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«Andrew Feenberg Introduction Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979) completed his doctorate in 1922 but decided not to pursue the habilitation which would ...»

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“Heidegger and Marcuse: On Reification and Concrete Philosophy,” The

Bloomsbury Companion to Heidegger,” F. Raffoul and E. Nelson, eds.,

Bloomsbury Press, 2013, pp. 171-176

Andrew Feenberg


Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979) completed his doctorate in 1922 but

decided not to pursue the habilitation which would have qualified him for

an academic career. Instead, he returned to Berlin where he established an

antiquarian bookstore with a partner. When he read Being and Time shortly after its publication in 1927, he reconsidered his options. He believed that unlike the philosophy he had studied previously, Heidegger’s philosophy was “concrete,” relevant to life. He later said, “We saw in Heidegger what we had first seen in Husserl, a new beginning, the first radical attempt to put philosophy on really concrete foundations – philosophy concerned with human existence, the human condition, and not with merely abstract ideas and principles” (Marcuse 2005, 165-166).

In 1928 Marcuse became Heidegger’s student and in 1930 he delivered a brilliant thesis entitled Hegel’s Ontology and the Theory of Historicity. Apparently Heidegger rejected the work and in any case it would soon be impossible for a Jew like Marcuse to find employment in a German university (Kellner 1984, 406, n.1). Edmund Husserl, with whom 1 Marcuse also studied, contacted Max Horkheimer on Marcuse’s behalf. In 1933 Marcuse joined the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research Institute in exile.

Marcuse’s most detailed discussion of his early relation to Heidegger is in a 1972 interview with Frederick Olafson. He observes that he and Heidegger’s other students were surprised by their teacher’s sudden adherence to Nazism. But he also claims that the gloominess of Being and Time already suggests a joyless, repressive concept of existence not incompatible with Nazism. There is one further comment in this interview which illustrates the unreliability of philosophers’ self-interpretations.

Marcuse says that he had few reservations about Heidegger’s thought during this period, which implies that he was a loyal disciple. We will see that this is far from the case.

In 1934 Marcuse settled accounts publicly with his Heideggerian past in an essay entitled “The Struggle against Liberalism in the Totalitarian State” (Marcuse 1968). This essay argues that Heidegger and other Nazi sympathizers such as Carl Schmitt abandoned the fundamental concepts and norms of the philosophical tradition. The “existentialists” attempted to concretize the


categories of philosophy but ended up producing new and still more empty abstractions that cancelled the ethical implications of the traditional ones and surrendered thought to power.

In 1947 Marcuse met Heidegger at his hut near Freiberg and came away dissatisfied: Heidegger apparently admitted his political errors but

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of letters, Heidegger asserted the moral equivalence of Nazi crimes and the hardships suffered by Germans during and after the war. This was the last straw for Marcuse who denounced his former teacher in a final letter that broke off all relations (Wolin 1993, 152-164). Nevertheless, Heidegger’s thought had a continuing influence on him.

Marcuse’s appropriation of Heideggerian themes divides into two periods. The first phase has been called “Heidegger-Marxismus.” It focuses on the existential problematic of revolutionary action as a form of authentic existence. This phase is cut short not only by historical contingencies but by Marcuse’s discovery in 1932 of Marx’s Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts. The Manuscripts offered him a Marxist language and conceptual framework in which to pursue many of the themes of his Heideggerian phase. Much later, in the 1960s, Marcuse focuses on the critique of science and technology. In this period Heidegger again appears as a significant interlocutor, although there are few explicit references.

Heidegger-Marxismus Marcuse was a Marxist all his life. He participated in the soldier’s councils in Berlin during the 1919 revolution that followed World War I and remained true to the socialist ideal to the end. Thus his interest in Heidegger’s philosophy may seem surprising. In fact he found in Heidegger the basis for a response to the crisis of Marxism.

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World War I, the mechanistic and economistic Marxism of the pre-war period was discredited theoretically. It could neither account for the one successful revolution in Russia—a backward country—nor the failed revolutions that occurred in advanced ones with low proletarian participation. Marxist theorists such as Georg Lukács argued for a theory of class consciousness to explain the actions of the proletariat, both its revolutionary enthusiasms and its disappointing acquiescence. Lukács introduced the concept of reification to describe the objectivistic and instrumentalist culture that blocked revolutionary aspirations in capitalist society.

This is where Heidegger comes in. One could read his theory of inauthenticity and authenticity as an implied critique of reification and a call to historical participation in a radical project of social transformation (Goldmann 1973). This was roughly how Heidegger himself understood his theory in 1933, with disastrous consequences. Marcuse appropriated the same theory for a diametrically opposed politics. Such different interpretations were possible because of what Marcuse would later call the “phony concreteness” of Heidegger’s thought. However, at the time Marcuse believed Marxism could grant it truly concrete meaning.

Marcuse develops what I call a “meta-critique” of the Heideggerian concepts. On the one hand, he draws on Hegel and Marx to provide a social content to Heidegger’s ontological claims. On the other hand, the Marxist

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fundamentally, ontologically, not through consciousness or knowledge but through labor. Being-in-the-world is now understood as the objectification of the self in the appropriation of thinghood. The relation between this rather forced interpretation and Heidegger’s analysis of readiness-to-hand was apparent to Heidegger himself. In his only recorded comment on Marcuse, he says that Marcuse saw a parallel between Marx’s claim that being has precedence over consciousness and his own rejection of the priority of consciousness in Being and Time (FS, 52).

Marcuse reinterpreted the concept of Dasein on these terms.

