What Was the “Enlightenment?”
Generally speaking, we might think of the Enlightenment time period as an elite 18th-century cultural movement that sought to mobilize the power of reason in order to reform society and advance knowledge. Some people like to think of the Enlightenment as the beginning of modern philosophy. It was important because the ideas that came from this movement influenced future democratic governments.
The Enlightenment period in the history of western thought and culture stretches roughly from the mid-decades of the seventeenth century through the eighteenth century; it was characterized by dramatic revolutions in science, philosophy, society and politics. These revolutions swept away the dark medieval world-view and ushered in the light that is thought to typify our modern western world.
Enlightenment thought culminates historically in the political upheaval of the French Revolution, in which the traditional hierarchical political and social orders (the French monarchy, the privileges of the French nobility, the political power and authority of the Catholic Church) were violently destroyed and replaced by a political and social order informed by the Enlightenment ideals of freedom and equality for all, founded, ostensibly, upon principles of human reason.
The Enlightenment begins with the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The rise of the new science progressively undermines not only the ancient geocentric conception of the cosmos, but, with it, the entire set of presuppositions that had served to constrain and guide philosophical inquiry. The dramatic success of the new science in explaining the natural world, in accounting for a wide variety of phenomena by appeal to a relatively small number of elegant mathematical formulae, promotes philosophy (in the broad sense of the time, which includes natural science) from a handmaiden of theology, constrained by its purposes and methods, to an independent force with the power and authority to challenge the old and construct the new, in the realms both of theory and practice, on the basis of its own principles. D’Alembert, a leading figure of the French Enlightenment, characterizes his eighteenth century, in the midst of it, as “the century of philosophy par excellence,” because of the tremendous intellectual progress of the age, the advance of the sciences, and the enthusiasm for that progress, but also because of the characteristic expectation of the age that philosophy (in this broad sense) would dramatically improve human life.
Who Are the Great Thinkers of the Enlightenment?
The Enlightenment is associated with the French thinkers of the mid-decades of the eighteenth century, the so-called “philosophes”- Voltaire, Diderot, D’Alembert, Montesquieu, et cetera. The philosophes constitute an informal society of men of letters who collaborate on a loosely defined project of Enlightenment centered around the project of the Encyclopedia. But the Enlightenment has broader boundaries, both geographical and temporal, than this suggests.
In addition to the French, there was a very significant Scottish Enlightenment. Key figures were Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, Adam Smith, and Thomas Reid and a very significant German Enlightenment (die Aufklärung) including Christian Wolff, Moses Mendelssohn, G.E. Lessing and Immanuel Kant.
All of these different Enlightenments and thought leaders might best be thought of as particular nodes or centers in a far-flung and varied intellectual development. Given the variety demonstrated here, Enlightenment philosophy is perhaps better understood in terms of general tendencies of thought, not in terms of specific doctrines or theories.
The David Hume statue on its pedestal outside of St. Giles Cathedral on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh, Scotland.
At the foundation of Kant’s system is the doctrine of “transcendental idealism,” which emphasizes a distinction between what we can experience (the natural, observable world) and what we cannot (“supersensible” objects such as God and the soul). Kant argued that we can only have knowledge of things we can experience.
Only late in the development of the German Enlightenment, when the Enlightenment was near its end, does the movement become self-reflective; the question of “What is Enlightenment?” is debated in pamphlets and journals. In his famous definition of “enlightenment” in his essay “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” (1784), which is his contribution to this debate, Immanuel Kant expresses many of the tendencies shared among Enlightenment philosophies of divergent doctrines.
