Is Enlightenment Totalitarian?
In their book Dialectic of Enlightenment, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer make the startling statement that “Enlightenment is totalitarian.” Now one may ask if they are committing a category mistake when calling the Enlightenment, science, technology or even the whole Western philosophical tradition “totalitarian.” Do they misapply a political term to non-political entities? After all, only because there are banana republics, it does not follow that there are Republican bananas.
Well, first of all one has to realize that the term totalitarian was still quite new when Adorno and Horkheimer penned their work in the 1940’s. It was invented a mere twenty years before to differentiate Italian Fascism from traditional dictatorships. Prior to the rise of science and technology, dictatorship were never able to achieve total control, total guidance, or total representation of the people. Caligula was an insane despot, no doubt, but most people throughout the various provinces of the Roman Empire felt little effect of the succession from Tiberius to Caligula to Claudius. Rome and other older dictatorships were not modern police states with the technological capability to achieve the total union of a totalitarian state. Therefore, it is precisely the scientific and technological aspect of 20th-century dictatorships that demanded a new term like totalitarianism. I think Adorno and Horkheimer recognized this, plus, the term still being new, the meaning was perhaps more flexible than it is now.
Still, one might say that this does not make science and technology in itself totalitarian as we understand the term today. But in the very least, one has to admit that they were a necessary precondition for totalitarianism. Enlightenment and the resulting Industrial Revolution were the magic wand that turned old-fashioned dictatorships into totalitarian states. There is a close connection between the two.
Adorno and Horkheimer, however, would definitely not be satisfied with as small a concession as this. Their critique is much more fundamental, and, if true, much more devastating. In fact, they are even willing to say that their own critique of calling the Enlightenment “totalitarian” is rubbish—because this critique, too, is voiced from within the Western tradition, and Auschwitz has shown, they maintain, that the whole Western tradition is rotten at its core. Perhaps they would even admit that, on strictly linguistic terms, their use of “totalitarian” is not quite accurate. But what are we in the West to do? We cannot pull ourselves up by our own hair; we can only scream somewhat incoherently that we are stuck in the mud.
“Auschwitz,” writes Adorno in his Negative Dialectic, “has demonstrated irrefutably that culture has failed. That it could happen in the midst of the philosophical traditions, the arts and the enlightening sciences says more than just that these failed to take hold of and change the people. The untruth lives in those very categories, in their emphatic claim of autocracy. All culture after Auschwitz, including its urgent critique, is rubbish.”
I think Adorno might sadly laugh at someone calling his use of language a category mistake. He might say: “Don’t you get it? I’m questioning the whole Western tradition, and because I am part of this tradition, I think that my own critique is rubbish as well.”
How can someone come to such a devastating conclusion about his own cultural heritage? In a word, through the Holocaust, whose deathly sting was no doubt felt much more sharply by German Jews of the period, such as Adorno, than by us nowadays. But even we have to admit that universal education, which was the chief goal of the Enlightenment, was not able to prevent the rise of totalitarianism in Europe. The great masses of people in Europe were better educated than ever before in the history of the world, many receiving a classical education based on the Great Books, and yet they were swayed to participate in Fascist regimes and murder millions of innocents.
How did the people of the Dichter und Denker (poets and thinkers) turn so quickly into the people of the Richter und Henker (judges and executioners)? Otto Thorbeck, the SS judge who condemned Dietrich Bonhoeffer, had received the same classical education as Bonhoeffer, read the same Great Books of the Western tradition that I like to read. But apparently he saw nothing in those books that kept him from doing what he considered his duty, whereas Bonhoeffer felt it necessary to resist. Alas, there were too few Bonhoeffers in Germany at the time, though there were millions of enlightened and educated people. It is surely no coincidence that one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, Martin Heidegger, was a Nazi who never disavowed his Nazism, even after the war.
Obviously, pre-WWII thinking was not adequate enough for preventing the Holocaust, and, Adorno and Horkheimer believed, one of the chief aims of ideologies after WWII should be to prevent such a ghastly event from ever happening again. The main objective of many German philosophers since WWII, most famously the Frankfurt School and offsprings of the school such as Jürgen Habermas, has been to create a framework of thought in which totalitarian tendencies would be resisted at their very root. As Adorno writes in his Negative Dialectic: „Having robbed them of their freedom, Hitler has imposed a new categorical imperative on people, namely to construct their thoughts and actions in such a way that Auschwitz would never happen again, that nothing similar would ever occur.”
