Among Karl Marx’s most famous writings are his Theses on Feuerbach. But who was Feuerbach?
Ludwig Feuerbach was brought up a devout Protestant, and started at university as a student of theology. He then became one of the most brilliant students of Hegel at Berlin university in the 1820s, and a Hegelian academic philosopher, though, as Engels remarked, “a never quite orthodox Hegelian”.
In the years after the publication in 1835-6 of David Strauss’s Life of Jesus, which subjected the Bible stories to the same sort of critical sifting of historical evidence as other stories of long ago, Feuerbach changed.
He rejected Hegel’s moderate liberal politics and Hegel’s rationalised version of Protestant Christianity. He became an atheist, a republican, and a communist.
“What do I take as my principle? Ego and alter ego, ‘egoism’ and ‘communism’... Without egoism you have no head; without communism you have no heart” (FB p.295).
He published a series of writings between 1839 and 1843 demolishing Hegel’s system and calling for “a new philosophy”, empiricist and what he might have called humanist had the word been current then.
The full-length book among those writings was The Essence of Christianity, published in 1841, which argued Feuerbach’s view that “only in man’s wretchedness does God have his birthplace. Only from man does God derive all his determinations. God is what man would like to be: he is man’s own essence and goal conceived as a real being” (POF p.48).
“The divine being is nothing else than the human being, or rather the human nature, purified, freed from the limits of the individual man... contemplated and revered as another, a distinct being” (EOC p.14).
“The history of mankind consists of nothing else than a continuous and progressive conquest of limits, which at a given time pass for the limits of humanity”. But religion turned away from that progress to an idealised human essence seen as God (EOC p.152-3).
“Religion is truth only when it affirms human attributes as divine, false when in the form of theology it... separates God from man as a different being” (EOC p.333).
This was somewhat one-sided, in that it saw the religious God only as an alienated form of human love and sympathy, and not also, as it is, an alienated form of human vengefulness, malice, and cruelty. As Engels would remark, Feuerbach “appears shallow, in comparison with Hegel, in his treatment of the antithesis of good and evil... it does not occur to Feuerbach to investigate the historical role of moral evil”.
Nevertheless “the liberating effect of this book” in the conditions of the time was, so Engels wrote later, immense.
“With one blow, it pulverised the contradiction, in that without circumlocutions it placed materialism on the throne again. Nature exists independently of all philosophy. It is the foundation upon which we human beings, ourselves products of nature, have grown up. Nothing exists outside nature and man, and the higher beings our religious fantasies have created are only the fantastic reflection of our own essence. The spell was broken; the [Hegelian] ‘system’ was exploded and cast aside, and the contradiction, shown to exist only in our imagination, was dissolved...
“Enthusiasm was general; we all became at once Feuerbachians. How enthusiastically Marx greeted the new conception and how much — in spite of all critical reservations — he was influenced by it, one may read in The Holy Family” [a joint work of Marx and Engels, written in 1844].
Mary Ann Evans [George Eliot] would translate The Essence of Christianity into English in 1854.
“We just don’t want any more theology”, wrote Feuerbach. “The place of belief has been taken by unbelief and that of the Bible by reason... religion and the Church by politics” (FB p.148). “Contemporary man is turning to politics [because] he has found out that the religion of Christianity is poison to his political energy” (FB p.151). “Once we have abolished the Protestant dichotomy between heaven where we are masters, and earth where we are slaves... Protestantism [i.e., for Feuerbach, the ethos of human love and community which he took to be represented by Protestantism in mystified form] will soon lead us to a republican state” (FB p.152).
Ludwig Feuerbach’s older brother, Karl Wilhelm Feuerbach, a gifted mathematician, had in fact turned to radical politics as a student. Jailed for that reason in 1827, Karl Wilhelm suffered a breakdown, attempted suicide, never regained his health after release from jail, and died at age 34, in 1834.
