Enlightenment and Myth – An Extract From Dialectic of Enlightenment


Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno, Horkheimer


“Myth becomes enlightenment and nature mere objectivity. Human beings purchase the increase in their power with estrangement from that over which it is exerted. Enlightenment stands in the same relationship to things as the dictator to human beings. He knows them to the extent that he can manipulate them. The man of science knows things to the extent that he can make them. Their “in-itself” becomes “for him.” In their transformation the essence of things is revealed as always the same, a substrate of domination. This identity constitutes the unity of nature. Neither it nor the unity of the subject was presupposed by magical incantation. The rites of the shaman were directed at the wind, the rain, the snake outside or the demon inside the sick person, not at materials or specimens. The spirit which practiced magic was not single or identical; it changed with the cult masks which represented the multiplicity of spirits. Magic is bloody untruth, but in it domination is not yet disclaimed by transform- ing itself into a pure truth underlying the world which it enslaves. The magician imitates demons; to frighten or placate them he makes intimidating or appeasing gestures. Although his task was impersonation he did not claim to be made in the image of the invisible power, as does civilized man, whose modest hunting ground then shrinks to the unified cosmos, in which nothing exists but prey. Only when made in such an image does man attain the identity of the self which cannot be lost in identification with the other but takes possession of itself once and for all as an impenetrable mask. It is the identity of mind and its correlative, the unity of nature, which subdues the abundance of qualities. Nature, stripped of qualities, becomes the chaotic stuff of mere classification, and the all-powerful self becomes a mere having, an abstract identity. Magic implies specific representation. What is done to the spear, the hair, the name of the enemy, is also to befall his person; the sacrificial animal is slain in place of the god. The substitution which takes place in sacrifice marks a step toward discursive logic. Even though the hind which was offered up for the daughter, the lamb for the firstborn, necessarily still had qualities of its own, it already represented the genus. It manifested the arbitrariness of the specimen. But the sanctity of the hic et nunc, the uniqueness of the chosen victim which coincides with its representative status, distinguishes it radically, makes it non-exchangeable even in the exchange. Science puts an end to this. In it there is no specific representation: something which is a sacrificial animal cannot be a god. Representation gives way to universal fungibility. An atom is smashed not as a representative but as a specimen of matter, and the rabbit suffering the torment of the laboratory is seen not as a representative but, mistakenly, as a mere exemplar. Because in functional science the differences are so fluid that everything is submerged in one and the same matter, the scientific object is petrified, whereas the rigid ritual of former times appears supple in its substitution of one thing for another. The world of magic still retained differences whose traces have vanished even in linguistic forms. The manifold affinities between existing things are supplanted by the single relationship between the subject who confers meaning and the meaningless object, between rational significance and its accidental bearer. At the magical stage dream and image were not regarded as mere signs of things but were linked to them by resemblance or name. The relationship was not one of intention but of kinship. Magic like science is concerned with ends, but it pursues them through mimesis, not through an increasing distance from the object. It certainly is not founded on the “omnipotence of thought,” which the primitive is supposed to impute to himself like the neurotic; there can be no “over-valuation of psychical acts” in relation to reality where thought and reality are not radically distinguished. The “unshakable confidence in the possibility of controlling the world” which Freud anachronistically attributes to magic applies only to the more realistic form of world domi- nation achieved by the greater astuteness of science. The autonomy of thought in relation to objects, as manifested in the reality-adequacy of the Ego, was a prerequisite for the replacement of the localized practices of the medicine man by all-embracing industrial technology.”



Horkheimer, Max and Theodor Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford, CA: Stanford University press; 2002, pp. 6-7.


Towards a New Manifesto?

Adorno and Horkheimer

“Adorno: Philosophy exists in order to redeem what you see in the look of an animal. If you feel that an idea is supposed to serve a practical purpose, it slithers into the dialectic. If, on the other hand, your thought succeeds in doing the thing justice, then you cannot really also assert the opposite. The mark of authenticity of a thought is that it negates the immediate presence of one’s own interests. True thought is thought that has no wish to insist on being in the right.

Horkheimer: When you speak, you always speak for yourself. When you defend a cause, you also defend yourself. To plead on behalf of a specific cause is not necessarily a bad thing. You feel deeply that your own interests are at stake. Everyone feels the injustice that would occur if one were to be extinguished. To plead on behalf of another is also to plead on one’s own behalf.

