Redeeming Reason: Domination and Reconciliation in Dialectic of Enlightenment




Because too much thinking, unwavering autonomy, makes conforming to the administered world difficult and causes suffering, countless people project this suffering, which is in fact socially dictated, onto reason as such. Reason is supposed to have brought suffering and disaster into the world. The dialectic of enlightenment, which must indeed name the price of progress, all the ruin wrought by rationality in the form of increasing domination of nature, is in a sense broken off too soon, according to the model of a state of being whose blind impenetrability seems to block any way out. Thus the fact is willfully, desperately ignored that the excess of rationality, which the educated classes complain about and which they register in concepts such as mechanization, atomization, and massification, is a lack of rationality, namely the extreme form of all calculable apparatuses and means of domination at the expense of the goal, a rational human order… Rather than either positing rationality as an absolute or rejecting it as an absolute, reason must attempt to determine rationality itself as a moment within the totality, a moment which has admittedly become independent of this totality. Reason must become aware of its own essential natural character.


The barbarities of the twentieth century have lead many thinkers to a paradoxical response: the puzzling inclination to blame reason for the ills of an irrational society. More puzzling still is the attempt to enlist the work of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in this indictment of reason. Their major text, Dialectic of Enlightenment,2 is commonly interpreted as a wholesale rejection of rationality, which is, on this reading, hopelessly compromised and complicit with barbarism. While this interpretation is most congenial to those latter-day anti-rationalists who would like to claim Horkheimer and Adorno as intellectual precursors to their own repudiation of the Enlightenment, it has been most widely broadcast by figures who wish to defend reason against Dialectic of Enlightenment’s supposedly overblown critique. The most thoroughgoing and influential version of this reading has been put forward by Jürgen Habermas, who accuses his former teachers of a “boundless skepticism toward reason” and of presenting a “totalizing self-critique of reason”.3 Following Habermas’ lead, much of the contemporary literature on the Frankfurt School shares this dim assessment of Dialectic of Enlightenment.4 The common denominator of all these (mis)readings is the following basic claim: Horkheimer and Adorno hold that humanity’s inescapable domination of nature inevitably corrupts reason as such and leads to social domination.

This claim, in my view, gets the book’s message backward. Dialectic of Enlightenment in fact traces the debasement of reason back to societal domination; the processes of corruption described in the book are socially determined and historically contingent rather than inherent in reason itself. Social domination and the concomitant attempt to dominate nature are, in other words, the origin of the “disease of reason”.5 This disease, often termed “instrumental reason”6, can be overcome by eliminating domination, which would open up the possibility for an alternative, substantive form of reason based on reconciliation with nature and social solidarity.

My essay will defend this counter-reading of Dialectic of Enlightenment and show that the authors fulfill their stated aim: “The accompanying critique of enlightenment is intended to prepare the way for a positive conception of enlightenment which will release it from entanglement in blind domination.” (DoE xvi)7 Three preliminary methodological points are in order. First, the kind of dialectical thinking which the Frankfurt School championed can at times appear paradoxical and hermetic, if not simply incomprehensible, to minds trained in an analytic, positivist and pragmatist tradition. Since my argument will highlight their dialectical approach, without being able to give a full-blown defense of it, I ask readers unfamiliar with this mode of thought to indulge their own speculative capacities more than they are perhaps used to. Second, one key to understanding a text as dense and complexly structured as Dialectic of Enlightenment is to recognize what is implicit in the argument and draw out its unstated assumptions. To do this I will rely heavily on related texts by the authors from the same period, as well as later writings by Adorno. This last choice is justified by the remarkable consistency in Adorno’s philosophical work throughout his career. Third, my reading of the book is polemically oriented against the prevailing view and thus one-sided to a certain extent (what Germans call a “dezidierte Interpretation,” a decided interpretation). I think this is a legitimate approach to a text which is flatly self-contradictory on several crucial questions and whose authors declare their own petitio principii (begging the question) in the book’s preface.8 The work’s original title, after all, was “Philosophische Fragmente” (Philosophical Fragments); it is in the spirit of the Frankfurt School to develop some of those fragments further toward a coherent, if partisan, exposition.9

I. Reason and Domination

The authors’ basic aim is a critical analysis of civilization in today’s phase of large scale industrial combines, manipulative control, technological advance and standardization. They look for the origins of the manifest crisis of modern culture in history and in the processes through which mankind established its rule over nature.

-from the prospectus for the original 1944 edition of Philosophische Fragmente10

The prevailing view of Dialectic of Enlightenment holds that Horkheimer and Adorno offered a “dehistoricized”11 account of the rise of instrumental reason, one which posits “an integral and irrevocable relationship between reason and domination”12—a determinist analysis that fails to “make room for historical contingency.”13 This supposed “equation of reason with domination”14 would seem to make dismantling the structures of domination and healing the disease of reason impossible: “the negative philosophy of history of Dialectic of Enlightenment had seemingly ruled out in advance the prospect of discovering fissures in the reigning continuum of domination that would be immanent and this-worldly”.15

These critics typically emphasize the “identity of domination and reason” posited at the end of the second excursus (DoE 119). Aside from failing to read this infamous phrase in its context, the critics forget that for dialectical thinkers no identity is static and eternal, but always contingent, created out of something alien and bound to evolve into yet another constellation through the working out of its own contradictions.16 “The dialectical entwinement of enlightenment and domination” (DoE 169) is the theme of the book, not some simple equation of the two. Whatever one may think of this dialectical scheme, it clearly serves as the very model of Horkheimer and Adorno’s analysis. One cannot hope to understand the book without at the very least entertaining it as a serious argument.

