By Robert Paul Wolff, Barrington Moore, Jr., and Herbert Marcuse
123 pages
Boston: Beacon Press, 1969.

Comments of Bob Corbett
November 2002

My childhood was lived in a heavily conservative, traditional Roman Catholic neighborhood with strong Irish roots in conservative St. Louis, Missouri. Since I was born just before World War II, my childhood was in the 1940s and 50s, a period of relatively settled life forms, especially in my neighborhood.

From my earliest years I sensed trouble at the heart of this fixed and seemingly absolute world order. My first concerns were theological, though they came long before I had any idea what that word meant. I had difficulties with things that appeared to me to be inconsistent with doctrines that I seemed to sincerely believe. I believed the catechism that told me there was a God and that he was all-powerful, all-knowing, all-seeing and hearing. Yet it seemed inconsistent to me that one would pray the rosary, a prayer delivered to God via Mary, when God would have known the thoughts of the prayer before they were even uttered or thought by us.

It wasn’t that my thoughts were profound; in fact they were silly and any decent theologian could have carefully and tenderly explained them to my 8 year old person in a way that I might well have been convinced and my concerns disappeared. But I quickly learned that thoughts were not utterable. They were dangerous, even wicked and I had to learn to suppress them.

In my early teens I became deeply distressed at the U.S. foreign policy that led us into the Korean War, sensing that this was quite different from World War II, but that the differences didn’t matter, one was supposed to shut up and support the war, but I was a bit older and learning that I couldn’t just conform my acts to the “shoulds” of my society.

Soon too I had to confront a personal outrage that was more than I could bear. At high school in 1953 I met Harry Jones, the first black American whom I had ever “really” met. This was also the very first year in which there were integrated high schools in the Roman Catholic schools of St. Louis. (The public schools integrated later.) Harry was an excellent chess player and I was on fire with chess. I invited him over to my house to play chess and we traveled there by bus after class one day. I learned immediately that Harry was not welcomed in my neighborhood, and my loving and caring parents explained to me in very gentle language, that God had made people differently and that it was important that each person stay where he or she belonged. I didn’t understand this at all.

My life of rebellion had begun. However, given that I lived in a very loving and supportive family, my early “rebellions” – my religious puzzles, my anti-war sentiment, my desire to integrate Harry and other black classmates into my world were not treated as horrors in my home. They were seen by my parents as egregious mistakes, and things they didn’t share in the least, but they had respect for my person and tried to impress upon me the “truth” which they knew, but they tolerated my aberrations lovingly and caringly.

I came to rebellion and opposition to many social, political and personal patterns of our society within that milieu. In fact I developed a life form of a considerable “alternative” nature which within in few years left me at profound odds with the life and values of my parents and the neighborhood and religion in which I had grown up. Yet my lifestyle was accepted, though not approved by my family. I never asked or much cared about the views of anyone else.

In my own life I encountered many others with different views and ways of living from me. This was especially true with the political, racial, economic and personal lifestyle views of the majority of my society, and I ended up closely allied with the radical political left and the movement of the sixties we called the hippie way of life. Nonetheless, my FORMS of expression of my lifestyle were different from those others. While I did become rather antagonistic to capitalism, and vehemently opposed to U.S. foreign policy and the racism and sexism of our society, I didn’t express myself in violence (though non-violent civil disobedience was a regular part of my life), and I choose not to express myself in the popular dissident forms of sexual experimentation and the world of drugs. I was rather traditional in some forms of my life, and radical in others.

But most of all I was tolerant of the views of others. I would vehemently attempt to convince people of arguments which I believed, but I avoided demonizing my opponents in the area of what we believed and expressed. In the political world I felt forced to favor and work for laws and social acts which were consistent with my views and did support the intolerance imposed by any law – a law by definition makes its violation intolerable.

I grew to think of this lived form of “toleration” as what tolerance was.

I’m not sure when my discomfort began, but I would imagine it must have been in the late 1970s or early 1980s when the concept of what we today call “political correctness” came to be more noticeable to me. For a long time I was simply aggravated by what seemed to me a terrible intolerance growing within the heart of the political left – for many years my comfortable home. After a number of years, and particularly in the past 8-10 years I became increasingly alarmed at what appeared to me the growing intolerance of difference, especially within the community of the political left where I had always expected the greatest amount of tolerance. It fact tolerance seemed to me no longer there in any significant manner.

