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John G. Wright


What We Owe to Him

Feuerbach – Philosopher of Materialism

(Fall 1956)

From International Socialist Review, Vol. 17 No. 4, Fall 1956, pp. 123–126, 136–137.
Transcribed by Daniel Gaido.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

This article is the last one written by John G. Wright. It was accompanied by the following memo to the editor: “Joe, here is something for your ‘reserve.’ There will be two more (Marx’s critique of Feuerbach and Engels on Feuerbach). Usick.” Although the article was planned ‘as only the first of a trilogy—a trilogy that was never finished—we feel that our readers will agree that it stands in its own right as a stimulating contribution in the defense of Marxist theory and as an indication of what the socialist movement lost through the untimely death of Comrade Wright.

Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach, the fourth son of a famous German lawyer, was born at the beginning of the nineteenth century, July 28, 1804. His family was bourgeois. A native of Southern Germany, fiery and passionate by temperament, a born fighter, his natural element was the hurly-burly of public life; he needed the widest possible contact with people, the broadest possible arena. This was denied him by German reaction. The authorities drove him from his university post in 1832, refused to reinstate him in 1836, barred him from the main centers of German intellectual life and kept him penned up, in virtual exile, in a provincial corner of Bavaria, until his death September 13, 1872.

Many know Feuerbach by name; not a few have read about him, mainly in Marxist literature, but nowadays hardly anybody reads his books. His writings are not readily obtainable either in translation or the original German. Yet in the history of human thought he occupies an eminent place. For a whole decade, from 1840 to 1849, he dominated the field of advanced philosophy as only Hegel did before him and Marx and Engels after him.

Among the revolutionary-minded generation of his day, Feuerbach, the materialist philosopher and avowed opponent of theology, was naturally a hero. And just as naturally he was hated and hounded by reaction, not in Germany alone. In England, for example, one pillar of the church, William Maccall, publicly called for the physical annihilation of Feuerbach. “Aye, annihilate; for this is not a matter in which we pretend to one morsel of tolerance,” announced this British reactionary. It is the fate of thinkers like Feuerbach to be maligned and misrepresented long after their death. All the more incumbent is it upon us to restore his true stature and to place his teachings and accomplishments as well as his limitations and failures in their true historical context.

Feuerbach started out as a Hegelian. To be sure, he never was a wholly orthodox Hegelian, any more than were Marx and Engels who likewise started out as Hegelians. But Feuerbach was nonetheless an idealist at the outset.

His evolution is the conversion of a Hegelian into a materialist. The course of the development of Marx and Engels passes from Hegel through Feuerbach to dialectical materialism. Rosa Luxemburg somewhere says that dialectical materialism, the world outlook of Marxism, was the child of bourgeois philosophy, a child that cost the mother her life. At this birth Feuerbach may be said to have officiated as the midwife.

At the age of twenty and, ironically enough, a young theologian, Feuerbach came to Berlin to study under Hegel. After two years, he studied natural sciences at Erlangen. Philosophy became his lifework. His first book, published anonymously in 1830, Thoughts on Death and Immortality, shows that years before his definitive break with Hegel, he had already come under the influence of Spinoza, whose doctrine is materialist in its essence, despite its idealist modes of expression, as Feuerbach himself was later brilliantly to demonstrate.

In 1839 when Feuerbach published his Zur Kritik der Hegelschen Philosophie (A Contribution to the Critique of Hegelian Philosophy) he had broken with idealism. By 1841 when his monumental book The Essence of Christianity appeared, he was a materialist who waged war against idealism as the last refuge of theology and against Hegelianism as the last rational prop of theology.

Karl Marx hailed Feuerbach’s ideas at the time as world-historic in their importance and inaugurating a new epoch. Why? Because they represented a decisive break with idealism and a rallying to materialism. As early as the eighteenth century, particularly in France, Marx pointed out in The Holy Family, materialism stood for the struggle not only against all metaphysical systems, against religion and theology, but also against the existing political institutions. To put it differently, materialist ideas were revolutionary.

