Nov 022012

Herewith Jacob Glover contributes a short essay on the mightily influential philosopher Herbert Marcuse whose books were once required reading on the barricades of the counter-cultural movement in America and Europe. The frame of Marcuse’s argument is slightly dated; the positivist slant of academic philosophy in those days lent itself to linguistic analysis which as Ludwig Wittgenstein said should only deal with the world as we find it and the language we use to describe it. The ancient concepts of God, the Good, Truth and Beauty, the universals and absolutes of an earlier era have become mere ghosts[1]. But the fact that linguistic analysis has largely been swept away by other academic trends doesn’t mean the problem disappeared. Marcuse spoke of ghosts; Derrida coined the pun “hauntology.” The great God Pan is dead, and the miraculous wonder of existence is subdued by the mundane clutter and noise of contemporary fetishistic capitalism and the message loops of the media. And  yet we remain haunted; there always seems to be more to what we see than we can say. Jacob Glover has contributed poems, songs, essays and translations to Numéro Cinq from the very beginning of things — including essays on Montaigne, Kierkegaard, and Spinoza.



Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) was a major figure in the Frankfurt School, the fountainhead of critical theory and neo-Marxist culture criticism. He left Germany in 1933 and became a citizen of the United States in 1940. His work in social criticism and social research generated the foundations of American Marxist movements and fueled a good deal of the counter-culture rhetoric of the 1960s student revolt and black power movement (Angela Davis was one of his more famous students).

His book One-Dimensional Man (1964) is brimming with a frothy mixture of ressentiment, intelligence, pity and hope. Just take, for example, the chapter entitled “The Triumph of Positive Thinking: One Dimensional Philosophy” — a complex statement about the state of the thinking world. Marcuse examines intellectual life and academia and sees a group of people who have successfully deluded and precluded themselves and the rest of the world from any sense of reality. The problem, as Marcuse sees it, is a radical hyperanalyzation of the commonplace. This hyperanalyzation coupled with a refusal of metaphysics creates a sort of pseudo-cure for the trauma of reality.

So what is reality? What are we missing?

The larger context of experience when Marcuse wrote his book was still that of the gas chambers and concentration camps, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of American Cadillacs and German Mercedes, of the Pentagon and the Kremlin, of the nuclear cities and the Chinese communes, of Cuba, of brainwashing and massacres.

All of these examples correspond to conflict and unrest. The concentration camps evoke direct images of suffering. But even American Cadillacs together with the German Mercedes remind of us the strife between the America and Germany—perhaps not by killing one another anymore; international economic competition seems to be the new trench warfare these days. (This is especially true when we consider that wars are being fought today in order to ensure gas and oil prices, or, in the words of American politicians, freedom.)

Marcuse writes in reference to the long list of traumatic conflicts that “the empirical world is also that in which all these things are taken for granted or forgotten or repressed or unknown, in which people are free” (180). For Marcuse the real world is traumatic but the trauma is “taken for granted” or “repressed.” Or he is offering two definitions of reality, i.e. there is the actual traumatic reality and there is the filtered and padded reality. The way academia analyzes the world and spits its demythologized version of reality at the non-academic world creates a barrier in which images which should evoke ideas are, at times, merely attached to a definition and forced into a rote-memorization machine known as a high-school student.

The juxtaposition of traumatic reality with a filtered and padded reality creates an interesting conflict.  It is as if Marcuse is presenting you with an ethical choice: there are two ways of looking at the world—now choose. But to me this is similar to looking at a picture of a refugee about to be shot by a soldier and asking: who would you rather be? There is no right answer of course because either you’re a monster for wanting to be the soldier or you are lying because you claim you want to be the refugee. Marcuse sets this distinction up so you can’t answer; his point is not to choose a definition—the point is to escape the delusion.

The question is: How? For Marcuse the problem is hyperanalyzation.  He writes:

Thought is on the level with reality when it is cured from transgression beyond a conceptual framework which is either purely axiomatic (logic, mathematics) or coextensive with the established universe of discourse and behavior. Thus, linguistic analysis claims to cure thought and speech from confusing metaphysical notions—from “ghosts” of a less mature and less scientific past which still haunt the mind although they neither designate nor explain (170).

In this passage Marcuse presents two theoretical options. On one hand there is linguistic analysis while on the other there are “metaphysical notions,” or my new favourite word for the traditional ideas of the Good and God, “ghosts.” Marcuse thinks that in response to world trauma (e.g. WWII and the Cold War) people could no longer handle the faith-requirement of metaphysics, that is, he diagnoses current philosophical movements psychologically. This is why he uses the words “cure” and “therapeutic.” To Marcuse, philosophy has turned toward the “removal of obscurities, illusions and oddities” (170) as a cure or as a form of therapy in the face of the trauma of the real. But also, in this passage Marcuse is explaining that linguistic analysts avoid transcendence. To intellectuals of this kind the world and language are what should be studied not concepts which have no empirical correlate.

Marcuse’s use of the word “transgression” is important because it points to the multiple layers in his discussion. For the most part Marcuse is talking about two competing modes of philosophical thought, but philosophy is also political. The word “transgression” captures this distinction perfectly. To intellectuals who work within a rigid conceptual framework any thought which transcends this framework is transgressive. Thoughts that point outside the framework are not only impossible to explain within the framework but point out the framework’s finitude; they expose the limits of that particular analyzing discourse. I think that is what Marcuse means by his use of the word “haunt.”

