In the 1969 preface to the addition of Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer/Adorno say, "Critical thought, which does not call a halt before progress itself, requires us to take up the cause of the remnants of freedom, of tendencies toward real humanity, even though they seem powerless in face of the great historical trend."

I'm wondering what he means by that. ChatGPT tells me that they simply want to preserve freedom, but I feel like they are saying more than that through phrases such as "remnants of freedom" and "tendencies toward real humanity". It seems implicit that they are saying that the promises of the Enlightenment have left us only remnants of freedom and ignored real real human(ity) tendencies.

The phrase "Critical thought. . . does not call a halt before progress. . . " also seems loaded.

  • "critical thought" refers to Critical Theory (Frankfurt School) "a family of theories that aim at a critique and transformation of society [whose] influential figures [were] the first generation of the Frankfurt School – Max Horkheimer (1895–1973), Theodor W. Adorno (1903–1969)" Commented Dec 22, 2023 at 11:03
  • And see Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947): "The history of human societies is re-evaluated from the standpoint of what Horkheimer and Adorno perceived at the time as the ultimate outcome of this history: the collapse or "regression" of reason, with the rise of National Socialism, into something (referred to as merely "enlightenment" for the majority of the text) resembling the very forms of superstition and myth out of which reason had supposedly emerged as a result of historical progress or development." Commented Dec 22, 2023 at 11:05
  • So the question is: why modern society born from XVIII Century Enlightenment with its promise of unlimited progress gives rise to Fascism and Nazism (and Stalinism)? Commented Dec 22, 2023 at 11:07
  • Related: philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/92686/17209
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Dec 22, 2023 at 11:45
  • Thank you for answering my question. So is this collapse or regression of reason something to be regretted and resisted? or, if reason, in some sense, leads inevitably to fascism, ought we to, a lá Nietzsche, topple this monument to reason (thereby deflating the value of reason itself) as soon as possible?
    – Gerry
    Commented Dec 23, 2023 at 2:48

2 Answers 2


I linked another answer of mine in the comments, which should clarify some aspects of the question.

The point is that enlightenment, which proliferated freedom, lead to institutional and moral development. But eventually, those developments calcified, have been taken up and twisted into structures of power.

That is why there are only "remnants of freedom"and "tendencies towards real humanity".

Therefore, critical thought ultimately aspires to facilitate a perpetual "enlightenment of enlightenment", ie. a constant critical re-evaluation of developments and structures leading to activities that allow for freedom in action (in an almost Arendtian sense) furthering a development towards real humanity.

  • So then is critical theory, at least that aspect of it in the Dialectic, not so much a matter of devaluing reason but one of seeing this faculty as dynamic? in need of constant re-evaluation and growth? so that we embrace this capacity but do not rest on it with complacence and overconfidence? Is any rigid notion of reason effectively unreasonable?
    – Gerry
    Commented Dec 23, 2023 at 2:57
  • @Gerry Essentially, yes. Mind, the Negative Dialectics have to be seen with the background of Nazi Germany and how the cold, analytical, purely instrumental "reason" can be used to greatly improve the effectiveness of ineffable crimes against freedom and humanity. Dialectical thought, here, has to be understood as "What (good) is possible that is not actual?", in contrast to Hegelian Dialectics that started with what is actual and actually took that as the epitome of freedom and humanity. All that with a special focus on insitutions, values, and structures of power.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Dec 23, 2023 at 19:30
  • I tend to view instrumental reason as being unreasonable if it's not morally founded, but maybe I'm a critical theorist without knowing it. For example, I don't see why reason can't be integrated with what we have learned from Darwin, Freud, and Marx. I don't see them as diametrically opposed, and other parties speak of critical theory and postmodernism as being in some sense "anti–reason."
    – Gerry
    Commented Dec 24, 2023 at 1:58

"Critical thought ... does not call a halt before progress itself" - this means that "progress" of society in general has the tendency of suppressing critical thought, but that critical thought does not or must not surrender to it. We must continue to think critically about how our society works despite all the progress happening in it.

To expand on that, modern society and technology have given us shiny new things, like rockets, cars, iPhones, clean water, and so on. And because these things are so desirable, some people can become blinded to the harmful aspects of society, such as rampant inequality and destruction of the environment, especially when they benefit from this inequality. But to think critically we should not be blinded; we should continue to examine the harmful elements without being dazzled by the positive or distracting ones.

"[Critical thought] requires us to take up the cause of the remnants of freedom, of tendencies toward real humanity, even though they seem powerless in face of the great historical trend." This is saying, first, that the "great historical trend" has a tendency to overpower and oppose freedom and "real humanity." He is referring to things like, factory workers performing repetitive motions over and over again for 12 hour shifts, which is oppressive to their freedom and "real humanity." Economic forces optimize for maximum profit, often at the cost of the well-being of the workers. But he says, to think critically leads us necessarily to advocate for more freedom and less dehumanization, even though the struggle might appear hopeless because of the immense influence of economic forces on the other side.

  • @Gerry Your comment doesn't grammatically parse. I don't know what you are saying.
    – causative
    Commented Dec 24, 2023 at 2:18
  • Would it be a valid criticism of the dialectics of Horkheimer and Adorno that it focuses mostly on technology? that they don't consider other important elements of the Enlightenment such as the political developments of liberalism and democracy?
    – Gerry
    Commented Dec 24, 2023 at 8:09

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