Today is the fortieth anniversary of T.W. Adorno’s death

The philosopher, social theorist and critic T.W. Adorno died forty years ago today in Switzerland. A polymath who initially trained to be a philosopher and a composer, Adorno issued important work in philosophy, sociology, social psychology, criticism (both literary and musical) along with the cultural criticism for which he would become famous. Adorno, along with Max Horkheimer, wrote the celebrated Dialectic of Enlightenment, a book that was scandalous and disturbing because it expressed a judgment about a then current and obvious condition of the world, and one which continues to disturb the world to this day. It begins with this thought:

In the most general sense of progressive thought, the enlightenment has always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty. Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant (Adorno and Horkheimer, p. 3).

Horkheimer and Adorno left us a work that can be best characterized a "world-disclosing critique" of modernity, as Axel Honneth has named it (pp. 49-62). With this term Honneth refers to a type of social diagnosis and the presentation of such meant to evoke in the reader of the work in question his or her intuitive sense of a world in which something has gone wrong, a world that is thoroughly inclusive but intrinsically false (Adorno, p. 50). A critique of this sort thus intends to place the known world, the taken-for-granted world of everyday life, within a horizon that highlights those dangerous features of the given world which were heretofore unthought but, perhaps, known in some manner, although known only indistinctly and weakly. Their work could be identified as a diagnosis of the uncanny in a modern everyday life. Honneth goes on to assert that:

…the truth claim made in the Dialectic of Enlightenment will depend on whether the members of the society it describes will one day agree to accept its new descriptions, and thus change their social life practices (p. 61).

When considered in this way, one might say that Horkheimer and Adorno produced something akin to a secular prophecy, albeit a foretelling that also expresses an insight which can be rendered false once humanity learns how to live and institute a humane form of life.

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