Academic philosophers, according to Marcuse, have tended toward linguistic analysis which “identifies as its chief concern the debunking of transcendent concepts” (171).  In other words, linguistic analysis sets itself up directly opposed to metaphysics. Or as Marcuse says, “…philosophical thought turns into affirmative thought; philosophical critique criticizes within the societal framework and stigmatizes non-positive notions as mere speculation, dreams or fantasies” (172).  And what he means is that after the linguistic turn in philosophy, i.e. the move away from metaphysics proper, philosophy begins to focus on direct affirmation of a certain version of reality that leaves no room for those pesky ghosts like God, Love or Truth. These sorts of metaphysical ideas do not offer any empirical manifestation, that is: they cannot be confirmed empirically. Moreover, linguistic philosophy is a bully; any thinker who does not conform to the framework in which the linguistic analysis works is not doing philosophy. Rather, he is, according to the linguistic analysts, dreaming.

But let’s go a little deeper. What exactly do these philosophers do, if not metaphysics? These are the philosophers who demand to control nature which now “appears within the reaches of scientific and technical progress” (172). This is a philosophy toward an end of philosophy. This is what we looked at in chapter 5 when Marcuse says that Eros is eclipsed by Logos. Marcuse uses Wittgenstein’s obsession with the phrase “my broom is in the corner” to point out that this sort of philosophy does indeed free us. It frees us from hard questions: like what is justice? And it replaces them with banalities about empirical location and sensation (e.g. the taste of a pineapple). Marcuse also quotes at length a passage from J.L. Austin in which the British linguist strips down to its most bare essentials and particularities the “two rather different ways of being hesitant” (Austin, Logic an Language, 137). Marcuse lauds this passage for its clarity and exactitude but then swiftly pronounces that “not only [are clarity and exactness] not enough, but [they are] destructive of philosophic thought, and of critical thought as such” (176). Now Marcuse is not saying that philosophers should not write clearly but that Austin’s attempt to understand what it means to be hesitant is so constraining to the idea of hesitation that it destroys it. Marcuse thinks that the way linguists treat language voids it of its referential nature and strips it of content.  To my mind, this is a lot like saying a word until it loses meaning.

To Marcuse the way that linguistic philosophers control language and therefore discourse is what hamstrings philosophy. He quotes Wittgenstein who wrote in Philosophical Investigations that “philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language” (178).  But for Marcuse there are two kinds of discourse at work and so there need not be any interference.  To Marcuse “everyday language” uses sentences which have an immediate function by “causing behavioral results” (179). On the other hand, in philosophical discourse “the word remains, as it were, unfulfilled” (179), i.e., words in philosophical discourse do not imply or suggest a response which could be given in the empirical world. Rather philosophical discourse is meant to evoke and “give rise to other thoughts” (179). To Marcuse, the hyperanalyzation of linguistic analysis in academia has cut us off from the philosophical discourse which conjures “ghosts.” (I wonder if perhaps, it is not that philosophy shouldn’t interfere with the use of language but that normal language should not interfere with philosophy.)

What is the nature of this veil which occludes philosophy from metaphysics? What does linguistic analysis do that makes metaphysics inaccessible? Marcuse claims that the linguistic turn in philosophy manages to establish “a self-sufficient world of its own, closed and well protected against the ingression of disturbing external factors” (182). To explain this quote we need to return briefly to the therapy metaphor. Remember that to Marcuse hyperanalyzation is essentially the psychological defense mechanism of the academic culture in response to the trauma of WWII, i.e., in this traumatic world it is better to deal with empirical data than with spectral metaphysical ideas. And this is where the phrase “self-sufficient” becomes so important. Linguistic philosophers tend to see metaphysicians as so dissatisfied with the empirical world that they need to go beyond it and conjure ghosts to explain it to themselves. According to Marcuse, by focusing on the empirical world and emphasizing the use of the everyday language, linguistic philosophers enclose themselves within a framework that seems to dispense with need for metaphysics to produce answers. To paraphrase Wittgenstein: it just needs a little rearranging.

Linguistic philosophers turn the focus of philosophy away from metaphysics because they are searching for empirical certainty in light of the disaster and suffering brought on by war and international strife. They sequester themselves in a bubble of safety which avoids the trauma of the real world and disavows the importance of metaphysical notions. They do all this so that, within the safe confines of hyperanalyzation, there can be answers.

But in the end the world is not explained by simple and clear language. Instead, Marcuse says, “We understand each other only through whole areas of misunderstanding and contradiction. The real universe of ordinary language is that of the struggle for existence. It is indeed an ambiguous, vague, obscure universe, and it is certainly in need of clarification” (198-9). He talks about the way that poetry and literature cannot fully function in a world in which “the explosive historical dimension of meaning is silenced” (198). The linguistic philosophers of modern academia magnify the immediate world to the point that nothing has meaning anymore, and, in their wake, as Marcuse puts it, they leave “a ghost more ghostly than those which the analysis combats” (194).

The real task of philosophy, Marcuse suggests, is to “make the established language itself speak what it conceals or excludes” (195). In other words, the mission of philosophers is not to try to make what’s immediate and empirical say more but to make what’s hidden behind language come to light.

Marcuse is probably thinking of Heidegger’s aletheia here, a truth achieved through ontological revealing rather than empirical confirmation. But it is important that Marcuse encourages a philosophy which does not shy away from reality. The trauma is there, but hidden beneath it is the cure. Heidegger quotes Holderlin: “But where the danger is, grows/ the saving power also.” (The Question Concerning Technology, 28).  And I think that this is close to what Marcuse himself wants to say. We should not attempt to escape the traumatic reality behind hyperanalysis. Rather we must remain critical of establishment thinking by embracing the trauma and by believing in ghosts.

— Jacob Glover



Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology. Trans. William Lovitt. New York: Harper Perennial, 1977.

Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964


Jacob Glover is in his senior year in the Contemporary Studies Programme at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He is a frequent contributor of book reviews and essays.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. See Mappa Mundi: The Structure of Western Thought

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