Monday, January 15, 2007

Max Horkheimer "The Eclipse of Reason" (1947)

Max Horkheimer's 1947 book The Eclipse of Reason argues that individuals in "contemporary industrial culture" experience a "universal feeling of fear and disillusionment", which can be traced back to the impact of ideas that originate in the Enlightenment conception of reason, as well as the historical development of industrial society. Before the Enlightenment, reason was seen as an objective force in the world. Now, it is seen as a "subjective faculty of the mind". In the process, the philosophers of the Enlightenment destroyed "metaphysics and the objective concept of reason itself." (18) Reason no longer determines the "guiding principles of our own lives", but is subordinated to the ends it can achieve. In other words, reason is instumentalized.

The effects of this shift are devaluing. There is little love for things in themselves. Philosophies, such as pragmatism and positivism, "aim at mastering reality, not at criticizing it." (65) Man comes to dominate nature, but in the process dominates other men by dehumanizing them. He forgets the unrepeatable and unique nature of every human life and instead sees all living things as fields of means. His inner life is rationalized and planned. "On the one hand, nature has been stripped of all intrinsic value or meaning. On the other, man has been stripped of all aims except self-preservation." (101) Popular Darwinism teaches only a "coldness and blindness toward nature." (127)

According to Horkheimer, the individual in mass society is a cynical conformist. Ironically, the 'idolization of progress' leads to the decline of the individual.

While much of this sounds romantic, Horkheimer largely neglects Romanticism, to his peril, I think. However, he does recognize that a turn towards Romantic primitivism will not solve the problem, and in the case of National Socialism simply made domination more barbaric.
a philosophy that asserts "the unity of nature and spirit" that has been denied. (169) It must foster a mutual critique of both objective and subjective reason. (174) Philosophical ontology "tries to obscure the separation between man and nature" and is therefore inevitably ideological. (182) Critical philosophy can show the relativity and historicity of values, and become "a command directed against commands." (184) Philosophy can become "mankind's memory and conscience." (186)

1 comment:

Doug Plumb said...

This is a very important book and it has some really interesting ideas. I'm just starting a study of it. I wish more people would pick it up and recognise its importance.