"Truth is ugly. We possess art lest we perish of the truth."
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power #822
What is the relationship of truth to beauty, learning to art, political education to human flourishing? Philosophers from Confucius and Aristotle to John Dewey and Paulo Freire have investigated, as the axial human problem, how education is to help us in accomplishing our own humanization. The contemporary search for a genuinely critical theory and an authentically democratic society continues that project. But what can make theory critical, education liberating, society democratic?
It is necessary to theorize our society critically if we are to have a vehicle for correctly informed transformative practice. The problem is that much of what is called critical theory today is rooted in ideas developed by Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, and Georg Lukacs. What I want to argue here is that their work has tended to formulate a particular approach to aesthetic educationand a unique version of a philosophical humanismwhich is then presented as critical theoryagainst the debilitating fragmentation of consciousness and profound numbing of the senses that are considered to be the major sources of our current cultural alienation. In this paper, I want to examine critically some of the problematic implications of Herbert Marcuse's philosophy in particular for an emancipatory theory of education.
Marcuse's continuing appeal stems especially from his work on the problems of knowledge and the political implications of education, particularly his critique of the prevailing mode of schooling in the United States as education to alienationand to single-dimensionality. It also arises from his emphasis on the emancipatory and dis-alienating potential of artand the humanities. It must be admitted from the start that Marcuse's analysis is unusually absorbing. Even those who strongly disagree with certain of his formulations, as I do, will find in him sources of immense insight into philosophical traditions largely eclipsed in the usual forms of U.S. higher education.
Marcuse philosophizes about education under conditions of oppression and alienation, and this concern and activity has been central to his entire intellectual effort. His work communicates the vibrancy of his German intellectual sources and an appreciation for much of the real stress and tension in our lives, which, as he finds, are continually torn in the conflicts between sensuousness and reason, longing and gratification. The essential connection of education to the attainment of the social potential of the human race is an integral part of his general theoretical discourse. Marcuse's final book, The Aesthetic Dimension(AD, 1978), deals importantly with the aesthetic sources of our wisdom and learning and with the theory of literary art. His relatively recently (1977) published doctoral dissertation, The German Artist Novel(originally completed in 1922) concerns itself with the education (Bildung) of the artist as this is depicted in modern German fiction.
Marcuse's unique emphasis on the humanities as a foundation for critical theory has a renewed relevance today as right wing commentators carry out their culture wars with regard to the literary canon, the place of values in schooling, and the role and function and future of the arts and humanities in higher education. (2) I want to underscore not only how this vindicates Marcuse's philosophy of education, I also want confront the theoretical limitations of his approach. The philosophical foundations of his work remain to be accurately identified and transcended. While his work is thought to be grounded in Hegel, Marx, and Freud, I find that his theory owes more to Nietzsche, Dilthey, and Heidegger. I am troubled by the way Marcuse's theories of art, alienation and the humanities displace Marx's structural analysis of social life to such an extent that his work also ultimately takes on ironically conservative political overtones. There is much to gain by casting Marcuse's uniquely developed analytical categories into relief, comparing them to those of the classical Marxist theory he sought to come to terms with throughout his career. I hold that the philosophical difficulties of Marcuse's theories of art and education hinge upon his reformulation of the analysis of alienation veering attention toward a concept of reification (as Verdinglichung) taken out of the materialist context of the Marxist economic analysis. In what follows I want to show why I consider this philosophical shift to debilitate our efforts to understand ourselves and extricate us from the oppressive conditions of our social lives.
Marcuse understands alienation as anaesthetization a deadening of the senses that makes repression and manipulation possible. He theorizes that art can act against alienationas a revitalizing, rehumanizing force. The educational goal Marcuse proposes is the restoration of the aesthetic dimensionas a source of cultural critique, political activism, and the guiding principles for the social organization of the future. In his estimation, our technological mindlessness and social fragmentation have to be educationally re-mediated through a broadened philosophy of the human condition emphasizing particularly the aesthetic roots of reason if ever we are to accomplish our own liberation. But Marcuse acknowledges that art can also contributeto an alienated existence. Alienation is understood in this second sense as a freely chosen act of withdrawal. It represents a self-conscious bracketing of certain of the practical and theoretical elements of everyday life for the sake of achieving a higher and more valuable philosophical distance and perspective. Marcuse contends that artists and intellectuals (especially) can utilize their own personal estrangement to serve a future emancipation. Art and philosophy (i.e., the humanities) can, by virtue of their admittedly elitist critical distance, oppose an oppressive status quo and furnish an intangible, yet concrete, telosby which to guide emancipatory social practice. Marcuse is attracted to the humanities because their subject matter and methodology are thought to focus upon questions of the meaning of human experience, rather than on the sheer description of data (this latter procedure being rejected as the "non-philosophical" approach of behaviorism and the physical sciences). He regards classical learning by means of discourse and reflection on philosophy, literature, drama, music, painting, sculpture, etc., as liberating insofar as it is thought to impel humanity beyond the "first dimension," the realm of mere fact, to the world of significance and meaning. As Marcuse sees it, the very form of beauty is dialectical. It unites the opposites of gratification and pain, death and love, repression and need, and therefore can authentically represent what he takes to be the conflicted, tragic, and paradoxical substance of human life. In Marcuse's view, the insights provided by these liberal studies are transhistorical and are considered the precondition to any political transformation of alienated human existence into authentic human existence. The liberal arts and humanities are not seen simply to transmit or to preserve (or as he says, to "affirm") culture. They make possible the very development of a "critical theory" and human intelligence itself. Here the arts relate to higher education and advanced forms of knowledge not merely in terms of "arts instruction," but as the very basis of a general educational theory.
