7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on June 12, 2009
This is a book that should change the way the average American thinks. Yes, it is not the easiest book to read and the authors' main ideas are not always readily apparent and schematically laid out. It will take you time to pry them out of the long and densely worded paragraphs that make up the sections of this work, but if you do take the time and expend the mental effort to make sense of what Adorno and Horkheimer are saying, then you will be in for a REAL intellectual adventure because the critical method on display here and the conclusions offered are nothing short of subversive in the positive sense of the word and are therefore truly thought-provoking. Their quasi-Marxist critical approach does an impressive job of standing our analytical habits on their head. It reconfigures the customary Anglo-American way of dealing with subjects and their related controversies, which is to say, when you are reading this book you can say bye-bye to our usual dichotomizing, either/or modes of analysis as you are ushered into the quickly shifting world of dialectical thinking. Make no mistake about it--these are some extremely busy pages, and when you read them you will alternate between being confused and astonished at how much is going on and how many ideas are simultaneously in play in any given paragraph or its constituent sentences.
This is apt to make us suspicious at first precisely because it is so foreign to what we as Americans regard as analysis. Our habit is to reduce problems to sets of antithetical principles and then we quietly assume each set to be real and concrete--conservative vs. liberal, traditional vs. progressive, science vs. magic, mythological vs. enlightened, intellectual vs. anti-intellectual, autocratic vs. democratic, autonomous vs. heteronomous, etc.--but our reification of these principles and their standing connections with prevailing modes of production and exchange are what these Frankfurt School authors expose in their treatments of (so-called) enlightenment thinking and how these factors are intertwined in the areas of myth, morality, mass culture, and anti-Semitism.
The basic thesis of the book is that the traditional categories of bourgeois intellectual history are ideological constructs that tell us only half the story. We think of Western thought as progressing from mythological modes of thinking to an outlook that is more rational, scientific, and thus enlightened, but what their analyses seek to demonstrate is that instead of a steady linear progression from myth to enlightenment rationality what we have is a situation in which the two opposing categories are closer to each other than one might suppose. The modern bourgeois thinker assumes that all is rationality and light in his camp, but Adorno and Horkheimer argue that (a) enlightenment thinking is as inescapably 'mythological' as any of the pre-scientific worldviews to which it feels superior and (b) how that conceit has played an instrumental role in the increasing violence, domination, and deception that characterize the 'civilized barbarism' of modern industrial societies. Their analytical results, even if they are not wholly convincing to some readers, are astonishing in their subtlety and implications, and if you read these essays attentively you will never think about these subjects again in the same way as you did before.
As an example of the way in which this critical method is employed, take our lazy American habit of dividing people up into either conformists or non-conformists. We take such a seemingly neat and definite division for granted, and we assume that it is just a matter of pointing out which is the more coherent, honest, and therefore justifiable attitude to adopt. But Adorno and Horkheimer show that these two labels do not correspond to two separate and distinct realities/truths, but rather each is but an aspect or manifestation of a more fundamental human problem, i.e. that of Hegelian/Marxist alienation, an inescapable condition of separation and incompleteness that continues to twist and turn in our society at any given time. Critically speaking, it is not the case that it is better to be one or the other because the problem of alienation is not solvable either by a robust conformism or by an equally calculated non-conformist spirit. On the contrary, each is but a symptom of something wrong and unaddressed in the life of any society, namely, those deeper issues of perennial import, the traditional stuff of philosophic and religious concern that have to do with us as whole beings and not just as disembodied, rationalizing minds, totalitarian and/or fascist vitalists, bourgeois capitalists, ideological contrarians, bohemian radicals, philistine reactionaries, etc. The latter are examples of the attitudes that reflect our more fundamental human state of alienation, the social masks of ideology that we unthinkingly don and then in turn mistake for the face of reality.