Kant’s Three Questions:
Kant can be said to have tried to answer three fundamental questions: What can I know?; What ought I to do?; and What may I hope? (Critique of Pure Reason, 1787)
Accordingly, in answer to the question, “What can I know?” Kant replies that we can know the natural, observable world, but we cannot, however, have answers to many of the deepest questions of metaphysics. Humans are, in other words, limited by our senses, scientific instruments, and the sum of all the recorded knowledge of the human race limited by the time and discretion a mortal being has to assimilate and remember such knowledge. Setting oneself on a path to know such things, however, must be accomplished with considerable abridgment, and what you can know is not known best by limiting yourself to a knowledge of symbolic works, oral or written (i.e. religious texts). These are tools of finite minds incapable of knowing the entire truth about anything.
The answer to the second is – Hang in there and do what you are good at.
The answer to the third is to try and live a long and prosperous life that is diverse and rich in both experience and sensation, and also use your talents and abilities in a manner that affords enjoyment to others trying to do the same with their own lives.
For Kant, Enlightenment liberates us from authority. Those who hold authority—have mystery. The priest has special access to the mystery of religion; it is through him where God comes towards us. The Enlightenment says that human reason is capable of answering all the questions that the previous authority had answers to. When you have a rational claim, you’ve laid a path that someone else can easily follow to the same conclusion. The light of the Enlightenment leads to knowledge in this respect. For Kant, this frees us from authoritarianism; we now understand the light of the world from our own reason.
Kant likewise defines “Elightenment” as humankind’s release from its self-incurred immaturity; “immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another.” Enlightenment is the process of undertaking to think for oneself, to employ and rely on one’s own intellectual capacities in determining what to believe and how to act. Enlightenment philosophers from across the geographical and temporal spectrum tend to have a great deal of confidence in humanity’s intellectual powers, both to achieve systematic knowledge of nature and to serve as an authoritative guide in practical life. This confidence is generally paired with suspicion or hostility toward other forms or carriers of authority (such as tradition, superstition, prejudice, myth and miracles), insofar as these are seen to compete with the authority of reason.
Enlightenment philosophy tends to stand in tension with established religion, insofar as the release from self-incurred immaturity in this age, daring to think for oneself, awakening one’s intellectual powers, generally requires opposing the role of established religion in directing thought and action. The faith of the Enlightenment – if one may call it that – is that the process of enlightenment, of becoming progressively self-directed in thought and action through the awakening of one’s intellectual powers, leads ultimately to a better, more fulfilled human existence.
These views describe the main tendencies of Enlightenment, which might be broken down as follows: 1) The True: Science, Epistemology, and Metaphysics in the Enlightenment; 2) The Good: Political Theory, Ethical Theory and Religion in the Enlightenment; and 3) The Beautiful: Aesthetics in the Enlightenment.
Horkheimer & Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment
In their classic text, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno contest Kant and the positivity of Enlightenment.
They argue the concept of reason was transformed into its opposite – an irrational force – by the Enlightenment. As a consequence, reason came to dominate not only nature, but also humankind itself.
As major representatives of the Frankfurt School, Horkheimer and Adorno were the major architects of Critical Theory, who engaged in a project to interpret Marxist philosophy. More pointedly, they aimed to reinterpret Marx’s important economic and political ideas: commodification, reification, and fetishization, which they incorporated into their critique of mass culture.
Critical theory draws from Kantian rationalism, Marxist Hegelianism, dialectical materialism, and historical materialism to critically engage the following ideas:
- the notion that humans are rational beings; the world of the real comes not from our senses, but from our rational capacities; therefore, a rational society is possible.
- the idea that social systems are constantly challenged by their contradictions; contradictions produce new syntheses, and out of this change (progress) occurs [this is the essence of dialectical thinking].
- progress as such does not occur as a result of straight means-end logic (formal rationality); means-end logic is what underlies repression and domination in society; it leads to totalitarianism.
- the materialist conception of history is a theory of history according to which the material conditions of a society’s mode of production (its way of producing and reproducing the means of human existence—in Marxist terms, the union of its productive capacity and social relations of production) fundamentally determine social organization and development.
- these theoretical frameworks explain events as not discrete and isolated; they are, rather, part of a social process that implies constant challenge, contradiction, and change.
