Feuerbach, Ludwig

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FEUERBACH, LUDWIG (18041872), German humanistic philosopher of religion and influential spokesman for the Young Hegelians. Born into a gifted Bavarian family, Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach studied theology at the University of Heidelberg before transferring to Berlin, where he became an enthusiastic convert to Hegelianism. In 1828 he completed his doctoral work at the University of Erlangen, where he remained as a docent until he was denied tenure, having been identified as the author of the anonymously published book Thoughts on Death and Immortality. In it he argued that the Christian doctrine of personal immortality was a form of egoism incompatible with a belief in the Absolute as infinite love. The book was especially offensive because of the sarcastic epigrams about pietistic Christianity appended to the text. Never again was he offered an academic position.

In 1837 Feuerbach married Bertha Löw, and the income from a porcelain factory of which she was part owner supported him until it went bankrupt in 1860. Although in the early 1830s he contributed to the principal journal of the Young Hegelians, the Hallische Jahrbücher für deutsche Wissenschaft und Kunst, he shunned political activity and, except for a brief appearance in the Frankfurt Assembly in 1848, lived in studious seclusion in Bruckberg. He became famous in the early 1840s for his atheistic interpretation of religion in The Essence of Christianity (1841), as well as for his attacks on Hegelian philosophy in two monographs, Vorläufige Thesen zur Reform der Philosophie and Grundsätze der Philosophie der Zukunft, which influenced the young Karl Marx. Although Feuerbach returned again and again to the interpretation of religion, his later writings were relatively ignored. He maintained a prolific correspondence with friends all over Europe and America, and when the porcelain factory went bankrupt, he and his wife were sustained by the generosity of friends. When the social democratic press reported that he had suffered a stroke in 1870, contributions poured in from Europe and the United States. He died in Nuremberg in 1872.

Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity can best be understood against the background of his two fundamental criticisms of Hegel's speculative idealism. The first was of Hegel's basic tendency to treat abstract predicatesreason, thought, consciousness, and beingas entities. For example, having established that thought was of the essence of humanity, Hegel then transformed this predicate into a metaphysical entity, a subject. Thus whatever truth there was in Hegel's thought could be appropriated by inverting once again the subject and the predicate, so as to make thinking and consciousness the predicates of existing individuals. The second criticism of Hegel concerned his preoccupation with thought in contrast to the actual sensuous existence of human beings. Hegel, together with classical philosophy generally, believed that the ultimate criteria of the real is its capability of being thought. For Feuerbach, the real is that which offers resistance to the entire sensuous being of the personto sight, feeling, even love. Consequently, human existence is existence with othersit is communal.

Feuerbach's inversion of Hegel's basic metaphysical vision informs The Essence of Christianity. If Hegel regarded nature and history as the self-objectification of the Absolute, Feuerbach regarded God, the Absolute, as the reification of the essential predicates of human existence: reason, feeling, and love. The idea of God is the idea of the species characteristics of humankind involuntarily and unconsciously projected as an object of thought and worship. God is, so to speak, an acoustical illusion of consciousness. Hence the history of religions, of which Christianity is the culmination, is the childlike, collective dream of humanity in which it worships and contemplates its own essential nature. Just as Hegel argued that the Absolute must become reconciled with its alienated objectifications (the finite), so too Feuerbach argued that human well-being depends on the reappropriation of the real content contained in the alienated idea of God. The inner meaning of Christian theology is anthropology.

The first part of The Essence of Christianity attempts to show that all the major Christian doctrinesespecially those of God and the incarnationcan best be understood as anthropology. The second part is more negative, seeking to establish that Christian theology is full of contradictions if these human predicates are attributed to a single, metaphysical being.

Feuerbach's book is still regarded by many as one of the seminal works of the nineteenth century and the first comprehensive projection theory of religion. Religion is not dismissed merely as superstitious belief, but seen as a necessary stage in the development of human self-consciousness. Moreover, the book is the first systematic attempt to develop a body of principles for interpreting Christian doctrine in its entirety. Christian doctrines are profound insights when taken as anthropological truths, but a mass of contradictions when taken as objective theological propositions.

Feuerbach modified his theory of religion in a small book, The Essence of Religion (1845), which in turn was amplified in Lectures on the Essence of Religion (1848). In these books he emphasized the role of external nature in the development of the religious consciousness, as well as the causal role played by wishes, needs, instincts, and desires. The basic drive of the self to preserve and develop all its powers (Egoismus ) is said to be the hidden subjective cause of religion, while nature, falsified by the imagination, is said to be its objective ground.

Feuerbach stated that his first and last thoughts were about religion, and he turned to it once again in Theogonie, first published in 1857 and again, with a slightly altered title, in 1866. This work attempts to explain morality, culture, and religion in terms of a basic drive for happiness (Glückseligkeitstrieb ), with arguments drawn from classical Greek, Hebraic, and early Christian sources. The gods are said to be the reified wishes of humankind. Since all wishes are fraught with a haunting sense of their contingency and possible failure, the imagination seizes upon the idea of a being that is not subject to limitation and death. Although Feuerbach regarded this book as his finest, it has generally been ignored.


A new critical edition of Feuerbach's works, Gesammelte Werke, 20 vols. (Berlin, 1967), is under the editorship of Werner Schuffenhauer; indispensable for serious scholarship, it contains the textual variations of all editions of Feuerbach's major works. It supplants Wilhelm Bolin and Friedrich Jodl's edition, Sämtliche Werke, 10 vols. (Stuttgart, 19031911), which was reissued in facsimile in 19601964 under the editorship of H.-M. Sass. In the facsimile edition, two more volumes were added. The eleventh contains a photographic facsimile of Feuerbach's inauguration dissertation of 1828 (in Latin), his Thoughts on Death and Immortality (1830), and an extensive bibliography of all works on Feuerbach in German between 1833 and 1961. The twelve (double) volumes contain Sass's expanded edition of Bolin's Selected Correspondence from and to Ludwig Feuerbach, together with some of Bolin's memoirs.

Six of Feuerbach's works have been translated into English: (1) Thoughts on Death and Immortality, translated with introduction and notes by James A. Massey (Berkeley, 1980); (2) The Essence of Christianity, the famous translation by George Eliot of the second German edition (New York, 1957); (3) The Essence of Faith According to Luther, translated with a brief but suggestive introduction by Melvin Cherno (New York, 1967); (4) Principles of the Philosophy of the Future (Indianapolis, 1966), which contains a long introduction by the translator, Manfred H. Vogel, exploring Feuerbach's philosophy of religion and his relationship to Hegel; (5) Lectures on the Essence of Religion (New York, 1967), a translation by Ralph Manheim based on the Bolin-Jodl version of 1908 and not the text Feuerbach himself published; and (6) The Essence of Religion (New York, 1873), an abridged edition translated by Alexander Loos, long out of print.

There are four scholarly treatments of Feuerbach in English: Van A. Harvey, Feuerbach and the Interpretation of Religion, (Cambridge, 1995); Larry Johnston, Between Transcendence and Nihilism, (New York, 1995); Marx W. Wartofsky, Feuerbach (New York, 1977); and Charles A. Wilson Feuerbach and the Search for Otherness, (New York, 1989). A useful introduction is Eugene Kamenka's The Philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach (New York, 1970). There are many important books about Feuerbach in German. Still indispensable is Simon Rawidowicz's Ludwig Feuerbachs Philosophie: Ursprung und Schicksal (1931; reprint, Berlin, 1964). Also recommended is Michael von Gagern, Ludwig Feuerbach. Philosophie und Religionskritik (Munich and Salzburg, 1970).

Van A. Harvey (1987 and 2005)