Karl Marx and Human Self-creation, Cyril Smith (2002)

5. Feuerbach

Our aim is to enquire into the importance of Hegel’s Hermetism for Marx and his Hegel-critique. To do this, we must bring Feuerbach into the story. (This is the Feuerbach of 1839-44, known to Marx, not the later Feuerbach.)

Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) is perhaps the most important of Hegel’s immediate followers. In 1824, he abandons his theological studies and decides – against parental disapproval – in favour of philosophy under the Master in Berlin. Soon, at the end of the 1830s, the Hegelian school starts to disintegrate. After writing some Hegelian books on the history of philosophy, Feuerbach begins to break away from the Hegelian system, and is soon the leader of the ‘Left’ or ‘Young’ Hegelians. In 1841, he publishes his chief work, The Essence of Christianity, followed by Preliminary Theses for the Reform of Philosophy and Foundations of the Philosophy of the Future.

Like the other Left Hegelians, Feuerbach is first of all concerned with religion. Unlike some of his fellow-rebels, however, he does not merely denounce religion, which he describes as ‘the first and indirect self-consciousness of man’. Where his teacher Hegel had made human self-consciousness the way that God is conscious of Himself, Feuerbach sees ‘what man knows of God’ as an upside-down form of ‘what man knows of himself’. Religion takes what is best of humanity, ‘the human essence’, human feeling, willing, thinking, love, and projects it on to something which appears as other than human, the product of imagination [Phantasie]. But this is the root of human enslavement.

Man – this is the mystery of religion – projects his essence into objectivity and then makes himself the image of this projected image of himself thus converted into a subject, a person; he thinks of himself as an object to himself, but as the object of an object, of another being than himself. (Essence...)

Feuerbach sees the demystification of this process as the way to freedom: ‘What in religion is a predicate we must make into a subject’. Describing Hegel’s ‘theological idealism’, he says that ‘man’s consciousness of God is the self-consciousness of God. ... Thus does absolute philosophy externalise from man his own essence and activity.’ (Principles...) Feuerbach’s target is Theology rather than religion. When it formalises the study of God, theology becomes ‘the worst enemy of the awakened spirit’. In his earlier writing, Feuerbach had quoted Böhme’s personal understanding of God with approval. Now, he praises Böhme for understanding that God has His material body in nature. But his aim is to get behind all forms of mystification. In Essence... he devotes Chapter VIII, to the mystery of Divine Creation and Chapter IX, ‘Of the Mystery of Mysticism, or of Nature in God’, to Jakob Böhme.

His critique of Hegel is that the formal reasoning of the Hegelian system is actually disguised theology which excludes the personal. But in this, Feuerbach is criticising the whole of philosophy, philosophy as such. That is what he means by ‘the new philosophy’.

Just as theology transforms the determinations of man into divine determinations – through depriving them of their own determination by which they are what they are – so also in precisely the same way does philosophy deprive them. ... So does absolute philosophy externalise and alienate from man his own essence and activity. Hence the violence and torture that it inflicts on our minds. (Principles...)

The new philosophy makes man – with the inclusion of nature as the foundation of man – the unique, universal and highest object of philosophy. (Principles)

As he famously explained himself: ‘My religion is – no religion. My philosophy – no philosophy.'

Does Feuerbach represent a step backwards from Hegel towards the Enlightenment? Yes and no. Perhaps it is more of a sideways move. While he does not ignore Hegel’s critical attitude to Kant and his predecessors, he still denies its religious implications and effectively re-establishes the Enlightenment’s view of the human as an isolated individual. The only social relation Feuerbach knows is the ‘love’ (what kind is unspecified!) between two characters called ‘I’ and ‘thou’.