I've tried several times reading The Dialectics of Enlightenment, it is simply to dense for me and my grounding in philosophy is really not that strong. I've looked at the summary in SEP, and need help understanding this:

“Myth is already enlightenment, and enlightenment reverts to mythology.” The first thesis allows them to suggest that, despite being declared mythical and outmoded by the forces of secularization, older rituals, religions, and philosophies may have contributed to the process of enlightenment and may still have something worthwhile to contribute. The second thesis allows them to expose ideological and destructive tendencies within modern forces of secularization, but without denying either that these forces are progressive and enlightening or that the older conceptions they displace were themselves ideological and destructive.

I think this means that (some) myths where used to make sense of the world with the intellectual toolkit available, and that the belief in enlightenment as a thing on its own (versus an ongoing process where people try and fail more or less) is the myth, but I'm not sure.

Earlier in the summary it says:

According to Horkheimer and Adorno, the source of today's disaster is a pattern of blind domination, domination in a triple sense: the domination of nature by human beings, the domination of nature within human beings, and, in both of these forms of domination, the domination of some human beings by others. What motivates such triple domination is an irrational fear of the unknown: “Humans believe themselves free of fear when there is no longer anything unknown. This has determined the path of demythologization … . Enlightenment is mythical fear radicalized”

So one could say that myths where, or are, an attempt to handle fear of the unkown and enlightenment as practiced is often another way of doing the same. So enlightenment would be guided by the same forces that shaped religios thought and other myths, defining the quesions that are asked and the ones that are not. But does it follow from here that enlightenment is myth? I don't really see it, only sorta-kinda.

This just to give you an idea of where I stand and where my reading took me. Ultimately, I want to understand what Adorno and Horkheimer meant with “Myth is already enlightenment, and enlightenment reverts to mythology.”


2 Answers 2


Myth is enlightenment (to some extent), because it provides to some people, a "means" to understand the world.
Enlightenment is a myth (to some extent), because myths were the basis used to create the "enlightenment."

  • Nice, and "dialectical," but rather terse. My up-vote is an encouragement to expand a bit. You might also indicate whether you are reacting to the specific text in question or generally. Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 1:49

I sympathize. While I feel a commitment to Marxism and historical critique, I remain undecided on Adorno, whom Kolakowski reviles as an obscurantist and elitist. It may be best to accept that there is a bit of poetry and the vast cultural reach of German scholarship in this text.

A "myth" is a text with no "author." Thus text and authorship or "authority" are merged. Symbols in utterance or on a page somehow acquire the unquestioned "authority" of a Hesiod or Homer or Moses or St.Paul, of the past. They are not mere "authors" who say or write something. They are conduits of a higher authority.

The Aufklarung was presumably clearing all that up. Whatever was said was ascribed to whomever said it. This "author," even and especially the monarch, could then be held accountable and the ideas in general subjected to critique, doubt, questioning. For any utterance one could request "reasons." All "authority" must submit to doubts and judgments.

Yet very quickly these new critiques and freedoms became in themselves a new, ever more encompassing form of "authority," as became shockingly evident in the French Revolution and, perhaps, the Russian Revolution. Now science or the demand for "reasons," became increasingly a form of unquestionable "authority" without culpable "authors."

I cannot agree about the role of "fear" here, so I leave that part alone. And, needless to say, the text is dealing with the relative optimism of Hegel and Marx as bearers of the Enlightenment tradition, dashed by the newborn "belief systems" of Hitler and Stalin.

  • 1
    Can you clarify if "myth = text with no author" is what Adorno and Horkheimer meant?
    – mart
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 6:39
  • 1
    I don't know exactly how A&H define myth, or if they do. I have always taken it to be a key difference between a text with an "author" and a text that is its own "authority." Self-authored, self-creating. Homer is a poet and his work has an "author" but is derived from many myths. It is a "belief system" expressed in a "grand narrative," which would preclude an individual, mortal creator open to biographical criticism. In many ways it is the ascription of "proper names," dates, places, etc., that distinguished "history" from "myth." Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 13:47
  • Irregardless what A&H meant, this is useful.
    – mart
    Commented Feb 3, 2016 at 6:19

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