Notes on Herbert Marcuse’s Reason and Revolution

by Ralph Dumain

Prologue: Science & Phenomenology

I came across an essay by Marcuse in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader: "On Science and Phenomenology."  I found this essay rather unsatisfactory; it reads like a luftmensch take on the world.  The main fault lies with Husserl himself.  Marcuse's essay is basically a review of Husserl's The Crisis of European Science and Transcendental Phenomenology.  In the end Marcuse criticizes transcendentalism and Husserl's philosophy as replacing the hubris of science by that of philosophy, but I find Husserl's whole scheme suspect, just as I find it a shame that a more sociological approach than Husserl's is no more sophisticated.  There are a number of abstract statements made that are totally unconvincing: (1) scientific rationality conceals within itself the germs of irrationality, not to mention an implicit "technological reason" prior to all application; (2) modern science is a reduction of the Greek concept of reason to pure mathesis without even the total ontological concept the Greeks had in mind; (3) Galileo's universalized mathematization of nature not only furthers this process but leaves the lebenswelt intact as an assumed but uncriticized constituent of the scientific enterprise.  I think all this is a load of shit.  And it is curiously external to the subject matter; it is all on the outside, in the realm of pure ideology.  It is not only obtuse to anything intrinsically present in scientific method itself, but it ignores the real locus of the problem of scientific ideology, which is not within the nature of scientific theorizing itself but in its role within the total realm of social practice.  The emergence of the modern scientific world view upset the feudal apple cart, impinged on religion and authority, and necessitated strategies to accommodate it within a total system of social relations, philosophically as well as in other ways.  Here is where certain conceptions of quantification, empiricism, utilitarianism, as well as the diremption between abstract theorizing and lived experience come in.

(Written 9 April 2003)

Reason and Revolution: Hegel

I have read the first five chapters of Marcuse's Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory (Boston: Beacon Press, 1960 [orig. 1941]).  The uniqueness of  Marcuse's historical intervention and his point of view are revealed towards the beginning of the book.  Beyond that there's mainly an exposition of Hegel's views as Marcuse interprets them.  Divergences between the two are not immediately apparent for the most part.  There are a couple of recurring themes in Hegel (according to Marcuse) I have trouble digesting.  One is that all of objective reality contains subjectivity and that this is where objectivity ultimately resides.  The other are the recurrent statements about the nature of dialectical logic vs. traditional logic and mathematics.  Once again there is no recognition of other non-empiricist views.  But there's also the notion, in contradistinction to Hegelian critical negativity, that traditional logic, mathematics [see, e.g., pp. 144-145, 160], and science inherently affirm the status quo, the essential falseness of things as they are.  I cannot swallow this.

(Written 31 July 2003)

Marx on Alienated Labor

I believe that information on the young Marx—especially the 1844 Manuscripts—was scarce in the English-speaking world in 1940.  I don't recall whether these manuscripts were discussed in Sidney Hook's two Marxist books.  H.P. Adams mentions them in his 1940 book Karl Marx In His Earlier Writings. Marcuse must have made quite a splash in 1941.  It's certainly likely that he provided a major impetus to C.L.R. James's tendency to study Hegel and Marx and to translate some of the 1844 Manuscripts into English (they were the first) and to make the labor process the fundament of their tendency.

(Written 2 August 2003)

Saint-Simon & Comte

I am reading the section on the foundations of positivism and beginning the section on Saint-Simon.  There are some noteworthy tidbits in the section on positive and negative philosophy.   First, Schelling's positivist element.  Positive philosophy as a conscious reaction against the critical negativity of rationalism is something I don't know much about, and therefore doubly noteworthy.  The two-fold thrust of post-Hegelian, positive philosophy was to counter negativity and analyze society in terms of natural law.  The common feature of positive philosophy and contemporary positivism, aside from the opposition to a priori metaphysics, is the elevation of fact and experience to the ultimate.  This was a product of the new scientific temper and reflects the universal application of scientific method, based on observation alone. (p. 327)

This final point invites further reflection, but Marcuse continues: this positivist temper opposed the critique of the given.  Criticism was no part of science; science was to justify the given.  Comte and Stahl were explicit about this.

