Reflections of Horkheimer’s on reason

The Mahlerian close of German critical theorist Max Horkheimer’s “The End of Reason,”1 published in 1941:

“What remains of reason in its contemporary decline, however, is not just the perseverance of self-preservation and the persistence of that horror in which it culminates. The age-old definition of reason in terms of self-preservation already implied the curtailment of reason itself. The propositions of idealistic philosophy that reason distinguishes man from the animal (propositions in which the animal is humiliated just as man is in the converse propositions of the materialist doctors) contain the truth that through reason man frees himself of the fetters of nature. This liberation, however, does not entitle man to dominate nature (as the philosophers held) but to comprehend it. Society, governed by the self-preserving rationality of élites, has always also preserved the life of the masses [sic!], although in a wrong and accidental form. Reason has borne a true relation not only to one’s own existence but to living as such; this function of transcending self-preservation is concomitant with self-preservation, with obeying and adapting to objective ends. Reason could recognize and denounce the forms of injustice and thus emancipate itself from them. As the faculty of calling things by their name, reason is more than the alienated life that preserves itself in the destruction of others and of itself. To be sure, reason cannot hope to keep aloof from history and to intuit the true order of things, as ontological ideologies contend. In the inferno to which triumphant reason has reduced the world it loses its illusions, but in doing so it becomes capable of facing this inferno and recognizing it for what it is […]. Mutilated as men [sic] are, in the duration of a brief moment they can become aware that in the world which has been thoroughly rationalized they can dispense with the interests of self-preservation which still set them one against the other. The terror which pushes reason is at the same time the last means of stopping it, so close has truth come. If the atomized and disintegrating men [sic] of today have become capable of living without property, without location, without time, they also have abandoned the ego in which all prudence and all stupidity of historical reason as well as its compliance with domination was sustained. The progress of reason that leads to its self-determination has come to an end; there is nothing left but barbarism or freedom.”

1In The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, ed. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt (Continuum: New York, 1997), p. 47-8

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