The Problem of Enlightenment
Critical theorists (Horkheimer and Adorno in particular) were concerned with the problem of “Enlightenment” within modernity and post-modernity. So for example, the central premise of the book Dialectic of Enlightenment was that “something went wrong with the Enlightenment.”
Enlightenment, in their view, became totalitarian; now it’s all about controlling nature and humans.
Enlightenment, furthermore, created a culture that violates individuality by compelling conformity. The potential of the individual is not being destroyed by fascism alone; rather, it’s the positivist turn of modern science and the Enlightenment.
The only way to get out of this modern version of hell is to engage in a critical theory of society – this is the only way to achieve transformation and social progress.
Faced with the unfolding events of the Holocaust, Dialectic of Enlightenment begins with the words:
“Enlightenment, as understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity.”
Again, the book here alleges that something went wrong with Enlightenment; the authors aim here then is to discover the motives behind humanity’s seeming retrogression, which undercuts progressive notions of civilization.
Another focal point of the book is its critique of instrumental reason (a concept Horkheimer and Adorno borrowed from Max Weber). Their formulation of the concept distinguishes how reason was employed for the purpose of mastering and dominating nature. Clearly, H&A were not optimistic about the Enlightenment and this was their way of demonstrating how the entire project of rationality was self-destructive right down to the core.
A related concept – that of “reification” – is drawn from Georg Lukacs and refers to the process of the “objectification” of nature through this use of reason.
The author’s critique of positivism and capitalism follows straightforwardly from here, as the Dialectic reveals their philosophical position: totalitarian states and state capitalism are one and the same; they institutionalize reason in a such a way as to realize the goal of transforming nature (including humans) into objects for the “commodity fetish”.
Horkheimer & Adorno’s critique constitutes the basis of a grand narrative, which takes the point of view of the totality. This way of thinking – grand theorizing – was intentionally undertaken as a means to overcome disciplinary boundaries, to the extent that it aims to combine the study of history and philosophy with the study of society.
Ultimately, they are trying to understand the underlying change dynamics that drive how the social order reproduces itself.
Section 1 deals with the concept of Enlightenment
Section 2 reveals Enlightenment to be a myth.
Section 3 addresses the submission of subject, who makes the object its master.
Section 4 focuses on the “Culture Industry” as the mediator of all social action and knowledge.
Section 5 traces the descent of humanity from Enlightenment into barbarism.
Historical & Theoretical Context of Their Work
In order to understand the emphasis that Horkheimer and Adorno placed upon the imperative need to undertake an analysis of the nature of mass culture in contemporary society, it is necessary first of all to situate their cultural theory within the wider context of their theory as a whole, given its fullest expression in Dialectic of Enlightenment.
At the heart of their work lies a deep discomfort with the nature of modern capitalist society. They drew heavily upon a Marxist framework of analysis, seeing capitalism as fundamentally exploitative, and believing that it must be overthrown for humanity to achieve its full potential. However, witnessing the rise of fascism, failure of socialism and dominance of monopoly capitalism, they argued that critical theory must move beyond a traditional Marxist emphasis on the mode of production alone, which they felt was unable to satisfactorily account for these developments.
Marx’s emphasis on the economic base led, they argued, to the conclusion that capitalism was doomed to be replaced by socialism. However, in fact they believed Capitalism’s more logical endpoint to be the creation of a ‘verwaltete velt’, in which mankind subjected itself to irrational rule in an entirely rational manner.
Adorno and Horkheimer argued that as mankind had increased its technical mastery over nature humanity itself had become caught up in this process of domination. In such a society the genuine aim of enlightened reason – to critically negate what is given – had been eradicated, allowing for the use of entirely rational methods to carry out the most irrational of goals, such as genocide or war.
Their belief in the importance of the need to understand the process of rationalisation led Adorno and Horkheimer to see the project to expand critical theory beyond a focus on political economy alone. In their view, it was necessary to uncover the processes which were leading to the creation of an entirely rationalised social totality, dominated by the logic of the market.
