Date of Award


Degree Name

Master of Arts



First Advisor

Beardsworth, Sara


The Enlightenment was funded by a utopian hope that increased knowledge of nature as a mechanism could create the conditions for lasting peace and widespread happiness. The twentieth century, however, has been marked by catastrophes hitherto beyond imagination. This thesis examines two critiques of enlightenment that suggest this development is not accidental either to the concept of enlightenment or to the course it has taken in modern Western societies. The development in question follows from tendencies within enlightenment itself. I provide an exegetical account of Horkheimer and Adorno's analysis, in their collaborative work Dialectic of Enlightenment, of the regressive moment in enlightenment, which, for them, is owed to the entanglement of rationality and domination. Next, I examine Peter Sloterdijk's analysis, in Critique of Cynical Reason, of the ambivalent social reception of enlightenment that results in the phenomenon of modern cynicism, which must be contrasted with its ancient namesake that I render, following the translation of Sloterdijk, as "kynicism". In each of these works the way forward for enlightenment hinges upon cultivating a relationship between nature and the subject that is not based on dominating opposition: nature as a mechanism for human purposes or as the suppressed inner nature of the subject. Horkheimer and Adorno's solution is the recovery of reflection on nature within the subject. I show that this is insufficient to meet the challenges posed by modern cynicism that Sloterdijk reveals to be a late development of enlightenment. It is for this reason that Sloterdijk asks us to recall the legacy of Diogenes of Sinope. Sloterdijk finds in Diogenes a critical consciousness that resists the "melancholic stagnation" of cynical society and retains the utopian spirit of enlightenment.




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