Marcuse on Descartes, Kant, Hegel:
Soul, Mind-Body Duality, & Affirmative Culture

The character of the soul as substance has since Descartes been founded upon the uniqueness of the ego as res cogitans. While the entire world outside the ego becomes in principle one of measurable matter with calculable motion, the ego is the only dimension of reality to evade the materialistic rationality of the rising bourgeoisie. By coming into opposition to the corporeal world as a substance differing from it in essence, the ego is subjected to a remarkable division into two regions. The ego as the subject of thought (mens, mind) remains, in the independence of self-certainty, on this side of the being of matter – it’s a priori, as it were – while Descartes attempts to explain materialistically the ego as soul (anima), as the subject of ‘passions’ (love and hate, joy and sorrow, shame, jealousy, regret, gratitude, and so forth). The passions of the soul are traced to blood circulation and its transformation in the brain. This reduction does not quite succeed. To be sure, all muscular movements and sense perceptions are thought to depend on the nerves, which “are like small filaments or small pipes that all come from the brain”, but the nerves themselves contain “a certain very fine air or wind called animal spirits”. Despite this immaterial residue, the tendency of the interpretation is clear: the ego is either mind (thought, cogito me cogitare) or, insofar as it is not merely thought (cogitatio), it is no longer authentically ego, but rather corporeal. In the latter case, the properties and activities ascribed to it belonged to res extensa. Yet they do not quite admit of being dissolved into matter. The soul remains an unmastered intermediate realm between the unshakable self-certainty of pure thought and the mathematical and physical certainty of material being. Already in the original project of rationalism there is no room in the system for what is later considered actually to compose the soul, viz. the individual’s feelings, appetites, desires, and instincts. The position within rationalism of empirical psychology, i.e. of the discipline really dealing with the human soul, is characteristic, for it exists although reason is unable to legitimate it.

Kant polemized against the treatment of empirical psychology within rational metaphysics (by Baumgarten). Empirical psychology must be “completely banished from the domain of metaphysics; it is indeed already completely excluded by the very idea of the latter science”. But, he goes on, “in conformity, however, with scholastic usage we must allow it some sort of a place (although as an episode only) in metaphysics, and this from economical motives, because it is not yet so rich as to be able to form a subject of study by itself, and yet is too important to be entirely excluded and forced to settle elsewhere . . . . It is thus merely a stranger who is taken in for a short while until he finds a home of his own, in a complete anthropology”. And in his metaphysics lectures of 1792–93 Kant expressed himself even more sceptically about this ‘stranger’: “Is an empirical psychology possible as science? No – our knowledge of the soul is entirely too limited”.

Rationalism’s estrangement from the soul points to an important state of affairs. For in fact the soul does not enter into the social labor process. Concrete labor is reduced to abstract labor that makes possible the exchange of the products of labor as commodities. The idea of the soul seems to allude to those areas of life which cannot be managed by the abstract reason of bourgeois practice. It is as though the processing of matter is accomplished only by a part of the res cogitans: by technical reason. Beginning with the division of labor in manufacture and brought to completion in machine industry, “the intellectual [geistigen] potencies of the material process of production” come into opposition to the immediate producers as “the property of another and as a power that rules them”. To the extent that thought is not immediately technical reason, it has freed itself since Descartes from conscious connection with social practice and tolerates the reification that it itself promotes. When in this practice human relations appear as material relations, as the very laws of things, philosophy abandons the individual to this appearance by retreating and re-establishing itself at the level of the transcendental constitution of the world in pure subjectivity. Transcendental philosophy does not make contact with reification, for it investigates only the process of cognition of the immemorially (je schon) reified world.

The soul is not comprehended by the dichotomy of res cogitans and res extensa, for it cannot be understood merely as one or the other. Kant destroyed rational psychology without arriving at an empirical psychology. For Hegel, every single attribute of the soul is comprehended from the standpoint of mind (Geist), into which the soul passes over (übergeht); for mind reveals itself to be the soul’s true content. The soul is essentially characterized by its “not yet being mind”. Where Hegel treats psychology, i.e. the human soul, in his doctrine of subjective mind, the guiding principle is no longer soul but mind. Hegel deals with the soul principally as part of ‘anthropology’, where it is still completely “bound to the attributes of nature”. He examines planetary life on a general scale, natural racial distinctions, the ages of man, magic, somnambulism, various forms of psychopathic self-images, and – only for a few pages – the ‘real soul’. For him the latter is nothing but the transition to the ego of consciousness, wherewith the anthropological doctrine of soul is already left behind, and the phenomenology of mind arrived at. The soul is thus allotted to physiological anthropology on the one hand and the philosophy of mind on the other. Even in the greatest system of bourgeois rationalism there is no place for the independence of the soul. The authentic objects of psychology, feelings, instincts, and will, are conceived only as forms of the existence of mind.

With its concept of the soul, however, affirmative culture means precisely what is not mind. Indeed, the concept of soul comes into ever sharper contradiction to the concept of mind. What is meant by soul “is forever inaccessible to the lucid mind, to the understanding, or to empirical, factual research. . . . One could sooner dissect with a knife a theme by Beethoven or dissolve it with an acid than analyze the soul with the means of abstract thought”. In the idea of the soul, the noncorporeal faculties, activities, and properties of man (according to the traditional classifications, reason, will, and appetite) are combined in an indivisible unity that manifestly endures through all of the individual’s behavior and, indeed, constitutes his individuality.

The concept of the soul typical of affirmative culture was not developed by philosophy, and the examples from Descartes, Kant, and Hegel were intended only to illustrate philosophy’s embarrassment with regard to the soul.


SOURCE: Marcuse, Herbert. "The Affirmative Character of Culture," in Negations: Essays in Critical Theory, with translations from the German by Jeremy J. Shapiro (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), pp. 88-133. Excerpt, pp. 104-107, footnotes omitted. Originally published in Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, vol. VI, 1937.


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