Ludwig Feuerbach himself proved unable to do what he preached. He could get no academic positions, partly because of his radical views, and partly because of his awkward personal manner. From 1837 until his death in 1872 he lived in small villages, subsisting first on his wife’s property income and then on help from friends and comrades.
Engels wrote to Feuerbach, trying to draw him into political activity, but failed. Feuerbach had a sort of political following in the literary, sentimental “True Socialism” which flourished briefly in 1845-7, and is criticised in the Communist Manifesto; but Feuerbach himself had no active relation with the “True Socialists”.
In the revolutionary years of 1848-9, he was elected to the Frankfurt Parliament and accepted an invitation from students in Heidelberg to give lectures on his philosophy. He played little role in the parliament, and soon he returned to his village.
Soon after Marx’s Capital was published in 1867, Feuerbach read it and joined the German Social Democratic Party. By then he was old and ill, and did not do much. The party helped him by financial aid in his last years.
Feuerbach wrote a series of books as follow-ups to his gushing and aphoristic writings of 1839-43, but none of them had success then or since; none have been translated; none moved on properly from critical discussion of theology to positive investigation of the world.
As Engels commented: “Cobweb-spinning eclectic flea-crackers had taken possession of the chairs of philosophy, while Feuerbach, who towered above them all, had to rusticate and grow sour in a little village... This reclusion... compelled him, who, of all philosophers, was the most inclined to social intercourse, to produce thoughts out of his solitary head instead of in amicable and hostile encounters with other men of his calibre”.
Marx is often described as having been a follower of Hegel in his youth. In fact Marx’s attitudes had been shaped by Feuerbach’s slashing critique of Hegel long before the young Marx began to develop his own independent views; and there is no evidence that Marx ever went back on his acceptance of Feuerbach’s critique of Hegel.
The title of Zawar Hanfi’s recent selection of Feuerbach’s writings comes from a January 1842 article attributed to Marx, which declared: “There is no other road for you to truth and freedom except that leading through the brook of fire” [Feuerbach, in German, being literally fire-brook].
Chris Arthur (The Dialectics of Labour, ch.9) reports that the 1842 article is “now thought not to be [Marx’s] work”. However, “it expresses very well Marx’s attitude to Feuerbach” in the early 1840s.
Marx certainly declared: “Feuerbach is the only one who has a serious, critical attitude to the Hegelian dialectic and who has made genuine discoveries in this field. He is in fact the true conqueror of the old philosophy” (1844 Manuscripts).
Further: “Who revealed the mystery of the [Hegelian] ‘system’? Feuerbach. Who annihilated the dialectics of concepts, the war of the gods known to the philosophers alone? Feuerbach. Who substituted for the old rubbish... Man? Feuerbach, and Feuerbach alone. And he did more...” (The Holy Family).
When Marx and Engels decided to “settle accounts with our former philosophical conscience” in The German Ideology, the parts of the unfinished text dealing with other writers were scornful polemic. The part dealing with Feuerbach is critical of the semi-religious character of Feuerbach’s concept of what is to replace religion, and the way he converted the term “communist”, which “in the real world means the follower of a definite revolutionary party”, into a mere moralising category.
Yet it is respectful, not scornful; and the bulk of the part on Feuerbach is not discussion of Feuerbach, but a positive attempt to develop Marx’s and Engels’s own understanding of historical and economic development. Marx and Engels thought that it was Feuerbach, above all, whom they must go beyond, and that it was only by developing actual theory of real history, and not by narrowly “philosophical” critique, that they could go beyond Feuerbach.
The theses which Marx wrote in 1845, later famously described by Engels as “the first document in which is deposited the brilliant germ of the new world outlook”, were theses on Feuerbach. Engels himself also wrote theses on Feuerbach that same year, which overlap with Marx’s but add illumination on some points.
