Just out from Routledge


Heidegger and Marcuse: The Catastrophe and Redemption of History




I arrived in La Jolla, California in the fall of 1965 as a graduate student in Philosophy. One of my reasons for coming was what I had heard of Herbert Marcuse. He was not yet famous but he was well known and what was known about him intrigued me. I was interested in phenomenology, but a philosopher wild enough to synthesize Marx and Freud was wild enough for a young graduate student looking for an alternative to the dry as dust positivism then dominating American philosophy.

At the first opportunity I asked Professor Marcuse to help me study Heidegger’s Being and Time. He accepted my proposal and we spent many stormy Tuesday afternoons debating the meaning of obscure passages in this book which, unbeknownst to me, had inspired Marcuse to leave Berlin for Freiburg 38 years before.

One afternoon as we left Marcuse’s office a magnificent sunset appeared before us. Standing on the balcony of the Humanities Building dazzled by the spectacle of nature, Marcuse turned to me and said, in his deep, heavily accented voice, “Make me a phenomenological reduction of this!” I was unable to reply. I remember feeling the demand to be unfair, sarcastic.

Zen Buddhists are supposed to achieve sudden enlightenment meditating on an unsolvable problem called a koan. Phenomenology seemed to collapse in the face of Marcuse’s stunning koan, but sudden enlightenment did not follow. It could not possibly have occurred to me then that the rejection of a phenomenological reduction that late afternoon confirmed yet again Marcuse’s decision to abandon Heidegger’s mentorship in 1933. He had found another way to understand beauty and its promise of happiness.

A few months later, my fellow graduate students and I created a magazine to publicize our anti-war views. Recall that this was the beginning of the Vietnam War and the American public was still supportive. Dissent was the act of a small minority to which we belonged. We asked Marcuse for an article to start us off. He contributed “The Individual in the Great Society.” This article described the suppression of individuality under the impact of technological advance. It ends with a convoluted passage I want to quote here as it offers a clue to my koan and the agenda of Marcuse’s later work which I try to understand in this book.

Under both aspects, the traditional concept of the individual, in its classic-liberal as well as Marxist form seems to be untenable — canceled (aufgehoben) by the historical development of productivity….Authentic individuality would remain the distinction of the creative artist, writer, or musician. The idea of making this creative potential general among the population at large militates against the very function and truth of the artistic creation as a form of expression …because it [art] implies dissociation from, and negation of, common sense and common values: ingression of a qualitatively different reality in the established one. In the case of the second alternative (fundamental transformation of the society), individuality would refer to an entirely new existential dimension: to a domain of play, experiment, and imagination which is outside the reaches of any policy and program today (Marcuse 2001, 80).

This article was composed in 1965. It accurately foresaw the shipwreck of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society on the rock of Vietnam. What it did not, could not foresee was the rise of the New Left and the counter-culture. At that time demonstrations against the War in Vietnam on most campuses, including ours, attracted students by the dozens, not the thousands who would soon be mobilized by the anti-war movement.

Marcuse believed that the elimination of true individuality in “one-dimensional society” explained the absence of opposition. Individuality requires mental independence and a standard, a vision of a better world. The arts have always represented such an alternative. (Our magazine was called Alternatives.) In modern times a limited form of individuality became widely available. The Enlightenment opened a public sphere within which political ideals sustained a critical stance. Now the space of public debate was closing down. Once again individuality was to be found primarily in the aesthetic realm.  For it to emerge from behind its old artistic borders, Marcuse claimed, it would have to take a far more radical form than in the past. The new individuals would realize the negative, critical content of art in the real world, overthrowing its common sense and devaluing its values.

Aesthetics as the form of a new consciousness and sensibility! The generalization of the oppositional force of beauty as social critique! What strange notions! I had no idea that in 1918 Marcuse participated in the German Revolution as a member of the Berlin Soldiers’ Council and shortly afterwards wrote a thesis on novels featuring artists in conflict with society. For him the unity of political and aesthetic opposition was no mere fantasy. But I also recall this personal detail from my student days: on the wall of his dining room in California he had a large print of Breughel's Fall of Icarus which he kept as a permanent warning against romantic idealism.[1]

The full implications of Marcuse’s ideas on individuality unfolded finally with the rise of the New Left. The French May Events of 1968 demanded “All Power to the Imagination,” a slogan that refuted his gloomy prognostication in the passage quoted above. He was only too happy to be refuted. We witnessed the beginnings of the movement together in Paris. Returning to his hotel in the Latin Quarter he was accosted by a group of students who had just occupied the Ecole des Beaux Arts. They recognized him from his picture in the newspapers where he was celebrated as the “Guru of the Students in Revolt.”

