How convincing is Adorno and Horkheimer's critique of the Enlightenment Project?

The Enlightenment refers to an historical period dating from the end of the seventeenth century to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Enlightenment Project refers to the ideas debated by philosophers and the scientific communities in the educated or enlightened parts of the world. The Enlightenment project was largely a European movement but these ideas were also debated in both England and Scotland. Old ideas and traditional religious authority were called into question by the advances of science and philosophers believed that human beings were entering into a new order of human progress, moral progress and freedom. From this developed the view that nature and history could be mastered and this resulted in the two World Wars of the Twentieth Century. It was in this climate that Adorno and Horkheimer mounted their critique of the Enlightenment Project. Far from progressing human beings were becoming more alienated from themselves and this was exacerbated by what Adorno termed the ‘culture industry’.This paper, therefore, will give a brief account of the Enlightenment and its influence on Marxist thinking, followed by the development of critical theory as exemplified in the ideas of the Frankfurt School. It will then give a summary of Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of the Enlightenment and of capitalist culture, it will also assess how far this is a convincing argument.

The Enlightenment Project

The new scientific view of the world which first emerged in late 17th Century Europe questioned previously held ways of knowing and thinking about the world. Religious doctrine and teachings that had been upheld as objective truths and thus decided the way most people lived their lives were called into question. These advances resulted in a new way of thinking and speaking about the world. Reader (1997) has defined the Enlightenment in the following way:

An emphasis on the primacy of reason as the correct way of organising knowledge, a concentration on empirical data accessible to all and a belief that human progress was to be achieved by the application of science and reason (1997:4).

At the same time there emerged huge technological and social changes that led to a break with what had gone before. Scholars differ in their views as to the catalyst for change and to the most important areas of thinking. The philosophical debates were impinged on by changing historical circumstances such as the French Revolution of 1789 and the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Historical development’s impact on philosophy was most evident in Hegel’s work and this had profound implications for thinking about the world and the way in which it was studied.. Hegel took the view that the revolution had not just influenced the way philosophy saw itself; it fundamentally changed the way philosophers dealt with reality and history. This influenced thinkers all over Europe who already nurtured ideals of equality and progress. Hegel viewed the individual as a subject within history and history as developmental and thus liberative. This was the first time that history and humanity’s role within it had been recognised as an ongoing and changing process. Hegel’s work was very important,  but his critics were at pains to point out that Hegel’s work was all in the realm of ideas. Other important Enlightenment figures were Kant and Hume who both, in their different ways attempted to combine ideas of rationalism with scientific empiricism (Palin, 1986). It was Hegel’s work, however, that was critical to Marx’s thinking and through that to the thinking of both Horkhiemer and Adorno and to their later critique of the Enlightenment project.

Marx and Human Alienation

The German philosopher Karl Marx criticised Hegel because he believed that Hegel and the other philosophers dealt only in the realm of ideas and neglected the experience of the human subject. Hegel belonged to a circle in Germany known as the German Idealists. This movement regarded philosophical debate and the formation of ideas as of paramount importance. It was Marx’s view that ideas were all very well but what was needed to really bring about change was practical action (Callinicos, 1999). The inscription on Marx’s headstone at Highate Cemetry states:

The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it (Marsh, I. 2000:62).

Central to Marx’s thinking was his attempt to explain how industrial society had come into being and the factors that held it together and pulled it apart. In Marx’s thought economic relations were more important than other aspects of the social structure (Marsh, 2000). Humanity’s position in modern capitalist societies was seen as problematic for a number of reasons, not least of these was the fact that Marx was writing from within the context of a Nietzschian view of the world that proclaimed that God was dead. Marx wrote for a humanity that he saw as alienated both from themselves and from the world in which they lived (Turner, 1993). Lowith (1993) contends that while Marx was a sociologist. he was a philosophical sociologist because the basic principle of his work was a confrontation with the dilemmas of human existence. Marx was convinced that capitalist society was dominated by class conflict. Marx’s endeavours were motivated by man’s alienation from himself in modern capitalist society and his investigations were directed towards the understanding and critique of capitalism. Marx’s starting point in his analysis of modern industrial societies is a criticism of what he terms ‘bougeois reality’ which is characterised by the self-alienation of human beings:

Man, who has found in the fantastic reality of heaven, where he sought a supernatural being, only his own reflection, will no longer be tempted to find only the semblance of himself-a non-human being-where he seeks and must seek his true reality (Lowith, 1993:16).

Marx’s work gives a precise analysis of capitalist industrial society, this was a moral critique, as well as a political one, and stemmed from a basic morality. Martin (1969) is of the opinion that this basic moral stance towards the condition of man in modern society was common to all the founding fathers of sociology. Marx’s argument was based on the dehumanisation and alienation of the worker under capitalist society. Martin sums up Marx’s central concerns in the following way:

Marx’s rejection of Hegel, his critique of capitalism, and his vision of a Communist Utopia is informed by the sight of alienated man and the vision of unalienated man. For Marx, alienation involved man’s experience of himself as the passive object of external forces, not as a self-activating agent (Martin, 1969:32). 

