Herbert Marcuse: Evolution and Transformation of Individuality and Reason

by Moya K. Mason

The Age of Enlightenment brought about a sense of individuality and rationality which emancipated humankind from the chains of mythology and traditional forms of religious and economic authority. There came the birth of the individual who established that reason, not domination, would determine the direction to be taken and how people would act. This revolution held many promises for liberation from fear, and the real possibility of attaining freedom, justice, self-fulfillment, and happiness in a less hierarchical world. What happened to that autonomous thinker who could objectively rationalize? What evolutions occurred in individuality and rationality?

In Some Social Implications of Modern Technology, Herbert Marcuse traces the movement of the individual and reason through the history of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries up until his own time. His investigations uncovered some radical transformations. As traditional forms of authority, such as the monarchy, were overthrown and democracy was introduced, individuality emerged. In theory, the individual was exempt from external interference and had the ability to pursue a life based on free-thinking, with society facilitating this critical rationality. Individuality and rationality were intrinsically-interwoven and were very powerful concepts that brought about radical changes. There was a breaking down of ecclesiastical, monarchical, and aristocratic institutions, and people lived "in a state of constant vigilance, apprehension, and criticism, to reject everything that was not true, not justified by free reason."(1) But the Industrial Revolution and the rise of modern capitalism changed the course, and just as Odysseus was swept away by Poseidon to unknown places, experiencing novel, but often frightening hardships, so too, would the child of the technological revolution.

The development of industrial capitalism refashioned economic and social relations and brought with it the promise that science and technology would help to build a better life. The alleviation of many medical, agricultural, communication, and transportation problems, among other things, would transform society and reduce suffering. But, with Progress comes associated problems. A separation occurred between the individual and society - when society no longer facilitated individuality. This change was brought about by the rise of the factory system and the alienation of labour, which heralds capital over everything else. Commodity production, with its insistence on efficiency, simplification, organization, and synchronization of work, also sweeps away anything individual and changes rationality into technological rationality.

In the realm of technological rationality, reason loses its momentum and begins to form roots, bringing a pervasion of rational stagnation to society, thus marking the end or death of reason itself. Marcuse defines the individual "as the subject of certain fundamental standards and values which no external authority was supposed to encroach upon,"(2), but this new rationality involved learning how to adjust to it - both externally and internally. Machines and standardization wipe out all individuality and reduce it to a series of robotic, external functions, and treats people as technological appendages. This happens in such a rational and expedient fashion that non-compliance and criticism take on irrational overtones. Now, humans must learn to adjust to the machines and learn to fit into the new systems of production. Technological rationality abolishes the concept of autonomous thinking and replaces it with introception and conformity to the standardization of life. The individual also gives up his private volition and spontaneity, which are characteristics of critical rationality; these are superseded by passivity and learning how to fit in, accepting all the "dictates of the apparatus."(3) Marcuse saw that rationality can be equated with adjustment and unconditional compliance and that this submissiveness "guarantees getting along in the prevailing order."(4)

In this prevailing order(5) of technological rationality there is no longer any place for reflection or autonomy, and individual critical reality which developed in public spheres, like coffee houses, has now dissipated into private life - retreat into the home supplies the importance individuals lack elsewhere. There is no longer any intellectual growth because people are only given tasks they can perform which leads to subjective thinking. Standardization reduces the individual to a state of self-preservation and a denial of all things that cannot be manipulated and observed. Consequently, the logic of surplus value spreads throughout the entire social sphere, even creeping into family life, entertainment, and desires, to the extent that relationships between people are "mediated by the machine process"(6), and there is a strong identification with material objects, like cars. What began as a mode of production found its way into all levels of society and made conformity and efficiency its hallmarks. Technological rationality replaced reason and leveled individuality.

Marcuse's critique of technological rationality has strong Marxian elements of alienation interwoven throughout it, revealing the insidious role it plays in society. The very essence of humanity is free-conscious activity and the ability to use reflection in making decisions. This is an intuitive, open-ended process, and it prevents us from becoming pure instinctual beings. Human nature is not fixed, but malleable and constantly created and recreated. This continual reshaping is a completely human fabrication and is what separates us from the animal world. However, technological rationality does not allow for the autonomous insight that is necessary to be human, and therefore, alienates us from our phusis. Marcuse makes the distinction with "rational self-interest [and] immediate self-interest."(7) The factory system and technological rationality dissolve rational self-interest, disallowing the contemplation of options, while making submission to external activity and authority the consequence. Marcuse describes the alienation in the following way:

