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Herbert Marcuse

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Marcuse in 1955
Thinking hardly
or hardly thinking?

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Major trains of thought
The good, the bad,
and the brain fart
Come to think of it

Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979) was a leftist, sociologist, and philosopher from the Frankfurt School who specialized in critical theory. Born in Berlin, Germany to an upper-middle class family, he joined the army at a young age and quickly began studying the philosophy of Marxism after his involvement there. Although his work rings similar bells as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno at the time, his work was heavily influenced by Karl Marx and Martin Heidegger. Reading from German texts and observing western society, he portended that it was moving in the direction of a totally administered society. Because of the rise of the Nazi regime and its implications for people with Jewish descent like Marcuse, he saw that he would not be able to get his work across there and promptly moved to France, and then the United States where he would live the rest of his life. His work encompassed an observation on society and the controlling nature of macro-social behavior, and served as a critique for then-contemporary sociology.[1]

Critical theory[edit]

Critical sociological theory isn't as much a scientific analysis of reality, but more of a meta-scientific analysis of scientific analyses. It attempts to define and correct limitations and mistakes that are made with implicit assumptions that people tend to institute when explaining things scientifically, and serves as a self-correcting tool towards achieving essentially the closest possible version of correctly determining the facets of reality through the limitations of language and context. A common theme through these works can appear like infinite skepticism, but is merely intended to question the underlying forces that shape the context that our discussions tend to exist in.[2]

One-dimensional reality[edit]

Much of Marcuse's work revolves around the idea of a one-dimensional reality or society. A one-dimensional reality is described as one which is all-encompassing and does not allow for alternate interpretations or structures to exist within itself. Essentially, it is the reality at which the terms of itself have already been set in proverbial concrete, and that every action, institution, and interaction that happens within accepts the assumption that "this is how it truly is". For example, any argument from human nature any person would want to make already makes assumptions about such an abstract concept of "human nature", because a totalitarian structure of a society would prime its population a certain way so as to seem natural. But is it actually natural? Marcuse postulates that of course it isn't. It is instead the byproduct of a structured society that is so ingrained in ourselves that it is assumed to be the baseline reality when it isn't.

The point that he is trying to make is that people are and have been slowly losing their ability to hold any sort of dissenting opinion to the status quo, the overwhelming structure of society that people assume is perfectly natural. He explicitly addresses capitalist structure, in that the unwritten and written rules of capitalism are assumed to be true, and that the framework of reality is built upon this. What this means, however, is that if one were to question those assumptions, the totality of existence would come crashing down as it is itself built primarily on these assumptions. Basically, things are thought of in terms of competition, profits, and capital, but these concepts themselves require fundamental assumptions of the use and contexts they reside in, and therefore, because they are all encompassing and unwilling to accept alternate perspective, they are therefore unfree and restrictive.

The terms of discourse[edit]

Not only does this apply to social structures, however. This applies to conversations and communication as well. Where the fundamental basis is operationally defined meanings in terms of capitalism, there is a necessary failure of a concept to get the true meaning of its concept across. The concept itself is restrictive, as the characteristics one lists about any given word can be theoretically infinitely specific and therefore impossible to accurately describe at an absolute level. Therefore, there are instead sacrifices made to words and concepts that consequently provide limitations at which those concepts and linguistics are understood. Essentially, the words themselves are used in limited ways based on their limited definitions underpinning reality.

The problem here is that, because society is one-dimensional in nature, these words and meanings do not get questioned or changed. We instead become trapped with past definitions of these words, and while the society around us seems to change, the words and their usages themselves do not. Instead, people get wrapped up in the functional worship and, frankly, faith that the words really do refer to those concepts. But if what someone is talking about is only based on a limited definition and perception of what that is, without allowing additional meanings, without allowing room for additional characteristics, is what they are talking about apparent to reality at all? Marcuse, again, would say no, they would not be talking about reality. Rather, they would be talking about a limited understanding of reality that they have constructed based on the implicit characteristics of its totality that have shaped and distorted the discussion so much that it is regarded as true and normal. Essentially, the meaning that words are attributed to have are only applicable insofar as the assumptions of reality are accepted. They can only be used in the prescribed way that they have been defined to be. Because there are no alternate dimensions of society, i.e. characteristics, contexts, forms of living, economies, etc. there can be no dialectic. Because there is no dialectic, no questioning of form, the content itself is rendered meaningless, restricted, and downright façadistic to what is actually happening in reality.