We entered the Ecole and Marcuse addressed the hundred or more young artists gathered in the main assembly hall. It is easy to imagine the excitement of the author of a thesis on aesthetic resistance at the podium of this monument to “affirmative culture.”[2] He was warmly received. French students celebrated the grandfathers of the revolution in preference to their fathers who they blamed for social ills. Marcuse made a short speech in French, greeting the students in the name of the American student movement and congratulating them on challenging “consumer society.” They seemed impressed by this echo from the depths of history although the Maoists in the audience were visibly puzzled by the reference to consumption.

When An Essay on Liberation appeared a year later it was dedicated to the French “militants,” the students and young workers in revolt. “The radical utopian character of their demands,” Marcuse wrote in the Preface, “far surpasses the hypotheses of my essay” (Marcuse 1969a, ix). That book explored the generalization of aesthetic resistance, which the earlier article had dismissed, in some detail. The boundaries of art had burst and aesthetics had become a new kind of politics with the transformation of the technical base of society as its goal. The young resisted not merely because they disagreed with government policy but because their sensibility rebelled at the waste and violence of the society around them.

An Essay on Liberation and the several books that followed attempted to explain the new forms of opposition emerging in one-dimensional society. Although this was a topic that fascinated me during this same period, I was never fully convinced by Marcuse’s approach. The emphasis on aesthetics did not quite correspond with my experience of the movement. I would have said its core impulse was revulsion at the conformist pressures of the culture of the 1950s in which we had all grown up rather than an aesthetic vision of the future. In any case, what I took from Marcuse was his critique of technology which I have developed further in my own books over the last 15 years. My doubts about the aesthetic interpretation of the New Left were widely shared. Marcuse’s last writings had diminishing impact and eventually contributed to the decline of his reputation.

Now, looking back on Marcuse’s work, I am still not convinced. But I see his thought in a very different light today. When Marcuse left Heidegger he rescinded the phenomenological reduction for all situations and occasions, sunsets included. But rereading him, I find the traces of Heidegger’s thought everywhere in his writings and in the most surprising places. And I miss reference to Heidegger there too, in the most problematic of Marcuse’s speculations where phenomenology might have been helpful.

Those speculations are a development of ideas already present in his earliest publications under Heidegger’s tutelage. These early works constitute a unique philosophical position that has been called “Heidegger-Marxismus.” Marcuse arrived at this position by a twofold path: on the one hand he concretized the concept of authenticity in Being and Time, on the other hand he developed a new interpretation of the Hegelian and Marxian dialectics of “real possibility” or “potentiality.” Marcuse did not quite follow these paths to the point of intersection but we can project a likely unification of his thought at which he would no doubt have arrived had he remained under Heidegger’s influence for a few more years.

Heidegger’s concept of authenticity continues a philosophical tradition that begins with Rousseau and Kant. In their thought the essence of the human being is freedom. This marks a break with substantive notions of human nature such as Aristotle’s that define the human in terms of definite qualities and virtues. Human nature, insofar as there is such a thing for a philosophy of freedom, consists of formal properties of the subject rather than a repertoire of attributes. But the logic of freedom in Rousseau and Kant is bound to a notion of rationality that ends up determining the telos of human development much as had earlier substantive theories of human nature.

For existentialists – and despite his denial Heidegger is a kind of existentialist – freedom is illusory unless it escapes every rationalistic conception of its end. This Heidegger accomplishes by defining human “Dasein” as a self-questioning and self-making being “thrown” into a world without rhyme or reason and destined to discover its own meanings there. But inauthentic existence, average everyday existence, consists in conformism and refusal of self-responsibility. The insight into freedom represented by Heidegger’s philosophy is too hard a lesson to be commonly lived. To be fully human – authentic – is to acknowledge the groundlessness of human existence and nevertheless to act resolutely. By resoluteness Heidegger does not mean arbitrary decisions but rather “precisely the disclosive projection and determination of what is factically possible at the time,” that is, the response called for by the situation (Heidegger 1962, 345). In resoluteness the human being intervenes activity in shaping its world and defining itself, as opposed to inauthentic conformism. Unfortunately, Heidegger’s philosophy offers no means for determining criteria of what is “factically possible” and so leaves the question of action in the air.

