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Noncognative Language and Political Inquiry

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For Hegel the rational whole has greater claim than its parts; the group more reality than the individuals who compose it. This has become the justification of authoritarian creeds from Fascism to Soviet Communism. Søren Kierkegaard, who hated rationality and worshipped the individual, took over something of Hegel's dialectic, which survived in the existentialism of Martin Heidegger  and Jean Paul Sartre. A modified Hegelianism ruled under F. H. Bradley, Bernard Bosanquet and T. H. Green in England until the turn of the century, when its spell was finally broken by logical positivism, the pragmatism of William James, Bertrand Russell's logical atomism and the linguistic approach of Ludwig Wittgenstein.[1]



“Dialectic is based on a grand division of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis,” according to Steven Kreis.  



Noncognitive Language and Political Inquiry




This kind of analysis suggests several things with respect to the import of noncognitive language use within political inquiry. One can systematically study noncognitive language, make a variety of characterizing knowledge claims concerning its use, the occasions for its employment, its relationship to a system of socially sanctioned norms. We can subject it to content analysis. Noncognitive utterances can be utilized for manipulative or predictive advantage—but it should be clear that noncognitive language cannot be itself employed to make knowledge claims. A noncognitive utterance is noncognitive—and whatever we do with it, we cannot use it to utter a truth.

As is the case with all serious issues of language use, it is relatively easy to draw a distinction by choosing clear cases. It is evident that ceremonial and performative language is, in and of itself, noncognitive. It is equally clear in many instances of expressive use. But there are any number of instances in which a clear distinction cannot, without argument, be made. We all are prepared to recognize that the individual who refers to another as a “bastard,” is not using the language for specifically cognitive purposes. He is primarily expressing disdain. To ask him what the measure of a “bastard” is, is largely inappropriate. Similarly, terms like “Fascist pig,” “racist,” and “the Establishment,” have little cognitive content, but emphatic expressive force, But it seems equally clear that such cases may not be purely expressive. One can, in many instances, draw cognitive information from the agents of such utterances if one has the opportunity and the patience. One can, under certain conditions, appropriately ask, “What do you mean when you call someone a ‘bastard,’ ‘a Fascist pig,’ . . . ‘a racist’ ?“ It is even remotely possible that one’s interlocutor had some specific cognitive meaning in mind before employing such locutions.


There are whole classes of linguistic utterances that seem to be largely, if not exclusively, noncognitive and yet in and of themselves may have, and often have been credited with, significant cognitive import. Myths, phantasies and imaginings have been suggested as being among them. We do talk of daydreams as phantasies and thereby attribute to them an all but exclusive expressive function. Similarly, we speak of wish fulfillment in our imaginings, and we tend to think of myths as some kind of collective phantasy. And yet there are a number of political thinkers who attribute some special cognitive merit to the linguistic products they identify as myth, imaginings and phantasy.

Early in the present century, for example, Georges Sorel maintained that only “myth” could give us “global knowledge” of complex political phenomena.’ More recently (as we have seen) Russell Kirk has insisted that it is “imagination” alone that can make social science scientific.2 Mulford Sibley, in turn, has maintained that “unscientific truths” govern political wisdom—and Herbert Marcuse contends that “phantasy” and “intuition” are in some sense cognitively critical to political inquiry.

Such claims are interesting for a variety of reasons, but primarily because they focus attention on an ill-defined class of linguistic performances that are very difficult to analyze. What sort of “truths” are “unscientific truths”? Does “intuition” have an unequivocal cognitive function? Are “phantasy” and “imagination” necessary adjuncts to the enterprise we recognize as scientific? The questions involve, of course, a variety of issues that can only be alluded to, but there is one central issue which demands attention, not only because there have been some prominent representatives of the tradition it represents, but because it is a major theme in one of the contemporary student subcultures. That issue is whether there can be a “political science” or a “science of society” at all.

We are all familiar with most of the mock arguments advanced in support of the privative claim that there can be no “science” of society (and inferentially no political “science”). Our concern here will be restricted to the argument advanced by Sorel, because central to his argument is his insistence that “myths” rather than science afford us special social and political truths that are truer than true.

Sorel simply insisted that a “science of society” was, in principle, impossible. Not only could predictions about the political future not be tendered, but he went on to insist that we are simply incapable of determining “whether one hypothesis about it is better than another.”4 The claims made by Kirk, Sibley and Marcuse, and those in much the same tradition, are far more muted, more defensible, and, in general, more complex than those made by Sorel. They are in substantial agreement, however, insofar as all claim that political inquiry can never be a “science” as long as it confines itself to “positivistic” devices—that is, as long as it treats political matters as though they can be analyzed into concerns within the three domains of discourse: the analytic, the synthetic and the normative—as long as men insist that questions about man’s individual and collective political behavior can be answered by employing the techniques of analytic, linguistic, and experimental precision, and controlled and public interpretation. All insist that some “extrascientific” adjunct is necessary. in the case of Sorel, the “myth” is invoked. In the case of Kirk and Sibley appeal is made to religious or poetic “faith.” Marcuse makes recourse to “phantasy,” “intuition” and the “concrete dialectic” to supplement the “positivistic” devices of contemporary social science.

