Stuart Walton in Aeon:
One wants to break free of the past,’ Theodor Adorno, one of the Frankfurt School’s leading luminaries, wrote in an essay in 1959. ‘Rightly, because nothing at all can live in its shadow, and because there will be no end to the terror as long as guilt and violence are repaid with guilt and violence; wrongly, because the past that one would like to evade is still very much alive.’ In an age when the meanings of the past and the functions they are called upon to serve are so hotly contested, Adorno’s insight reminds us, in a typically double-edged way, that humanity is both composed of and trapped inside its history. This view of history underpinned the work of the boldest and bravest philosophers of the past century: the first generation of the Frankfurt School. Their arguments lacked for nothing in theoretical aspiration, and have scarcely begun to be assimilated, even today.
A key point of disputation for this generation of thinkers arose from the notion that society, in its progress from barbarism to civilisation according to the narrative of the European Enlightenment, had been increasingly founded on the principle of reason. Where mythology once held sway, the rationalistic sciences now reigned supreme. Among the Frankfurt School’s most provocative contentions was that Western civilisation had unwittingly executed a reversal of this narrative. The heroic phase of the 18th-century Enlightenment purported to have freed humankind of antique superstition and the demons of the irrational, but the horrors of the 20th century gave the lie to that triumphalism. Far from humane liberation, 20th-century Europeans had plunged into decades of savage barbarism. Why? The Frankfurt School theorists argued that universal rationality had been raised to the status of an idol. At the heart of this was what they called ‘instrumental reason’, the mechanism by which everything in human affairs was ground up.