[Longish introductory piece on Feuerbach I wrote that never got used. Thought would put it up here anyway (will insert footnotes/formatting when I can work out how)]
Ludwig Feuerbach: Atheism as Historical Destiny
Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872), if he is remembered at all, generally appears in intellectual history as a footnote to Marx. Indeed, Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach (1845) and, to a lesser extent, Engels’ Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886) have for a long time determined the reception of Feuerbach as a minor intellectual and philosophical figure, the last of the great idealists before the serous critique of political economy and the turn to practice took the wind out of philosophy’s sails. Even those who would in no way understand themselves as heirs to Marx’s work still take his critique of Feuerbach at face-value: Feuerbach remains wedded to pre-political conceptions of consciousness and his critiques of philosophy are stuck in the same metaphysical frameworks he claims to have broken out of. But Feuerbach’s ideas have had a peculiar tenacity – his critique of Christianity is widely accepted even by those who have never heard his name, and his reflections on the centrality of humanity prefigure ideas that didn’t truly take hold in parts of the world until the twentieth century.
The son of a famous Bavarian lawyer, Feuerbach married into money and was able to pursue a life of relative ease, marred only by the death of a daughter and his early more-or-less permanent dismissal from university teaching on account of his anti-religious views. But Feuerbach is far more than a precursor to Marx, and his contributions to the history of critical thinking about both philosophy and religion bear careful examination, to avoid over-determination both by the Marxist tradition and by other stereotypical images of Feuerbach, as a naïve humanist for example, that persist. Feuerbach is a kind of atheist, of course, an explicitly anthropocentric thinker (albeit one with a comprehensive theory of nature) and was, briefly at least, an incredibly popular and influential European thinker (‘we all became at once Feuerbachians’ as Engels later claimed). His star waned with the collapse of the 1848 revolution, and his later work never quite maintained the complexity of his earlier insights, but his influence remains important, if undertheorised, to this day, and his thought has been useful, in however attenuated a form, to theologians, philosophers, political theorists and anthropologists.
Feuerbach’s most important idea, as simple as it is ingenuous, is that, ‘the true sense of Theology is Anthropology’. In other words, instead of looking to the heavens and the vagaries of religious belief in order to understand religion, we need to turn the question around: what is it in us that needs to believe? Why do we hanker after immortality? Why do we project all those things we admire in ourselves – the capacity to forgive, to create, to love – on to something transcendent we cannot see and cannot prove? Feuerbach’s answer lies in demonstrating that every aspect of what we call ‘God’ corresponds to some feature or need of human nature. We project human capacities on to something beyond because what we imagine is possible goes far beyond what we as individual mortal beings can achieve. As individuals we cannot possibly hope to be as wonderful as we would like to be, argues Feuerbach, but instead of assuming there must be an entity that is a perfect form of man (immortal instead of mortal, infinitely benevolent instead of petty, all-knowing instead of ignorant), we should steal these qualities back from religion and understand them in their rightful place – as human ambitions, not godly attributes.
The publication of Feuerbach’s major work, 1841’s The Essence of Christianity, which was translated into English by George Eliot, caused a scandal in Europe and helped many young atheists, anarchists and communists (including Marx) to formulate their opposition to church, state and philosophical dogma. Feuerbach remained committed to his radical thesis, and became even more myth-busting in his later years as he attempted to prove that even the loftiest sentiments have their origins in more practical, human concerns such as eating and the need for affection. He advocated a combination of rationalism and sensualism that took as its object not the fevered brain of the philosopher, nor the fantasies of religion, but real living human beings, understood as a species, as a collective social and political subject. What Feuerbach ultimately proposes is a thorough examination of human nature, its needs, successes and desires. It is only then, he argues, that we will have a complete ‘philosophy of the future’.