Despite Marcuse's valuable attention elsewhere to issues of class, race and gender, he ultimately articulates a concept of literary-aesthetic education standing in disjunction from much sociological and historical methodology as well as from the philosophical categories generally associated with a dialectical or historical materialism. Political, historical, and educational issues are considered best understood out of art itselfand out of art alone. This aspect of Marcuse's approach, drawn from Dilthey, as well as the cultural radicalism of Nietzsche, asserts a logical and political-philosophical priority over his treatment of the thought of Hegel, Marx and Freud, and comes to define Marcuse's characteristic understanding of aesthetic education as the foundation of a critical theory.
The future of critical theorizing demands that we avoid the traditional political dangers of aestheticism and cultural conservatism that usually follow from the reduction of social theory to aesthetic theory. In order to liberate the criticalin critical theory, I believe we need to examine carefully the epistemological underpinnings of Marcuse's intellectual position. To do so we must come to understand more fully what I take to be the philosophical cornerstone of the critical theory of the Frankfurt School and Western Marxism, namely its central analysis of alienation as reification. This involves a particular theorization of the concept of reification, as involving a faulty projection of reality that is caused by an intellectual deficiency which may be remediated only through the deconstructive and reconstructive power of a philosophical critique grounded in the aesthetic imagination. To Marcuse, reification as Verdinglichung is held to be responsible for the objective, material "semblance" (RR, 281) adhering to the social arrangements of human civilization.
Marx's early writings are the first explicit statement of the process of reification (Verdinglichung) through which capitalist society makes all personal relations between men take the form of objective relations between things (RR, 279).
Economic relations only seem to be objective because of the character of commodity production. As soon as one delves beneath this mode of production, and analyzes its origin, one can see that its natural objectivity is mere semblance while in reality it is a specific historical form of existence that man has given himself. Moreover, once this content comes to the fore, economic theory would turn into critical theory (RR, 281, emphasis in original).
Although the text of Reason and Revolution was initially published in English, Marcuse inserts the German word, Verdinglichung, into the statement cited above. In several other places Marcuse also ascribes Verdinglichung to Marx. It is improbable that Marx ever employed the term Verdinglichung, however. Marcuse nowhere cites a text from Marx with regard to the use of this concept, and other published scholarship on this issue is inadequate, even contradictory. (3) For my part, diligent comparative readings of the German-language texts of both Marx's essay "On Alienated Labor" and his subsection of Capitalon "The Secret of the Fetish Character of Commodities" disclose no instance of Marx's use of the term Verdinglichung.
Certainly, if Verdinglichungrepresented merely a terminological change with reference to a concept of alienation whose content remained the same, this shift would not be a matter of much analytical concern. This alteration is, however, by no means an inconsequential semantic variation of the original notion of reification as fetishization as this appears in Marx's writings (to which I shall refer below). Marcuse's shift is a philosophically, socially, and politically substantive shift. On the basis of the writings of Lukacs and Heidegger, he ultimately allows the economic phenomena of commodity fetishism and the dynamics of capital accumulation to recede into the deep background of his analysis. Instead, he conceives of alienation and reification almost exclusively as a sclerosis of thought and action, as a subordination of philosophical method to mechanistic and objectivistic principles. By the time of his final book, Marcuse claims (echoing Horkheimer and Adorno's statement in Dialectic of Enlightenment): "'All reification is a forgetting,' Art fights reification by making the petrified world speak, sing, perhaps dance" (AD, 73). Art is thought to preserve a liberating memory that the social and cultural worlds are not the inevitable products of nature, nor are they fixed or static. Social forces and social structure become secondary factors derived from the tentative, creative, and productive ideational acts of human objectification. Because reification is said to occur when this is forgotten, alienation takes on connotations of amnesis.
Marx to the contrary has no quarrel with the independent objectivity of social forces and social structure, nor with the existence of production goods as things. Rather his economic and philosophical criticism is aimed at the indiscriminate capitalist reduction of even the most intimate interpersonal relationships into alienating, market modes. Das Kapitalshows that private accumulation is enhanced when exchange relationships multiply and predominate in society. Social relationships oriented toward the non-commercial fulfillment of human needs are thus simply abandoned or they are coerced into inverted and exploitable social phenomena, subject to capitalism's conventions of commodity exchange. Alienation occurs because genuinely social attitudes and interests in people and toward people get driven out by business relationships. Exchange in the capitalist market is thought to evoke: ". . .sachliche Verh. ltnisse der Personen und gesellschaftliche Verh. ltnisse der Sachen" (4) (matter-of-fact and impersonal attitudes towards persons, but social concern for mere matters of business). The essential activity of labor, involuntarily transformed into work for wages under capitalist conditions, is restricted and distorted into an item for sale, barter, or exchange. "Free" in fetishized legalistic terms, labor is in fact controlled and oppressed through the capitalistic accumulation process.