Adorno: The mistrust of argument is at bottom what has inspired the Husserls and Heideggers. The diabolical aspect of it is that the abolition of argument means that their writing ends up in tautology and nonsense. Argument has the form of ‘Yes, but . . . ’

Horkheimer: But the ‘Yes, but . . . ’ remains in the service of making something visible in the object itself.

Adorno: There is something bad about advocacy—arguing means applying the rules of thinking to the matters under discussion. You really mean to say that if you find yourself in the situation of having to explain why something is bad, you are already lost. Alternatively, you end up saying like Mephistopheles: ‘Scorn reason, despise learning.’ Then you will discover the primordial forces of being.”



Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Towards a New Manifesto.

Traditional and Critical Theory According to Max Horkheimer

Horkheimer contrasts critical theory to traditional theory. He renders more negative rather then positive definitions of what critical theory is. It seems critical theory seeks everything traditional theory has failed to attain. It is not a binary opposition to traditional theory, even though it structures itself in opposition to traditional theory. Critical theory supplements traditional theory; yet, it is not a simple act of supplementation; it destroys and, at the same time, preserves traditional theory; it ‘annuls’ but simultaneously incorporates the truth of traditional theory with new forms and contents. Horkheimer believes that traditional theory contains a truth-content, which is limited; yet, traditional theory is not aware of its heteronomous character and the limitations it has. In fact, traditional theory has absolutized its relative truth, thus transforming its truth into its own opposite. Critical theory tries to preserve, extend and mutate this truth-content.


The characteristics of traditional and critical theory:

(In) Critical theory 

— embodies ‘the self-awareness of thought.’

— ‘the task of the critical theoretician is to reduce the tension between his own insight and oppressed humanity in whose service he thinks.’

— is, ‘in its totality, the unfolding of a single existential judgment.’

— is ‘an element in action leading to new social forms,’ and is not ‘a cog in an already existent mechanism.’

— ‘becomes a genuine force, consisting in the self-awareness of the subjects of a great historical revolution.’

— is ‘in contradiction to the formalistic concept of mind’

— is ‘beyond the grasp of a mentality typified by such a dualism’ [dualism of thought and action, of theory and practice]

— has its business as ‘to hasten developments which will lead to a society without injustice’

— ‘realities lose the character of pure factuality.’

—‘the critical acceptance of the categories which rule social life contains simultaneously their condemnation.’

— is ‘motivated today by the effort really to transcend the tension and to abolish the opposition between the individuals’s purposefulness, spontaneity, and rationality, and those work-process relationships on which society is built. Critical thought has a concept of man as in conflict with himself until this opposition is removed.’

— the subject ‘is no mathematical point like the ego of the bourgeois philosophy; his activity is the construction of the social present.’

— also shows the possibility of tension ‘between the theoretician and the class his thinking is to serve;’ the theorist exercises ‘an aggressive critique not only against the conscious defenders of the status quo but also against distracting, conformist, or Utopian tendencies within his own household.’

— the theorist’s profession is ‘the struggle of which his own thinking is a part and not something self-sufficient and separable from the struggle.’

— ‘receives no sanction from so-called healthy human understanding; it has no custom on its side, even when it promises success.’

— the state of affairs ‘upon which judgement is passed in this conception and the tendencies inciting men to build a rational society are not brought into existence outside thought by forces extrinsic to it.’

— has ‘no material accomplishment to show for itself. The change which it seeks to bring about is not effected gradually.’ Its first consequence is ‘only an intensification of the struggle with which the theory is connected.’

— constructive thinking plays ‘a more important role than empirical verification in theory as a whole.’

— ‘does not have one doctrinal substance today, another tomorrow.’

— since ‘the theory is a unified whole which has its proper meaning only in relation to the contemporary situation, the theory as a whole is caught up in an evolution. The evolution does not change the theory’s foundation, of course, any more than recent changes essentially alter the object which the theory reflects, namely contemporary society.’

— is ‘incompatible with the idealist belief that any theory is independent of men and even has a growth of its own.’

— it has ‘a historically changing object,’ which however, ‘remains identical amid all the changes. The theory is not a storehouse of hypotheses on the course of particular events in society. It constructs a developing picture of society as a whole, an existential judgement with a historical dimension.’


On the other hand, (in) traditional theory,

— ‘always remains a hypothesis.’

— is ‘consonant with the actual facts.’

— ‘is stored up knowledge, put in a form that makes it useful for the closest possible description of facts.’

— ‘anyone who has mastered the use of it… can use it at any time.’

— is “an enclosed system of propositions for the science as a whole.”

— all its parts ‘should intermesh thoroughly and without friction.’