The key to unraveling this contingent identity of reason and domination is given in the sentence immediately preceding that notorious phrase at the end of the second excursus: the vision of a “humanity which has no more need to distort since it is no longer distorted itself.” (DoE119) While Horkheimer and Adorno identify this notion as a “utopia,” they plainly considered it a real possibility—and one that is, moreover, anchored in reason itself (Enlightenment’s anti-authoritarian tendency is linked to the “utopia in the concept of reason,” DoE 93; see also DoE 84: “the secret utopia in the concept of reason”). Adorno’s Philosophy of New Music, written contemporaneously with Dialectic of Enlightenment, concludes by pointing toward “a future society which no longer relies upon power in any way and has no need of it.”17 Even at the end of his career Adorno continued to speak quite positively of the “idea of complete freedom from domination,” of a “condition without domination,” treating this as a real possibility, and credited Dialectic of Enlightenment with rehabilitating this concept.18

Indeed, the book’s lead essay culminates in the assertion that knowledge “can now become the dissolution of domination.” (DoE 42) To be sure, Dialectic of Enlightenment offers precious little in the way of concrete indications of this “liberation of thought from domination” and “abolition of force and violence” (DoE 199), much less suggestions for how to achieve “a society that has done away with renunciation and domination” (DoE 56). This is, after all, an etiology of the disease of reason, not a proposed cure. The crucial point is that Horkheimer and Adorno believed in the possibility of a society freed of domination and viewed such a society as truly rational. This possibility, this hope, animates their entire critique of corrupted reason.

The radical political implications of this position are apparent: it approximates the anarchist vision of a world in which substantial power inequalities of whatever sort have been abolished.19 A fundamental hostility to power runs throughout the book, crystallizing in sections like “For Voltaire” (DoE 218-9). This political thrust is not lost on the book’s detractors, who often seem most disconcerted by Horkheimer and Adorno’s devastating critique of liberalism and ringing denunciations of bourgeois society. The dismissal of their argument as “pessimistic” (a curious charge to begin with; what would be unacceptable about a pessimistic analysis if it happened to be accurate?)20 conceals a deeper disagreement: it is Dialectic of Enlightenment’s insistence on the basic similarity of fascism and late capitalist liberal democracy (see, e.g., the first thesis on antisemitism) that makes their argument hard to swallow for many contemporary thinkers.21 While this radical stance may be unpalatable to those of a more moderate outlook, there is nothing “abstract” about it, much less “ahistorical” or “metaphysical”.22 It is a cogent, if uncomfortable, consequence of a quasi-anarchist theory of social power relations.23

The harsh assessment of social reality goes hand in hand with one of the work’s major, if rarely recognized, theoretical innovations: an analytical shift from exploitation to domination. In their more forthrightly Marxist phase during the 1930’s the Frankfurt School emphasized the primacy of economic exploitation and considered class the central category of social analysis. By the early 1940’s their critique of the social totality had broadened to cover many disparate forms of domination, moving beyond the economy and the narrow political realm to include the so-called private sphere as well as the heretofore unthematized phenomenon of Naturbeherrschung.24 This comprehensive critique of domination simultaneously opened up a broader vision of emancipation: a truly free society would not only need to overcome the exploitation of labor by capital, but myriad other instances of domination as well.25 One consequence was that emancipation seemed even further away than it had from within a traditional Marxist framework.26 This too has become an obstacle to comprehension of the book: in addition to presenting an unremittingly negative portrayal of current social reality, Dialectic of Enlightenment demands of the reader the ability to conceive of a world substantially freed of domination, and presumes the desire to see such a world realized.

But Horkheimer and Adorno did not offer an abstract image of a vague, all-pervasive domination. They distinguished three modes of domination: social domination, intrasubjective or internal domination, and domination of nature. The first designates domination over other people, the second domination of one’s self (or “internal nature”), and the third domination of external nature. Crucially, they saw all three modes as a totality, a dialectical unity of interlocking moments; to break open this false totality, overcoming just one of the three modes of domination would not be enough—all must be transcended, or none will be.

Horkheimer and Adorno develop this comprehensive critique of domination by way of a thoroughly materialist procedure. In reconstructing “the history of thought as an organ of domination” (DoE 117), they held material social analysis and the examination of forms of thought to be very tightly linked: “critique of society is critique of knowledge, and vice versa.”27 As Horkheimer put it in discussions with Adorno during the composition of Dialectic of Enlightenment, “to determine philosophical concepts is always simultaneously to describe human society in its historically given condition.”28 Adorno’s own formulation of this “self-critique of reason under the division of labor” was similar:

What I’ve got in mind is that one is confronted with the state of thought as codified in philosophy, and that through the self-critique of this thinking, which is simultaneously social critique, one is able to give, by working through this very thinking, an answer to the question of how theory is possible, but not simply through free-floating contemplation… If one asks the transcendental-logical categories to divulge their own meaning, then in truth it is not these formalisms that come forward, but rather the meaning of the categories themselves appears as the historical-societal reality. This method of discovery is in fact the way in which one can cure reason of its abstract absolutization.29

Such statements strongly indicate that their understanding of the debasement of reason was entirely historicized and unambiguously socially determined. How else is one to understand the repeated argument in Eclipse of Reason that the reduction of rationality to its instrumental aspect is the product of historically specific social forces? Consider these passages:

The complete transformation of the world into a world of means rather than of ends is itself the consequence of the historical development of the methods of production. (EoR 102)

…the whole logical order, the ranking of concepts according to priority and posteriority, inferiority and superiority, and the marking out of their respective domains and boundaries, mirror social relations and the division of labor. (EoR 106)

…man’s avidity to extend his power in two infinities, the microcosm and the universe, does not arise directly from his own nature, but from the structure of society. (EoR 108)

…the totalitarian attack of the human race on anything that it excludes from itself derives from interhuman relationships rather than from innate human qualities. (EoR 109)30