Marcuse took over this theory unreservedly in his early writings, but he rejected Heidegger’s abstract formulations. What is this “situation” in which the human being is “thrown,” and what are these “possibilities” so vaguely invoked by Heidegger in Being and Time? The emptiness of such categories invites revision. Heidegger himself filled in the blanks with Nazi ideology for a time, although one wonders how he made the leap from the heights of philosophical abstraction to the lower depths of nationalism and racism. Marcuse turned in the opposite direction toward Marxism. The self is thrown into a capitalist society where the alienation of production is the source of the inauthenticity that must be overcome. Now authenticity becomes the “radical act” of revolutionary refusal of the existing society.

In Heidegger making and self-making are intimately connected in the concept of being-in-the-world developed in the first chapters of Being and Time. Dasein’s answer to the question of its being is bound up with the technical practices through which it gives meaning to and acts in its world. But, strangely, production drops out when Heidegger explains authenticity in the second division of his master work. This ambiguity disappears as Heidegger develops his later critique of technology. Technical practice ends up unmaking worlds and the reference to self-making, and with it the whole problematic of authenticity, simply disappears from Heidegger’s discourse.

Marcuse resolves the ambiguity differently. He first introduces the Marxist idea of revolution in a two-sided formulation that encompasses the transformation of both individual and society. As he describes it, the central concern of “the Marxist fundamental situation…is with the historical possibility of the radical act — of an act that should liberate a new and necessary reality as it brings about the actualization of the whole person” (Marcuse 1987c). Marcuse soon turns to the Hegelian idea of labor as an objectification of the human spirit to join Heidegger’s phenomenological analysis of production with his abstract conception of human self-making. Labor is an engagement with possibilities actualized through struggle with nature, possibilities which belong to the human being as well as the object. The “possibility” required by the “situation” is thus neither the determined outcome of objective processes as orthodox Marxists supposed, nor an ineffable intuition with dubious results as in Heidegger himself, but a free appropriation of the human essence in a socially concrete form through the liberation of labor.

Marcuse never articulated the relation between his theories of authenticity and possibility quite as clearly as this. The radical act and the dialectical interpretation of history are the two sides of an arch awaiting the keystone to join them. I will argue in this book that that keystone is the later critique of technology through which Marcuse returned to these themes in disguised forms. In the process, he again encountered Heidegger’s thought which in the interim had become a critical philosophy of technology.

Like Heidegger the later Marcuse saw technology as more than technical, as more even than political; it is the form of modern experience itself, the principal way in which the world is revealed. For both philosophers "technology" thus extends its reach far beyond actual devices. It signifies a way of thinking and a style of practice, indeed, a quasi-transcendental structuring of reality as an object of technical control (Marcuse 1964, 218-219). Release from this form of experience can only come through another form of experience, an aesthetic form. In Heideggerian terms, as Hubert Dreyfus explains them, Marcuse calls for a new disclosure of being through a transformation of basic practices (Dreyfus, 1995; Marcuse 1964, 231).[3] Marcuse's aesthetics does not just introduce a criterion of beauty into radical political judgments, but describes the a priori form of a new type of experience belonging to a new social order.

While Heidegger no longer calls for resoluteness in the face of the inauthentic world of technology, Marcuse remains committed to “authentic individuality,” as we have seen. In his last works an authentic human existence is to be achieved at the level of society as a whole through the aestheticization of technology, that is, through its transformation into an instrument for realizing the highest possibilities of human beings and things. Marcuse realizes now that this cannot be achieved on the basis of the existing capitalist technology regardless of the prevailing property and political relations. The very general notions of labor and possibility with which he worked in his early writings covered over the awful gap between making and self-making in a world organized around modern technology. A further concretization is necessary to distinguish the type of technology that can join them. But Heidegger-Marxismus long since abandoned, Marcuse lacked the theoretical means to articulate his new position coherently and persuasively. His last works are inspiring gestures at a theory he no more than hints at. How then are we to understand his turn to aesthetics and his concept of a new science and technology?

