Ludwig Feuerbach

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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...

(This entire section contains 2305 words.)

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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 philosophy would make Thought into Humanity by showing that Absolute Spirit is nothing but the hypostatization of self-consciousness. Feuerbach rejected Hegelian Idealism but used it as the ground for truth, or species-knowledge, in his new conception of the human community.

Resisting efforts by friends to move to Heidelberg, where he might have worked in a vigorous intellectual community, Feuerbach pursued his own agenda, publishing The Essence of Christianity, the next stage for unveiling the true meaning of existence. It was increasingly difficult to pursue that truth in a place and time that discouraged intellectual freedom. The Essence of Christianity was banned in Austria, and police raided Feuerbach’s home, searching for evidence against a politically active acquaintance. This affected Feuerbach’s style, making him direct and deliberately unsystematic.

In The Essence of Christianity, one of Feuerbach’s best known works, he showed how the divine has origins in human consciousness. All religious ideas and images—the Incarnation, the Trinity, prayer, and immortality—were human projections. The origins of traditional religious ideas are unveiled by reversing their subjects and predicates: For example, “God is love” becomes “Love is God.” The attributes of God were simply features or characteristics of individual human beings made into universals. Feuerbach showed theology to be anthropology and the Christian religion to be atheism. He followed Hegel’s interpretation of history as a dialectical unveiling of the absolute in images and concepts of Christianity. Feuerbach took this to the next stage of understanding, stating that Hegel’s Absolute Spirit is the human species.

Feuerbach unveiled truth by using the Hegelian dialectic against itself. The self, “I,” finds itself objectified in another, “Thou,” and becomes conscious of itself as a part of a community, one of a species with a social nature. Thus does the Spirit become an object that is alienated as the Trinity in Christian doctrine until it develops into the next, synthesizing stage of history, which is nothing less than self-recognition. Imagination, an instrument of feeling, misrepresented the alienated object in symbols and mythology. Philosophy’s task is to strip away the disguises and uncover the source of happiness in human desire. Once found, it would dissolve the forces of alienation that were sustained by religion, theology, and the speculative philosophy of Idealism. Feuerbach became a philosophical anthropologist.

It was the purpose of his next work, Principles of the Philosophy of the Future, to provide the world with a new philosophy to replace religion. A year later, Feuerbach published The Essence of Faith According to Luther to meet the popular demand created as a result of The Essence of Christianity. With these publications, he caught the attention of a public pleased with his critique of religion and the old speculative philosophy of Idealism. He redirected philosophy into an empiricist route, promoting materialist humanism when positivism and natural science were gaining strength. He gave philosophical respectability to the science of biblical scholarship, and he inspired political philosopher Karl Marx and socialist Friedrich Engels in the domains of economics and politics.

By 1846, he had sufficient confidence in his philosophical accomplishment that he began publishing a ten-volume collection of his essays, Ludwig Feuerbach’s Sämtliche Werke (collected works of Ludwig Feuerbach). He had become the intellectual leader of the new Hegelians, including Marx, who spoke of himself as one of many Feuerbachians. During the revolutionary activities of 1848, Feuerbach solidified the ideological structures for the principles of the revolution. In this atmosphere, he lectured in Heidelberg, from December, 1848, to March, 1849, on the topic of religion; these lectures were published as Lectures on the Essence of Religion. He contemplated living in the United States, where he had admirers; however, he decided to remain in Bavaria. He continued publishing elaborations and extensions of his new principles in several works, including Die Unsterblichkeitsfrage von Standpunkt der Anthropologie (the question of immortality from the standpoint of anthropology) and Theogonie (theogony). These built upon Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity and Principles of the Philosophy of the Future, emphasizing anthropology, materialism, and humanism. All continued the open and simple style appropriate to a new philosophy of humanism. His was a philosophy of common sense.

In 1860, the porcelain factory in Bruckberg suffered serious economic losses. To cope with his reduced income, Feuerbach moved to Rechenberg, where he lived until his death in 1872. There he wrote and published Die Geheimniss des Opfers oder der Mensch ist was er isst (1862; the mystery of sacrifice, or man is what he eats). He read the first volume of Marx’s Das Kapital (1867, 1885, 1894; Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1886, 1907, 1909; better known as Das Kapital) and thought it a profound analysis of political economy. He joined the Social Democratic Party, a Marxist party, in 1870, making a public commitment to the socialist principles that he had promoted with his anthropological philosophy. He died two years later and was buried in Nuremberg.


