In his 1941 Paper "The End of Reason", Max Horkheimer states the following:

Reason, in destroying conceptual fetishes, ultimately destroyed itself.

On one hand, he seems to be referring the failures of logicist and positivist programs to ground all truth in logic and empirical fact, such as Russell's failure with Principia Mathematica (due to Godel's theorem) or the Logical Positivists inability to completely free philosophy from metaphysics (for example, per Quine's "Two Dogmas of Empiricism"). The Frankfurt school philosophers were famously disdainful of positivism.

On the other hand, it would have been too early for him to be aware of these challenges to the logicist/positivist program at the time that "The End of Reason" was published (1941) - Quine's "Two Dogmas" was published in 1951, and Godel's result (1931) was still too recent to be known, and its implications understood, outside of the specialized logic community.

So what result was Horkheimer referring to then, when said that "Reason destroyed itself" ?:

  • Is it correct to assume that by "reason", Horkheimer is referring to positivism and similar worldviews (Logical Atomism, Popper, etc...)?
  • Was he indeed aware of the challenges to positivism that I mentioned?
  • Or was he being generally dismissive of the logical positivist's program (and similar endeavors) solely based on his own opinion, without having much to back it up other than his own dislikes?
  • Was he referring to an earlier result where reason was somehow shown to "fail"?

3 Answers 3


I do not think that Horkheimer is referring specifically to neo-positivism.

Compare with :

The first part: The Concept of Enlightenment, consider "Enlightenment" as a general "category", involving positivism and scientism.

The first philosopher referred to is F.Bacon.

There is only one reference to neo-positivism in the footnote to page 23:

The "unity of knowledge" postulated by the Vienna Circle, especially Neurath and Carnap.

  • this answer is fair IMHO, i upvoted. given that there's little mention of neo-positivism, i would assume that a much grander claim is being made. fwiw it reminds me of the beginning of negative dialectics, that philosophy failed to realise itself (presumably, in the russian revolution)
    – user6917
    Apr 2, 2016 at 2:41

Just to let you know that google exists, and is just great for yes / no questions like this.

In proclaiming the 'end of reason' Horkheimer was writing a lament... for the idea that reason could determine how men should act

Emphasis mine.

I've not read the article and I cannot say why he felt that

the philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, scholasticism and German idealism

had failed to provide "objective reasons" for action.

Given the apparent propensity for the Frankfurt school to embrace its isolation from the world, I would suggest that Horkheimer felt the issue wasn't from the neglect of these philosophies, but that redemption, the "salvage of reason", had to begin with the assumption of their complete "failure of reason".

All quotes from Stirk -- Max Horkheimer: A new interpretation (p166).


Horkheimer believed that the proper course for mankind is an emancipation from the idea of a objective truth. This he saw as reason's natural development in its domination over nature, but at the same time he believed that reason cannot completely alienate itself from nature and must somehow seek reconciliation with it:

"The possibility of a self-critique of reason presupposes, first, that the antagonism of reason and nature is in an acute and a catastrophic phase, and, second, that at this stage of complete alienation the idea of truth is still accessible." (Eclipse of Reason, p. 177)

As a result, he believed that mankind's failure to try to maintain a balance between this ongoing tension between nature and reason has resulted in a disproportion which is destructive to mankind's progress.

"Today, progress toward utopia is blocked primarily by the completed disproportion between the weight of the overwhelming machinery of social power and that of the atomized masses. Everything else - the widespread hypocrisy, the belief in a false theories, the discouragement of speculative thought, the debilitation of will, or its premature diversion into endless activity under the pressure of fear - is a symptom of this a disproportion." (Eclipse of Reason, p. 187)

He also criticized particular philosophies because, rather than maintaining an equilibrium, they have adopted one of two extremes. On the one hand, he criticized those who hold to universal principles in an arbitrary manner without justifying them with any verifiable basis. On the other hand, he also criticized the reactionary stance which other philosophical schools have taken against the idea of objective truth, ignoring the value that those principles had within their historical context:

"The positivist attack on certain scheming and artificial revivals of obsolete ontology is doubtless justified. The promoters of these revivals, highly cultured as they may be, are betraying the last remnants of Western culture by making its rescue their philosophical business. Fascism revived the old methods of domination that under modern conditions have proved unspeakably cruder than their pristine forms; these philosophers revive authoritarian systems of thought that under modern conditions prove infinitely more naive, arbitrary, and untruthful then they were originally. Well meaning of metaphysicians, by their semi-learned demonstrations of the true, the good, and the beautiful as eternal values of scholasticism, destroy the last bit of meaningfulness that such ideas might have for independent thinkers attempted to oppose the powers that be. Such ideas are nowadays promoted as if they were commodities, while formerly they were used to oppose the effects of commercial culture." (Eclipse of Reason, p. 61)

"The skeptic and positivist schools of philosophy find no meaning in general concepts that would be worth salvaging. Oblivious to their own partiality, they fall into unresolvable contradictions. On the other hand, objective idealism and rationalism insist above all, upon the eternal meaning of general concepts and norms, regardless of their historical derivations. Each school is equally confident of its own thesis and hostile to the method of negation inseparably bound up with any philosophical theory that does not arbitrarily stop thinking at some point in its course." (Eclipse of Reason, p. 183)

As a result, he believed that what is necessary is to maintain a balance between these two views and recognize the proper direction of reason's domination over nature lies in evaluating the value that truth has within its proper historical context:

"Sociological and psychological explanation of earlier beliefs would be distinct from philosophical condemnation and suppression of them. Though divested of the power they had in their contemporary setting, they would serve to cast light upon the current course of humanity." (Eclipse of Reason, p.186)


In order to make sense of this, its first important to understand that Horkheimer's correspondence theory of truth is ultimately rooted in empirical sources. In his essay "On the Problem of Truth", he describes it as follows:

"This correspondence [of truth] is neither a simple datum [nor] an immediate fact. [...] Rather, it is always established by real events and human activity. Already in the investigation and determination of facts, and even more in the verification of theories, a role is played by the direction of attention, the refinement of methods, the categorical structure of the subject matter -- in short, by human activity corresponding to the given social period." ("On the Problem of Truth", p. 190)

In light of this, we can better understand the relation which Horkheimer saw between the belief in objective truth and man's struggle to dominate nature. The path toward domination led to industrialization and the subjugation of the individual, and he perceived this as evidence of the irrelevance of man's belief in universal truth in the modern era. Believing that truth is a subjective evaluation of empirical facts, Horkheimer perceived it to have no validity unless it could be pragmatically vindicated in history. Of course, this perspective undermines the very nature of truth, especially moral truth, which must stand against the tide of adverse circumstances. If truth owes its validity only to its success, it is defeated from the start, being tossed about by the contingencies of history and thus lacking it's essential characteristic as a sure guide for man's decisions. Nonetheless, this was Horkheimer's perspective, leading him to a pessimistic evaluation of the direction in which mankind was headed:

"The destruction of rationalistic dogmatism through the self-critique of reason, carried out by the ever-renewed nominalistic tendencies in philosophy, has now been ratified by historical reality. The substance of individuality itself, to which the idea of autonomy was found, did not survive the process of industrialization. Reason has degenerated because it was the ideological projection of a false universality which now shows the autonomy of the subject to have been an illusion. The collapse of reason and the collapse of individual ality are one in the same." (Horkheimer, "The End of Reason")

Although he criticized the idea of universal truth, he still recognized that man's belief in it had value in the progress of history. Because of this, he criticized certain schools of philosophy, especially positivism, for taking a reactionary stance against the belief in objective truth and ignoring the purpose it served in its historical context.

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