Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Reading Feuerbach

Ludwig Feuerbach is one of those figures of philosophy who for various reasons has become reading material for primarily specialists, despite the extraordinary impact of his book The Essence of Christianity (1841) in his time. Most everybody knows of him through Marx's famous "Theses on Feuerbach," but very few have read him.

Until recently, I had only a passing familiarity with his work, which is why I decided to read The Essence of Christianity, in George Eliot's-- Mary Anne Evan's, that is,-- translation from 1881, which was reprinted by Dover Books in 2008. My interest derives from his contemporaneity with Schelling and Marx, and his place between Schelling's positive philosophy and a nascent historical materialism. 

By April 1841 Marx had only received his doctorate, and the debates that would rage around his work were still many years off. That year they would circle around Schelling and Feuerbach. The former had been invited to the University of Berlin to assume the seat formerly held by Fichte and, more recently, Hegel, with the hope (expressed within royal circles) that he would stamp out the "dragonseed" of Hegelianism. His pan-European audience included Engels, Kierkegaard, and Bakunin. Nevertheless, Schelling's positive philosophy or philosophy of revelation appeared-- despite its critical elements-- to be the retrenchment of religious content in philosophy just at the time that religion as a source of value was in question. Many of the Young Hegelians (including Feuerbach) were turning to history or materialism for the basis of philosophical and political critique, and Schelling had returned to Berlin  with the question of revelation. In a letter to Feuerbach, dated October 3, 1843, Marx writes:
Schelling has not only been able to unite philosophy and theology, but philosophy and diplomacy too. He has turned philosophy into a general diplomatic science, into a diplomacy for all occasions. Thus an attack on Schelling is indirectly an attack on our entire policy, and especially on Prussian policy. Schelling's philosophy is Prussian policy sub specie philosophiae.
Marx proceeds to call Feuerbach "Schelling in reverse," the person who could carry through Schelling's critique of religion found in the Philosophical Letters on Dogmatism and Criticism (1795-1796) that Schelling himself could not accomplish (the Letters is, incidentally, one of my favorite texts of Schelling's).

What, then, is Feuerbach's reversal of Schelling? His general thesis is that "the secret of theology is anthropology," that all  of religious life can be traced back to human ideas and activities. Feuerbach argued for what Marx would later refer to as "sensuous materialism." Each religious doctrine, he claims, is an alienated expression of human values. Each doctrine reflects either a human value or human desire. In general, Feuerbach affirmed the positive aspects of religion as the expression of a disguised humanism, but he also criticized religion for its pernicious effects on society and human values. I will confine this discussion to three points that I think might be of interest (especially if you might be reading Nietzsche at the moment).
  1. Although religion initially is an objectification of human values and desires, Feuerbach argues that religious faith-- especially in its Christian version--has become anti-naturalist. Because Christian virtues are characterized by sacrifice, they require that one renounce the sensuous life. For the Christian, the "more anything contradicts man and Nature, the greater the abnegation, the greater the virtue" (216).
  2. Faith is indifferent to moral duty and contrary to reason. The emphasis on faith in religion teaches dogmatism rather than the cultivation of virtue for its own sake, or the cultivation of the love of wisdom. Regarding reason: Feuerbach shares with many of his contemporaries a belief in progress, with which religious superstition interferes. There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about historical progress, some which were raised here. What is more interesting for our discussion is that Feuerbach accuses religious practice of a variant of nihilism: "the belief that God is the necessary condition of virtue is the belief in the nothingness of virtue in itself" (167).
  3. Faith is divisive. It separates people on the basis of doctrine. To faith, Feuerbach opposes love, which he argues is the basis not only of religion, but also the social bond. Hence the "the practical, palpable ground of necessity that we should raise ourselves above Christianity, above the peculiar standpoint of religion." Once philosophy reveals theology as anthropology, we ought to reject religion's rejection of sensuous life. Only through the sensuous life can we truly live as humanists.
The obvious reason why Feuerbach has become a figure for specialists is his humanism, for as long as 'man' was maintained as a historical invariant and measure of value we have not yet completed 'religious criticism.' Despite a number of criticisms that anticipated Nietzsche and Freud, Feuerbach replaced God with humanity.

And, Marx would add, a historically peculiar kind of humanity. In the "Theses on Feuerbach," he writes: 
Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human essence. But the essence of man is no abstraction inhering in each single individual. In actuality it is the ensemble of social relationships.
The result is that Feuerbach abstracts from historical processes, more specifically the relationship between history and political economy. The result is that Feuerbach mistakes the life of the bourgeois individual, within civil society for the essence of humanity. This theoretical mistake is to be rejected by  revolutionaries because it assumes one historical form of social relationships for the measure of these relationships themselves, rather than locating them within political economy. 

My suspicion is that this spectre of 'Feuerbachianism' lurks behind both the humanism and belief in progress of the New Atheists and, sometimes, the religious-exegetical impulse of the post-secular turn in continental philosophy.

1 comment:

William Hall said...

Concise, well written post. You argue that Marx succeeded in showing that Feuerbach's criticisms of Hegel on religion are flawed. Is this always the case?