An Introduction to Philosophy of Culture
Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) was written during the Second World War by Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno—two German Jews living in exile in the United States. It is an extremely rich and dense (but also dark and gloomy) work, which presents a radical critique of western culture and thought from Greek antiquity up until the horrors of the Second World War. Horkheimer and Adorno argue that those horrors and atrocities should not be viewed as a sudden outburst of barbarism or a temporary straying from the path of progress, but rather, on the contrary, as an outcome of exactly this ‘progress’. The Enlightenment, which had promised to emancipate humankind, had relapsed into myth and perverted into an ‘instrumental rationality’ which is alienated from nature and even construes human life to means-ends relationships. The essence of rational thought is what they call ‘identity-thinking’: subsuming phenomena that are essentially different under one common denominator. Although subsumption is necessary to make thought possible, it must always be accompanied by reflection. If that does not happen, then anything particular (or in their terms, ‘non-identical’) to a phenomenon falls prey to abstraction: the rabbit in a laboratory is considered as a mere exemplar of its species, rather than as a living being. According to Horkheimer and Adorno, this not only leads to philosophical and epistemological errors but also to social and political abuse; the suppression and destruction of certain groups is the result of this reflectionless identity-thinking. However, the authors do not want to give up on enlightenment; rather, they want to enlighten enlightenment itself. In other words, this thinking must be made aware of its own dark side. Only then, can the original promise of enlightenment—a truly humane society—be fulfilled.