For Marx this was seen most clearly in the social relations that arose through the control of means of production, it was from this, he believed, that human self-alienation arose. For Marx, the reality of the capitalist world was irrational and inhuman (Lowith,1993).
In Marx’s analysis modern western societies are based on conflicts between the classes. The forces of production, i.e. the means by which goods are produced is what shapes relationships in society. There are, generally speaking, two classes within such societies, the ruling class and a working class. The ruling class, or bourgeoise, own the means of production and the working class, the proletariat have to sell their labour in order to survive. This, Marx argues is a system of exploitation because the ruling class make a profit by paying workers less than the value of the products that they produce. The ruling class also controls what Marx calls the super-structure (government, the law, and religion) to lull workers into a ‘false consciousness’ that makes them content with their lot. However, the proletariat do experience a mismatch in their experience because, Marx argues, they gain no satisfaction from their work and the goods that they produce. In many respects the relationship between the bourgeoise and the proletariat is the same as that between feudal lords and the peasants, it is the exploitation of slaves. This exploitation and lack of satisfaction is experienced as a sense of self-alienation (Turner,1999). As Bottomore, 1963 explains the worker is:

….mentally exhausted and physically debased. Work is not the satisfaction of a need but only a means of satisfying other needs. Its alien character is clearly shown by the fact that as soon as there is no physical or other compulsion it is avoided like the plague (Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts 1844, in Bottomore, 1963:124-5).

What Marx did was to take Hegel’ dialectic of man’s progress through history and make it more empirically based, Marx’s stages of human history were economically based and this became known as historical materialism (Wiggershaus, 1994). It was this, along with human alienation in capitalist society that first captured the imagination of a group who, after the publication of Horkheimer’s essay Traditional and Critical Theory (1937) critical theory became known as the name the group surrounding Horkheimer used to describe themselves.

Horkheimer, Adorno, and the Frankfurt School
Wiggershaus (1994) maintains that for the group that was later called the Frankfurt School:

The young Marx….was implementing concrete philosophy..(and) confirmed the fact that criticizing capitalist society was a reflection on the true nature of humanity (Wiggershaus, 1994:5).

The young Marx was important to Horkheimer but was not such an influence on the thinking of the young Adorno. However, in his first essay on music (1932) he argued that in a capitalist society it was impossible for humanity to advance and therefore to achieve authentic existence. What later became known as the Frankfurt School  began with the founding of the Institute of Social Research after the 1st World War. Wiggershaus (1994) describes it as:

…a mixture of the idea of a critical sociology represented in Frankfurt by Adorno and Habermas, and the idea of an early, radically, social-critical, Freudian-Marxist period of the Institute under Horkheimer’s direction (Wiggershaus, 1994:3).

As Wiggershaus demonstrates critical theory and the Frankfurt School are more than just a particular social science paradigm. It is associated with the names of Horkheimer and Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Marcuse and Jurgen Habermas, it is also associated with the 1960s student movement and the positivist argument within sociology. It also carries with it the critique of culture and is associated with German émigrés, Anti-semitism, Hitler’s Germany, psychoanalysis and Marxism. It has therefore become a vital part of the history of ideas. The group of young academics who first formed the base of the Institute were all Jewish, Hitler’s rise to power meant persecution for them. In 1933 the Institute was seized and the group accused of activities hostile to the state. The major figures took flight to America where they were welcomed by Columbia University and eventually the group formed an independent Institute where they produced a number of studies.

The Dialectic of Enlightenment

The book is made up of philosophical fragments, essays and notes that passed between Horkheimer and Adorno. Their concerns were not the same, Horkheimer saw the book as a means of placing his critique of positivism and bourgeois anthropology into a wider context and to further Marx’s critique through a materialist dialectic which transcended that of Hegel. Adorno, on the other hand, saw it as nature and history, old and new and strengthening his idea that the dialectic of the progress of music was relevant to social theory and the philosophy of history. The main theme of the book is that the Enlightenment Project was self-destructive and a threat to social freedom. This is because the themes of the Enlightenment had the opposite of their intended effect and this resulted in repression on a large scale. Thus, in their foreword to the book the authors described it in the following terms:

The discovery of why mankind, instead of entering into a truly human condition,   is sinking into a new kind of barbarism (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1947 trans. Cumming, 1979:xi).

Both writers agreed with Marx’s view that a worker’s revolution against the capitalist mode of production and control of the economy was needed for human freedom to occur. They did not want to do away with the Enlightenment project entirely but both felt the need to point to the ambiguity contained with in it (Wiggershaus, 1994). The work is set against Hegel’s critique of the Enlightenment and there are two central themes to the book, the concept of rationalisation and what that implies for the world (although the book does not mention Weber), and the modern domination of nature. Thus, in a note at the end of the book the authors wrote:

A philosophical interpretation of world history would have to show how the rational domination of nature comes increasingly to win the day, in spite of all deviations and resistance, and integrates all human characteristics. Forms of economy, rule, and culture will also be derived from this position (Adorno and Horkheimer trans. Cumming, 1979:223).

