One-Dimensional Humans

Monday, January 2, 2017
Glendale, California

My Dear Readers,

Turning 60 ain’t fun, but it seems you finally have more time for reading. And I’ve been reading like a maniac lately, including recently finishing a book I’ve had on my bookshelf some 30 years — One Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse. I write today to share a few thoughts about his ideas and how they intersect with psychoanalysis. His concept of the one-dimensional person only has more relevance, even urgency, in our era. He worried the mass media would remove individuality entirely, using as one minor example how no one dresses up for fine dining or opera or the like anymore. He wrote before the internet or social media emerged. He must be screaming from his grave at the massive mind control to which we are all now subjected. Perhaps instead of one-dimensional, such immersion in culturally-accepted ideologies renders us flat-people — worse than one-dimensional ones.

Marcuse was a Marxist, sociologist, philosopher who strived to integrate Freudian and Marxist ideas. He was among the originators of a field of study known as critical theory. His other well known book is Eros and Civilization. Many credit him with ushering in the rebellious period of the 1960s. FYI, reading him proves intimidating. I feel uneducated, even foolish compared to him. However, he could have seriously used an editor or at least toned down some of the intensity of his sentences.

All that being noted, here are a few excerpts from the book with commentary:

On p. 40, when discussing how to best create a society which encourages liberty and freedom, he writes:

“Indeed, society must first create the material prerequisites of freedom for all its members before it can be a free society; it must first create the wealth before being able to distribute it according to the freely developing needs of the individual; it must first enable its slaves to learn and see and think before they know what is going on and what they themselves can do to change it.”

Here, psychoanalysis, or psychoanalytic psychotherapy, can play an important role. In my view, no other profession encourages the development of the individual person, the elucidation of personal subjectivity. This is not to be confused with selfishness because such enhanced self-understanding encompasses persons’ views and treatment of others.

Here’s another from Marcuse, on p. 123, and reflects his philosophy regarding reason. He writes:

“In the equation Reason = Truth = Reality, which joins the subjective and the objective world into one antagonistic unity, Reason is the subversive power, the ‘power of the negative’ that establishes, as theoretical and practical Reason, the truth for men and things–that is, the conditions in which men and things become what they really are. The attempt to demonstrate that this truth of theory and practice is not subjective but an objective condition was the original concern of Western thought and the origin of its logic–logic not in the sense of a special discipline of philosophy but as the mode of thought appropriate for comprehending the real as rational.”

I bet you can see how the guy can get a bit obscure. But here, he’s taking on what occurred in the Age of Reason in the 17th century, and the Enlightenment, a century or so later. Reason emerged as an amazing, life-saving, knowledge-enhancing capacity. We privileged it. We celebrated it. Marcuse acknowledges, uniquely, how it also imprisons. I’m also reading Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and am impressed with his review of how violence has declined globally. However, he has little or nothing to say about the experience of being human. Reason can’t really get to that. Worse, we can feel oppressed by it’s emphasis. As I’ve written previously, any psychotherapy not reducible to a TLA (Three Letter Acronym) loses status. Why? Because TLAs give the impression of reason, empiricism, validation. Yet the human experience can never be reduced to manualized interventions like CBT, DBT, EFT, etc. (These always make me think of CIA, FBI, etc.)

Marcuse continues, on p. 182:

“But this radical acceptance of the empirical violates the empirical, for in it speaks the mutilated, ‘abstract’ individual who experiences (and expresses) only that which is given to him (given in a literal sense), who has only the facts and not the factors, whose behavior is one-dimensional and manipulated. By virtue of the factual repression, the experienced world is the result of a restricted experience, and the positivist cleaning of the mind brings the mind in line with the restricted experience.”

OK, a few definitions. By empirical, Marcuse means scientifically validated. He uses the word positivism to describe a branch of philosophy, known as analytical philosophy, emphasizing reason, rationality. Here, Marcuse anticipates Lacan and many others. He alludes to how what we experience and express as “our beliefs” or “our thoughts” have become restricted. We have been manipulated by the information given to us, leaving us one-dimensional, at best, or flat, at worst. In brief, he’s saying we’ve become alienated from ourselves because the very way we define ourselves is spoken for us before we even become who we are. It leave huge part of our self-experience undefined, leaving us, sadly, alone, often misunderstood, cut off from sufficient self-understanding.

Enough intellectual avoidance for the New Year!!

I hope I succeeded in introducing you to Marcuse and how he relates to psychoanalytic thinking.

I wish each and every one of you a wonder-filled 2017. How did it get to be 2017? I don’t get it.

With sincere affection and also a wish for peace,



Marcus, H. (1964). One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press.

Pinker, S. (2015). The Better Angels of Our Nature. New York: Penguin.

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