Dialectic of Enlightenment

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Dialectic of Enlightenment
Dialectic of Enlightenment (German edition).jpg
AuthorsMax Horkheimer
Theodor W. Adorno
Original titleDialektik der Aufklärung
Publication date
Published in English
Media typePrint (Paperback)
193 21
LC ClassB3279.H8473 P513 2002

Dialectic of Enlightenment (German: Dialektik der Aufklärung) is a work of philosophy and social criticism written by Frankfurt School philosophers Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno and first published in 1944. A revised version appeared in 1947.

One of the core texts of critical theory, Dialectic of Enlightenment explores the socio-psychological status quo that had been responsible for what the Frankfurt School considered the failure of the Age of Enlightenment. Together with The Authoritarian Personality (1950; also co-authored by Adorno) and Frankfurt School member Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man (1964), it has had a major effect on 20th-century philosophy, sociology, culture, and politics, inspiring especially the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s.[1]

Historical context[edit]

One of the distinguishing characteristics of the new Critical Theory, as Adorno and Horkheimer set out to elaborate it in Dialectic of Enlightenment, is a certain ambivalence concerning the ultimate source or foundation of social domination. This ambivalence gave rise to the "pessimism" of the new Critical Theory over the possibility of human emancipation and freedom.[2]

This ambivalence was rooted in the historical circumstances in which Dialectic of Enlightenment was originally produced: the authors saw National Socialism, Stalinism, state capitalism, and culture industry as entirely new forms of social domination that could not be adequately explained within the terms of traditional Critical Theory.[3]

For Adorno and Horkheimer (relying on the economist Friedrich Pollock's thesis on National Socialism),[4] state intervention in the economy had effectively abolished the tension in capitalism between the "relations of production" and the "material productive forces of society," a tension which, according to traditional Critical Theory, constituted the primary contradiction within capitalism. The market (as an "unconscious" mechanism for the distribution of goods) had been replaced by centralized planning.[5]

Yet, contrary to Marx’s famous prediction in the Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, this shift did not lead to "an era of social revolution," but rather to fascism and totalitarianism. As such, traditional Critical Theory was left, in Jürgen Habermas's words, without "anything in reserve to which it might appeal; and when the forces of production enter into a baneful symbiosis with the relations of production that they were supposed to blow wide open, there is no longer any dynamism upon which critique could base its hope."[6] For Adorno and Horkheimer, this posed the problem of how to account for the apparent persistence of domination in the absence of the very contradiction that, according to traditional Critical Theory, was the source of domination itself.[7]

Topics and themes[edit]

The problems posed by the rise of fascism with the demise of the liberal state and the market (together with the failure of a social revolution to materialize in its wake) constitute the theoretical and historical perspective that frames the overall argument of the book – the two theses that "Myth is already enlightenment, and enlightenment reverts to mythology."[8] The history of human societies, as well as that of the formation of individual ego or self, is re-evaluated from the standpoint of what Horkheimer and Adorno perceived at the time as the ultimate outcome of this history: the collapse or “regression” of reason, with the rise of National Socialism, into something (referred to as merely "enlightenment" for the majority of the text) resembling the very forms of superstition and myth out of which reason had supposedly emerged as a result of historical progress or development.

Horkheimer and Adorno believe that in the process of "enlightenment," modern philosophy had become over-rationalized and an instrument of technocracy. They characterized the peak of this process as positivism, referring to both the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle and broader trends that they saw in continuity with this movement.[9] Horkheimer and Adorno's critique of positivism has been criticized as too broad; they are particularly critiqued for interpreting Ludwig Wittgenstein as a positivist and for failing to examine critiques of positivism from within analytic philosophy.[10]

To characterize this history, Horkheimer and Adorno draw on a wide variety of material, including the philosophical anthropology contained in Marx’s early writings, centered on the notion of "labor"; Nietzsche’s genealogy of morals (and the emergence of conscience through the renunciation of the will to power); Freud’s account in Totem and Taboo of the emergence of civilization and law in murder of the primordial father;[11] ethnological research on magic and rituals in primitive societies;[12] as well as myth criticism, philology, and literary analysis.[13]