I'm not going to argue that Marcuse was wrong about Comte, but there is a major lapse here: Marcuse fails to challenge the positivist conception of scientific method, to explain how this ideology of science and its transfer from natural to social science came about and how it may actually diverge from the actual nature—arguably nonpositivist!—of real scientific theory and scientific idealization as they historically evolved regardless of the ideologies through which science was socioculturally integrated.  Can one really assume that science—even the conception of scientific law, but especially the nature of scientific theory—is "positive" and deifies the given?  One could in fact argue exactly the opposite.  Empiricism was ultimately consolidated to tame science and make it safe for the bourgeoisie.  Marcuse is missing something important here.

(Written 2 August 2003)

I'm reaching the final stage of the book. After I finish up this chapter I still have the section on right-wing Hegelianism.  Overall, I'm finding this book far more satisfactory than Dialectic of Enlightenment. Marcuse wrote this book at a turning point in history, but he doesn't seem to be giving up on the working class as he did in the 1960s.  I don't know enough about his personal history to know why he wrote this in English at this precise moment, but he seems to be trying to preserve something in danger of being lost (he calls it the power of negative thinking) that apparently preoccupied others around this time—Lukacs, and I suppose even Horkheimer and Adorno.  While I found the section on the early French socialists and quasi-positivists (Saint-Simon) interesting, and the section on Comte pretty clear, there are a few points later on I wonder about. But first, a very important point is the connection in Comte between positivism and irrationalism, the fusion of scientism and religious idealism, and the transformation from liberalism to authoritarianism (p. 342-3).  The contradictions in Comte are so blaring that they reveal its aggressive ideological character.

There is one sentence I do not understand, however: “The laws positivist science discovered and that distinguish it from empiricism . . . .” (p. 348)  I don't understand the differentia specifica between positivism and empiricism alluded to here.

Marcuse also ties Comte's idea of a unified science with recent developments of the same idea (p. 348-9).  I assume he means the Vienna Circle here, with possibly the same totalitarian connotations, although the unifying social factor here is the common assumption of a specialized intellectual elite.  This is a pretty dodgy argument.

Marcuse is also concerned with the authoritarian implications of this philosophy: “Positivism shifts the source of certainty from the subject of thought to the subject of perception.”  (p. 351)  While the suppression of the subject is justifiably a key issue with positivism, the question of subject-object is conflated with the question of objectivity in an ambiguous manner that doesn't specify what is wrong with an undialectical view of activity-passivity from a legitimately materialist perspective.

(Written 4 August 2003)

Friedrich Julius Stahl

The information on Stahl is new to me as it that on Lorenz von Stein.  There are some points that are murky to me at least.

First, I'm a bit confused about attributing positivism to the status quo affirmation of "positive", i.e. traditional, social institutions.  By this criterion, could we refer to Edmund Burke as a positivist? 

The condemnation of modern rationalism usually goes hand in hand with an antipositivist reaction (not to say anti-materialist, which is of course something else entirely), though, as András Gedö points out, a positivist/empiricist dimension can be found in irrationalist philosophies as well.  For Marcuse, Stahl is a conscious positivist, whose aim is 'to save the worth of the positive, the concrete, the individual, the worth of the facts.' [p. 366]  In this he follows in the footsteps of Schelling.  Very well, but affinities to Comte notwithstanding, the term positivism is so broad in application, should not one be careful about identifying all positivisms in this way? 

Also, the surrender to the concrete Marcuse deplores as a reactionary tendency (p. 370) is undoubtedly also characteristic of Heidegger.  Where's the critique of Heidegger?  The concrete personalism—natural relations of subordination as opposed to abstract leveling (p. 371)—is a major theme of fascistic thinkers of the 20th century—D.H. Lawrence belongs in this category.

It seems that the general theme so far is the counterrevolutionary role of positivism and its preparatory role in the transition to irrationalism and fascism (p. 374).  This itself is an important theme handled in a way different from some of the other sources I've been drawing upon dealing with the relation of positivism and lebensphilosophie.

(Written 4 August 2003)

Lorenz von Stein & Scientific Method

The section on Von Stein is also of great interest, but here too, there are some points at which Marcuse's failure to adequate characterize the sciences comes into play and thus stands in need of analysis.

