Book Review: Andrew Feenberg’s The Ruthless Critique of Everything Existing

Andrew Feenberg’s philosophical work has centred on three main themes: the reconstruction of Herbert Marcuse’s philosophy, an appreciation and contemporary reconstruction of Georg Lukács’ early work, and an engaged philosophy of technology. The latter project is grounded in the first two insofar as the relation between reification and the critique of technology is central to Western Marxism. Marcuse developed certain aspects of the philosophy of technology but Feenberg goes further in addressing the internet and other contemporary phenomena, including exploring the concrete social implications of technological innovation, as well as integrating several streams of social studies of science and technology. The volume under review returns to interpretation of Marcuse. It is a reconsideration by a mature scholar, profoundly influenced by Marcuse but never shy of criticizing him, that aims to assess Marcuse’s importance for contemporary philosophy and social theory. Given Marcuse’s fame and influence a half-century ago, not to mention the development of his philosophical work over the bulk of the 20th century, such a contemporary assessment is certainly welcome.

After an introduction where Feenberg recalls his personal recollections of Marcuse and details his public image, three chapters detail the major pillars of Marcuse’s philosophy: Marx, Hegel and Freud. He then switches direction to investigate the critique of technology, which is the major theme from Marcuse that has inspired Feenberg’s own work and, finally, the related concepts of reason and nature which must be reckoned with to assess the contemporary viability of Marcuse’s philosophy. As the book progresses, its major theme emerges: Marcuse’s work can only be properly understood if it is acknowledged that his work is distinctively marked by a phenomenological influence due to his early studies with Heidegger, even though such marking is not specifically Heideggerian but is more generally phenomenological. Only on this basis, Feenberg argues, can those aspects of Marcuse’s work that distinguish him from his Frankfurt colleagues be understood. Moreover, it is precisely these aspects that make his work more promising in its contemporary relevance and continuing development. Marcuse himself repudiated Heidegger due to his damning association with National Socialism. Most commentators have similarly sought to either excuse Marcuse from any continuing influence or, alternatively, condemn him for its persistence. Feenberg’s bold thesis of a continuing subterranean positive influence is a significant one that revives the importance of phenomenology for Critical Theory.

In 1932, Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 became publicly available. Marcuse, among many others at the time, was profoundly influenced by the discovery of Marx’s philosophical origin and the wider philosophical significance of concepts such as labor, alienation, etc. While an earlier generation, including Georg Lukács and Karl Korsch, had to argue in a detailed manner for the conceptual influence of Hegel on Marx, in the early 1930s it became obvious that the early Marx not only used Hegelian terminology but attempted to resolve issues originating in Hegelian philosophy. While orthodox Marxists, right up until Louis Althusser in the 1960s, argued that Marx later rejected this early influence, others used it as a starting-point for raising the question of Marx’s relation to philosophy. Marcuse’s review of the Manuscripts went one step further than this. He interpreted Marx’s human-nature dialectic as a constitution of a “world” in the phenomenological sense that he received from Heidegger, thereby not only retrieving a Hegelian Marx but also suggesting a convergence with, and assimilation of, phenomenology.

The Manuscripts, while fragmentary, develop a fundamental understanding of human being—or human nature in traditional terminology—that defines this being as essentially historical. The concept of species-being is deployed to describe the universal and social aspect of human being. Statements concerning human sensuousness assert that human being is objective both in its perception of natural beings and that humans are also objects for natural beings. Human-world is a sensuous unity. From this unity derives the fundamental practical orientation of philosophy and, thereby, the understanding of thought not in opposition to practice but as a component of practical comportment. Human being objectifies itself in the world through labour and appropriates the externality of the world through labour. Alienation and reification set in when this sensuous unity is torn apart by private ownership of the means of production and thereby the performance of labour under conditions of external compulsion. The discovery of the Manuscripts was a turning point for Marcuse. He had found in Marx the concrete philosophy that he had been seeking in Heidegger. But also, Feenberg’s interpretation claims, it could do so only because his reading of Marx was already supported by key phenomenological concepts learned from Heidegger. Thus, Feenberg concludes, while Marcuse could view himself as having departed definitively from Heidegger, a more thorough interpretation can discern a significant continuity.