For Marx, production goods become inappropriately de-materialized and idealized when they are elevated through a system of exchange transactions into objects of worship because they bring the blessings of accumulation to the owners of capital, above and beyond the good's worth in terms of societal use value. Obviously, Marx wants to overcome this fetish or idolization and restore the "human dimension" to the reified, structured social practices and ideologies that serve to replicate the social order and heighten the accumulation of capital. To do this a de-mystifying philosophical and social analysis is required, not aesthetic reminiscence. Marx certainly did not dispute the objective character of social relationships and their reality independent of the perceiving subject in this critique of the commodity fetish. Rather he criticized the ultimate rationale and justice of those specific sets of objective economic, social, and cultural interactions, which, as structured sets of human relations, were maintained in order to pursue profit under capitalism. Marx protested not against any general philosophical treatment of human beings as things, but rather against the reduction of humanity to a certain kind of thing, namely a commodity, whose social function is disclosed only through a dialectical and materialist philosophy. Likewise, there was for Marx no question that social relationships are always dynamic, material, and objective: his point was that these need not continue forever to reproduce the commodity form. Marcuse, however, criticizes the objectivity of economic relations rather than their subjugation to the commodity form. Marcuse's version of critical theory rejects a reification or fetishism of objectivity, science, facts and things, in a manner far beyond Marx's discussion in Capital of the fetishism of commodities. Marcuse has largely deflected the philosophical focus from Marx's original target, i.e., the commodification and commercialization of social life and culture under capitalism, and re-directed it toward a critique of the inauthentic "thing-character" of objects and social relationships, as such, and the supposedly "reified" nature of their scientific study.
The treatment of reification as Verdinglichung is the pivotal theoretical revision Marcuse utilizes to recast the formerly scientific (in the Hegelian and Marxist sense) connection of Reason to Revolution, and to subjectify it. Where Hegel and Marx emphasize the role of science, dialectically conceived, Marcuse increasingly looks to an ontology of art located in the subjective but universally human condition. The Frankfurt School substituted this ontological aesthetic, developed upon the basis of classical German idealism following Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Dilthey, and Heidegger, for the progress-oriented philosophy of history of Hegel and Marx, and called it critical theory. In accordance with a prominent motif in this tradition, Marcuse holds that education through art provides the best impetus to philosophical and political education and to the re-humanization of philosophy itself. As ingenious and thought-provoking as this theory is, it nonetheless illegitimately reduces social and educational philosophy to aesthetic philosophy. Marcuse's theory of art-against-alienation converts abruptly into a theory of art-as-alienation. Thus it oscillates in a fashion that can furnish no ground for the supersession of alienation. He postpones an end to the alienation of the artist and intellectual "until the millennium which will never be" (CR, 103). The very permanence of this alienation makes his account anti-dialectical in the Hegelian and Marxist sense.
Two paradigms for theories of art and alienation emerge from my discussion, each with distinctive criteria for critical insight. The ontological/hermeneutic paradigm utilized by Marcuse is subjectively self-contained and considers meaning in self-referential (i.e. human) terms. That is, in terms of the internal turmoil and distress supposedly inherent in the depth dimension of the human condition (with Eros and Thanatos as the core sensual forces). This conflict is theorized as revealed, enclosed, and preserved by the aesthetic form, and its truth is untethered to societal and historical particulars. The limits of such a position are noted by feminist literary critic, Aeron Haynie, who has written, ". . . it is important not to posit an essential, pre-existing sexuality-as-truth . . ." (5) Following Edward Said, Michel Foucault, and Gayatri Spivak, she contends that an adequate interpretation of such art requires a recontextualizing of a work's supposedly inherent meaning in terms of the impact of its historical and political embeddedness. In my view, the historical materialist paradigm gains greater explanatory power and retains a malleability and freedom from apriori categorization because it remains externally referential. Because it continually implicates art and knowledge in a structural and historical analysis of social life, it possesses a capacity to construct and engage that context. It can also raise the problems and prospects of intervention against the material structure of oppression in ways the ontological/hermeneutical approach never has.
In conclusion, I want to ask by what criteria can we measure the advance of educational philosophy? Hegel's classic treatment in the Phenomenology of the consciousness of those who serve and the consciousness of those who are served discloses something of immense importance here for critical pedagogy. For Hegel, only the oppressed have the power to recognize the dialectic of interdependence that binds the "autonomous" subjectivity of the master to the subjugated condition of the servant. A serving consciousness becomes aware, through labor, that those served are dependent on it and that the master is not absolutely independent or free. The liberation of consciousness for both the master and servant requires this socialization, not subjectivization, of consciousness. Through struggle, Hegel indicates that the polarities of master and servant may be obviated and canceled, liberated and restructured, with an emergent awareness of self not as individual but as zoon politikon. This is the dis-alienating educational process that emancipates, empowers, and humanizes.
What have been called the civilizing forces of our age, the organized popular struggles against racism, sexism, poverty, war, and imperialism, have educated this nation about oppression, power, and empowerment. The professoriate, as such, certainly did not lead in this educational effort, although many individual college teachers played important roles. Part of the dilemma of education today requires the transformation of the frayed academic credo of liberation through the arts into a more philosophically advanced form of educational theory. Human intelligence is emergent from material, historical, and cultural (aesthetic and ethical) sources. At the center of this inherently political process is debate and struggle around the key problems of labor, oppression, and democracy. Yet critical theory often equates praxis with philosophical and literary criticism and the development of an aesthetic taste for cosmic ironies. Operating fully with in the conventional division of mental from physical labor and the relations of power which these divisions represent in monopoly capitalist society, critical theory is largely divested of a dimension of defiance and the power of transformation.
I would like to rephrase the Nietzschean epigram at the top of this essay, in terms of the Hegelian insights discussed above. If the truth is ugly, we have political education and revolutionary praxis that we may not perish of the truth. Alienated labor's political self-education to critical consciousness and collective moral action humanizes and sustains our lives. Dialectic must be liberated from a restriction solely to the aesthetic form. Our natural and social materiality must be liberated from the philosophy of mere sensuousness. Truth needs liberation from both empiricism and de-materialization.