If the credit for driving religion out of its last refuge in history belongs to Marxism, then the credit for launching the final struggle to drive theology out of philosophy belongs to Feuerbach. In this he was indisputably the first, although he did not thoroughly purge his own thought of idealist remnants.

There was nothing cut and dried about Feuerbach. With an eloquence rare in philosophic writings and with the zeal of a fighter for a correct line in philosophy—an intransigence and eloquence which captured the minds and hearts of revolutionists of his day Feuerbach demonstrated that nothing exists save nature and mankind; that nature does not owe its existence to any power outside of itself, least of all to the power of an infinite subject, as idealists put it, or that nature is the “self-estrangement” and “other being” of the Spirit, as Hegel put it. Such claims, Feuerbach explained, are mere translations into philosophic language of the theological doctrine that God created the world.

“Our philosophers,” he wrote, “have up to now been nothing else but mediatizing theologians.” As for Hegel, “the ‘Absolute Spirit’ is the ‘departed Spirit’ of theology which wanders like a ghost in and out of Hegelian philosophy.” This “Absolute Spirit” remains as mysterious and unknowable as the God of the theologians, and Hegel actually tells as little about his “Absolute” as theologians are able to tell about their divinity. Whoever fails to break with Hegelianism simply refuses to break with theology, concluded Feuerbach.

German idealism had forged powerful weapons; Feuerbach turned these weapons against idealism itself. “Truth is concrete,” was the banner raised by German idealism, in the first instance by Hegel. “Philosophy is cognizance of whatever is,” agreed Feuerbach. “The supreme law and task of philosophy is to think about essence, about creatures and things as they really are.” He then proceeded to show how idealism violated its own fundamental premise.

Anticipating the conquests of natural science, the German philosopher Kant had introduced the doctrine of evolution into philosophy; Hegel was later to extend evolution into history. But evolution is unthinkable outside of time and space. And so Kant recognized time and space as forms of cognizance, that is, as indispensable premises for human reason.

With this Feuerbach agreed, only immediately to add that time and space must be much more than that. Are not time and space the necessary forms of existence, as well as the necessary forms of intuition and knowledge, the indispensable premises for the existence of all creatures and things? he asked. Of course they are. Space and time, said Feuerbach, can be forms of cognizance only because I myself happen to be part of whatever exists, only because I myself am a creature living in time and space.

“Space and time,” he wrote, “are the necessary forms of existence of all essence, of all creatures and things ... A timeless sensation, a timeless will, a timeless thought, a timeless essence — are absurd fictions. Whatever is located outside of time, has by this token no temporal existence and cannot strive either to will think.”

According to Feuerbach, being could not possibly mean an existence in thought alone. Such a contention is meaningless. “To prove that something exists means to prove that it exists not only in the mind,” he insisted. It must exist in the outside world.

The starting point of idealism is that mind is prior to matter. Feuerbach concentrated his heaviest fire against this.

What divides the opposing schools of human thought is precisely their starting points. Arrayed here against each other in the field of theory, just as in politics and in economic life, stand hostile social forces, class forces representing progress on the one side, retrogression on the opposing side.

This historic controversy rages as fiercely today as it did in Feuerbach’s day. Take the current crisis in science. Many modern scientists, physicists in particular, find themselves floundering, hopelessly divided over such issues as:

  1. Is there a real outer world which exists independently of our acts of knowing?
  2. Is the real outer world knowable or unknowable?
  3. Is there objective lawfulness, objective causality, in nature?

These are the very same questions, it will be noted, which we are now discussing in connection with Feuerbach and to which he, as a materialist, gave affirmative answers.

Scientists today are divided into two warring camps. On the one side, a group who answers these questions in the affirmative; and on the opposing side, those who deny it.

Such denials follow consistently from the idealist standpoint that mind is prior to matter. And on this central issue Feuerbach in his day took the offensive.

Whoever maintains that mind is prior to matter is simply a theologian in disguise who seeks to deduce the objective world from some immaterial power, or the idea. To try, said Feuerbach, to deduce the objective world from one’s idea is to show that one understands exactly nothing about nature or about the mind. The idealistic starting point is a false one.