I was not familiar with Lorenz von Stein, nor did I know he was a Hegelian and constructed the first German sociology.   Once again, it's interesting to see how Marcuse treats the question of science.  "The emancipation of sociology from philosophy must not be confused with the 'negation' and 'realization of philosophy,' as it occurs in Marxian social theory." (p. 375)  The separation of sociology and philosophy has its predecessors:  Comte, Mill, Spencer, all of whom altered philosophy to realize the principles of their scientific positivism, in effect to neutralize philosophy (p. 376).  With Comte, philosophical issues—meaning all the human issues of freedom, justice, etc.—were excised.  Now "sociological method was oriented to describing observable facts and to establishing empirical generalities about them. (p. 376) As physics described nature, so sociology described society.  In accord with Mills' conception of social science, social phenomena "can be subjected to the standard of exactness and tot he principles of generalization and classification.  Sociology "proceeds from accumulating facts to classifying them successfully." (p. 377)

Marcuse sharply contrasts this with the dialectical theory of society.  However, once again there is a missing parameter: the failure to question an empiricist conception of natural science.  The contrast is made between dialectic (the path of analytical negativity), and positivism, which excises the human agent and serves as an apologist for the status quo.  But there are other ways to contrast the natural and social sciences as well (e.g. as dialectical materialism does), by contrasting the natures of the objects of investigation, the practical relationship of "scientist" to this object in the division of labor, and the nonpositivist nature of natural scientific theory bastardized into a positivist degradation of the methods of the natural sciences in order to foster social control.  Marcuse's analystical lacuna is consistent throughout his writing, where the only terms of contrast are dialectic (negativity) and positivism (apologia for the status quo).  But this schema tacitly excises a whole layer of needed logical analysis.

Dialectics indeed emphasizes potentialities and contradictions, opposing the mere naturalization of the existent.  (p. 378)  But there are (now at least) other possibilities for emancipatory social science that are not dependent on a rigid dichotomy between sociological methods and the critical perspective.  See for example the essay by Mihailo Markovic on my web site.  Marcuse's approach in this book is undoubtedly refreshing, given the dismal context in which it intervened, but there is more to be discussed than the system of oppositions he consistently emphasizes.

To be sure, the account of the evolution of von Stein's sociology from dialectics and political economy to positivist sociology and the theory of the state, the prospects of revolution and dictatorship, the factor of 'personality', and the apology for reform as opposed to revolution is fascinating, and probably as instructive as Marcuse intends it to be.

(Written 4 August 2003)


I finished Reason and Revolution soon after my last communication.  I have lots more to say about it when I have time including the final section on right-wing British and Italian Hegelianism.  Apparently, Marcuse knew nothing about American Hegelianism at this time, which was also a significant movement.  (I'm not sure how strong Hegel was in Russia or other non-Germanic countries.)  The St. Louis Hegelians were neither Right nor Left; they've been described as Centrists, and were on the whole a better lot than the British.

Since yesterday I've read over 150 pages of Sidney Hook's 1933 Towards The Understanding of Karl Marx.  The book is shockingly good so far and a great read.  Too bad Hook was worthless after 1938.  Given how little was available in English in those days, it's not too surprising that this can be found in Marcuse's bibliography (as is Hook’s subsequent book From Hegel to Marx).  I wonder how much attention Marcuse gave it, though.  Oddly, it complements Marcuse's book.  Hook shows how a non-positivist, non-fatalist, scientific-oriented conception of Marxism is compatible with an activist philosophy.  So far I see no real evidence of pragmatism in Hook's book, curiously.  I also see no indication that Hook was seeped in Hegel or could have duplicated Marcuse's obsession with negativity.

(Written 7 August 2003)

Charles Reitz in his important recent book Art, Alienation, and the Humanities: A Critical Engagement with Herbert Marcuse (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000) provides a subtext for Reason and Revolution, which is indeed interesting.  However, how many readers of Marcuse's first book in English would have been able to put it into the context that Reitz explicates?  I could not do it myself, lacking the background as well as the memory of books I read decades ago.  But what did this book's readers in the 1940s make of it?  It seems it was primarily an education in the history of German idealism, Hegel, and the young Marx for English-speaking readers who knew nothing of these matters.  My own critique of it involves some reading between the lines, but this one book does not seem to reveal explicitly all of the major themes to be found in Marcuse's earlier and later works. 