The familiar linguistic products of “faith,” “imagination,” “phantasy,” and “intuition” are at best interstitial with respect to the cognitive and noncognitive ranges of discourse. We tend to characterize imaginings and phantasies as “wish fulfillments,” essentially expressive. We identify faith with profoundfeelings. And yet, in some sense, we want to attribute cognitive merit to at least some of the linguistic by-products of faith and phantasy—which may suggest that we use such terms loosely, to cover a wide variety of performances and a disparate collection of linguistic entities. Whatever the case, it is not the case that imaginings, phantasies, and intuitions are exclusively productive of noncognitive consequences. The question is whether their products are anything more than tangentially cognitive, whether they can serve as special “extrascientific” sources of social and political wisdom.

Sorel’s work anticipated a great deal of the “anti-behavioralist” and “anti-positivist” criticism that has come to characterize the work of scholars like Marcuse, Kirk and Sibley. In a sense, Sorel has been father to a long line of critics, each equally dubious about the merits of social science—and each prepared to supplement standard science with special cognitive tools ranging from myths to mystic insights. Sorel shares other features with his heirs—his work is particularly difficult to analyze. On the one hand, he was, by his own and almost everyone else’s judgment, a notoriously bad writer whose prose more often followed psychological, rather than logical, order.5 On the other hand, because he disdained “precision” and deplored “the artificial rigor of intellectualism,” it is, more often than not, extremely difficult to reconstruct his arguments with any confidence whatsoever. Sorel simply failed to articulate all the premisses of his arguments and therefore his discussions are frequently perplexingly elliptical. For at least these reasons, Sorel could be, at one time or another, a defender of the proletariat, an advocate of an insistent, if transmogrified, Marxism, and a protagonist of bourgeois virtues—a defender of radical libertarianism and an anti-Semite—a radical revolutionary and a traditionalist—a socialist and a defender of monarchism—an enthusiast of Lenin and Mussolini as well. His writings have been understood to have influenced Marxism-Leninism, National Socialism, and Fascism.6 As is the case with works of art, everyone seems to “interpret” Sorel’s work in accordance with his own lights.

It would be simple enough to interpret Sorel’s work as “art” or “poetry,” having primarily, if not exclusively, expressive function— to say that the author employed his prose as a vehicle to ventilate his sentiments and that his readers have subsequently and similarly ventilated themselves in reading it, each coming away from Sorel with nothing more than they brought to him. No cognitive exchange has taken place. But such an appraisal hardly seems to do justice to the serious thought one finds in Sorel. The question is whether the serious content of Sorel’s account involves any appeal to other than standard cognitive elements and procedures. Is it true, in effect, that Sorel’s analysis of political life involves an appeal that is “transcientific,” that his “myth” is a necessary supplement to the analytic and empirical devices available to normal science?

If one considers Sorel’s work in its entirety, it is obvious that his disclaimers concerning the possibility of a “science of politics” are by and large directed against “scientific socialism,” the “science of society” touted by the “orthodox Marxists” of the turn of the century.7 He insisted that Marx, himself, had made “many and sometimes enormous” errors. He argued that Marx, as well as his orthodox protagonists, had employed vague and ambiguous formulations in theory construction which afflicted their arguments with equivocations. Moreover, it was obvious, in many instances, that wherever a truth claim was made by Marxists without equivocation, empirical fact had infirmed them.

It is clear that whatever objections Sorel might legitimately (or illegitimately) raise against Marxism as a “positive social science,” those objections could hardly serve to invalidate all and any efforts at constructing an adequate social or political science. For Sore! to warrant the claim that we are in no position to discuss whether one rather than another theory about the future of society is more or less credible would require more evidence than that one or another theory about the future was wrong. As a matter of fact even the most elementary inventory of the truth claims made by Sore! indicates that he, himself, claimed to have not only a more comprehensive, but a more competent theory about social futures than any alternate candidate theory.
The fact is that Sorel attempted a special empirical theory of individual and collective motivation. His theory of society and political behavior was predicated on a collection of general knowledge claims concerning the behavior of man. “To say that we are acting,” Sorel maintained, “implies that we are creating an imaginary world placed ahead of the present world and composed of movements which depend entirely on us.” To have advanced such an assertion is to claim that before men act they entertain anticipated outcomes, “imaginary worlds,” which guide their performance. This is clearly an empirical knowledge claim and is confirmed or disconfirmed by collecting empirical evidence. Do men, in fact, invoke “imaginary worlds” before they act? Do they always do this? Under what circumstances do they—if they don’t undertake such invocations universally?

These “imaginary worlds,” for Sore!, constitute conjectured outcomes which guide the acts of individual men—when they become collective imaginings they constitute a “myth.” Sorel maintained that “science” did not understand the function of such imaginings and such myths, and consequently “science” could afford only a “misleading idea of the forces which really move men.”9 All of which may be perfectly true, but takes us not one step toward confirming the contention that a “science of society” is in principle impossible or that science requires some exotic adjuncts to issue significant knowledge claims.

To have said that one account of the forces that move men is wrong or inadequate implies that some other account is correct or more adequate. It would seem, therefore, that one can distinguish more or less adequate hypotheses about man’s social and political future. If two sets of propositions are advanced to account for man’s past and present political behavior, and one which includes an account of the role of “myths” is more adequate, it would follow that a hypothesis which employed “myths” for predictive leverage would be inductively more creditable. Unless we are completely mistaken about induction and the advantages it affords for prediction, an adequate explanation of man’s political behavior would give us predictive advantage. If Sorel is saying anything at all, he is claiming that his account, which includes an appreciation of the function of “myth,” is a more adequate account than any competitor and consequently any anticipation of futures would have to entertain knowledge of the “myths” which mobilize men to collective effort. A “myth” would be nothing more than a collection of symbols or signs that represent “all the strongest inclinations of a people. of a party or of a class, inclinations which recur to the mind with the insistence of instincts in all the circumstances of life” through which men “reform their desires, passions, and mental activity.”