This essay attempts to place Feuerbach in his intellectual context firstly as a follower then critic of G. W. F. Hegel, secondly as a surprisingly careful reader of Christian thought, despite his reputation as a vulgar atheist and precursor to Nietzsche, and finally, as a serious thinker with continued importance, even if much of his work is fragmentary, historically specific and overtly polemical. The main focus here will be on The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach’s central work, and the place where his interaction with Biblical ideas is most systematically carried out. Feuerbach’s subtle relation to the related disciplines of philosophical anthropology, theology and philosophy lead him to be an incredibly important, if not the most important thinker of ‘anthropotheism’, as Speshnev described it. Anthropotheism, the attributing of human characteristics to Gods, is an important starting point for Feuerbach, as it is this practice, coupled with his understanding and subversive use of Hegel’s method that leads him to make several important arguments about Christianity. ‘Man has his highest being, his God, in himself; not in himself as an individual, but in his essential nature, his species’. It is with this insight that Feuerbach remains closer to the clams of Christianity than might be imagined, for it is not that Christianity must be abolished, as simplistic understandings of Feuerbach would have it, but that it must be returned to man as his own invention but preserved in its moral and theoretical glory. The history of religion is thus the history of man.
Feuerbach as Student of Hegel
Feuerbach, originally a theology student, studied under Hegel in Berlin in 1824-1826, switching to philosophy under the influence of his teacher before financial difficulties forced him to leave Berlin for Erlanger, where things were cheaper. His 1828 thesis, De ratione una, universali, infinita (‘On the infinitude, unity, and commonality of Reason’) was a study of the role of reason as the activity of the universal, was heavily influenced by Hegel’s own conception of the centrality of rational thought. But there were already important differences in Feuerbach’s approach. Whereas Hegel had described Christianity as the high-point of thought, Feuerbach opposed the universality of human reason to what he saw as the anti-rational egotism and individuality of the existing Christianity of the time. Feuerbach’s intervention into this debate took place against the backdrop of a larger concern at the time with the question of personalism.
In his 1828 dissertation Feuerbach made the following criticism of the contemporary state of philosophy: ‘Too many philosophers of our time want to make the single and contingent individual (that is, themselves) into the principle and content of their philosophising’. Whilst Feuerbach’s claim might be seen as, in part, an ad hominem attack on his immediate philosophical predecessors (amongst whom Hegel, Fichte, Jacobi and Novalis) and the very idea of a ‘philosopher’, it is also a criticism of the role of personality in conservative Christian theology and hierarchical political forms. Feuerbach saw a homology between the personal God and personal monarchy and private property in the increasingly common right-wing German attacks on Hegel in the 1830s. Some of these conservative anti-Hegelians took up positions diametrically opposed to what would become Feuerbach’s own: Göschel’s ‘political Christology’ which derived the principle of monarchical authority from the divine personality of Christ, for example. Feuerbach argued that an egoistical belief in personal immortality resulted in the decline of ancient political life, as well as bolstering the centrality of the isolated self-seeking bourgeois of civil society. ‘Virtueless, egotistic religiosity,’ he writes, ‘is poison to man’s political energy.’
Against this perceived ‘individualism’, Feuerbach construed ‘thinking’ to be the process by which we not only attain a universal object, but become universal in ourselves. In opposition to the apparent individualism of his immediate predecessors, Feuerbach, argues in the Preface to the ‘Principles of the Philosophy of the Future’ that ‘At present, the task is not to invent a theory of man, but to pull man out of the mire in which he is bogged down … to establish a critique of human philosophy through a critique of divine philosophy.’
Following the 1828 thesis, Feuerbach’s early work, Thoughts on Death and Immortality, published anonymously in 1830, was a critique of the idea of personal immortality, and a historical attack (which he would later expand greatly in The Essence of Christianity) on the personal God of Christianity as ‘the religion of the pure self, the person as the single spirit’. The publication of this work, although anonymous, was immediately linked to Feuerbach and as a result, he lost any chance of working in any of the conservative state-run universities in Germany. In the end he retreated to Barvaria, living off the proceeds of his wife’s inheritance, which came from the manufacture of porcelain.
The Essence of Christianity
In some ways, the ground had been laid out for Feuerbach’s systematic critique of Christianity, 1841’s The Essence of Christianity. David Strauss’ The Life of Jesus had scandalously argued that Christian miracles operated as myths rather than as truths. But it is in The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach’s most consistent and influential work, that the originality, and courage, of his thinking emerges. Feuerbach’s critique of divine philosophy takes the form of an attempt first and foremost to understand the motivations behind religious belief. As such it can be understood as an anthropological text, a philosophical text, a theological text and as a form of history of the very structure of religious belief. It inaugurates a systematic form of humanism, which is at the same time a plea to turn all conceptual work into the celebration of man, and not his continued alienation in religious forms. Feuerbach’s theories were immediately important for those dissatisfied with Hegelian conservatism vis-à-vis religion and the state, for certain radical theologians, as well as in the twentieth century, those for who the image or ideology would be – Guy Debord and the Situations, Ernst Bloch, even Althusser, that well-known theoretical anti-humanist, would later devote pages and pages dealing with the questions raised by Feuerbach’s philosophy.
