(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Ludwig Feuerbach 1804-1872

German philosopher and theologian.

Once heralded as the foremost radical thinker of mid-nineteenth-century Germany, Feuerbach is now generally viewed as a transitional figure between the speculative idealism of G. W. F. Hegel and the historical-dialectical materialism of Karl Marx. Advocating a humanist, empiricist, and naturalist philosophy, Feuerbach offered a revolutionary critique of religion in his most influential work, Das Wesen des Christentums (1841; The Essence of Christianity), in which he asserted the divinity of humankind in place of God and sought to elevate anthropology to the level of theology. Later, in his Grundsätze der Philosophie der Zukunft (1843; Principles of the Philosophy of the Future), Feuerbach envisioned the coming dominance of politics and the natural sciences, which he suggested would largely displace philosophy in modern culture. His proclivity toward aphorism, evidenced by his sometimes misconstrued declaration that “man is what he eats” (which has been taken as an affirmation of his thoroughgoing materialism), and his strong influence on Marxist thought have long contributed to reductive perceptions of Feuerbach. By the twentieth century, formal reassessments of Feuerbach's work had indicated not only the historical significance of his critiques of religion and philosophical idealism, but also the profound influence of his thought on modern theology and social science.

Biographical Information

Feuerbach was born in Landshut, Bavaria (now part of Germany) in 1804. His father, Paul Johann Anselm Feuerbach, was a renowned liberal jurist who composed Bavaria's 1913 Penal Code. In 1805, Feuerbach's parents moved to Munich, where he grew up and attended school. Entering Heidelberg University in 1823, Feuerbach left after only one year, transferring to the University of Berlin in order to study under theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher and attend lectures by Hegel, the great German philosopher of the era. After gaining official acceptance at Berlin in 1824 and hearing both men speak, Feuerbach discovered that philosophy was more congenial to his thought than theology. Financial difficulties precipitated by the cancellation of his stipend forced him to transfer again to the University of Erlangen. Unable to complete his studies due to a continued lack of funds, Feuerbach returned to Ansbach (near Munich), where he finalized his dissertation. The work, entitled De ratione, una, universali, infinita (1828), won the admiration of his professors at Erlangen, who granted him a doctoral degree as well as a lecturing position in philosophy at the university. Feuerbach's academic career, however, was short-lived. His anonymous publication of Gedanken über Tod und Unsterblichkeit (1830; Thoughts on Death and Immortality) failed to conceal his identity. Once it was determined in the notably conservative and authoritarian political climate of 1830s Germany that he was the author of this decidedly anti-religious and potentially revolutionary text, Feuerbach's prospects of promotion to full professorship were obliterated. Dissatisfied with his status as a lecturer, Feuerbach left his position at Erlangen in 1832, but he found it impossible to secure an academic post elsewhere. He nevertheless continued to pursue his philosophical projects, writing several histories of modern, empiricist philosophy, Geschichte der neueren Philosophie von Bacon von Verulam bis Benedict Spinoza (1833), Darstellung, Entwicklung und Kritik der Leibnitz'schen Philosophie (1837) and Pierre Bayle (1838). At the urging of his friends, he lectured briefly at Erlangen between 1835 and 1836, but he otherwise refused to work without the possibility of promotion. In 1837, Feuerbach married Berta Löw. Her share of a porcelain factory in Bruckberg, where the couple were to relocate, proved their principal means of financial support for the next two decades. Meanwhile, Feuerbach's publication of Über Philosophie und Christenthum in 1839 represented a new phase in the philosopher's departure from the thought of his former master. It was followed by The Essence of Christianity in 1841. This work, along with its sequel Das Wesen der Religion (1846; The Essence of Religion), made Feuerbach the most famous and controversial philosopher in Germany during the 1840s, although his outspoken ideas and democratic sensibilities also attracted a measure of police scrutiny. After a short period of political euphoria in the wake of Germany's 1848 Revolution, including talk of his possible part in the Frankfurt National Assembly, had subsided, Feuerbach lectured briefly on religion between 1848 and 1849 at Heidelberg's city hall, inviting ordinary citizens as well as students and academics to attend. The lectures were later published as Vorlesung über das Wesen der Religion (1851; Lectures on the Essence of Religion). Feuerbach devoted much of the 1850s to the research and composition of his Theogonie nach den Quellen des classischen, hebräischen und christlichen Alterthums, a work that elicited little interest. The bankruptcy of the Bruckberg porcelain factory in 1859 together with Feuerbach's vanished notoriety forced another move, this time to a small house in the vicinity of Munich at Rechenberg. His final work, Gottheit, Freiheit und Unsterblichkeit vom Standpunkte der Anthropologie, appeared in 1866, again to little notice. Supported by private contributions from friends and admirers late in life, Feuerbach suffered a debilitating stroke in 1870. He died in Nuremberg in September of 1872.

