Bloch, Ernst (1885–1977)

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Ernst Bloch, the German Marxist philosopher, was born at Ludwigshafen. Influenced by late German expressionism and by the atmosphere of Munich after World War I, Bloch's style and thought reveal contradictory and uncertain trends. He began his career at the University of Leipzig by publishing Von Geist der Utopie in 1918. This work was followed in 1922 by a study of Thomas Münzer in which mystical and eschatological ideas blend with dialectic elements of Marxist-Hegelian origin. Spuren followed in 1930 and Erbschaft dieser Zeit in 1933. In the latter work the various elements of Bloch's thoughts are for the first time clearly placed within a Marxist framework showing revisionist tendencies.

In 1933 Bloch left Germany, eventually reaching the United States, where he created his major work, Das Prinzip Hoffnung, a huge work that has been called "a monstrous essence of his thoughts." After World War II Bloch, like Bertolt Brecht, went to East Germany, where from 1948 until his retirement in 1957 he was professor at the University of Leipzig. At first, Bloch's political and intellectual influence in East Germany was limited, but nevertheless, he was never fully appreciated by party authorities. His winning the Nationalpreis of the German Democratic Republic in 1955 stirred controversy, and Bloch's views had changed considerably during his sojourn there. His ideas, which were carefully watched by party authorities, became the center of many discussions. In 1953, after the publication of Subjekt-Objekt, Erläuterung zur Hegel and Avicenna und die Aristotelische Linke, Bloch became editor of the Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie. But the journal's comparative independence led to a series of arrests and trials of its collaborators and editors. Wolfgang Harich, Günther Zehm, and Manfred Hertwig were sentenced to prison, and Richard Lorenz and Gerhard Zwerenz fled to the Federal Republic. Although Bloch was only slightly involved, he was forbidden to publish, and in 1957 his works were officially condemned. When Bloch tardily made a declaration of loyalty, it was vague and noncommittal.

Although he was finally permitted to publish the third volume of his Das Prinzip Hoffnung in 1959, Bloch asked for political asylum during a visit to the Federal Republic in 1961, where he became a visiting professor at the University of Tübingen. Bloch is generally known in the West as a major Marxist philosopher, but he drew on a far wider heritage that includes classical German thought, Christian and Jewish mysticism, Neoplatonism, and even the esoteric speculation of the Zohar. His major work, Das Prinzip Hoffnung, gives the impression that Bloch, although claiming that the economic element is fundamental, relegates it to a secondary level and focuses his attention on what Marxist theory regards as only a superstructure, the problem of intellectual culture.

According to Bloch, all reality is "mediation," or the subject-object relation, a dynamic relation that tends ultimately toward the final goal (Endziel ) of the reunion of subject and object. The Urgrund, the primordial stuff prior to the distinction between subject and object, matter and spirit, is moved by an obscure immediate cosmic impulse, which Bloch terms "hunger" and contrasts with Sigmund Freud's libido. After subject and object have been distinguished, Bloch claims, this hunger remains essential to both subject and object. Thus the reality of both subject and object is in the future, and the category of possibility comes to play a central role in his thought.


In humans, the primordial hunger becomes desire, or hope. Hope presents itself as utopia, as a vision of a possibility that might be realized. Hope is tension toward the future, toward the new. It moves from a mere state of mind (Stimmung ) to a representation, and then to knowledge. Although hope is founded on the will, in order to be hope that understands (begriffene Hoffnung, docta spes ), it must draw strength from something real that will survive even when hope itself is completely satisfied. This residue makes hope something more than a project of reason and puts it in relation to what is objectively possible. The future possibility is not just a dream, even if it is heralded in dreams.


The relations between subject, object, reality, and possibility are complex. The nature of the real is a tendency toward, or anticipation of, the future, and thus its reality is the reality of something in the future. But the future is already real as objective possibility. Bloch distinguishes between objective possibility, which (because the object as object is not real) is merely theoretical, and real possibility, which is practically connected with the future. What is really possible is concretely connected with utopia. Reality always contains elements of possible change, possibilities not yet actually existing. Utopias are concerned with these possibilities and thus have an essential function in human consciousness. On the other hand, these possibilities must have a foundation in the object because thought can represent in imagination infinitely many possible objects in infinitely many relationships.

If an event were completely conditioned, it would be "unconditionally certain." Therefore, what can possibly come into existence is possible only insofar as it is not conditioned. What is objectively possible, therefore, is so only insofar as it is not constrained by predetermined conditions. Bloch distinguishes between two senses of objective possibility. One sense concerns the thing and is the thing's "behavior," or the appearance of the thing as an object of knowledge. The other sense concerns our knowledge of the thing. The objectivity (Sachlichkeit ) of the thing concerns only our knowledge of it, while its factuality (Sachhaftigkeit ) concerns only the object of knowledge.


