For a number of years in the mid-nineteenth century Ludwig Feuerbach(1804–1872) played an important role in the history ofpost-Hegelian German philosophy, and in the transition from idealismto various forms of naturalism, materialism and positivism that is oneof the most notable developments of this period. To the extent that heis remembered today by non-specialists in the history ofnineteenth-century religious thought, it is mainly as the object ofMarx’s criticism in his famous Theses on Feuerbach,originally penned in 1845 and first published posthumously byFriedrich Engels as an appendix to his book, Ludwig Feuerbach andthe End of Classical German Philosophy (Engels 1888). Althoughnever without his admirers, who have included several leadingpopularizers of scientific materialism in the second half thenineteenth century (cf. Gregory 1977), not to mention the theologian,Karl Barth, Feuerbach’s public influence declined rapidly afterthe failed revolution of 1848/49 (in approximately inverse proportionto the rising popularity of Schopenhauer). Renewed philosophicalattention paid to him in the middle of the twentieth century islargely attributable to the publication, beginning in the late 1920s,of Marx’s early philosophical manuscripts, including TheGerman Ideology, which revealed the extent of Feuerbach’sinfluence on Marx and Engels during the period culminating in thecomposition of that historic work (1845–46).
We are thus presented with two academics, one whose politics conflicted so overtly with official power that his polemics forfeited his career, and the other for whom consistently straightforward polemics were out of the question. In the context of scarce academic opportunities and a state that policed speech, Marx’s alternatives seemed to be state silencing or self-censorship. The young Marx, however, was constitutively incapable of abiding by either form of academic quietism. We know that Marx was likely incapable of the restraint Feuerbach showed, given his violent reaction to what Feuerbach called “prudence and moderation.” In an 1842 critique of Prussian state censorship, Marx wrote:
So the first comment to make regarding Heidegger’s critique is that Marx’ 11th thesis is embedded in a philosophical discussion of the relationship between theory and practice. For Marx, the way humans understand themselves, their beliefs, their ideas about society, are often a certain practice, rather than the other way around. It is the study of a certain practice which leads to a theory which can then be used to critique existing false beliefs. This is also exactly the structure of Marx’ : it starts with a discussion of commodity exchange – fundamentally an analysis of a practice -, and then uses that theory to critique ideas about that practice which he demonstrates misunderstand it, but which can nevertheless be explained as of it. The study of beliefs which are the results of actions and perpetuate that system of actions is called the , and those beliefs are sometimes referred to as .
It is thus odd that Heidegger critiques the 11th thesis as if Marx was using the words “to interpret” and “to change” in a commonsensical way. He slips the wrong assumption that practice can always only derive from theory right back into the argument, whereas Marx uses a much more dialectical terminology, as I have tried to sketch above.
During the 1840s Feuerbach corresponded and occasionally visited andmaintained close personal relationships with several leading Germanradicals, including, in addition to Ruge and Marx, the publishers OttoLüning, Otto Wigand, and Julius Fröbel; the revolutionarypoet, Georg Herwegh, and his wife, Emma; Hermann Kriege, a freelanceactivist and early German socialist who emigrated to America; andscientific materialists like Jacob Moleschott and Carl Vogt. Theimpression made by him on several leading lights of the youngergeneration is reflected in Gottfried Keller’sBildungsroman, Green Henry, first published in 1855,and in the dedication (to Feuerbach) of Richard Wagner’s earlybook, The Art-Work of the Future (1850).
The Essence of Religion begins with the striking claims 1)that the feeling of dependence is the “ground” ofreligion, and 2) that the original object of this feeling, i.e., inthe history of religion, is nature. Feuerbach defines the feeling ofdependence as
In a section of the preface to the second edition of The Essenceof Christianity (1843) that Eliot omitted from her translation,Feuerbach reveals that he had sought in this book to achieve twothings: First, to attack the Hegelian claim for the identity ofreligious and philosophical truth by showing that Hegel succeeds inreconciling religion with philosophy only by robbing religion of itsmost distinctive content. Second,
By the time Feuerbach published his most famous book, The Essenceof Christianity (1841), in which he sought to develop “aphilosophy of positive religion or revelation” (WC 3),he had begun to move away from his earlier idealistic pantheism. Thathe nevertheless sought in this book to criticize both Hegelianspeculative theology and the positive philosophy from “the samestandpoint” taken by Spinoza in his Theologico-PoliticalTreatise (VWR 16/9; cf. WC 10–11) hasoften been overlooked. At one point in the Treatise Spinozaobserves that the biblical authors
A founder with Plekhanov of the Emancipation of Labour Group, and a translator of Marx's works into Russian; later joined the Mensheviks.
Two of these developments should be highlighted. The first was Marx’s keen and growing interest in responding to the historical determinants of social reality. The second was his growing commitment to empirical social analysis. Following Marx’s critique of Feuerbach, there is no sensuous and needy human, but there are sensuous and needy individuals — beings whose specific conditions and lived experience condition the activity, potency, consciousness, and needs of their humanity, and thus their possibilities for contributing to or challenging a state of affairs. Marx consistently sought to trace these conditions in the midst of their unfolding. His goal was to gain expert knowledge of the landscape in which activity challenging the logic of this unfolding could be developed. Feuerbach’s philosophical approach could be described as operating a-historically in the air of political ideology, whereas Marx went a step further and made philosophy gain its truth by developing accounts of what moves social conditions. Making this move committed Marx to developing both meta-sociological and normative commitments. He turned to the latter in his famous 1844 Manuscripts, and would subsequently fill in these frames with the sociological work which would become the focus of so much of the rest of his life.
Gianbattista Mondin, S.X.
Father Mondin, then Dean of Philosophy at Propaganda Fide inRome, uncovers the philosophical roots of Karl Marx's atheism in this article from 1978.
Philosophical work had to find an explicit ground in, or alliance with, interventions into the actual state of affairs if it was to accomplish its truth. Although many are familiar with Marx’s famous 11th Thesis on Feuerbach from 1845 — that the point of philosophy is not merely to interpret the world, but to change it — these letters to Ruge, at least two years earlier, show Marx’s commitment to an even more radical idea. Marx’s innovative development from 1842 to 1843 was to insist that the truth of philosophy required substantive interventions into the institutions and practices that regulated philosophy’s relations to its environment.