The Power of Negative Thinking

“Critique” is that form of discourse which seeks to inhabit the experience of the subject from inside, in order to elicit those “valid” features of that experience which point beyond the subject’s present condition —Terry Eagleton, Ideology, xiv

One of the animating ideas of the non-buddhism critique is that contemporary x-buddhism persistently “denies its own promises and potentialities.” That phrase is from Herbert Marcuse’s 1960 essay “A Note on Dialectic.”* In this post, I will briefly present Marcuse’s notion of dialectical, or negative, thinking. Then, I will suggest ways that readers might use this analytical tool in their own encounters with x-buddhist teachers, literature, on-line sites and beyond. Finally, I will make a few predictions.

The Concept and Practice of Negative Thinking

Marcuse’s concept—and practice—of negative thinking is encapsulated in Hegel’s definition of thinking itself: “Thinking is essentially the negation of that which is immediately before us.” To disabuse the reader of the excuse that this is an abstract philosophical principle, Marcuse immediately says that it is, on the contrary, “saturated with experience—”

experience of a world in which the unreasonable becomes reasonable and, as such, determines the facts; in which unfreedom is the condition of freedom, and war the guarantor of peace. This world contradicts itself (64).

The negative is thus “the central category of dialectic” (64). It is so because thinking the negative is what enables us to recognize that the status quo—the conglomeration of socially posited and accepted “facts”—maintains itself only through systematic, if often blind, disregard of “the fatal contradictions” which constitute it. For a political thinker like Marcuse, an example of how a fatal contradiction manifests might be the chasm between the American rhetoric of social justice and equality and the reality of injustice and inequality. Continue reading “The Power of Negative Thinking”