To understand Horkheimer’s “The End of Reason”, one has need to understand the historical timeline the paper was written during. In 1937, four years prior, Horkheimer published the essay “Traditional and Critical Theory”, an essay which defined critical theory as a revolutionary form of Marxist theory, which called for the radical transformation in social theory and practice. It was not until eight years after “The End of Reason” that Horkheimer softened his stance on transformation by limiting it to educational systems, adopting Gramsci’s hegemony, which has since been expanded upon by Ivan Illich.
As the United States in 1941 was anti-communist and anti-fascist, and Horkheimer ensconced at Columbia University in New York City, his views had need to be carefully couched, have felicific calculus applied. It is because of this to truly understand “The End of Reason”, one has to apply Wittgenstein methods to it, to determine the different “language games”, to use Ockham’s Razor to obtain clarity. It is clear that Horkheimer was objecting to the global collectivism of society, the historical materialism, Smyth’s technocracy. What is not immediately clear though is the meaning of his final sentence which concludes with: “…there is nothing left but barbarism or freedom.(p48)” Freedom and barbarism have multitudinous definitions. Freedom is commonly accepted as liberty, an ideal, and barbarism as anathematic: cruel and savage. But, more obscure, meanings for the words, meanings a highly educated person like Horkheimer would know, change the entire reading of his essay and give it life as a call to fulfill critical theory, a destruction of the monist dystopia of Science.
To Horkheimer, reason equated to the Spinozian belief that man could find liberation through knowledge. This is the freedom he wrote of in common interpretations of this essay, the apodictic reading. Reason, not sullied by Science, could buttress man from the assailment of the machine of science, the grinding of the human gear. For in Horkheimer’s view, man had been hebetated, had become a slave to the reason of machine and its dominance. The path for freedom for the vulgus was through reason.
Barbarism was man’s other option, according to Horkheimer, a barbarism driven by bellipotent Science, driven to subsume reason and obliterate it. This option Horkheimer railed against, for man would truly then be a part, a gear, in a machine. The vox populi would cease and man would become the mechanolater, the worshipper of machines. It would be the realization of Abelard’s warning that man without reason must be content with authority. Man would cease to be, man.
But, given the historical timeline of this essay, Horkheimer was a first phase critical theorist, a man who supported radical transformation to achieve the Marxist ideals of a society progressing from capitalism to socialism to a classless society, a man who could not voice those views openly for fear of imprisonment or death. As such, Horkheimer had need to obscure his true intent through this essay, obscured in such a way that only others who held his views could truly understand, his own camarilla, secret political society. Horkheimer went to length describing the rise of the Nazis, while detailing how reason had become epitonic. The ingurgitation of reason by Science, the enslavement, was an almost Götterdämerung against man.
For Horkheimer, the Kafkaesque nightmare must be vanquished, must be subverted, for only then could change occur, could man begin the Marxist utopia. It is because of this that one has need to utilize alternate meanings for the words freedom and barbarism. Freedom also means facility, a transvaluation of freedom for servitude. Man could find freedom by accepting his imprisonment as a cog, as a prisoner does once he accepts he will never leave his prison. “It induces the individual to subordinate himself to society… (p29)” Freedom means then to be boundless of reason, to do as Duncan’s queen in MacBeth and “die every day she lived.” To be facile to Horkheimer truly meant the death, oblivion of man as an individual by the machine. Heidegger’s Sein zum Tode, an anonymous face in an anonymous crowd. Man in context then would be but a disposable part of the machine, the machine Gestalt to man, the sum greater than the parts.
In the Roman Empire, barbarism was the action of the uncivilized, the uneducated, the un-Roman. To this end Horkheimer urges man, to strive against society, the technocracy, to accept reason as a paramour, an illicit lover. Reason alone could affricate, grate against, the machine of society, to “strip the gears” of production, to bring the machine to a halt. Horkheimer assailed Aristotle as the progenitor of empirical science, the same man who in Ethics wrote: “when devoid of virtue, man is the most unscrupulous and savage of animals.” This is the dualism of Horkheimer’s words. Man as a barbarian, a bantling, no longer anonymous, could seize control of the machine, Science, and regain his position as man. Horkheimer, no Luddite, could have foreseen man gaining control of the machine through reason, the machine then serving man.