The authors coined the term culture industry, arguing that in a capitalist society mass culture is akin to a factory producing standardized cultural goods — films, radio programmes, magazines, etc.[14] These homogenized cultural products are used to manipulate mass society into docility and passivity.[15] The introduction of the radio, a mass medium, no longer permits its listener any mechanism of reply, as was the case with the telephone. Instead, listeners are not subjects anymore but passive receptacles exposed "in authoritarian fashion to the same programs put out by different stations."[16]

By associating the Enlightenment and the Holocaust with sadism, the text also contributed to the pathologisation of sadomasochist desires, as discussed by the sexuality historian Alison Moore.[17]


The book made its first appearance in 1944 under the title Philosophische Fragmente by Social Studies Association, Inc., New York. A revised version was published in 1947 by Querido Verlag in Amsterdam with the title Dialektik der Aufklärung. It was reissued in 1969 by S Fischer Verlag GmbH. There have been two English translations: the first by John Cumming (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972) and a more recent translation, based on the definitive text from Horkheimer's collected works, by Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Held, D. (1980).Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas.Berkeley, University of California Press.
  2. ^ Adorno, T. W., with Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002. 242.
  3. ^ "Critical Theory was initially developed in Horkheimer’s circle to think through political disappointments at the absence of revolution in the West, the development of Stalinism in Soviet Russia, and the victory of fascism in Germany. It was supposed to explain mistaken Marxist prognoses, but without breaking Marxist intentions." "The Entwinement of Myth and Enlightenment: Horkheimer and Adorno." in Habermas, Jürgen. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures. trans. Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1987. 116. Also, see Helmut Dubiel, Theory and Politics: Studies in the Development of Critical Theory, trans. Benjamin Gregg (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, 1985).
  4. ^ Willem van Reijen and Jan Bransen. "The Disappearance of Class History in the Dialectic of Enlightenment." in Dialectic of Enlightenment. 248. Also see, Friedrich Pollock. "Is National Socialism a New Order?" Studies in Philosophy and Social Science 9 (1941), 453.
  5. ^ "[G]one are the objective laws of the market which ruled in the actions of the entrepreneurs and tended toward catastrophe. Instead the conscious decision of the managing directors executes as results (which are more obligatory than the blindest price-mechanisms) the old law of value and hence the destiny of capitalism." Dialectic of Enlightenment. p. 38.
  6. ^ "The Entwinement of Myth and Enlightenment," p. 118.
  7. ^ Held, D. (1980).Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas.Berkeley, University of California Press.
  8. ^ Dialectic of Enlightenment, xviii
  9. ^ Josephson-Storm, Jason (2017). The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 244–5. ISBN 978-0-226-40336-6.
  10. ^ Josephson-Storm (2017), p. 242, 243-4.
  11. ^ See Dialectic of Enlightenment, 7, 159, 162.
  12. ^ Dialectic of Enlightenment, 10, 256.
  13. ^ Sadean Nature and Reasoned Morality in Adorno/Horkheimer’s ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment’, Psychology and Sexuality 1 (3), September 2010, 249-260.
  14. ^ pp. 94–5 quotation:

    Culture today is infecting everything with sameness. Film, radio, and magazines form a system. Each branch of culture is unanimous within itself and all are unanimous together. Even the aesthetic manifestations of political opposites proclaim the same inflexible rhythm...All mass culture under monopoly is identical... Films and radio no longer need to present themselves as art. The truth that they are nothing but business is used as an ideology to legitimize the trash they intentionally produce.

  15. ^ pp. 94–5 quotation:

    ...The standardized forms, it is claimed, were originally derived from the needs of the consumers: that is why they are accepted with so little resistance. In reality, a cycle of manipulation and retroactive need is unifying the system ever more tightly.

  16. ^ pp. 95–6 quotation:

    The step from telephone to radio has clearly distinguished the roles. The former liberally permitted the participant to play the role of subject. The latter democratically makes everyone equally into listeners, in order to expose them in authoritarian fashion to the same programs put out by different stations. No mechanism of reply has been developed...

  17. ^ Alison M. Moore, Sexual Myths of Modernity: Sadism, Masochism and Historical Teleology. Lanham: Lexington Books [Rowman & Littlefield], 2015. ISBN 978-0-7391-3077-3.

External links[edit]