Nietzsche, irrationalism, and the cruel irony of Adorno and Horkheimer’s political quietude


Adorno and Horkheimer’s legacy is incomplete without reference to their infamous political quietism. To thinkers such as Habermas, this was the unfortunate consequence of their alleged evacuation of reason. Attending to the treatment of Nietzsche in Dialectic of Enlightenment illuminates the distinct irony of such charges. Here, in their most popular book, Nietzsche is presented as precisely that which they praised him for warning against elsewhere: an advocate of cruelty animated by a reactionary morality. I contend that this exaggeration is not accidental, but rather illustrative; the authors present a consciously hyperbolized version of Nietzsche in order to articulate how he made possible his own misappropriation, and to distinguish themselves sharply from Nietzsche given their disagreements about the necessity of reason. Ultimately, however, even though Adorno and Horkheimer performatively differentiate themselves from the nihilism they saw in Nietzsche, their alternative would ironically be subject to precisely the same charges of irrationalism and political aporia that they sought so desperately to avoid.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. Adorno, T. (2005) Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life. Trans. E.F.N. Jephcott. London: Verso.

  2. Adorno, T. (2005b) Resignation. In: The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture. London: Routledge.

  3. Adorno, T. (2000) Problems of Moral Philosophy. Ed. T. Schröder, Trans. R. Livingstone. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

  4. Bauer, K. (1999) Adorno’s Nietzschean Narratives: Critiques of Ideology, Readings of Wagner. Albany: State University of New York.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Church, J. (2014) Infinite Autonomy. University Park: Penn State University.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Cooke, M. (2020) Forever resistant? Adorno and radical transformation of society. In: P.E. Gordon, E. Hammer and M. Pensky (eds.) The Blackwell Companion to Adorno. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Habermas, J. (2018) The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures. Wiley.

  8. Habermas, J. (1987) The Theory of Communicative Action, Vol. 1. Trans. T. McCarthy. Boston: Beacon Press.

  9. Habermas, J., Brewster, P. and Buchner, C.H. (1979) Consciousness-raising or redemptive criticism: The contemporaneity of Walter Benjamin. New German Critique 17: 30–59.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Horkheimer, M. and Adorno, T.W. (2002) Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Trans. E. Jephcott. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

  11. Horkheimer, M. (1993) Egoism and the freedom movement. In: Between Philosophy and Social Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  12. Horkheimer, M. (2013) Eclipse of Reason. Mansfield Centre, CT: Martino Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Liatsos, Y. (2006) An artist’s choice, an artist’s commitment: Reconciling myth and modern history in Nietzsche and Adorno. Dialectical Anthropology 26(2): 137–158.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Mariotti, S. (2016) Adorno and Democracy: The American Years. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  15. Nietzsche, F. (1989) Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. Trans. W.A. Kaufmann. New York: Vintage.

  16. Nietzsche, F. (1967) On the Genealogy of Morals & Ecce Homo. Trans. W.A. Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale. New York: Vintage, Div. of Random House.

  17. Nietzsche, F. (1982) Twilight of the idols. In: The Portable Nietzsche. Trans. W. Kaufmann. New York: Penguin.

  18. Nietzsche, F. (1997a) Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality. Ed. M. Clark and B. Leiter. Trans. R.J. Hollingdale. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

  19. Nietzsche, F. (1997b) Thus Spake Zarathustra. Trans. T. Common. Ware: Wordsworth Editions.

  20. Owen, D. (2018) Nietzsche and the Frankfurt School. In: P.E. Gordon, E. Hammer and A. Honneth (eds.) The Routledge Companion to the Frankfurt School. New York and London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Plass, U. (2015) Moral critique and private ethics in Nietzsche and Adorno. Constellations 22(3): 381–392.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Rampley, M. (2002) Nietzsche, Aesthetics, and Modernity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Ridely, A. (2007) Nietzsche on art and freedom. European Journal of Philosophy 15(2): 204–224.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Rose, G. (1978) The Melancholy Science: An Introduction to the Thought of Theodor W. Adorno. New York: Columbia University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  25. Ross, A. (2016) The Frankfurt School knew Trump was coming, The New Yorker 5: 12.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Simpson, S. (2017) The gaya scienza and the aesthetic ethos: Marcuse’s appropriation of Nietzsche in An Essay on Liberation. Constellations 24(3): 356–371.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Verdeja, E. (2009) Adorno’s Mimesis and its limitations for critical social thought. European Journal of Political Theory 8(4): 493–511.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Wiggershaus, R. (2001) The Frankfurt School’s ‘Nietzschean moment.’ Constellations 8(1): 144–147.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Woodward, A. (2011) Understanding Nietzscheanism. Durham: Acumen.

    Google Scholar 

Download references


I am grateful to James Martel, Jonathon Catlin, and Dana Villa for their invaluable comments on early drafts of this article.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Sid Simpson.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Simpson, S. Nietzsche, irrationalism, and the cruel irony of Adorno and Horkheimer’s political quietude. Contemp Polit Theory (2020).

Download citation


  • Nietzsche
  • Adorno
  • Horkheimer
  • cruelty
  • irony
  • politics