Students Lead Professor to Study of Philosopher Herbert Marcuse

Monday, December 3, 2007

In the fall of 2001, Arnold Farr, Ph.D., and his students in the senior philosophy seminar experienced an epiphany about the work of philosopher and critical theorist Herbert Marcuse that still resonates with him today.

The epiphany was so profound that it generated the creation of the International Herbert Marcuse Society – founded by Farr – as well as a 2005 conference at Saint Joseph's to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the late philosopher's seminal book that synthesizes some of the ideas of Freud and Marx, Eros and Civilization, and another conference held here last month, Nov. 8-10. Titled "Critique and Liberation in the Work of Herbert Marcuse," over 20 scholars and prominent thinkers from as many universities presented papers about Marcuse, including SJU faculty member Andrew Payne, Ph.D., assistant professor of philosophy, and Farr, an associate professor of philosophy and director of the Africana studies program.

Marcuse's son, Peter, a professor at Columbia University, delivered the commemorative address. Associate Provost Paul DeVito, Ph.D., delivered the welcome.

"The conference was quite successful, and I have received correspondence from participants expressing their satisfaction with the event," said Farr. "I am especially pleased that one of the things we accomplished was the selection of a conference committee, which includes faculty and students. Plans are under way for the 2009 conference. We are also editing the papers from 2005 for publication." Marcuse was popular during the '60s and '70s, especially with campus radicals who were protesting the Vietnam War, but he fell out of fashion.

"When I – and the students – had the 'Marcusian' epiphany, I discovered that more and more people have become interested in his work, because of a response to the current political landscape," said Farr, who had read some Marcuse in graduate school, but became intrigued with his thought as a result of close readings of his work during the '01 fall semester.

Marcuse's groundbreaking work, One Dimensional Man, published in 1964, was especially enlightening. The epiphany experienced by Farr and his students was related to the author's insight into the way that individuals internalize the values of a dominant societal system, and how the individual can be repressed and manipulated by those values.

Students have traditionally chosen the topic for the senior seminar in philosophy, and for the fall '01 seminar, they requested a study of Critical Theory, which has been described as social theory that critiques society as a whole, with a view towards its transformation.

A group of German philosophers and social theorists of the Western European Marxist tradition at the Frankfurt School of Social Research developed Critical Theory.

Among others, the group included philosophers Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Jürgen Habermas and Marcuse, and came to be known as the Frankfurt School. Marcuse was forced to flee Germany after Hitler came to power, arriving in the United States in 1934, where he worked as an intelligence analyst for the U.S. Army during World War II. After the war, he returned to teaching, holding faculty positions at several American universities. He wrote widely about cultural forms of repression, and his work was an inspiration to many activists of the 1960s. He died in 1979.

Farr says his return to the study of Marcuse was one of the best things to happen to him since earning his doctorate and coming to SJU.

"My teaching has been revitalized, and I have also been impressed by the ability of our students to think critically about how to attain Marcuse's vision of an emancipated world," said Farr.

"It is also appropriate that my students led me back to Marcuse, since Marcuse himself was so involved in the lives of his students," he added.

Because students spurred the revival of his interest in Marcuse, Farr made sure they were involved with the conference. Danielle Mahaney, a sophomore philosophy major, was nominated to serve on the head student committee for the conference and will participate in planning the next conference.  And among the presenters was sophomore English major Nicole Palladino, who spoke about Marcuse in relation to his teacher, the philosopher Martin Heidegger.

"I'm very proud of Nicole," said Farr. "I spoke to some of the scholars who heard her present, and she was well received."

--Patricia Allen

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