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.

Theodor Adorno on Nationalism



“The characteristic form of absurd opinion today is nationalism. With new virulence it infects the entire world, in a historical period where, because of the state of the technical forces of production and the potential definition of the earth as a single planet, at least in the non-underdeveloped countries nationalism has lost its real basis and has become the full-blown ideology it always has been. In private life, self-praise and anything resembling it is suspect, because such expressions reveal all too much the predominance of narcissism. The more individuals are caught up in themselves and the more fatally they pursue particular interests—interests that are reflected in that narcissistic attitude, which in turn reinforces the rigid power of the interests—the more carefully this very principle must be concealed and misrepresented, so that, as the National Socialist slogan has it, “service before self.” However, it is precisely this force of taboo on individual narcissism, its repression, that gives nationalism its pernicious power. The life of the collective has different ground rules than those at work in the relations between individuals. In every soccer match the local fans, flouting the rules of hospitality, shamelessly cheer on their own team; Anatole France, today so prone to being treated en canaille—and not without some justification—remarked in Penguin Island that each fatherland stands above all others in the world. People would only need take the norms of bourgeois private life to heart and raise them to the level of society. But well-meaning recommendations in this vein overlook the fact that any transition of this kind is impossible under conditions that impose such privations on individuals, so constantly disappoint their individual narcissism, in reality damn them to such helplessness, that they are condemned to collective narcissism. As a compensation, collective narcissism then restores to them as individuals some of the self-esteem the same collective strips from them and that they hope to fully recover through their delusive identification with it. More than any other pathological prejudice, the belief in the nation is opinion as dire fate: the hypostasis of the group to which one just happens to belong, the place where one just happens to be, into an absolute good and superiority. It inflates into a moral maxim that abominable wisdom born of emergency situations, that we are all in the same boat. It is just as ideological to distinguish healthy national sentiment from pathological nationalism as it is to believe in normal opinion in contrast to pathogenic opinion. The dynamic that leads from the supposedly healthy national sentiment into its overvalued excess is unstoppable, because its untruth is rooted in the person’s act of identifying himself with the irrational nexus of nature and society in which he by chance finds himself.”



Theodor W. Adorno. Opinion Delusion Society. Trans. Henry W. Pickford. The Yale Journal of Criticism, 10(2); 1997: 227-45. Continue reading Theodor Adorno on Nationalism

Theodor Adorno On the Logic of the Social Sciences



Methods do not rest upon methodological ideals but rather upon reality. Popper implicitly acknowledges this in the thesis concerning the priority of the problem. When he establishes that the quality of social scientific achievement stands in an exact relationship to the significance or to the interest of its problems, then unquestionably one can detect here the awareness of an irrelevance to which countless sociological investigations are condemned in that they follow the primacy of the method and not that of the object. They either wish to develop methods further for their own sake or, from the outset, they so select objects that they can be treated with already available methods. When Popper talks about significance or interest one can sense the gravity of the matter to be dealt with. It would only have to be qualified by the fact that it is not always possible to judge a priori the relevance of objects. Where the categorical network is so closely woven that much of that which lies beneath is concealed by conventions of opinion, including scientific opinion, then eccentric phenomena which have not yet been incorporated by this network at times take on an unexpected gravity. Insight into their composition also throws light upon what counts as the core domain but which often is not. This scientific-theoretical motive was surely involved in Freud’s decision to concern himself with the ‘fragments of the world of appearance’ [Abhub der Urscheinungswelt]. Similarly, it proved to be fruitful in Simmel’s sociology when, mistrustful of the systematic totality, he immersed himself in such social specifics as the stranger or the actor. Nor would one be able to dogmatize about the demand for problem relevancy; to a large extent, the selection of research objects is legitimated by what the sociologist can read from the object which he has selected. This should not, however, provide an excuse for the countless projects merely carried out for the good of one’s academic career, in which the irrelevance of the object happily combines with the pedestrian mentality of the research technician.



Theodor W. Adorno. “On The Logic of the Social Sciences”, in Theodor W. Adorno, Hans Albert, Ralf Dahrendorf, etc. The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology, trans. Glen Adey and David Frisby. London: Hermann Luchterhand Verlag; 1977, pp. 105-22.