For Kant, Enlightenment liberates us from authority. Those who hold authority—have mystery. The priest has special access to the mystery of religion; it is through him where God comes towards us. The Enlightenment says that human reason is capable of answering all the questions that the previous authority had answers to. When you have a rational claim, you’ve laid a path that someone else can easily follow to the same conclusion. The light of the Enlightenment leads to knowledge in this respect. For Kant, this frees us from authoritarianism; we now understand the light of the world from our own reason.
In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno contest Kant and the positivity of Enlightenment. For Horkheimer and Adorno, there is a continuity of the age of myth within Enlightenment and modernity in general. Modernity fulfills what myth always wanted to. Do we really see the world in the light of our reason? Is that the effect of the Enlightenment? Can we be placed back into a position of reflection after this shift of modernity? Is there something about modernity itself which sustains a purposes in the violence of second half of the twentieth century? For Horkheimer and Adorno, what was promised to us in the age of Enlightenment was never an honest one: now it is a nightmare.
Horkheimer and Adorno ask what it means to think of modernity as progress in this post-Enlightenment era? Why would anyone like the Enlightenment anyway when all it has done is lead us down this violent and barbaric path? Is this the price we must pay for progress; a simple bitter pill we have to swallow in order to keep going forward? As rational creatures, we are authorities on to ourselves, since reason itself is an authority. What could possibly be wrong with this description?
Here Horkheimer and Adorno try to account for why the world is the way it is. The irrationality that lies within a non-rational observation leaves us not with a question of truth, but of effect which in and of itself constitutes a new construction of truth. There is a loss of animism in modernity, leaving us with the knowledge that there is no soul or spirit in every object. But if man is no longer an eidos, then where does this leave us?
After the Enlightenment, man becomes a master of nature. The mind does not conquer matter, rather, there is a “happy match” between the two. What goes on in the mind matches well with nature once man has become a master of it and for the most part, himself. The “mastery” of nature is a confirmation of said “happy match”, thus making mastery something we are totally fine with. It’s no coincidence then, that the Enlightenment is connected to the scientific method: where there is place for everything that has yet to be thought and conquered. In this happy match between mind and matter we are bound to ourselves.
Sovereignty in this instance takes on two roles: one of unlimited knowledge where we are unlimited in what we can now and that in and of itself is a nucleus of power. Second, that there is freedom and being unbound by tradition. Scientific reasoning then, is a realization of these two points. That science is the model of scientific reasoning as the only plausible (and best) explanation for the way things are gives us power over tradition, making us feel free of it. The unlimited knowledge leaves science as an arbiter of what remains legitimate.
However, the sovereignty of the human becomes one of bureaucracy and technology, wherein there is a perfect rational management of life. There is a removal of mystery in nature, where the curiosity to discover what has yet to be known is removed. This lies within the relationship between fear and mastery for Adorno and Horkheimer. A fear of what lies outside of what we know begs for us to question where our security rests. An alleviation of fear and an emergence of complacency is where we stand in this new age of man’s rational sovereignty.
Enlightenment is technology and it is also progress. Progress is rendered as something other than progress in this moment; progress and barbarism are not opposed to each other here. Technology shows us that the myths of the past are false and this break with myth is a transformation of a certain conception of myth in total. Enlightenment overturns myth as an animism and disenchants the world. Technology is a mindset: a worldview and a way of being. Instruments in the world becomes symptoms of modernity and Enlightenment. It’s a total way of being: there is an explanation and a reason for everything. Bureaucratic reason then, portrays this way of being that manages our human reason rationally. There is a promise in the Enlightenment to return back to our rationality; everyone has the same sense of reason and we can all be rationally understood and bureaucratically managed because of it. Is it possible to be re-enchanted with the world? Is it possible for us to reflect on our sovereign rationality? Is there a way for us not to be bureaucratically managed? Or, would it inevitably lead us back into a constant re-plugging into a system which has only served to envelop us in violence, barbarism, a false sense of unity, and isolation?
“Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity. Enlightenment’s programs was the disenchantment of the world. It wanted to dispel myths, to overthrow fantasy with knowledge” (Adorno, Horkheimer, 1).
“Knowledge, which is power, knows no limits, either in its enslavement of creation or in its deference to worldly matters. Just as it serves all the purposes of the bourgeoisie economy both in factories and on the battlefield, it is at the disposal of entrepreneurs regardless of their origins. Kings control technology no more directly than do merchants: it is as democractic as the economic system with which it evolved. Technology is the essense of this knowledge” (Adorno, Horkheimer, 2).
“What human beings seek to learn from nature is how to use it to dominate wholly both it and human beings. Nothing else counts. Ruthless towards itself, the Enlightenment has eradicated the last remnant of its self-awareness. Only though which does violence to itself is hard enough to shatter myths”(Adorno, Horkheimer, 2)
“The disenchantment of the world means the extripation of animism”(Adorno, Horkheimer, 2).
“For the Enlightenment, anything which cannot be resolved into numbers, and ultimately one, is illusion; modern positivism consigns it to poetry. Unity remains the watchword from Parmenides to Russell. All gods and qualities must be destroyed”(Adorno, Horkheimer, 4-5).
“Each human being has been endowed with a self of his or her own, different from all the others, so that it could all the more surely be made the same”(Adorno, Horkheimer, 9).
“Humans believe themselves free of fear when there is no longer anything unknown”(Adorno, Horkheimer, 11).