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

Abstract

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.

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Acknowledgments

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

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Simpson, S. Nietzsche, irrationalism, and the cruel irony of Adorno and Horkheimer’s political quietude. Contemp Polit Theory (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41296-020-00443-z

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Keywords

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