The Concept of Essence
(Excerpt: Descartes)

By Herbert Marcuse

[. . . .] The transcendental, subjective form of the concept of essence is typical of bourgeois theory and was first fully worked out by Descartes.

In his attempt to provide philosophy with a new foundation, Descartes sought an instance of absolutely certain, necessary, and universally valid knowledge. He found it in the individual's consciousness, in the ego cogitans. To a considerable extent, the concept of theory guiding Descartes was patterned on mathematically formulated natural science, but this does not adequately account for the significance of his approach. At the same time, science was making its pioneering discoveries, and the ideal of "objectively" ascertained knowledge, fulfilled in a nature subjected to calculation and domination, seemed attainable as never before. Why then did Descartes have recourse to the "subjective" certainty of the ego cogito? Why is his anchoring of theory in the consciousness of subjectivity to be found right alongside his mechanistic philosophy, his analytical geometry, and his treatise on machines?

The difficulty of circumscribing the significance of Descartes' approach derives from its thoroughly contradictory nature: simultaneous liberation and impotence, representing the simultaneous affirmation and flight or protest with which the individual, released from medieval hierarchy, reacted to the law of bourgeois society. Universal doubt, the demand that the proof of all judgments be appealed to the sovereign reason of the individual, and the incorporation of mathematics and mechanics into philosophy expressed the new, self‑possessed individuality that appeared with demands for the free shaping of the conditions of life and for the subjection of nature and its newly discovered wealth. Intense activism is manifest in the programmatic connection, emphasized by Descartes, between theory and practice: theory, absolutely certain of its knowledge, is to serve as a sure organon of practice. "It suffices to judge well in order to do well, and to judge as well as one can in order to do one's best, that is to say, to acquire . . . all the other goods that one can acquire." Descartes believed in a philosophie pratique instead of the ancient philosophie spéculative, a practical philosophy

by means of which, knowing the force and the actions of fire, water, air, the stars, the heavens, and all the other bodies that surround us . . . we should be able to utilize them in like manner for all the uses to which they are suited and thus render ourselves masters and possessors of nature.

But in the contemporary form of social organization, the domination of nature through rational methods of production as envisioned by Descartes was neither joined to nor directed by the sovereign reason of the associated individuals. The fate of bourgeois society announces itself in its philosophy. When the liberated individual as the subject of practice actually sets himself to shaping the conditions of his life, he sees himself subjected to the laws of the commodity market, which operate as blind economic laws behind his back. At most, his first step, the beginning of his career, can appear free, as though dictated by his own reason. All subsequent ones are prescribed him by the conditions of a commodity-producing society, and he must observe them if he does not want to go under.

The transparent relations of dependence characteristic of the medieval order were replaced by a system in which relations of dependence could no longer be grasped as such by the individual. The conditions of labor become autonomous; subjected to their mechanism, the individual's fate in such a society appears to him as a mere contingency. Spatio‑temporal reality becomes a merely "external" world that is not rationally connected with man's authentic potential, his "substance" or "essence." This external reality is not organized by the activity of human freedom, although modern science shows such organization to be possible and modern philosophy requires it as a task. In practice, the fulfillment of this task comes up against an obstacle whose removal would lead beyond this society's limits. As long as philosophy does not adopt the idea of a real transformation, the critique of reason stops at the status quo and becomes a critique of pure thought. The uncertainty and unfreedom of the external world is countered by the certainty and freedom of thought as the individual's only remaining power base. He must recognize that he must conquer himself rather than fortune, his wants rather than the "order of the world," and “that there is nothing aside from our thoughts which is completely within our power, so that, after we have done our best with regard to things outside us, all wherein we fail to succeed is absolutely impossible on our part.” If the individual is to be salvaged and human freedom to be preserved, then the "essence" of man must be located in thought. Here is where his authentic potentialities and the ontological certainty of his existence must be found: "I conclude with assurance that my essence consists exclusively in my being a thing that thinks, or a substance whose entire essence or nature is only to think."

It is often asserted today that Descartes, by beginning with the ego cogito, committed the original sin of modern philosophy, that he placed a completely abstract concept of the individual at the basis of theory. But his abstract concept of the individual is animated by concern with human freedom: measuring the truth of all conditions of life against the standard of rational thought. Hegel said of Descartes: "It is the interest of freedom that is fundamental here. What is known to be true is to have the function of preserving our freedom through our thinking." That this freedom is freedom "only" of thought, that only the "abstract" individual is free, that concern with human freedom becomes concern with the absolute certainty of thought, demonstrate the historical veracity of Cartesian philosophy. As the counterpart to his factual unfreedom, the individual, aiming at the greatest truth and certainty possible within bourgeois practice, is left only with the freedom of thought. The "reason" of this epoch is necessarily “abstract”; in order to remain true to itself and avoid falling into irrationality, reason must disregard not only the given form of spatio‑temporal existence, but even the concrete content of thought at any time, and retain only thought as such, the pure form of all cogitationes. Reason cannot unfold itself in the rational domination and shaping of objects by free individuals. Rather, objectivity becomes a postulate of pure knowledge and is thus released from the "interest of freedom":

The impulse to freedom is in fact basic, but predominating, at least in consciousness, is the goal of arriving at something solid and objective—the element of objectivity, not the moment of subjectivity (i.e. that it is posited, known, and verified by me).

After Descartes defined the essence of man as "thinking" and thought as fundamentum inconcussum (unshakable foundation), the problem of essence moved into the sphere of cognitive subjectivity. The question of essence—of the truth, unity, and authenticity of Being—became the question of the truth, unity, and authenticity of knowledge. Post‑Cartesian idealism retains this fundamental philosophical idea of the bourgeois period, the idea that the "organization" of existing things in accordance with their comprehended potentialities is a function of the free, critical reason of the individual. [. . . .]

SOURCE: Marcuse, Herbert. "The Concept of Essence," in Negations: Essays in Critical Theory, with translations from the German by Jeremy J. Shapiro (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), pp. 43-87. Excerpt, pp. 47-51, footnotes (to Descartes and Hegel) omitted. Originally published in Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, vol. V, 1936.

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