Clearly, the corruption of reason described here, which turns reason into a simultaneously domineering, imperial force and an instrumentally enfeebled vestige, is a contingent process arising from particular societal arrangements: those structured around domination. Although the text’s density makes it difficult to tease out this strand of argument, the same premises are at work in Dialectic of Enlightenment: “The universality of ideas as developed by discursive logic, domination in the conceptual sphere, arises on the foundation of domination in reality.” (DoE 14) Echoing Hegel’s dialectic of master and slave, the passage from which this quote is taken begins: “The distance between subject and object, the prerequisite of abstraction, is grounded in the distance from the thing itself which the master achieves by way of the slave.” (DoE 13) The figure of subject and object contains, for Horkheimer and Adorno, all three modes of domination—social, intrasubjective, and over nature.31 As such, their critique extends beyond the modern era to encompass all social formations which presuppose power inequalities, thus tracing the deformation of reason back to its ancient origins. But even when speculatively discussing anthropological antiquity, they make clear that these origins are social, not natural or inevitable: “Just as the first categories represent the organized tribe and its power over the individual, so the whole logical order, dependency, linking, expansion and consolidation of concepts, is grounded in the corresponding conditions of social reality, of the division of labor.” (DoE 21)

As this last term, division of labor, indicates, Horkheimer and Adorno had a fairly concrete sense of what sorts of social conditions gave rise to the disease of reason. In this they gave priority to the elementary structures of capitalism, which in their view did not first emerge in recent centuries but can be found in germinal form over several millennia of human history.32 While this analysis of capitalist structures is most evident in the Culture Industry chapter, it provides the critical thrust of the rest of the book as well. Although it is not widely acknowledged, a significant portion of the book’s basic terminology is borrowed from the critique of capitalist political economy: ‘exchange’, ‘division of labor’, ‘reification’, ‘class history’ appear in nearly every paragraph.33 The critique of capitalism as an aspect of the broader critique of domination is the very sinew of this dialectic.

The central role of capitalism in corrupting reason holds another key to understanding Dialectic of Enlightenment’s seemingly contradictory conception of reason: “The unleashed market economy was simultaneously the current form of reason and the power which ruined reason.” (DoE 90) But even here the priority of social factors is emphasized, rather than some innate property of reason itself: “With the development of the economic system…reason became unreason” (ibid.); and in the next paragraph we read, “Once it is harnessed to the dominant mode of production, the Enlightenment – which strives to undermine any order which has become repressive—abrogates itself.” (DoE 93) Thus it is hardly reason as such that locks in and reproduces domination, but rather “the anti-reason (Widervernunft) of totalitarian capitalism” (DoE 55)—a kind of rationality that is actually the antithesis of reason.

This, then, is Horkheimer and Adorno’s argument: a social order that is organized around the three-fold structure of domination turns reason into a monstrous caricature of itself. Since, as I have shown, the authors scarcely held domination to be humanity’s inescapable fate, this debasement of reason is neither necessary nor insurmountable: it can and must be resisted and reversed. And reason itself, in their view, offered the only resource for this resistance to debasement and domination, by reflecting on its own distorted condition. That is why Eclipse of Reason ends with the line, “denunciation of what is currently called reason is the greatest service reason can render.”34 Far from presenting a “static” or “deterministic”35 analysis, Dialectic of Enlightenment opens up the possibility of a dialectical overcoming of the disease of reason.36

II. From Domination to Reconciliation

Set against the dominant mode of reason, dialectical reason appears as unreason: only by convicting and transcending this mode can it become reasonable itself.


The most tenacious determinist readings of Dialectic of Enlightenment, as well as those which see the book as a totalized and thus self-defeating critique of reason, focus on the concept of Naturbeherrschung, the domination of nature. One recent commentary claims that “For Horkheimer and Adorno the treatment of others as objects…is the result not of any specific social formation but rather arises from the basic relationship between humankind and nature.”38 Another recent interpretation similarly concludes that Dialectic of Enlightenment’s supposedly fatalistic analysis grounds the corruption of reason in a “natural relationship.”39 But for Adorno and Horkheimer there is no such thing as a “natural relationship” that is not thoroughly social: “the concepts of nature and history were for Adorno not exclusive, but mutually determining: each provided the key for the demythification of the other.”40 As Horkheimer put it, “The history of man’s efforts to subjugate nature is also the history of man’s subjugation by man.” (EoR 105) It is, rather, a particular relationship to nature—namely one of domination—which lies at the origin of the disease of reason. That relationship itself is not only socially mediated but the product of a “specific social formation”. As Joseph Schmucker points out, almost in anticipation of fatalist interpretations of Dialectic of Enlightenment, “humanity’s struggle with nature – the domination of nature – has since the beginning of recorded history always taken place within the framework of a society already determined by domination.”41

I have already noted Habermas’ contention that Horkheimer and Adorno illegitimately extended the reification thesis beyond contemporary commodified social forms to humanity’s interaction with nature as a whole, and thus to our very existence as a species.42 Such claims assume that domination is the only possible mode of the human-nature relationship. Horkheimer and Adorno rejected this position. Paralleling their insistence on the primacy of historically specific forms of social domination, they held that a historically determined (not inevitable) form of interaction with nature was responsible for inaugurating and reinforcing reason’s debilitation. The linchpin of this initial process was the enlistment of reason in the service of self-preservation.