Das Sein geht dem Denken voran.” Being comes before thinking. Thinking does not determine being; just the contrary, it is being that determines thinking. Idealists reason like those who upon seeing crowds of people walking on a sunny day, conclude that the sun shines because people are out promenading. The correct conclusion is that people are out because the sun is shining. “I do not generate the object from the thought,” said Feuerbach, “but the thought from the object.”

“I differ,” he wrote with justifiable scorn, “toto coelo from those philosophers who pluck out their eyes in order that they may see better; for my thought I require the senses, especially sight.”

The idealist doctrine of the “I,” i.e., that the abstract “subject” is the sole source of reality, is merely another way of saying that mind is prior to matter. It is a false doctrine, argued Feuerbach. He reasoned approximately as follows:

I am able to see, but I am not the only one gifted with sight. I am also seen by others. The real “I” is invariably that “I” which stands opposed to the “You.” The real “I” in turn becomes the “You” that is to say, becomes the object for another “I.” For itself the “I” is naturally the subject; for others it is, just as naturally, the object. Therefore “I” constitutes simultaneously both a subject and an object, or subject-object. This is not an identity, but a unity. Whoever analyzes consciousness independently of the rest of mankind does so only by ripping apart every single tie between consciousness and the outer world.

In Capital (page 61, Kerr edition) Marx develops and deepens the same ideas as follows:

“Since he [man] comes into the world neither with a looking glass in his hand, nor as a Fichtean philosopher to whom ‘I am I’ is sufficient, man first sees and recognizes himself in other men. Peter only establishes his own identity as a man by comparing himself with Paul as a being of like kind. And thereby Paul, just as he stands in his Pauline personality, becomes to Peter the type of genus homo.”

The outer world, said Feuerbach, is the necessary premise for consciousness. Our “I” is not at all the abstract entity with which idealist philosophers try to operate. “I” am a real being, a thing of the flesh. If you talk about my essence, please bear in mind that my body, too, belongs to this essence. What is more, it is my body, taken as a whole, that precisely constitutes my essence. It is my body that constitutes my “I.” The process of thinking does not take place within some abstract being; it takes place exactly within my body, within your body. Before you or I can think we must exist. “Before perceiving we breathe; we cannot exist without air, food and drink.” Das Sein geht dem Denken voran. Being is prior to thinking. Matter is prior to thought. Being determines consciousness, and not the other way around.

Feuerbach’s motto was: “Do not think as a thinker, but think as a real, living being in which capacity you are now swimming in the waters of the world ocean.” It is an excellent motto which Marxism has rendered more exact by specifying that individuals do not exist except within specific productive relations in society, i.e., as members of historically developed classes.

Opponents of materialism argue that consciousness cannot, after all, be explained by material phenomena. Thought is immaterial, spiritual, whereas material phenomena are just that—material and unspiritual. This argument (annihilating in the eyes of idealists) completely misses the mark; it does not even touch the materialist foundations of Feuerbach’s doctrine. It is idealism that tries to do just the reverse; namely, to explain material phenomena by mental phenomena; in fact, to establish an identity between the two. It is wrong to do so, reasoned Feuerbach.

The domain of subjective events stands contraposed to the domain of objective events and these opposing sides can be understood only as a unity. Not an identity, but a unity. “What is for me or subjectively, a purely spiritual, immaterial and unsensuous act, is by itself, objectively, a material, sensuous act,” explained Feuerbach. The task is to differentiate between them in order then not to sever them asunder, nor falsely to identify them, but to relate them correctly as two sides of one and the same unified whole.

He carefully differentiated not only between consciousness and material phenomena but also between things as they really exist and things as they appear to us, things as we understand them. He differentiated in order to relate them correctly. Through our senses we obtain mental images of the objective world. These images are likewise products of nature but they are distinct from the actual objects of mental representation. In philosophic language, the thing-in-itself is distinct from the thing-for-us. The second, that is, the mental image, is only a reaction to the first, that is, it is an image of objective reality, just as man himself is only a fragment of the world of nature which is mirrored in his mind.