For a long time I tried to mainly suppress these feelings, with the exception of expressing my concerns to those who would listen, condemning the increasing acts of intolerance in the name of political correctness which I witnessed. Finally, however, the levels of intolerance I was witnessing and experiencing have become such that I find I am so troubled I can not simply let things go. I have to deal with this festering discontent and see where I will stand and what I will, if anything.

Finally, in the last few days I returned to an old classic, A CRITIQUE OF PURE TOLERANCE, a relatively tolerant book that I knew from the mid-1960s to see if the discussions of three very different political philosophers – Kantian Robert Paul Wolff, scientist Barrington Moore Jr., and radical New Leftist Herbert Marcuse, could enlighten me on this issue and get me started in ways to deal with my present discontent.

The three essay are:

  1. Robert Paul Wolff “Beyond Tolerance” from which I learned a good deal of historical information, but didn’t find the issues I was concerned with much addressed.
  2. Barrington Moore, Jr. “Tolerance and the Scientific Outlook.” I enjoyed this essay, but learned little since he holds a position that I have long held and got from my Existentialist roots, not him. Moore argues that the fundamental values from which one views the question of tolerance cannot themselves come from science, but that reason is nonetheless a very important tool in discovering our values.
  3. Herbert Marcuse “Repressive Tolerance.” I was appalled by Marcuse’s defense of violence in the name of “progressive” tolerance, but still learned a lot from his argument since I was constantly challenged to develop counter-arguments to his own and was reminded of many of these issues which I lived out with the New Left in the 1960s.

I come away from this re-read of an old friend, with a much better understanding of the issues, but unresolved; more puzzled that ever, more sympathetic to my intuitive discontent, yet in many ways more confused and dissatisfied than before I re-read the three essays.

“Beyond Tolerance” by Robert Paul Wolff.

Wolff argues that tolerance is seen as the central virtue in the United States’ pluralistic democracy and he will argue against this view. He argues that the problem was originally seen as an issue of the SELF vs the GOVERNMENT. But, this view gave way to a notion of the state as being made up not so much of discrete individuals, but of a wide variety of groups to which one belonged. Thus the notion of tolerance today, on his view, is to tolerate every GROUP which can muster any significant popular and political support. But, Wolff points out that while there is a great deal of tolerance of such groups in the U.S., there hasn’t for a long period of history been as much tolerance for the maverick individual. The Amish, as a group might well be tolerated, but the individual beatnik is not.

He claims that there have been three dominant views toward tolerance in the U.S.

  1. Toleration is a necessary evil in a democracy, but the ideal would be full orthodoxy.
  2. Since the U.S. has a representative democracy as opposed to a classical democracy of everyone having his or her immediate voice, individuals must have their voice heard by membership in voluntary organizations which represent their interests.
  3. The human is seen as social by nature, and thus participation in small groups, the sum of which themselves constitute the nation state is the only way for the individuals to both get a voice for his or her particular view and yet remain true to the social ideal we each aspire to.

    Wolff sees the ideal of this version of tolerance as group membership within a larger state to be best exemplified by the nature of tolerance in some of the very large and relatively open cities of the world – New York, Paris or London. There is a huge variety of individuals, but each can find his or her niche in particular groups that serve their particular social way to be.

Wolff is at pains to show that there is an opposing view to this notion of tolerance in the more conservative views of Edmund Burke and Emile Durkheim. On their view human being is not by nature an individual seeking meaning in a social environment, but first and foremost a member of the social community and an individual only secondarily. It is within the social group, on Burke and Durkheim’s view, that the human being becomes fully human. Manifestations of individualism are more pathological to the person.

Wolff raises three objections to his notion of pluralism as it exists in his society in the 1960s.

  1. There is a tendency for the strong to “legitimate” groups and the transition to “new groups” has a harder time gaining respectability.
  2. On the referee theory of government in which the federal government sets the conditions of competition and then groups form to compete, the government has great power to limit new groups in rising to power.
  3. Finally he argues that the abstract theory itself is weak. There are too many issues, on Wolff’s view, which are not issues of particular groups, but the society as a whole and on this view of tolerance there is no place for them.

Wolff concludes that pluralist democracy with its view of tolerance via group membership was a beneficent and humane form of government at one time, but this time has gone. “There is need for a new philosophy of community, beyond pluralism and beyond tolerance.”