Self-preservation (Selbsterhaltung) plays a pivotal role in Dialectic of Enlightenment’s argument. Indeed, if one single text could be identified as the book’s direct ancestor, it would be Horkheimer’s 1942 essay “Vernunft und Selbsterhaltung” (Reason and Self-preservation)43, which lays out the basic historical dialectic that Dialectic of Enlightenment followed: in a heteronomous context, the emergence of subjectivity forces isolated individuals simultaneously to subjugate their own internal nature, subdue external nature, and compete with other individuals, in order to survive. “The awakening of the subject is bought at the price of the acknowledgement of power as the principle of all relationships.” (DoE 9) Reason is thereby reduced to a mere means of self-preservation and becomes purely instrumental: “the enthronement of means as the end, which in late capitalism takes on an openly insane character, is already perceptible in the prehistory of subjectivity.” (DoE 54; see also the first chapter of Eclipse of Reason, “Means and Ends”) This has catastrophic effects not only on the form and fabric of reason, not to mention the natural world, but also on the subject itself: “global domination over nature turns against the thinking subject himself” (DoE 26). “Men had to do terrible things to themselves before the self – the identical, purposive, masculine character of humankind – was formed, and something of that recurs in every childhood.” (DoE 33)44

It would be a mistake, however, to read this description of subjectivity’s entrapment in a self-destructive attempt at self-preservation as inherent in subjectivity as such, as an intrinsic aspect of human existence. Horkheimer and Adorno ground this dynamic in a manipulative approach to nature which springs from an oppressive social order: this view of nature (and of other people) is the “look which people…cast on their environment from within a society of oppression and misery.” (DoE 16) Undoubtedly a primordially hostile nature plays a role, but it is society which propels the pernicious dynamic: “Society extends the threat of nature as that continuing, organized compulsion which reproduces itself within individuals in the form of undeviating self-preservation and strikes back at nature as social domination over nature.” (DoE 181) The decisive factor, Horkheimer notes, is not “the motive of self-preservation,” but “the forms in which [production] takes place” (EoR 153).

Moreover, Horkheimer and Adorno explicitly offer an alternative to the destructive dialectic of Selbsterhaltung and Naturbeherrschung—an alternative grounded in reason itself: “through reason man frees himself of the fetters of nature. This liberation, however, does not entitle man to dominate nature (as the philosophers held) but to comprehend it … Reason could recognize and denounce the forms of injustice and thus emancipate itself from them.”45 Once again, overcoming domination holds the key to healing both reason and society. And how is this to be achieved? By replacing individual self-preservation with collective fraternity, or in Horkheimer’s words, through the “dialectical reversal of individual self-preservation into universal solidarity.”46 Indeed, he declares that the illusory attempt at individual self-preservation is, in the final analysis, self-defeating and doomed to fail: “self-preservation can be achieved only…through social solidarity.” (EoR 176) This may sound abstract, but its implications are profound: “Mutilated as men are, in the duration of a brief moment they can become aware that in the world which has been thoroughly rationalized they can dispense with the interests of self-preservation which still set them one against the other.”47 Nothing could be further from a determinist, totalized, or despairing critique of reason.

Social solidarity, then, can break the fateful linkage of reason and domination. Its correlate is reconciliation with nature. This must not take the form of regression to some imagined primal unity, but of a dialectical transcendence of Naturbeherrschung. William Leiss remarks that the Frankfurt School’s critique of instrumental rationality rests on the “contention that a relationship between man and nature different from the one which governed the course of modern social development is possible, a relationship which builds upon the positive features of this development, rather than rejecting it in the name of an illusory ‘return to nature’.”48 Adorno referred to this as the “reconciliation of mind and nature”, “a state that would no more be blind nature than it would be oppressed nature”, and considered this reconciliation a real possibility “which may someday come to be.”49

Dialectic of Enlightenment itself refers to this possibility as “reconciliation of civilization with nature” (DoE 114). Horkheimer and Adorno were famously reticent about delineating precisely what contours this reconciliation with nature might take; in keeping with their aversion to teleology, they abjured positive descriptions of redemption. Still, glimpses of what they had in mind are available:

Were speculation concerning the state of reconciliation allowed, then it would be impossible to conceive that state as either the undifferentiated unity of subject and object or their hostile antithesis: rather it would be the communication of what is differentiated. Only then would the concept of communication, as an objective concept, come into its own. The present concept is so shameful because it betrays what is best – the potential for agreement between human beings and things—to the idea of imparting information between subjects according to the exigencies of subjective reason. In its proper place, even epistemologically, the relationship of subject and object would lie in a peace achieved among human beings as well as between them and their Other. Peace is the state of differentiation without domination, in which the differentiated participate in each other.50

Here the motifs come together: the abolition of domination, the reconciliation of reason with its other, and of humanity with nature, while preserving their difference.51 The vehicle for this transformation must be reason itself, for reason contains the potential to integrate difference without abolishing it.52 Once reason has been disentangled from Naturbeherrschung, “the moment of reconciliation in thought (Geist)” will be able to emerge, “which does not exhaust itself in domination of nature, but breathes out once the spell of domination of nature has been broken”.53

Horkheimer and Adorno avoid making grand philosophical or world-historical claims for this possibility of reconciliation with nature. Pace Habermas, they do not envision it as the young Marx did, as “the true resurrection of nature, the consummate naturalism of humanity and the consummate humanism of nature.”54 All they claim as possible and necessary is a non-antagonistic relationship between human society and the natural world. This doesn’t mean recovering a lost ‘oneness with nature’; they had nothing but scorn for that idea (see “The Revolt of Nature” in EoR). It means, rather, “remembrance of nature”, the reintegration of the denigrated other into reason, which would realize Enlightenment’s heretofore suppressed negation of domination itself: “Through this remembrance of nature in the subject, in the fulfillment of which the unacknowledged truth of all culture lies hidden, enlightenment is opposed to domination as such.” (DoE 40).55

In reason’s fundamental orientation against domination, social solidarity and cooperation with nature are integrated. “Reason contains the idea of a free coexistence of all people” (DoE 83) which in turn implies a free coexistence with nature: “the utopia which proclaimed the reconciliation of nature with the self emerged…as the idea of the association of free people” (DoE 90-1). This non-dominating rationality, the “positive conception of Enlightenment” which the book points toward, is a reason affiliated to reconciliation, both within society and between society and nature.