Feuerbach criticised not only Hegel’s system, but also his dialectical method, and proposed a different dialectics, one of the development of knowledge through dialogue between the investigator and reality, self-critical revaluations, and dialogue between different investigators.
For Hegel, dialectics was more or less a synonym for idealism, which was more or less a synonym for philosophical science. It denoted the inbuilt process by which determinations generate contraries, and then a third element, and then “pass over” into higher determinations. Hegel, not one to undersell himself, described his dialectics as “the exposition of God as he is in his eternal essence before the creation of nature and a finite mind”.
“Dialectics is not a monologue that speculation carries on with itself, but a dialogue between speculation and empirical reality. A thinker is a dialectician only in so far as he is his own opponent” (FB p.72).
“The absolute philosopher said, or at least thought of himself — naturally as a thinker and not as a man — ‘La vérité c’est moi’, in a way analogous to the absolute monarch claiming, ‘L’État c’est moi’. or the absolute God claiming, ‘L’être c’est moi’. The human philosopher, on the other hand, says: Even in thought, even as a philosopher, I am a man in togetherness with men. The true dialectic is not a monologue of the solitary thinker with himself. It is a dialogue between ‘I’ and ‘You’ “ (POF p.71-2). “Not alone, but only with others, does one reach notions and reason in general” (POF p.58-9).
Feuerbach is sometimes thought by Marxists to have represented a reaction from Hegel into a crude reductionist materialism, which Marx and Engels had subsequently to correct. One famous saying by Feuerbach gives credence to this view: “Man is what he eats”.
Feuerbach was a scatter-gun writer, fond of resounding phrases not to be taken literally; and this was one of them. (In German, it is a pun: the words for “is” [ist] and “eats” [isst] are similar). The phrase occurred in a passage of a book review where Feuerbach condemned the poverty which left many people in Germany then with inadequate food. “If you want to improve the people, give them better food instead of declamations against sin. Man is what he eats”.
Feuerbach himself, in his own lifetime, complained about the misuse of the single sentence to present him as a crude materialist. (See Feuerbach’s ‘Man is what he eats’: a rectification, by Melvin Cherno, Journal of the History of Ideas 24/ 3, 1963).
In fact Marx’s, and Engels’s, later criticism of Feuerbach was that he did not follow through consistently enough on his materialism. Feuerbach found it difficult to see materialism as more than a passive, registering-the-facts empiricism, and thus sometimes argued that what was needed was a sort of synthesis of materialism and idealism.
The first point against Hegelian philosophy, for Feuerbach, was to start with empirical reality and test our ideas by empirical reality. At one point he wrote, defiantly: “The writer of these lines would not mind at all if... he is accused of subscribing to empiricism” (FB p.137).
“The deepest secrets are to be found in the simplest natural things, but, pining away for the Beyond, the speculative phantast treads them under his feet” (FB p.94).
He showed, in a first sketch of an argument that would be more developed by Marx, that Hegel’s dialectics appeared to dissolve the empirically-given by critical analysis, but always ended with speculative “proofs” of the supposed logical necessity of what in fact it knew only empirically. “At first everything is overthrown, but then everything is put again in its former place” (POF p.33-4).
Feuerbach insists on the ineradicable variousness of reality, which can be assayed only by empirical investigation, and condemns the speculative method which would deduce all that variety from a single principle.
“The form of both Hegel’s conception and method is that of exclusive time alone, not that of tolerant space; his system knows only subordination and succession, not coordination and coexistence...” (FB p.54).
And in Hegel it is not even real time. “Speculative philosophy has turned into an... attribute of the Absolute the development which it has detached from time. This detachment of development from time is... the conclusive proof that the speculative philosophers have done with their Absolute what theologians have done with their God who possesses all emotions of men without having emotion...” (FB p.162).
[Real] “time, and not the Hegelian dialectic, is the medium of uniting opposites, contradictories, in one and the same subject” (EOC p.23). Things change because they develop in time, not because dialectics tell us that they unite opposites within them.
