Feuerbach, Ludwig Andreas (1804–1872)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated


Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach, the German philosopher, theologian, and moralist, was born in Landshut, Bavaria. He studied theology at Heidelberg and Berlin and then, in 1825, under the influence of G. W. F. Hegel, transferred to the faculty of philosophy. He received his doctorate in 1828 at Erlangen, where he remained to teach as docent until 1832. In 1830 he published anonymously at Nuremberg a workGedanken über Tod und Unsterblichkeit that created a minor scandal by interpreting Christianity as an egoistic and inhumane religion. When his authorship of this book became known, he was dismissed from the faculty. In 1836 he retired to Bruckberg, where he lived on a modest pension from the Bavarian government, income from his writings, and revenue provided by his wife's interest in a pottery factory.

Between 1836 and 1843 he collaborated with Arnold Ruge on Ruge's Hallische Jahrbücher für deutsche Wissenschaft und Kunst, in which many of Feuerbach's most important early writings on religion and philosophy first appeared. He broke with Ruge when the latter began collaboration with Karl Marx on the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, although he contributed to the one issue of that journal. He reappeared briefly in academic life in 18481849, lecturing to audiences of intellectuals and workers at Heidelberg at the request of students, for whom he had become a symbol of liberal thought.

With the failure of the Frankfurt Assembly and the defeat of liberalism in Germany, Feuerbach retired once more to Bruckberg, where he devoted himself to the study of the natural sciences, the composition of a monumental Theogonie (Leipzig, 1857), and a voluminous correspondence with friends and admirers all over Europe. In 1860 his wife's pottery factory failed, and Feuerbach removed his family to Nuremberg, where he was forced to live off the generosity of his friends. In 1867 he suffered the first of a number of strokes that finally killed him.


Feuerbach's most important works"Zur Kritik der Hegelschen Philosophie" (in the Hallische Jahrbücher, 1839), Das Wesen des Christentums (Leipzig, 1841; translated by M. Evans [George Eliot], London, 1854), Grundsätze der Philosophie der Zukunft (Zürich and Winterthur, 1843), and Das Wesen der Religion (Leipzig, 1846)were produced in his early years. They were meant to expose the contradictions in Hegelian philosophy, to establish the "illusionistic" character of all religious belief, and to plead for a "new philosophy," based on anthropology and physiology, that would provide the foundation of a naturalistic-humanistic ethic. His criticism of Hegelianism served as the point of departure for the so-called left Hegelians, of whom Marx and Friedrich Engels were the most important representatives.

criticism of hegelianism

Feuerbach's critique of Hegelianism proceeded not from sympathy for "obtuse materialism," under which term he grouped Newtonian science, empiricism, and positivism alike, but rather from his discovery of contradictions in Hegel's own system. The resolution of these contradictions would, he believed, allow the establishment of a "new philosophy," which, while remaining thoroughly materialistic, would accommodate those insights into the operations of human consciousness that constituted Hegelianism's definitive contribution to human self-knowledge.

Feuerbach viewed Hegelianism as the culmination of modern rationalism, and he believed that "the secret of Hegel," as of all rationalism, lay in an essentially religious spirit concealed beneath an apparent denial of all transcendence. This hidden religious element accounted for the degradation of the material world, of man, and of the senses that was characteristic of Hegel's metaphysics, ethics, and epistemology, respectively. In Hegel's thought, however, the means were provided for finally transcending all of the religious residues in modern philosophy. For Hegel's attempt to sustain simultaneously the primacy of intellect and the necessity of reason's realizing itself in matter results in the negation of the Hegelian system itself in the interest of a materialistic metaphysics, a humanistic ethics, and a sensible (sinnliche ) epistemology, the bases of the "philosophy of the future."

development of modern philosophy

Feuerbach believed that modern philosophy had followed a pattern of development set by theology. The attempt of theology to establish the relationship between the sensible attributes of God and the extrasensible sphere in which he exists necessarily led to pantheism, which makes matter an attribute of God or defines God (as did Benedict de Spinoza) as "extended essence" and thus ends by deifying matter itself. In fact, pantheism is "theological atheism," the discovery by theology that matter is the sole reality, and hence it foreshadows the ultimate self-dissolution of religion.