As a critic of Hegelian Idealism, Feuerbach translated Idealist abstractions into concrete and popular humanist forms. He shifted philosophical concerns toward scientific positivist and materialist ideas of nineteenth century naturalism. From David Friedrich Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu, kritsch bearbeitet (1835; The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined, 1846) to the writings of Karl Barth in the twentieth century, Feuerbach has had a profound influence on religious and theological ideas. By examining psychological sources for religious beliefs, he secured legitimacy for the biblical scholars of the new criticism, one product of philosophical efforts by the “young Hegelians,” who included, besides Feuerbach and Strauss, Bruno Bauer, Arnold Ruge, Ferdinand Lassalle, and Karl Marx. Through her translations of The Life of Jesus and The Essence of Christianity, author George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) extended Feuerbach’s influence to English readers.

Important for modern history was the philospher’s direct influence on Marx and Engels, who wrote critiques of Feuerbach. Marx used Feuerbach’s notion of species-being, an intersubjectivity of consciousness shared through the senses, as a principle of labor alienated by capital. Marx and Engels used Feuerbach’s method of inversion, whereby subjects and predicates are reversed. Although Engels charged that Feuerbach’s philosophy was too abstract, he championed Feuerbach for bringing German Idealistic philosophy to an end. Through Marx and Engels, Feuerbach radicalized thought in the modern world. Feuerbach gave philosophical direction to Martin Heidegger with the concept of Dasein (human being), theological direction to Martin Buber with ideas of I-Thou relationships, and psychological/psychoanalytical directions to Sigmund Freud and R. D. Laing with notions of human anxiety and existential self-alienation.

Additional Reading

Barth, Karl. “Feuerbach,” in Protestant Thought: From Rousseau to Ritschl: Being the Translation of Eleven Chapters of ‘Die Protestantische Theologie im 19 Jahrhundert.’ Translated by Brian Cozens. New York: Harper, 1959. Barth sees through Feuerbach’s philosophical skepticism and atheism to recognize and appreciate the philosopher’s love of theology.

Brudney, Daniel. Marx’s Attempt to Leave Philosophy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. This book shows the influence Feuerbach had on Karl Marx’s work.

Harvey, Van A. Feuerbach and the Interpretation of Religion. Cambridge, London: Cambridge University Press, 1995. An extended essay in appreciation of Feuerbach’s contributions to the modern philosophy of “suspicion,” that is, religious skepticism. Although the book is limited by its theme, it provides valuable insights into Feuerbach as a philosopher whose impetus was determined by religious concerns and theological training. The book also illuminates the value of Feuerbach as a contributor to existentialism, with some similarities to Søren Kierkegaard, and as an influence on the development of psychology, psychiatry, and psychoanalysis.

Hoffding, Harold. A History of Modern Philosophy: A Sketch of the History of Philosophy from the Close of the Renaissance to Our Own Day. Vol. 2. Translated by B. E. Meyer. New York: Dover, 1955. There is a valuable chapter on Feuerbach’s psychology of religion and ethics in which Feuerbach is presented as a transitional figure who brought philosophical discourse back to first presuppositions.

Hook, Sidney. From Hegel to Marx: Studies in the Intellectual Development of Karl Marx. New York: Humanities Press, 1950. Still a good book for appreciating the importance of Feuerbach in the development of Marxism as a major force in the making of the modern mind.

Kamenka, Eugene. The Philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970. Contributes to an understanding of the context for Feuerbach’s philosophy.

Wartofsky, Marx. Feuerbach. Cambridge, London: Cambridge University Press, 1977. This is a full and comprehensive study of Feuerbach’s philosophical development as a Hegelian dialectical process whereby Feuerbach discovered himself as he analyzed the philosophy of his teacher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. After establishing the Hegelian foundation that Feuerbach laid with his doctoral dissertation, Wartofsky proceeds to extract the essential philosophical achievements at each step of Feuerbach’s career. There is a particularly valuable concluding chapter on Feuerbach’s later works on materialism and anthropologism. This is the best study in English of Feuerbach.

Wilson, Charles A. Feuerbach and the Search for Otherness. American University Studies, Series V, Philosophy 76. New York: Peter Lang, 1989. This is useful for understanding and appreciating Feuerbach’s importance for contemporary thought.


Critical Essays