Adorno, Horkheimer and the audacity of reason

Jeff B. Murray*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterScientificpeer-review


As philosophers and social theorists used reason to chip away at premodern understandings, society became dangerously vulnerable to new ways of thinking. Zygmunt Bauman in Liquid Modernity (2000) suggests that when Enlightenment reason began to melt premodern social structures, the whole complex network of social relations became unstuck – bare and unprotected – impotent to resist the business-inspired criteria of rationality. Note that Bauman (2000) is referring to a type of reason that privileges natural scientifi c and technologically exploitable forms of knowing. Here, reason becomes an instrument for means-end thinking – the type of rationality that can push most effectively against premodern beliefs. Thus, we see the gradual rationalization of society. Sociologists, writing just after the industrial revolution, began to draw attention to the cultural consequences of this process. The most famous of these is Max Weber’s discussion in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1930/2001). In Talcott Parson’s translation of this book, he describes how this process of rationalization traps individuals in systems based entirely on effi ciency, rational calculation, and control. The famous metaphors iron cage and the polar night of icy darkness (Weber 1930/2001) are used to awaken an emotional and intuitive feel for this process. What started out as something emancipatory – Enlightenment reason – ended up repressive in a new way. Instrumental rationality entraps.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCanonical Authors in Consumption Theory
Number of pages7
ISBN (Electronic)9781315626093
Publication statusPublished - 14 Dec 2017
MoE publication typeA3 Part of a book or another research book


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