The advancement of educational philosophy involves the articulation of our real prospects for solving our basic problems of economics and power as well as those of classroom pedagogy and art. I believe that there is a kind of education that can help the individual overcome a sense of powerlessness in the face of global and local structures of alienation. In my estimation this is found in the rational kernel of the p. dagogia perennis: a world-historical, international, and multicultural perspective that examines the emergence of various standards of ethical criticism, logical criticism, social criticism, etc. as a foundation for critical thinking and emancipatory civic action. Plato asked to what extent we were enlightened or unenlightened about our being. The Greeks acknowledged that this was a public and not merely a private concern, and that societal support was the precondition for the classical flowering of philosophy and art. In our age, humanity may come into possession of itself only by struggling to learn in spite of institutions of domination. By coming to understand the history of competing warrants for knowledge claims, moral judgments, and political goals, we, who begin life oppressed and alienated, equip ourselves with a comparative and critical view of the multi-dimensional experience of being human and being oppressed. In theorizing the negation of the negation of our alienated labor, we find the criterion of our emancipation.
What makes theory critical? In 1929 Herbert Marcuse was a graduate student in a seminar of Martin Heidegger's called "Introduction to Academic Study." Marcuse took notes almost verbatim of Heidegger's discussion of Plato's myth of the cave: "Today we do not even know what we are to be liberated from. Yet it is exactly this knowledge that is the condition of every genuine emancipation." (6) I argue that critical knowledge is knowledge that enables the social negation of the social negation of human life's core activities, the most central of which is creative labor. Any refusal to engage in just this sort of critique taking refuge instead in the philosophical distance found in art or glorious academic alienation is precisely what genuine critical thinking must refuse to do. Thisis the sense in which critical theorizing becomes the source of a social intelligence that inspires the ingenuity and the action required to advance politically toward the non-alienated character, conscience, and culture which is humanity's birthright.
Marcuse In America — Exile as Educator: Deprovincializing One-Dimensional Culture in the U.S.A
Immigrants have been an important and creative force in U.S. history [i], as they are also today. Nearly 100 years after the 1848 German Revolution and the Frankfurt Assembly, Herbert Marcuse’s Reason and Revolution (1941) brought the critical social theory of the twentieth century Frankfurt School to the USA, and with it, the spark that would become the New Left and student movements here during the 1960s and 1970s.[ii] In this essay I contend that some key aspects of the development of Marcuse’s critical theory, hitherto quite under-appreciated, can be illumined by focusing on the theme exile as educator, and by stressing Marcuse’s emphasis on the intellectual’s emancipatory role as outsider.
A Jewish-German academic refugee from the Gleichschaltung [enforced poltitical conformity]—and worse—during the German Third Reich, Herbert Marcuse was, in 1934, the first member of the staff of the Frankfurt Institute to arrive in New York City and represent it in exile at Columbia University. Seven years later, the Institute’s self-funded budget was brutally stressed, and Horkheimer strongly encouraged Marcuse to find additional employment and to reduce his reliance on Institute resources. According to Rolf Wiggershaus (1988: 295, 331-32, 338), Horkheimer had in 1941 lowered Marcuse’s salary as a means of pressuring him into finding other sources of income and ultimately into separating himself monetarily from the Institute and its foundation, while continuing to identify intellectually with it.[iii] In this way, Marcuse came to serve with U.S. military intelligence in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during WW II, where he did assiduous intellectual work against fascism. Following the war Marcuse continued to do intelligence research with the U.S. State Department for several years (Kellner 1998; Reitz 2000).[iv]
In an interview with Jürgen Habermas, Marcuse (1978b: 130-31) described his experience in U.S. government service:
MARCUSE: At first I was in the political division of the OSS and then in the Division of Research and Intelligence of the State Department. My main task was to identify groups in Germany with which one could work toward reconstruction after the war, and to identify groups which were to be taken to task as Nazis. There was a major de-Nazification program at the time. Based on exact research, reports, newspaper reading, and whatever, lists were made up of those Nazis who were supposed to assume responsibility for their activity. . .
HABERMAS: Are you of the impression that what you did was of any consequence?
MARCUSE: On the contrary. Those whom we had listed first as “economic war criminals” were very quickly back in the decisive positions of responsibility in the German economy. It would be very easy to name names here.
Unlike Brecht, Eisler, and several academic leftists in America, the central proponents of critical theory, Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse, were never called before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) during the McCarthy period. An outer circle Institute associate, Karl August Wittfogel, actually became a friendly informant to HUAC. Leo Löwenthal became research director for the patriotic Voice of America (1949-1953).