The Enlightenment Project had worked on the basis that reason or enlightenment would bring liberation to human beings but despite the fact that the world had become enlightened it was disaster, rather than progress that had gained ascendancy. It is worth pointing out here that since Adorno and Horkheimer’s work there have been numerous criticisms of Enlightenment ideals. Modern feminism points out that the Enlightenment was a middle class movement and it was dominated by men. Enlightenment thinkers such as Kant and Rousseau did not believe that women had the same kind of reasoning processes as men so in feminist terms (Abbott and Wallace, 1997) the Enlightenment did not represent the human subject but generally the white, middle class male. A central aim of the Enlightenment was to free mankind from the ties of religion and of myth, however, as Wiggershaus (1994) points out, enlightenment had not destroyed myth from outside of it, instead, myth was the beginning of the end of freedom and this had prepared the way for the self-destructiveness that was inherent in the Enlightenment (p.328).

Just as the myths already realize enlightenment, so enlightenment with every step becomes more deeply engulfed in mythology. It receives all its matter from the myths, in order to destroy them; and even as a judge it comes under the mythic curse (Adorno and Horkheimer trans. Cumming, 1979:56).

The culture industry, it is argued, is paradigmatic of the fact that human beings have become more deeply engulfed in mythology because its films and promises of escape from the drudgery of the everyday only promotes the continual putting up with things which the industry ought to help us escape. Just as religion promoted Marx’s view of a false consciousness, so (particularly for Adorno), does the culture industry. The culture industry, in the form of classical music, of jazz and cartoons, was both high and low perceptions of culture and thus provided for everyone. It was this overall provision that made it a massive agent of social control which demanded submission. Culture has become a commodity so subject to the law of exchange that it is no longer exchanged, just blindly consumed. This passivity in consumption therefore prevents any rationalisation of has been consumed and the culture industry triumphs.  Thus culture which promised freedom and escape trapped human beings in myth and in the same way the idea of human sovereignty over nature which had become the victim of nature was demonstrated in the anthropological theory of anti-Semitism. Thus Adorno and Horkheimer write:

Anti-Semitism is a deeply imprinted schema, a ritual of civilization; the pogroms are the true ritual murders. They demonstrate the impotence of sense, significance, and ultimately of truth-which might hold them within bounds. The idle occupation of killing confirms the stubbornness of the life to which one has to conform, and to resign oneself  (Adorno and Horkheimer trans. Cumming, 1979:167).

Anti-Semitism represented anger and cruelty that was meted out  whenever it was presented with weakness, fear, happiness and longing. Thus, for Adorno and Horkheimer the root of the failure of enlightenment was the kind of domination of nature which had itself become dominated by that same nature (Wiggershaus, 1994). Certainly at the time in which Adorno and Horkheimer were writing it did seem to many, even those who were not academics that the promises of modernity had failed and humanity had stooped to the most barbaric practices against themselves and the world about them. What they experienced themselves as Jews, and what they saw happening in the world would be enough to convince most people that human beings rather than progressing were on a downward spiral. It is also, arguably the case, as Baumann (1991) has pointed out that rationalisation and the bureaucratic process were central to the Nazi enterprise and in this way reason could be said to hold within itself its own destruction. 


This paper has given a brief overview of the Enlightenment, of Marx’s critique of capitalism and ideology and an introduction to the Frankfurt school and critical theory. It has attempted to evaluate Adorno and Horkheimer’s argument in the Dialectic of Enlightenment and because the book is so dense this is not an easy task. What this paper has done is to try and pick out major elements of the argument and describe what the authors were trying to say. On the basis of this it is difficult to form a complete evaluation. However, arguably, the work is not really a complete thesis it is more a treatise on the Enlightenment project and what is wrong with it and what is right with it. I think that much of the author’s concerns (as is usually the case with writers) were prompted by what was happening at the time and in that sense the argument is persuasive. At the time Adorno and Horkheimer wrote the world did seem to be descending into ever new forms of depravity and reason was being used to justify this. The argument regarding the culture industry is more problematic I think because although we are persuaded by culture and are sometimes the passive recipients of its influence there is evidence to suggest that this passivity is not all embracing. Adorno and Horkheimer are convincing at points but do not allow individual autonomy any place in the scheme of things and this is I think a weakness.

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  • Giddens,A. 2001. Sociology. Cambridge, Polity Press.
  • Lowith, K. 1993. Max Weber and Karl Marx. London, Routledge.
  • Martin, R. 1969. “Sociology and Theology: Alienation and Original Sin” in Whitely D. and Martin, R. 1969 Sociology, Theology and Conflict pp. 19-36. Oxford, Blackwell.
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  • Walsh, I ed. 2000 Sociology: Making Sense of Society. Edinburgh, Prentice Hall.
  • Wiggershaus, R. 1994 The Frankfurt School Cambridge Polity Press

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