The ”Dialectic of Enlightenment” before Horkheimer and Adorno

About a month ago I finished teaching classes and began a year-long sabbatical. A few weeks later I headed off to Marburg for a conference organized by Sonja Lavaert and Winfried Schröder that sought to place Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment in a “philosophical-historical perspective.” My contribution to the affair was a revised and expanded discussion of a question that I’d discussed in an earlier post on this blog: “What, if anything, does Dialectic of Enlightenment have to do with ‘the Enlightenment’?”

While working on my talk, it occurred to me that I’d never bothered to see whether anyone used the phrase “Dialektik der Aufklärung” before Horkheimer and Adorno. A glance at the Ngram viewer suggested that the term had little currency prior to 1947 (no surprises here!) and that it only comes into a broader usage in the 1960s — and almost always with reference to Horkheimer and Adorno’s book. But, along with the usual false hits produced by bad metadata, there were three earlier usages of the term by other authors. Two of the three were interesting, but neither of them had much relevance for my talk.

Screenshot 2016-06-03 06.14.15

But, since I’ve been woefully negligent in posting (there are reasons for this, but none of them are worth discussing), I thought I might as well discuss them here.

Horkheimer and Adorno’s Use of the Phrase

Let’s start with Horkheimer and Adorno’s use of the phrase. As readers of this blog no doubt know, the 1944 hectograph of the book that would be published in 1947 as Dialektik der Aufklärung carried the title Philosophische Fragmente, which would go on to serve as the subtitle of the 1947 book. The opening chapter of the 1944 Philosophische Fragmente was titled “Dialektik der Aufklärung” and the phrase itself appears twice in the 194 7 version: once in the opening chapter, where Odysseus’ encounter with the Sirens is described as an “allegory of the dialectic of enlightenment”, and again in the last section of the chapter on anti-semitism (which first appeared in the 1947 edition), which states that, with the “progress of industrial society,” the “dialectic of enlightenment” collapses into “madness” ( “Die Dialektik der Aufklärung schlägt objektiv in den Wahnsinn um”).

When the title of the opening chapter of the 1944 hectograph was adopted as the title for the 1947 book, the opening chapter was retitled “Begriff der Aufklärung.” The earliest drafts of the opening chapter, however, carried the title “Mythos und Aufklärung.” It would not be too far-fetched to see these changes a capturing something of the evolution of Horkheimer and Adorno’s understanding of the book that they were writing. By 1944 chapter that had initially begun as a juxtaposition of mythical and enlightened forms of thought — a juxtaposition that, as Theodore Ziolkowski has discussed, was hardly unusual during the 1920s and 1930s — turned into a dialectic in which myth was already enlightenment and enlightenment collapsed back into myth.1 And in 1947, what had been a collection of fragments circulated among friends and associates of the Institute for Social Research would be presented to a broader public as a discussion of the “dialectic of enlightenment.”

Uses of the phrase by Horkheimer and Adorno prior to the beginning of their collaboration on the book are surprisingly scarce. Indeed, the only one I have been able to track down comes in the letter Adorno wrote to Horkheimer shortly before leaving New York to join him in Los Angeles. In it Adorno reports that he has finally been able to track down a copy of Geoffrey Gorer’s The Marquis De Sade: a Short Account of His Life and Work, which Adorno explains “deals essentially with the dialectic of enlightenment or the dialectic of culture and barbarism.”2 At one point I thought I’d spotted an earlier use of the phrase in one of Adorno’s reviews in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, but searches of Adorno’s collected works have turned up nothing, nor does the phrase appear in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung. I have not been able to do a complete search of the Horkheimer Gesammelte Schriften since I do not own an electronic text version (is there one?), but the comprehensive index that appears as Volume 19 indicates no usage prior to the actual writing of the book. So, while I tend to doubt that the appearance of the phrase in Adorno’s 1941 letter to Horkheimer marks their first use of it, I have found no evidence of one. I trust that better informed readers will correct me if I am mistaken.

Earlier Uses: Willmann, Keins, and Schalk

Searches on Google turn up three earlier uses of the phrase (which, once again, is not to suggest that there may not be others hiding out there somewhere). They are:

  1. Otto Willmann, Didaktik als Bildungslehre nach Beziehungen zur Socialforschung und zur Geschichte der Bildung (Braunschweig: Friedrich Bieweg und Sohn, 1882) 390: “In gewissem Betracht störte schon die Dialektik der scholastischen Periode das Gleichmass, mehr noch die Philologie der ersten Renaissancezeit, die nicht ohne Gewaltsamkeit den Primat under den Bildungselementen an sich riss, um nachmals wieder Anfeindungen seitens der Dialektik der Aufklärung zu erfahren.”
  2. Paul Keins, “Rutebeufs Weltanschauung im Spiegel seiner Zeit,” Zeitschrift für Romanische Philologie 53 (1933): 569–75: “Mann hat ja sogar Pascal vor allem wegen seiner scharfen Dialektik der Aufklärung nahe gebracht.”
  3. Fritz Schalk, “Formen und Disharmonien der französischen Aufklärung,” Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 15 (1937): 254: “Solche Lehren lessen sich aus ihr belegen, aber meist sind sie in ihren grossen Denkern verknüpft mit ihrer Widerlegung, und erst in einem sprunghaften Hin und Wider in einer verwirrenden Spannung gegensätzlicher Ideen vermag man die stete Dialektik der Aufklärung zu verstehen als das wahre Spiegelbild ihrer tiefen Disharmonie.”