“Tolerance and the Scientific Outlook” Barrington Moore, Jr.

Moore’s argument is a rather common one. He makes a distinction between facts and values and argues that while science can do a great deal to bring us quite close to the rational necessity of holding certain factual claims, reason cannot do quite the same for values.

Thus, it follow for him that there will always be a gap in arguments for tolerance between the values which give rise to this state or that state, and reason cannot finally decide these issues. Nonetheless, for Moore, reason is still the best tool we have.

In his argument Moore is careful to point out that he collapses the general notion of “reason” as it is used in the intellectual and academic world with the notion of “science” more strictly used. For his purposes they are one and the same.

Within this frame he indicates that the GAP between certainty and the results of reason always exists – even strict science never yields certain knowledge, -- but, there is a wider gap in matters of value. But Moore is quite confident that if we rigorously examine social situations with the tools of reason there will be results strongly suggested by reason and allow us to plot a course.

One tool which immediately comes to mind in relation to tolerance is the harm principle: Avoid doing that which brings unnecessary harm to the person or property of another. And Moore embraces this.

However, he argues that harm alone (thus utilitarianism alone) cannot be give us a full account of tolerance. There is a second criterion which he calls an “aesthetic” criterion in which we come to recognize things as inherently having value. This will be more difficult to discover and define in any universal form.

In general I had few disagreements with Moore’s views, but one assumption he made did trouble me a great deal. He allows on his argument that trusting in a person’s views of the world and thus TOLERATING the person, assumed that people were capable of reasoned thought, and motivated to arrive at their values via that method. But, this is patently false on both counts, and thus we are left with some ideal notions about tolerance, but not much that can help us deal with tolerance in the society in which we live.

“Repressive Tolerance” Herbert Marcuse.

Marcuse argues that there is no such thing as tolerance in the abstract. We tolerate this particular something, but that each act of tolerance assumes the non-tolerance of not tolerating the thing we tolerate. Thus in tolerance we choose the nature of our world. We make a necessary choice.

Marcuse then asserts what he calls the progressive notion of tolerance and explains that his argument will be to look at the question of tolerance which moves toward it. One must, on Marcuse’s view, take a stand and he himself stands for tolerating a society which leads to greater freedom and to then oppose a “tolerance” of things that thwart that goal.

“However, this tolerance cannot be indiscriminate and equal with respect to the contents of expression, neither in word nor in deed, it cannot protect false words and wrong deeds which demonstrate that they contradict and counteract the possibilities of liberation. Such indiscriminate tolerance is justified in harmless debates, in conversation, in academic discussion; it is indispensable in the scientific enterprise, in private religion. But society cannot be indiscriminate where the pacification of existence, where freedom and happiness themselves are at state: here, certain things cannot be said, cannot be proposed, certain behavior cannot be permitted without making tolerance an instrument for the continuation of servitude.”

[In passing I must note that this seems to me a good description of precisely what it is within contemporary political correctness that troubles me. It is the absolute vehemence about the truth of the values such that anything outside that world must and should be suppressed and not tolerated.]

The essence of Marcuse’s whole position is revealed in this quote. He knows the ultimate truth, or rather he has taken a stand. One must, on his view take a stand, and having taken in then one applies a consequentialist analysis to that value and what supports the value is allowed (tolerated) and what doesn’t is not allowed. Marcuse even builds a defense of necessary violence in defense of “progressive” tolerance since if one does not one is supporting “regressive” tolerance. We are required to choose, and having chosen actions follow from the choices.

However, there is a distinction to be made on his view, between the tolerance of the status quo and revolutionary, or visionary tolerance. Views of goodness grow up and people struggle toward them and create a status quo. But the status quo tends to get sloppy and loses its critical edge, its eye on the future and it stagnates and degenerates into various versions of privilege. What must be given the strong benefit of the doubt, what should almost always be tolerated is the heretic.

“Tolerance is first and foremost for the sake of the heretics – the historical road toward ‘humanitas’ appears as heresy: targaret of persecution by the powers that be. Heresy by itself, however, is no token of truth”

This is a troubling notion. Note the tension that tolerance is to be given to the heretic and there is an implied benefit of the doubt to the heretic, but the heretic per se has no special relationship to the truth, so the heretic may thus be dead wrong. Yet we tolerate the heretic but not the status quo. This is because tolerance is never “pure” it is always rigged in favor of the status quo.

