Nature deficit in critical theory
I In Dialectic of Enlightenment, co-authored in 1943-1944 during their American exile, the Frankfurt School philosophers Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno argue that the relationship between myth and Enlightenment is far more complex than commonly understood: ‘myth is already enlightenment; and enlightenment reverts to mythology’ (1979: xvi). ‘Enlightenment’ as understood by Horkheimer and Adorno does not designate a particular epoch in Western history, but a set of intellectual and practical operations whose proclaimed goal is the thorough-going disenchantment, demythologization, and secularization of mythical, magical, and religious worldviews. They quote Francis Bacon to the effect that the sought-for disenchantment of the world would require the total dissolution of myths and the substitution of knowledge for fancy. By overcoming superstition, the human mind is to hold sway over a disenchanted nature. Knowledge recognizes no obstacles; being inseparable from power, knowledge is power and its essence is technology. ‘What men want to learn from nature is how to use it in order to wholly dominate it and other men. That is the only aim’ (1979: 4). The disenchantment of the world is inseparable from the extirpation of animism. ‘There is said to be no difference between the totemic animal, the dreams of the ghost-seer, and the absolute Idea’ (1979: 5). From Xenophanes to twentieth-century positivism, men renounce any claim to meaning. There is to be no mystery, meaning also no wish to reveal mystery. Formula must be substituted for concept, rule and probability for cause and motive. Science can now manage without substance and quality, activity and suffering, being and existence – categories that were abandoned as idola theatri of the old metaphysics going back to Plato and Aristotle. In particular, science as conceived by the Enlightenment opposed as superstition the claim that truth is predictable of universals. It asserted that ‘in the authority of universal concepts, there was still discernible fear of the demonic spirits which men sought to portray in magic rituals, hoping thus to influence nature’. Thanks to the new science, matter would at last be mastered without any illusion of ruling or inherent powers, of hidden qualities. ‘For the Enlightenment, whatever does not conform to the rule of
computation and utility is suspect.’ For this reason, as well as others to be identified below, Horkheimer and Adorno consider the Enlightenment ‘totalitarian’ (1979: 6). In line with this, Enlightenment has always taken the basic principle of myth to be anthropomorphism, the projection onto nature of the subjective. Accordingly, the supernatural, spirits and demons, are seen as mirror images of men who allow themselves to be frightened by natural phenomena. Just as the ancient Greek philosophers held that all ‘primitive’ religions are anthropomorphic in that they project a mere subjective (human) meaning at the worshiped holy object, modern positivists dismiss the notion of ‘essence’ as a subjective fiction. Following Descartes, qualities such as smell, taste, and colour are denied all objective reality and reduced to so-called ‘secondary qualities’ originating in the epistemic subject as opposed to in the nature of the things themselves (in re). What truly possesses real, objective, and undeniable existence is what can be measured, counted, and calculated, being eminently and exhaustively describable in numbers. Formal logic provided the Enlightenment thinkers with the schema of the calculability of the world, without remainder. As Horkheimer and Adorno note, ‘the mythologizing equation of Ideas with numbers in Plato’s last writings expresses the longing of all demythologization: number became the canon of the Enlightenment’ (1979: 7). Thus is facilitated the principle by which capitalist society was to be ruled: equivalence, making the dissimilar comparable by reducing it to abstract quantities and thereby stripping it of everything that would betray particularity or uniqueness. Hence the totalitarian tendency: that which does not reduce to numbers becomes illusion. ‘The destruction of gods and qualities alike is insisted upon’ (1979: 8). Yet – herein the dialectic – the myths which fell victim to the Enlightenment were its own products. The awakening of the modern self – liberated from superstition, from involvement in magic and belief in myth thanks to the disenchantment effected by science – is paid for by the compulsion to recognize power as the principle of all relations, among men as well as between men and nature. Again, what is held to substitute for the powers exposed by science as based on illusion and fear, on irrationality, uncannily resembles what it is busty targeting: ‘In view of the unity of the ratio [the human-centred principle of valid knowledge established by the Enlightenment], the divorcement between God and man dwindles to the degree of irrelevancy.’ ‘The creative god and the systematic spirit [marking modern secular science] are alike as rulers of nature. Man’s likeness to God consists in sovereignty over existence, in the countenance of the lord and master, and in command.’ (1979: 9). Against this background, Horkheimer and Adorno launch the following thesis:
Myth turns into enlightenment, and nature into mere objectivity. Men pay for the increase of their power with alienation from that over which they exercise their power. Enlightenment behaves toward things as a dictator
toward men. He knows them in so far as he can manipulate them. The man of science knows things in so far as he can make them. In this way their potentiality is turned to his own ends. In the metamorphosis the nature of things, as a substratum of domination, is revealed as always the same. This identity constitutes the unity of nature.