Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Max Horkheimer

German Jewish Philosopher and Sociologist, member of the Frankfort School

"Good will, solidarity and wretchedness, and the struggle for a better world have now thrown off their religious garb. The attitude of today’s martyrs is no longer patience but action; their goal is no longer their own immortality in the after-life but the happiness of men who come after them for whom they know how to die."

"The contradiction between what is requested of man and what can be offered to him has become so striking, the ideology so thin, the discontents in civilization so great that they must be compensated through annihilation of those who do not conform, political enemies, Jews, asocial persons, the insane. The new order of fascism is reason revealing itself as unreason."

"Although most people never overcome the habit of berating the world for their difficulties, those who are too weak to make a stand against reality have no choice but to obliterate themselves by identifying with it. They are never rationally reconciled to civilization. Instead, they bow to it, secretly accepting the identity of reason and domination, of civilization and the ideal, however much they may shrug their shoulders. Well-informed cynicism is only another mode of conformity. These people willingly embrace or force themselves to accept the rule of the stronger as the eternal norm. Their whole life is a continuous effort to suppress and abase nature, inwardly or outwardly, and to identify themselves with its more powerful surrogates—the race, fatherland, leader, cliques, and tradition. For them, all these words mean the same thing—the irresistible reality that must be honored and obeyed. However, their own natural impulses, those antagonistic to the various demands of civilization, lead a devious undercover life within them."

"Laughter, whether reconciled or terrible, always accompanies the moment when a fear is ended. It indicates a release, whether from physical danger or from the grip of logic. Reconciled laughter resounds with an echo of esc ape from power; wrong laughter copes with fear by defecting the agencies which inspire it…In wrong society laughter is a sickness infecting happiness and drawing into societie’s worthless totality…What is infernal about wrong laughter is that it compellingly parodies what is best…The culture industry replaces pain, which is present in ecstacy no less than in asceticism, with jovial denial. Its supreme law is that its consumers shall at no price be given what they desire."

"Those blinded by civilization have contact with their own tabbood mimetic traits only through certain gestures and forms of behavior they encounter in others, isolated, shameful residues in their rationalized environment. What repels them as alien is all too familiar. It lurks in the contagious gestures of an immediacy suppressed by civilization: gestures of touching, nestling, soothing, coaxing. What makes such impulses repellent today is their outmodedness. In seeking to win over the buyer with flattery, the debtor with threats, the creditor with supplication, they appear to translate long-reified human relationships back into those of personal power. Any emotion is finally embarrassing; mere excitement is preferable. All unmanipulated expression appears like the grimace which the manipulated expression…always has."

"In this society there is no longer any sphere in which domination can profess its contradictions,, as it does in art; there is no longer any means of duplication by which the distortion might be expressed. But in earlier times such expression was called not only beauty but thought, intellect, language itself. Today language calculates, designates, betrays, initiates death; it does not express…Intellectual enjoyment used to be confined to the presentation of suffering, but they play horror itself."

"The categorical imperative holds up a “universal natural law,” the law of human society, as a standard of comparison to this [bourgeois] natural law of individuals. This would be meaningless if particular interests and the needs of the general public intersected not just haphazardly but of necessity. That this does not occur, however, is the inadequacy of the bourgeois economic form: there exists no rational connection between the free competition of individuals as what mediates and the existence of the entire society as what is mediated...This irrationality expresses itself in the suffering of the majority of human beings...This problem, which only society itself could rationally solve through the systematic incorporation of each member into a consciously directed labor process, manifests itself in the bourgeois epoch as a conflict in the inner life of its subjects."

"All pleasure is social…It springs from alienation. Even when enjoyment is ignorant of the prohibition it infringes, it owes its origin to civilization, to the fixed order from which it yearns to return to the very nature from which that order protects it. Only when dream absolves them of the compulsion of work, of the individual’s attachment to a particular social function and finally to a self, leading back to a primal state free of domination and discipline, do human beings feel the magic of pleasure…Thought arose in the course of liberation from terrible nature, which is finally subjugated utterly. Pleasure, so to speak, is nature’s revenge. In it human beings divest themselves of thought, escape from civilization. In earlier societies such home-coming was provided by communal festivals. Primitive orgies are the collective origin of pleasure."

"Only exaggeration is true. The essential character of prehistory is the appearance of utmost horror in the individual detail. A statistical compilation of those slaughtered in a progrom, which also includes mercy killings, conceals its essence, which emerges only in an exact description of the exception, the most hideous torture. A happy life in a world of horror is in-ominously refuted by the mere existence of that word. The latter therefore becomes essential, the former negligible."

"The idea inherent in all idealistic metaphysics–that the world is in some sense a product of the mind–is thus turned into its opposite: the mind is a product of the world, of the processes of nature. Hence, according to popular Darwinism, nature does not need philosophy to speak for her: nature, a powerful and venerable deity, is ruler rather than ruled. Darwinism ultimately comes to the aid of rebellious nature in undermining any doctrine, theological or philosophical, that regards nature itself as expressing a truth that reason must try to recognize. The equating of reason with nature, by which reason is debased and raw nature exalted, is a typical fallacy of the era of rationalization. Instrumentalized subjective reason either eulogizes nature as pure vitality or disparages it as brute force, instead of treating it as a text to be interpreted by philosophy that, if rightly read, will unfold a tale of infinite suffering. Without committing the fallacy of equating nature and reason, mankind must try to reconcile the two. In traditional theology and metaphysics, the natural was largely conceived as the evil, and the spiritual or supernatural as the good. In popular Darwinism, the good is the well-adapted, and the value of that to which the organism adapts itself is unquestioned or is measured only in terms of further adaptation. However, being well adapted to one’s surroundings is tantamount to being capable of coping successfully with them, of mastering the forces that beset one. Thus the theoretical denial of the spirit’s antagonism to nature–even as implied in the doctrine of interrelation between the various forms of organic life, including man–frequently amounts in practice to subscribing to the principle of man’s continuous and thoroughgoing domination of nature. Regarding reason as a natural organ does not divest it of the trend to domination or invest it with greater potentialities for reconciliation. On the contrary, the abdication of the spirit in popular Darwinism entails the rejection of any elements of the mind that transcend the function of adaptation and consequently are not instruments of self-preservation. Reason disavows its own primacy and professes to be a mere servant of natural selection. On the surface, this new empirical reason seems more humble toward nature than the reason of the metaphysical tradition. Actually, however, it is arrogant, practical mind riding roughshod over the ‘useless spiritual,’ and dismissing any view of nature in which the latter is taken to be more than a stimulus to human activity. The effects of this view are not confined to modern philosophy."

"The facts of science and science itself are but segments of the life process of society, and in order to understand the significance of facts or of science one must possess the key to the historical situation, the right social theory."

"Darwin broke with a fundamental dogma of Christianity–that God created man in his own image. At the same time he struck at metaphysical concepts of evolution, as they had prevailed from Aristotle to Hegel. He conceived of evolution as a blind sequence of events, in which survival depends upon adaptation to the conditions of life, rather than as the unfolding of organic entities in accordance with their entelechies. Thus his name has come to represent the idea of man’s domination of nature in terms of common sense. One may even go so far as to say that the concept of the survival of the fittest is merely the translation of the concepts of formalized reason into the vernacular of natural history. In popular Darwinism, reason is purely an organ; spirit or mind, a thing of nature. According to a current interpretation of Darwin, the struggle for life must necessarily, step by step, through natural selection, produce the reasonable out of the unreasonable. In other words, reason, while serving the function of dominating nature, is whittled down to being a part of nature; it is not an independent faculty but something organic, like tentacles or hands, developed through adaptation to natural conditions and surviving because it proves to be an adequate means of mastering them, especially in relation to acquiring food and averting danger. As a part of nature, reason is at the same time set against nature–the competitor and enemy of all life that is not its own."

"A man discovers what he is actually worth in this world when he faces society as a man, without money, name, or powerful connections, stripped of all but his native potentialities. He soon finds that nothing has less weight than his human qualities. They are prized so low that the market does not even list them. Strict science, which acknowledges man only as a biological concept, reflects man?s lot in the actual world; in himself, man is nothing more than a member of a species. In the eyes of the world, the quality of humanity confers no title to existence, nay, not even a right of sojourn. Such title must be certified by special social circumstances stipulated in documents to be presented on demand."

"Although the formulations of science now offer the most advanced knowledge of nature, men continue to use obsolete forms of thought long discarded by scientific theory. In so far as these obsolete forms are superfluous for science, the fact that they persist violated the principle of the economy of thought, that characteristic trait of the bourgeois temper."

"If by enlightenment and intellectual progress we mean the freeing of man from superstitious belief in evil forces, in demons and fairies, in blind fate ? in short, emancipation of fear ? then denunciation of what is currently called reason is the greatest service reason can render."

"If this truth has once and for all been discarded and men have decided for integral adjustment, if reason has been purged of all morality regardless of cost, and has triumphed over all else, no one may remain outside and look on. The existence of one solitary "unreasonable" man elucidates the shame of the entire nation. His existence testifies to the relativity of the system of radical self-preservation that has been posited as absolute."

"Leibniz?s theory on the subject as substantia ideans in the sense of a causative agent of decision and acts stands much closer to a materialist interpretation of history than does a philosophy which reduces the thinking subject to the role of subsuming protocol sentences under general propositions and deducing other sentences from them."

"Logical empiricism holds the view, notwithstanding some its assertions that the forms of knowledge and consequently the relations of man to nature and to other men never change. According to rationalism, too, all subjective and objective potentialities are rooted in insights which the individual already possesses, but rationality uses existing objects as well as the active inner striving and ideas of man to construct standards for the future. In this regard, it is not so closely associated with the present order as is empiricism."

"At present, when the prevailing forms of society have become hindrances to the free expression of human powers, it is precisely the abstract branches of science, mathematics and theoretical physics, which ... offer a less distorted form of knowledge than other branches of science which are interwoven with the pattern of daily life, and the practicality of which seemingly testifies to their realistic character."

"Bourgeois society is ruled by equivalence. It makes the dissimilar comparable by reducing it to abstract quantities. To the enlightenment, that which does not reduce to numbers, and ultimately to the one, becomes illusion."

"Men have been released from [concentration] camps who have taken over the jargon of their jailers and with cold reason and mad consent (the price, as it were, of their survival) tell their story as if it could not have been otherwise than it was, contending that they have not been treated so badly after all."

"No criticism can be brought against a branch of technical science from outside; no thought fitted out with the knowledge of a period and setting its course by definite historical aims could have anything to say to the specialist. Such thought and the critical, dialectical element it communicates to the process of cognition, thereby maintaining conscious connection between that process and historical life, do not exist for empiricism; nor do the associated categories, such as the distinction between essence and appearance, identity in change, and rationality of ends, indeed, the concept of man, of personality, even of society and class taken in the sense that presupposes specific viewpoints and directions of interest."

"Notwithstanding their attacks on the basic conception of rationalism, on synthetic a priori judgments, that is, material propositions that cannot be contradicted by any experience, the empiricists posits the forms of being as constant."

"Now that science has helped us to overcome the awe of the unknown in nature, we are the slaves of social pressures of our own making. When called upon to act independently, we cry for patterns, systems, and authorities. If by enlightenment and intellectual progress we mean the freeing of man from superstitious belief in evil forces, in demons and fairies, in blind fate--in short, the emancipation from fear--then denunciation of what is currently called reason is the greatest service reason can render."

"Philosophy is overwhelmingly complicated, its procedure depressingly slow."

"The blessing that the market does not ask about birth is paid for in the exchange society by the fact that the possibilities conferred by birth are molded to fit the production of goods that can be bought on the market."

"The characteristic activity of science is not construction, but induction. The more often something has occurred in the past, the more certain that it will in all the future. Knowledge relates solely to what is and to its recurrence. New forms of being, especially those arising from the historical activity of man, lie beyond empiricist theory. Thoughts which are not simply carried over from the prevailing pattern of consciousness, but arise from the aims and resolves of the individual, in short, all historical tendencies that reach beyond what is present and recurrent, do not belong to the domain of science."

"The complexity of the connection between the world of perception and the world of physics does not preclude that such a connection can be shown to exist at any time."

"The disparagement of empirical evidence in favor of a metaphysical world of illusion has its origin in the conflict between the emancipated individual of bourgeois society and his fate within that society."

"The endeavor of scientific research to see events in their more general connection in order to determine their laws is a legitimate and useful occupation. Any protest against such efforts, in the name of free from restrictive conditions, would be fruitless if science did not na‹vely identify the abstractions called rules and laws with the actually efficacious forces, and confuse the probability that B will follow A with the actual effort make B follow A."

"The hypostasis of the particular methods of procedure employed by natural science ... results in the view that all theoretical differences which rest on historically conditioned antagonisms of interest are to be settles by a ?crucial experiment? rather than by struggle and counter-struggle. The harmonious relation of individuals to one another becomes a fact, therefore, that has even more general character than a law of nature."

"The metaphysical apologia at least betrayed the injustice of the established order through the incongruence of concept and reality. The impartiality of scientific language deprived what was powerless of the strength to make itself heard and merely provided the existing order with a neutral sign for itself. Such neutrality is more metaphysical than metaphysics."

"When an active individual of sound common sense perceives the sordid state of the world, desire to change it becomes the guiding principle by which he organizes given facts and shapes them into a theory. The methods and categories as well as the transformation of the theory can be understood only in connection with his taking of sides. This, in turn, discloses both his sound common sense and the character of the world. Right thinking depends as much on right willing as right willing on right thinking."

"When even the dictators of today appeal to reason, they mean that they possess the most tanks. They were rational enough to build them; others should be rational enough to yield to them."

"When scientists take part in activity they transform themselves from scientists into acting beings, that is, they become elements, data, facts; as soon as they reflect on their activity, however, they are re-transformed into scientists. The trained specialist qua scientist looks upon himself as a chain of judgments and inferences; qua member of society, he regard himself as a mere object. The same holds for everyone. The individual is divided into innumerable functions, the interconnection of which are unknown. In society a man is pater familias under one aspect, business man under another, thinker under a third; to be more precise, he is not a human being at all, but all these aspects and many more in an inevitable succession."

"With the abolition of 'otium' and of the ego no aloof thinking is left. ... Without 'otium' philosophical thought is impossible, cannot be conceived or understood."