Marxist philosophy had long recognized that 20th century Marxism required a more vigorous conception of subjectivity than that found in the objectivism and determinism of Marxist orthodoxy. Phenomenological Marxism begins from understanding subjectivity not only as a Hegelian subject-object dialectic but from a phenomenological understanding of “world” as a meaningful practical whole. Prior to explicating Marcuse’s review of Marx’s Manuscripts in chapter 2, Feenberg recounts swiftly the development of the concept of subjectivity in German philosophy from Dilthey to Heidegger and later details the philosophical content of the concept of “world.” It is tough going for the uninitiated. However, its main import is to show that the concept of lived experience in phenomenology was a viable route to renew subjectivity in Marxism and thereby to show that the early Marcuse’s Heideggerian Marxist project was a credible one that may be regarded as the culmination of previous German philosophy.

Marcuse’s Habilitationsschrift on Hegel, which is the subject of the next chapter, was written under the influence of Heidegger prior to his encounter with Marx’s Manuscripts—which should alert the reader that Ruthless Critique is not a chronological account but a philosophical dissection. The concept of “immanent potentiality” that Marcuse derives from Hegel is the core of his philosophical justification of social critique and transformative hope. It aims to chart a path between a Kantian ethical ought, on one hand, and a Marxist determinism, on the other, by rooting the possibility of transformation in the repressed possibilities of the present. In the first place, a given thing is only one instantiation of its essence, which means that other actualizations are possible. But this logical possibility is not sufficient. It must be completed by a concept of necessity which derives from the model of organic growth that he took over from Aristotle and Hegel. If an acorn begins to grow in the context of earth and water, a given stage of its development prior to becoming a tree may be seen as a necessary stage in its full unfolding. Such contextual factors are called in Hegelian terminology the “otherness” of the acorn. Through its encounter with such otherness, the contextual factors of its existence become necessary elements of its development. The tree exists in actuality as the immanent potential of the acorn. In this way potentiality (which is Marcuse’s term for the unity of sufficient and necessary elements) emerges from actuality while remaining in tension with it. Actuality is not a simply given static state but emerges from a history that comes to exist in a tense present which contains a potentiality for transformation.

This key concept remained central to Marcuse’s thinking afterward. He looked for the repressed potentiality in the present from which could emerge a transformation of actuality. We might wonder whether such a concept of potentiality can be justified outside of its organic model, whether a social form contains an immanent potentiality in an analogous manner. For Marcuse, the important aspect is the Marxist point that the structuring powers of the social system actively repress the real potentialities for emancipation that reside within its social and economic development. A society that has sufficient wealth to meet the needs of its members is, for example, prevented from doing so by vast inequalities of power and runaway inessential consumption. In a version of Critical Theory much more positive and future-oriented than that of his colleagues Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Marcuse identified the realizable futures that current arrangements prevent. The “new sensibility” that he diagnosed in the opposition of the 1960s suggested that the need for goodness, beauty and happiness could be discerned within the social organization that also produced war and technical domination. In this way, he claimed to overcome the plurality of subjectively chosen values with a notion of objective value grounded in an analysis of social repression within the tensions of actuality. Feenberg not only traces the philosophical justification of this difficult philosophical concept but also shows how it oriented Marcuse’s speeches, lectures and writing in different contexts.

The last pillar of Marcuse’s philosophy is Freud. Marcuse began from an interpretation of Freud’s late metapsychological principles of life and death. First, in a standard Marxist move, he historicizes the principles. By making a distinction between surplus and necessary repression, he argues that a different organization of society could reduce repression to increase pleasure and happiness. Second, in a much rarer and distinctive move, he reads the Freudian principles as ontological. Thus, the interpretation of Freud—especially when synthesized with Marx and Hegel—becomes a historical ontology of human being that may be understood as Marcuse’s final rejoinder to Heidegger. The concept of subjectivity required to renew Marxism, when combined with a Hegelian conception of immanent potentiality, creates a tension not only within social-economic life, nor the self-development of consciousness, but in the instinctual reactions and projections of human beings. Life-affirmation, and its struggle with the deathly power of repressive society, becomes the motive-power and goal of social revolution. But here we encounter the same problem as that raised by the Hegelian concept of immanent potentiality: can it function outside the realm of biology? Instinctual life-affirmation may seek support in art and philosophy but can it operate in the world of social change and existential commitment?

These three pillars of Marcuse’s thought converge on a conception of the living present as imbued with a potential for historical transformation through the identification of repressive structures and release of the life-affirming power of instinctual revolt. Feenberg’s careful explication of the logic of Marcuse’s philosophy can be difficult for the beginner at times but opens up considerable depth to the reader aware of the pertinent philosophical issues. Helpfully, he refers appropriately to Marcuse’s specific interventions in political events that give rich content to the philosophical outline.