— is ‘the same as theory in the natural sciences.’

— becomes ‘a matter of mathematical construction’

— provides  the ‘conceptual systems of classificatory understanding, the categories into which dead and living things, social, psychological, and physical phenomena have all been absorbed together, the division of objects and of judgements on them into the various pigeonholes of the social areas of knowledge’ which makes up the apparatus of thought which ‘has proved and redefined itself in connection with the real work process.’

— demands that ‘the scientist must certainly apply his more or less general propositions, as hypotheses, to ever new facts.’

— requires on one hand ‘the conceptually formulated knowledge,’ and on the other, ‘the facts to be subsumed under it.’

— has generated the paradigm whereby we ‘are thus working with conditional propositions as applied to a given situation. If circumstances a,b,c and d are given, then event q must be expected; if d is lacking, event r; if g is added, event s, and so on.’

— the conception of theory according to it was ‘absolutized, as though it were grounded in the inner nature of knowledge as such or justified in some other ahistorical way, and thus it became a reined, ideological category.’

— considers ‘the prevision and the usefulness of results to be a scientific task.’

— the ‘scholar and his science are incorporated into the apparatus of society. His achievements are a factor in the conservation and continuous renewal of the existing state of affairs, no matter what fine name he gives to what he does.’

— demands the ‘reception, transformation and rationalization of factual knowledge’ as ‘the scholar’s special form of spontaneity,’ which includes ‘the synthesis of masses of data and the attainment of general rules.’

— the ‘traditional idea of theory is based on scientific activity as carried on within the division of labor at a particular stage in the latter’s development’ which ‘takes place alongside all the other activities of a society but in no immediately clear connection with them.’

— the ‘seeming self-sufficiency enjoyed by work processes whose course is supposedly determined by the very nature of the object corresponds to the seeming freedom of the economic subject in bourgeois society.’

— the scholars believe they are acting according to personal determinations, whereas in fact even in their most complicated calculations they but exemplify the working of an incalculable social mechanism.’

— for any datum ‘it must be possible to deduce all its determinations from theoretical systems and ultimately form mathematics.’

— to the extent that it ‘conceives of reason as actually determining the course of events in a future society, such a hypostatization of Logos as reality is also a camouflaged Utopia.’

— the whole ‘perceptible world… is seen… as a sum-total of facts; it is there and must be accepted.’

— the ’scholarly specialist “as” scientist regards social reality and its products as extrinsic to him, and “as” citizen exercises his interest in them through political articles, membership in political parties or social service organizations, and participation in elections.’

— the real task would be ‘the registering and classifying of facts with the help of the most suitable conceptual apparatus, and the theoretician’s ultimate goal would be the prediction of future socio-psychological phenomena. Thought and the formation of theory would be one thing and its object… another.’

— the theoretician ‘is also at times an enemy and criminal, at times a solitary Utopian; even after his death the question of what he really was doing is not decided.’

— the primary propositions ‘define universal concepts under which all facts in the field in question are to subsumed.’


Critical and traditional theories intersect at points:

— the ‘critical theory of society also begins with abstract determinations; in dealing with the present era, it begins with the characterization of an economy based on exchange.’

— in both types of theory ’there is a strict deduction if the claim of validity for general definitions is shown to include a claim that certain factual relations will occur.’

— both deal with the concept of ‘necessity,’ although in different senses and modes.

— even critical theory, ‘which stands in opposition to other theories, derives its statements about real relationships from basic universal concepts… and therefore, presents the relationships as necessary.

— It may be ‘of systematic interest and not entirely useless to classify and juxtapose the various kinds of dependency, com­modity, class, entrepreneur, and so forth, as they occur in the logical and historical phases of the theory. But the sense of these concepts ultimately becomes clear only when we grasp the whole conceptual structure with its demands for adaptation to ever new situations. Consequently such systems of classes and sub­classes, of definitions and specifications of concepts, which are extracted from the critical theory do not have even the value of the conceptual inventories found in other specialized science, for the latter are at least applied in the relatively uniform practice of daily life. To transform the critical theory of society into a sociology is, on the whole, an undertaking beset with serious difficulties.’