While the text by Willmann used the phrase that Horkheimer and Adorno would later employ, his use of it can serve as a reminder that not all appearances of the German term Aufklärung have much to do with “the Enlightenment” or even with “enlightenment.” Willmann was an educational theroism and his 1882 book (which was translated into English in 1930) was described in a 1929 article as a “well-known” work that stressed “the need of considering education from its historical aspects and social functions.”3 In short, his concern was with the “dialectic of education” rather than the “dialectic of enlightenment.” In contrast, the texts by Keins and Schalk are dealing with what might be described as a dialectic of enlightenment, though they approach it in somewhat different ways.

Paul Keins turns out to be a rather interesting figure. Born in Berlin in 1909, he pursued studies in Romanistics at Munich with Karl Vossler, a leading German Romanist (and Croce disciple). Keins was the grandson of Leo Olschki — the founder of a Florentine publishing house that is still alive and well (their site includes a family tree for those interested in tracing Keins’ genealogy) — and the cousin of the antiquarian bookseller Bernard Rosenthal.  After completing his academic studies, Keins went on to pursue the family trade in Lugano, Zurich, and Madrid.

Olschki Familyh Tree

(Here is the place to confess that everything I know about Olschki, Rosenthal, and Keins has been derived from a reading of the website of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, which includes a page on “Booksellers in Exile”).4  After moving to Madrid, Paul Keins became Pablo Keins (his full name was Erwin Rosenthal Pablo Keins) and, thanks to his acquisition of a large library of rare Spanish works, the Libreria Pablo Keins became a center for older Spanish literary works. He fled Madrid during the civil war, eventually winding up in Buenos Aires, where he re-established the Libreria Pablo Keins and became friends with Jorge Luis Borges (who, not surprisingly, enjoyed prowling around antiquarian bookstores). At some point prior to leaving Madrid, Keins translated Bruno Frank’s novel Cervantes into Spanish (WorldCat lists the publication date as 1941).5

While the focus of Keins’ article — the thirteenth century trouvère Rutebeuf — would appear to be rather far removed from the concerns of Horkheimer and Adorno, his invocation of a “Dialektik der Aufklärung” comes at the close of the article when — having drawn a broader contrast between activist and quietist tendencies, which he sees as exemplified by the contrast between Bosseut and Fénélon and between Jansenists and Jesuits — he attempts to capture the tension between tradition and innovation in a single phrase, a tension that he finds at the heart of Pascal. For Keins, as for Horkheimer and Adorno, the arc of the dialectic of enlightenment stretches rather far back into history.

Finally, with Fritz Schalk’s article we are clearly confronted with a text that is concerned with “the Enlightenment” (in this case, the French branch). For Schalk, the French Enlightenment was essentially “dialectical” — it could be understood only by examining the various contradictions that defined it. Like Keins, Schalk was trained as a Romanist. He studied in Vienna with Karl Bühler and Nikolai Trobetzkoy and, on the advice of his classmate Ludwig Landgrebe pursued studies with Husserl in Freiburg and with Heidegger in Marburg. Returning to Vienna, he wrote his dissertation on Pascal’s Style and eventually gained a position at Hamburg with a 1932 Habilitationschrift on the influence of the Encyclopédie on the French Enlightenment.6 Protests from Nazi students, who denounced him as a “liberal”, led to his being transferred to Köln, where he spent the rest of his career.

He continued to publish articles throughout the war (including his piece on “Formen und Disharmonien der französischen Aufklärung”). His approach was grounded in the work of Aby Warburg, Ernst Cassirer, and Bruno Snell (who spent the war teaching a Hamburg) and Hausmann’s entry in the NDB argues that, by concentrating on eighteenth-century French moralists, he was able to avoid having to make concession to Nazi ideology.

It is perhaps significant that, in 1947, he published an article on the history of the concepts “fanatique” and “fanatisme” that, taking its departure from an article in which Dorf Sternberger argued that it was not until the triumph of National Socialism that the word fanatisch was used in a positive sense, traced the history of the term back to the eighteenth century, explored the traffic between political and religious usages of the term, noted instances of its use in a positive sense during the French Revolution, and concluded that the “political abuse of language is not limited to the boundaries of a national culture” but was, instead, “an indicator of the universal spirit, or better, the general anti-spirit of our time.”7 But, while this conclusion may echo the verdict of another, more familiar work, that appeared in 1947, there is no evidence that its authors knew anything about Schalk’s work.


  1. See Theodore Ziolkowski, Modes of Faith: Secular Surrogates for Lost Religious Belief (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), Chapter 7. ↩︎
  2. Theodor Adorno, letter to Max Horkheimer, November 10, 1941, in Max Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften 17:210-212. ↩︎
  3. Otto Willmann, The Science of Education in Its Sociological and Historical Aspects, 2d ed... (Latrobe, Pa: Archabbey Press, 1930); L. H. Ad. Geck, “Some Recent German Publications Concerning Problems of Educational Sociology,” Journal of Educational Sociology 2:10 (June 1929): 585. ↩︎
  4. For a discussion of the family, see Bernard M. Rosenthal, “Clartel, Clan, or Dynasty?  The Olschkis and the Rosenthals, 1859-1976,” Harvard Library Bulletin XXV, no. 4 (October 1977): 381–98. ↩︎
  5. The book would be translated into English by Thomas Mann’s translator H. T. Lowe-Porter in 1935. ↩︎
  6. I am leaning very heavily here on Frank-Rutger Hausmann’s entry on Schalk in the Neue Deutsche Biographie 22 (2005): 551. ↩︎
  7. Fritz Schalk, “Über ’fanatique’ und ’fanatisme’,” Romanische Forschungen 60:1 (1947): 206–14. ↩︎

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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