Herbert Marcuse
Reason & Revolution. Part II, The Rise of Social Theory

I. The Foundations of the Dialectical Theory of Society

3. Feuerbach

Feuerbach starts with the fact Kierkegaard had failed to recognize, namely, that in the present age the human content of religion can be preserved only by abandoning the religious, other-worldly form. The realization of religion requires its negation. The doctrine of God (theology) must be changed into the doctrine of man (anthropology). Everlasting happiness will begin with the transformation of the kingdom of heaven into a republic of earth.

Feuerbach agrees with Hegel that mankind has reached maturity. The earth is ready to be transformed, through the collective and conscious practice of men, into a domain of reason and freedom. He therefore sketches a ‘Philosophy of the Future,’ which he regards as the logical and historical fulfillment of Hegel’s philosophy. ‘The new philosophy is the realization of the Hegelian, — moreover, of the entire preceding philosophy.’ The negation of religion had begun with Hegel’s transformation of theology into logic; it ends with Feuerbach’s transformation of logic into anthropology. Anthropology, to Feuerbach, is a philosophy aiming at the concrete emancipation of man, outlining therefore the conditions and qualities of an actually free human existence. Such a philosophy cannot be idealist, for the means are at hand for carrying through a free human existence by liberation in fact. Hegel’s great error was that he stuck to idealism at a time when a materialistic solution of the problem was at hand. The new philosophy, then, is a realization of Hegelian philosophy only as its negation.

When he accepted the given state of the world as adequate to the standard of reason, Hegel contradicted his own principles and hitched philosophy to an external content, that given in his day. His critical distinctions are in the end merely distinctions within that given, and his philosophy has a ‘critical, but not a genetico-critical significance.’ The latter type of philosophy would not simply demonstrate and understand its object, but would investigate its origin and thus question its right to exist. The prevailing state of man is the result of a long historical process in which all transcendental values have been ‘secularized’ and made the aims of man’s empirical life. The happiness he sought in heaven and in pure thought can now be satisfied on earth. Only a ‘genetic’ analysis will enable philosophy to furnish the ideas that might help man in his real liberation. Hegel, Feuerbach insists, undertook no such analysis. His construction of history presupposed throughout that the prevailing stage of development reached in his time was the immanent end of all preceding stages.

Moreover, genetic analysis is not only a matter of the philosophy of history, but of logic and psychology as well. Here, Hegel failed the more, for thought receives no genetic analysis in his system. Being is conceived as thought from the outset. It enters the system not as the ‘fact’ of the external world, which is at first simply ‘given’ and other than thought, but as notion. And in the elaboration of the system being becomes a derivative mode of thought, or, as Feuerbach says, ‘the predicate of thought.’ Consequently, nature is derived from the structure and movement of thought — a complete reversal of the true state of affairs.

Feuerbach’s genetic analysis of thought starts, per contra, from the obvious fact that nature is the primary and thought the secondary reality. ‘The true relation of thought to Being is this; Being is subject, thought is predicate. Thought springs from Being, but Being does not spring from thought.’

Philosophy must thus begin with being, not Hegel’s abstract being-as-such, but with being in the concrete, that is, with nature. ‘The essence of Being qua Being is the essence of nature.’ The new philosophy is not, however, to be a philosophy of nature in the traditional sense. Nature becomes relevant only in so far as it conditions human existence; man is to be the proper content and interest. The liberation of man requires the liberation of nature, of man’s natural existence. ‘All science must be founded on nature. Theory is a mere hypothesis as long as the natural basis of theory has not been established. This holds especially true for the theory of freedom. The new philosophy will succeed in “naturalizing” freedom, the same that was hitherto merely an anti-natural and supra-natural hypothesis.’

Feuerbach joins the great tradition of materialist philosophers who, taking as the point of departure for their views man’s actual state in nature and in society, could see that the idealistic solutions were illusory. The hard fact that man’s natural drives were permitted no satisfactory outlet showed freedom and reason to be a myth, as far as social realities were concerned. Hegel had committed the unpardonable offense against the individual of constructing a realm of reason on the foundations of an enslaved humanity. Despite all historical progress, Feuerbach cries out, man is still in need, and the pervasive fact philosophy encounters is ‘suffering.’ This, and not cognition, is primary in man’s relation to the objective world. ‘Thought is preceded by suffering.’ And no realization of reason is in the offing until that suffering has been eliminated.

We have mentioned that ‘the universal suffering’ that Marx saw in the existence of the proletariat negated for him the reality of reason. The ‘principle of suffering,’ Marx held, was rooted in the historical form of society and required social action for its abolition. Feuerbach, per contra, introduces nature as the basis and medium for liberating mankind. Philosophy is negated and fulfilled by nature. Man’s suffering is a ‘natural’ relation of the living subject to its objective environment, for the subject is opposed and overwhelmed by the object. Nature shapes and determines the ego from without, making it essentially ‘passive.’ The process of liberation cannot eliminate this Passivity, but can transform it from a source of privation and pain to one of abundance and enjoyment.

Feuerbach’s conception of the ego reverses the traditional conception of it, which motivated modern philosophy since Descartes. The ego, according to Feuerbach, is primarily receptive, not spontaneous; determined, not self-determining; the passive subject of perception, not the active subject of thought. ‘True objective thought, true objective philosophy arises only out of the negation of thought, out of being determined by the object, out of passion, the source of all pleasure and need.’ Feuerbach’s naturalism thus maintains that perception, sensuousness (Sinnlichkeit), sensation (Empfindung) are the proper organon of philosophy. ‘The object, in its true meaning, is given only by the senses’; ‘nothing is unquestionably and immediately certain except the object of the senses, of perception and sensation.’

This is the point at which Marx’s critique of Feuerbach begins. Marx upholds Hegel on this point, as against Feuerbach. Hegel had denied that sense-certainty is the final criterion of the truth, on the ground that, first, the truth is a universal that cannot be won in an experience that conveys particulars; and, second, that truth finds fulfillment in a historical process carried forward by the collective practice of men. The latter is basic, with sense-certainty and nature alike drawn into the movement so that they change their content in its course.

Hegel’s point was that labor brings sense-certainty and nature into the historical process. Because he conceived human existence in terms of sense, Feuerbach disregarded this material function of labor altogether. ‘Not satisfied with abstract thought, Feuerbach appeals to sense-perception [Anschauung]; but he does not understand our sensuous nature as practical, human-sensuous activity.’

Labor transforms the natural conditions of human existence into social ones. By omitting the labor process from his philosophy of freedom, therefore, Feuerbach omitted the decisive factor through which nature might become the medium for freedom. His interpretation of man’s free development as a ‘natural’ development neglected the historical conditions for liberation and made freedom into an event within the framework of the given order. His ‘perceptual materialism’ perceives only ‘separate individuals in bourgeois society.’

Marx focused his theory on the labor process and by so doing held to and consummated the principle of the Hegelian dialectic that the structure of the content (reality) determines the structure of the theory. He made the foundations of civil society the foundations of the theory of civil society. This society operates on the principle of universal labor, with the labor process decisive for the totality of human existence; labor determines the value of all things. Since the society is perpetuated by the, continued universal exchange of the products of labor, — the totality of human relations is governed by the immanent, laws of the economy. The development of the individual and the range of his freedom depend on the extent to which his labor satisfies a social need. All men are free, but the mechanisms of the labor process govern the freedom of them all. The study of the labor process is, in the last analysis, absolutely necessary in order to discover the conditions for realizing reason and freedom in the real sense. A critical analysis of that process thus yields the final theme of philosophy.