Critical theory is devoted to leaving no stone unturned in the criticism of thought and culture, and it professes the ideal of never ceasing in that endeavor. In the case of a problem like social alienation it is the critical theorist's task to probe ever deeper into the social realities of our culture and to subject these to ruthless examinations which, while the efforts in themselves are never entirely free of ideological determinations, they still have as one of their own critical goals to become conscious of any underlying ideological factors in what is supposed to be a process of analytical self-emancipation. Yet it is arguable as to whether the critical theorists and their disciples have remained true to these ideals because since the 1930s we have seen the work (if not the individual life) of each of its practitioners decompose into various radical left-wing viewpoints that have remained highly influential (if not inflexible) in some academic and/or artistic circles, but conversion to its particular point of view is certainly not the point of this book. Think of these essays as a collection of 'thought experiments' in the Frankfurt school critical method, and the results as dialectical stepping stones on the way to a critical work that by its very nature can never be final.
It is a widespread but shallow opinion to write off the Frankfurt School thinkers as MERE Marxists or even as neo-Marxist revisionists, and Adorno's writings in particular, though complex and multifaceted, reveal him to be rooted firmly in the German tradition of idealist philosophy. Marxist ideas are important to him, but over and above the critical concepts they furnish for his books and essays and the role they played in the formation of his method of 'negative dialectics', the guiding figure for him is always Kant with whom he shares an inextinguishable concern for what in today's rarefying intellectual parlance might be labeled as 'metaphilosophical' issues: how human freedom and personal autonomy are inextricably bound together in a seeking that must go beyond the categories of any rationalist epistemology and the bare material facts of common history in order to illuminate and safeguard those things that make us human and which come from the directions we might least suspect.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on February 17, 2015
Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment is a dense and difficult book that addresses a diversity of demanding topics. However, for those who have read Horkheimer's later book Eclipse of Reason (1947), Dialectic of Enlightenment is, I think, a bit more accessible. In Eclipse of Reason, Horkheimer emphasizes the distinction between subjective reason, which concerns means-ends relationships, and objective reason, which focuses on things in themselves. Horkheimer holds that our obsession with quantitative increases in dollar-valued production leads to a near-exclusive concern with subjective reason and almost total neglect of objective reason. This raises essential questions of value: we produce more and more with increasing efficiency, but of what intrinsic value are the things we produce?
The concepts subjective reason and objective reason are not explicitly invoked in Dialectic of Enlightenment. However, if we bear these ideas in mind, some of the difficult material in this text becomes more accessible, and we are better able to understand what the authors mean by the book's title.
During the Enlightenment, men of talent, intellect, and broad learning, as well as lesser lights and entire institutions, sought to disabuse human beings of their crippling adherence to myth, ritual, superstition, and misguided philosophies in making their way through the world. Reason, with pure mathematics and formal logic as exemplars, unsullied by the detritus of failed religions and unfounded, debilitating mythological systems, was to guide the human race to more bountiful and fulfilling ways of living.
Over the centuries, however, it became clear that reason, given that it is inherently devoid of specific content, can lead us almost anywhere, into patterns of behavior and ways of evaluating that are sharply at odds with the full development of human potential. After all, thinking -- reasoning -- is not possible without arbitrary assumptions. We may, in fact, never entertain the admittedly problematic and arbitrary, though ostensibly humane, assumption that all men are created equal, and instead begin with the assumption that Whites are the superior race and all others should serve them. Reason without content gives us no basis for adopting one contrived premise rather than another.
In the absence of rigorous use of objective reason, in whatever way one might accomplish that task, there is no basis on which to assess the comparative merit of the two assumptions, the two bases or starting points that we have arbitrarily suggested for reason. It may be that subjective reason would give the nod to one or the other on practical productive grounds, but failing that, we are left with a commonly neglected concept, objective reason, one that is much more difficult to use and less certain in its application, than subjective reason, and there is no justification for preferring one assumption over another. Who knows? Perhaps each assumption is thoroughly deleterious. Nevertheless, either could serve as the foundation for a science-based, technocratic society where productivity was abundant in purely quantitative dollar terms. Given this set of circumstances, Big Capital, with or without free markets, would be equally satisfied with either.
That this could bring us horrors is not difficult to see. The sterility of reason proceeding without regard for intrinsic values seems as likely to bring us fascism as it does late capitalism or some other system that is incapable of acknowledging and developing the infinite potential of human beings, substituting homogenizing categories and glossy, perniciously captivating images as bases for social life and individual empowerment. The content-free emptiness of reason is an idea also developed by Herbert Marcuse with reference even to theoretical physics in his book One Dimensional Man.