Thus the “myth” itself may be a symbolic figuration, a noncognitive expression of “inclinations,” but as such would be neither true nor false, is no special supplement to normal science, and would hardly qualify as the source of “global” or “synoptic” knowledge. A “myth,” as Sorel employs the term, is a device which taps “inclinations,” and if it is successful it mobilizes men to some sort of reasonably specific action. But to anticipate its success we would have to know what “inclinations” are harbored by a people, a party or a class. In retrospect we can reconstruct those “inclinations.” All such activity is obviously empirical—and it is just such activity that we characterize as “standard science.”


To define a myth as that linguistic device, that “body of images which, by intuition alone, and before any analyses are made, is capable of evoking as an undivided whole the mass of sentiments of a party, sect or class,” is to make an analytic and empirical knowledge claim. There is such a thing as a myth, defined in a specific manner, which does, in fact, evoke in men an undivided mass of sentiments. This is an empirical proposition in motivational psychology and is subject to the evidence conditions which govern truth ascriptions in that universe of discourse. Men who act as a consequence of compelling myths do not themselves “analyze” any more than the individuaL who uses expressive language “analyzes” before employing it or being aroused by it. Expressive language either successfully or unsuccessfully evokes sentiments in others—but it is, in itself, neither true nor false. Neither purely expressive language nor myth, so understood, is cognitive. We can, as Sorel does, make cognitive claims concerning myths. Whether any myth does in fact evoke “as an undivided whole the mass of seritiments” of a party, faction or people is an empirical question--- and is answered by standard empirical techniques.

Myths, as Sore! construes them, are not “paralogical” or “transcientific” adjuncts to the scientific enterprise. As he understands them, they constitute complex and essentially expressive utterances which are employed to invoke certain determinate behavioral responses. They, in and of themselves, are neither true nor false. Truth or falsity can be responsibly assigned only to Sorel’s claim that he has correctly identified the psychological forces that move men to act. This is a straightforward, if complex, empirical claim and is subject to the common tests of standard science. If the claim is true, Sore! has contributed to the science of politics and the science of society. Moreover, he has, wittingly or unwittingly, shown that his disclaimers—that one cannot have such a science and that one cannot determine the merit of alternate predictions about the future of political and social man—are unfounded. His very efforts deny his own contentions. Sorel contributed to political and social science, and nothing he said indicates that in making that contribution Sore! employed anything other than the standard procedures of analytic and empirical inquiry.

This is, of course, precisely how Vilfredo Pareto understood Sorel’s enterprise. Sorel’s “myth” was no more than a special case of what Pareto called a “derivation” in the Trattato. The “myth” was a condensed symbol, a collection of images, which lent expression to the sentiments which moved men to act. “Myth,” itself, was a descriptive concept in a specific theory of political motivation, the merit of which could be assessed by normal experimental techniques.

Noncognitive Language and Contemporary Analysis

This interpretation of “myth” seems to be, as a matter of fact, tacitly or explicitly accepted in contemporary discussions of political motivation. Thus Murray Edelman’s intersting account of the Symbolic Uses of Politics speaks of “myths” which have a “powerful emotional pull” and which function to provide a sense of community among a determinate collection of men, as well as a “powerful means of expression for mass publics.” “Myths” are composed of “condensation symbols” which derive their “metnings” from the “psychological needs of the respondents”; they “condense into one symbolic event, sign, or act, patriotic pride, anxieties, remembrances of past glories or humiliations, promises of future greatness: some one of these or all of them.” 1 2 Such symbolic or mythic locutions either assist in “social adjustment” or serve to “externalize” individual or collective psychological problems. Some men come to understand symbolic or mythic language use and employ it instrumentally, to further their own special interests—which means that while symbolic or mythic language is, in and of itself, expressive, it can be both cognitively assessed, and cognitively employed as well. In and of itself symbolic or mythic language is neither true nor false, but as a component of a more extended theory of human motivation, “symbols” and “myths” serve as descriptive and/or theoretical concepts—subject to the truth conditions governing any significant knowledge claims.

Clifford Geertz’s discussion of “symbol systems” follows the same analysis. Geertz’s account turns on alternate interpretations of symbolic language that have been offered—and he dismisses some as too “rudimentary to cope with the complexity of the interaction among social, psychological, and cultural factors” involved. Geertz offers an outline of a more comprehensive theory of symbolic language and its functions in political and social circumstances. Such language employments, in and of themselves, have something of the species traits of analogy, metaphor, trope, pun or paradox, and are deployed to suggest more complex meanings than those of “the tempered language of science.” Symbolic language serves to afford a “template for the organization of social and psychological processes . . . in situations where the particular kind of information they contain is lacking, where institutionalized guides for behavior, thought, or feeling are weak or absent.” As such, symbolic or mythic language is neither true nor false. It is either effective or ineffective. What is subject to cognitive scrutiny is the explicit and empirical theory of symbolic or mythic language.13 As such, “myth” and “symbolic language” can be absorbed without remainder into the body of social science. It is not a “paralogical” or “transempirical” supplement, but a relatively specific theory of individual or collective motivation, a special theory within the confines of empirical psychology—and possessed of as much truth as is contained in the well-confirmed inductive and lawlike generalizations upon which it rests.

