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Marcuse’s critique of Jean Paul Sartre’s Being

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Herbert Marcuse’s critique of Sartre in Existentialism: Remarks on Jean-Paul Sartre’sL’Etre et le Neant is based on the claim that Sartre’s method is ontologically impure, in that its account of the nature of consciousness is in fact abstracted from historical factors. This criticism was not specific to Sartre. Marcuse’s approach is rooted firmly in the so-called “critical theory” developed in the thirties by Max Horkheimer’s Institute for Social Research, of which Marcuse was a member prior to World War Two. Horkheimer was concerned with providing a progressive response to what he saw as a growing recourse to antirationalist philosophies. He believed that philosophy need not give up on rationalism, but that in order to bring it up to date, “a materialist account of its nature, condition, and limits” must be provided. In addition, he believed in preserving a “strong distinction between true and false consciousness.”

In this vein, Marcuse takes issue with Sartre’s account of “being-for-others,” which is based on a flip-flopping between two modes of interaction. As beings in a social world, according to Sartre, an essential part of who we are has an independent existence, in the form of other people’s perceptions and opinions of us. We can either seek to dominate the other’s consciousness or be dominated ourselves, but never both, as the other can only exist for us in two forms: if I experience him with evidence, I fail to know him [and hence myself]; if I know him, if I act upon him, I only reach his being-as-object and his probable existence in the midst of the world.

Marcuse points out that this conflict takes the same form as Sartre’s account of the “fundamental project,” which states that all of our actions are underpinned by the dynamics of the desire of the “for-itself” to dominate completely its situation and “become the stable and lasting foundation of his own being” ; this process, by its very nature, also results in an intractable conflict.

Sartre’s ontology is corrupted, according to Marcuse, through the approach he takes, midway through the book, to the “existence of others,” after which “his philosophy has left the realm of pure ontology and moved within the ontic-empirical world.” Sartre’s mistake is in interpreting the “fundamental conflict” he observes in human relationships as an ontological given. If instead it is approached as simply one end of a spectrum of possible models, according to Marcuse, it makes more sense to view this conflict as being contingent on the dominant ideology of capitalism; “absolute autonomy, perpetual ownership, and perpetual appropriation,” previously appearing as theoretically dictated attributes are revealed as “the [capitalist] ideology of free initiative, and equal opportunity.” This leads to the separate but related mistake of viewing the concrete aspects of our social reality–nation, class, and so on–as existing somehow as acts of “collective For-itself” rather than as historically contingent, “statistical” phenomena, arising from “the action and reaction of specific social groups under specific historical conditions.”

In the remainder of Remarks, Marcuse concerns himself with addressing, from the perspective of a dialectical critical theory, the reasons for the failure of the Existentialist ontology. He argues that by Sartre’s account, a freedom of consciousness isolated from concrete reality “is nothing but one of the preconditions for the possibility of freedom–it is not freedom itself.” As the nature of the social world is not primarily that of consciousness, it must be treated differently–Sartre’s vision of a “revolution of rationalism” fails to take into account the ways in which human potential can be usurped and limited by its concrete situation. This is not a problem specific to Existentialism, as it “derives from the historical conditions under which Western philosophy has developed.” Unless a philosophy can recognise the subversion of reason by historical forces, it is ill-equipped to deal with the human situation in its entirety.

Marcuse holds that the absurdity of Sartre’s ontological justification of our “being For-others” should be self-evident. The equation of “freedom of interpretation” with the ultimate responsibility for the situation is nothing more than a grotesque justification of an oppressive status quo–in blaming the victim, according to Marcuse, Sartre himself performs the reductio ad absurdum, and hence reveals his subsequent ethics as being discontinuous from, and unsupported by, his ontology. Joseph Catelano proposes a reading of Sartre that supports a more sophisticated notion of personal responsibility. Implicitly, he argues, Sartre does differentiate between the social and the historical dimensions of our lives, and with this addition, a revolutionary theory, albeit a gentle one, can be retrieved from his ontology with greater continuity.

Sartre’s ethics, such as they are, revolve around the pursuit of a sort of honesty regarding one’s situation. In “bad faith” I deny one or more aspects of my situation–by acting reflexively, for example, and relying on a system of values to dictate my actions, I am denying the role I myself play in defining my situation.

I define myself in terms of the object by pushing aside a priori as impossible all enterprises in which I an not engaged at the moment; the meaning which my freedom has given to the world, I apprehend as coming from the world, and constituting my obligations.

In Being and Nothingness, Sartre asks no more of us than to be honest about the fact that we confer meaning on our situation. There is no reason why this should not apply in the case that Marcuse cites to prove the absurdity of Sartre’s position–even when the choice is “between enslavement and death,” to deny that there is a choice would be just as untruthful. In the final account, however, the possession of “good faith” alone seems to offer no incentive to action.

What Sartre fails to discuss in greater detail is the fact that each action, as well as implying a personal truth will, to whatever degree, imply a historical truth. A slave’s decision to revolt refers not only to his or her personal instance of enslavement, but also to the socio-historical practice of slavery. Catelano calls an individual’s recognition of the historical dimension of his or her actions “authenticity,” and argues that in his later work, Sartre demonstrates that it is this, rather than simply “good faith” per se that he places greatest value upon. “To be authentic is to attempt to do something about one’s necessary participation in evil other than experiencing its tragedy” ; a “good faith” recognition a situation on the personal level alone can obscure the bad-faith historical context of one’s actions.

Thus the societal phenomena of nation and class, while by no means reducible to a purely personal level, must be recognized as nonetheless existing and reproducing on the concrete level of individuals–Marcuse’s criticism that “such characterization is totally irrelevant to the understanding of their concreteness” would lead to an equally incomplete picture. Catelano argues that Sartre himself describes the process through which an oppressive social structure is sustained by “bad faith” on the individual level.

