Monday, April 23, 2018

Marcuse's Critique of Science

Image result for Herbert Marcuse
very rare to find an image of him this young

Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979) was one of the major thinkers of the 20th century. He was a member of the Frankfurt School (The Institute for Social Research) which moved from Frankfurt am Main in Germany to New York in the 30's, to evade Hitler. Marcuse stayed in America after the war and went on to become the major thinker behind the New Left in the 1960s.[1] Marcuse's major idea ,and the title of his major book, One Dimensional Man [2] argues that in modern life human aspirations for the greater good are sublimated by the acquisition of false needs that keep the individual addicted to the  system and closed within the realm of discourse that supports the status quo. A Major aspect of this critique dealt with the relation between technology and freedom. Some have argued that his critique of technology only extends as far as economics, but that is a mistaken impression. Marcuse's critique of technology did not extend only to areas of economics but also to science itself.  

According to Marcuse Modern technology extending from the enlightenment exists in dialectical tension between avenues of liberation and creation of  "new mechanisms of oppression and domination."[3] Technology is driven by the quest for a better life. Technology affords liberation from toil. Here we need to make the distinction between the technology and technics. Technology is "a mode of production, as the totality of instruments, devices and contrivances which characterize the machine age," technics is "the technical apparatus of industry, transportation,communication."[4]

This is not to say that technics is good and technology bad, or vice verse, Nor does it limit domination to just areas involving industry, transportation,communication. The distinction merely covers the totality of means of production and the specific apparatus used to subjugate nature,
Marcuse was an early critic of what he considered to be the exploitative, predatory approach to nature brought about through the direction of technology, industry and science under consumer capitalism, however his alternative; a “new science” and “new technology” which would treat nature as an “ally” in the general struggle for liberation and emancipation, was not without its problems....Although Marcuse had discussed technology throughout his career, by the late 1960s and 70s, he began calling not merely for a new approach to technology, but a “new  science” and a “new technology” which would work alongside nature in order to fulfill its inherently liberating potentialities. These, he contended, were directly linked to our own potential for social change, and opposed to the predominant mindset consisting in plundering nature for reasons largely rationalised by consumer-capitalist economics. [5]
The distinction between technology and Technics allows a critique of both the physical means of production and the psychological aspects of manipulation and  discourse that govern its use. This includes the attitudes fostered toward nature not only in science and economics but human nature as well.[6] The Dialectical aspect, along with the total critique afforded by understanding technology in all its aspects and techics enables an understanding of  repressive desublimation. Thecnologiocal rationality closes down oppositional elements of the higher culture and  negates their transcending  functions. That is to say the ability to understand alternatives to what is is burred in the  instant gratification, the real of discourse is closed around that one dimension, obedience, which now takes the form of consuming, satisfying false needs; hence one dimensional man.[7]

Marcuse's overall critique was rooted in an understanding of science and it's affects upon the actual nature of rationality. According to Daly and Mackey:
In his essay On Science and Phenomenology Hperbert Marcuse attempts to lay out the ways in which a split has occurred between the scientific and philosophical views on the world, and how this split has been detrimental to the development of human society in the west. For Marcuse this split is located in the relationship between human subjects and the concept of reason, which has been present in the discourses on science an philosophy since the ancient Greeks.[8] [emphasis mine]
This was an analysis of Husserl's essay  “The Crisis of European Science and Transcendental Philosophy.” Marcuse observes that "According to Husserl, science,-modern science, Galilean as well as post-Galilean,-originates in the Greek idea of knowledge and truth and comes to rest in a scientific rationality in which truth and validity contain in themselves illusion and repression." [9] 

He finds Husserl's work indicative of an understanding of Western rationality represented by thinkers as diverse as Bergson, Dilthey, Max Weber, Spengler, Piaget, and Bachelard. "In Husserl, it is modern science itself, this most sacrosanct child of Western rationality, that is questioned. In this reexamination, modem science appears as the end of a fateful development which begins with Greek thought, that is, with the origins of Western thought itself-as the "end" of this development in the twofold sense of termination and of fulfilling the telos."[10]  
....for Marcuse the enlightenment lead toward a shift in the role reason played in human society. With the rise of a mathematical view of the world, everything became determinable in a manner that existed only in relation with other things and objects. In this manner reason and the world became detached from universal and objective concepts that were transcendental, instead functioning only on the level of the empirical. Therefore in fields such as the various sciences and medicine, which were ideally to be guided and given meaning by the field of philosophy, instead existed merely to progress for the sake of progress. Reason, removed from any critical investigation into its own ends, could merely be utilized to master and control nature, of which man is a part. [11]

In other words, there is a shift from discursive reasoning that can be used to transcend the realm of discourse to formulate critique, to empirical thinking that forms the basis of what Barrett called The Illusion of Technique,[12] After that early period Marcuse did not concerns himself that much with science per se, but more with it's application to domination of nature and the social realm, But his social critique is rooted in Husserl's   realization of the same kind of shift from reason that animates  scientism.