Marcuse was, however, the subject of several FBI background investigations. The earliest was in 1943 in connection with his work for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). A second wave of inquiries, with regard to his loyalty to the U.S. during his 1950s employment by the State Department, discloses that the FBI consulted with HUAC concerning his case. During the 1960s he was also under surveillance in connection with his ties to the New Left and international student movements.[v]
Marcuse’s 1958 Soviet Marxism (SM) was written while working at the Russian Institute of Columbia University and the Russian Research Center at Harvard. It depicted Soviet philosophy and politics as fairly one-dimensional expressions of an untenable bureaucratism, technological rationality, aesthetic realism, etc. Having sharply criticized the Soviet Union, Marcuse did something quite unique and unexpected in Cold-War-fueled political writing: he fearlessly risked censure in the U.S. by comparing U.S. and Soviet culture and finding them both wanting. He saw both the U.S. and Soviet systems as worthy of fundamental social critique. “It has been noted . . . how much the present ‘communist spirit’ resembles the ‘capitalist spirit’ which Max Weber attributed to the rising capitalist civilization” (Marcuse  1961: 169). Secure in his anti-fascist and anti-Soviet credentials, Marcuse in 1958 did not back away from profound criticisms of U.S. culture in SM that might clearly have led him to be branded as “anti-American.” This was a major departure from the much more cautious politics of the Horkheimer inner circle as well as from the conventional wisdom in the U.S. academic sphere. Marcuse felt confident enough to develop a clearly dialectical perspective in SM, and in this manner SM was crucial in the development of critical theory. Subsequently too Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization (1955) and One-Dimensional Man (1964) would likewise proclaim an incisive new type of criticism of U.S. culture, and Marcuse gradually became a proponent of an activist politics against U.S. war-making and imperialism.[vi]
I wish to focus on how he also specifically criticized American schooling, opposing “. . . the overpowering machine of education and entertainment . . . [which unites us all] . . . in a state of anaesthesia. . . “ (Marcuse  1966: 104). By the late 1960s Marcuse had become the philosopher of the student revolts and the most prominent intellectual leader of the student movement in the USA. This German-born intellectual, seventy years old, was communicating deftly with disaffected American youth. According to Douglas Kellner (1984: 1) at that time “Herbert Marcuse was more widely discussed than any other living philosopher.” During the events of May 1968, Marcuse spoke to a UNESCO conference in Paris and lent qualified support to the student-worker uprising there. When he returned home to California, he was attacked by the American Legion and conservative politicians, notably then-Governor Ronald Reagan and the Regents of the California System of Higher Education, who opposed the renewal of Marcuse’s contract, though they did not succeed in rescinding it (Kellner 2004; Kātz 1982: 174-75; 186).
Now the work of Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse and their collaborators, will always be rightfully known as the work of the Frankfurt School, but it is interesting also to note in passing that the very concept “critical theory” is a product of the New Yorkperiod of the Institute in exile. Since its Zeitschrift was published exclusively in German until 1940, it could be argued that it was never intended that critical theory should take effect in the USA. Habermas and Marcuse seem to concede this (Marcuse 1978: 130). The term “critical theory” was not utilized at all in Frankfurt, however, but was first coined in the USA in essays devoted specifically to this concept written by Horkheimer and Marcuse which appeared in the Zeitschrift in 1937. Wiggershaus (1988: 432) has emphasized that Horkheimer, especially, saw himself as a guest in this country that he was naturally sensitive about being seen as promoting “unAmerican ideas.” Martin Jay (1973: 292) has noted the Institute’s use of Aesopean language to disguise its critical social perspective, and that critical theory also severed the necessary connection between radical theory and the proletariat. Clearly a code word for their revision of Marxist social science, critical theory in many ways represented a substantive philosophical shift from economics-based dialectical materialism. Horkheimer and Adorno would also see the U.S. and German student movements as “anti-American,” so they were careful to distance themselves from activist students, and from Marcuse.
I contend that Marcuse developed in the post-WW II era the most radical and advanced critical theory and he does this in the U.S. context. We must credit it to Marcuse that the work of the Frankfurt Institute ultimately became an indispensable part of American academia. Wiggershaus (1988: 676) has already pointed out that in Marcuse one encountered what was lacking in other members of the Frankfurt School: an analysis of advanced industrial society.[vii] While the Institute was housed at Columbia University during the 30s and 40s (through the good graces of Nicholas Murry Butler and Robert S. Lynd), Marcuse wrote several essays developing his version of critical theory (first published in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, but republished in 1968 as Negations). So too his 1941 volume, Reason and Revolution, which heralded the need for a transformed revolutionary philosophy where “economic theory would turn into critical theory,” (Marcuse  1960: 281) was written there. Marcuse’s subsequent work at Brandeis and UC-San Diego, Eros and Civilization, One-Dimensional Man, An Essay on Liberation, and Counterrevolution and Revolt were each published first in the USA and first in English language versions. Marcuse’s American books represented to the world the Frankfurt School’s critical social theory. Also, Marcuse developed the most political version of critical theory, reformulating his critical theory in relation to the vicissitudes of the New Left and other radical movements of the time.[viii] Thus globally, in the 1960s Marcuse became the most renown and influential representative of critical theory.
Deprovincialization and the Recovery of Philosophy in U.S. Higher Education
In 1964, One-Dimensional Man addressed the problems of one-dimensional society and one-dimensional thought in this nation as few philosophers have ever done in U.S. intellectual history. Marcuse wrote of the “. . . comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom . . . [that] . . . prevails in advanced industrial civilization, a token of technical progress” (1964: 1). Marcuse had the philosophical means—due to his association with the thought of the Frankfurt School, Marxism, and classical German philosophy—and he had the civic courage, precisely as an outsider, to break through paralysis of critique that characterized our one-dimensional society. He had the fortitude to write: “The fact that the vast majority of the population accepts, and is made to accept, this society does not render it less irrational and less reprehensible” (1964: xiii). Following the line of thinking in Eros and Civilization he proposed in One Dimensional Man that the “. . . mobilization and administration of libido may account for much of the voluntary compliance . . . with the established society. Pleasure, thus adjusted, generates submission” (1964: 75). Even more troubling however than the lack of resistance to the established system was his recognition there that “the intellectual and emotional refusal ‘to go along’ appears neurotic and impotent” (1964: 9). And worse: the dominant form of U.S. culture rejects theory as useless—”The intellectual is called on the carpet. What do you mean when you say . . . ? Don’t you conceal something? You talk a language which is suspect. You don’t talk like the rest of us, like the man on the street, but rather like a foreigner who does not belong here” (1964: 192).