Major Works

Feuerbach's doctoral dissertation De ratione, una, universali, infinita is permeated with Hegelian rationalism and idealism. Concerned with human apprehension of the universal, the work contains a critique of Immanuel Kant's conception of the limits of reason, but only hints at Feuerbach's subsequent, post-Hegelian thought and critical assessment of Christianity. His next treatise, the anonymous Thoughts on Death and Immortality, offers a thorough denial of the Christian doctrine of personal immortality. In it, Feuerbach attacks what he viewed as the egotism and subjectivity of religion. The work also offers suggestions of Feuerbach's ideas on divinity and infinity as concepts that should be allied with humanity, rather than with God. Feuerbach thus equates theology with anthropology and defines love as the impulse toward that which is shared among humanity. The awareness and acceptance of one's future death is its essential principal, the work forwarding a scheme in which death comes to represent a final surrendering of the self to communality. The notions outlined in Thoughts on Death and Immortality took further shape in Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity, which traces the origins of religion to human self-consciousness. Its publication proved incontrovertible the break with Hegelian thought initially made by Feuerbach in his Über Philosophie und Christenthum. Still accepting the Hegelian assertion that Christianity was the highest development of religion, and likewise his view that philosophy supercedes theology, Feuerbach expanded his own critique of systematic idealism to include religion, which like pure speculative philosophy, he maintained, represents an alienation of the human subject. Feuerbach concluded that all celebration of God was in fact an appreciation of human accomplishment. For Feuerbach, community, concretized in his perception of the “I-Thou” relationship, became the central and fundamental element of human reality. Departing from the subject of religion in favor of science, Principles of the Philosophy of the Future represents Feuerbach's move toward empirical philosophy. In urging an intellectual continuity between the human and natural sciences, the work lays out his conception of the role of sense perception in the evaluation of truth. With The Essence of Religion Feuerbach expanded the ideas presented in The Essence of Christianity, extending the same principles to other world religions. The work additionally develops Feuerbach's notion that human dependence on nature is the key factor in the origin of spiritual belief. Intended to be his philosophical masterpiece, Feuerbach's Theogonie nach den Quellen des classischen, hebräischen und christlichen Alterthums (1857) contains a great deal of polemic. Its principal contention is that gods, from those of Greek myth to the God of Christianity, can be understood as the personifications of human desires. A final work containing Feuerbach's late thought, Gottheit, Freiheit und Unsterblichkeit vom Standpunkte der Anthropologie demonstrates his effort to release the concepts of freedom and moral obligation from Kant's categorical imperative and Arthur Schopenhauer's pessimistic notion of the will.

Critical Reception

The appearance of The Essence of Christianity in 1841 marked a pivotal shift in Feuerbach's career and signaled the peak of his notoriety. At the time, German intellectuals of the philosophical Left considered it a watershed publication. Friedrich Engels, the principal intellectual collaborator of Karl Marx, remarked: “Enthusiasm was general; we all became at once Feuerbachians.” This celebratory phase was temporary, and by the middle of the 1840s Marx, Engels, and others had already begun to fashion their sharp critiques of Feuerbach's thought. Marx centered his fundamental point of divergence with Feuerbach on the thinker's failure to place human transformation in terms of historical development. Whereas Feuerbach pointed to the fundamental human relationship with nature, Marx chose history, and he declared Feuerbach's work too abstract. Meanwhile, the failure of the 1848 Revolution in Germany and the passing of Hegelianism as the dominant German philosophy at mid-century coincided with a sharp decline in Feuerbach's reputation. For decades his works were studied only in the context of Marxism, or he was seen as simply a transitional marker, bridging the gap between Hegel and Marx. By the 1920s, a revival in Feuerbach studies had begun in Germany. Karl Barth, one of Feuerbach's main critics, who would flippantly designate his work as “a thorn in the flesh of modern theology” while decrying its “shallowness,” nevertheless began to formulate his own theology as a response to the ideas Feuerbach had proposed in the 1840s. Barth at once initiated a trend of disparagement for and reasoned interest in Feuerbach, who was subsequently designated the father of modern atheism by theologians. Conversely, critics oriented toward the social sciences have been less inclined to make this assertion, instead focusing on Feuerbach as a precursor of modern developments in anthropology, psychology, and sociology. By the middle of the twentieth century, a detailed understanding of Feuerbach was deemed imperative to any serious consideration of Marxism, and his work was additionally noted for its impact on such diverse figures as Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud, as well as later thinkers, including Martin Heidegger, Nikolay Berdyayev, and Jean-Paul Sartre. The 1970s witnessed another reassessment of Feuerbach, especially promoted by the appearance of Marx W. Wartofsky's 1977 study Feuerbach, which has been viewed as a significant work in English for its removal of the distorting contexts of Marxism and contemporary theological debate. Other commentators have begun to examine long-neglected elements of Feuerbach's work, including his lesser known writings. Overall, late twentieth-century critics generally sought to overturn the notion that Feuerbach's thought was banal or reductive. Most have nevertheless cautioned that he was not a systematic philosopher, but rather a suggestive one, and that his ideas were frequently imprecise or muddled. Several scholars have also continued the effort to appraise his work outside the frame of Marxism in order to appreciate Feuerbach, as many of his contemporaries did, as a perceptive critic and to re-examine the elements of his broadly influential philosophical humanism.