A possible solution to the enigma of Marcuse’s later thought came to me two years ago when reading Heidegger’s 1931 lectures on Aristotle’s Metaphysics. These lectures present a strange reading of Aristotle. In Heidegger’s account, Aristotle’s conception of being in general is derived from the Greek practice of technical making, from technē. In its role as an ontological model, technē is not treated objectively as an event in the world, but phenomenologically described from within on its own terms. Exaggerating only slightly, one could say that Aristotle is presented here as a phenomenological philosopher of technology who anticipated Heidegger’s own thought in Being and Time. Technē, understood in this manner, reappears in Heidegger’s later critique of technology as a contrasting mode of revealing that is respectful of human beings and nature. Technē realizes the inherent potentialities of things rather than violating them as does modern technology. Thus here in the early Heidegger there is already an analysis of an emancipatory technology. Although Heidegger himself never proposed a revival of technē this suggests a new way of understanding the connection between Marcuse and his teacher.

In 1969, Heidegger met with a group of friends in Le Thor in Provence. The record of their discussions has been published in a volume entitled Four Seminars. Here we find the only reference to Marcuse in Heidegger’s published writings. He notes that production is defining for the “world” in Marx, and further, that production is a type of praxis. “Reversing Hegel’s idealism in his own way, Marx requires that being be given precedence over consciousness. Since there is no consciousness in Being and Time, one could believe that there is something Heideggerian to be read here [in Marx]! At least Marcuse had understood Being and Time in this way” (Heidegger 2003, 52).

What is Heidegger saying in this derisive remark about his former student? Marx claimed that the fundamental relation to being is not consciousness but praxis. Being and Time similarly describes the human relation to the world as fundamentally practical. In his student days, Marcuse noted the parallel and read Being and Time as the key to Marx. But Heidegger himself goes on to dismiss productionist metaphysics. Being, he argues in his later work, cannot be understood through the model of technical making. This is the stance consistently maintained by the later Heidegger which he projected back onto his early work.

The Aristotle course gives the lie to this self-representation. Heidegger was not a consistent critic of productionism. In fact much of Being and Time was inspired by Aristotle’s account of technē. He told his class in 1931: “We have to clarify for ourselves what it signifies that man has a relation to the works that he produces. It is for this reason that a certain book called Sein und Zeit discusses dealings with equipment; and not in order to correct Marx, nor to organize a new political economy, nor out of a primitive understanding of the world” (Heidegger 1995a, 117, trans. modified). Thus Marcuse was not mistaken in interpreting Being and Time as a productionist text, and hence also in finding Heidegger relevant to Marx. Marcuse remained true at some level to an earlier Heidegger the later Heidegger rejected and concealed.[4]

As we will see, Marcuse’s aesthetic radicalism in his own later work is intricately intertwined with these repressed themes in Heidegger. In my view, there remains much in Marcuse that is theoretically incomplete precisely because he refused either to drop these phenomenological themes or to develop them phenomenologically. Marcuse’s aesthetics of technology introduces a fatal ambiguity in his thought. At first it seems that he follows the usual Marxist formulations in which potentialities are objective properties of society. But in the late Marcuse potentialities are revealed aesthetically, that is, to an attuned subject. Such a subject, technically engaged with the potentialities of its objects, is analyzed for the first time not in Marx but in Heidegger’s phenomenological interpretation of Aristotle. Only a phenomenological account of values in action can make sense of the notion that aesthetics provides the normative basis for the reconstruction of technological rationality. And when Marcuse imagines aesthetics incorporated into everyday sensation as a critical force, he implies a phenomenological conception of experience. It is not unreasonable to suppose that such a conception of experience could be reconciled with the sort of objective considerations brought forward in Marcuse’s social theory. But he does not pursue this line and falls between the two alternative interpretations of potentiality, an existential-aesthetic interpretation and a Marxist notion based on an evaluation of social forces.

On this I am in partial disagreement with Douglas Kellner's excellent intellectual biography of Marcuse. Kellner explores in some detail Heidegger’s influence on the early Marcuse and notes that traces of Heideggerian thought remain till the end. But Kellner emphasizes the fundamentally Marxist, i.e. non-Heideggerian character of Marcuse's work after his discovery of Marx’s Manuscripts of 1844 and claims that even earlier Marcuse’s “fundamental project is the reconstruction of Marxism” (Kellner 1984, 77-8, 389-90; see also Abromeit, 2004). This evaluation is intended to counter dismissive attacks on Marcuse from more or less orthodox Marxists. I do agree with Kellner that the superficial similarities between Marcuse and Heidegger fall away quite early. But I will argue that there is considerable continuity at the deepest philosophical level. This continuity is never quite made explicit but it is tantalizingly present in Marcuse’s work and particularly clear after 1968. As Reinhart Maurer remarks, “Heidegger’s and Marcuse’s later writings circle around the same philosophical-historical problems, and the solutions for which they hope exhibit a similar structure” (Maurer 1970, 241). To identify that structure, one must enter into the details of some of the most abstract early texts of Heidegger and Marcuse.