Today the prevailing type of individual is no longer capable of seizing the fateful moment which constitutes his freedom. He has changed his function; from a unit of resistance and autonomy, he has passed to one of ductility and adjustment...(8)
It is this spirit that new rationality wipes away and takes with it the original thinker who can recreate the world. In Atlas Shrugged, the character of Dr. Robert Stadler sums up a mentality that can result from a lack of reason in society:
The trouble with our modern world is that too many people think too much...thought is an illusion and the mind is a myth...This age of misery is God's punishment to man for the sin of relying on his mind...This whole ordeal is the result of man's attempts to live by reason.(9)

This externalization is evident in the workplace and instructs workers in what will be made and how fast. The days of the individual craftsperson are all but over. Small companies have been bought up by large-scale industry, which use statistical methods to decide what will be mass produced; the job of making decisions has been taken away from the individual. The workers no longer use inherent potential to create because they are no longer producing for themselves, so the products lose objectivity, becoming foreign commodities. If the worker does not have the ability to reason and is paid to mass produce objects that have no personal connection to them, then the activity of working is one of alienation. The worker is fitted out for the job and trained in a vocation that countless others can do.

This training and emphasis on routinization in the world of modern capitalism creates an alienation from the very activity the worker performs. People become robotic and reactionary, making work and life, in general, very monotonous and efficient. Marcuse says that "dependable reaction patterns and prearranged functions"(10) become the norm, which is evident in his scenario of the traveler - illustrating that submission of spontaneity leads to a reactionary form of existence. In technological rationality, there is a reversal of means and ends, which make us reliant, commodifies our experiences, and asks for "compliance with the pregiven continuum of means and ends." (11) It takes away our humanity and makes quantities more important than qualities.

The days of Periclean Democracy were in some ways a golden time for individuality, with their emphasis on expression of ideals, and the expectation that all citizens would participate in debating the affairs of the state. The perpetuation of their liberty and heritage were communal properties in fifth century B.C. Athens. Those were the days of Socrates' conversations in the agora and philosophers teaching in outdoor pavilions; individual input was expected and personal contact between people was a requirement. The activity that Ancient Romans looked forward to each day was the trip to the baths for conversation and company. Affairs of government and business were discussed at the baths, and it was where individuals tried to get an invitation for dinner later in the day. People came together for the exchange of ideas, with the knowledge that decisions could be made and carried out.

In modern society, technological rationality has caused alienation between people and promotes an inhuman identification with machines. People would rather go home to their televisions and computers because they are more comfortable with machines. With the liquidation of individuality there is a marked tendency towards separation in social relations, and a preference for electronic conversations over personal contact. The isolation of people into private domains provides a retreat away from public spheres and gives a feeling of importance. In the 1800s, there was a move by men like Hawthorne, Emerson, and Thoreau to illustrate the domination of the individual spirit by industrialism, which they saw as an unchecked danger, causing confusion. Henry David Thoreau retreated from society for a couple of years to his residence at Walden Pond. He believed that most people lead lives of quiet desperation. Alienation is a pervasive problem that can separate humans from their essence, their activities, objects, work, and other people. Is there any reason to hope for a better world?

Karl Marx saw the utopian possibilities that could be actualized, and truly believed that "men make their own history."(12) Herbert Marcuse speculated that the sweeping away of individuality, coupled with technological progress and exchangeability of functions, could bring about a new social order - a utopia of sorts. Technology may in fact make possible some form of technological rationality which will lay the groundwork for its own destruction and a return of reason. In realistic terms, the technology exists to provide food and medical services to everyone on the planet. If less time and energy is needed for the attainment of life's necessities, then the development of a new form of individual is possible: a sort of Phoenix rising out of the ashes of modern industrialism in the form of a collective human spirit.

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1 Herbert Marcuse, Some Social Implications of Modern Technology. in Studies in Philosophy and Social Sciences, Vol. IX. New York: Institute of Social Research, 1941, p. 140.

2 Ibid., p. 139.

3 Ibid., p. 145.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., p. 144.

7 Ibid., p. 140.

8 Ibid., p. 152.

9 Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged. New York: Penguin Books, 1957, p. 871.

10 Marcuse, p. 150.

11 Ibid., p. 144.

12 Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. New York: International Publishers, 1994.


Marcuse, Herbert. 1941. Some Social Implications of Modern Technology in Studies in Philosophy and Social Sciences, Vol. IX. New York: Institute of Social Research.

Marx, Karl. 1994. The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. New York: International Publishers.

Rand, Ayn. 1957. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Penguin Books.

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