But in its fully developed form, this positive conception is not yet within our grasp. To realize it, more than a neat theory of modern forms of rationality is required; what is needed is a fundamental transformation of the social context that determines reason’s substance. Adorno warns that under the existing order, a pure rationality, unscathed by the dialectic of Enlightenment, is an impossibility:

Negative philosophy, the universal solvent, constantly dissolves even itself. But the new form in which it claims to transcend and preserve both, solvent and dissolved, can never emerge in a pure state from an antagonistic society. As long as domination reproduces itself, the old quality reappears unrefined in the dissolving of the solvent: in a radical sense no leap is made at all. That leap could only be the liberating event.56

Reason, for Horkheimer and Adorno, is not divisible into separate spheres, such that one might be able to protect the communicative sphere from the corrupting effects of the instrumental sphere. It is, rather, a totality, and the only hope for redirecting the corrosive dialectic is to apply reason to itself: “The concept of progress is dialectical in a strictly unmetaphorical sense, in that its organon, reason, is One: a nature-dominating level and a reconciling level do not exist separate and disjunct within reason, rather both levels share all its determinations. The one moment can only dialectically reverse into the other by literally reflecting on itself, by reason applying reason to itself …”57

Acknowledging its own socially determined ambivalence, this sort of self-reflecting reason can open up the possibilities for transformative praxis: “The two concepts of reason do not represent two separate and independent ways of mind, although their opposition expresses a real antinomy. The task of philosophy is not stubbornly to play the one against the other, but to foster a mutual critique and thus, if possible, to prepare in the intellectual realm the reconciliation of the two in reality.” (EoR 174) Horkheimer and Adorno recognized that the “difficulties in the concept of reason” were due to the fact that in a society of generalized domination “its subjects, bearers of one and the same reason, stand in real contradictions to one another” (DoE 83). The two moments in reason struggle against one another, one allied with “conscious solidarity”, the other subordinated to “self-preservation” (ibid.).

Perhaps reason has always exhibited this Janus face. But it is a particular ensemble of social forms which has enshrined one moment and banished the other. Dialectic of Enlightenment rehabilitates the pole of “conscious solidarity” as the best hope for some day healing the disease of reason. The disease, in fact, has always carried its own antidote: “If the process of abstraction strikes all conceptualization with megalomania, it also harbors, in its distance from the object of action, in its reflection and transparency, the antidote: the self-critique of reason is its truest morality.”58

The book’s critics are beholden to a naive critical procedure which declares itself detached from its object, safely defined away in a separate realm. Such sterile theorizing will hardly be sufficient to break through the impasse which Dialectic of Enlightenment so trenchantly describes. True critique isn’t satisfied with polished surfaces; it insistently scratches up what lies beneath. “Adequate philosophical thought is not only critical of the status quo and its reified replica in consciousness but is equally critical of itself.”59

The demand for a secure grounding for the critique of reason which would not itself be subject to criticism betrays an impotent wish for a kind of theoretical purity which is not attainable in a thoroughly reified world. It represents a hopelessly formal and abstract response to a desperate social and intellectual situation—a situation which demands instead a substantive and determinate response, one that would also be fearlessly self-critical and mindful of its own limitations. Only a reason that is bold enough to confront its own debasement by critically reflecting on its conditions of existence, as well as modest enough to acknowledge its own boundaries by respecting the otherness of that which lies beyond it, only such a vigorous and sensitive reason will be adequate to the task of self-transcendence and immanent reconstruction which the current crisis of rationality demands. Of the many bases on which such a fundamental self-critique and regeneration of reason might be constructed, a reappraisal of Dialectic of Enlightenment must surely take a central place.

