Dialectic of Enlightenment

Stanford University Press
2
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Dialectic of Enlightenment is undoubtedly the most influential publication of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. Written during the Second World War and circulated privately, it appeared in a printed edition in Amsterdam in 1947. "What we had set out to do," the authors write in the Preface, "was nothing less than to explain why humanity, instead of entering a truly human state, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism." Yet the work goes far beyond a mere critique of contemporary events. Historically remote developments, indeed, the birth of Western history and of subjectivity itself out of the struggle against natural forces, as represented in myths, are connected in a wide arch to the most threatening experiences of the present. The book consists in five chapters, at first glance unconnected, together with a number of shorter notes. The various analyses concern such phenomena as the detachment of science from practical life, formalized morality, the manipulative nature of entertainment culture, and a paranoid behavioral structure, expressed in aggressive anti-Semitism, that marks the limits of enlightenment. The authors perceive a common element in these phenomena, the tendency toward self-destruction of the guiding criteria inherent in enlightenment thought from the beginning. Using historical analyses to elucidate the present, they show, against the background of a prehistory of subjectivity, why the National Socialist terror was not an aberration of modern history but was rooted deeply in the fundamental characteristics of Western civilization. Adorno and Horkheimer see the self-destruction of Western reason as grounded in a historical and fateful dialectic between the domination of external nature and society. They trace enlightenment, which split these spheres apart, back to its mythical roots. Enlightenment and myth, therefore, are not irreconcilable opposites, but dialectically mediated qualities of both real and intellectual life. "Myth is already enlightenment, and enlightenment reverts to mythology." This paradox is the fundamental thesis of the book. This new translation, based on the text in the complete edition of the works of Max Horkheimer, contains textual variants, commentary upon them, and an editorial discussion of the position of this work in the development of Critical Theory.
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About the author

Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno were two influential members of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory.
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Publisher
Stanford University Press
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Published on
Mar 27, 2002
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Pages
304
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ISBN
9780804788090
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Language
English
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Genres
Social Science / General
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This volume comprises one of the key lecture courses leading up to the publication in 1966 of Adorno's major work, Negative Dialectics. These lectures focus on developing the concepts critical to the introductory section of that book. They show Adorno as an embattled philosopher defining his own methodology among the prevailing trends of the time. As a critical theorist, he repudiated the worn-out Marxist stereotypes still dominant in the Soviet bloc – he specifically addresses his remarks to students who had escaped from the East in the period leading up to the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Influenced as he was by the empirical schools of thought he had encountered in the United States, he nevertheless continued to resist what he saw as their surrender to scientific and mathematical abstraction. However, their influence was potent enough to prevent him from reverting to the traditional idealisms still prevalent in Germany, or to their latest manifestations in the shape of the new ontology of Heidegger and his disciples. Instead, he attempts to define, perhaps more simply and fully than in the final published version, a ‘negative', i.e. critical, approach to philosophy. Permeating the whole book is Adorno’s sense of the overwhelming power of totalizing, dominating systems in the post-Auschwitz world. Intellectual negativity, therefore, commits him to the stubborn defence of individuals – both facts and people – who stubbornly refuse to become integrated into ‘the administered world’.

These lectures reveal Adorno to be a lively and engaging lecturer. He makes serious demands on his listeners but always manages to enliven his arguments with observations on philosophers and writers such as Proust and Brecht and comments on current events. Heavy intellectual artillery is combined with a concern for his students’ progress.

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