In an early section in The Essence of Christianity entitled ‘The Essential Nature of Man’, Feuerbach lays out his theory of human capacities as a way of understanding how these same capacities can be turned towards religious feeling. Feuerbach, common to many philosophers of his age and others, begins by opposing man to ‘brute’. Animals are possessed of an immediate egoistical relation to the world; men and women, on the other hand, possess consciousness ‘in the strict sense’:
Consciousness in the strictest sense is present only in a being to whom his species, his essential nature, is an object of thought.
Feuerbach’s theory of thought, the idea that thought, all thinking is immediately human in its structure, is his crucial starting-point. If thought is, in its very nature, anti-individualist, it is because it is thought itself that reveals to us the generic, that is shared, nature of consciousness – the fact that it is something that all humans, by virtue of being human, can perform, regardless of whatever content it contains. As Feuerbach puts it: ‘Where there is this higher consciousness there is a capability of science. Science is the cognisance of species.’ Science here is to be understood in the broadest possible sense, as the sum of all human knowledge and capacities. Whatever knowledge human beings acquire literally belongs to all of them because every new thought or discovery is an immediate reflection of generic human abilities. Feelings of individuality in the face of the anonymous mass of other people or worthlessness in the face of God are basically misunderstandings – or, in Feuerbach’s crucial term, forms of alienation (entfremdung). to feel solipsism or imperfection are indications not of the fundamental truth of human being, but precisely the opposite: the things that are most human – our ability to think, to create, to organised – are, for some reason, handed over to higher authorities whether they be secular ones or religious ones. Thus in the case of the latter phenomenon, God becomes all-powerful, the Creator and infinite, whereas, as Feuerbach will never cease arguing throughout his work, it is human beings that possess the power to create, to invent and to ‘think the infinite’. But this power must be understood as something that the species as a whole is capable of doing, not just brilliant or unique individuals. Feuerbach’s humanism is thus a universalism, a kid of pan-intellectualism in which every human being, living or dead, forms a part of human knowledge as a whole, or at least has the potential to understand the insights of others. A useful example of Feuerbach’s insight can be shown in the idea that once a scientific or mathematical formula has been constructed, however difficult, it becomes possible to explain the achievement to others such that they too can understand it, even if they as individuals would never have come up with the hypothesis themselves. Furthermore, humanity is a cumulative project: ‘Each new man is a new predicate, a new phasis (sic.) of humanity.’
Feuerbach’s claims about the openness of human knowledge and learning is not merely a epistemological claim but also an ethical one: ‘Man is at once I and thou; he can put himself in the place of another.’ (Think of the importance of these categories for the later thinker, Martin Buber). Feuerbach’s project in The Essence of Christianity is keen to stress this ethical dimension. Christianity is not wrong in stressing forgiveness, charity, faith and love, merely, for Feuerbach, that these should be understood as human emotions that are useless if pointed in the direction of heaven, but incredibly powerful if directed towards other humans. Thus both the relationality of Hegelian dialectics, as well as the emphasis on forgiveness and love in the bible indicate for Feuerbach that a formal illusion (that structures are somehow ‘out there’, that human emotions are directed towards the fulfilment of a religious life) has been perpetrated: The species-being of humanity (Gattungwesen) – a term Marx will later use in his early writings is the real being of humanity, not the systems of idealism or Christianity which try to place this real being outside of humanity itself.
But it is not only or paradigmatically in ‘love’ that Feuerbach indicates Gattungswesen, although this is one of his key empirical examples for the truth of our shared nature – it is found also in his discussions of language, for example in ‘Towards a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy’ (1839) where he argues: ‘Language is nothing other than the realization of the species; i.e., the “I” is mediated with the “You” in order, by eliminating their individual separateness, to manifest the unity of the species.’ Althusser argues that Feuerbach owes to Hegel ‘the intersubjectivity of the ‘we’. But it is clear that Feuerbach retains this element of relationality that Hegel first identified in order to demonstrate man’s capacity for transcending himself as an individual.