For Horkheimer, the plea for a critical theory of society is preceded by a defence of theory and of theoretical thought in the face of present attacks on theory from the side of positivism, pragmatism, and the prevailing machinery of capitalist production, which emphasizes utility, profit and practical outcomes. As he puts it,

‘The hostility to theory as such which prevails in contemporary public life is really directed against the transformative activity associated with critical thinking. Opposition starts as soon as theorists fail to limit themselves to verification and classification by means of categories which are as neutral as possible, that is, categories which are indispensable to inherited ways of life. Among the vast majority of the ruled there is the unconscious fear that theoretical thinking might show their painfully won adaptation to reality to be perverse and unnecessary. Those who profit from the status quo entertain a general suspicion of any intellectual independence. The tendency to conceive theory as the opposite of a positive outlook is so strong that even the in­offensive traditional type of theory suffers from it at times. Since the most advanced form of thought at present is the critical theory of society and every consistent intellectual movement that cares about man converges upon it by its own inner logic, theory in general falls into disrepute. Every other kind of sci­entific statement which does not offer a deposit of facts in the most familiar categories and, if possible, in the most neutral form, the mathematical, is already accused of being theoretical.’



Horkheimer, Max. Traditional and Critical Theory. In Critical Theory: Selected Essays, 188-243. New York: Herder and Herder, Inc, 1972.

Traditional and Critical Theory – Max Horkheimer

Max Horkheimer says that in traditional theory,

“We are thus working with conditional propositions as applied to a given situation. If cir­cumstances a, b, c, and d are given, then event q must be ex­pected; if d is lacking, event r; if g is added, event s, and so on. This kind of calculation is a logical tool of history as it is of science. It is in this fashion that theory in the traditional sense is actually elaborated.

What scientists in various fields regard as the essence of theory thus corresponds, in fact, to the immediate tasks they set for themselves. The manipulation of physical nature and of specific economic and social mechanisms demand alike the amassing of a body of knowledge such as is supplied in an ordered set of hypotheses. The technological advances of the bourgeois period are inseparably linked to this function of the pursuit of science. On the one hand, it made the facts fruitful for the kind of scientific knowledge that would have practical application in the circumstances, and, on the other, it made possible the application of knowledge already possessed. Beyond doubt, such work is a moment in the continuous transformation and development of the material foundations of that society. But the conception of theory was absolutized, as though it were grounded in the inner nature of knowledge as such or justified in some other ahistorical way, and thus it became a reined, ideological category.”

(Max Horkheimer, Critical Theory: Selected Essays, p. 194)

In his Philosophy of Physics: Space and Time, Tim Maudlin makes an argument which goes along Horkheimer’s in some sort of ways. He writes,

“Philosophy of physics, as a discipline, is continuous with phys­ics proper. The sorts of questions we will ask are among the questions physicists ask, and among the questions physical theories historically have tried to answer. But an astonishing amount of physics can proceed without answers to these questions. For ex­ample, the science of thermodynamics, as its name suggests, ini­tially aimed at providing a precise mathematical account of how heat spreads through an object and from one object to another. But we can discover quite detailed equations governing heat ow and still not have an account of what heat is. Is it a sort of fluid (as caloric theory holds) that literally flows out of object and into another, or a sort of motion (as kinetic theory holds) that is com­municated by interaction from one body to the other? If all you care about is how long it will take a 20-pound iron rod at 200° F to cool to 100° F when it is immersed in a large vat of water at 50° F, the equations of heat flow can provide the answer. But you will be none the wiser, having calculated the answer, about the fundamental nature of heat. An ironworker may not give a fig about the nature of heat, and the philosopher of physics may care equally little about the exact time it takes for the iron to cool down. A practicing physicist will typically care about both but may focus more on one or the other at different times. It is characteristic of a contemporary physics education that much more time is spent learning how to solve the equation and get a practical answer for the ironworker than in discussing the more “philosophical” ques­tions about the nature of heat, or the nature of space and time, or the nature of matter. Physics students who are fascinated by these more foundational questions can find themselves frustrated by physics classes that refuse to address them.

…Here the difference between the ironworker and the philosopher of physics becomes acute. The ironworker (or the physicist in ironworker mode) doesn’t particularly care about the nature of the physical reality: it is enough to calculate how various experiments should come out. The philosopher of physics cares about the underlying reality and attends to the predictions only insofar as they can serve as evidence for which account of the un­derlying reality is correct.

…Unfortunately, physics has become infected with very low standards of clarity and precision on foundational questions, and physicists have become accustomed (and even en­couraged) to just “shut up and calculate,” to consciously refrain from asking for a clear understanding of the ontological import of their theories. This attitude has prevailed for so long that we can easily lose sight of what a clear and precise account of physi­cal reality even looks like.”

(from the Introduction in Tim Maudlin, Philosophy of Physics: Space and Time)