Why did Marcuse fail to explain the links between his early work under Heidegger’s influence and his later work? He could not go back to his existential roots after the “Fall of the Titans of German philosophy” (Marcuse 1966, 42).[5] Heidegger’s betrayal stood as an absolute barrier between Marcuse as a Marxist and the other great trend of 20th century European thought, phenomenology and existentialism. The split between these trends now appears less significant than it did before they were both overshadowed by postmodernism and poststructurialism. Perhaps they were not opposites but frères ennemis with too much in common not to be in rivalry. Sartre’s later work represents the one great failed attempt to synthesize the contending trends in the framework of a philosophy of consciousness. In this book I argue that philosophy of technology could have offered another possible synthesis that was never developed to its logical conclusion. I will attempt here to break through the barrier between these trends and make explicit a remarkable theory of technē initiated by Heidegger, continued by Marcuse, and suppressed in the end by both.


                                                                                                                              Vancouver, British Columbia

                                                                                                                                                    February 2004





1. Technē: Prologue with Plato and Aristotle

Heidegger and Marcuse

Technē and the Good

The Tyranny of Reason

Modes of Revealing

Technē as Revealing

Marcuse’s Concept of Essence

2. The Question Concerning Technē: Heidegger’s Aristotle

The Question

The Saving Power

The Language of Being

Posing the Question

Ten Key Concepts





Eidos and Morphe

Dynamis and Energeia


Poiesis as Production


The Greek Revealing

The Modern Revealing

Heidegger's Dilemma

From the Greeks to Dasein Analysis

The Role of Art in the History of Being

A Hegelian Heidegger?

3. The Dialectic of Life: Marcuse’s Hegel

From Aristotle to Hegel

Marcuse’s Hegel

Technē as Labor


Ten Key Concepts

Levels of Being


Being-There and Limit

The Dialectic of Essence: Dynamis and Energeia

Life and Labor

The Absolute

From Hegel to Marxism

4. Interlude with Lukács: Totality and Revolution

The Concept of Totality

The Greek Ideal

Historicizing the Absolute

Technology and Nature

5. Aesthetic Redemption

Marcuse's Theory: A Preliminary Sketch

Introduction: Back to Weimar?

The Concept of Potentiality

The Pursuit of the Concrete

Theory and Practice

Experience as Foundation

Aestheticizing Technology

Technology and Rationality

Technological Rationality

The Forms of Reason

Marcuse and Technology Studies

The Affirmation of Life

Technology and Values

Marcuse and Political Philosophy

Technē Again: Epilogue with  Plato

6. The Question Concerning Nature

The Corrleations

Marcuse's Deconstructions

Nature and Culture

From 1844 to 1968

Multiplying Discourses

A Phenomenological Marcuse?

7. Conclusion: The Path to Authenticity


[1] Auden’s poem on this painting and a reproduction of it can be found at http://www.tasc.ac.uk/depart/media/staff/ls/Modules/MED1110/Narrative/WHAuden.htm

[2] This was what Marcuse called bourgeois art in a famous article in the 1930s (Marcuse 1968, 88ff).

[3] For a comparison of Heidegger and Marcuse on technology that develops this point further, see Zimmerman (1979). A number of Heideggerians have tried to extract a politics from his work. Dreyfus (1995) even considers Woodstock as an example of a new dispensation. This is surely the most fanciful attempt. Schürmann is more accurate (although lacking in irony) in conceding that “One would especially like Heidegger to have been more specific about the precise actions that are to allow for an entry into the event” (1990, 244). The interpretation of Marcuse offered here responds to Schürmann’s objections to the Frankfurt School. See (1990, 368-69).

[4] For accounts of Heidegger’s early productionism, see Prauss (1977) and Zimmerman (1990, chap. 10).

[5] There is a relevant exchange of letters between Heidegger and Marcuse shortly after World War II. See Wolin (1993, 152ff). For Marcuse’s final view of Heidegger, see Olafson (1988).