The distinction between objectivity and factuality leads Bloch to claim that Marxism is only a partial outlook on reality and needs completion, even though the reconciliation of the real and the possible is achieved in historical materialism, which retains, in its complete immanentism, an element akin to the doctrine of salvation of the great religions. According to Marxism, historical changes arise out of precise historical socioeconomic conditions, and physical movement arises out of contradiction, the clash of opposites. But just as Bloch supplements the claims of historical materialism with his concept of hope, so he supplements the claims of dialectical materialism. In the object, or matter, the primordial hunger becomes a motive force (agens ). But even though Bloch affirms that this force is completely immanent in matter, it is doubtful whether his view is still materialistic. His hostility toward all forms of mechanism and his inclination toward organic solutions weaken the materialistic features of Marxism to the point of nonexistence. The innate drive that he ascribes to matter has meaning only from the point of view of the final goal. Matter is not predetermined, since it has the capacity not only to express itself in existence but also to do so in forms that are always new. Nevertheless, the teleological doctrine of a final goal for the entire world process is not an extension of a psychological category or historical principle to nature. Rather, it is the cosmic unity of the subject process and object process when being finally becomes thinking and thinking finally becomes being. The historical process of society is thus related to the world process and ultimately to matter.

Thus Bloch identifies dialectical matter with real possibility, but its being in process is not material and contradicts the fundamental Marxist tenet that matter is an independent reality that cannot enter into a relation with anything. Several critics have remarked that Bloch's conception of matter has its sources in the romantic Naturphilosophie of G. W. F. Hegel and Friedrich von Schelling; on this view, Bloch belongs among the idealist critics of natural science.


The reconciliation of subject and object comes through utopia. In utopia, romantic Sehnsucht the nostalgic regret that our dream of rationally conquering the world is blocked by a limit that we try unceasingly but perhaps vainly to overcomeis united with messianic expectancy. Utopia foresees the "kingdom of the children of God" of Thomas Münzer, the kingdom of freedom in which the exploitation of man by man ceases. At this time will come that unification, the identification of subject and object, which Bloch claims Karl Marx foresaw when he spoke of the future historicization of nature and naturalization of man. It is thus from man that the world expects its realization, and the realization of the world process coincides with the self-realization of humankind. The Marxist epistemological theory of reflection will no longer be needed, since knowledge itself will be overcome by hope and the object as object will disappear; it will no longer be the having-become (Gewordenes ) but rather pure process, the becoming (Werdendes ), the not-yet (noch nicht ).

Block's thought is very far from Marx's historical outlook and perhaps not too far from the early views of Georg Lukács. In his conflict with the schematicism and dogmatism of orthodox Marxism, Bloch belongs with such idealist and existentialist revisionists as Lukács, Antonio Gramsci, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Bloch's attempt to save Marxist theory from ossifying has wider implications than their attempts, however, for it is related to the problem of how Marxism is to make use of a cultural heritage, especially the heritage of classical German philosophy and, at least for Bloch, the heritage of the great religions of salvation. Bloch's solution has been to develop one vast comprehensive vision of reality, combining the original intuitions of the Old Testament and apocalyptic literature with the dynamic and messianic elements in Marxism. Bloch's very language reveals this mixture of ancient and modern. Difficult and intense, it echoes both recent expressionism and the language of the Bible and of mystical literature. The past is for Bloch not something fixed in an unreachable dimension, its cultural wealth to be discarded in order to start anew, but a dynamic field of research still of use to man.

See also Marxist Philosophy.


works by bloch

Vom Geist der Utopie. Munich: Duncker and Humblot, 1918.

Thomas Münzer als Theologe der Revolution. Munich: Wolff, 1921.

Spuren. Berlin: Cassirer, 1930.

Erbschaft dieser Zeit. Zürich: Oprecht and Helbling, 1935.

Freiheit und Ordnung, Abriss der Sozial-Utopien. New York: Aurora, 1946.

Subjekt-Objekt: Erläuterung zur Hegel. Berlin: Aufbau, 1951.

Avicenna und die Aristotelische Linke. Berlin: Rütten and Loening, 1951.

Das Prinzip Hoffnung. 3 vols. Berlin: Aufbau, 19541959.

Gesamtausgabe, 17 vols. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 19591978.

Naturrecht und menschliche Würde. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1960. Vol. VI of Gesamtausgabe.

Philosophische Grundfragen, zur Ontologie des Noch-Nicht-Seins. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1961. Vol. I of Gesamtausgabe.

Fromm, Erich, ed. Socialist Humanism: An International Symposium. New York: Doubleday, 1965. Contains an essay by Bloch.

Ernst Bloch zu ehren; Beiträge zu seinem Werk. Edited by Siegfried Unseld. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1965.