May 20, 1998


  1. Theodor W. Adorno, Critical Models, New York 1998, 137-8. Cf. Adorno, Stichworte, Frankfurt 1969, 22-3. Throughout this essay I have amended existing translations of German works.
  2. New York, 1972. References given as DoE followed by page number.
  3. Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, Cambridge, MA 1987, 129, 185. Even the title of Habermas’ chapter on Dialectic of Enlightenment—the paradigmatic example of a reading in which the dialectic is “broken off too soon”—is tendentious. Heinz Steinert remarks: “It is interesting to note just where the penetrating image of “entwinement”, which Habermas uses in the title of his essay (“The Entwinement of Myth and Enlightenment”), appears in Dialectic of Enlightenment itself: there the focus is on “the entwinement of myth, domination, and work”. [DoE 32] Habermas, then, has substituted “enlightenment” for “domination and work” – a shift in theoretical orientation toward interaction and communication at the expense of domination and work, which corresponds to Habermas’ entire relationship to the tradition of Critical Theory.” Steinert, Adorno in Wien, Frankfurt 1993, 218.
  4. See Axel Honneth, The Critique of Power; Seyla Benhabib, Critique, Norm, and Utopia; Helmut Dubiel, Theory and Politics; Richard Wolin, The Terms of Cultural Criticism; David Ingram, Critical Theory and Philosophy (p.195: Dialectic of Enlightenment offers “a wholesale critique of reason” akin to poststructuralism); among many others.
  5. Max Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason, New York 1974, 176. Hereafter referred to as “EoR” in the text.
  6. Horkheimer and Adorno sometimes used the term “subjective reason” as well. “Instrumental reason” is the more descriptive and better known term; the German edition of Eclipse of Reason, for example, is titled Zur Kritik der instrumentellen Vernunft (Critique of Instrumental Reason).
  7. Note that they propose “to prepare the way for a positive conception of Enlightenment,” not to develop that conception in detail. That task they meant to leave for a second book on dialectical logic, which was never written. (See Rolf Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School, Cambridge, MA 1994, 325-6) Many ‘rough drafts’ for that work, however, have been preserved in the form of transcripts of discussions between the authors. See Max Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften Bd. 12, Frankfurt 1987.
  8. “We are wholly convinced – and therein lies our petitio principii – that social freedom is inseparable from enlightened thought. Nevertheless, we believe that we have just as clearly recognized that the concept of this very form of thought, no less than the concrete historical forms and social institutions with which it is interwoven, already contains the seed of that regression which is currently taking place everywhere. If enlightenment does not take up the task of reflecting on this regressive moment, it seals its own fate.” (DoE xiii)
  9. Cf. DoE 118: “only exaggeration is true.”
  10. Quoted in Wiggershaus, 334.
  11. Paul Piccone, The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, New York 1982, xix. On the contrary, it is a radically historicized dialectic that confronts us in Dialectic of Enlightenment, one which undermines any easy historicizing scheme (e.g. Marx’s). See especially “On the Critique of the Philosophy of History”, DoE 222-5.
  12. Wolin, The Terms of Cultural Criticism, New York 1992, 61.
  13. Peter Uwe Hohendahl, Prismatic Thought, 250.
  14. Wolin, 61.
  15. ibid. See also Zoltan Tar, The Frankfurt School, New York 1985, 79, which calls Dialectic of Enlightenment “a social philosophy of despair.”
  16. Cf. DoE 15: “The concept, which some prefer to define as the unifying characteristic of that which is comprised under it, was instead from the beginning the product of dialectical thought, in which every thing is only what it is by virtue of becoming what it is not.”
  17. Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music, New York 1973, 216. Like Eclipse of Reason and Minima Moralia, this work should be understood as forming a larger theoretical totality with Dialectic of Enlightenment.
  18. Adorno, Soziologische Schriften I, Frankfurt 1979, 583. The quotes are from a 1968 presentation to the German Sociology Conference. Horkheimer, it must be said, did give up on this possibility in his later life.
  19. Heinz Steinert makes a provocative case that Adorno’s anarchist leanings were modeled on his musical aesthetics. See Adorno in Wien, 194-7 (“Adorno’s Theory of Liberation”). Cf also Adorno himself: “The most advanced state of music is anarchic and presupposes an order of things in which compulsory societal forms no longer exist, but rather people relate to one another directly and in free association claim the truth that is inherent in their works.” Quoted in Steinert, 231.
  20. “It is not the portrayal of reality as hell that is suspect, but the routinized demand to break out of it.” DoE 256
  21. See in particular the opening paragraphs of chapter three in Honneth’s Critique of Power; also Robert Holub, “The Enlightenment of the Dialectic: Jürgen Habermas’s Critique of the Frankfurt School” in Daniel Wilson and Robert Holub, Impure Reason: Dialectic of Enlightenment in Germany, Detroit 1993, especially 42-43.
  22. Ingram, Critical Theory and Philosophy, 76. While Dialectic of Enlightenment itself is admittedly short on concrete historical detail in this regard, its radical political critique is spelled out in related texts from the same period such as Horkheimer’s “Autoritärer Staat” and “Die Juden und Europa”, as well as Adorno’s “Reflexionen zur Klassentheorie” and “Thesen über Bedürfnis”.
  23. Even in its more sophisticated forms, this objection to Dialectic of Enlightenment’s logic doesn’t hold up. Honneth, for example, argues that Horkheimer and Adorno’s conception of domination is inadequate because it doesn’t cover forms of “consensually secured domination” (Critique of Power, 55). This misses the point: unlike theorists of “communicative rationality,” Horkheimer and Adorno reject the very notion of any meaningful consent to domination as a form of either psychic crippling (see the first excursus) or mass deception (see the Culture Industry chapter). Similarly, Habermas argues that Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique of bourgeois ideology is actually directed “against the rational potential of bourgeois culture itself,” (The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, 119) and thus repudiates the positive potentials concealed within dominant ideology. It is difficult to reconcile this claim with the book’s professed aim of “showing that certain critical elements which were formerly directed against the humanistic ideals of the Enlightenment can be usefully incorporated into them” (from the 1944 prospectus, quoted in Wiggershaus, 333), or with Adorno’s contemporaneous avowal in Minima Moralia that “Not least among the tasks now confronting thought is that of placing all reactionary arguments against Western culture in the service of progressive enlightenment.” (Adorno, Minima Moralia, London 1974, 192; see also “Baby with the bath-water”, 43-45) This complaint also ignores Horkheimer’s painstaking efforts, in Eclipse of Reason and elsewhere, to rescue the rational potential buried in bourgeois ethics and social philosophy. Habermas’ claim seems especially misguided when compared with Adorno’s own leveling of the very same charge of a totalized and indiscriminate suspicion of ideology against Mannheim, in contrast to which Adorno explicitly insists on the rational potential contained within ideologies such as ‘justice’ etc. See “Beitrag zur Ideologienlehre”, Soziologische Schriften I, 457-77. Indeed, the guiding principle of every sentence of Adorno’s voluminous cultural criticism is to reclaim the nuggets of truth preserved in bourgeois culture and realize their radical potential. How Habermas can understand this to mean that critique has been “declared dead” by Adorno (The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, 119) is baffling. It is tempting to conclude that Habermas simply misunderstands the basic dialectical procedure of immanent critique.