If Sorel’s “myths” can, and have been, so accommodated, Kirk’s “Imagination” and Sibley’s “prescientific” and “postscientific” knowings are still (as has already been suggested) more easily assimilated. Whatever “imagination,” “intuition,” “insight,” and “transcientific” knowings are understood to be, everyone is prepared to admit that the pursuit of knowledge begins with something loosely called “intuition” or “imagination.” We Intuit similarities between things in generating our first preliminary conceptual schemata with which we learn to orient ourselves in the world. We employ imagination in order to generate speculative hypotheses about the world of things and the world of men. We have already suggested, several times, that there is no determinate logic of discovery. Men go about discovering relations between variables in strange, complex, and curious fashions. However they hit upon such relations, such relations cannot be advanced as true until they have been made subject to empirical test. Intuition and imagination, no matter how confidently felt or insistently defended, can never, in themselves, warrant the truth of any knowledge claim. The mathematician may hit upon a solution to a complex mathematical problem in his sleep, but the certification of its truth will not be the consequence of sleeping. He will not recommend sleeping to his audience as a truth certifying technique---what he will do will be to publicly calculate the answer to his problem by employing the standard techniques of mathematical proof in order to establish the merit of his initial “intuition.” Any other effort would be dismissed as inconsequential. Similarly, we may intuit or imagine the relationship between some specific kind of family environment and a disposition to enlist oneself in one or another political organization, but our intuition or imagination cannot, in and of themselves, produce the truth warrant that would compel responsible cognitive assent on the part of any rational audience.

Marcuse’s appeal to “phantasy” and “intuition” is no less subject to the same assessment. It is very difficult, of course, to determine what Marcuse means to say since he has, like Sorel before him, very little sympathy with the demand for linguistic precision. His language is that of neo-Hegelianism-—-a language that has not been particularly noteworthy for its clarity and specificity. Our concern here, however, is with his claim that “phantasy” is, in some determinate sense, essential to political inquiry.

Marcuse seems to be arguing that “phantasy” is essential to political inquiry because “phantasy” is “imagination,” and “imagination” “denotes a considerable degree of independence from the given, of freedom amid a world of unfreedom. in surpassing what is present, it can anticipate the future.”

This is curious indeed, if we must employ imagination or phantasy to anticipate the future, certainly some anticipations are better than others. Some anticipations are simply wish-fulfillments, others are predicated on false assumptions, others are simply stupidities, and still others are projections made on the basis of reasonably well confirmed tendencies in act. All anticipations of the future (individual or collective, natural as well as social) are in some sense independent of the given, and all of them involve a logical leap warranted oniy by a regularity analysis of the past and present— all of them are undertaken with some hazard—and all of them exemplify “freedom” in that sense in a “world of unfreedom.” But all of us recognize that anticipations which are totally “free” from the “given” (whatever that is supposed to mean), are not “free” but irresponsible. When Marcuse tells us that “phantasy” can provide us with “answers” that “would be very close to the truth, certainly closer than those yielded by the rigorous conceptual analyses of philosophical anthropology,” for it would “determine what man is on the basis of what he really can be tomorrow,” he can hardly mean that any phantasy will do. The phantasy he seems to be advocating is that which is very much akin to the intuition employed by a skilled and knowledgable scientist, who knows his subject very well and can thus make credible, if probabilistic, projections within his universe of inquiry. The merit of those projections will be determined by the available total evidence concerning “potentialities” operative in that universe, and those potentialities can only be determined by systematic empirical assessment. Only then can futures be anticipated with the “certainty of a reasoned and reasonable chance ‘ In such determinations ‘phantasy,” “imagination.” and “intuition” will function in an essential preliminary, but tightly controlled, cognitive fashion. Their specific cognitive merit can only be determined by standard empirical techniques.
Only when preliminary moves employing “phantasy” and “intuition” assist in the construction of viable social science theory can they gain admission—and then only as propaedeutic to the knowledge enterprise. Marcuse seems to at least intuit such a requirement, for when he characterizes his work as “critical theory,” a theory employed to “explain the totality of man and his world in terms of his social being,” he contends that its truth is certified not by phantasy or imagination, but by “demonstration” that proceeds “on empirical grounds.” He talks of fulfilling man’s “possibilities” in terms of “definable goals of practice,” goals which are expressive of “an actual tendency” empirically determinable. He characterizes his theory as something which is clearly not the product of “mere speculation.” It is a viable theory “grounded on the capabilities of the given society.” Moreover, it has explanatory and predictive pretensions. In 1937 he maintained that his theory could have “easily” “comprehended and predicted” the “social situation expressed in the authoritarian states” that had appeared in Germany and Italy.16 No mean achievement—but one which could only be accomplished by standard science.