Evidentiary to Horkheimer’s true intent is his allusions to individuals who stood against the Church, individuals who rose from the crowd, and who paid for their beliefs. Horkheimer espouses Roger Bacon and Siger of Brabant, both imprisoned for heresy against the Church, the latter murdered. These were men who railed against the machine of their time, who embraced reason and rejected collectivism, and who were resolute to accept the consequences of their actions. Horkheimer writes of Duns Scotus, who challenged the Church, its capitalism, and suffered eternal ignominy as from him the word dunce has arisen. Horkheimer refers also to Romeo and Juliet who “died in conflict with society… (p43)” Romeo and Juliet, the jusqu’ au
botists, radicals, through felo de se, self-murder, an apologia, rejected their unreasonable society. These examples were not idly selected by Horkheimer, were not an afterthought. Horkheimer chose these as examples of hope against the technocracy because “morality has survived insofar as men are conscious that the reality to which they yield is not the right one. (p36)”
Horkheimer’s interpretation of the Reformation, and of Luther, as a training of man to subordination is curious, peculiar. Luther, with hammer and nail, crucified the despotic capitalistic oligarchy of the Church. Horkheimer had previously quoted Voltaire’s belief that the proletariat could be enlightened to reason only by apostles, and Luther was an apostle. Luther had used reason as a weapon a gainst the collectivism of the Church, as a means to his own end. Perhaps one could deduce that Horkheimer referred to Luther recanting of his beliefs, his subordination to that which he fought against, his acceptance of freedom as facility, as “the idea of
reason, even in its nominalistic and purified form, has always justified sacrifice. (p33)”
But then, it could be argued that Luther through reason, had sacrificed his ideals, a “sacrificium intellectus. (p40)” To Horkheimer, “reason could recognize and denounce the forms of injustice
and thus emancipate itself from them. (p47)” Reason then, in a society that abhorred it, condemned it, could become the Urgrund, the primary principle, the apotropaic weapon. Reason could be the salvation of man, could free man from being a piece of the machine. As Dostoyevsky wrote in Notes from Underground (MacAndrew, A.R., 1961, New York: Signet Classic, p114-5):
But even if man was nothing but a piano key, even if this could be demonstrated to him mathematically- even then, he wouldn’t come to his senses but would pull some trick out of sheer ingratitude, just to make his point. And if he didn’t have them on hand, he would devise the means of destruction, chaos, and all kinds of suffering to get his way. For instance he’d swear loud enough for the whole world to hear- swearing is man’s prerogative, setting him apart from the other animals- and maybe his swearing alone would get him what he wanted, that is, it’d prove to him that he’s a man and not a piano key.
Reason would require an anti-Heidegger man, the one freed from the anonymous crowd, freed from the machine, the one who would deny death and act as immortal, the barbarian. Maine de Biran believed that man could achieve freedom through source of will. Post mortem nihil est, ipsaque mori nihil. After death there is nothing, not even death. Sartre argued that how man dies is eternal, regardless of how man has lived. Reason, recognizing the injustice of the technocracy, the devolution of man as a Baalist of the machine of Science, would be the tool to true freedom, liberty. As Bob Marley wrote in “Redemption Song”: “emancipate yourself from mental slavery,
none but ourselves can free our mind.” Emancipation of reason would lead man to actual freedom.
“The terror which pushes reason is at the same time the last means of stopping it, so close has truth come. (p48)” The terror, the sublimation of humanitas, had begun to draw man nigh. Horkheimer here suggested that terror had need to beget terror, for a man with reason to respond in kind to the terror of the machine, to use the very foundation the machine had been built upon to undermine it. Further in “Redemption Song” Marley wrote: “how long shall they kill our prophets while we stand aside and look.” In this case, the prophet is reason, it is the apostle to man, the barbarian, outcast from the technocracy, desirous to slay facility, Voltaire’s apostle to the proletariat.
This is the message Horkheimer has concealed in this essay, that man must free himself from the machine, from Science, that man is not a piano key, and man must become man again, to regain the humanitas denied him by the machine, through reason. Man is on the precipice, the edge of permanent oblivion, servitude to the machine of Science, a machine that seeks to explain away the necessity of man. No longer should man accept the status quo, the anonymous oblivion of the
collective, no longer equate freedom with facility, but to battle facility outside of society, as a barbarian, freed from the machine in an a fortiori war, as the machine holds power only through the slave of man, for as yet, it is not autonomous. Man can strike then and become master, slave lord, of the machine. Man would then realize the Rastafarian “I and I”, which denotes “we” as a true collection of individuals, and no longer be anonymous, no longer be a cog. Horkheimer did not intend a Trotskyian ideal, a permanent revolution, but a revolution of reason, an end to the
totalitarianism of Science and the establishment of socialism, where the machine becomes tool and serves man.
When Horkheimer wrote “…there is nothing left but barbarism or freedom (p48)”, he was not referring to just the common definitions of those words, of liberty and savagery, but also of facility and uncivilized. The keys to understanding his true meaning lay within the confines of his essay, buried there because Horkheimer had need to be non-pellucid, vague, had feared his own freedom in the context of his era, the pre-McCarthian United States. He wrote of the rise of Fascism to illustrate the solecism of the machine of Science, the error in calculation that man would accept slavehood. Through his detail of Fascism he exposed the underbelly of the machine.
He purposely chose to illustrate those who battled against the totality of religion, those who sacrificed in the name of their ideals against the Church in an ideological struggle of methodologies. Horkheimer wrote a call for a revolution of reason, of humanitas armed with reason, against the machine, its weaknesses exposed, for man to use and embrace barbarism, to be uncivilized, to not be an anonymous piece of a machine, to attain Fichte’s how the world should be, how it should be altered through reason, true freedom, liberty.