Ludwig Feuerbach Essay - Critical Essays

Feuerbach, Ludwig


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.

Principal Works

De ratione, una, universali, infinita (philosophy) 1828

Gedanken über Tod und Unsterblichkeit, aus den Papieren eines Denkers, nebst einem Anhang theologischsatyrischer Xenien, herausgegeben von einem seiner Freunde [published anonymously; Thoughts on Death and Immortality. From the Papers of a Thinker, along with an Appendix of Theological-Satirical Epigrams, Edited by One of His Friends] (philosophy) 1830

Geschichte der neueren Philosophie von Bacon von Verulam bis Benedict Spinoza (philosophy) 1833

Abälard und Heloise oder Der Schriftsteller und der Mensch: Eine Reihe humoristischer Aphorismen (aphorisms) 1834


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Ernest Renan (essay date 1864)

SOURCE: Renan, Ernest. “Feuerbach and the New Hegelian School.” In Studies of Religious History and Criticism, translated by O. B. Frothingham, pp. 331-41. New York: Carleton, 1864.

[In the following essay, Renan finds fault with Feuerbach's view of Christianity.]

Every considerable movement on the field of human opinions is worthy of interest even when we attach no great value to the mass of ideas that causes it. On this plea, the man who is devoted to critical researches cannot decline to notice the labours of the New Hegelian School on Christianity, although these labours do not always bear a strictly scientific character, and although the fancy of the humourist...

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Friedrich Engels (essay date 1888)

SOURCE: Engels, Friedrich. “Feuerbach's Philosophy of Religion and Ethics.” In Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy, edited by C. P. Dutt, pp. 43-51. New York: International Publishers, 1935.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1888, Engels deems Feuerbach's conception of morality worthless due to its excessive abstraction.]

The real idealism of Feuerbach becomes evident as soon as we come to his philosophy of religion and ethics. He by no means wishes to abolish religion; he wants to perfect it. Philosophy itself must be absorbed in religion.

The periods of humanity are distinguished only...

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Robert H. Lowie (essay date February 1905)

SOURCE: Lowie, Robert H. “Ludwig Feuerbach: A Pioneer of Modern Thought.” Liberal Review 2, no. 1 (February 1905): 20-31.

[In the following essay, Lowie summarizes the key elements of Feuerbach's thought, and proclaims him to be a pivotal figure in modern philosophy.]

It is no imputation on the English-speaking reader if the name of Feuerbach merely suggests a radical thinker, whose most popular work was translated by George Eliot, instead of some definite philosophical achievement. If any writer has had to suffer from unmerited neglect, it is Feuerbach. To the majority of his countrymen he has for a long time been hardly more than a name. His merciless scrutiny of...

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Charles A. Bennett (essay date 1931)

SOURCE: Bennett, Charles A. “Symbolical Theories: Feuerbach.” In The Dilemma of Religious Knowledge, edited by William Ernest Hocking, pp. 27-48. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1931.

[In the following excerpt, Bennett explicates Feuerbach's interpretation of religion, particularly his contention that the infinite should be associated with humanity as opposed to God, and comments on the modernity of this view as well as its limitations.]

Let me resume in a few words the statement of our problem as we have now reached it. Religion deals with the supernatural, which is claimed to be an objective reality; the supernatural, however, is mysterious,—it constitutes a...

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Charles N. R. McCoy (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: McCoy, Charles N. R. “Ludwig Feuerbach and the Humanist Critique of Philosophy.” In The Structure of Political Thought: A Study in the History of Political Ideas, pp. 269-90. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1963.

[In the following essay, McCoy considers Feuerbach's work as a transitional step between the thought of Hegel and Marx, and evaluates the cogency of his naturalist-humanist critique of philosophy.]

The elements of a true critique of political economy and philosophy would have to penetrate Hegel's “mystical allure” and resolve “the absolute metaphysical spirit into the real man standing on the foundation of nature.” This was the...

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Patrick Masterson (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: Masterson, Patrick. “Feuerbach and the Apotheosis of Man.” In Atheism and Alienation: A Study of the Philosophical Sources of Contemporary Atheism, pp. 63-78. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1971.