Thus relationality is doubled for Feuerbach in a way that it is not for Hegel. We can see that there is also a sense in which this relationality is rational (there is a self-relation in thought that paradoxically indicates one’s relation to universality and the species). Feuerbach does not, in the end, overcome this tension between the more domestic I-thou distinction and the rationality of thought in its relation to the species. Instead he draws a direct continuum from sexual contact, the elemental expression of the transcendence of the self, ‘to the love of humanity as the object of self-sacrifice and devotion.’ Unlike Hegel, for Feuerbach, love (rather than society-sanctioned marriage) is a partnership of equality (and not simply the fusion of heterosexual partners). Pulling ‘man’ out of the mire also entails rescuing woman. Feuerbach’s feminism is therefore quite consistent with his ‘properly’ universal humanism: ‘Whereas with the ancient philosophers love was an illegitimate child begotten with the concubine of nature, with modern philosophers it is the legitimate daughter of their philosophy. Woman has been accepted into the community of the spirit; she is the living compendium of philosophy.’
In the Preface to the Second Edition of The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach makes the following appeal:
it is to be hoped that readers whose eyes are not sealed … will admit, even though reluctantly, that my work contains a faithful, correct translation of the Christian religion out of the Oriental language of imagery into plain speech.
This quote highlights the simultaneously sympathetic yet devastating critique of Christianity. Far from simply dismissing the religion, Feuerbach seeks to understand and by doing so reveal its internal truth: ‘It is not I, but religion that worships man’ he claims. Thus Feuerbach’s humanism is less an exaltation of man based on a naïve assumption of man’s glory but rather the drawing out of the value of man already present in religion. The secret of theology is thus anthropology – its true object is not God, or heaven, but man: ‘I .. while reducing theology to anthropology, exalt anthropology, exalt anthropology into theology.’ Feuerbach could indeed be criticised for remaining with the same form as religion (merely replacing God with man), and indeed this is the main historical criticism of Feuerbach from Marx onwards, but it is as a result of a careful dialectical approach to the kernel of religion that he reaches this conclusion rather than as a simple assertion of the value of humankind. Nevertheless, even before Marx launched his attack on Feuerbach in the ‘Theses’ of 1845, Max Stirner, in 1844, published a vicious critique on hat he saw as Feuerbach’s residual theologism:
… how thoroughly theological is the liberation that Feuerbach is labouring to give us. What he says is that we had only mistaken our own essence, and therefore looked for it in the other world, but that now, when we see that God was only our human essence, we must recognise it again as ours and move it back out of the other world and into this … To this we reply: The supreme being is indeed the essence of man, but, just because it is his essence and not he himself, it remains quite immaterial whether we see it outside him and view it as ‘God,’ or find it in him and call it ‘Essence of Man’ or ‘Man.’ I am neither God nor man, neither the supreme essence nor my essence, and therefore it is all one in the main whether I think of the essence as in me or outside me.
Stirner, in his egocentric individualism, ultimately finds no evidence for the existence of any essence of mankind, either in its religious or in its humanist formulations. The universality and generic quality of Feuerbach’s conception of both religion and humanity is simply an illusion for Stirner: ‘essence’ is just as much an article of faith whether it attaches itself to ‘religious’ notions like God or ‘secular’ ones such as mankind. The abstract nature of Feuerbach’s claims regarding thought and emotion, as outlined above, are precisely the problem for both Stirner and, in a different way, Marx a year or so later. There are hints in The Essence of Christianity that Feuerbach has moved beyond a merely idealist or essentialist understanding of thought as abstract. Indeed, he seeks to situate part of his critique of Christianity in the recognition of a changed modern landscape:
I have sketched ... the historical solution of Christianity, and have shown that Christianity has in fact vanished, not only from the reason but from the life of mankind, that it is nothing more than a fixed idea, in flagrant contradiction with our fire and life assurance companies, our railroads and steam-carriages, our picture and sculpture galleries, our military and industrial schools, our theatres and scientific museums.
Yet Marx, in the famous ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ will chastise Feuerbach for precisely neglecting the ‘sensuous’ dimension of human experience:
The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism – that of Feuerbach included – is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence, in contradistinction to materialism, the active side was developed abstractly by idealism – which, of course, does not know real, sensuous activity as such.
