheimer and Adorno’s conception of enlightenment rationality and its critical potential.

Whereas Habermas accuses Horkheimer and Adorno of having provided a self-undermining critique of reason, Honneth argues that their conceptual model of the domination fails to appreciate the various ways in which established power relations are socially constructed. Honneth attempts to show that Horkheimer and Adorno’s account of social domination is the result of their restrictive conceptual framework of the domination of external nature. Since Horkheimer and Adorno consider social domination from the vantage point of their model of the domination of nature, they have to explain relations of social inequality according to this model. However, their model of the domination of nature in which an instrumentally acting subject exercises purposive-rational control over natural processes requires Horkheimer and Adorno to conceptualize oppressed members of society as unresisting subjects like passive natural processes. Due to this restrictive model of the domination of nature, Horkheimer and Adorno must conceive social domination as a one-sided relation in which the administrative apparatus holds sway over individuals by utilizing either force or manipulative rhetoric in order to condition them to assent to structural inequalities in a given society (Honneth 54).

Whereas Horkheimer and Adorno can explain forms of oppression that are the result of the aforementioned techniques of control, Honneth argues that by conceptualizing any form of social domination under the conceptual model of the instrumentally acting subject that exercises goal-oriented control over other subjects, Horkheimer and Adorno fail to consider how social consensus can support the status quo of relations of social inequality in certain socio-political constellations. Honneth points out that in the case of social domination as the result of agreement between members in a society, it is not physical force or manipulative rhetoric but rather the normative orientations of the oppressed members themselves that reinforces their domination by the elite members of society (Petherbridge 66).

Honneth further argues that due to their conceptual model of domination in the Dialectic of Enlightenment which pictures an instrumentally acting subject that holds control over passive natural processes, Horkheimer and Adorno are bound to conceive the subjugated and afflicted members of society as unresisting targets of the manipulative mechanisms of social domination. It thus seems that Horkheimer and Adorno’s reductionistic model pictures a fully administrated capitalist society immune to the possibility of any social protest. Moreover, since Horkheimer and Adorno seem overly focused on the processes of the capitalist market and economic needs, they fail to thoroughly consider other essential human needs that can be seen in the social struggles that many groups are engaged in which reveal a resistance to the wholly administered society (Honneth 55, 95-96). While Honneth perceptibly points out the social blind spot apparent in Horkheimer and Adorno’s model of social domination due to the fact that they overextend their framework of the domination of nature, it seems that the domination of nature also has important social components that Honneth does not directly address. Although the normative orientations inside a given society can cohere to form a social consensus which might perpetuate oppression and relations of social inequality, it seems also the case that such social consensus concerning certain normative orientations concerning the natural world might have the potential to diminish the rich diversity of the natural world and devastate the environment by, for example, overusing resources in order to enrich certain segments of the population. In this case, social census has the potential to simultaneously diminish the natural world as well as oppressing certain social groups. In other words, the complex dynamics involved in social census has oppressive potentialities in relation to the both the natural environment as well as social groups or to oppress social groups through a certain use of the natural environment. Honneth’s critique can therefore be further extended by which it appears that both nature and social reality they mutually illuminate each other in the sense that any critical analysis that neglects to incorporate both is incomplete at best. Honneth’s critique further seems to essentially assume that Horkheimer and Adorno’s conceptual model of the domination is predicated on a negative philosophy of history. However, contrary to Honneth’s analysis it seems that Horkheimer and Adorno do not propagate a negative philosophy of history in that they do not claim that the socio-cultural regression of the decay of Western civilization due to the instrumental objectification by enlightenment reason is somehow an inevitable result of the negative directedness of history. Although Horkheimer and Adorno argue that enlightenment broadly conceived does indeed contain within itself a retrogressive tendency in the sense that reason is seen as being thoroughly embroiled with processes of domination, the specific outworking of this complex relationship between rationality and power can nevertheless be seen as a contingent historical phenomenon (Noppen 308). Horkheimer and Adorno thus lay the groundwork for a positive conception of enlightenment not by providing a solution to the paradox of enlightenment itself, but by illuminating the intricate relationship between reason and power they show how enlightenment rationality might avoid being entangled in blind domination. Rather than being an overly pessimistic critique of enlightenment reason, Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique takes serious cognizance of the fundamental relation of reason and domination and is therefore able to indirectly suggest a way to transcendent this entanglement and revitalize the socially emancipatory potentialities of enlightenment reason.


  1. Allen, Amy. “Reason, power and history: Re-reading the Dialectic of Enlightenment.” Thesis Eleven, Vol. 120, Issue 1 (2014): 10-25.
  2. Habermas, Jurgen. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures, trans. Frederick G. Lawrence. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987.
  3. Hohendahl, Peter U. ”The Dialectic of Enlightenment Revisited: Habermas’ Critique of the Frankfurt School.” New German Critique, Volume 35 (1985): 3-26.
    Honneth, Axel. The Critique of Power: Reflective Stages in a Critical Social Theory, trans. Kenneth Bayness. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991.
  4. Horkheimer, Max and Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.
  5. Lawrence, Nicholas R. R. How to Read Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. London: Pluto Press, 2015.
  6. Petherbridge, Danielle, ed. Axel Honneth: Critical Essays: With a Reply by Axel Honneth. Leiden: Brill, 2011.
    Noppen, Pierre-Francois. “Reflective Rationality and the Claim of Dialectic of Enlightenment.” European Journal of Philosophy, Volume 21, Issue 2 (2012): 1-28.

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Enlightenment Rationality in Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment. (2021, Oct 11). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/enlightenment-rationality-in-horkheimer-and-adorno-s-dialectic-of-enlightenment-essay

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