Why is Enlightenment significant?
Though originally an apprentice to Horkheimer and Adorno, Habermas’ was not entirely in agreement with the two theorists when it came to their views on the Enlightenment. He seemed to suggest that his mentors went too far in their examination, and he stressed that they gave scientific reason too much credit, choosing himself to base his arguments in the belief that human life and cognitive processes were stronger than simple scientific reasoning. One of the key issues in Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment is the idea of instrumental reason. In Thomas McCarthy’s The Critical Theory of Jürgen Habermas, McCarthy asserts that “the “critique of instrumental reason” became the principal task of critical theory, for in creating the objective possibility of a truly human society, the progressive mastery of nature through science and technology simultaneously transformed the potential subjects of emancipation” (McCarthy, 1978, p. 20). In terms of Enlightenment philosophy, one of the main principles was the belief that reason would induce liberation or, to quote McCarthy, “emancipation”. As Dr. Leong Yew notes, in his Political Discourse – Theories of Colonialism and Postcolonialism, “reason elevates the individual from the stifling and oppressive medieval worldview, the individual was believed to be the producer of knowledge, and the individual's liberties were protected by modern laws” (Yew, 2002). By “the medieval worldview,” Yew is not only referring to medieval philosophy, but also to beliefs such as religion and mythology. However, as McCarthy suggested, the advent of instrumental reason altered those who strove for emancipation. Put simply, instrumental reason was a way of categorizing both man and object alike and assigning it a role within society. In Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, instrumental reason is classified like so, “in advance, the Enlightenment recognizes as being and occurrence only what can be apprehended in unity: its ideal is they system from which all and everything follows […] the multiplicity of forms is reduced to position and arrangement, history to fact, things to matter […] it provided the Enlightenment thinkers with the schema for the calculability for the world” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 1944, p. 7). Under the regulations of instrumental reason, each single item was given a specific role. A decent representation of this would be a production line, whereby each person would be designated a different task in order to maximise productivity. Herbert Marcuse dissects this analogy thus, “Its productivity and efficiency, its capacity to increase and spread comforts, to turn waste into need, and destruction into construction, the extent to which this civilization transforms the object world into an extension of man's mind and body makes the very notion of alienation questionable. The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment” (Marcuse, 1964). In other words, instrumental reason was more a way of alienating and dehumanizing man, rather than an implicit technique in the strive for liberation. McCarthy asserts that Adorno and Horkheimer (as well as Marcuse) concluded that “human emancipation requires a radical break with “one-dimensional” thought” (McCarthy, 1978, p. 21). This conclusion stems from the theory that the progression of technology has taken over and society has become too reliant on further technological progress; Marcuse observes that “technology provides the great rationalization of the unfreedom of man and demonstrates the “technical” impossibility of being autonomous, of determining one’s own life” (Marcuse, 1964, cited by Habermas, 1968, p. 84). Habermas disagreed, in part, with this viewpoint. His belief was not that a disregard for technical reason needed to take place in order to secure liberation,...
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