I contend that Marcuse has contributed substantially to a deprovincialization of what he saw as the unidimensional technocratic imperative in post-war U.S. culture. “Deprovincialization” is a concept I borrow from Egon Schwarz’s (1992) autobiography about exile also to the Americas during the Nazi period. With regard to the life and theory of Marcuse, I take deprovincialization to mean the general replacement of an essentially single-dimensional view of the world by an analysis of culture and philosophy that is profoundly multi-dimensional. Marcuse understood as single-dimensional, a cultural or philosophical perspective that is oblivious to the problematic nature of prevailing social and economic relations. Sometimes he speaks of one-dimensionality as the triumph of “happy consciousness” in this regard, grounded in the suffocation and repression of life’s internal inconsistencies and contradictions. Marcuse proposes that a genuine philosophy is aware of itself as needing to be more sensitive to questions of complex causality and more skeptical of simplistic visions of the good life or good society. Philosophy must confront “the power of positive thinking” which he holds to be destructive of philosophy with “the power of negative thinking” which illumines “the facts” in terms of the real possibilities which the facts deny. Philosophical reflection as he sees it is thus essentially always multi-dimensional, dialectical, and generative of fuller cultural freedom.
In my estimation, Marcuse’s efforts to deprovincialize U.S. culture have actually led to a recovery of philosophy in the post-60s United States academic context, especially among a new generation of scholars in the humanities and social sciences who are more conscious than ever of issues arising from conflicts involved in the context of our political, moral, and academic culture. After WW II, logical positivism had attained a near monopoly in U.S. graduate schools of philosophy and generally prevailed as the underlying scholarly methodology within the undergraduate curricula as well. European approaches such as phenomenology, existentialism, Marxism, and critical theory tended to be severely marginalized, especially at the most prestigious private and the largest state universities. Although Marcuse died in 1979, for me it is impossible to believe that the philosophical upheavals which developed throughout the 1980s in the American Philosophical Association, for example, splitting “analysts” and “pluralists” were not substantially due to his influence.[ix] My personal supposition is that the APA’s own kind of Positivistenstreit could not have occurred apart from Herbert Marcuse’s immense impact in One-Dimensional Man. This was republished in 1991 with a new introduction by Douglas Kellner: further testimony to its ongoing pertinence to continuing controversies. See also Marcuse’s (1969b) APA address “The Relevance of Reality” which vividly demonstrates his radical and heretical stance vis à vis U.S. academic philosophy. Marcuse called for a rethinking of the relevance of reality in four key areas of philosophy: 1) linguistic analysis, emphasizing a new, more political linguistics; 2) aesthetics, emphasizing the nexus of artwork and society; 3) epistemology, moving towards a historical understanding of transcendent knowledge; and 4) the history of philosophy itself, emphasizing the internal relationships linking theory of knowledge (and hence theory of education) to the theory of government and the theory of politics since Plato: “authentic democracy presupposes equality in the ways, means, and time necessary for acquiring the highest level of knowledge” (Marcuse 1969b).
Art, Alienation, and Education
While Marcuse’s social philosophy has become quite widely known in the USA, his philosophy of education has not. This circumstance is being countered through recent contributions of my own (Reitz 2000, 2009a, 2009b) and Douglas Kellner’s, Tyson E. Lewis, and Clayton Pierce’s book On Marcuse: Critique, Liberation, and Reschooling in the Radical Pedagogy of Herbert Marcuse (2009), and an edited collection Marcuse’s Challenge to Education (Kellner, Cho,. Lewis, and Pierce 2009). Marcuse’s philosophy of protest within higher education criticized the multiversity vision of Clark Kerr (1963). Kerr’s educational philosophical point of view represented a decisive departure from the traditional collegiate self-conception as an autonomous ivory tower or grove of academe, one step removed from the practical realm, and stressed instead a logic of corporate and government involvement in higher education. Institutionalized during the 60s among other places at Columbia, Harvard, Berkeley, and at the State Universities of Wisconsin and New York, this philosophy of the extended, service university has now been implemented almost everywhere in higher education. In the post-Sputnik, early-Vietnam era, critics of the multiversity pointed out that the phenomenal growth of these conglomerate higher education systems was heavily subsidized by grants from the federal government and corporations for research into areas such as aerospace, intelligence, weapons. A massive expansion of Reserve Officer Training Corps programs also occurred. These extra-academic interests characteristically influenced higher educational policy giving priority to many of the needs of the business and military establishments. Many objected also to the dehumanization displayed in the multiversity’s new and increasing commitment to behavioral objectives in teaching and learning and performance-based criteria for intellectual competence, as well as the growing predominance of managerial language and thinking in the organization of higher education. As head of the University of California, Clark Kerr was a major liberal spokesperson who thereafter became chairperson of the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education. Kerr’s ideological and institutional innovations represented one of the most articulate and authoritative administrative points of view in the intense educational philosophical debates that occurred on this nation’s campuses during the late 1960s, early 1970s. Marcuse on the other hand of course acquired a reputation in the U.S.A. and in Europe as a spokesperson for radical university reform and for the militant new left analysis of (and resistance to) the foreign and domestic policies of the U.S. government and its allies in Europe and Southeast Asia.