Feuerbach wrote of a “genetico-critical method” which would replace the speculative method of Hegel by one which would start with real things in order to examine and question their origin and development (FB p.85).
Science, wrote Feuerbach, is a process of working “to elevate something from being an object of ordinary, everyday life to an object of thought — i.e. an object of knowledge” (FB p.136).
Philosophy should “take as its starting point not its distinction from the empirical science but its identity with it... To be sure, an empiricism that is unable or unwilling to raise itself to the level of philosophical thought is limited and poor. But equally limited is a philosophy that is unable to descend to the level of empiricism” (FB p.137).
“Life and truth are... only to be found where... activity is united with passivity” (FB p.164).
But tending, inconsistently, to think of human recognition of reality as only a passive registering of facts, Feuerbach wrote of this unity of activity with passivity as a sort of synthesis of idealism and materialism: “German metaphysics [united with] French sensualism and materialism” (FB p.165). “Reason is the light of nature — and this truth is the barrier against crude materialism” (EOC p.286).
Feuerbach put the argument in terms shaped by the sexist prejudices of his time.
“Hegel represents the masculine principle of self-autonomy and self-activity; in short the idealist principle. Schelling [another German philosopher of Hegel’s time] represents the feminine principle of receptivity and impressionability; in short, the materialist principle” (FB p.166).
We see the origin of Marx’s comment in the Theses on Feuerbach that “the active side was developed by idealism”. “Activity” appears as “the idealist principle” because Feuerbach leaves out of the scheme labour, production, construction, manufacturing, even experiment.
Elsewhere in Feuerbach’s writings are hints of a way beyond the dichotomy. Nature is not something passively given. “There are even plants and animals that have changed so much under human care that they are no longer to be found in nature” (FB p.293).
He even prefigured part of Marx’s idea in the famous 11th Thesis on Feuerbach (“the point is to change it”):
“’Science does not resolved the mystery of life’. That may be true. But what follows from this?... That you turn to life, to praxis. Doubts that theory cannot resolve are resolved by praxis” (FB p.293).
Sometimes, too, Feuerbach writes of going beyond philosophy altogether, as Marx would. “Desire not to be a philosopher, as distinct from a man; be nothing else than a thinking man” (POF p.67). “No religion! — that is my religion; no philosophy! — that is my philosophy” (FB p.296).
Feuerbach also coined the idea, famous now because of Marx’s use of it in a preface to Capital, of turning Hegel “upside down”.
“We need only turn the predicate into the subject... that is, only reverse speculative philosophy. In that way, we have the unconcealed, pure, and untarnished truth” (FB p.154).
Feuerbach knew that human nature was not an essence inhering in every individual, but constituted only by a community of different people. “Truth is only the totality of human life and of the human essence. The single man for himself [does not] possess the essence of man... The essence of man is contained only in the community and unity of man with man” (POF p.71).
Often, though, he would slide back into seeing progress in a new philosophy that was half-idealist, half-materialist; or in a new code of life that was “communist”, but communist as a sort of new moral code or demystified religion.
He never managed seriously to investigate the development of human communities as a historical process. As Engels put it, “to him history is altogether an uncanny domain in which he feels ill at ease”.
Thus Feuerbach was never able to carry out his own recommendations, to turn from speculation to science and to politics.
Engels: “The cult of abstract man, which formed the kernel of Feuerbach’s new religion, had to be replaced by the science of real men and of their historical development. This further development of Feuerbach’s standpoint beyond Feuerbach was inaugurated by Marx...”
POF: Principles of the Philosophy of the Future, by Feuerbach. Hackett Publishing Company, 1986.
EOC: The Essence of Christianity, by Feuerbach. Harper Torchbooks, 1957.
FB: The Fiery Brook, selected writings by Feuerbach, edited by Zawar Hanfi. Verso, 2012.
Other quotations are from Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the Close of Classical German Philosophy.