Empiricism had already discovered that matter was the sole reality, but only in a practical, not in a theoretical, sense, for in making "mere" matter the sole reality it was unable to deal with the data of human consciousness. Rationalism, however, of which idealism was the necessary outcome, underwent a secularized development from theism as a divinization of spirit to pantheism as the self-dissolution of spirit. Idealism was nothing but an attempt to salvage God by vesting full epistemic authority in consciousness, intellect, or reason at the expense of the senses. Yet because it was overtly secularist, rationalism had to account for the world discovered by the senses. It could do this only by affirming, as Immanuel Kant did, an absolute hiatus between the world of intellect, to which it ascribed all truth, and the world of sense, to which it granted reality. Hegel tried to close this gap between truth and reality, but he could do so only by extending the Cartesian divinization of Reason to the world as a whole. The result was a transition from Kantian "rational theism, theism rationalized" to Hegelian "pantheistic idealism."

reason in hegel

In affirming the rationality of the real and the reality of the rational, Hegel, according to Feuerbach, elevated reason to the status of "absolute essence." Then, to account for the existence of the spatiotemporal world, he had to hold simultaneously that matter is the negation of thought and that thought can only "realize itself" by becoming matter. To Feuerbach this showed that on Hegel's own terms "thought presupposes, without being aware of it, that truth is reality, sensibility independent of thought." On the one hand Hegel viewed sensibility as "an attribute of the idea," whereas on the other he maintained that it is "an attribute without which thought has no truth"; that is, he had to hold that it is "at one and the same time central and marginal, essence and accident."

According to Feuerbach, idealism knew implicitly that "truth, reality, and sensibility are identical," but it suppressed this truth in order to subordinate the sensible world to an absolute being endowed with the attributes of the human ego, that is, with consciousness and reason. This led idealism to assert that the thinking of the absolute being is real, whereas that of the finite sensible being, man, is not. According to Hegel, human reason is nothing but the self-revelation of the absolute being to itself. Thus, Feuerbach exclaimed, Hegel "alienates and expropriates from man his typical essence and activity!"

primacy of human consciousness

Feuerbach's own "new philosophy" began with the axiom "Only a sensible being is a real, true being," standing the Hegelian position on its feet so that its truth could be seen aright. "The true relation of thought to being is only this," he wrote in the Vorläufige Thesen : "being is the subject, thought the predicate. Thought is a product of being, not being of thought. The essence of being as being is the essence of nature." The consciousness deified by Hegel, like the reason deified by René Descartes and Kant and the Matter deified by Spinoza, "is our ego, our intellect, our essence: and this God is no God in itself, but only the appearance of ourselves to ourselves." Hence, the lasting contribution of idealism to philosophy is its analysis, under the aspect of an examination of the absolute being, of the operations of human consciousness, the reality of which is denied by simple empiricism. Hegelianism, like all metaphysics, is nothing but "esoteric psychology."

materialism and idealism

Unlike conventional materialism the new philosophy granted ontological and epistemological status to consciousness and intellect, and unlike idealism it accorded reality to matter. But it deified neither matter nor consciousness. For according to Feuerbach, it is wrong to say, with the materialist, that "man is distinguished from the brute only by consciousness"; in fact, "in a being which awakes to consciousness, there takes place a qualitative change, a differentiation of the entire nature." Yet this "qualitative change" in no way justifies the idealist contention that man is consciousness alone, "for as man belongs to the essence of Nature,in opposition to common materialism; so Nature belongs to the essence of man,in opposition to subjective idealism."   


