One-Dimensional Man:
Classical Philosophy, the Division of Labor, Abstraction & Practice

Herbert Marcuse

Thought has no power to bring about such a change unless it transcends itself into practice, and the very dissociation from the material practice, in which philosophy originates, gives philosophic thought its abstract and ideological quality. By virtue of this dissociation, critical philosophic thought is necessarily transcendent and abstract. Philosophy shares this abstractness with all genuine thought, for nobody really thinks who does not abstract from that which is given, who does not relate the facts to the factors which have made them, who does not—in his mind—undo the facts. Abstractness is the very life of thought, the token of its authenticity.

But there are false and true abstractions. Abstraction is a historical event in a historical continuum. It proceeds on historical grounds, and it remains related to the very basis from which it moves away: the established societal universe. Even where the critical abstraction arrives at the negation of the established universe of discourse, the basis survives in the negation (subversion) and limits the possibilities of the new position.

At the classical origins of philosophic thought, the transcending concepts remained committed to the prevailing separation between intellectual and manual labour—to the established society of enslavement. Plato’s “ideal” state retains and reforms enslavement while organising it in accordance with an eternal truth. And in Aristotle, the philosopher-king (in whom theory and practice were still combined) gives way to the supremacy of the bios theoreticos, which can hardly claim a subversive function and content.

Those who bore the brunt of the untrue reality and who, therefore, seemed to be most in need of attaining its subversion were not the concern of philosophy. It abstracted from them and continued to abstract from them.

In this sense, “idealism” was germane to philosophic thought, for the notion of the supremacy of thought (consciousness) also pronounces the impotence of thought in an empirical world which philosophy transcends and corrects—in thought. The rationality in the name of which philosophy passed its judgments obtained that abstract and general purity—which made it immune against the world in which one had to live. With the exception of the materialistic “heretics,” philosophic thought was rarely afflicted by the afflictions of human existence.

Paradoxically, it is precisely the critical intent in philosophic thought which leads to the idealistic purification—a critical intent which aims at the empirical world as a whole, and not merely at certain modes of thinking or behaving within it. Defining its concepts in terms of potentialities which are of an essentially different order of thought and existence, the philosophic critique finds itself blocked by the reality from which it dissociates itself, and proceeds to construct a realm of Reason purged from empirical contingency. The two dimensions of thought—that of the essential and that of the apparent truths—no longer interfere with each other, and their concrete dialectical relation becomes an abstract epistemological or ontological relation. The judgments passed on the given reality are replaced by propositions defining the general forms of thought, objects of thought, and relations between thought and its objects. The subject of thought becomes the pure and universal form of subjectivity, from which all particulars are removed.

SOURCE: Marcuse, Herbert. One Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), Chapter 5, Negative Thinking: The Defeated Logic of Protest, extract, pp. 134-136.

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