Horkheimer and Adorno's position on mythology leads the reader to conclude that, based on one or another dubious premises, reason will overcome mythology, only to create another mythological system, perhaps more insidiously inhumane, perhaps all-encompassing but taken for granted as inescapably real, whatever its content. Still, the authors' understanding of mythology seems much like George Santayana's position on religion in The Life of Reason. They see real intrinsic value in some myths and their prescribed modes of being insofar as they poetically express the complex intrinsic value of human potential. Such mythological manifestations, however, are exceptions.
Whatever the claims of reason, the authors have no aversion to making value judgments of their own. We may agree with them when they dismiss the "jazz" of Benny Goodman and Guy Lombardo as trash, but the foundation for this judgment is not evident: what does the concept objective reason tell us about "jazz"? And how does one find out?
An especially interesting exchange is presented in the "Notes and Sketches" section of the book (197 - 199). The authors construct a seemingly innocuous, even if annoyingly commonplace, conversation by way of illustrating the distortions to which overweening consistency in the application of reason and logic lends itself. They thereby give us an example of something we've all experienced, the seemingly reasonable transformed into the undeniably stupid. It can be rhetorically difficult, moreover, to counter this sort of stupidity in everyday discourse.
Dialectic of Enlightenment, though difficult, is an interesting and valuable book that merits careful study. It contains a good deal more than can I can adequately acknowledge in a conventional review, and there are, I'm sure, parts of the book that I misunderstood. Even for those of us who comprehend it only imperfectly, however, Horkheimer and Adorno have given us insights and wisdom that make the world a more interpretable place, even if not a more congenial one. Their unqualified judgment that we have the technological wherewithal, but lack the political and moral will and the informed substantive appreciation of objective reason, for everyone to become fully developed human beings bears emphasis and repetition.
13 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on May 2, 2005
The dialectic of Enlightenment is a history of false appearances. For Adorno & Horkheimer, trying to explain the world in its totality is equal to try to dominate it. Totality becomes totalitarianism. The authors present history as a tool of domination. Myth and reason both hide the deception of trying to make all things equal. By this logic -of identity/identification- everything is not, but must be the same. Knowledge is mythical because it promises a happiness that can never be achieved in knowledge's terms. The central argument of this wonderful book is that myth is already enlightenment because it tries to explain the world and gain utility from it; and enlightenment is already myth for it tries to exclude anything that is different or contradicts Enlightened Reason. As Adorno & Horkheimer put it: "Enlightenment has a mythical horror to myth." Enlightenment obsessively tries to free itself from myth, but in doing so it becomes also mythical. This obsession takes the form of a saturating, technical rationality that ends in the horror of ethnic genocide. This is, as Habermas said, "the black book of Western philosophy."
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on August 25, 2015
For many years, *Dialectic of Enlightenment* was a book more rumored of than read. First in Germany, where the first edition languished for years until the interest of the New Left prompted a new edition at the end of the '60s (complete with Adorno and Horkheimer's characteristic hectoring of deluded young radicals) and then in America, where John Cumming's translation for Continuum was almost impossible to find in stores with plenty of copies of Derrida and Slavoj Zizek. A decade ago Stanford University Press brought out this translation of the critical text from Max Horkheimer's collected works, made by first-string Frankfurt School translator Edmund Jephcott, and those who haven't checked it out are definitely missing out -- this is a brilliant and thought-provoking book on any rational estimation. Writing towards the end of World War II, Horkheimer and Adorno provide a secret genealogy of the war's destruction: the "administered society" one found in Soviet Russia and the United States no less than Nazi Germany offered unbustable trusts the opportunity to overrun any trace of liberalism and make everyone, Jew and Gentile all alike, dance to their tune.