There is no question that Marcuse’s original impact was connected closely to the intellectual and political, campus-based turmoil of the 1960s, and derived from his theoretical leadership in the very definition of the cultural and educational issues involved. Marcuse addressed, for example, the questions of science and research in service to the “performance principle” of advanced industrial society. He also spoke to the almost infinite facets of alienation in every day life, i.e., at school, on the job, and in recreational activities, where these were thought to be regulated by a total administration. He stressed the emancipatory potential of a renascent sensuality under the guidance of the most rational and legitimate goals of art (Kellner 2007: 5; Reitz 2000).
Marcuse thus philosophizes about education under conditions of oppression and alienation, and this concern and activity is central to his entire intellectual effort. His work communicates the vibrancy of his German intellectual sources and the essential connection of education to the attainment of the social potential of the human race is an integral part of his general theoretical discourse. Marcuse’s final book, The Aesthetic Dimension (AD), deals importantly with the aesthetic sources of our wisdom and learning and with the theory of literary art. His relatively recently (1978) published doctoral dissertation, The German Artist Novel (originally completed in 1922) is concerned with the education (Bildung) of the artist as this is depicted in modern German fiction.
Marcuse’s continuing merit and appeal stems precisely from his work on the problems of knowledge and the political impacts of education. I find his critique of the prevailing mode of enculturation in the United States as education to alienation and to single-dimensionality to be immensely relevant today. So too, his emphasis on the emancipatory and disalienating potential of art and the humanities. Marcuse stresses the educational or deprovincializing value of the arts because of the qualitative difference he finds between the multi-dimensional kind of knowledge thought to be produced by the aesthetic imagination and the uni-dimensional kind of knowledge attributed to what he describes as the controlled and repressive rationalities of achievement, performance, and domination. Marcuse theorizes that art provides a kind of deeper cognition, not through mimesis or by replicating worldly objects, but by recalling the species-essence of the human race from philosophical oblivion. He contends that the reality of death and human suffering assert themselves as pivotal phenomena in the educative process of recollection, even where the artist and the work of art “draw away” from them in pursuit of an eternity of joy and gratification.
Alienation, in his estimation, is thought to be the result of training people to forget their authentic human nature—its essential internal turmoil and social potential—by educationally eradicating the realm where this knowledge is considered to be best preserved, i.e., the humanities. Marcuse was appalled at what he saw as the displacement of the humanities in the 1970s by a form of higher education that had become mainly scientific and technical and that primarily stood in service to the needs of commerce, industry, and the military. Marcuse’s theory contends that our society is obsessed with efficiency, standardization, mechanization, and specialization, and that this fetish involves aspects of repression, fragmentation, and domination that impede real education and preclude the development of real awareness of ourselves and our world. Alienation is seen as the result of a mis-education or half-education that leads people to accept sensual anaesthetization and social amnesis as normal. Conditioned to a repressive pursuit of affluence, making a living becomes more important than making a life. This aspect of Marcuse’s approach to alienation is explicitly drawn from Schiller’s arguments in favor of art and against crass utilitarianism in Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1793).
During his militant middle period, Marcuse, like Schiller, urges education and art as countermovements to alienation: an aesthetic rationality is thought to transcend the prevailing logic of performance and achievement in the one-dimensional society and to teach radical action towards justice and human fulfillment. He even sees a possible reconciliation of the humanistic and technological perspectives via the hypothesis that art may become a social and productive force for material improvement, re-constructing the economy in accordance with aesthetic goals and thus reducing alienation in the future. There is, however, also a “turn” in Marcuse’s theorizing. He finds that the best education (to art through the humanities) can itself be alienating, even if it is also in an essential sense emancipatory. The artistic and cultured individual remains rather permanently separated from the broader social community and is stigmatized as an outsider in a way that precludes close identification with any group. Art, then, may respond to alienation with a more extreme, and higher, form of alienation.
As right wing commentators carry out their culture wars with regard to the literary canon, the place of values in schooling, and the role and function and future of the arts and humanities in higher education, Marcuse’s philosophical insights into art and education become more relevant than ever. Allan Bloom (1987) rather recently sought to “rescue” the humanities from the perils of political protest and value relativism in The Closing of the American Mind. While higher education in the humanities is traditionally thought of as pursuing universally human aims and goals, Bloom is unwilling to admit that a cultural politics of class, a cultural politics of race, and a cultural politics of gender have set very definite constraints upon the actualization of the humane concerns of a liberal arts education. Instead, Bloom attributes a decline of the humanities and U.S. culture in general to the supposedly inane popularization of German philosophy in the United States since the 1960s, especially the ideas of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Marcuse, which are regarded as nihilistic and demoralizing. Bloom argues that we have imported “. . . a clothing of German fabrication for our souls, which. . . cast doubt upon the Americanization of the world on which we had embarked . . .” (Bloom 152). In a typically facile remark, Bloom says of Marcuse: “He ended up here writing trashy culture criticism with a heavy sex interest. . .” (Bloom 226). No hint from him that one of Marcuse’s prime contributions to the critical analysis of American popular culture is his notion of “repressive desublimation”—how the unrestrained use of sex and violence by the corporate mass media and other large scale commercial interests accomplishes social manipulation and control in the interest of capital accumulation. Or that Marcuse (in some ways very much like Bloom) valued high art and the humanities precisely because they teach the sublimation of the powerful urge for pleasure which in other contexts threatens destruction. Marcuse was no sheer advocate of a Bildungshumanismus. He had been more than dubious of the traditionally conservative and politically apologetic or affirmative quality of high-serious German art and education in a 1937 Zeitschrift piece, “On the Affirmative Character of Culture” (AC), but he did believe that the traditional liberal arts philosophy also had a critical dimension. The liberal arts and humanities are not seen simply to transmit or to preserve (or as he says, to “affirm” or apologize for) the dominant culture. They make possible the very development of critical thinking and human intelligence itself. Here the arts relate to higher education and advanced forms of knowledge not merely in terms of “arts instruction,” but as the very basis of a general educational theory (Reitz 2000, 2009a, 2009b; Kellner, Lewis, and Pierce 2009).