Bildung und Konfessionalität;. Frankfurt am Main: M. Diesterweg, 1967.

Religion im Erbe. Eine Auswahl aus seinen religionsphilosophischen Schriften. Edited by Jürgen Moltmann. München u. Hamburg, Siebenstern-Taschenbuch-Verlag, 1967.

Widerstand und Friede; Aufsätze zur Politik. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1968.

Uber Karl Marx. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1968.

Atheismus in Christentum; zur Religion des Exodus und des Reichs. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1968.

"Man as Possibility." In Hope: A Symposium. West Nyack, NY: Cross Currents, 1968.

Christian Thomasius, ein deutscher Gelehrter ohne Misere. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1968.

Philosophische Aufsätze zur objektiven Phantasie. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1969.

Die Kunst, Schiller zu sprechen: Und andere literarische Aufsätze. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1969.

Karl Marx und die Menschlichkeit. Utopische Phantasie u. Weltveränderung. Reinbek b. Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1969.

Man on His Own; Essays in the Philosophy of Religion. New York: Herder and Herder, 1970.

Uber Methode und System bei Hegel. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1970.

A Philosophy of the Future. New York: Herder and Herder, 1970.

Bloch, Ernst. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1970.

Politische Messungen, Pestzeit, Vormärz. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1970.

Marx und die Revolution. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1970.

Das Materialismusproblem, seine Geschichte und Substanz. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1972.

Vorlesungen zur Philosophie der Renaissance. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp -Taschenbuch-Verl., 1972.

Erbschaft dieser Zeit. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1973.

Ästhetik des Vor-Scheins. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1974.

Zur Philosophie der Musik. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1974.

Experimentum mundi: Frage, Kategorien d. Herausbringens, Praxis. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1975.

Ernst Bloch zum 90. Geburtstag: Es muss nicht immer Marmor sein: Erbschaft aus Ungleichzeitigkeit. Berlin: K. Wagenbach, 1975.

Zwischenwelten in der Philosophiegeschichte: Aus Leipziger Vorlesungen. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1976.

Aesthetics and Politics. London: NLB, 1977.

Literarische Aufsätze. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1977.

Experimentum mundi: Frage, Kategorien des Herausbringens, Praxis. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1977.

Tendenz, Latenz, Utopie. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1978.

Aesthetics and Politics. London: Verso, 1980.

"Denken heisst überschreiten": In Memoriam Ernst Bloch. Frankfurt: Ullstein, 1982, 1978.

Essays on the Philosophy of Music. Translated by Peter Palmer. Cambridge; New York; Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Werkausgabe. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1985, (c)1969.

Natural Law and Human Dignity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986.

The Utopian Function of Art and Literature: Selected Essays. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988.

Heritage of Our Times. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 1991.

works on bloch

Baumgart, J. "E. Bloch, Erbschaft dieser Zeit." Neue Rundschau 2 (1963).

Buhr, M. "Der religiöse Ursprung und Charakter der Hoffnungsphilosophie." Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie 6 (1958): 576598.

Bütow, H. G. Philosophie und Gesellschaft im Denken Ernst Blochs. Wiesbaden, 1963.

Eucken-Erdsiek, E. "Prinzip ohne Hoffnung. Kritische Betrachtungen zum Hauptwerk von E. Bloch." Philosophische Jahrbuch 70 (1962): 147156.

Holz, H. H. "Der Philosoph E. Bloch und sein Werk 'Das Prinzip Hoffnung.'" Sinn und Form 3 (1955).

Kurella, A. "Zur Theorie der Moral. Eine alte Polemik mit E. Bloch." Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie 6 (1958): 599621.

Ley, H. "Ernst Bloch und das Hegelsche System." Einheit 3 (1957).

Lorenz, K. "Hoffnung als Wissenschaft. Die Philosophie Ernst Blochs." Deutsche Universitätszeitung 22 (1957): 911.

Rühle, Jürgen, "Philosopher of Hope: Ernst Bloch." In Revisionism, edited by Leopold Labedz, 166178. New York: Praeger, 1962.

Strolz, W. "Der Marxist und die Hoffnung. Einige Überlegungen zu dem Werke Ernst Blochs." Wort und Wahrheit (1960).

Tjaden, K. M. "Zur Naturrechts Interpretation Ernst Blochs." Archiv für Recht -sund Sozialphilosophie 56 (1962): 573584.

Zehm, G. A. "Ernst Bloch." Der Monat 158 (1961).

See also Ernst Bloch zum 70. Geburtstage; Festschrift (Berlin: Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften, 1955); and Ernst Blochs Revision des Marxismus (Berlin, 1957), an anthology with an introduction by J. H. Horn.

Franco Lombardi (1967)

Bibliography updated by Michael J. Farmer (2005)