“My taste-nerve,” explained Feuerbach, “is just as much a product of nature as salt is; but from this it does not at all follow that the taste of salt as such would immediately be an objective property of salt; it by no means follows that the salt such as it appears only as an object of sensation would exactly be that in and-for-itself; that the sensation of salt on the tongue would also be the property of salt, as we think of it without sensation.”

Sensation or sense perception is the result of the objective action upon our sense organs of a thing in-itself which exists independently of us. Such is the materialist theory of Feuerbach; such is the theory of Marxism as well. Sensation is the subjective image of an objective world, a world which is simultaneously in-and-for-itself.

Idealists make quite a to-do about the theory of knowledge, gnosiology or epistemology as academicians call it. Is the thing-in-itself, that is, the outer world, really knowable? If so how do we know it? How can we prove it? Many modern scientists profess to be nonplussed by these questions.

In doing so they unwittingly follow in the footsteps of theologians who try to reduce logic to a mere instrument of proof. Actually, 1ogic, even formal logic, is much more than that. It is one of the methods of proceeding from the known to the unknown, as was demonstrated by Bacon, the founder of modern materialism, with his method of induction as far back as the beginning of the seventeenth century.

The argument that it is not possible to prove by “a priori arguments” that things are knowable has little weight in the progress of human knowledge, as all the advances of modern industry and technology have shown. It is a scholastic argument. The whole point is that the capacity of man to know reality can be, and has been, proved by other means. This problem of “knowability,” declared unsolvable by Kant, was, as a matter of record, resolved by Hegel who pointed out that as we learn more and more about the qualities of a thing, we get to know more and more about it. In other words, knowledge is derived from observation, from experience, from industry, technology, science, in brief, from the practical activity of man. As Marx pointed out, the problem of “knowability” is not a theoretical question at all, but a practical one. And any scientist who, when he philosophizes, turns his back on such proof demonstrates thereby that his “reason” is no better than the more or less diluted, more or less rarified “reason” of the theologians.

We get to know things as we learn about their qualities, Feuerbach agreed with Hegel.

It is well worth pausing here to consider briefly how Feuerbach used Hegel’s own arguments (against Kant) to demonstrate the inner inconsistency of the Hegelian system. Whatever lacks of qualities, said Feuerbach, “has no effect upon me, has no existence for me... To deny all the qualities of a being is tantamount to denying the being itself.” But this is precisely what Hegel does with regard to the category of “pure being” with which his system starts.

“Pure being,” as Hegel defines it in his Science of Logic, is “without difference and without any characteristics.” It is “pure indeterminateness,” it is “totally empty,” otherwise, Hegel insists, “its purity would be violated.”

“Pure being” is therefore without any real being, concluded Feuerbach. There is no being other than determinate being. What exists in space and time are particular species and individuals, solar bodies, stars, animals, plants, rocks and so forth. “Space and time,” said Feuerbach, “are not simple forms of phenomena but essential conditions of existence.” Hegel’s “pure being” lies outside of time and space; it is without any characteristics; it is indeed, as Hegel himself put it, an “empty abstraction.” It is a typical theological abstraction. Under the guise of “pure being” Hegel simply smuggles in his “Absolute Spirit.” Thus there is no evolutionary process in Hegel’s logic at all; in reality, his reasoning is circular. He starts with the Absolute and ends with the self-same Absolute.

Feuerbach demonstrated without difficulty that other key categories of Hegel are likewise infinite and absolute in character, as for example the categories of Wesen (or Essence) and of Begriff (usually translated as Notion, this category figures in Hegel’s system now as Spirit and now as Self-Consciousness). Because of this inner inconsistency Feuerbach discarded the dialectic altogether. He mistook the idealist form of the dialectic for the dialectic generally, a blunder which Marxism alone was able to rectify. In addition, by considering “man” not as an abstraction transcending society but as a concrete expression of given societies, themselves in evolution, Marx and Engels transcended the idealist vestiges in Feuerbach’s philosophy.