In other words, their critique focuses on the social totality – previously distinct spheres of culture, politics and the market were increasingly merging – and each had come to play a central role in the maintenance of the whole.
Culture in such a society could, they claimed, not be seen as a mere epiphenomenon determined by the base, but rather played a role in the creation of the base itself.
Political economy (Marx’s focus) declined in relative significance and the need for a critical analysis of culture became more pressing.
The Culture Industry
In this famous chapter, Horkheimer and Adorno aimed to show how Enlightenment became a force of mass deception. Moving from this central thesis, they proceed to an explanation whereby they explore the dialectical relationship between culture and technics as part of a critique of the commodification of culture in modernity.
They use the term “culture industry” to describe the commodification of cultural forms that had resulted from the growth of monopoly capitalism.
Popular culture was constituted as a single culture industry whose purpose is to ensure the continued obedience of the masses to market interests.
Culture is in many respects like a “factory” churning out standardized cultural goods — television, film, newspapers, magazines and other forms of entertainment. Their purpose is to manipulate mass society into passivity. Human critical thinking capcity (reason) is eliminated.
Culture, according to the authors, has evolved to the point that it is the central mediator of what we know and how social change takes place.
The easy pleasures available through the consumption of popular culture make people docile and content, no matter how difficult their life/economic circumstances.
Adorno, furthermore, believed the culture industry was a system; that society was controlled though the top-down creation of standardized mass culture that intensified the commodification of artistic expression.
The Culture Industry cultivates false needs: these are needs created by and satisfied by capitalism.
True needs, by way of contrast, are freedom, creativity, and genuine happiness [Marcuse was the first among the Critical theorists to demarcate true needs from false needs in Eros and Civilization].
Under conditions of generalized commodity exchange, Adorno and Horkheimer claim that all aspects of cultural practice, technique, and meaning-making – whether high or low, elite or popular – become subsumed within the industrial system of production, exchange, and consumption. This commodification of culture results in the general homogenization of cultural artefacts and the instrumentalisation of autonomous art. These cultural processes have the power to penetrate the very roots of our psychic and social formation as individuated subjects.
The Subsumption of Art Under Capital
H & A present an argument, where they contrast the emancipatory potential of what they term ‘genuine’ or ‘autonomous’ art, and the products of the culture industry, which play the opposite role. By uncovering the social conditions that gave rise to both forms of art, they claim to reveal the impact that commodification has had upon art itself, and hence on society as a whole and our very consciousness.
Enlightenment, they argued, brought about the social conditions that now represent the subsumption of the previously relatively autonomous realm of culture into a market governed by instrumental logic.
Having been subjected to the intersection of the commodity form, instrumental rationality, and a social processes of reification, individuals increasingly experience themselves as exchangeable “things” within a social arena dominated by principles of market exchange.
Art suffers as a result, because it becomes a consumer good like any other consumer good. Ultimately, there is a loss of autonomous art through the process of commodification, where there is an increasing convergence of art, advertising, and marketing.
This results in a condition of universal spectacle and narcissistic consumerism – think Kanye – which precipitates regressive forms of failure to achieve, as well as a subject ego that increasingly defines itself based on the objects it acquires. In other words, autonomous subjectivity is dissolved and replaced by commodified forms of “pseudo-individuality.”
Adorno’s analysis allowed for a critique of popular mass culture from the left as well as the right. From both perspectives — left and right — he believed the nature of cultural production was the root of social and moral problems, which was a result of the consumption of culture. A central tenet of Adorno’s argument is the idea that under certain social conditions, art can provide an alternate vision of reality. He argues that autonomous art has the capacity to highlight the inequalities and irrationality of the status quo, by presenting an ideal vision of what mankind can aspire towards. As such it has an emancipatory character.
