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Sunday, January 29, 2017


Well, right on cue, the courts stopped Trump from doing something he thought he had succeeded in doing.  We will see how this plays out.  Needless to say, I am watching closely, but I have virtually nothing to add to the commentary you all have read, some of it by people genuinely knowledgeable about Constitutional Law.  Accordingly, I am going to take my own advice and stay cool.  Several of you have asked questions about Herbert Marcuse, and so I thought as a diversion I would write today about my memories of him.  This will not be a theoretical critique of his work, Lord knows, but a mixture of fairly elementary observations and personal stories.  Think of it, if you will, as that little dish of sherbet upscale restaurants offer between courses to cleanse the palate.  Much of what I say here can be found in my autobiography.  However, long experience has taught me not to assume that the world has read that compelling work.

I first met Herbert Marcuse in the fall of 1960, when I was 26 and he was 62.  I was at the time co-teaching a sophomore level tutorial with Barrington Moore Jr. in a new program I headed at Harvard called Social Studies.  Marcuse was teaching at Brandeis University.  He and Moore had become close friends during World War II while both were working in DC at the OSS, precursor to the CIA.   Moore was on the Russian Desk and Marcuse was on the German Desk.  [Parenthetically, many of the leading social scientists in the U. S. of all political stripes worked at the OSS during the war, and after the war, despite any political differences they might have had, they remained fast friends.]

Moore came from old New England money.  He was a direct descendent of Clement Clark Moore, of “T’was the night before Christmas” fame, and his grandfather had been the Commodore of the New York Yacht Club.  Barry spent the summers on his boat off the Massachusetts coast with his wife, Betty, whom he had met at OSS, and his winter vacations skiing.  His proudest boast was that he had once been asked to join the Alta Ski Patrol.  He was tall and thin, and his contempt for bourgeois capitalist society was as much aristocratic as radical in origins.  Barry’s home at Harvard was the Russian Research Institute because he refused to join the Social Relations Department, home of Talcott Parsons.

Barry decided that I should meet Herbert, so he and Betty invited me and my girlfriend [we still talked that way then] to dinner at their home in a lovely residential part of Cambridge.  Herbert and his wife Inge [widow of Franz Neumann] were the other guests.

Herbert was a fleshy man with an open face, red cheeks, and a great shock of white hair.  He was rather imposing at first meeting, and had a very thick German accent.  I was almost two generations younger, very wet behind the ears, but I had one great asset that won him over.  To German intellectuals of Marcuse’s generation, Immanuel Kant was the touchstone, the font of wisdom, the Real Deal.  When Marcuse learned that this young whippersnapper was finishing his first book, on the Critique of Pure Reason, he decided I was o.k.  After dinner, while Barry watched with amusement, Marcuse and I got into an argument about philosophy.  Herbert, like many emigré intellectuals from the Frankfurt School, knew next to nothing about Analytic Philosophy and tended to confuse it with another strange American aberration, Behavioral Social Science.  At one point, Herbert launched into an attack on Willard Van Orman Quine, ridiculing Quine’s use of the phrase “The present king of France is bald” to illustrate the theory of definite descriptions.  I defended Quine, pointing out that the question he was addressing with that example was one that had also agitated a number of famous medieval philosophers.  I must have said something about my admiration for Quine’s clarity [he had been my undergraduate teacher, and I had taken four courses and graduate seminars with him before I was old enough to drive.]  Marcuse responded by saying that in philosophy, unclarity is a virtue.

Now, you must understand that Marcuse said this in a thick accent, and since it flew in the face of everything I had learned in the preceding ten years, I thought at first that I had misunderstood him.  “Did you say that unclarity in philosophy is a virtue?”  “Yes,” Marcuse replied with a puckish grin.  “You are saying that in philosophy it is a good thing not to be clear?”  “Yes,” Marcuse said again, smiling even more broadly.

