Gibson, Morgan (2013). The Frankfurt School and the idea of progress. In: Conference Handbook: Perspectives on Progress. Perspectives on Progress, St Lucia, QLD, Australia, (21-21). 26-29 November, 2013.
Modernity is characterised by a peculiar belief in the inevitability of historical progress and human liberation, achieved through the realisation of reason. In pursuit of emancipation, reason’s role is significant in that it, first, reveals the irrationality of the existent and, two, helps to develop a better understanding of the world so as to assist in ‘mastering’ and controlling it for human ends. In this, reason, emancipation and progress become closely linked with science and technology and the domination of nature. By achieving the domination of nature, the Enlightenment’s principal figures hoped necessity and scarcity could be transcended, and a liberated future brought into being.
This paper focuses on the Frankfurt School’s first-generation’s understanding of history and the way in which they problematised this progress myth. I begin by discussing the above such conceptions of progress, drawing particularly on Hegel and Marx. This dominant discourse, born of Enlightenment confidence, holds that history constitutes a ‘progressive’ process marching relentlessly towards reason’s realisation. Against the progress myth, the Frankfurt School conceives of history not as a process leading inexorably towards emancipation, but rather domination. For the Frankfurt School, history indeed constitutes the ‘progressive’ realisation of reason; but a particular, denuded form of reason has come to dominate: instrumental reason. History thus ultimately constitutes a process towards the achievement of domination and the ever-increasing instrumental rationalisation of the individual in the context of profoundly unfree social relations. The paper’s final section considers the Frankfurt School’s appraisal of modernity’s emancipatory potential.