Thus even Feuerbach’s conception of the sensuous – of love and relationality – does not manage to escape its idealist character the real historical, social, economic and frequently brutal experience of modern life from the standpoint of those human beings whose ‘humanity’ has been obscured by the punitive demands of a rapacious capitalism. Marx will thus move beyond both Feuerbach and the critique of Feuerbach towards an entirely new kind of historically materialist analysis.
Following the failure of the 1848 revolutions, and despite his previous popularity, Feuerbach’s fame came quite quickly to an end. Feuerbach regarded his own work as making a direct contribution to radical politics, but he was vague on the details in a way that Marx and others would hold in him contempt for:
[Feuerbach] supported, to be sure, an ill-defined ‘revolution’ against the ‘German-Christian state system’ and for ‘communism’. Given that Feuerbach simultaneously upheld the sanctity of property, the latter seemed to mean little more than ‘not individualism’.
Whatever Feuerbach meant by ‘revolution’, then, it was certainly not the rapid, violent overthrow of the existing order, as in the French Revolution, or the type desired by and for Europe in the mid-19th century. Instead, Feuerbach, much as he had done in his work on Christianity, was interested in the slow, careful transmission of abstract ideas into a more human reality. If ‘atheism is historical destiny’ for Feuerbach, as the title of this paper suggests, it is only because theology will come to realise that its ‘truth’ is in fact anthropology, but it will not reach this conclusion by being ‘forced’ to see it in this way. As he puts it in the Preface to The Essence of Christianity: ‘I do nothing more to religion – than to speculative philosophy and theology also – than to open its eyes, or rather to turn its gaze from the internal towards the external.’ And furthermore:
The historical progress of religion consists in this: that what by an earlier religion was regarded as objective, is now recognised as subjective; that is, what was formerly contemplated and worshipped as God is now perceived to be something human.
Feuerbach’s role in intellectual history then seems to be more one of a ‘facilitator’ – someone who, in the wake of Hegel and the anachronisms of Christianity in the modern age, said what everyone else was already thinking but had not yet quite articulated. Despite his efforts to propose a ‘Philosophy of the Future’, which would at the same time be a ‘non-philosophy’ because it would be about real human lives, and not simply about abstractions or idealisms, Marx and others were quick to shuffle off the influence of this rather vague project, and Feuerbach was marginalised both intellectually and geographically, as his exile from universities, coupled with his poverty, meant he lived and taught far from the discussions of the more dynamic Young and Left Hegelians.
Yet at the same time, many of Feuerbach’s ideas have lived on, and re-emerged in some perhaps surprising places, sometimes acknowledged, sometimes not. Guy Debord (1931-1994), founding member of the Situationist International, quotes the following extract from Feuerbach at the beginning of The Society of the Spectacle:
…the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, fancy to reality, the appearance to the essence, this change, inasmuch as it does away with illusion, is an absolute annihilation, or at least a reckless profanation; for in these days illusion only is sacred, truth profane.
Here Feuerbach sounds at his most contemporary. We can see that, to stay with the example of religion, that in many ways it has disappeared, and in its place we have the appearance of religion. The simulated religious indignation, the hyper-evangelicism of contemporary Christianity, for example, is perhaps best understood as a desperate bid to ward of the admission that it is in fact no longer relevant.
Feuerbach’s influence re-emerges in contemporary French and Italian political thought too. After Marx, and the collapse of really existing socialism, philosophers have turned to other ways of conceiving the political subject than ways that depend upon the classical Marxist perspectives of antagonism and class. Alain Badiou, for example, has returned, though without explicitly acknowledging his debt to Feuerbach, to a discourse of the ‘generic’ nature of humanity as a minimal kind of precondition for any thinking of who or what a revolutionary subject might be. Theorists of changes in labour and capacity under post-Fordism, such as Paolo Virno, have also returned to a Feuerbachian approach to a thinking of human capacities – if it is now as ‘complete’ human beings that we are now exploited, for our communicative skills, and our character (the idea that one must ‘sell oneself’), then it makes sense to return to questions of our shared human nature to discover a way to resist newer forms of alienation. Feuerbach may well be a ‘facilitator’, a mediating figure between the giants of Hegel and Marx, but there is much of relevance in his work today, for theology, philosophy and politics. At base his guiding insight that the human mind is capable of much more than we are lead to believe. As he puts it: ‘Could I perceive the beauty of a fine picture if my mind were aesthetically an absolute piece of perversion?’