How to construct such thoughts and actions? That is the big question, though I don’t think that Adorno necessarily arrived at a definite answer. He primarily pointed out the failure of the Western tradition, including—or even especially—its philosophy and science.
The original project of philosophy has been to understand reality—without limits. In a lecture entitled “Philosophizing after Auschwitz,” the German contemporary philosopher Wolfgang Welsch asserts that Western philosophy, at its root, wants to understand the whole of reality. It is totalitarian in the literal sense of the word; it wants to encompass the total, and as long as it has not achieved this, it keeps striving toward it. It does this by creating a system of thought that encompasses everything, a one-fits-all method. Anything that does not fit or seem to fit into this system is being explained away, pushed aside or deemed unimportant.
Welsch compares this to Poseidon’s son Procrustes in Greek mythology. Procrustes made an iron bed of a certain length, and the guests that stayed in his house were supposed to fit exactly on the bed. If some guests were too big for the bed, he cut off parts of their legs to make them fit, and if some were too small, he stretched them.
Now if it is true that the attempt to understand the whole of reality with one single method (such as the scientific method) inevitably leads to the exclusion of certain parts of reality, then there seems to be a structural similarity between science and totalitarianism. Just as totalitarianism attempts to fit all people into a single political system and annihilates everything that does not fit, likewise science attempts to fit everything into a single method and disregards everything that does not measure up to that method.
Perhaps it is wrong to say that therefore science is totalitarian, but a case could be made for both science and totalitarianism being Procrustian.
Thus, according to postmodern critics, Western philosophy and science are marked by megalomania. They are head over heels in love with the idea of greatness in one form or another, and this love blinds them. Like the French philosopher André Glucksmann writes in his book Les maitres penseurs (“Master Thinkers”): Even though you cannot say that leading philosophers like Fichte, Hegel or Nietzsche are the direct cause of the Holocaust, nevertheless they made people non-resistant to totalitarianism because they were too much in love with the idea of Greatness.
People influenced by the Western tradition are often eager to jump on the bandwagon of anything “great,” quite irrespective of its moral worthiness. As long as it’s great and gives us a feeling of being part of something momentous, we are game. Like Dorothy in Middlemarch, we are willing to marry the otherwise unfit Mr. Casaubon, because we think that his obsession with finding the one key to all mythology will give us a sense of being part of something great. That is a dangerous tendency, and philosophy after WWII should caution people against it.
This divorce of greatness from the checks and balances of values is another aspect that Wolfgang Welsch points out in his lecture. It is called instrumental rationality. Instrumental rationality is the kind of use of reason that does not ask what something is ultimately good for, but merely looks for the most efficient way of achieving … well, of achieving what? Anything one wants. The goal is a blank that may be filled in by the strongest. Instrumental Reason focuses on how to get things done, but does not spell out what it is that ought to be done. It is Reason devoid of a teleology and an axiology.
And, as Horkheimer and Adorno write, the nature of such knowledge is technology. Technology becomes ever more efficient, but efficient for achieving what? It is pure power, which is very dangerous if devoid of good values. Technology wants to make everything faster, better, and more powerful. Worries about what those technologies might be used for come too late—usually in the form of regret rather than wise foresight. The Holocaust is a stark example of Instrumental Reason being employed for a highly unworthy goal.
Thus far Horkheimer, Adorno, Welsch, and Glucksmann. I still haven’t gotten around to saying what kinds of questions I find most worthwhile considering from these people, and I am much more hesitant to damn the whole Western tradition than Adorno, but I think I have an inkling of how Jewish German thinkers during the Holocaust would arrive at such conclusions. Whether or not I was able to communicate my inkling is another matter.
Entry filed under: History, Philosophy, Science. Tags: Adorno, Andre Glucksmann, Ausschwitz, Bonhoeffer, Enlightenment, Holocaust, Horkheimer, Otto Thorbeck, Procrustes, Reason, Science, Second World War, technology, totalitarianism, Western tradition, Wolfgang Welsch, WWII.