All of which means, if it means anything at all, that Marcuse advances, as intrinsic to his enterprise, a social science theory having explanatory and predictive function—whose only tests of truth would be logical consistency, and empirically confirmed descriptive and explanatory power. That this theory is conjoined with a collection of familiar unproblematic and prima fade values (Marcuse offers, as we have seen, “freedom,” “happiness,” “truth,” “reason,” “fulfillment,” and “authenticity” as candidates) makes it normative in intention. Marcuse’s work gives expression to a complex normative argument. It generates the predictable collection of prescriptions, proscriptions, recommendations, exhortations, and warnings. But his injunctions have as much force as his definitions have consistency and his knowledge claims have truth. When critical terms are given a variety of definitions, each of which is not self-evidently compatible with the other, it is difficult to say that we have, in fact, “definable goals.” If “freedom” is identified with “reason,” and then we are told that “freedom is the truth of necessity,” and yet “reason means shaping life according to men’s free decision l we cannot help being puzzled—not because we do not share Marcuse’s values, or fail to enjoy enough “phantasy,” but because it becomes increasingly difficult to know what he means to say. If we are told that “the totality of human relations” must be “liberated,” we can hardly be sure what we are enjoined to do or, as the case might be, not do—no matter how much “intuition” we can conjure up.

When, however, Marcuse claims that “the labor process” causes the “laborer’s organs [to] atrophy and [be] coarsened . . .“ and that the “unpurified, unrationalized release of sexual relationships would be the strongest release of enjoyment as such and the total devaluation of labor for its own sake . . . ,“ these are serious (if confused) factual and causal, i.e., empirical, claims. The question that urges itself upon one is, how can they be verified? The most singular thing about Marcuse’s work in this respect, is the impressive lack of empirical evidence for any of his claims. His references are almost invariably to discursive, rather than experimental, literature. Even in the one instance where appeal is made to the clinical literature of psychoanalysis, he opts to reject most of the prevailing judgments of practicing clinicians and therapists and makes recourse to Freud’s “metapsychological” conjectures—invoking, for his purposes, singular speculations, like the “death instinct,” to explain individual and collective phenomena. We find ourselves back with the least creditable Freud—with his conjectural “prehistoric domestic drama” and his fables about “racial memories”— and a theory of society which sees collective life “rooted in instincts.”

One has difficulty with Marcuse not because one resists “freedom,” “happiness,” “authenticity,” and “fulfillment” as values, or because one lacks the requisite “phantasy” or “intuition,” but because one simply does not know what to make of what Marcuse means to say, how much of what he says is to be taken seriously, or what is implied by what he does succeed in saying, given the vague, rambling and paradoxical characterizations he offers. It is doubtful if any appeals to “phantasy,” “imagination,” or “intuition” will make the task any easier. If it is true, as Marcuse contends, that there is a “truth” “beyond science and logic,”20 it is incumbent upon him to exhibit that he has attained it, can give expression to it, and can characterize its evidence conditions—in other words that he can credibly establish that his enterprise is a cognitive one. Marcuse makes a special effort to satisfy just such a demand in undertaking recourse to one final putative extrascientific adjunct: “dialectical logic.”

Appeals to something vaguely called the “dialectic” are commonplace in political science literature. The “dialectic” has been pressed
into service on a variety of occasions and is understood to satisfy a variety of functions. The central issue is whether it ever performs
a cognitive function. To this question no definitive answer can be attempted here—given obvious restrictions of space, intention and Noncognitive Language and Contemporary Analysis disposition. It can be said, however, that the “dialectic” has had an unfortunate history.


Originally, in antiquity, the term “dialectics” simply meant the “art of dispute and debate (diaiektike techne)” through which a more adequate understanding of anything was obtained by tendering, inspecting and attempting to resolve questions concerning it, advanced from conflicting points of view. It was German Idealism that elevated the dialectic to a special place in the inventory of epistemic devices. Its special virtues have long been sung—but efforts to characterize its application, or catalogue its achievements, have produced little of substance. J. N. Findlay, one of the most knowledgeable commentators on 1-legel (the dialectic owes its contemporary renaissance to the followers of Hegel), characterizes the dialectic in the following way:

Exactly what is meant by calling [Hegel’s] philosophy “dialectical” is. . . far from clear, nor whether it is a good or a bad manner of philosophizing. The meaning and worth of the 1-legelian Dialectic is, in fact, teasingly obscure even to those who have studied Hegel longest and most sympathetically, who have brooded deeply over the discrepant accounts he gives of his method, and on the Protean tricks through which he operates it. If one starts by thinking Dialectic easy to characterize, one often ends by doubting whether it is a method at all, whether any general account of it can be given, whether it is not simply a name covering any and every of the ways in which Hegel argues. And if one tries to distinguish between the way in which the method should be used, and the way in which Hegel actually uses it, one soon finds that his practice provides no standards by means of which its detailed working can be tested.’