The book ranges widely, even for Frankfurters, from Homer to de Sade to Mickey Rooney: the attention is focused on the immediate present -- the Marx Brothers are ancient history -- and the mechanics of the theory are a bit more materialist than High Adorno, yet the humaneness that characterizes Critical Theory in all its phases is much in evidence. The textual apparatus includes asterisks to mark where Horkheimer and Adorno struck out a word, usually "monopoly", in the original text and a novel explanation of this seeming failure of will: the authors did not want the message of the text to be captured by internecine disputes about "monopoly capitalism". There is an excellent postface by the German editor which breaks down the composition of the "co-authored" text using the papers left by the authors -- some chapters almost totally written by one or the other, others the product of close collaboration. Any way you consider it, this is one of the great books of the Twentieth Century and all humanists or social scientists (even the supposed contrarian libertarians whose antics are wearing ever thinner in our own administered present) are obligated to read it.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Max Horkheimer (1895-1973) was a German Jewish philosopher and sociologist who was famous for his work in critical theory as a member of the 'Frankfurt School' of social research. He wrote/cowrote other books such as Critique of Instrumental Reason,Critical Theory: Selected Essays, etc. Theodor W. Adorno (1903–1969) was a German sociologist, philosopher and musicologist who was also a leading member of the Frankfurt School. He wrote other books such as Negative Dialectics,The Stars Down to Earth,Prisms, etc.
They wrote in the Preface to the 1969 edition, “The first edition of The Dialectic of Enlightenment was published … in 1947. The book made its reputation only by degrees… We have decided to reissue it… not only in answer to many requests but because we believe that not a few of the ideas it contains are still apposite to the times and have to large extent determined our later theory… We would not now maintain without qualification every statement in the book: that would be irreconcilable with a theory which holds that the core of truth is historical, rather than an unchanging constant to be set against the movement of history. The work was written when the end of the Nazi terror was within sight… In a period of political division into immense power-blocks, set objectively upon collision, the sinister trend continues… The development toward total integration recognized in this book is interrupted, but not abrogated… The prognosis of the related conversion of enlightenment into positivism… and finally the identification of intellect and that which is inimical to the spirit, has been overwhelmingly confirmed. Our conception of history… is a critique of philosophy, and therefore refuses to abandon philosophy. The book was written in America… convinced that there we could achieve more… than elsewhere.”
They wrote in the original Introduction, “The dilemma that faced us in our work proved to be the first phenomenon for investigation: the self-destruction of the Enlightenment. We are wholly convinced… that social freedom is inseparable from enlightened thought. Nevertheless… the notion of this very way of thinking, no less than the actual historic forms---the social institutions---with which it is interwoven, already contains the seed of the reversal universally apparent today. If enlightenment does not accommodate reflection on this recidivist element, then it seals its own fate.” (Pg. xiii)
They state, “Faith constantly reveals itself to be of the same cut as the world-history which it would dictate to… It is not merely the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century that… is relentless but … the advance of thought itself… The paradoxical nature of faith ultimately degenerates into a swindle, and becomes the myth of the twentieth century; and its irrationalism turns it into an instrument of rational administration by the wholly enlightened as they steer society towards barbarism.” (Pg. 20) Later, they contend, “Today, when Bacon’s utopian vision… has been realized on a tellurian scale, the nature of the thralldom that he ascribed to unsubjected nature is clear. It was domination itself… But in the face of such a possibility, and in the service of the present age, enlightenment becomes wholesale deception of the masses.” (Pg. 42)
They observe, “The idolization of the cheap involves making the average the heroic. The highest-paid stars resemble pictures advertising unspecified proprietary articles. Not without good purpose are they often selected from the host of commercial models. The prevailing taste takes its ideal from advertising, the beauty in consumption. Hence the Socratic saying that the beautiful is the useful has now been fulfilled---ironically.” (Pg. 156)
They argue, “radio is the voice of the nation… In America it… has acquired the illusory form of disinterested, unbiased authority which suits Fascism admirably. The radio becomes the universal mouthpiece of the Führer; his voice rises from street loud-speakers to resemble the howling of sirens announcing panic---from which modern propaganda can scarcely be distinguished anyway. The National Socialists knew that the wireless gave shape to their cause just as the printing press did to the Reformation.” (Pg. 159)
They point out, “Here in America there is no difference between a man and his economic fate. A man is made by his assets, income, position, and prospects. The economic mask coincides completely with a man’s inner character. Everyone is worth what he earns and earns what he is worth. He learns what he is through the vicissitudes of his economic existence. He knows nothing else. The materialistic critique of society once objected against idealism that existence determined consciousness and not vice versa, and that the truth about society did not lie in its idealistic conception of itself but in its economy; contemporary men have rejected such idealism. They judge themselves by their own market value and learn what they are from what happens to them in the capitalist economy. Their fate, however sad it may be, is not something outside them; they recognize its validity.” (Pg. 211)
This work (which had some significant influence on the New Left in Europe) is one of the best books to come out of the Frankfurt School.
