Ludwig Feuerbach Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Through a sustained critique of theology and speculative Idealism, Feuerbach developed an anthropological account of religious needs and a materialist, sensationalist epistemology for the philosophy of the future.

Early Life

Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach was the fourth son of a jurist noted for studies in criminal law. In 1823, Feuerbach began studying theology at Heidelberg before turning to the study of philosophy under Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in Berlin. When political events caused Feuerbach to lose a government stipend in 1826, he moved to the University of Erlangen. He received his doctoral degree in 1828 with a dissertation on the Hegelian analysis of reason, and he worked as a docent from 1829 to 1835, lecturing on modern philosophy. In 1830, he published an analysis of religious ideas, Thoughts on Death and Immortality, which was seen as an attack on religion. He was never able to secure a university appointment. Drawing from his studies for his lectures as docent, Feuerbach published a three-volume work on the history of modern philosophy, Darstellung der Geschichte der neueren Philosophie (1833-1837; presentations of the history of modern philosophy). He married Berta Low and moved to Bruckberg, living in solitude with income from his wife’s dowry, which contained shared ownership in a porcelain factory. In Bruckberg, he studied geology but soon turned back to religion and philosophy.

Life’s Work

Although Feuerbach learned from Hegel how to attack religious problems, his first publication, Thoughts on Death and Immortality, reflected little of this learning. His next effort, Darstellung der Geschichte der neueren Philosophie, a three-volume set on the history of modern philosophy, plunged directly and deeply into Hegelian Idealism as the culmination of modern philosophy. Hegel’s dialectical method gave the three-volume history its structure, although the work contained an empiricist conclusion that became the foundation for Feuerbach’s subsequent thinking.

In the first volume, Geschichte der neueren Philosophie von Bacon von Verulam bis Benedict Spinoza (1833; the history of modern philosophy from Bacon to Spinoza), Feuerbach examined the epistemologies of Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, and Pierre Gassendi as well as those of René Descartes, Cartesians Arnold Geulincx and Nicolas Malebranche, and Baruch Spinoza. According to Feuerbach, modern philosophy began with materialist theories regarding bodies in motion that freed philosophy from theistic constraints. However, materialism proved unable to resolve problems of knowledge that dealt with relationships of matter and consciousness. In this volume, Feuerbach praised Descartes’s method of doubt, describing his positive achievement of certainty in the activity of a thinking, reasoning self. Feuerbach also found clues toward the resolution of the basic Cartesian split of mind and body in the pantheism of Spinoza.

In the second volume of the history, Darstellung, Entwicklung, und Kritik der Leibniz’schen Philosophie (1836; exposition, development, and critique of Leibnizian philosophy), Feuerbach critiqued the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. This volume marked Feuerbach’s commitment to a course of thinking that led to naturalistic concrete individualism. Leibniz’s monadology, which deals with monads as the elements of all things, did not answer Feuerbach’s questions about the relationship of the universal (in reason) with the particular (in sensation). He also felt that Leibniz’s concept of the will was too irrational to resolve the Cartesian mind-body split. Leibniz did, however, provide pathways through belief toward anthropological materialism.

In Pierre Bayle, Feuerbach addressed differences between belief and knowledge and between faith and reason. Modern philosophy had turned God into Reason without confirming the reality of matter and nature. Feuerbach believed the key to reconciliation was the relationship of reason and belief. He considered skepticism and dogma to be the underlying causes for the Cartesian dualism with which Leibniz contended. Descartes was also a victim of this underlying conflict, because he professed a religious faith despite his philosophical method of skepticism.

In his 1839 essay, “Zur Kritik der Hegelschen Philosophie” (translated as “Toward a Critique of Hegelian Philosophy” and published in The Fiery Brook), Feuerbach focused on the basic contradiction in Hegel’s philosophy of the absolute, which sees disunity between consciousness (thought, ideal spirit) and sensation. In Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807; The Phenomenology of Spirit, 1872, also known as The Phenomenology of Mind, 1910) and Wissenschaft der Logik (1812-1816; Science of Logic, 1929), Hegel had shown that the fulfillment of the Idea is in having pure thought as its own object. Feuerbach, using a reductionist technique, rejected this as nonsense, as “no-thinking.” To fill this emptiness, this abstract reason of Idealism, without rejecting the form of Reason was the object of Feuerbach’s project to put humanity into the emptiness of Idea. Modern philosophy had not understood the importance of sense perception in knowledge, and that led to an alienation and fragmentation of Being, which was improperly retained as a displaced deity by speculative philosophy in the name of Reason. Hegel had turned theology inside out (making God into Thought, or Absolute Spirit); Feuerbach’s new...

(The entire section is 2305 words.)