The Crisis Of The Enlightenment Lives On

Weber solves the crisis of the Enlightenment by forcibly eliminating it; he replaces Reason with Power, and subordinates progressive political passion to the staunch necessity for obedience (ethics of responsibility).  Marcuse’s arguments challenge this by seeking to reinvigorate critical (negative) thought, in the hopes of radical political praxis.  Isn’t that his intention with lines such as: “Political freedom would mean liberation of the individuals from politics over which they have no effective control.”

Do you agree or disagree with this assessment?  Explain why.

The Crisis Of The Enlightenment Lives On

I do not think that Max Weber and Herbert Marcuse necessarily present opposing opinions. Furthermore, I don’t subscribe to the opinion that Weber “solves the crisis of the Enlightenment.” Rather, I think Weber thinks he is solving the Enlightenment’s crisis and Marcuse is calling him out on it, effectively showing (while still potentially agreeing Weber’s idea to strike a balance between ethics of responsibility and ultimate ends) that Weber’s theory promulgates the crisis he is attempting to solve. Finally, I do not agree with the assessment that Marcuse has “hopes of radical political praxis;” he is merely exposing fallacies in theories like Weber’s. Ultimately, I think Marcuse agrees with Weber that ethics of ultimate ends is too dangerous of a message to send, especially to radical university students.

To explain why Weber does not solve the crisis of the Enlightenment, I turn to my first timed essay, in which I explain the threefold crisis of the Enlightenment:

  1. It sends a contradictory message: it demands the public to think freely for itself, but in thinking freely for themselves, the public is thereby submitting to authority and merely obeying the command to think for themselves.
  2. Human beings naturally do not want to find Enlightenment; they would rather be directed by authority and be relieved of the burden to think for themselves.
  3. The Enlightenment claims its goal is to seek universal truth, something that — due to the inherent perceptual rather than static status of truth — is not possible.

Because Weber believes in ethics of responsibility, loyalty to the state and a continuous desire to ensure the stability of the state, he is falling victim to the first crisis of the Enlightenment, one that instructs the public to think for themselves yet forces them to submit to the authority that commands this; “think but obey,” in other words.

This contradiction is the very crisis of the Enlightenment Weber is suggested to have solved. And this is exactly what Marcuse argues against in his work, One Dimensional Man. To summarize the work, Marcuse says that unless we step out of one dimensional thought, we cannot realize the contradiction in Weber’s argument in favor ethics of responsibility. It takes meta thinking and a step outside of our institutional way of life to appreciate how the dismissal of ethics of ultimate ends is by definition a stripping of freedom and instead a submission to authority. Marcuse points out where Weber falls short by suggesting nobody even in the “freest” of countries can make their own decisions because of institutional factors like politics and the economy — authority, if you will. He sums it up perfectly in saying, “Political freedom would mean liberation of the individuals from politics over which they have no effective control.” Nobody has freedom from such institutions, and therefore, the crisis of the Enlightenment — a movement that encourages courageous thinking — lives on.

That said, there is no indication from Marcuse that he disagrees on the core with Weber’s insisting in striking a balance between ethics of responsibility and ethics of ultimate ends as the way to go. By arguing that true freedom would mean freedom from institutions, I don’t think Marcuse is advocating for people to seek this break from politics, the economy, and the state as a whole. I think he just wants us to be aware of our submission to them and for us to understand that while we think we are free, our decision-making is limited to what is possible in the scope of these authorities. Marcuse merely points out that ethics of responsibility is falling in line with the crisis of the Enlightenment, but he does not go any further than that. He does not encourage ethics of ultimate ends; he merely exposes fallacies, almost as if he himself is not courageous enough to advocate for ethics of ultimate ends revolution.

This brings us to the second crisis of the Enlightenment, that people do not want to break free from authority. Weber exposes the reality of this crisis in his advocacy for ethics of responsibility. In essence, Weber is saying that he would rather be told how to act by the state than go through a revolution with uncertain outcome, that it is preferable to enlightened thought.He prefers the comfort of submitting to the state, which after all, has a “legitimized monopoly” on violence in a given area.

And finally, the third crisis — that there is no ultimate truth. This is made apparent by Weber’s dismissing ethics of ultimate ends. In doing so, Weber says that truth cannot be changed unless those in authority agree to change it. Weber would rather create a bloodless revolution by injecting ideas of new truths into those with power and having those with new minds gain power to change the way the truth is presented to society. With such an exercise, Weber concedes that the “new truth” could also very well be changed in the future to something that is deemed untrue at present. Marcuse explains this in saying “that which is cannot be true.” I took this to mean that the truth is always becoming, so even when the truth that was thought to be the real one breaks into mainstream society, it still cannot be considered “truth” precisely because it has the potential to change. Because of this reality, the third crisis of the Enlightenment is far from solved. Universal truth simply cannot be obtained.

On a side note, over the summer I had dinner with one of my good friends from high school who spent a full year in China before going to college. We had a long philosophical talk in which he explained to me an important distinction between American attitudes toward the government and the general Chinese attitude. He told me that while the most important objective for Americans is freedom, to the Chinese it is stability. He told me that through his observations he realized that Americans from a young age are taught to express themselves freely, and the Chinese are taught about the balance between Yin and Yang, ultimately striving for a stable environment.

He asked me which I thought was more important. I originally thought freedom because of my American upbringing. But now that I come to think about it, stability is the core of the American system as well; it is just clouded with a disguise of freedom. Freedom is nothing without a stable environment to be free in. As such, we all give up part of our freedom in order to be free, or at least think we are free. The same is true with the crisis of the Enlightenment and in the way Weber presents his argument to the radical university students: we are free to dissent and disagree with those in power (all three types of authority), but we must first value the stability of the system, and we are firstly responsible for its stability. I would rather a peaceful transition of political power despite my disapproval for the policies implemented instead of a revolution. In making this argument — yet still believing I value freedom over stability — the crisis of the Enlightenment is clear as day.

This stance against the ethics of ultimate ends reminds me one of the fundamental Jewish teachings that comes from the five books of Moses. The famous quote from Deuteronomy 16:18 is “tzedek tzedek tirdof,” most commonly translated as “justice justice you shall pursue.” However, the word “tirdof” directly translated from Hebrew is “chase,” making the phrase more accurately be “justice justice you shall chase.” My opinion as to why the word “justice” is repeated twice is precisely to prevent an ethics of ultimate ends. The first justice refers to means and the second to ends; both are essential. The Jewish teaching is not to look too far ahead but to have some ethics of responsibility in how that justice is pursued, as Weber argues. But more importantly, the word “chase” implies that one will never actually catch justice. This shows the crisis of the Enlightenment in action: there is no way to change the truth about justice because whatever it “is” is not true. Justice is becoming, and we will never truly catch it. We can chase it and define it along the way, but we will never find the universal truth about it, as the crisis of the Enlightenment points out.

But while this seems to be a very negative way of looking at ethics of responsibility, I’d like to end on a more uplifting note. It is important to remember that political reform of the truth from the inside has proven successful in may important instances including the very definition of human and citizen. I agree with Weber’s assessment that “man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible.” Sure, it might come quicker by waging war every time the government disagrees with a point of view. But if people actually followed that advice, we would see hundreds of wars a day and infinite bloodshed. Ultimately, change can come from the inside; it’s just slower. But that speed is a price I think is worth the lives saved.