The final two substantive chapters of the book return to themes familiar from Feenberg’s work which are explained here as a continuation of Marcuse’s. This continuity depends upon one major critique of Marcuse that constitutes the book’s persistent theme. In various contexts throughout the text, Feenberg suggests that the influence of phenomenology on Marcuse’s thought remained after his repudiation of Heidegger and even stimulates its most distinctive and productive aspects: As we have seen, his reading of Marx claims that it is a diagnosis of the capitalist “world.” Likewise, his reading of Hegel, drawing on the lineage of German philosophy from Dilthey to Heidegger, interprets an actual world as imbued with an immanent potentiality that prefigures a different future through reference to the Husserlian phenomenological category of “motility” which refers in the first place to the self-movement of the human body and which Marcuse extends to the self-movement of a world. The interpretation of the Freudian metapsychological concepts of life and death as ontological forces revisits the phenomenological account of critique as based in an ontology of the lifeworld (even though Marcuse leaves this ontology in an implicit state). The central thesis of Feenberg’s interpretation of Marcuse’s philosophy is that the unacknowledged persisting influence of phenomenology enabled a distinction between the abstract conceptual categories of science and technology, on the one hand, and the lived experience of human beings, on the other. By making this distinction explicit, he aims to resolve two problematic aspects of Marcuse’s philosophy in a manner that points to their continuation. This is the topic of the last two chapters.

Probably the most distinctive and controversial thesis of Marcuse’s work is that science and technology are intrinsically tied to social domination. This thesis goes beyond the standard Marxist claim that science and technology are used by dominant capitalist forces but in themselves remain neutral and can be turned to other purposes. He argues that technoscience (to use the Heideggerian term) has become a total system such that it takes the place previously occupied by ideology to foreclose opposition; that the specific design of technologies under capitalism gives them a hierarchical structure of control (and are therefore not value-free); that the rationality of modern science that grounds technology is a priori oriented to social domination through its conceptual structure. These three claims receive considerable documentation by Marcuse and have led to many subsequent studies in sociology and philosophy which Feenberg sketches. Their arguments cannot be reviewed here. What is central is that if science and technology are essentially tied to social domination then not only is a new technology required, but also a new science, by an egalitarian socialist society.

Marcuse did not shrink from these claims. From our own standpoint, it is not too difficult to see that certain technologies—wind energy, small-scale atomic reactors, personal computers, readable text without the mediation of printing, the internet, etc.—make possible different social relations, even though such possibilities are still constrained by capitalist directives. Moreover, social movements have stepped in to demand citizen input into the design of technosystems such as city planning, traffic control, medical care etc. Feenberg has explained this possibility through the phenomenological distinction between formal, abstract systems (which remain the same in any social system) and their lived application in specific social relations; consequently, technologies can be reformed through the incorporation of countervailing lived experiences. In this way, chapter 5 shows how Feenberg’s work on technosystems would be in direct development of Marcuse’s work if the suppressed phenomenological element of that work were acknowledged.

But do such new possibilities require a new science with a new conceptual structure? In chapter 6 the same conceptual distinction is mined to suggest that Marcuse’s flirtation with a new conceptual structure of science was provoked by his failure to distinguish two concepts of nature: one pertaining to the internal structure of modern science and one that is lived by social subjects in definite situations. The struggle between the environmental movement, which defends lived experiences of nature against corporate self-interest, has often come into conflict with the scientific establishment which sets aside such lived experiences. In more recent times, however, we have seen these two views of nature can work together to document environmental degradation. This shows that they are not necessarily in conflict but that conflict only ensues if one claims to be the exclusively valid view of nature—which is an ideological and not an intra-scientific issue. There is no need for a new science but only a science that recognizes the legitimacy of lived experiences of nature and technology. Marcuse looked for aesthetic criteria for social critique in art but is left with the question of whether it can operate outside the artistic domain. Feenberg shows that such criteria can be found operative in lived experiences and can become effective in science if scientists take seriously those value-laden experiences that determine the quality of life of the citizenry. Science would not be new in its conceptual structure but in its social mandate. His recovery of the phenomenological component of Marcuse’s thought allows him to clearly distinguish scientific and lived nature, which Marcuse confused, and thus to chart out a possible direction for the critique of technology that is neither anti-scientific nor objectivistic.