In both his earliest and latest writings Marcuse directs special attention to the emancipatory power of the intelligence gained through a study of the humanities. Marcuse’s understanding of the cognitive value of art, particularly the great literatures of classical Greece and modern Europe, thus needs also to be specifically examined. It is within this context that we may perceive the overall unity of his philosophy—in its several, interconnected attempts to extract reason from art and the aesthetic dimension.
Since the venerable liberal arts tradition has been historically (and inseparably) tied to a realistic and normative concept of eidos and essence (as per Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas, Hegel, and Husserl), we should not be surprised to find some modification of classical realism (and not the value relativism the conservative culture warriors claim) in Marcuse’s aesthetics and ontology. Indeed, chapter eight of One-Dimensional Man argues the historical reality of universals, and his third chapter highlights the importance of the aesthetic Form as the dimension where both reality and truth are disclosed. Marcuse also generally shares with Plato and Schiller the philosophical conviction that the most meaningful and beautiful works of art are also the soundest foundation for an education to political justice.
It is clear that Marcuse’s aesthetic and social philosophy is riveted to educational issues. Marcuse’s voice shattered much of the silence structured into the conventional study of philosophy and education in the USA. By introducing students in the social sciences and humanities to the Frankfurt School’s view of critical theory, Marxism, and classical German philosophy, he furnished his readers with a theoretical orientation otherwise largely untaught in U.S. culture. Multidimensionality functions as a restorative presence within Marcuse’s philosophizing, as it should be for all educators, but often does not for those of us trained in the dominant patterns and habits of thought in today’s system of U.S. higher education. This “classical dimension” in Marcuse’s thought enabled him to assess critically the behaviorism, empiricism, and logical positivism still prevalent in many areas of the unreconstructed Anglo-American academy. Marcuse reclaimed elements of the classical philosophical traditions in order to confront the culture of corporate capitalism with an immanent critique of its own philistinism and provincialism.
One would repay Marcuse badly if one took his insights as some kind of scripture. His philosophy must be extended, deepened, negated, and raised to a higher level. By investigating the unique interrelationships forged by Marcuse among the topics of alienation, art, and the humanities, a penetrating critical perspective on his work and ours can be established. The failure to address significant issues in educational theory is responsible for the inadequate status of current scholarship on Marcuse’s general philosophical orientation. The vindication of Marcuse’s theory and the future of critical theorizing hinge upon this educational philosophical effort.
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[i] Charles Reitz, “Horace Greeley and German Forty-Eighters in the Kansas Free State Struggle,” Yearbook of German-American Studies 43 (2008) pp. 1-24.
[ii] This paper is a revised and extended version of a presentation made to the Society for German-American Studies 22nd Annual Meeting at the Indianapolis Deutsches Haus / Atheneum, May 1998. The conference was organized around an appreciation of the 150-year anniversary of the Frankfurt Assembly and the 1848 Revolution. Many thanks to Doug Kellner for constructive comments on an earlier draft of this essay and for recommending it to Fast Capitalism.
[iii] See also Douglas Kellner (ed.) 1998. “Introduction” to Herbert Marcuse. Technology, War, and Fascism. Volume One, Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse]. London and New York: Routledge. Portuguese translation (1999) Herbert Marcuse: Technologia, Guerra e Fasismo. Sao Paolo: UNESP.
[iv] Franz Neumann had even earlier been cut off from Institute funding and completed his massive study of the Nazi system, Behemoth, in 1942 while working for the OSS. See also Kellner (1998).
[v] See especially Stephen Gennaro and Douglas Kellner, “Under Surveillance: Herbert Marcuse and the FBI,” Fast Capitalism, forthcoming.
[vi] For an overview of Marcuse’s postwar politics, see Herbert Marcuse. The New Left and the 1960s. Volume Three, Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse, edited with Introduction by Douglas Kellner. London and New York: Routledge, 2004.
[vii] Marcuse gives the credit to Horkheimer and Adorno for developing critical theory in their work on The Authoritarian Personality (1950). Fromm’s U.S. publications, Escape From Freedom (1941) and Marx’s Concept of Man (1961), might also be considered seminal in this regard.
[viii] See Kellner, (ed.) Herbert Marcuse. The New Left and the 1960s. op. cit.
[ix] “The root of the controversy is the pluralists’ complaint that the association has failed to represent the full range of philosophical interests being pursued in American universities. Instead, they say, the association’s leadership and programs presented at its annual meetings have been dominated by representatives of a single school of philosophical thought, which they term the ‘analytic’ tradition.” Janet Hook, “‘Analytic’ vs. ‘Pluralist’ Debate Splits Philosophical Association,” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 12, 1981, p. 3, and Janet Hook, “Association Officer Calls for ‘Recovery of Philosophy,’” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 13, 1982, p. 8; see also Richard Bernstein, “Philosophical Rift: A Tale of Two Approaches” New York Times, December 29, 1987, p. A1.