There is nothing to indicate that the nature and merit of Marcuse’s “dialectic” is any more apparent. For one thing, it is almost impossible to determine what Marcuse understands the dialectic to be. Sometimes he speaks of it as a “logic,” but it is obvious that it is a most singular “logic,” a logic which “reveals and expresses that which really is—as distinguished from that which appears to be (real).”22 It would thus be a “logic” with empirical and ontological pretensions. A most singular “logic.” Furthermore, it is a “logic” which takes seeming delight in semantic vagueness. It is a “logic,” for example, that reveals to us that “Truth” (dignified with the capital T) is the equivalent of “Being” (equally dignified, as one might expect, with a capital B). It tells us, moreover, that “in their completed form both happiness and reason coincide.” “Dialectical logic,” as we have already observed, identifies Reason and Freedom, and conjoins that intelligence with the formula “Reason Truth Reality,” which permits us to assert, if “dialectical logic” means anything at all, that Truth is equal to Being and Being is equal to Happiness and Happiness is equal to Reason and Reason is equal to Freedom and Freedom is equal to Reality and Reality is equal to Truth and Truth is. . ., and around once again. But this is not all it accomplishes. We are informed that we must defend all these insights against the threat of “Nothing” (also endowed with the substantive capital)—which is “a potentiality and a threat to Being.” Since Nothing is a potentiality and a threat to Being, it is a potentiality and threat to Truth, it is a potentiality and a threat to Happiness, and since it.

No charge of inconsistency or contradiction can be sustained against such a “logic,” since it not only does nothing to avoid the semantic and syntactic vagueness of ordinary speech—it incorporates and expands upon them. The “dialectic” is a “logic” which has empirical pretensions, is semantically vague and syntactically obscure, and concerning which no judgment of consistency can be scrupled. A most singular “logic.”

Lewis Carroll (himself a logician), in his adventure of Alice in Wonderland, provides us with what is perhaps an instructive sequence. Alice, among the quaint company of the inhabitants down the Rabbit Hole, found herself faced with the prospect of participating in a “Caucus-race.” When she asked what a “Caucus-race” might be, she was told that in order to come to know what it was one really ought to do it. A circle was laid out—it really didn’t matter whether it was a circle or not—there are no rules for this sort of thing. Then everyone was placed somewhere along the course and took up running at will. After a while when everyone was tired, the “race” was stopped—and then a decision had to be made as to who had won. After long deliberation it was decided that since everyone had put so much effort into the activity—everyone had won. The only question that remained was who was to provide the prizes. It was inevitable, it seems, that Alice was made to shoulder the burden.

The “dialectic” seems very much like a “Caucus-race”—there doesn’t seem to be any identifiable body of rules that subtend the entertainment. Everyone takes up the activity wherever he chooses and continues until he is tired. At its conclusion everyone has won— and the reader must provide the prizes. One cannot help feeling that something has gone amiss.

The “dialectic” has, in fact, had a doleful history in the one place where it was taken seriously: in the Soviet Union. It was originally touted as a “logic” that opposed “idealistic formal logic” (what Marcuse calls, with Hegel, “abstract logic”). Formal logic, it was held, was simply a bourgeois snare (for Marcuse “formal or symbolic logic” is part of the “logic of domination”—a Marcusean transliteration of the Marxist “bourgeois oppression”). “Dialectical logic,” to a generation of Soviet thinkers (as it is to Marcuse), was a “logic” that revealed the “essences” of things, the “fundamental and immutable laws of thought” and of “evolution of social and mental life.” It “reflected” the real world and made “thinking and being identical.” Being the source of so many good things, Soviet thinkers stoutly defended it against the impostures of formal logic. Formal logic being “abstract” (for them as it is to Marcuse), it failed to recognize the “real contradictions” that inhabit reality. The great advantage of “dialectical logic” was that it was a “logic of contradictions,” and thereby captured the “contradictory essence” of “reality” (something it does for Marcuse as well). All of this was embodied in the work of Engels and Lenin and Plekhanov. In the first edition of the standard Brief Philosophical Dictionary, published during the Stalin period, it was insisted that “the laws of formal logic oppose themselves to the laws of dialectical logic,” and Soviet mathematicians and logicians were enjoined to develop a “proletarian dialectic to replace the “empty” logic of “Bourgeois idealism.” Marcuse has been equally eloquent in characterizing the poverty of “abstract logic,” and admonishes Amen can philosophy to seek out his “contradictory two-dimensional logic” to replace the “one-dimensional thinking” of formal logic. Formal logic “dominates”----dialectical logic “liberates.”

One need but review the history of the controversy concerning the “logic of contradictions” as it developed in the Soviet Union in order to appreciate its signal failure.25 Every responsible Soviet thinker today recognizes that it is especially absurd to hold that contradiction exists not only in thought and language but also in “reality,” since it is the distinguishing trait of a self-contradictory utterance that it describes nothing whatever. A contradiction is always false—and says nothing at all.26 Marxist-Leninists have been quick to reinterpret “contradiction,” to mean no more than the presence of “conflicting or opposing tendencies” in “reality.” But such a redescription empties the term “contradiction” of any independent meaning. If one means to say, as Marcuse does on occasion, that there is an “opposition of forces, tendencies, elements, which constitutes the movement of the real . . “27 then that is what one ought to say. There is no merit in baptizing a perfectly consistent description of trends and countertrends, opposing forces and countervailing tendencies tendentiously as “contradictions.”

It is not at all clear that the “dialectic,” and its “logic of contradiction,” serves any independent cognitive purpose that escapes normal cognitive techniques. If one were not generous, one might characterize its specific function as obscuring gaps in arguments, camouflaging impaired reasoning, affording a semblance of credibility to vague and unsupported factual claims, making illicit transitions from matters of fact to ascriptions of value and in general providing a noncognitive linguistic recreation.