At that point I concluded that I had just had dinner with a madman – a charming, learned, engaging mad man, but a madman none the less.  It was not until four years later, when Marcuse’s great work, One-Dimensional Man, was published that I discovered what he had in mind.  I think it is worth taking a moment to explain.

In the late thirties, a group of clued up social scientists descended on the Hawthorne, IL plant of the Western Electric Company to see whether their “Operational Research” could do something about labor troubles at the plant.  The complaints of the workers, they decided, were unhelpfully vague [“wages is too low,” for example, or “the bathrooms stink”] so they decided to operationalize the concerns of the workers by asking precise, clear, specific questions about their concerns, concerns which could then be addressed, one by one, in precise, helpful, operationalized fashion.  In One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse argues that the real source of the worker discontent was the deep structural exploitation definitive of capitalist economies, exploitation that affected all of the workers regardless  of the particular form in which it was manifested in each worker’s life.  One worker might have a sick child who needed medicine that his wages did not pay for; a second might need a more flexible working schedule to accommodate her family obligations; a third might have weak eyesight that interfered with the performance of her duties at the speed demanded by the bosses.  So long as the workers expressed their complaints in general, imprecise fashion, they were able to see that they had common grievances, which made it easier for them to achieve solidarity throughout the plant and strike for better wages and working conditions.  When their problems were operationalized, worker solidarity was destroyed, because it was made to seem as though they had nothing in common on which to base that solidarity.

All of which might indeed lead someone to conclude that in philosophy [a.k.a. social science] unclarity is a virtue.

Four years after this dinner party, I had moved on, from Harvard to Chicago and then to Columbia.  One day, I got a call from Barry.  Apparently, he and Herbert had gone to Arnold Tovell at Beacon Press, which had contracted to publish One-Dimensional Man, with a proposal for a little book to consist of two essays, one by Barry on objectivity in social science [he was for it] and the other a chapter by Herbert on “repressive tolerance” that had never made it into the big book.  Tovell said two essays did not make a book, you needed at least three, so Barry wanted to know whether I would like to write the third essay, something on Tolerance. 

Would I!  I was being asked to become a co-author with Barrington Moore, Jr. and Herbert Marcuse.  I figured my name would be made.  There was one small problem – I had nothing whatsoever to say about the subject of tolerance.  To be honest, I had never thought about it.  But that was hardly an objection, so I sat down and cranked out an analysis and critique of Liberalism, which I called “Beyond Tolerance.”

We needed a title for this slender production, so Tovell called a meeting of the three of us at 25 Beacon Street, the address of the Press, to brainstorm.  We all sat around a table and fielded ideas, none of which seemed terribly appealing.  At last, Herbert, with a straight face, proposed “A Critique of Pure Tolerance.”  I was appalled.  I had recently published my first book, Kant’s Theory of Mental Activity, which had received restrained but favorable reviews.  “Herbert,” I cried, “if I publish a book with that title, my name will be mud in the profession!”  “Don’t worry,” Marcuse replied with a malicious smile, “no one will read it.”

Well, Herbert was almost right.  Tovell had the brilliant idea of publishing the little book in hard cover, to get serious reviews, but sized like an old-fashioned paperback, so that it would be sold in those racks at train stations and in drug stores where paperbacks were displayed back then.  The little book had a stark black cover and looked like a black version of Mao’s Little Red Book.  Alas Tovell got it backwards.  The book sold like a hardcover, which is to say hardly at all, and was ignored by reviewers as though it was a paperback.  But then Marcuse’s big book came out just as the “60’s were revving up.  It went viral overseas when Daniel Cohn-Bendit read the French translation and Rudi Dutschke [“Red Rudi”] read it in German.  Marcuse was hot, so Tovell brought out a new edition of A Critique of Pure Tolerance, this time in standard hard and soft covers, and it took off.  That first year, the new edition sold 26,000 copies.

