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Dialectic of Enlightenment | Study Guide

Theodor W. Adorno/Max Horkheimer

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Theodor W. Adorno/Max Horkheimer

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At a Glance

Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno wrote Dialectic of Enlightenment while in exile from Nazi Germany. They asked themselves what led to such oppression and concluded that Enlightenment values—such as truth and freedom—can be twisted to oppressive ends. They also analyzed the ways that fascism and consumer culture are both conformist. Although Dialectic of Enlightenment is about a particular historical breaking point, its questions remain important since fascism and totalitarianism are still threats today.

About the Title

The book examines the negative consequences of the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement in Europe lasting from the late 17th century through the 18th. Philosophers, writers, scientists, and artists of the Enlightenment proposed new ideas that coalesced in a worldview that favored rationalism, with the aim of increasing the freedom, knowledge, and happiness of humankind. Authors Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer argue that Enlightenment values, while useful in rescuing European civilization from superstition and oppression, have led to new forms of oppression, particularly in fascist and totalitarian regimes.

Adorno and Horkheimer use dialectics to support their argument. Dialectics, also called "the dialectic," is a form of logic that dates back to classical Greece. It was further elaborated in the 19th century, notably by the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), whose definition was adopted by other thinkers, including the German political philosophers Karl Marx (1818–83) and Friedrich Engels (1820–95). Hegel showed how a concept tends to pass over into its opposite as the result of its internal contradictions. While Hegel's dialectic logic focused on the rules governing the transition of one concept into another, Marx's dialectic logic, "dialectical materialism," focused on the rules governing the transition of one set of sociohistorical situations into another. For example, Marxist theories showed how oppressed workers could become rulers of a liberated society. Adorno and Horkheimer's title, Dialectic of Enlightenment, refers to the way the pursuit of Enlightenment values—such as freedom and tolerance—pave the way for their opposites in a technologically sophisticated but oppressive society.


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