[1] Arnold Farr, "Herbert Marcuse", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),
(accessed 4/20/18)

from the article:
Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979) was one of the most prominent members of the Frankfurt School or The Institute for Social Research  (Institute für Sozialforschung) in Frankfurt am Main. The Frankfurt School was formed in 1922 but went into exile in the United States in the early 1930s during the reign of the Third Reich. Although most of his colleagues returned to Germany after the World War Two, Marcuse remained in the United States.The Frankfurt School has had an enormous impact on philosophy as well as social and political theory in the United States and around the world. In the 1960s Marcuse ascended to prominence and became one of the best known philosophers and social theorists in the world. He was often referred to as the Guru of the New Left (a title which he rejected). During the late 1970s through the 1990s Marcuse's popularity began to wane as he was eclipsed by second and third generation critical theorists, postmodernism, Rawlsian liberalism, and his former colleagues Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin. In recent years there has been a new surge of interest in Marcus

[2] Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man: Studies in The Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Boston,Mass.: Beacon press, 2nd edition, 1964. No page indicated.

[3] Farr, op cit
(accessed 4/20/18)

[4] Marcuse in Farr,  Ibid. Originally from Technology, War and Fascism: Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse (Volume 1), Douglas Kellner (ed.), London and New York: Routledge.1998.

[5] Michael KIDD, Abstract:  "Technology and nature: a defense and critique of Marcuse." Polis, Peer reviewed academic journal, Volume IV, Issue 4 (14), New Series, September – November 2016
(accessed 4/20/18)

[6] Ibid

[7] Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, op cit., 75.

[8]Ben Daly and Rose Mackey. "Herbert Marcuse on Science ad Phenomenology." Introducing the Frankfurt School,  Website, (April 25, 2008).
(accessed 4/20/18)

[9]Herbert Marcuse, On Science and Phenomenology. Boston: BSPS, Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series, 1964.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Daly and McKey,  op cit.

[12] William Barrett, The Illusion of Technique: A Search for Meaning in a Technological Civilization.New York:Anchor Books, 1979, 3.


7th Stooge said...

Great article, Joe! You are the Marcuse-meister.

Joe Hinman said...

thanks Jim. I saw a commentator writing a recent article about him and talking about "commodification" and the closed realm of discourse,those were our signature phrases in Negations. No one else said "commodification."

7th Stooge said...

That term was really shunned for a long time during the postmodern era where even the ability to imagine an "oppositional realm" was thought to have been foreclosed on. Maybe that kind of thinking (Marcusian) will come back, if the human spirit has even a flicker of resilience left!

Joe Hinman said...

the term commodification? I never saw anyone other than Negations who used it. Some people told me it should comodititiation.

7th Stooge said...

Joe Hinman said...

Your link click here

Joe Hinman said...

"“Commoditization” is a newer and undocumented word (except in WIKI) referring specifically to the way that goods that used to be distinguishable in terms of attributes end up becoming mere commodities in the eyes of the market or consumers. “The collapse of Marlboro’s brand value in the early 1990’s convinced cigarette manufacturers that their products had become commoditized.” or “Unless Intel comes up with a new kind of computer memory chip, Japanese equivalents will commoditize RAM.” The problem with commoditization is that the only thing that left to distinguish one brand from another is price, so margins shrink."

so I must have gotten my usage from reading some Marcuse related literature. I did not invent it. Well thanks for popping my bubble!Now i have nothing left to live for as my only achievement is gone.

except I did find a new Legion of super heroes website so I'll live for that, never mind,

Joe Hinman said...

what does piss me off is I can't find any way to comment on that assholes thing. He is too import to talk to,like he thinks no one out there will have any thing to say.

I think he's just comodifying his opinion.

7th Stooge said...

Which asshole? Rushkoff? I think we've always been referring to "commodification," not "commoditization," because we've always emphasized the effects on people and society, not markets and branding.

"Commodification" was a widely used term in art theory and crit in the 80s. It's fallen out of fashion because I think Marxism/ianism has fallen out of fashion. It will come back.

Joe Hinman said...

Right I didn't think I invested it, just that in mid 90s no one else was pushing it that I knew of. Your analysis of the distinction is right I used to say the same thing back in the day.

Joe Hinman said...

that should say invented it,