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philosophical concept of the subject. He is influenced by Dilthey in identifying this concrete subject with the living individual as opposed to a pure cognitive function. Marcuse agrees with the general approach, but argues that the material needs of the individual are not merely an ontic complication but belong to its essential nature. The temporality of Dasein is now concretized through the notion of labor. Dasein must “project” itself, not in the abstract but concretely through the transformation of nature. Its fundamental relation to the world, its “being-in” is now explained not just by the individual relationship to ready-to-hand tools, but 1 For a full account of these transformations, see Feenberg 2005.

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relation to the future to its social relations with the others alongside whom it labours.

This radical revision of Heidegger’s concepts situates the individual in antagonistic relations. Class now enters the ontological domain described by Heidegger. Marcuse asks, …is the world ‘the same’ even for all forms of Dasein present within a concrete historical situation? Obviously not. It is not only that the world of significance varies among particular contemporary cultural regions and groups, but also that, within any one of these, abysses of meaning may open up between different worlds Precisely in the most existentially essential behaviour, no understanding exists between the world of the high-capitalist bourgeois and that of the small farmer or proletarian. Here the examination is forced to confront the question of the material constitution of historicity, a breakthrough that Heidegger neither achieves nor even gestures toward (Herbert Marcuse, Heideggerian Marxism. R. Wolin and J.

Abromeit, eds. (Lincoln and London: University Nebraska Press, 2005), 16).

From a Heideggerian standpoint this seems a mere substitution of sociology for ontology. Is there not a more fundamental ontological level shared by all these various types of Dasein? Marcuse would agree, but he argues that that fundamental level can only be described starting out from

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necessities of life.

Marcuse’s politics then follow from his concretization of the concepts of inauthenticity or “fallenness” and authenticity. Inauthenticity is no longer identified with absorption into the anonymity of “das Man” but is due to the reification or alienation of labor. Inauthentic objectivism is now identified with the reduction of possibility to actuality in the reified world of the capitalist economy. Authentic action, which Heidegger describes as “precisely the disclosive projection and determination of what is factically possible at the time,” that is, the response called for by the situation, is now redescribed as the “revolutionary act” in which the situation— reification—calls for a transformation of the conditions of labor (BT, 345).

Marcuse writes, “Knowledge of one’s own historicity and concrete historical existence becomes possible at the moment when existence itself breaks through reification” (Marcuse 2005, 32).

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excessively abstract in the light of Marcuse’s meta-critique. But given the collapse of the idea of proletarian revolution, Marcuse’s early attempts at concretization appear as arbitrary as Heidegger’s. Nevertheless, the metacritical structure of his Marxist argument will continue to rule his later much less orthodox writings. He will continue to transform philosophical abstractions into ontologized historical categories. The concept of reason is subjected to this treatment in the later critique of technology.

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In 1960 Marcuse published a short article entitled “De l’Ontologie à la Technologie: Les Tendances de la Societé Industrielle” (Arguments, 1960).

This article promises a forthcoming book which will be One-Dimensional Man. The article contains a significant reference to Being and Time. Once again Heidegger’s text is metacritically interpreted.

A machine, a technical instrument, can be considered as neutral, as pure matter. But the machine, the instrument, does not exist outside an ensemble, a technological totality; it exists only as an element of technicity. This form of technicity is a “state of the world,” a way of existing between man and nature. Heidegger stressed that the “project” of an instrumental world precedes (and should precede) the creation of those technologies which serve as the instrument of this ensemble (technicity) before attempting to act upon it as a technician. In fact, such “transcendental” knowledge possesses a material base in the needs of society and in the incapacity of society to either satisfy or develop them. I would like to insist on the fact that the abolition of anxiety, the pacification of life, and enjoyment are the essential needs. From the beginning, the technical project contains the requirements of these needs….If one considers the existential character of technicity, one can speak of a final technological cause

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technology (Marcuse 2011, 136-137).

This passage translates Heidegger’s transcendental analysis of worldhood as a system of instrumentalities based on a generalized concept of “care” into the historically specific concept of “technicity” as the system of technology. Heidegger’s “care” has become the orientation toward human needs which is intrinsic to instrumental action as such, including modern technology. But service to human needs has been blocked by capitalism. Thus what Heidegger thought of as an ontology of instrumental action unifying human being and world in terms of an unspecified possible end has become a normative account of the failure of technology to realize its quite definite proper end. Marcuse sets up the contrast between a truncated technological “a priori” aimed exclusively at domination and an alternative a priori that would fulfill the telos of technology in the creation of a harmonious society reconciled with nature. Technology is not neutral, but rather it is ambivalent, available for two different developmental paths.

In 1964 Marcuse finally published One-Dimensional Man. Chapters 5 and 6 can be seen as an implicit response to Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology.” The problem Marcuse poses is how to explain the connection between capitalism as a system of domination and scientific-technical rationality. Chapter 5 corresponds to Heidegger’s discussion of Aristotle and contrasts premodern ontology with modern

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concludes with a discussion of their political role under capitalism.

Marcuse’s history of rationality can be read as an alternative to Heidegger’s history of being. Marcuse explains that in its ancient Greek form, reason encountered a world of substantial things. For the Greeks, exemplified by Aristotle, things are not composed of functional units

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“substances” with an essence that lays out their form and purpose. “Is” and “ought” are harmonized in the potentialities belong to the essence.

The Greek conception is realized practically in technē, the knowledge associated with craft production and artistic creation, which actualizes essence in a material.

This Greek conception of rationality is superseded in modern times by the scientific mode of experiencing and understanding the world. The

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instrumentalization. Science does not address experience in its immediacy but transforms everything it encounters into quantities. This stance eliminates purpose and hence also potentiality from the world. This is the basis of the value-neutrality of science, its indifference to the good and the beautiful in the interests of the true.

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