Negative thinking[edit]

Negative thinking is where one describes something in the negative. That is to say, the propositions given are "not" propositions, as in that reality is "not" a certain way. In the context of Marcuse's work, this is evidenced by the existence of a one-dimensional society that is so all-encompassing that it negates all alternative forms of itself, and therefore implicitly presents itself as the victor, and therefore the "true" version of reality. Ironically, it itself cannot be negated, as because it presents itself as true and mobilizes against any and all possible dialectics, it is immensely resistant to any negation thrown in its general direction. Essentially, this version of reality has abolished or negated all other forms of society, and de facto declared itself as the 'true' one, not for any sort of reasoning, but due to the sheer fact that it is the only one remaining. The last truth standing, if you will.

Truth in itself is necessarily derived from dialectic, however. The problem here is that if one presents a one-dimensional society that negates all other realities and is resistant to its own negation, it loses its truth-value. That is to say, the truth it proclaims to hold over baseline reality becomes less meaningful or impactful because it starts allowing for dissent and further understanding. Its repression on other existing foundational contexts with the propping of itself in lieu of the lack of dialectics continues to promote to its own survival, creating a vicious cycle at which it is 'true reality', and therefore other forms of reality are incorrect. Of course, the conclusion is simply that this reality is 'true' all over again. This is a circular reasoning of reality and its terms that must be negated, or denied, and therefore must be addressed to the point where one rejects the terms of existence and promotes an alternative approach to understanding reality. The conflict between the "is" and the "ought" ought to be reimagined and un-unified. As a consequence, we will finally be in a position to create a dialectic that will allow for further progress, rather than encompassing all discourse in a paradigm that negates all other forms of existence and assumes that it is the only one that is correct.

But, as Marcuse repeatedly points out, "That which is cannot possibly be true". What he means by this is that reality as defined by the one-dimensional rhetoric used cannot be considered to be 'true', because it necessarily holds limitations that cannot be rectified unless one adopts a dialectical model of existence where no reality is assumed to be a 'true' one. When he says that "X cannot be true", it does not mean that any of them are false. Rather, it means that what is can not and must not be regarded as monolithic, concrete, or permanent. The terms of existence are always changing, and social reality is always changing. The spoken word's definition and use is already muddled immediately after it is uttered. The battle for language is a never ending struggle at which nothing is truly set in stone, and everything is subject to redefinition. To enable redefinitions, however, one absolutely must accept that their given reality is not "true" reality. It is simply a possibility that holds context and terms over its own dominant existence, and otherwise is not "true" insofar as its language is used for other realities. It is only by rectifying this assertion we usually inhibit and move beyond our current form of thinking that a dialectic can form and social change becomes possible. [3]

"Liberating" and "repressive" tolerance[edit]

In a 1969 essay, Marcuse supported what he called "liberating tolerance", contrasting it with "repressive tolerance".[4] Repressive tolerance, as presented by Marcuse, refers to the traditional, liberal form of tolerance that prevails in modern capitalist societies. In this context, he believed that tolerance is used as a tool to maintain oppression and the status quo. Marcuse argues that repressive tolerance allows oppressive ideas and practices to be tolerated and perpetuated, leading to conformity and the maintenance of existing power structures, although he doesn't give any concrete examples of what ideas he's talking about.

Liberating tolerance entails being intolerant of ideas and practices that, according to him, perpetuate oppression, discrimination, and injustice. Marcuse argues that, in order to achieve what he considered freedom, it would be necessary to be intolerant of those who, he believed, promote oppression and to use tolerance as a tool to resist and transform existing oppressive structures. Liberating tolerance, would mean, according to him, "intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left."

Does that mean that Marcuse believed that totalitarian ideas from the left, like the ones supported by Stalin apologists, should be accepted? Marcuse doesn't answer this question. One one hand, he does propose in his essay "a policy of unequal treatment would protect radicalism on the Left against that on the Right", but on the other hand, in other writings, he also argued that the Soviet Union wasn't actually a socialist country, just a command economy.[5] Indeed, Marcuse doesn't give us any other clue at which ideas should be suppressed, except for the political spectrum, or even how this suppression would work. The state should enforce it? People should just take a direct action in order to repress these ideas? The essay doesn't answer these questions, but he claims that this sort of repression would "extend to the stage of action as well as of discussion and propaganda, of deed as well as of word."

These are not the only problem with his proposal. Does the left have the monopoly of virtues, to a point that other ideas are dangerous and the debate should only encompass half of the political spectrum? Most economists, for instance, see some Marcuse's ideas as disastrous and prone to promote poverty. Aren't there also capable, well-meant people on the right? Should we just censor right-wing dissent because we believe they are evil and/or wrong? Once again, Marcuse doesn't address these questions.

See also[edit]