Every attempt to specify the essence of man by deriving his material from his spiritual nature, or vice versa, is therefore mistaken, in Feuerbach's view. The task of philosophy is to encounter man in his situation, as that part of nature endowed with consciousness which seeks to realize its own peculiar essence through specific kinds of relationships with the rest of nature and with other members of its species. Feuerbach's philosophy assumed only that "I am a real, sensible essence: the body is constituted of my essence; indeed the body in its totality is my ego, my existence itself." It recognized that man's essence reveals itself quintessentially in the impulse toward union with other men: "The essence of man is contained only in community, in the unity of man with mana unity which however is founded only on the reality of the differences between I and thou." To comprehend human action and thought one must take account of man's capacity to transcend the limited responses of the lower animals to their environment.

Philosophy, properly studied, then, is "the complete, coherent, and absolute resolution of theology into anthropology. "It takes man as the culmination of the natural process and defines him as "universal essence" and then concentrates on the study of the totality of his responses to the rest of the world. Among these responses will be found the passions, especially the emotion of love, the impulse toward "union" with the "other" that is peculiar to man. The capacity to create communities of shared emotive contents is the secret of man and therefore the secret of all thought and action; for what men are really seeking in every imagined absolute is nothing but the "unity of I and thou."


All of this is assumed in Feuerbach's studies of religion and lies at the base of his "unmasking" of Christian beliefs in Das Wesen des Christentums, his most celebrated work.

Feuerbach regarded religion as one of the forms of human thought and action by which man raised himself above the animal. Beginning with the assumption of D. F. Strauss that religion, myth, ritual, and dogma tell us more about the inner lives of individual people than about their presumed object of worship, Feuerbach tried to determine the purely human significance of all mythological thought. He professed to be a uniformitarian in religious mattersthat is, he denied that past religious experiences differ from those that can be observed in the presentthus anticipating the approach to religious experience of both William James and Sigmund Freud. Like them, he claimed to be rigidly empirical in method. "I found my ideas on materials which can be appropriated through the senses," he wrote in the 1843 preface to Das Wesen des Christentums ; "I do not generate the object from the thought, but the thought from the object; and I hold that alone to be a proper object which has an existence beyond one's brain. I am nothing but a natural philosopher in the domain of the mind."

His study led him to conclude that religion is a form of the projective spirit in man, the means by which man "projects his being into objectivity, and then again makes himself an object to this projected image of himself thus converted into a subject; he thinks of himself not as an object to himself but as an object of an object, of another being than himself." Thus, religion is "the dream of the human mind"; properly understood, it is a dream of human, not divine, development: "it is and can be nothing else than the consciousness which man has of his ownnot finite and limitedbut infinite nature." Man, then, unlike the animal, is self-transcending, and religion is one of man's means of objectifying his own essence in ideal terms, of spinning out visions of what he might be. For example, the Christian idea of the Incarnation is nothing but a reflection of the dream of man to become God and the realization that this can be achieved only through a transcendent love of one's fellow man.

Religious feelings thus depend on an alienation of man from himself. Religion generates belief in an objective "other" in which all of man's best qualities are vested, his worst qualities being designated as the true human essence. Philosophy must therefore "destroy an illusion" that deprives man of the power of a free life as well as a genuine sense of truth and virtue, "for even love, in itself the deepest, truest emotion, becomes by means of religiousness merely ostensible, illusory, since religious love gives itself to man only for God's sake, so that it is given only in appearance to man, but in reality to God." In short, for Feuerbach religion is the uncontrolled and unconscious exercise of a human faculty that with the aid of the sciences of anthropology, physiology, and psychology can be controlled, raised to consciousness, and turned toward the attainment of genuine health, well-being, and community here on earth. For "the consciousness of God is nothing but the consciousness of the species."


