Last Updated 23 Jan 2018

Philosophical outlooks and polemics between herbert marcuse

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The middle of XX century marked new era in the western philosophy: shaping of modern mass culture, aftersounds of the second World War, growing opposition between socialistic and capitalistic regimes caused emergence of a so-called “second crisis” in a western social philosophy. The brightest representatives of that time philosophical paradigm were German American philosopher Herbert Marcuse, an offspring of a well-known “Frankfurt school” and native American philosopher Norman Oliver Brown.

They represented two different approaches in social philosophy. Being a witness of German people’s struggles during Nazi regime Marcuse formed his outlook as a leftist philosopher and sociologist becoming a partisan of a “Freudian-Marxist” philosophy. Pessimistic perspectives of Norman Brown on the contrary determined his “apocalyptical mystical” outlooks. These philosophical approaches of two brightest scientists of the last century need to be compared and contrasted.

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During the 1960s the philosophical debates between H. Marcuse and N. Brown concerning interpretation of Freudian ideas made a serious impact on the development of social philosophy. As J. Chytry (Chytry, 1989) believes, Norman Brown's and Herbert Marcuse's interpretations of Freud “seemed to point to meaningful, and opposed, orientations for the New Left [a new paradigm in social sciences during middle XX century]. During this period of time Freud, as many scientists believe, appeared as the successor to a ‘superannuated’, but not yet surpassed, Marxist project (Zaretsky, 2002). This discussion of Freudian ideas also influenced interpretations of aesthetics, culture and politics.

In the middle of XX century both Marcuse and Brown developed own vision of Freudian ideas in a general philosophical and cultural context Two books of two philosophers written in the 1950's are captivating explorations of Freud's outlooks and the implications of psychoanalytical ideas of sexuality on human freedom. Herbert Marcuse’s “Eros and Civilization”, published first focused on the role of sexuality in forming of modern civilization and humans.

The second is "Life Against Death" by Norman O. Brown who developed Freudian idea of suppression and applied it to the general civilization’s context. Generalizing the main ideas of two examinations it’s necessary to mention that both authors focused on remedial therapeutic strategies able to cure diseased society of XX century infected by revolutionary ideas, aggression, intolerance etc. Orthodox psychoanalysis as both Brown and Marcuse believed suggests society a principle of reality and ethics of survival. The logics of this survival they, however, see in different manners. In a word, they stood on different psychological positions according to which society exists.

The polemics between Marcuse and Brown wasn’t literally a virtual one. Being close friends they often criticized philosophical outlooks of one another afterwards. Nevertheless that both philosophers were troubled with the same idea to help pinched society the visions of such help were different. Marcuse believed in the primacy of progress and technique that is to replace out of time relationships between people. Brown on the contrary believed in palliative imaginative escape from the problems. With this one should define the main doctrines of two philosophers: Marcuse stood on the ideas of rationality while Brown, in his turn, looked for imaginative escape from the reality.

Norman Brown believed that repressed sexuality of people appears the primary reason for their aggression. To avoid aggressiveness of people Brown suggests his idea of “polymorphous perversity” believing that each person and every part of the body are to be used in all-round sexual play (Myers, 2004). Brown fully supports Freud’s idea of unconsciousness and develops it quite logically. He believed that psychoanalytical mechanism of suppression serves negative function for people provoking their intolerance and aggression. Instead, Brown voted for transformation of subliminal ideas to rational ones.

As far as Eros is the primary subliminal drive of people Brown suggests to “construct an erotic sense of reality” that means to realize people’s implicit sexual desires. A primary goal of society, observing Brown is to establish chaos or anarchy where all people are free from anger and realize their sexual ambitions. Marcuse, however, believed that freedom could be achieved through transformation of technology writing that: “Freedom indeed depends largely on technical progress, on the advancement of science”.

To achieve this freedom Marcuse votes for the necessity of technological changes in accordance with the new sensible demands of the life instincts. “Then, according to Marcuse, one could speak of a technology of liberation, product of a scientific imagination free to project and design the forms of a human universe without exploitation and toil” (Marcuse, 1966, p. 19).

The Freudian Marxist Herbert Marcuse also inspired by Freudian symbolism believed in its crucial role in social and political contexts. He believed that revolutions, anger, freedom etc. are nothing more than symbolic ideas, objectives and events that have their roots in repressed people’s sexual energy. Nevertheless, on the contrast to Brown Marcuse saw final goal of the society in establishing of Marxist society where all people will finally be socially equal.