  24. This broadened critique of domination is precisely what troubles many of Dialectic of Enlightenment’s detractors. Habermas reads both Dialectic of Enlightenment and Eclipse of Reason as illegitimate extrapolations of Weber’s rationalization thesis and Lukacs’ reification thesis beyond the context of modern capitalism (see Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action vol. I, Boston 1984, 366-99). But aside from the fact that Horkheimer and Adorno’s unusual understanding of capitalism actually gave it, as I show below, a powerful priority which their critics entirely miss, their project was an attempt to expand the context of the critique of domination to comprise elements that can’t be reduced to the categories of twentieth-century sociology. This appears obtuse to Habermas because he rejects the shift from exploitation to domination (see especially the seventh thesis of “Technik und Wissenschaft als ‘Ideologie’”) and can’t imagine a social order that isn’t built on the domination of nature. Honneth at least recognizes that “with the critique of the domination of nature, Adorno and Horkheimer have not only imported a previously foreign intellectual element into the tradition of critical social theory; they have also thereby substantially altered critical theory’s theoretical status and scientific constitution.” But like Habermas he fails to see that this is a uniquely important achievement, instead considering it a grave error (Honneth, Critique of Power, 58-9; but see also his 1988 “Afterword”, especially pp. xx-xxii). I will discuss Dialectic of Enlightenment’s treatment of Naturbeherrschung in detail in the second half of the paper.
  25. Hohendahl’s claim that Dialectic of Enlightenment “left no room for a socialist revolution” (Prismatic Thought, 28) is untenable. The book demonstrates, rather, the inadequacy of a merely socialist revolution. See also Susan Buck-Morss, The Origin of Negative Dialectics, New York 1977, 187: “There was no waning of Adorno’s commitment to revolution as both necessary and desirable.”
  26. Many commentators attribute Dialectic of Enlightenment’s bleak prognosis for the chances of successful social change either to the authors’ personal circumstances in exile or to the dire historical situation in the early 1940’s. I suggest that the conceptual shift from exploitation to domination also played a crucial role, and, far from detracting from the book, actually represents one of its greatest theoretical strengths.
  27. Adorno, Critical Models, 250.
  28. Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften Bd. 12, 157. These transcripts of the author’s conversations are an invaluable source for understanding the text that grew out of them.
  29. ibid., 602-4.
  30. Eclipse of Reason is in a sense the popularized version of Dialectic of Enlightenment, and was also composed jointly with Adorno (cf. Wiggershaus, 325 and 345). Adorno makes the same argument on his own: “The trouble lies in the conditions which condemn humankind to impotence and apathy, conditions which can and must be changed by human action; it does not lie primarily in people themselves or in the way these conditions appear to them.” (Adorno, Negative Dialectics, New York 1973, 190)
  31. The figure of subject and object and the distortions it contains can at first glance likewise appear ahistorical, indeed straightforwardly ontological. Against this reading see Adorno, Critical Models, 163, on reification as the source of “the by no means ontological but rather historically erected barrier between subject and object.”
  32. Albeit unorthodox, their designation of ancient societies as essentially bourgeois in character is not as far-fetched as it may seem. If what Horkheimer and Adorno have in mind is private property, division of labor, accumulation and exchange, then perhaps Odysseus was indeed the “prototype of the bourgeois individual” (DoE 43). At the same time, they neither restrict nor reduce their analysis to the terms of contemporary market society, instead tracing its elementary features back into the lengthy history of domination itself: “The convergence within bourgeois society of total progress with the negation of progress originates in this society’s principle: exchange … Since time immemorial, not just since the capitalist appropriation of surplus value in the exchange of labor power as a commodity for its cost of reproduction, the socially more powerful party receives more than the other.” (Adorno, Critical Models, 159)
  33. The original version of the text contained numerous additional references to capitalism which were discarded in subsequent editions in favor of more innocuous formulations. Thus in the book’s second paragraph, “capitalism” became “the economic system”. “Exchange value” was replaced by “value”, “class society” by “society”, and references to “forces of production” and “relations of production” were dropped. All of these changes are clearly marked in the edition of Dialektik der Aufklärung in vol. 5 of Horkheimer’s Gesammelte Schriften. The volume also contains a superb essay by Willem van Reijen and Jan Bransen, “Das Verschwinden der Klassengeschichte in der Dialektik der Aufklärung”, comparing the 1944 version with later editions.
  34. Some critics nevertheless maintain that Dialectic of Enlightenment’s treatment of reason qua instrumental reason, the form of rationality that predominates in heteronomous society, is simply contradictory. There are undoubtedly contradictions in Horkheimer and Adorno’s account, some of which are difficult to explain on my reading. But many of the inconsistencies in their approach to reason reflect contradictions in the phenomenon itself, which are to be expected in a context of advanced reification. Some of the critics recognize this themselves; see Holub, op. cit., 43: Adorno “sees contradictions as structural necessities in societies based on hegemonic social relations; they are part of a totality that can only be resolved by changing the social order in which they are found.” Apparently overwhelmed by the revolutionary implications of this formulation, Holub forgets it as soon as he has penned it. Like Habermas, he wants the impossible: emancipation without struggle, that old liberal dream. See also Buck-Morss, 186: “But even though Adorno appeared to be arguing opposite positions simultaneously, what gave his models logical coherence was his identification of the point of convergence between opposites: in every case it was the structure of domination.”
  35. Holub, 37.
