German philosopher Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach is noted for his materialistic philosophy of human existence. Born in Bavaria, Feuerbach was raised as a Lutheran in a traditional Catholic state. Influenced by devout and resolved parents, Feuerbach’s scholastic terms at the gymnasium in Ansbach provided the basis for exploring his interests in scripture and pious attitude, which directed him toward the area of theology. However, his theological orientation became severely compromised prior to his entrance into the University of Heidelberg. Although the reasons for his shift in attitude concerning theology are a point of speculation, his study in theology was subverted by his growing interests in philosophy. Considered a “left Hegelian,” it was the philosophy of G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831) that was particularly damaging, ultimately causing fissures in his view of the relationship between theology and philosophy. Unable to complete his education due to financial reasons, Feuerbach attended the University of Erlangen, whereby he received his doctorate in philosophy.
Feuerbach’s academic career was less than illustrious. He was a teacher of philosophy at the University of Erlangen for a period of 6 years (1829-1835). Due to his highly critical positions on both philosophy and theology, his controversial views had left him unemployed. This fact had kept his academic and professional contributions to a minimum; yet his influence was great. Views in Thoughts on Death and Immortality (1830), The Essence of Christianity (1841), and Principles of the Philosophy of the Future (1843) had influenced great thinkers such as Nietzsche, Freud, and, most notably, Marx. Though his intellectual circle was a source of sociopolitical problems, his marriage to Berta Low in 1837 could be considered a joyous juncture. However, the move to Bruckberg with his new bride would end up being futile. The family business gained through marriage became bankrupt and forced the couple to move near Nuremberg. With failing health and near destitute conditions, Feuerbach continued to be an advocate for philosophical and social change (for example, Marxism and the women’s movement). Though his activism is not well-known, his noteworthy contributions were in his ability to articulate the eventual implications of evolution within a materialistic and naturalistic framework. Essentially, Feuerbach stated what Charles Darwin (1809-1882) did not articulate: the beginning of the end for theology.
Concepts of materialism and the process view of change are not new in the history of thought. The philosophies set forth by the pre-Socratics evaluated our species completely within both a materialistic and naturalistic framework. Explanations concerning the origin of our species and the processes of change were explored by philosophies of Anaximander, Heraclitus, and Paramendies. Though these ancient Greek philosophers did not have the evidence or the benefit of modern science, their acute observations and rational speculation removed the shroud of myth and superstition, ultimately serving as a beacon to which future materialistic philosophies could relate. In this same manner, Feuerbach had seen the apparent contradictions within theology and philosophy. Without the beneficial evidence of evolutionary theory provided by Charles Darwin, Feuerbach evaluated our species in a completely materialistic framework. As Feuerbach stated, the implications for theology were evident: the total dissolution of theology into anthropology. Such a task would require introspection in the deepest parts of the human psyche. The resulting answer would require an understanding of the human condition and strength in viewing human mortality.
Unlike the articles of faith and traditional theology of Christianity, concepts of the soul, God, and immortality have skewed our species’s own ontological and teleological reality. According to Feuerbach, human beings, necessitated by physiology, possess the capabilities to distinguish themselves from the rest of nature. This act of distinguishing serves as a means to understand the relationship among our conscious being, nature, and the perceived essence or soul. Yet the essence or soul is indistinguishable from nature. When rationality seeks to distinguish the parts of this relationship, the outcome is an expressed desire for immortality and an explanation for a natural phenomenon. This act becomes ritualistic, essentially creating a creative spiritual being. However, as Feuerbach points out, this desire for causal explanation results in the projection of our own humanity that is beyond the spaciotemporal plane of existence.
