What, if anything, does Dialectic of Enlightenment have to do with the Enlightenment?

It’s hardly surprising that scholars working in the area of eighteenth-century studies tend not to be well-disposed towards Dialectik der Aufklärung. At best, anyone who enters Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s labyrinth hoping to learn something about “the Enlightenment” is bound to come away somewhat confused. Explicit discussions of eigh­teenth century figures are scarce (they are confined, for the most part, to the book’s discussion on Kant and Sade) and tend to be lost in a cast of characters that stretches from Oedipus and Odysseus through Francis Bacon, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud, and onward to Greta Garbo, Donald Duck, and Adolf Hitler. Since I’m teaching the book again this term as part of a course on “Enlightenment and its Critics,” I thought it might make sense to consider some of the reasons why this peculiar book has managed to cause so much confusion, especially since those confusions have something to do with the conceptual history of the notion of “enlightenment” itself.

It hasn’t help matters that the Anglophone discussions of the book were, at least initially, not entirely clear as to how to deal with the title. Attempts to render it as Dialectic of the Enlightenment were not uncommon (see, for example, Dick Howard, “A Politics in Search of the Political,” Theory and Society 1:3 (1974) 279). But confusions about what the book is doing are hardly confined to Anglophone readers. Concluding that something must have gone terribly wrong with the book’s treatment of the concept of “enlightenment,” Norbert Hinske bemoaned the “blindness of the authors towards all problems of conceptual history” and chastised Horkheimer and Adorno for their projection of “enlightenment” – a concept that “is originally bound to a specific epoch” – back onto earlier periods (see his “Einleitung,” in Was ist Aufklärung? Beiträge aus der Berlinischen Monatsschrift (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1981) xiv and his further thoughts in the afterward for the second edition, 553-558).

It turns out that complaints of this sort have accompanied the book from the start. In one of the few initial reviews of the work, the Stuttgart philosopher Max Bense (“Hegel und die kalifornische Emigration,” Merkur IV:1 (1950) 118-125) observed that the book had ignored the contributions of Diderot and Condorcet and went on to criticize its authors for their use of a “one-sided” conception of enlightenment that had been chiefly derived from Francis Bacon, whose presence loomed large in the book’s opening pages. But Bense differed from later critics in one important respect. As he saw it, the problem with Dialectic of Enlightenment was not that its concept of enlightenment was too expansive; he thought that it was not expansive enough. Because they constructed their concept around the notions of “fear,” “domination,” and “totalitarianism,” Horkheimer and Adorno were guilty in his eyes of employing an essentially “feudalistic” notion of enlightenment. As a result, they could not appreciate the extent to which enlightenment was a concept that transcended historical periods: it is a notion that “is defined in other terms in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries than it is in the sixteenth and seventeenth century.”

Bense’s review suggests that Hinske’s understanding of the conceptual history of the concept of enlightenment is not without its blind spots. For though Bense may have had reservations about the particular way in which Horkheimer and Adorno framed their concept of enlightenment, he found nothing objectionable about their use of the term to designate a process that reached back into Greek antiquity. Indeed, the discussion of the “transition from mythology to enlightenment” in Dialektik der Aufklärung reminded him of two other recent studies: Wilhelm Nestle’s Vom Mythos zum Logos (1940) and Bruno Snell’s Die Entdeckung des Geistes (1946). What Horkheimer and Adorno were doing struck him as an attempt to bring a “sociological” analysis to bear on a question that Nestle had approached from the perspective of a “philosophy of history” and Snell had analyzed from the standpoint of the “history of language.”

Of the two other studies Bense cited, Vom Mythos zum Logos was the more ambitious in seeking to draw analogies between the eighteenth century and classical antiquity. Indeed, in sketching the broad outlines of the trajectory that his book intended to trace, Nestle turned to Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment?” and drew a parallel between path from mythos to logos that his book proposed to trace and the passage from “immaturity to maturity” that, for Kant, had been the hallmark of enlightenment (Nestle 6) Analogies of this sort had long figured in Nestle’s work. He had opened his 1901 study Euripides, Poet of the Greek Enlightenment with the observation that, while there were a number of “excellent presentations of Greek philosophy,” a “history of the Greek enlightenment” was lacking (6). For the rest of his career, he worked at providing one. A 1909 article argued that, just as “the ideas of enlightenment” associated with Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot paved the way for the French Revolution, so too the “age of Greek enlightenment” in the second half of the fifth century provided support for a revolution, albeit a revolution that proceeded not “from below” but rather “from above, in a reaction in aristocratic intellectual circles against the degenerate democracy” (“Politik und Aufklärung in Griechland im Ausgang des V. Jahrhunderts v. Chr.,” Neue Jahrbücher für das klassische Alterum, Geschichte, und Deutsches Literatur 1:1 (1909) 1-22). In an article published the next year, Nestle characterized Sophocles as standing in “fundamental and violent opposition against everything that is called enlightenment” (“Sophokles und die Sophistik,” Classical Philology V:2 (1910) 135-6).

But for all its confidence in the progress of human reason, Nestle’s book would up offering a chilling confirmation of the intertwining of myth and enlightenment that Horkheimer and Adorno were trying to comprehend. A passage in which Nestle invoked Kant’s answer to the question “What is enlightenment?” takes a sinister turn:

To go on this path from Mythos to Logos, to grow up from immaturity to maturity of spirit, seems to have been reserved for the Aryan peoples as the most talented race, and among these there is in turn no other people in whom this development can be traced so clearly as among the ancient Greeks. (6)

Nestle had remained in Germany during the war and made his peace with new regime. He had been a regular contributor to National Socialist journals since 1930 and participated in discussions on the implementation of National Socialist ideology into the classical curriculum. While the bulk of Vom Mythos zum Logos drew on work that had been completed long before the establishment of the National Socialist state, he inserted a few lines at the start of the book in which he expressed the hope that his study might have something to contribute to the struggles of the current day (vi).

It is far from clear what exactly Nestle thought his work could offer to a movement whose leading ideologist – the party hack Alfred Rosenberg –invoked “the Mythus of the blood” and “the Mythus of that new life-feeling” as a way to gain “the strength to overthrow the presumptuous domination of sub-humans and to create a unique civilization which will penetrate into all areas of life.” It is possible that, like Martin Heidegger, Nestle was under the illusion that he might provide the movement with a more subtle understanding of its world-historical mission than the obscure bluster that filled works like Rosenberg’s. Or, like many other German academics, he said what he thought he needed to say in the hopes of finding a way to survive. Whatever the explanation, the comments he added to his text in hopes of providing it with contemporary relevance are hard to reconcile with the contrast between mythos and logos that animated the other parts of his study. He now appeared less concerned with arguing that there was a steady progress from mythos to logos than with insisting that – while mythos and logos might appear to be “enemy brothers” – they were, in fact, “children of the same Hellenic spirit,” and that an understanding of the history of their kinship had something to teach the present (20).

While Nestle was producing drivel like this in Germany, Horkheimer and Adorno were working — under sunny California skies — on one of the bleakest of accounts of the vicissitudes of enlightenment. Central to its argument was the notion that mythos and logos — Nestle’s Hellenic children — had turned into evil twins.

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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2 Responses to What, if anything, does Dialectic of Enlightenment have to do with the Enlightenment?

  1. Pingback: The ”Dialectic of Enlightenment” before Horkheimer and Adorno | Persistent Enlightenment

  2. Pingback: 18th century blog round-up resumes: march edition | The Long Eighteenth

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