This brings us to the question of objective causality in nature. As Lenin pointed out, this question is of special importance in determining the philosophic line of any given system of ideas. Feuerbach expounded his views with exceptional clarity in his answer to a critic, Rudolf Haym. It is a rather lengthy quotation, but one well worth studying. Feuerbach wrote:

“For Feuerbach ‘nature and human reason,’ says Haym, ‘differ completely, and between them there opens an abyss which it is impossible to span either from one side or from the other.’ Haym grounds this reproach on paragraph 48 of my Essence of Religion, where it is stated that nature may be understood only through nature itself; that nature’s necessity is neither human nor logical neither metaphysical nor mathematical; that nature alone is that, kind of being to which it is impossible to apply any human measure. Although we do compare natural events with similar human events, although we apply to nature human expressions and concepts such as ‘order,’ ‘purpose,’ ‘law,’ and are compelled to apply such expressions to nature because of our language, we do so only to make nature comprehensible to us.

“What does this mean? Do I mean to say by this that in nature there is no order, to say, for example, that after fall summer may follow, after spring, winter, after winter, fall? Or that there is no purpose in nature, to say that between the lungs and air, for example, or between light and the eye, between sound and the ear there is no concordance? Or that there is no regularity in nature, to say, for example, that the earth may move now in an ellipse, now in a circle, and move around the sun, at one period in a year, at another — in a quarter of an hour? What an absurdity! What then did I intend to convey in this passage? Nothing more than to draw a distinction between that which belongs to nature and that which belongs to man.

“In this passage I do not say that there is nothing in nature which actually corresponds to our words and representations concerning order, purpose and law; all that is denied in this passage is the identity between thought and being; it is denied that order and so forth allegedly exist in nature exactly as they do in the head or sensations of man. Order, purpose, law are no more than words by means of which man translates nature’s doings into his language, so that he may understand them; these words are not devoid of sense or objective content, but it is nonetheless necessary to differentiate the original from the translation. In the human sense, order, purpose, law express something arbitrary. From the contingency of order, purpose and law in nature, theism directly infers their arbitrary origin; it infers the existence of a being, different from nature, a being which brings order, purpose and law into nature, nature which is itself chaotic and without any determination. The ‘reason’ of theists ... is a reason which stands in contradiction to nature and is absolutely devoid of an understanding of the essence of nature. The reason of theists splits nature into two beings—the one, material; the other—formal or spiritual.” (Quoted by Lenin in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, pages 124–25)

Feuerbach thus recognized objective causality in nature which is mirrored only with approximate accuracy by the human representations of order, law and so forth. Human representations of nature are relative, but on the basis of these relative representations mankind gains knowledge of the objective lawfulness in nature. This recognition of objective causality is with Feuerbach inseparably connected with the recognition of the objective existence of the outer world of objects, bodies and things which human consciousness mirrors. His views on this question, as Lenin pointed out, are thus consistently materialist.

Frederick Engels wrote:

“One must himself have experienced the liberating effect of this book (Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity) to get an idea of it. Enthusiasm was general; we all became at once Feuerbachians.”

What liberated the young Marx and the young Engels? What made them so enthusiastic? They knew, as was said long ago, that without revolutionary theory there cannot be revolutionary practice. Marx and Engels were at the time trying to draw revolutionary conclusions from the Hegelian system and found themselves floundering in the self-contradiction of idealism. Feuerbach, as Engels put it, “pulverized this contradiction at one blow” and enthroned materialism again in philosophy. This paved the way, as we shall see in our next article, for the elaboration of a correct line in sociology, in politics and economics. It enabled our great teachers to go beyond Feuerbach and to elaborate the scientific doctrine for socialism.

Today, when the fate of mankind sways in the balance, it is clearer than ever before that salvation for the workers lies only in revolutionary practice, in the struggle for socialism. For this, revolutionary theory is indispensable as the guide for action.

This struggle proceeds on three fronts—the economic, political and theoretical. Not three separate arenas, walled off from one another, but three interrelated fronts of one and the same struggle. The correct line is of supreme importance in all three. In the main, Feuerbach laid down the correct line in philosophy. Therein lies his historic achievement. Therein, too, lies our indebtedness to him.

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