In Feuerbach’s evaluation, the relationships depicted in the theological concept of the Trinity encompass the psychological unity of the individual in relation to himself and the community. As Feuerbach stated, God the Father is equated with understanding (intelligence); God the Son is love (warmth). This combination of love and understanding is the mind of the total individual. The Holy Spirit is the expression of love between God the Father and God the Son, the bases of religious emotive desires and an objectified religion. The God the Father and God the Son, through the Holy Spirit, becomes a unity that creates a community. The Virgin Mary, however, allows for the actualization of this love and community, for love is a divine feminine principle that already exists in God the Son. The Holy Virgin becomes a necessitated and integral part for the actualization of this Trinity. Through the Immaculate Conception, God the Son becomes a paradoxical being; a negation of God the Father and affirmation of humanity. This concept of the duality of Christ (Christology) allows for the visibility of God the Father within the spaciotemporal plane of existence. The existence of God the Son, through his death and resurrection, gave the faith and hope for the very immortality that our species continuously sought. It has become consciousness trying to circumvent the inevitable, that being a complete and absolute death.
Being aware of our own mortality is a direct consequence of possessing a greater degree of consciousness. The quest for immortality begins with this conscious yearning for both contemplation (an object) and love. Together, these needs become an identity by which an individual can interact within a community. However, as Feuerbach stated, the implications stemming from a projected God become evident; death is final and complete. Death is the total dissolution of your existence within space and time, a negation of the spirit, reason, and consciousness. In this manner, reason, spirit, and consciousness cannot transcend death or exist beyond this spatiotemporal existence. Personhood, derived from our humanity, is the essence of being human in this life and only in this life. Only in this contingent human life can an individual be considered immortal. At death, being a fulfillment of the precondition of existence, the unity of matter, consciousness, spirit, and reason cease to exist. The ultimate surrender to death becomes an act of love derived from freedom.
Feuerbach’s philosophy may be seen as nihilistic; yet his perspective has more liberating and probative value. Without the evidence provided by modern science, Feuerbach exposed the contradictions within theology and modern philosophy. Dismissing biblical narratives, theological and philosophical rhetoric, Feuerbach placed our species back within a materialistic and naturalistic framework. Viewing the history of our species, the reconstruction of theistic explanations could be reduced to human psychological projections of our own humanity. This projection is necessitated by the natural processes stemming from our materialistically based consciousness. Relating to these anthropomorphic entities allows our species a sense of control over the uncontrollable or the inevitable end of existence. These facts do not deter from the quality of human existence; rather, they should be a source of strength and liberation. No longer should our species be a slave to its own projected multiplicity found in God. Our species should reclaim what it has freely given, our total humanity. Essentially, God is humankind’s own ideal ontological and teleological perspective in the process of actualization. This process should be reflected in a new philosophy.
Feuerbach’s claim that the task of the modern era was the realization and humanization of God would essentially negate over 2,000 years of philosophy and theology. Although empiricism began this transformation, modern philosophy had taken theological concepts into philosophy (for example, Descartes). Feuerbach had seen the need for another transformation, essentially a new philosophy as an outgrowth of the old. In the new philosophy, Feuerbach sees existence as love, and it is this love that will be the basis of the new philosophy. It will be the essence of feeling within consciousness that transforms the heart into mind. Love is the criteria of all being and reality, all of which should be turned into action. Necessitated by previous philosophical thought, Feuerbach states that the new philosophy had taken theology and dissolved theistic reason and heart into the very subject of anthropology. Thus, anthropology, combined with physiology, is seen as the universal science, beyond the revealing essences of humanity expressed in art, religion, and philosophy. It will be the understanding of the human predicament that will change love into human action. Conscious of our precarious material existence, Feuerbach’s hope is that in the process of reclaiming our humanity, the basis of existence, love, will express itself among all members within our community. This new philosophy was probably the basis of Feuerbach’s view on social change and equality. Ultimately, this new philosophy would act to continuously redefine our own ontological and teleological existence within a dynamic and evolving universe.
- Feuerbach, L. (1980). Thoughts on death and immortality. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Feuerbach, L. (1986). Principles of the philosophy of the future. Indianapolis: Hackett.
- Feuerbach, L. (1989). The essence of Christianity. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.