April 14, 2010

Totalitarian Reason

Herbert Marcuse

One-Dimensional Rationality

German philosopher Herbert Marcuse (1798-1979) was a notable critic of modernity. He perceived a certain contradiction or crisis that has always been brewing at the core of modernity, of the modern Western world having been rationalized, technologized, and bureaucratized. Modernity grew out of the 18th century Enlightenment’s ideals to free the human mind from prejudice, superstition, church dogma, and monarchical tyranny. According to eminent German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), daring to think for oneself or daring to use one’s own reason was the fundamental principle of the Enlightenment. The patrons of the Enlightenment, such as Voltaire (1694-1778), firmly held that the new individuals of the age of science are equipped with reason and theories that can be put into practice in order to remove or reform the corrupt social and political institutions. The grandiose vision of the Enlightenment was to reconstruct the human world—through the use of reason, science, and technology—in order to serve the natural law of “progress”: that human reason can discover scientific truths about the natural world and human nature, and turn these bodies of knowledge into practice in forms of technology and social reform for the benefit of humanity. The Enlightenment excelled the rise of science, technology, secularization, industrialization, and capitalism to demystify the world. However, according to Marcuse, the attempt to make the world transparent to rational human reason was pregnant with a crisis, a paradox. The paradox of the Enlightenment project is that it has had inadvertent consequences: dogmatic scientism, totalitarianism, and irrationality.

The more science did housecleaning of the traditional religious views, the more technology innovated machines to make human life convenient, and the more industrialization and capitalism implemented technological innovations to mechanize production—the more convoluted and complex our lives became. Furthermore, the more refined and less dogmatic science became and the more people became convinced that science in service of technology can change our world for the better—the more dogmatic people became about science and its findings, for they neither have the time nor the knowhow to scrutinize them. Hence, this attitude, abreast of the idea of “progress”, gave birth to “scientism”: the belief that the investigative methods of science are applicable to various areas of human life. Here, of course, Marcuse’s point is not to depreciate the instrumental value of science, but to point out its limitations and ramifications.

According to Marcuse, we have constructed a human intellect powerful enough to unravel the mysteries of the natural world, but any intellect that powerful has a tendency to be tyrannical! While it is true that science and technology have helped us to procure the knowhow to deal with certain areas of human life (such as in the fields of civil engineering, medicine, and et cetera), it may not be a fair assessment that the progress of the Enlightenment project has made us less fearful and unsecure in the face of the modern problems. We are still wrestling with the problems of poverty, hunger, healthcare, population control, unemployment, political uncertainties, economic crises, and energy. What is paradoxical about the Enlightenment’s tenacious confidence in human reason is that, it has turned into a force of mystification of the human world. For instance, how is it that the Germans, who highly excelled themselves above many other people in science, technology, arts, literature, philosophy, civics, and industrialization since the dawn of modernity and became an epitome of civilization, how is it that such people, who have given Goethe, Beethoven, Einstein, and many more to the world—also gave birth to Nazism and brutality? They built a human intellect firm enough to withstand excruciating challenges and to ennoble man’s spirit, yet this intellect became totalitarian. How so?

Marcuse construed instrumental rationality/reason as a major cause underlying the crisis in the heart of modernity. Instrumental rationality, as a specific mode of human reason, is principally predicated on efficiency (in terms of time, cost, and procedure) in relentlessly reaching its individuated goals, which are not critically evaluated in terms of moral, social, economic, political, and/or environmental considerations. In other words, instrumental rationality—governed by a specific set of values that define its unique functions, operations, and goals—is a particular kind of human reason that is instrumental toward producing a specific, isolated result that is often shortsighted toward its far reaching moral, social, economic, political, and/or environmental consequences. In a sense, instrumental reason’s objectivity renders it insensitive to moral, social, or other vital concerns for the sake of focusing solely on the result it persistently pursues.

Generally, instrumental reason is employed in various ways in the spheres of science, technology, economics, labor, legislation, and politics. In the context of modern Western societies, the bigger an organization is, the more it is instrumentally rationalized compartmentalized, and bureaucratized. In addition, instrumental reason is highly informative toward our daily decisions and activities. Almost all workplaces in the United States, particularly large business organizations, instrumentally rationalize their business affairs and human resources. Often, this kind of mentality divests the employees of their individualities and brings them to conformity or drives them up the wall. As Swiss psychoanalyst C. G. Jung (1875-1961) stated in his essay “The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious”: “Any large company composed of wholly admirable persons has the morality of an unwieldy, stupid, and violent animal. The bigger the organization, the more unavoidable is its immorality and blind stupidity. Society, by automatically stressing all the collective qualities in its individual representatives, puts a premium on mediocrity, on everything that settles down to vegetate in an easy, irresponsible way. Individuality will inevitably be driven to the wall.”

The present problem of global warming may serve as an unforeseen ramification of instrumental rationality, as an unintended consequence of instrumental reasoning within the sphere of production of goods. Capitalists, motivated by profit, have instrumentally rationalized means of production (such as air-polluting factories) in order to produce goods (such as automobiles) that have contributed to emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and hence, contributing to the global warming. Use of rationality as a tool toward an isolated end—which is blind to moral, social, and/or other crucial considerations—may result in unanticipated ramifications.

According to Marcuse, because the Enlightenment focused upon reason as individuated efforts of individuals, it did not foresee that the overall effects of reason might be irrational. Individual, rational decisions of a people may lead to irrational results. For instance, after eight hours of work, workers make individual, rational decisions to leave work around 5:00 PM. However, the collective result of such singular, rational decisions produces an irrational outcome: traffic congestion. Economy is full of such paradoxes. The global stock market crash of 1987 (known as the “Black Monday”) is said to have been caused by computers, each individually making a rational decision, together crashed the market. In this sense, instrumentally rationalizing the constituent parts of a system in isolation from one another can bear irrational consequences.

For Marcuse, the point is not to abandon instrumental reason, but to lay bare its one-dimensional nature. Human reason has other dimensions besides this. The challenge is to find a balanced approach to reason. Instrumental reason, sharply focused on its isolated efforts and ends is blind to surrounding circumstances. Instrumental rationality is partly a result of self-absorbed individuals isolating themselves from each other in a fragmented, individualistic society where genuine social bonds are disintegrated and supplanted with materialistic values which dictate our lives. While the Enlightenment demythologized the world in a certain sense, it carried myth along with itself. It created new myths. The crisis at the heart of the Enlightenment seems to be fundamentally a crisis of human imagination or the lack thereof.


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