  36. Those who impute a necessitarian or deterministic argument to Dialectic of Enlightenment often simply misunderstand contingency. Paul Connerton, for example, writes: “The fact that rational control over nature which has grown with the European philosophical and technological achievement has produced such anti-human results is seen [by Horkheimer and Adorno], not as the consequence of historically contingent factors, but as necessarily resulting from that achievement itself.” (The Tragedy of Enlightenment, Cambridge 1980, 62) But what Connerton euphemistically calls “European philosophical and technological achievement” was itself of course a “historically contingent factor”. From its opening chapter (“this logical necessity is not irrevocable”, DoE 37) to its closing pages (“On the Critique of the Philosophy of History”) Dialectic of Enlightenment militates against any teleological interpretation of the processes it examines.
  37. Minima Moralia 72-3.
  38. Joan Alway, Critical Theory and Political Possibilities, Westport 1995, 34.
  39. Stefan Breuer in Benhabib, Bonß, and McCole, On Max Horkheimer: New Perspectives, Cambridge 1993, 274. Although often provocative and insightful, Breuer’s article employs a curious strategy of quotation to back up his fatalist reading. He cites, for example, a line from Negative Dialectics about instrumental reason as “historically dictated by the threat of nature” (cf. Negative Dialectics, 172). But this phrase is embedded in Adorno’s eloquent argument against necessitarian theories, a passage which ends with an explicit recognition of the possibility of ending alienation and claims for dialectical thought the potential to break through the impasse of instrumental rationality.
  40. Buck-Morss, 54. See also Negative Dialectics, 289: “That reason is nature’s other and yet at the same time a moment of nature, is the prehistory of reason which has become its immanent determination. Reason is natural inasmuch as it is a psychological power that has branched off for purposes of self-preservation; but once it is split off and juxtaposed to nature, it also becomes nature’s other. Arising ephemerally out of nature, reason is identical and nonidentical with nature, dialectically adhering to its own conception. But the more recklessly reason makes itself into the absolute antithesis of nature in this dialectic and forgets the aspect of nature within reason itself, the more it regresses, self-preservation gone wild, into mere nature. Only by reflecting on this dialectic would reason reach above nature.” Ashton’s translation inexplicably omits the entire third sentence of this passage (cf. Negative Dialektik, 285).
  41. Joseph Schmucker, Adorno – Logik des Zerfalls, Stuttgart 1977, 40.
  42. See Habermas’ “Nachwort” to the 1986 Fischer re-issue of Dialektik der Aufklärung for still another version of this claim. Robert Hullot-Kentor brilliantly deconstructs this essay in “Back to Adorno”, Telos no. 81.
  43. Max Horkheimer, Traditionelle und kritische Theorie, Frankfurt 1992, 271-301. The English version of the essay was published under the title “The End of Reason” in the final issue of Studies in Philosophy and Social Science. It is also reprinted in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader. This essay was yet another collaborative work with Adorno; see Wiggershaus, 297.
  44. Cf. also Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music, 66: “It is, however, the oppressive moment in the domination of nature, which suddenly turns against subjective autonomy and freedom itself, in whose name this domination was carried out.”
  45. Horkheimer, “The End of Reason”, SPSS vol. IX (1941), 387. In “Vernunft und Selbsterhaltung” the passage reads: “In den Erklärungen der idealistischen Philosophen, daß die Vernunft den Menschen vom Tier unterscheide…ist die Wahrheit enthalten, daß mit der Vernunft der Mensch aus der Befangenheit der Natur erwacht; nicht freilich, wie sie meinen, um diese zu beherrschen, sondern um sie zu begreifen.” This gives the lie to the popular myth, widespread in Frankfurt these days, that according to Horkheimer and Adorno begreifen=beherrschen (to comprehend is to dominate).
  46. Horkheimer to Marcuse in 1941, discussing “Vernunft und Selbsterhaltung”, quoted in Wiggershaus, 297. Horkheimer and Adorno drew a distinction between emancipatory and repressive forms of collectivity. For them, collective association was not the problem (indeed it was the prerequisite for healthy individuality), but rather domination and its consequences. Cf. Eclipse of Reason 135: “The fully developed individual is the consummation of a fully developed society. The emancipation of the individual is not an emancipation from society, but the deliverance of society from atomization, an atomization that may reach its peak in periods of collectivization and mass culture.” See also DoE 22: “It is this unity of collectivity and domination, not direct social universality, solidarity, that manifests itself in the forms of thought.”
  47. “The End of Reason”, 388. The same passage in “Vernunft und Selbsterhaltung” reads: “So verstümmelt alle auch sind, in der Spanne eines Augenblicks könnten sie gewahr werden, daß die unter dem Zwang der Herrschaft durchrationalisierte Welt sie von der Selbsterhaltung entbinden könnte, die sie jetzt noch gegeneinander stellt.”
  48. William Leiss, “The Problem of Man and Nature in the Work of the Frankfurt School”, Philosophy of the Social Sciences 5 (1975), 164. Leiss also authored a full-length work on the topic, The Domination of Nature, 1972.
  49. Negative Dialectics, New York 1973, 229; cf. Negative Dialektik, 228. It is worth emphasizing the differences between Adorno’s conception of dialectical reconciliation and its classical formulation in Hegel. Heinz Kimmerle, for example, contrasts Hegel’s top-down approach with Adorno’s “dialectics from below” (see “Das Hegelsche Erbe in Adornos Negativer Dialektik” in Gastelaars, Critical Theory Today, Rotterdam 1990). Adorno also maintained a materialist intransigence that diverges sharply from Hegel’s essentially complacent idealism. See Deborah Cook, “The Rhetoric of Protest: Adorno on the Liberal Democratic Tradition”, Rethinking Marxism vol. 9 no. 1, 64-5: for Adorno, “It is not the history of ideas but rather the nonteleological history of struggles for freedom and equality that serves as an index veri.” To simplify the distinction somewhat, one could say that while Hegel’s concept of reconciliation often appears accomodationist, amounting to acquiescence to the status quo, Adorno’s is revolutionary and demands, if it is to be fulfilled, a complete overthrow of the existing social order.
  50. Adorno, Critical Models, 247. Cf. Stichworte, 153.
  51. Interestingly, this passage also seems to anticipate and negate Habermas’ impoverished (from an Adornian standpoint) notion of communication.
  52. “Reconciliation would release the nonidentical, would rid it of thought’s coercion, would open up the multiplicity of differentiation… Reconciliation would be remembrance of the no longer inimical Many, and thus anathema to subjective reason. Dialectics serves reconciliation. It dismantles the coercive logical character of its own course…” Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 6.
  53. Adorno, “Parataxis”, Notes to Literature, vol. 2, 146.
  54. From the 1844 manuscripts: Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe Bd. 1, 391.
  55. Adorno, Critical Models, 152; cf. Stichworte, 39.
  56. Adorno, Minima Moralia, 126.
  57. Adorno, Critical Models, 133. At the end of the same essay, “Notes on Philosophical Thinking”, he writes: “Resistance to the decline of reason would mean for philosophical thinking, without regard for established authority and especially that of the human sciences, that it immerse itself in the material contents in order to perceive in them, not above them, their truth content.”