[In the following excerpt, Masterson discusses the means by which Feuerbach, in his critique of religion, laid the groundwork for a contemporary, atheistic worldview.]

Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) commenced his academic career as a student of Protestant theology at the University of Heidelberg. Subsequently he transferred to the University of Berlin where he became an enthusiastic disciple of Hegel whose lectures he regularly attended. Eventually, however, his...

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Robert Banks (essay date January-March 1972)

SOURCE: Banks, Robert. “Ludwig Feuerbach: Still ‘A Thorn in the Flesh of Modern Theology’?” Evangelical Quarterly 44, no. 1 (January-March 1972): 30-46.

[In the following essay, Banks probes Feuerbach's continued influence on contemporary Christian theology.]

In 1841, with the publication of Das Wesen des Christentums, Ludwig Feuerbach issued his dramatic and highly original reinterpretation of the Christian religion. In that work, which presupposed a broadly empirical understanding of reality and approach to knowledge, he developed by means of his theory of projection both a critique of religion, insofar as it created a realm in which man's innermost...

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Peter Preuss (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: Preuss, Peter. “Feuerbach on Man and God.” Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review 11, no. 2 (1972): 204-23.

[In the following essay, Preuss argues that in The Essence of Christianity Feuerbach attempted and failed to surpass Hegelian philosophy.]


When Feuerbach published his The Essence of Christianity in 1841 it excited a “clamour” in the educated circles of the day, a “clamour” which apparently did not surprise Feuerbach nor cause him to back down from the bold thesis of the work. Rather it caused him “once more, in all calmness” to subject his work “to the severest scrutiny, both historical and...

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Wladyslaw Tatarkiewicz (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Tatarkiewicz, Wladyslaw. “Feuerbach and Naturalism.” In Nineteenth Century Philosophy, translated by Chester A. Kisiel, pp. 50-56. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1973.

[In the following excerpt, Tatarkiewicz surveys the position of Feuerbach's thought in relation to naturalism, German idealism, and materialism.]

In Germany after 1830 there was … a change in philosophy. The forerunner of these new trends was Ludwig Feuerbach. Just as Comte and Mill had done, he abandoned transcendental theories in philosophy, metaphysics, and idealism to initiate a minimalistic trend. But conditions in Germany were different from those in France or England....

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Allan D. Galloway (essay date June 1974)

SOURCE: Galloway, Allan D. “The Meaning of Feuerbach.” British Journal of Sociology 25, no. 2 (June 1974): 135-49.

[In the following lecture, Galloway questions some of the more reductive assessments of Feuerbach's philosophy and emphasizes Feuerbach's efforts to locate a continuity between the human and natural sciences in his Principles of the Philosophy of the Future.]

May I first of all thank the Hobhouse Memorial Trust Committee for the honour they have done me in inviting me to give this lecture. It is an invitation which beckons a mere theologian towards the boundaries of his own subject in honour of a scholar whose interest in the human scene knew almost no...

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James A. Massey (essay date October 1976)

SOURCE: Massey, James A. “Feuerbach and Religious Individualism.” Journal of Religion 56, no. 4 (October 1976): 366-81.

[In the following essay, Massey examines Feuerbach's theory of human mortality as delineated in his Thoughts on Death and Immortality and his critique of religion in The Essence of Christianity, maintaining that Karl Barth's influential theological refutation of Feuerbach adequately responds to the latter but not the former.]


The renewed assessment of Ludwig Feuerbach in the last three decades has resulted in a general consensus as to the content of his central religious-philosophical positions....

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Marx W. Wartofsky (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Wartofsky, Marx W. “Early Hegelian Epistemology: The Dissertation.” In Feuerbach, pp. 28-48. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

[In the following excerpt from his full-length study of Feuerbach's philosophy, Wartofsky asserts that Feuerbach's dissertation De ratione, una, universali, infinita defines the initial position of his thought while foreshadowing later developments, including a future break with the rationalist-idealist mode of Hegel.]

