Philosopher Herbert Marcuse’s writings released
Select writings of philosopher and social critic Herbert Marcuse are being released in a book edited by two of his former graduate students from UCSD, Andrew Feenberg and William Leiss.
Feenberg will discuss “The Essential Marcuse” at D.G. Wills Books, 7461 Girard Ave., at 7 p.m. on Aug. 24.
The book is organized into three sections: political critique, philosophical critique and writings on Marxism, existentialism and psychoanalysis. Feenberg and Leiss wrote an introduction to the book and one to each chapter.
A part-time resident of La Jolla, Feenberg also lives and works in Vancouver, British Columbia. He completed his Ph.D. in philosophy at UCSD in 1973. For more than 30 years, he was a professor in the philosophy department at San Diego State University. He has worked, lectured and published internationally. Currently, he directs the Applied Communication and Technology Lab at Simon Fraser University.
“Through Marcuse, I got much more involved in politics ... and social problems, and that eventually lead me to develop a theory about technology,” said Feenberg, who completed his doctorate with the philosopher.
Unlike technophobes, who fear technology, Feenberg’s criticism of technology extends to the social context around it.
In and of itself, technology is an institution. It’s what society does with that institution that gives it definition. In other words, the benefits of technology come with a price tag. One of Marcuse’s favorite questions and one which Feenberg considers is, “Who does this profit?”
“Institutions are shaped by decisions and we have to think of technology in that way,” Feenberg said.
Technology was just one of the topics Marcuse criticized, and it’s continued relevance is one of the reasons Sandra Dijkstra, literary agent for “The Essential Marcuse,” recruited Feenberg and Leiss to help in bringing the book together.
“This book was edited and presented so a new generation of students and readers could have access to the works of Herbert,” Dijkstra said. “Not only to learn something about this great and important figure in American political history, but also to be inspired by his Utopia. His message could not be more timely.”
Born in 1889 and educated in Berlin, Marcuse fled Nazi Germany in 1933, eventually arriving in the U.S. During World War II, he worked for the American intelligence organization, the Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the CIA. He went on to teach at Columbia, Harvard, Brandeis and UCSD, where he helped develop the university’s philosophy department.
In the latter years of his life, Marcuse’s radical views and controversial associates, most notably Angela Davis, resulted in his termination from UCSD. Death threats from community members forced Marcuse to leave La Jolla, despite support and protection from his students.
To his peers and contemporaries, Marcuse was largely misunderstood.
“He was a really great person,” Feenberg said. “He was very funny. He wasn’t, as you might expect, dour.”
“People shouldn’t think of him as some kind of wild man or prophet of doom. He wasn’t just a faddish thinker of the ‘60s. He’d been working on these things since the 1930s.”
Marcuse’s criticism of American society came at a time when most people were celebrating it. He continued to write, addressing a myriad of topics, including conformity, cynicism, Vietnam and the frustration and alienation people felt during the war.
“Can you get any more contemporary than that?” asked Feenberg.
It was during that time period that Dijkstra first met Marcuse.
When a priest confiscated antiwar literature that she and a friend intended to distribute to churchgoers, they sought defense of their right to free speech from the police station. When that was unsuccessful, they contacted Erica Sherover, Marcuse’s third wife. Upon her and Marcuse’s advice, the protesters called the ACLU and continued their demonstration.
Dijkstra remembered Marcuse warning her that what she was doing could be very dangerous to her future. Instead, she was inspired by his own outspokenness.
“Herbert was a great romantic, a utopian thinker who believed in the possibilities of an idealist society,” she said. “He was concerned about saving democracy and preserving the right of citizens to have a voice in their country.”
Marcuse died in 1979, but the controversy surrounding him lives. Both Feenberg and Dijkstra pointed out that despite his significant contributions to UCSD and modern philosophy, there is no tribute or memorial commemorating him anywhere on campus.
“The university has never properly honored the memory of Herbert Marcuse, who was one of the most important teachers,” Dijkstra said.
“The Essential Marcuse” is just a small sampling of the man’s lifetime achievements, but Feenberg and Dijkstra hope it will serve to remind people of Marcuse’s philosophical challenges.
“I think the most important thing is to think for yourself, and that’s harder than it seems,” Feenberg said. “Being an individual is a challenge in a society that is so affected by propagandizing.”