When Marcuse tells us that “the dialectical definition defines the movement of things from that which they are not to that which they are,” he can only mean that he is attempting to characterize the development of something in terms of confirmed historic or systematic process laws. When he says that the “object of dialectical logic is neither the abstract, general form of objectivity, nor the abstract general form of thought—nor the data of immediate experience,” he is doing little else than (in his own language style) saying that a historic or systematic process law, conjoined with initial conditions, provides an adequate account of development— and such an account is neither simply “abstract, general, of thought or of immediate experience.”28 It involves concrete inductive generalizations covering a reasonably well-defined class of concrete objects understood to operate within specified or specifiable boundary conditions. None of which involves a “logic of contradictions,” a “dialectic,” or any exotic adjunct to standard scientific techniques.

If all one wishes to do is to indicate that language has a variety of functions—that no single description, no matter how complex, exhausts reality, that variables frequently interact in a complex system of interdependencies, that unanticipated consequences follow from our most carefully rehearsed social acts, that much of the detail of our natural and social world is contingent and evanescent, that confirmed lawlike regularities afford us only approximations of outcomes, that all our synthetic knowledge is corrigible—then appeal to a mysterious “dialectic logic,” the rules of which are at best opaque, and whose influence has done more to engender than reduce confusion, is simply not necessary. Imagination, intuition, phantasy, the dialectic and poetry can, like preliminary conceptual schemata, serve as heuristic devices critical to the knowledge enterprise—but they are not its substitute. Nor do they constitute indifferent substitutes for the language of cognition. To make knowledge claims commits us to linguistic precision, specified or specifiable rules of evidence, a public characterization of meaning and an intersubjective test of truth. We cannot satisfy these commitments with imagination, intuition, phantasy, the dialectic or poetry.

Our account thus far has pursued the outlines of an analysis calculated to distinguish the cognitive from the noncognitive employments of the language. Whatever cognitive utility “the dialectic,” “imagination,” “phantasy,” and “intuition” have is the consequence of their function as sometimes necessary preliminaries to significant cognitive enterprise. “Imagination,” “phantasy,” and “intuition,” whatever they are taken to mean, at best suggest lines of inquiry in very much the same fashion as analogy and metaphor. Every research scientist and scholar employs them in order to orient himself with respect to his subject matter. Only when such “insights” mature into relatively precise test hypotheses, open to public scrutiny, do they enter into the knowledge enterprise itself. Only when they are confirmed directly by some finite set of observations or indirectly within the confines of a systematically related set of propositions—only when they have warranted confirmed or systemic meaning—do they enter as material truths into the body of credibilities.


Only when they are confirmed directly by some finite set of observations or indirectly within the confines of a systematically related set of propositions—only when they have warranted confirmed or systemic meaning—do they enter as material truths into the body of credibilities.


Ideologies and Noncognitive Language


While the discussion thus far has suggested a strategy which might accomodate a variety of claimants for interstitial cognitive status, there remains, inevitably, an imposing body of material outside the confines of the account. Political ideologies, for example, have received extensive consideration in political science literature, to which our brief discussion of “myths” hardly makes contribution. If Sorel tended to treat “myths” as noncognitive locutions, such a characterization is simply inadequate to accomodate ideological thinking in general. A more fruitful analysis might be one which made “myths,” as Sorel conceived them, instantiations of a special subset of a more inclusive class of complex linguistic entities. The inclusive class might be identified as “ideologies,” with “myths” as limiting cases.

Ideologies, in general, and myths as special cases, can be understood to perform the same noncognitive political and social functions in at least one respect. They can be used to mobilize sentiment, provide rationalizations for organizational purpose, serve as recruitment aids, recharge flagging enthusiasm—in effect perform manipulative and expressive, and only tangential cognitive, functions. In this capacity they are, by and large, neither true nor false. We all immediately recognize that the Marxist-Leninist who claims that the “truth” of Marxism is confirmed by its ability to mobilize revolutionary sentiment has advanced a bogus argument.29 That Christianity has found billions of adherents in the course of two millennia dOes not serve to confirm a single one of its doctrinal utterances. Christianity has enjoyed enormous success and has gathered into its fold untold millions of non-Christians in what used to be seen as a triumphal inevitability. All of which tells us interesting things about the sociology of mass behavior, the satisfaction of individual emotional needs, and the processes that govern the dissemination of ideas and the techniques effectively employed in proselytization—but nothing about the truth or falsity of any of the utterances that have issued forth from Christian theologians since the death of Christ.

Success in expressive employments constitutes no evidence of truth. The most patently absurd collection of simplisms can enjoy, and have in fact enjoyed, the most astonishing political success. All of which simply admonishes us to distinguish the truth of any linguistic performance from its emotive and pragmatic effect. The fact is that political ideologies can be understood, generically, as complex normative arguments—and as such are essentially cognitive artifacts. They are, at their best, composed of argued beliefs about matters of fact, conjoined with a finite set of analytic statements and value commitments. At times such complex arguments can be synoptically and stenographically expressed. On such occasions we might talk of condensed language. The assumption would be that such language could be suitably expanded upon request. “Myths,” as Sorel employed the term, might appropriately refer to condensed formulations that cannot be expanded or, if expanded, are known to be false. Such formulations might then be appropriately referred to as couched in symbolic or mythic language—and such formulations, as Sorel seemed to appreciate, might be all but expressive. They would be noncognitive.

