Max Horkheimer’s Critique of Instrumental Reason and the Domination of Nature

As the founder of the Frankfurt school in the 1930s, Max Horkheimer’s work set a formalised foundation for the previously undefined philosophical area of Critical Theory (with capitals). Heavily influenced by Marx, Hegel and Kant, Horkheimer’s early work focused around suffering and happiness, emancipation and rationality, and critiques of metaphysics and positivism. His most famous publication Dialectic of Enlightenment deals with the consequences of the period of ‘so-called’ Enlightenment of the 18th century. Here, Horkheimer further explores the claims to emancipation that arose from this time, and in doing so links the Enlightenment to instrumental rationality and the domination over nature, and further to capitalism, self-preservation and the repression that arises from it. This paper takes a brief but insightful look at Horkheimer’s critique of instrumental reason and how it leads human beings to dominate over nature, themselves and each other. Further will be a counter-critique, posed by Jürgen Habermas that illustrates the paradox in Horkheimer, then finally a fleeting look toward a way out of Horkheimer’s paradox from Habermas. The paper will begin by defining instrumental reason and its peculiarities for Horkheimer.

Instrumental Reason

The Age of Enlightenment of the 18th Century is generally acknowledged as the emancipation of consciousness. However, for Horkheimer the Enlightenment emphasised the practical advantages of instrumental reason. For Antonio, it was the abolition of absolute reason, which allowed for the unchecked domination of nature and human beings.[1] Instrumental reason, or subjective reason, can be described as a tool for human self-preservation; self orientated thought; an instrument concerned with instrumentalising the world to the advantage of the subject.[2] This, according to Horkheimer is the sole function of human reason today.[3] Furthermore,

Instrumental reason has two opposing elements: the abstract ego emptied of all substance except its attempt to transform everything in heaven and on earth into means for its preservation, and on the other hand an empty nature degraded to mere material, mere stuff to be dominated, without any other purpose than that of this very domination.[4]

This fairly morbid account of reason seems to justify the perceived the pessimism of the Frankfurt school, and particularly that of Horkheimer, pessimism that only intensified in his later work. The ego, used here in the Freudian sense, is a product of instrumental reason, shaped by a mastery over nature, and “is the subject that irresistibly charges ahead in the process of enlightenment”.[5] This by no means began with the Enlightenment, but rather with the first “mastery of nature”[6], or the first use of technology in a Heideggerian sense, that is, a making over nature for human purposes.

A turn away from myth to science marks heavily the period of Enlightenment, an idea Horkheimer takes to task, of which more will be said later. There is an intrinsic relationship between instrumental reason and science; the factual and ahistorical functionality of science informs how human beings can manipulate (technology) and master (dominate) the natural world, that is, informs the means toward self-preservation as an end. This single aspect of science equates basically to instrumental reason.

The capitalist system can be seen to have a directly proportionate relationship with instrumental reason. Horkheimer goes beyond this comparison to suggest that the gradual reification – the mastery of nature – has its end in Fascism, however liberal democracy and capitalism were very much the target of the Frankfurt School.[7] The capitalist agent looks to commodify the world toward his/her own ends, primarily the individualistic pursuit of self-preservation. Instrumental reason is the greatest tool in this process. In any case, substantial reason, which guides moral judgements and values, a veritable looking glass into reality and the truth of the world, has in today’s capitalist society become obsolete.[8]

Horkheimer’s Critique of Instrumental Reason

The Enlightenment brought with it wide acceptance and application of instrumental reason, and it is through the narrowed lens of science and the domination of nature, self and other, that enlightenment undermines itself[9]. Horkheimer defined two areas of nature, outer nature (objects) and inner nature (the subject, ego, or self). Instrumental reason’s domination of nature works in both respects. Zuidervaart talks about domination in three ways; “the domination of nature by human beings [outer], the domination of nature within human beings [inner], and, in both of these forms of domination, the domination of some human beings by others.”[10]

Domination of outer nature has adverse effects, according to Horkheimer, in that that which cannot be manipulated through science to human ends is omitted from the bounds of instrumental reason, resulting in a distorted view of what is real.[11] The more one is governed by instrumental reason, the more distorted reality is. The issue here is that science operates independently of the social context in which it exists. Its purpose is aimed at society but within its workings there is no accounting for the socio-historical or moral elements that greatly inform civil consensus and social needs. In this way science, as instrumental rationality, dominates society and hence the individual. The enlightenment was supposed to dispel myth, bestowing knowledge and truth on the masses, but on Horkheimer’s reading one myth was replaced by another. Furthermore, instrumental reason contradicts itself in that the mastery of nature for human preservation inevitably leads to the destruction of nature, which in turn spells destruction for humanity. As outer nature is dominated and loses meaning, so too does inner nature.