Feuerbach was little concerned with political polemics, for which Marx and Engels vehemently criticized him, but his work served as an inspiration for those who were trying to work out a realistic program of reform in Germany during the middle decades of the century. Many of his dicta became dogmata for the radical movement, as for example the 1850 statement: "The doctrine of foods is of great ethical and political significance. Food becomes blood, blood becomes heart and brain, thoughts and mind-stuff. Human fare is the foundation of human culture and thought. Would you improve a nation? Give it, instead of declamations against sin, better food. Man is what he eats" (quoted in Höffding, History of Modern Philosophy, London, 1900, Vol. II, p. 281). But his main concern remained the mystery of the transformation of "human fare" into human thought. This mystery was the basis of his naturalistic humanism, which Marx and Engels regarded as merely a vestige of the old idealism. According to Marx's "Theses on Feuerbach," Feuerbach resolved "the essence of religion into the essence of man," and Marx protested that "the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each separate individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of social relations." The judgment was basically correct. Feuerbach, though he resolved Hegelianism into psychology, made of consciousness itself a mystery, if not a miracle.

By 1850 Feuerbach's star had already set. The future of materialism in Germany lay with mechanists such as Ludwig Büchner on the one hand and with Marx on the other. Engels was right in saying, "With one blow, [Feuerbach] pulverized the contradiction [of idealism] and without circumlocutions placed materialism on the throne again." But he was also right in noting that Feuerbach "stopped halfway; the lower half of him was materialist, the upper half idealist." Feuerbach's "destruction" of Hegelianism was less important than the way he carried it out, since this destruction was the sport of almost every significant thinker in the Germany of his day. But because he generated materialism out of Hegel himself, Feuerbach provided the means by which German thought could become "scientific" while still indulging its overriding interest in historical processes. Thus, his work inspired both Marx and Engels, but it also laid the foundation for that phenomenological anthropology that has made him a source of information and insights for such modern philosophers as Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Karl Barth.

See also Alienation; Barth, Karl; Büchner, Ludwig; Empiricism; Engels, Friedrich; Freud, Sigmund; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Hegelianism; Heidegger, Martin; Idealism; James, William; Kant, Immanuel; Marx, Karl; Materialism; Pantheism; Philosophical Anthropology; Rationalism; Sartre, Jean-Paul; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Strauss, David Friedrich.


works by feuerbach

Ludwig Feuerbach Sämtliche Werke. 10 vols., edited by Wilhelm Bolin and Friedrich Jodl. Stuttgart: Frommann, 19031910. New and augmented ed., 12 vols. Stuttgart, 19591960. The complete works of Feuerbach, accompanied by a full apparatus criticus and biographical and bibliographical information on writings both by and about him.

The Essence of Christianity, translated by M. Evans. New ed. New York: Harper, 1957. Contains a chapter on Feuerbach from Barth's Theologie und die Kirche.

works on feuerbach

Barth, K. Die protestantische Theologie im 19. Jahrhundert. Zürich, 1952. Translated by Brian Cozens as Protestant Thought from Rousseau to Ritschl. New York: Harper, 1959.

Barth, K. Die Theologie und die Kirche. Vol. II, pp. 212239. Zürich, 1928. Translated by L. P. Smith as Theology and Church. London: SCM Press, 1962.

Chamberlain, W. B. Heaven Wasn't His Destination: The Philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach. London: Allen and Unwin, 1941.

Cornu, A. Moses Hess et la gauche hégélienne. Paris, 1934.

Engels, F. Ludwig Feuerbach und der Ausgang der klassischen deutschen Philosophie. Stuttgart, 1888. Translated as Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy, edited by C. P. Dutt. New York: International, 1934.

Grégoire, F. Aux Sources de la pensée de Marx. Paris, 1947.

Grün, K. Ludwig Feuerbach in seinem Briefwechsel und Nachlasse. 2 vols. Leipzig, 1874.

Hook, S. From Hegel to Marx. New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1936.