Feuerbach's Dissertation,1 though it is a thoroughly Hegelian exercise, is significant in the suggestions it already bears of themes he is to develop later. Two readings of the...

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Charles Taylor (review date 6 January 1978)

SOURCE: Taylor, Charles. “Feuerbach and the Roots of Materialism.”1Political Studies 26, no. 3 (September 1978): 417-21.

[In the following review, originally broadcast on January 6, 1978, Taylor reviews Marx W. Wartofsky's influential work Feuerbach, and suggests that Feuerbach should not be seen as merely a transitional figure between Hegel and Marx.]

Feuerbach is one of those figures who appears again and again in the footnotes and introductory paragraphs of works on other philosophers, but is very rarely studied for himself. Everyone knows him as a transition figure: principally as the most important of the ‘young Hegelians’ of the 1840s...

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Francis Schuessler Fiorenza (essay date winter 1979-80)

SOURCE: Fiorenza, Francis Schuessler. “Feuerbach's Interpretation of Religion and Christianity.” Philosophical Forum 11, no. 2 (winter 1979-80): 161-81.

[In the following essay, Fiorenza concentrates on Feuerbach's response to criticism of The Essence of Christianity, arguing that the philosopher clarified his views and arguments on religion in the work's second edition.]

Although Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity has contributed significantly to the development of a post-idealist philosophy, its interpretation has remained controversial. This paper seeks to interpret The Essence of Christianity by focusing on Feuerbach's understanding of...

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Howard W. Bischoff (essay date March 1985)

SOURCE: Bischoff, Howard W. “Ludwig Feuerbach's Concept of the Alienation of Human Essence Through Religion.” Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 6, no. 1-2 (March 1985): 28-32.

[In the following essay, Bischoff summarizes the aim of The Essence of Christianity, maintaining that the work is not so much a condemnation of Christianity as an effort to find a more human-oriented faith.]

The German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, lived from 1804 to 1872. From a modern historical perspective, Feuerbach may be seen as effecting the transition from the speculation of German Idealism, as exemplified by Hegel, to the revolutionary activism of Marx. Feuerbach's emphasis...

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Kit R. Christensen (essay date September 1985)

SOURCE: Christensen, Kit R. “Individuation and Commonality in Feuerbach's ‘Philosophy of Man.’” Interpretation 13, no. 3 (September 1985): 335-57.

[In the following essay, Christensen delves into Feuerbach's fundamental assertion that human essence is found in community, and his depiction of “the dialectical interplay between commonality and self-individuation.”]

The place of Ludwig Feuerbach in European intellectual history is usually understood, appropriately, in light of his concomitant aims of critically reformulating Hegelian philosophy on a materialistic basis, and exposing the “anthropological essence” of religious belief. Feuerbach himself...

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Rodney Taylor (essay date spring 1993)

SOURCE: Taylor, Rodney. “Ludwig Feuerbach on Being as Death.” Michigan Germanic Studies 19, no. 1 (spring 1993): 46-61.

[In the following essay, Taylor traces the influence of Spinozan metaphysics on the conception of death outlined in Feuerbach's treatise Thoughts on Death and Immortality.]


In a late essay, Max Scheler points to the vast influence of Benedictus de Spinoza (1632-1677) on the thought and literature of German-speaking countries during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.1 Echoing Scheler's view, Wulf Koepke stresses that important aspects of this influence have received inadequate scholarly...

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Further Reading


Acton, H. B. “Feuerbach's Theory of Religion and the Marxist Theory of ‘Ideologies.’” In The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed, pp. 116-33. London: Cohen & West, 1955.

Explains the features of Feuerbach's thought that laid the groundwork for a Marxist view of ideology as a pattern of false thinking shaped by social organization and class interests.

Adams, Kimberly VanEsveld. “Feminine Godhead, Feminist Symbol: The Madonna in George Eliot, Ludwig Feuerbach, Anna Jameson, and Margaret Fuller.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 12, no. 1 (spring 1996): 41-70.


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