13 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on May 7, 1999
Review by A.Prabaharan, Centre for the Study of sSocial Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India - 110 067.
Beyond one's imagination, the consequences of enlightenment and modernity were visualised by Adorno and Horkheimer in a briliant piece named "Dialectic of enlightenment". It is a handy volume , rich in content and weaved with lenghthy sentences. It was an outcome of shock given by the Nazi forces. Nevertheless a thought about direct results of extreme reasoning, radical socialization and discovery of motives behind humanity's retrogression instead of progressive civilization.
The urge to reach the technological zenith started in that crucial period. Demonstration of destruction of masses with atom bomb was yet to kick off. But the terror started shaking the two intellectuals. Again and again they questioned themselves. Conclusion was insight - social freedom is inseparable from the enlightened thought.
The need for enlightenement was to create a civil society with rationalised idea grows in individuals and institutions. Not just the rational consciousness. What was needed that time is to deparate fear from fate. But with modern science , commerece and politics, it endd in a fear of social deviation.
Enlightenement is as equally destructive as that of romanticism. The self of enlightened being itself comes in to life only when it surrender to its enemy. It refuses to transcend the false absoulte in reality. The book is clearly classified in to five simple segmental chapters which deal with the metamorphosis of modernity. It is a critical study with myth is already an enlightenment and enlightenment reverts to mythology as the basic premises. For the authours, Homerian odyssey is the main target to show the dialecic of myth and enlightenment. Odyssey was accused as the earliest representative testimonies of western bourgeois civiliztion. Kant, Sade and Nietzsche were not spared. Adorno and Horkheimer show how the submission of everthing natural to the autocratic subject finally culminates in the mastery of the blindly objective and natural. Kant and Sade's idea were branded 'bourgeois thought' and accused of morality mixd with amorality.
First chapter deals with how myth is already an enlightenment. Second one shows the reverse of enlightenment to mythology. Third, projects the submission of subject which makes the object a master. Fourth, "culture industry" brings out the process where enlightenment is ideaogized. Fifth chapter traces the movement of humanity to barbarism.
It is a thorough thrasing of enlightenment. They understand that extreme enlightened self is as dangerous as that of fully radiant earth which radiates disaster triumphant.
One have to undergo an intellectual torture to read this book. But it is a must for any mind which have urge to know the other side of modernity.
The classic text of the Frankfurt School remains the most ambitious attempt to synthesize the tools of Marxism and Freudian Psychoanalysis for the project of critical theory. Horkheimer and Adorno have attempted to construct nothing less than a critique of the entire logic of modern domination, immanent within the project of the eighteenth century Enlightenment. Through a highly sophisticated, nuanced analysis of Ancient Greek Myth (with a particularly fascinating exegesis on Homer), Horkheimer and Adorno proceed to interrogate the logics of key Enlightenment thinkers such as Kant and Sade in an effort to further interrogate the "culture industry." Standout analyses of the text include the chapter on anti-semitism and the limits of enlightenment as well as enlightenment as mass deception. While I fundamentally disagree with their argument that the Enlightenment was a project of universalization and technical mastery without self-reflection, I nevertheless see here an intricate, brilliant anatomy of the modern situation.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on February 8, 2013
GREAT REFERENCE WORK. MANY MORE SUCH REFERENCE BOOKS SHOULD BE MADE AVAILABLE FOR HIGH SCHOOL, COLLEGE, AND UNIVERSITY POST GRADUATE STUDENTS.
4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on August 8, 2010
Perhaps the single most important book that I've ever read. Adorno & Horkheimer note the way that reason, which was supposed to be a means of attaining freedom for man, has dovetailed with power and done the exact opposite of that. If you're a lover of liberty -- real liberty involving self determination and freedom from delusion -- read this book.
on September 28, 2013
Published in the late 40 century, the book is confusing but basically summarized in a concept that played other philosophers and touch him later: the current culture or civilization (the West) is harmful and carries the seeds of its own of destruction and of individuals within it. That's basically it. Analyzing it in the perspective of time, it has enough of expressing reality. You have to read it.