Jodl, F. Ludwig Feuerbach. Stuttgart: Frommans, 1904.

Lévy, A. La philosophie de Feuerbach. Paris, 1904.

Löwith, K. Von Hegel zu Nietzsche. Stuttgart, 1941.

Marcuse, H. Reason and Revolution. London: Oxford University Press, 1941.

Nüdling, Gregor. "Die Auflosung des Gott-Menschenverhältnis bei Ludwig Feuerbach." In Der Mensch vor Gott. Düsseldorf, 1948.

Nüdling, Gregor. Ludwig Feuerbachs Religionsphilosophie. Paderborn, Germany, 1936.

Rawidowicz, S. Ludwig Feuerbachs Philosophie. Berlin: Reuther and Reichard, 1931.

Tucker, R. Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1961.

other recommended works

Amengual, Gabriel. Crítica de la religión y antropología en Ludwig Feuerbach: La reducción antropológica de la teología como paso del idealismo al materialismo. Barcelona: Laia, 1980.

Barata-Moura, José, and Viriato Susamenho Marques. Pensar Feuerbach: Colóquio comemorativo dos 150 anos da publicação de "A essência do Cristianismo (18411991). Lisboa: Edições Colibri, 1993.

Braun, Hans-Jürg. Ludwig Feuerbach und die Philosophie der Zukunft: Internationale Arbeitsgemeinschaft am ZIF der Universität Bielefeld 1989. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1990.

Cabada Castro, Manuel. El humanismo premarxista de Ludwig Feuerbach. Madrid: La Editorial Católica, 1975.

Feuerbach, Ludwig. Principles of the Philosophy of the Future. Translated, with an introduction by Manfred H. Vogel. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966.

Feuerbach, Ludwig. Kleine Schriften. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1966.

Feuerbach, Ludwig. Anthropologischer Materialismus. Ausgewählte Schriften. Edited by Alfred Schmidt. Wien: Europa Verlag, 1967.

Feuerbach, Ludwig. Lectures on the Essence of Religion. New York: Harper & Row, 1967.

Feuerbach, Ludwig. The Essence of Faith According to Luther. New York: Harper & Row, 1967.

Feuerbach, Ludwig. Philosophische Kritiken und Grundsätze. Leipsig: Reclam, 1969.

Feuerbach, Ludwig. The Fiery Brook; Selected Writings of Ludwig Feuerbach. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1972.

Feuerbach, Ludwig. Schriften aus dem Nachlass. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1974-1976.

Feuerbach, Ludwig. Werke Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1975-.

Feuerbach, Ludwig. Geschichte der neueren Philosophie: Von Bacon von Verulam bis Benedikt Spinoza. Frankfurt am Main: Röderberg-Verlag, 1976.

Feuerbach, Ludwig. Thoughts on Death and Immortality: From the Papers of a Thinker, along with an Appendix of Theological-satirical Epigrams. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

Feuerbach, Ludwig. Grundsätze der Philosophie der Zukunft. Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1983.

Feuerbach, Ludwig. Principles of the Philosophy of the Future. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1986,.

Harvey, Van Austin. Feuerbach and the Interpretation of Religion. Cambridge U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Kamenka, Eugene. The Philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach. New York: Praeger, 1970.

Ludwig Feuerbach e la natura non umana: ricostruzione genetica dell'Essenza della religione con pubblicazione degli inediti. Firenze: La Nuova Italia, 1986.

Solidarität oder Egoismus: Studien zu einer Ethik bei und nach Ludwig Feuerbach: Sowie kritisch revidierte Edition "Zur Moralphilosophie" (1868) besorgt von W. Schuffenhauer. Braun, Hans-Jürg, 1927; Schuffenhauer, Werner; Feuerbach, Ludwig; Zur Moralphilosophie. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1994.

Wartofsky, Marx W. Feuerbach. Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Hayden V. White (1967)

Bibliography updated by Michael J. Farmer (2005)