Horkheimer believed that in the process of instrumentalising our environment, inner desire is shaped by what technology can provide. Aspects of our desires and elements of our pursuits are waylaid since they are functionally less feasible to attain. As a result the individual loses something of him/herself and, in this sense, inner nature is dominated. Equally damaging to the self is the understanding that human beings organise themselves in groups and cliques in ways that promote self-preservation. This in turn dilutes the individual’s cultural identity, or more accurately forces one to repress elements of the self in the name of preservation as ordained by instrumental reason.[12] As Habermas says, “Victories over outer nature are paid for with defeats over inner nature”.[13]

Horkheimer thus illustrates that the Enlightenment, the catalyst for instrumental reason, failed in its attempt to emancipate the consciousness of individuals to any great degree. The prevalence of capitalism, or “commodity economy”, brought a short period of progress, however, Horkheimer insists the gradual mastery of nature will inevitably stifle progress and “drive humanity into a new barbarism”.[14] Instrumental reason, due to its subjective nature and relentless push for self-preservation, instead of emancipating, leads to the domination of outer nature, which in turn leads to domination over inner nature. This is ultimately a form of self-repression, and in that Horkheimer finds instrumental reason to be irrational.

For Horkheimer then, certainly in his early work, the emancipation of society involves a rationalising of social organisation, that is, a rejection of capitalism, the vehicle of social suffering.[15] This idea reveals the Marxist leitmotif throughout Horkheimer.[16] However, later work sees a shift from this stance toward a pessimistic attack on the truth and validity of reason itself. Here Horkheimer runs into an aporia.


The Aporia of the Critique of Reason

In The Theory of Communicative Action, Jürgen Habermas points to some very damning contradictions that arise from Horkheimer’s critique of instrumental reason. Habermas poignantly questions whether it ispossible to put forward a “radical critique of reason [that] ultimately undermines the possibility of critical reflection itself”.[17] If instrumental reason is fundamentally flawed, in that it is self-defeating and irrational, the entire basis for reasoning an argument is then jeopardised. Habermas further punctuates the paradox:

“if they [Horkheimer and Adorno] wanted to explicate those determinations … they would have to rely on a reason that is before reason (which was from the beginning instrumental).”[18]

Hence, Horkheimer has theorised a per se aporia.

Berendzen suggests that by divorcing reason from instrumentality from the beginning, the aporia may be resolved.[19] He suggests “eschewing formalism” in the sense of scientific norms and concepts, which seems to suggest a shift in perceived ends from simply self-preservation to include a greater acknowledgement of socio-historical contexts in the reasoning process. Habermas’ continued work seems consistent with this idea. He takes Critical Theory back to its fundamental mandate of human emancipation and shifts the focus of investigation away “from cognitive-instrumental rationality to communicative rationality”[20] – a description of which falls outside the scope of this enquiry.

Final Remarks

Max Horkheimer’s critique of instrumental reason provides us with a set of theoretical tools and a starting point for a meaningful investigation into a dialectic of the Enlightenment as well as a critical assessment of current social structures. This is significant since proponents of democracy and the commodity economy (capitalism) claim liberation and emancipation through these structures, however Horkheimer forces us to question the legitimacy of these claims. Unfortunately, through his aggressive pursuit to reject the rationality of instrumental reason, a key tool for Horkheimer in these structures, an aporia is created. How can a theory, based on reason, claim that that very reason is irrational? The findings undermine the method.

In this case, Jürgen Habermas, while critical of Horkheimer’s critique of instrumental reason, is the proverbial hero of Critical Theory. By shifting the focus from instrumental reason toward what Habermas calls communicative reason, he presents a possible escape from Horkheimer’s aporia.


[1] Robert J. Antonio, ‘Immanent Critique as the Core of Critical Theory: It’s Origins and Developments in Hegel, Marx and Contemporary Thought’, The British Journal of Sociology, 32:3 (1981), p. 340.

[2] J. C. Berendzen, ‘Max Horkheimer’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2009) p. 16, available at

[3] Max Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason (New York: Seabury Press, 1974), p. 105

[4] Ibid., p. 97.

[5] Jurgen Habermas, The Theory of communicative Action (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1984), p. 380

[6] Axel Honneth, ‘Critical Theory’, in Giddeus, A., Turner, J. H. (eds) Social Theory Today, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1987), p. 360.

[7] Ibid

[8] Max Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason, p. 18; Jessica Benjamin, ‘Authority and the Family Revisited: Or, a World Without Fathers?’, New German Critique, 13 (1978), p. 36.

[9] J. C. Berendzen, ‘Max Horkheimer’, p. 14.

[10] Lambert Zuidervaart, ‘Theodor W. Adorno’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (2007), p. 3, available at, accessed 23 August 2011.

[11] J. C. Berendzen, ‘Max Horkheimer’, p. 15.

[12] J. C. Berendzen, ‘Max Horkheimer’, p. 15-17.

[13] Jurgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, p. 380.

[14] J. C. Berendzen, ‘Max Horkheimer’, p. 14.

[15] Ibid., p. 6.

[16] Ibid., p. 7.

[17] Peter Hohendahl, ‘The Dialectic of Enlightenment Revisited: Habermas’ Critique of the Frankfurt School’, The New German Critique, 35 (1985), p. 8.

[18] Jurgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, p. 382

[19] J. C. Berendzen, ‘Max Horkheimer’, p. 18.

[20] Jurgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, p 392


One Response to Max Horkheimer’s Critique of Instrumental Reason and the Domination of Nature

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