Feenberg’s recovery and extension of the working of phenomenology in Marcuse’s philosophy is detailed, thorough and original. It is, to this reader at least, convincing. For this reason the book is a significant intervention not only in Marcuse studies but in defining contemporary tasks for a critical theory of society. Such a detailed recovery and extension of Marcuse’s work, long after his heyday, provokes the reader to assess the viability of Marcuse’s philosophy in a contemporary context. I will make three remarks about this in conclusion.

The title of the book, “the ruthless critique of everything existing,” is taken from an 1843 letter from Karl Marx to Arnold Ruge. Marx remarks that the powers of reaction in Berlin and Zurich exhibit a “reign of stupidity” and that the reformers have no idea what the future might accomplish. Still, this may be an advantage because the task is not to dogmatically anticipate the future but instead philosophy must become the ruthless critique of everything existing. Philosophy as critique immersed in real social struggles certainly describes Marcuse’s work and Feenberg’s extension of it. But what about the “everything”? The phenomenological concept of “world” may suggest that everything in this world might become other than itself, but its import in Feenberg’s interpretation is to restrict criticism of intra-scientific conceptuality in favour of criticism legitimating the lived experiences that could reform it and similarly to design or re-design technologies, not under different principles, but with altered social effects. The hope for an entirely new world that Marcuse endorsed with his slogan “the end of utopia” seems to have retreated. Now, perhaps Marcuse meant by this only that there are greater possibilities for equality and happiness than the capitalist system allows and therefore that criticism is legitimate. Certainly so. But it also flirts with, and perhaps means, that all human equality and happiness is possible (unless it contradicts natural laws). Perhaps he even intended to leave this alternative indeterminate, insofar as we will only be able to define the difference through the struggle itself. Be that as it may, the critique legitimated by Feenberg is not total but restricted to reform of technosystems and legitimation of lived experience of nature in social policy.

Marcuse’s book on Freud defends a conception of human being and society as capable of attaining freedom, equality and happiness. However, the ontology of human being on which this conception depends is left, as Feenberg remarks, implicit. The rejoinder to Heidegger’s ontology is thus incomplete. If we recall that Heidegger’s ontology focussed on “being toward death” in its fundamental orientation, the absence of death and tragedy in Marcuse’s implicit ontology is striking. Marx also shunted aside the question of death in his 1844 Manuscripts by pointing out that the individual is a particular being and thus necessarily mortal. In other words, only the social and universal aspects of “species-being” are philosophically interesting. Marcuse possibly mitigated this assessment when he stated that individual conflicts would continue to exist in a society ruled by the pleasure principle but, nevertheless, it seems evident that his ontology does not regard such conflict, nor death or tragedy, as philosophically significant. It is not at all clear from the book whether Feenberg agrees with this. However, his last two chapters sketch an approach that has no reference to, nor need for, this larger claim by Marcuse.

One of the interesting aspects of this book is that it spans three distinct historical periods: that from the end of the First World War to the success of Nazism in Germany; the 1960s in which Marcuse became a world-famous figure and wrote his best-known works; and our historical present, defined as it is by social movements, massive concentration of wealth, and rampant pessimism over whether humans will have any future at all. This historical depth suggests certain conclusions that are not explicitly addressed in the book. It suggests that a single, coherent philosophical perspective can address these different situations, given enough specifying description, implying a critical theory of society for late capitalism that spans the last century and more. It suggests a certain revival of the hopes of the 1960s along with the desperate struggle against hunger and fascism in the 1930s in modified form for our present. Perhaps most important of all, it asks the reader to look at the struggle for equality, justice and happiness in long historical perspective by focussing on the legacy of one of the most significant philosophers of the last century.

Ian H. Angus is Professor Emeritus at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. He is the author of nine books and many essays in philosophy and the humanities. His most recent book is Groundwork of Phenomenological Marxism: Crisis, Body, World (Lexington Books, 2021). His web site is at


  • Ian H. Angus

    Ian H. Angus is Professor Emeritus from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. He is the author of nine books and many essays in philosophy and the humanities. A Festschrift on his work has been edited by Samir Gandesha and Peyman Vahabzadeh: Crossing Borders: Essays in Honour of Ian H. Angus, Beyond Phenomenology and Critique (Arbeiter Ring, 2020). His most recent book is Groundwork of Phenomenological Marxism: Crisis, Body, World (Lexington Books, 2021)

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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

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