Getting much closer to the issues that have been on my own mind of late – the contemporary early 21st century notion of political correctness – Marcuse argues that language is never neutral. Language grows out of what post moderns call the “construction” of reality and there is no one to one correspondence between word and reference that is fully identical. “Colored,” “Negro,” “Black,” African American” are four terms of the past 80 years which have referred to people of color in the United States. But those terms are not simply shifts of “preference,” but each term is connected with a particular construction of reality, an understanding of reality. To someone who is conscious of the meanings of the constructions, the hints and reminders of the African origins (historically) of the culture in which most black Americas live, is important to constructing who these people are and how they are to be understood and treated.

Marcuse does recognize a tremendous difficulty, one which Moore announced but then ignored – namely that this view presupposes as a condition for democratic pluralism, that people have the intellectual skills and motivation to act with reflective consciousness. But, Marcuse knows this is not so and that building the body politic is done within that limitation. In some ways so does modern political correctness, but not clearly. There is the suggestion that if only we talk differenctly, then somehow, down the road, whether we understand it at all or a little bit or whatever, that positive ACTIONS will begin to follow on the heels of the linguistic changes.

Marcuse goes on to examine social change and regards it as progressive (toward greater liberty for the mass of citizens) or regressive, the opposite of progressive. Change, on his view is not neutral any more than language is, and thus violence itself must be seen as progressive or regressive and Marcuse defends the use of violence in the name of progressive good. “Suppression of the regressive one is a prerequisite for the strengthening of the progressive ones.”

“When tolerance mainly serves the protection and preservation of a repressive society, when it serves to neutralize opposition and to render men immune against other and better forms of life, then tolerance has been perverted.”

And finally, coming to the central issue in tolerance for me – the individual, Marcuse, very much like the conservatives Edmund Burke and Emile Durkheim, argues to do away with individual liberty in the name of the good of his ideal of social good:

“The individual potential is first a negative one, a position of the potential of his society: of aggression, guilt, feeling, ignorance, resentment, cruelty which vitiates his life instincts. If the identity of the self is to be more than the immediate realization of this potential (undesirable for the individual as human being), then it requires repression and sublimation, conscious transformation.”

Herbert Marcuse seems to come to virtually the same position the Inquisition did within Roman Catholic theology. Rome valued its notion of the immortal soul and sacrificed individuals to that ideal. Marcuse values his view of humanization and will sacrifice individuals to that ideal.


I came away from my reading of A CRITIQUE OF PURE TOLERANCE rather disappointed. It was a good read for me and I learned a lot, but what I learned was more background information for my own current struggle.

None of these three authors talk about my problem. I am, on their view, a throw back to an earlier period. They see the issue mainly to be the state versus GROUPS of citizens with various goals and orientation. I am struggling with the INDIVIDUAL in opposition to the state. Of course I am not so naïve as to think the individual him or herself can oppose the state with much success; that’s not my issue. Rather, I have always assumed that the body politic (government and civil society) did not nor should not control all of human existence, but only certain parts. The question is: which parts and how much? I have leaned strongly toward a view that the state and society should control the smallest portion possible and that then all other individual acts should be tolerated. But how much is that “smallest portion?” Of course that issue is extremely difficulty and will always be at issue.

In my own lifetime, as I indicated at the outset of these reflections, I saw myself as growing up in the 1940s and 50s in a quite repressive period, and then of being launched into a period of much greater INDIVIDUAL freedom in the 1960s and 70s, only to have that retrenched on very different grounds of repression in the 1990s and today. Today the enemy of tolerance seems to be political correctness, and like the 1940s and 50s, like Marcuse, like the Inquisition and like other dictators, the defenders of the new orthodoxy claim truth and goodness always on their side. I stand increasingly with the individual, in the plurality of various notions of contradictory goods in which I envision a world of a much greater realm of toleration, of where people accept that differences exist and learn to live with those differences.

I’ll have to carry on my own inquiry. I got no answers in my retreat to this philosophical classic, but I think I did gain a better understanding of just how lonely is my own position of wanting a world of individuals living in maximal toleration of other individuals with different values and different constructions of the world. I just need to explore it all more fully and carefully.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu