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instrumental reason


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Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno's term for the social and political shift in priority from ends to means, from worrying about the larger meaning and purpose behind goals to caring only for the efficiency with which those goals are achieved. Comparable to Max Weber's concept of rationality (economic rationality being the best known example of this), instrumental reason refers not only to a rise in what Weber called bureaucratic thinking, it also refers to a larger trend in philosophy to privilege the objective at the expense of the subjective. Now, as Horkheimer and Adorno argue in Dialektik der Aufklärung (1944), translated as Dialectic of Enlightenment (1972), the subjective is treated as though it is sheer representation without any cognitive content, while the objective is treated as though it is pure cognitive content. A contemporary example of this line of thinking would be the work of Manuel DeLanda, particularly Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy (2002). This way of thinking, Horkheimer and Adorno argue, obscures the fact that what we think of as reason is always the product of a negotiation between the rational and the irrational, the subjective and the objective, between that which can be proved empirically and that which cannot. Even more problematically, by rigorously trying to purge itself of all its subjective elements, thought winds up producing a mythology in which it remains trapped. The objective is made to seem equivalent to that which is unchanging, eternal, universal, effectively placing it on the same plane as a deity. In his later work on aesthetics, Adorno argues that this process of expelling the subjective altogether is not yet complete and suggests that art has continued importance in our society precisely because it creates a place for the irrational, thus tempering the relentless pursuit of the rational in every other dimension of contemporary life.

Further Reading:

S. Jarvis Adorno: A Critical Introduction (1998).

Subjects: Literary Theory and Cultural Studies.


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