While the conservative critique from the right emphasized moral degeneracy ascribed to sexual and racial influences within popular culture, Horkheimer and Adorno located the problem not with the content of culture, but with the objective realities of the production of mass culture and its effects [recall how the conservative critique of the 1960’s “counter-culture” located degeneracy in the culture itself and social groups, rather than in the forces of production].
The differences among cultural goods make them appear different, but they are in fact just variations on the same theme. Adorno conceptualized this phenomenon as “pseudo-individualization” and the “always-the-same.”
Religion, Belief, and the Death of Reason
During the time that this book was written, religiosity was on the decline in Germany. Horkheimer and Adorno wrote: “the sociological theory that the loss of the support of objectively established religion, the dissolution of the last remnants of pre-capitalism, together with technological and social differentiation or specialisation, have led to cultural chaos is disproved every day; for culture now impresses the same stamp on everything. The drive to “disenchant” the world (Max Weber’s term) reflected the ongoing tendency to wrest rational control from what previously could only be seen as blind fate — was always closely associated with the Enlightenment’s attack on the institutional privileges and intellectual status accorded to revealed religion.
The story is well known. Kant saved faith from Hume and philosophy from dogmatism by curtailing the speculative pretensions of the one and the reach of the other. At the same time, he submitted religion to the court of reason and thus left space for autonomy.
The Left Hegelians (particularly Feuerbach and Marx) took the humanization of the world a step further by reducing metaphysics to anthropology and religion to need. The history of religion became the history of man’s alienated but authentic hope, a hope that needed to be reclaimed not in relgious terms, but in the name of freedom.
Nietzsche — the apostate son of a Lutheran pastor — launched his own, anti-Hegelian critique of metaphysics. He sought to psychologize the urge for atemporal, necessary, and universal Truth and thus to cure the nostalgia for a sovereign God and a sovereign Subject by revealing them both to be fictions of grammar and bad faith. And to this day, we find the emancipatory interest in overcoming metaphysics pursued literally by Left Hegelians and rhetorically by Nietzscheans — by Marxists and Heideggerians, by Leftists and Deconstructionists.
But also in the current day, we see a resurgence in belief-based metaphysical thought, which is often coupled with a critique of science that reduces it to mere speculation and theory.
Now, it goes without saying that metaphysics — the study of extra-sensory reality — is not always the same as religion. But, from his first book on Kierkegaard to his final completed work, the Negative Dialectics, in which he launches a critical recovery of metaphysics itself, Adorno returns again and again to themes derived from metaphysics and theology.
In a short essay on music, which was written 10 years after DoE and 10 years before Negative Dialectics, Adorno differentiates music from what he calls intentional language that is, the instrumental language of everyday communication:
“The language of music is quite different from the language of intentionality. It contains a theological dimension. What it has to say is simultaneously revealed and concealed. Its Idea is the divine Name which has been given shape. It is demythologized prayer, rid of efficacious magic. It is the human attempt, doomed as ever, to name the Name, not to communicate meanings… Music points to true language in the sense that content is apparent in it, but it does so at the cost of unambiguous meaning, which has migrated to the languages of intentionality.”
True language is thus not the language of meaning, of information, of communication between people. It is the revelation of the absolute (the dream of a language beyond intention derives directly from Walter Benjamin).
Criticism of Horkheimer & Adorno
As I already documented on the page/post that addressed the Frankfurt School, H&A were not without their detractors. Many found their theories to be needlessly abstract and overwhelmingly negative, to the extent they offered no focused substantive answers that would suggest how we might “escape” the social forces they describe.
Even today, scholars of critical theory regard the philosophical exercises of the founding authors to be more or less marginal works― lapses of judgment for thinkers who are otherwise celebrated for their mastery of dialectics. The following passage comes from a jacket description of a new book by Peter E. Gordon,
The following passage alludes to this struggle; it is from the jacket description of a book by Peter E. Gordon, Adorno and Existence:
“In the case of Adorno, his persistent fascination with the philosophical canons of existentialism and phenomenology suggests a connection far more productive than merely indicating antipathy. From his first published book on Kierkegaard’s aesthetic to his mature studies in negative dialectics, Adorno was forever returning to the philosophies of bourgeois interiority, seeking the paradoxical relation between their manifest failure and their hidden promise. Ultimately, Adorno saw in them an instructive if unsuccessful attempt to realize his own ambition: to escape the enchanted circle of idealism so as to grasp “the primacy of the object.” Exercises in “immanent critique,” Adorno’s writings on Kierkegaard, Husserl, and Heidegger present us with a photographic negative―a philosophical portrait of the author himself.