He reinterprets the phenomenon of other-directed behavior so that it is seen as arising from a hierarchical structure inherent in our institutions. Specifically, our institutions create an objective system of other-directed actions, which we each then interiorize and perform. There is the role of the doctor, lawyer, waiter, teacher, or engineer waiting to be fulfilled by any person who is willing to do only what the function requires. One thus becomes a doctor not as oneself but as other than oneself.

In this way, it is indeed possible to understand the acceptance a social order “as given by nature,” as an act of “bad faith” as set forth in Being and Nothingness, committed en masse.

Oded Balaban, in Subject and Consciousness, is even clearer in marking out what he sees as the limits of Marcuse’s critical theory. Critical theory proposes that the social sciences, “[b]y promoting a positivistic image of themselves as just ‘telling it like it is,’…could claim to offer a ‘view from nowhere’ with all of its rights and privileges” –by positioning themselves in a position of supposed “scientific objectivity,” particular economic interests are portrayed as universal truths. In his critique of Sartre, Marcuse rightly points out that Sartre performs this very transposition of terms. Marcuse’s alternate account of the “concrete historical situation,” however, contains an equally troubling slippage–“the fact that an abstract entity should be capable of oppressing real individuals.” By neglecting the role of formal consciousness in determining the mechanisms of society, Marcuse’s account of “false consciousness” results in a grossly inadequate explanation of a phenomena which both arises from, and is opposed to, individuals.

The problem arises when we are forced to ask “the question of what there is in the subject himself–in his system of needs–that makes him adopt false needs.” What is the “true need” that subsumes the false consciousness? One of Sartre’s central theses in Being and Nothingness states that on the most basic level, we ought to find no fundamental “guiding principle” in an individual’s life. Any “meaning” that can be inferred then, manifests itself only through the actions of the individual–different people will act differently under conditions of greater or lesser oppression, but it makes no sense to view anyone’s “needs” as being any more or less “true.” Marcuse takes the separation and abstraction of society from individuals as his point of departure. Balaban holds that a Sartrean “‘dynamic’ or ‘concrete’ definition of man’s social being, deriving from taking consciousness from the point of view of its form” leads more readily to a resolution of the individual and social levels of consciousness.

We realize our social reality in the same mode as when “[i]n lighting this cigarette I learn of my concrete possibility, or if you prefer my desire of smoking.” –just as we must constantly create ourselves on a personal level, our social aspect is also perpetually realized through our actions. In participating in an oppressive social order–by working for a wage, for example–rather than trying to fulfil a pre-existing notion of “false needs,” we reveal our desire to work for a wage as our concrete possibility: as constituting our very essence, and in fact our true needs. “Marcuse, however, grasps false consciousness only as a mode of consciousness; that is he considers false consciousness only in relation to its content, but fails to grasp its ontological reality.” By relying on concepts such as “historical forces” in the abstract, his response to Sartre is rendered truistic.

To finish, I would like to re-examine one passage of Being and Nothingness that Marcuse would have certainly found bizarre–Sartre’s account of war.

Thus there are no accidents in a life; a community event which suddenly bursts forth and involves me in it does not come from the outside. If I am mobilized in a war, this war is my war; it is in my image and I deserve it. I deserve it first because I could always get out of it by suicide or by desertion; these ultimate possibles are those which must always be present for us when there is a question of envisaging a situation…. If therefore I have preferred war to death or to dishonor, everything takes place as if I bore the entire responsibility for this war. Of course others have declared it, and one might be tempted perhaps to consider me a simple accomplice. But this notion of complicity has only a juridical sense, and it does not hold here. For it depended on me that for me and by me this war should not exist, and I have decided that it does exist.

For a nation to see the option of going to war as the most rational choice requires that the notion of a fundamentally threatened existence be seen, not as created by human consciousness, but as dictated by nature–hence it can be taken as the quintessential bad-faith social structure. While Marcuse would take issue with Sartre for “blaming the victim,” as we have seen, the existence of such phenomena must, in the end, be tackled on the level of the individual. Blame, however, is a misleading concept. The act of going to war may be considered inauthentic on a personal level, insofar as it denies the historical aspect of the action. All the same, it is the statistical fact of “many soldiers willing to fight” which reveals war as the concrete possibility for a nation. This relies on the existence of a socio-historical situation in which it is easier to reveal/construct oneself–through actions–as someone who supports war than as someone who opposes it.

Marcuse is correct in criticizing Sartre for conflating the historical and ontological subjects–Being and Nothingness unquestionably suffers from its underdeveloped account of historical phenomena. A fruitful response, however, will not necessarily reject the concept of an ontology outright. The “Sartrean” approaches that I have examined in this paper, by retaining ontology as a tool, are able to provide a level of nuance which is lacking in Marcuse’s critical theory. While in my opinion the spirit of Sartre is retained in both cases, we cannot say for sure whether or not he would have lent his name to them. In any case, the radicalism of Sartre’s thought will continue to lend a freshness to its readings.


Balaban, O. Subject and Consciousness: A philosophical inquiry into self-consciousness. Savage [Md.]: Rowan & Lillefield, 1990.

Catelano, J. “Authenticity: A Sartrean Perspective.” In the Philosophical Forum 22:2 (1990), 99-119.

McCarthy, T. “On the Idea of a Critical Theory and its Relation to Philosophy.” In Critical Theory, edited by David C. Hoy and Thomas McCarthy, 7-30. London: Blackwell, 1994.

Marcuse, H. “Existentialism: Remarks on Jean-Paul Sartre’s L’Etre et Le Neant.” In Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 8:3 (1948), 309-336.

Sartre, J.P. Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes. London: Routledge, 1996.

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