These ideas are closely interrelated with further Marcuse’s ideas of “One-dimensional men”. Marcuse, along with Marxists blames free market and private property for all man's economic and social ills. He believes that these ills can be cured only by the abolition of private property. Brown in his turn believed that harmony means love and devotedness being, hence, more close in his ideas to Christian and Buddhist theologies.

While Brown called for establishment of a new chaotic society Marcuse developed own vision of changes. He called for the alteration of the very fundamentals of society that would be modified by the elimination of class society.

Suggesting himself more rational approach to Freudian interpretation Marcuse believed that Brown’s ideas completely contrast with practice: he  recognized Brown's mad monism to be powerless to bring about political and social improvement. Marcuse did not believe it possible to replace technology with some sort of mystical unity of man and nature. He, besides, considered that Freudian ideas fail in helping of people’s adjustment to society. With this Marcuse was closer to Freud himself who was also pessimistic about achieving long-term benefits for society in general through psychoanalysis.

Brown, in his turn, was looking for different psychoanalytically based solutions for people’s harmony. He believed that to reduce man to “nothingness” (a chaos) is to find a best “solution” to society’s and people’s deepest problem, i.e. social existence. Brown believed that to achieve long-lasting social harmony people are to forget of their superiority over other creature that, according to Freud, leads to serious mental neuroses. According to Brown, when the idea of power and domination first emerged it appeared a reason for all problems. Marcuse, in his turn also supported this idea of people’s drive to the power as a strong reason for social problems and aggressions between people and nations.

Marcuse, voting for rationality in society’s development strongly objected Brown’s belief in schizophrenia as a normal state of a person. He considered the idea that schizophrenia should be in any sense a model for normal human behavior to be ludicrous. Contrasting Brown’s ideas of social escapism Marcuse believed that people could achieve social progress and harmony through reality and clear definition of existing problems. Escape from the reality, observing Marcuse, is not a solution at all; instead, it will lead to furthermore social and political problems.

Critically speaking, Brown’s ideas don’t look so Utopian. Voting for living without repressions Brown shows society a possible solution to achieve harmonic development. This solution lies in self-denial and abnegation of people necessary to make them more tolerable and loyal to the others. Marcuse instead believed that self-denial is not a solution at all.

The only working remedy that could cure ill society and make it indeed multi-dimensional (where all people will finally achieve their individuality and will not identify themselves with the state) is revolution. The only force that could make this revolution is lumpen proletarians. Illustrating these philosophic ideas in a more free manner one could say that Brown anticipated Hippy’s movement with their motto “All you need is love” while Marcuse on the contrary was a partisan of “International” and “Marseillaise”.

Marcuse criticized Brown’s ideas of self-expression saying that there’s no sense to to try to turn the assembly line into a scene of self-expression, or to broadcast propaganda for culture and free thought. To achieve final self-expression of people it’s necessary, observing Marcuse, to change technological rationality itself, make it more “people-centered” and friendly.

Critically observing Freudian ideas of “Id”, “Ego” and “Superego” Marcuse came to the conclusion that the only way to conciliate people and nations is to conciliate people’s rationality and irrationality. When rationality contrasts Eros, Marcuse believed, people establish the culture that is adverse to human nature and represses people permanently. A perfect illustrations of the struggle between rationality and repressed Eros, according to Marcuse are World Wars that were the results of people’s aggression.

Being a partisan of technological progress Marcuse at the same time appealed to the aesthetic experience as a new locus of technological values. With this, he believed, people could finally become close with the nature and achieve peace, freedom, and fulfillment into the construction of technological rationality.


In the middle of XX century philosophy focused on reinterpretation of Freudian psychoanalytical ideas. Herbert Marcuse and Norman Brown each developed personal vision of the issue. Reconsidering Freud’s ideas of unconsciousness and focusing in the problem of repression they, nevertheless, pointed out different solutions necessary to make society more harmonic and free. While Marcuse concentrated on technological breakthrough in accordance with people’s deep demands, Brown believed in complete abolishment of technology and called for anarchy in people’s relationships.

Brown, Norman O. (1985) Life Against Death. Middleton. CN: Weslayan University Press. Second Edition. 1985.

Chytry, Josef (1989). The Aesthetic State: A Quest in Modern German Thought Berkeley: University of California Press.

Marcuse, Herbert. (1966). Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud. Beacon Press.

Myers, Ellen (2004). Forerunner of New Age Madness: A Critique of Norman O. Brown On-line article retrieved July, 23 from

Zaretsky, Eli. (2003) “Norman O. Brown, 1913-2003” Radical Philosophy, Issue 118.

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