(Written 10 August 2003)

One thing I've been doing this year is anatomizing the underlying issues in various philosophical traditions and relating them to one another even if their proponents did not.  The history of American philosophy has a whole different logic to it than that of the German.  This also means a very different conception of the ultimate meaning of science for human progress.  The next book I read [after finishing Reitz) was John Dewey's Reconstruction in Philosophy.  I never was moved before to bother with Dewey, but given my recent explorations of American philosophy (Roy Wood Sellars, Marvin Farber, the young Marxist Sidney Hook), I'm looking at this material with a more subtle though sharply critical eye.  It is very illuminating for example to compare Dewey's criticism of anti-science in his 1948 introduction to Marcuse's anti-science position in Reason and Revolution and in light of Reitz’s book.

(Written 21 August 2003)

You can see that for Marcuse (as well as for Horkheimer in The Eclipse of Reason), positivism is treated as the worse enemy, not lebensphilosophie or related reactionary idealisms.  This is a reflection of an intellectual heritage that we should not allow to limit us.  I have consistently criticized the Frankfurters' cardinal intellectual flaw—their conflation of natural science with positivism and 'technological rationality'. I've had no response whatever to my analyses from the online community of scholars. What does this tell you? Well, growing up, my hero was Einstein, not Marcuse, and Einstein was far more consistent in his politically progressive instincts.

(Written 24 August 2003)

I think the leading Frankfurters were hampered by the very idealist anti-scientific tradition in which they were schooled and rebelled against.  This is even more obnoxiously manifest in Marcuse, also in the 1940s.  In Reason and Revolution, positivism rather than irrationalism bears the brunt of the blame for fascism.  Marcuse of course was schooled in Dilthey and Heidegger, a very unsavory brew. 

(Written 15 October 2003)

To reiterate lessons learned this year: I am attending to the peculiarities of the development of intellectual traditions, their trajectories, and (non- / partial) interaction one with another, and the implications for the difficult integration of knowledge.  I have covered this at length in my reviews of various schools over the past several months, with respect to American philosophy (Sellars, Dewey), the Frankfurters (Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse), etc.  I have yet to write up my comparative analysis of Dewey's Reconstruction in Philosophy and Marcuse's Reason and Revolution, but my analysis of the underlying dynamics of these works and the intellectual traditions from which they emerge will be very instructive. 

(Written 24 October 2003)

I finished Charles Reitz’s Art, Alienation, and the Humanities: A Critical Engagement with Herbert Marcuse by August 13 (having begun reading it by August 10) and outlined my prospective review on August 17 (still unwritten).  Reitz nailed Marcuse as a product of lebensphilosophie and thus helped to explain the perplexities I experienced reading Reason and Revolution.

Now to summarize the key themes of the book that lept out at me: The heritage of German idealism is primarily one of negation of the status quo, which is deemed to be in a state of falsehood.  Hence the overall thrust is one of liberation and against reaction.  As the planet is embroiled in World War with fascism contending for global domination, Marcuse insists on the incompatibility of German idealism, especially the much maligned Hegel, with fascism, and points out the Nazi assault on Hegel.  British Hegelianism, which harbored conservative tendencies, and Italian Hegelianism, which culminated in fascism, are shown to be incompatible with the spirit of Hegel.  The more right-wing these Hegelians are, the more the logical structures of their philosophies diverge from Hegel.

I am interested in gauging the influence of this book on C.L.R. James and his Johnson-Forest Tendency in the 1940s.  I do not discern offhand any impact of the above-mentioned themes on James.  I can detect likely influences of the treatment of Hegel on James, and I imagine this book was a leading stimulus to his group’s study of Hegel.  A few stray remarks on Descartes may have had an impact, judging from the Tendency’s references to Descartes (See State Capitalism & World Revolution and Facing Reality).  Above all, Marcuse’s treatment of the young Marx’s work on alienated labor must have had a decisive impact, as this became the linchpin for James’s and his Tendency’s original take on Marxism, and the basis for an insight that James took all the way into his analysis of intellectual and cultural affairs, whose ramifications remain virgin territory for James scholarship.

(Written 21 November 2003)

Compiled & edited 21 November 2003
© 2003 Ralph Dumain. All rights reserved.

"The Reactionary Philosophy, Ambiguous Aesthetics, and Revolutionary Politics of Herbert Marcuse" by Ralph Dumain

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