What Can We Take Away From This Complex Work?
Enlightenment is not what it objectively seems to be. It failed on its promise to free humans from myth, for it creates its own myth – that we must achieve freedom from nature.
Sociology as a discipline has traditionally made the mistake of assuming that humans and nature constitute binaries, rather than seeing humans and nature as one [remember, it was Marx that told us the first level of “alienation” is the alienation of humans to nature].
Knowledge-seeking does not occur through a neutral acquisition of information [sorry, Weber & Durkheim]; it’s connected to power: power over nature, and power over each other.
The critique of subjectivity (the ability of a subject to be reflective and act self-consciously) is particularly important. Horkheimer and Adorno show us how the transcendental subject/self was effectively broken as society became more complex : in modern society the mind/ego/self are divorced from the body. This creates a false separation of the body from nature and matter. The result is that man fears annihilation and compensates with a desire to dominate and survive, though such a process of living is ultimately a self-alienating activity.
Modern society elevates knowledge, particularly scientific knowledge, as achievement that is synonomous with unequivocal progress. We take the mythology that was once used to describe nature and do the same to science.
Science and reason are in danger of being subsumed under capitalism; they are no longer pursued for enlightenment purposes, but to dominate nature and to ultimately serve capital.
Blog post & Summary of Dialectic of Enlightenment. Last accessed March 2016.
Blog post Last accessed May 2016
Sandra Trappen – notes from Stanley Aronowitz
Do you think there is such a think as a “culture industry” or does the concept fail to fully articulate and/or describe the social dynamics of culture in our modern time?
How do we escape; that is, get outside culture?
How might you use Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique of the culture industry to critique developments in our contemporary culture (think about the Kardashians, or about professional sports, reality television, or anything really).
Do you think that being willing to critique or to examine the social, political and cultural structures within the society in which we all live (as done in the social sciences) is a radical “leftist” project? Does challenging authority make you uncomfortable?
The rise of fascism’s rise in Germany prior to World Wars I &II provides us with an example of passive revolution; important social institutions and structures were manipulated to such a degree that they fostered a false consciousness that ultimately prevented a leftist socialist revolution. In Italy, Mussolini made himself out to be socialist leaning populist, but upon assuming power he established a new capitalist hegemony. Hitler’s party was a nominal “Workers’ Party,” though by 1941 Germany was as right-wing (economically) as Italy. Social movements in both countries revolved around how Hitler and Mussolini reacted to the tragedy of WWI and its destruction of the techno-utopian and optimistic thinking of the period. The two leaders successfully converted populist anger into populist action against the enemies of the nation. The “collectivity” both nations represented constituted an effective subversion of the “collectivity” leftists at that time said would propel the proletarian revolution. With that, do you see any parallels in our current time period? If so, what role does culture potentially play in manufacturing passivity/consent and populist anger among members of the U.S. population?
Ironically, conservatives in the United States tend to sneer and even mock science, even as they eagerly deploy it in the service of things that they value: war, torture, invasion, police intimidation and brutality, and the mass surveillance of American citizens. Universities are moving in the direction where they value positivism to the extreme – research methods and theories not deployed in the service of revealing probabalistic outcomes are considered inferior and not worthy of study and funding. The “arts” of the Liberal Arts are being expunged by administrators who pay lip service to “critical thinking” pedagogy. How can we call upon critical theory to show how “Enlightenment” is under attack again? How has reason itself become subverted yet again?