The Frankfurt School of Philosophy

‘One wants to break free of the past,’ Theodor Adorno, one of the Frankfurt School’s leading luminaries, wrote in an essay in 1959. ‘Rightly, because nothing at all can live in its shadow, and because there will be no end to the terror as long as guilt and violence are repaid with guilt and violence; wrongly, because the past that one would like to evade is still very much alive.’

…the Western Enlightenment did not, after all, represent the unshackling of the human mind from mythical thought-forms. It had only converted the old myths into a new one called rationality. While the power of reasoned judgment was in one sense the agent by which superstitious beliefs were dismantled, it was then set up as a rigidly unquestionable authority in itself – what the authors termed ‘instrumental reason’.…

The Frankfurt theorists maintained a deep distrust of what passed as ‘popular culture’, which neither enlightened nor truly entertained the mass of society, but only kept people in a state of permanently unsatiated demand for the dross with which they were going to be fed anyway.…a new industrialised culture began to emerge, controlled by gigantic media corporations like the Hollywood film industry, recording companies and commercial radio. Not only have these institutions replaced genuine works of art with mass-produced garbage, they also manipulate people into acquiescing in the status quo and accepting capitalist values.…

Dialectic of Enlightenment is not an argument for irrationalism. What it seeks to show is that instrumental reason, once it becomes an authority to which human affairs must submit, ends up exercising a tyranny over human beings that turns their societies into soulless machines, and infects relations between individuals as well.

…The hardest task facing any emancipatory politics today is to encourage people to think for themselves…

Read more from Stuart Walton, writing for Aeon magazine

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