Commentators on political affairs have made us all aware of the fact that when ideologies are taken up by political constituencies they find expression in ordinary language and generally make an appearance in locutions that are lax in precision, that are deductively defective and cognitively flawed. Some analysts have gone so far as to construe such defective performances as symptomatic of ideological thinking in and of itself. Thus, for example, Talcott Parsons identifies what he calls the “essential criteria of an ideology” as “deviations from social science objectivity.” Ideology contains statements about society which can be shown, by the methods of social science, to be positively in error and involves a manifest bias in selectivity—only those truths that suit his purpose are entertained by the ideologist.30 The ideologist, in effect, is a biased purveyor of falsehoods. Werner Stark has similarly characterized ideological thought as “a mode of thinking which is thrown off its proper course. . . something shady, something that ought to be overcome and banished from our mind”—thought that is somehow “deformed”—ideological ideas are “like a dirty river, muddied and polluted by the impurities that have flooded into it.”3’

Should we accept such characterizations, ideologies should be dismissed as having significant social functions, but possessed of only grossly impaired cognitive import. ideological thinking, by definition, would be defective cognitive thought. Such an account is manifestly inadequate.32 Ideological arguments are a special class of complex normative arguments—and normative arguments, as we have suggested, are as true or as false as the truth or falsity of their constituent statemental components. Marx as an ideologist did not simply generate defective arguments impaired by false descriptive propositions. Whatever faults one can find in Marx (and there are, no doubt, many) are faults common to any cognitive undertaking. Similarly, neither Giovanni Gentile nor Alfred Rosenberg could be reasonably conceived to have been nothing more than calculating deceivers. Gentile’s attempt to vindicate Fascism, and Rosenberg’s attempt to vindicate National Socialism were serious attempts to provide the normative, and consequently cognitive, rationale for Fascist and National Socialist policies and institutions. Should their arguments prove defective, should their credibility be undermined, they can no longer serve as vindications— although they may serve manipulative and persuasive purpose very effectively.

That ideologies serve noncognitive purpose, that they lend themselves to the manipulation of masses, that they come to serve as rationalizations for brutalities and stupidities is common knowledge—but such functions do not characerize “ideological thinking.” Some men use drama or poetry to gull the innocent. Some use art. Some use science. The fact that poetry, art and science can be put to such noncognitive purpose is not their defining property.

If a distinction is to be made between ideologies and their flawed progeny—that is to say a distinction is entertained between the reasoned arguments of social and political philosophers of the caliber of Marx and Gentile and the grossly simplified versions that pass into doctrinal catechisms or serve exclusively expressive or evocative function—we might speak of “ideologies” and “myths” (elsewhere I have suggested the term “doctrine” might be invoked to refer to the “relatively loose collection of [ideological theses]” which are “essentially action related” and “contain a program and a strategy for its fulfillment” and “provide a belief system for organizations that are built around them”).33 The distinction would be between argued beliefs that are intended to serve essentially cognitive purpose and the shadow of those beliefs, or their formulation in expressive or evocative language, that serve essentially or exclusively pragmatic (organizational, strategic or manipulatory) purpose. The distinction would reflect the distinction between the language and intention of Marx and Mao, between Gentile and Mussolini, between John Locke and Richard Nixon, between Herbert Spencer and Barry Goldwater.

When normative argument is processed for popular consumption

—to serve the organizational, strategic and recruitment purposes of a political faction of whatever persuasion—what results is very often something that looks, for all the world, like “thinking thrown off its proper course,” discourse undertaken to project one’s psychological problems on the world, to give expression to intrapsychic strain, to alleviate one’s personal emotional indisposition or evoke collective sentiments. We have all been exposed to such counterfeit efforts at political persuasion and been subject to such mobilizing techniques—the simple employment of invective, gross exaggeration, unqualified declamation, diatribe, exhortation and empty rhetoric. We are all familiar with the catalogue of abuses rehearsed in political argument—and we are all painfully aware that when language has devolved to this, its simplest noncognitive employment, the reasoned resolution of problems, is impossible. Mythic or doctrinal language is the language of “confrontation,” the preparation for inevitable, because provoked, conflict—an invocation to arm for Armageddon. The employment of such primitive linguistic devices constitutes clear evidence that language has failed its cognitive purpose. Mythic or doctrinal language is a verbal grimacing, a spoken gesture language, a language employed all but exclusively to invoke, excite and express emotion. It is an exacerbated form of expressive language, vague in intention, imprecise in formulation, uncertified by any conceivable public test. It is the language of outrage—and it portends violence. It dichotomizes the world into the morally exalted and the morally irredeemable, the chosen and the damned, the progressives and the reactionaries, the capitalists and the proletariat, the oppressed and the oppressors, the Gentile and the Jew, the Black and the White, the good guys and the bad. In such a universe violence becomes a predictable necessity. Mythic or doctrinal language is the most perverse form of noncognitive discourse—because those who invoke it are prepared to have us pay the price of its use.[2]

END of Chapter




Steven Kreis, “Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, 1770-1831” in The history Guide, Lectures on Modern European History, 2007 [ available online].


A. James, Gregor, “Metascience & Politics, An Inquiry into the Conceptual Language of Political Science,” 2nd, ed. (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2003).


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[1] Steven Kreis, “Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, 1770-1831” in The history Guide, Lectures on Modern European History, 2007 [ available online].

[2] Gregor, A. James, Metascience & Politics, An Inquiry into the Conceptual Language of Political Science, 2nd, ed. (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2003), pp. 318 - 340.