Some years later, after I had married my “girlfriend,” fathered two sons, and moved to Northampton to teach at UMass, My wife and I decided to drive in to Cambridge to see Barry and Betty Moore.  Barry was the godfather of our younger son, Tobias Barrington Wolff, who was then a darling tow headed three year old known as Toby.  When we got to the Moores’ home we found that Herbert was there.  Herbert had gone to teach at UC San Diego when Brandeis refused to renew his contract in 1965, and he had recently lost his second wife, Inge.  The afternoon was, in its way, a trifle bizarre.  Barry and Betty had never had children, and Barry had absolutely no idea how to relate to a five year old and a three year old. All he could think to do with Toby was to talk German to him!  But Marcuse was right in his element.  He picked up one of those old rotating globes that Barry had on his desk, plunked himself down on the floor, and spun it around, showing Toby where all the different countries were.  Toby was enchanted.

At last, the time came for us to leave.  Barry and Herbert walked the four of us to the curb, where we loaded into our big green Chevy station wagon for the drive home.  As little Toby was about to climb into the back seat, he stopped, looked up at Marcuse, raised his hand, and said “Bye, Herbie.”

Marcuse and I crossed paths for the last time fifteen years later, long after he had passed away.  Our family had moved to Boston so that my wife could accept a professorship at MIT and I was casting about for a job in the Boston area.  Fred Sommers, then the Chair of the Philosophy Department, went to the Provost to tell him that he wanted to hire me.  The provost said, “What do you want another Marcuse for?”

It was the greatest professional compliment I have ever received.


s. wallerstein said...

Thank you very much for posting your recollections of Marcuse.

I don't know if you've ever seen the Brian Magee interview with Marcuse. Magee tries to be hostile, but Marcuse's ironic, dry sense of humor (which you note) makes hostility futile. Marcuse is too big a thinker and human being for Magee to take on.

Chris said...

I love that interview Wallerstein, Magee is completely unprepared to actually have a 'debate' with Marcuse.

Seth said...

Have you seen "Marcuse" the character in the Coen brothers film "Hail Caesar!"?

Chris said...

As someone whose a huge fan of most Coen brothers films (Bartin Fink is top three favorite movies), I thought Hail Caesar was a pile of garbage, and the portrayal of Marcuse was even worse... :/

s. wallerstein said...


Magee, although conventionally very bright, is simply a more narrow and less creative thinker than Marcuse. I don't even see it as a contrast between two styles of philosophy since there are Marxists who are even less creative than Magee.

I think that with time Marcuse will be increasingly recognized as a first-rate social thinker or philosopher, one of the few of the 1950's and 1960's who is worth reading today.

Chris said...

I agree that it's not a difference of style. Magee is known for being quite critical of the more analytic strains of thought. That said, I've tried reading some of Magee's books, even the ones on Schopenhauer, and I've simply never found him to be an 'impressive' philosopher. But he is a great interviewer.

Anonymous said...

Very charming recollections. Frankly, it makes for a much needed break with the standard fare.

Chris said...

I know in the actual episode on Schopenhauer too, Magee specifically says Schopenhauer meant some kind of 'energy' or 'force' by 'will', which physics has largely proved correct. That's Magee's claim. But Schopenhauer explicitly rejects will is synonymous with 'enery' or 'force' in the physics sense.

s. wallerstein said...

I just googled Magee and he is actually quite an interesting person.

From a working class background, he went to the university on a scholarship. He's not a professional philosopher, as I had imagined. He was actually a Labor MP for one term. Here's the Wikipedia write-up:

Here's a recent BBC program where he appears or where perhaps they discuss him: it's not clear from the write-up. I haven't listened to it yet, but will tomorrow.

s. wallerstein said...

For Chris and all those interested in Bryan Magee,

I listened to the BBC podcast entitled "Bryan Magee" and Magee does not appear nor
do they spend more than 5 minutes out of 40 talking about him. I guess the fact that the BBC entitles the podcast with his name indicates Magee's "star-power" in the U.K.

In any case, it's an interesting and at times very critical discussion of philosophy, both in and out of academia today.