Marcuse – “Philosophy and Critical Theory”

This is the first installment of what I intend to be an ongoing personal blogging project called “Critical Theory Down to Earth.” In these posts I will provide summaries and brief reflections of writings throughout the wider critical theory landscape. Because I am personally drawn toward epistemology, first generation Frankfurt School, Foucault and Deleuze, these posts will more than likely be weighted in a general direction that reflects these interests. Assuming I get far enough, on my own blog I will archive these posts by thinker and title, which will allow easy navigation. The name is more than a slight nod to Adorno’s essay “The Stars Down to Earth.” And yes, that logo is supposed to be funny.

While I am satisfied with the synopsis I provide below as an introduction for and overview of Marcuse’s “Philosophy and Critical Theory” essay, I will preface it with the disclaimer that I am leaving out the dialectical richness of his philosophical style. These concepts, as I describe them below, are entrenched with Hegelian-Marxian contours in the actual essay. They are also very closely tied to Hegel and Marx’s historical theories. I hope the reader who is familiar with Hegel and Marx’s dialectics and theories of history can fill in the gaps more or less, taking what I have provided as clues.

What is the relationship between philosophy and critical theory? This appears to be the overall question Marcuse addresses here. Yet in this essay Marcuse wrestles with several broad issues and the relationships between them. One major thesis stands out though: critical theory is more truthful than philosophy as well as science. This is a very broad claim, and demands some explanation. In what follows, I will lay out his basic arguments for this.



When Marcuse talks about philosophy, he is a little vague, but also a little specific. He generally focuses on philosophy that specifically arose during the bourgeois era. He tends to mark Kant as the beginning, which may indicate an identification of bourgeois and modern philosophy. Either way, his discussion of bourgeois philosophy tends to frame it as a coherent object, which reached its apex in Hegel. So it is at least tempting to assume that when he speaks of bourgeois philosophy he is largely speaking about German Idealism. This is especially apparent early in the essay, where he spends some time speaking about “idealist rationalism,” which he appears to conflate with bourgeois thought as such. For the sake of brevity here, I will generally refer to this tradition as “philosophy” as well.

Marcuse’s essential criticism of philosophy has to do with the limitations it suffers from, in connection with its ties to bourgeois society. There are a couple of aspects to this. First, philosophy remains very abstract. As he repeatedly points out, the merit of philosophy’s truth only holds up when philosophy remains split off of consideration of current social reality. On the other hand, this separation from current reality is a reflection and fortification of the social limitations of the bourgeois epoch. Second, philosophy equated reason and freedom with individualism. This again marks it as reflecting and fortifying bourgeois society.

Remember that Marcuse’s discussion as a force does not revolve so much around epistemological questions, as on the possibilities for human emancipation. When he speaks of epistemological questions, the importance for him is how the form they take may relate to freedom and human happiness now and in the future. This first problem should be understood in this light. He explains how in philosophy, freedom is found in the realm of ideas and reason. This can be seen in light of Hegel’s association of true freedom, the highest freedom, with an all-consuming self-consciousness. It is also tempting to think that Marcuse suggests that philosophers create very abstract systems of thought as a way to personally experience freedom. He seems to imply that philosophy seeks freedom implicitly, and in the bourgeois era, it found it by escaping from an unfree social reality into the freedom of pure abstraction. Not only is this an incomplete form of freedom, but it also insulates social reality to philosophical interventions toward freedom. Material bondage is fortified by idealistic freedom. Likewise, when freedom is portrayed as independence, self-reliance, and individual choice, this both reflects and fortifies the unfreedoms of bourgeois society through deterring collective identification and harmonizing with the competitive, individualizing tendencies of capitalism.


Critical Theory

Just as philosophy was an expression of its epoch, so too is critical theory. With critical theory, however, the split between philosophy and social reality lessens. Social conditions are increasingly rife for the transition to a rational society. As this transition comes nearer, so freedom is taken out of the realm of pure abstraction, and projected more concretely into the nature of the society of the future. Freedom is transferred from the realm of self-reflecting consciousness into the realm of theoretically engaged collective action. Philosophy is transformed into critical theory. From critical theory, the only place to go towards greater freedom is through social change. Once the rational society is finally brought to fruition, philosophy will cease entirely to be alienated from social reality. Philosophy as such will cease to exist.

Social thought that aims at transformation and liberation in the material world (rather than in speculative philosophy) comes out of real social struggles. These social struggles are brought to fruition through the development of capitalism with its inequalities and internal contradictions. The market economy ultimately drives social change under capitalism. In this particular transformation, capitalism creates a class of dispossessed who become activated to seek liberation. This dynamic – the economy as prime mover of society – is peculiar to capitalism, however. The economy is not a priori the base of society as such, and in a rational society, the economy would no longer have this kind of leading power. Instead, the economy would be intentionally catered to the fulfilling of human wants and needs. The political system would no longer grow out of the economy’s self-propelling processes. Instead, the economy would be governed by the people, in service to human values.

This looking toward the future comes with seeing the present as a moment in history. The larger arc of history is understood as the location of truth, rather than in science for example, which is always specifically rooted in the dynamics of the present reality. Because philosophy seeks freedom in abstraction split off from social reality, it also fails to really address the historicity of the present. The present is left to fend for itself. Because bourgeois philosophy is only true as a set of thoughts abstracted from social reality, it is limited in its truth value. Similarly, because science seeks proof through examining the present, it too fails to look into future possibilities, and hence is limited in its truth content. By contrast, critical theory looks into the present reality, but does not limit its truth to the present. Because critical theory looks beyond the present, towards the potentialities of the future social world, it is able to access a more complete type of truth than either science or philosophy is focused on. This future orientation requires a leap beyond the immediate facts, and so necessarily involves “phantasy.” Seeing what could be – not just what is – is the defining feature of critical theory’s claim to seeing a greater form of truth.



Marcuse, Herbert. (1996 [1937]). “Philosophy and Critical Theory.” Negations: Essays in critical theory. Boston: Beacon Press.

Jeremiah Morelock

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