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Short Reflection on Teaching Feuerbach

For the fall semester I am teaching a 4th year seminar on 19th century continental philosophy.  The focus I chose for this seminar is Ludwig Feuerbach, a philosopher whose influence in the 19th century was immense but who ended up being overshadowed by his two most famous students, Marx and Engels, and remembered only according to this shadow.  Despite his marginalization, we can still find traces of Feuerbach's influence in later philosophers such as Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty.

The first time I encountered Feuerbach outside of references made by Marx and Engels was during a PhD level course where we were reading a manuscript by Robert Brandom on Hegel's Phenomenology.  There was something about Brandom's reading of Hegel that, though coming from the analytic tradition, reminded me of critiques Marx and Engels had made about Feuerbach's philosophy.  Thus, for my paper in that class, I read some Feuerbach so as to make the comparison directly.  I always wanted to return to Feuerbach, if only to provide myself with a better understanding of what Marx and Engels were arguing in The Holy Family, The German Ideology, and even the famous Theses on Feuerbach, but never found the time.  My preparation for this seminar course during August, as well as the course itself, is giving me this time.  Plus, Verso has a lovely collection of Feuerbach's writing that, by ordering for my students, I received as a free desk copy.

The title comes from a pun on Feuerbach's name [den Feuer-bach] that Marx used in a letter.

As some readers will recall, a year and a half ago I posted about lecturing on Marx and how re-encountering the 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts through the eyes of first year students convinced me of Althusser's argument regarding the difference between the Marx of 1844 and the Marx post-Manifesto.  Reading Feuerbach has further convinced me that Althusser was correct in this regard.  All of the language and categories Marx uses in 1844 are Feuerbachian.  Species-being?  Feuerbach.  Sensuous free activity?  Feuerbach.  And once you see this influence in the 1844 Manuscripts you can also understand why Theses on Feuerbach was so significant: those eleven theses were an intentional break with his Feuerbachianism––why else would he write it in 1845, challenging the categories he previously drew upon, if he had already broken with Feuerbach in 1844?  To accept a complete continuity with the young and older Marx is to deny the importance of the Theses, reducing it to an argument that has nothing to do with Feuerbach, and to just be ignorant of Feuerbach's philosophy––as most of us are because who reads Feuerbach these days anyhow?

None of this is to claim that there is no use in reading the young Marx in light of later Marx, or that we should dismiss the essays prior to 1845 because they are simply Feuerbachian, only that I'm coming to another appreciation of Marx's philosophical/theoretical development by engaging with Feuerbach.  And there's a lot of good to get out of Feuerbach as well, though you can understand, when you read him, precisely why Marx and Engels thought his materialism was still locked within a speculative terrain.


  1. HI,

    I wonder what you make of Engel's claim about the end of philosophy, and there being nothing more to do apart from formal logic and dialectics. I can't find the quote now, so i'm paraphrasing, but i'm sure you must know it. He says something about 'intellectual onanism' ie intellectual masturbation, and philosophy being that kind of activity, while contrasting it with science.

    it seems to me that a type of philosophy did end with Hegel, as all the people who followed Hegel acknowledged and did something quite different, ie Marx as well as Keirkegaard.

    among non-philosophers, who are Marxists, i have often come across the quote used disparingly ' philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it', as a kind of attack on all philosophy as such. recently, as you know, bourgeois scientists such as Dawkins and Hawking both suggest that philosophy is dead, superseded by 'science', and there is not much left for philosophers to do. what do you make of this kind of view.

    1. Engels' claim there needs to be taken in context. Later he speaks about "the end of classical philosophy" or "the end of classical German philosophy." In this way he was echoing Feuerbach, but grouped Feuerbach in with this end, who was arguing for the end of speculative philosophy and a philosophy stripped of the system of/as speculation (the ontological systemic project) which was in that context a non-philosophy but still a philosophy. (Oddly enough, much of what Laruelle says about "non-philosophy" these days seems to be said before by Feuerbach, but with less obscurantism, which is interesting considering that Feuerbach's book was closed by Marx and Engels.) So yes, they do mean a type of philosophy is over, but this was a philosophy that was seen as philosophy-qua-philosophy in their context. It is doubtful that Engels would see today's analytic philosopher as part of "philosophy" had they met him early on in his career...

      And yet, there is truth to the critique Engels makes about the practice of philosophy and one that makes good sense in light of the eleventh thesis. Philosophers often imagine that they are the basis of scientific thought, that they are changing the world just by their philosophical work, etc. This is clearly bullshit and Engels and Marx, by this time, were interested in pursuing revolutionary science and knew that the philosophical project, which is not a science but always tails science (though Hegel liked to imagine otherwise, as do today's philosophers of science who imagine that they can provide the logical foundations of science rather than, as Althusser pointed out, recognizing that philosophy is produced by science), was indeed "intellectual onanism". Still is for a lot of people.

      Philosophy of course still has a role but maybe can be understood in accordance to the eleventh thesis. Philosophy interprets the world and this is all it can do, but that isn't a bad thing––just not as important as some philosophers think. That long talked about manuscript I'm writing about philosophy engages with this.

      As for Dawkins and Hawking, they're actually making a philosophical pronouncement about science and philosophy since what they are saying is about the meaning of things (interpretation in the larger sense) and not simply doing science. In this sense Althusser's comment, based on his reading of Lenin's book *Materialism and Empirio-criticism*, is correct when he claims that there are points where scientists become "spontaneous philosophers" and are thus truly horrible philosophers because they don't realize that's what they're doing and confuse it with a scientific pronouncement.

  2. Hi,
    wonder what you make of Grover Furr, and his 'Krushchev Lied' as well as his general work in uncovering the true history of the Soviet Union under Stalin. It is important to see that all the revisionist and humanist Marxists all attack Grover Furr and Stalin, while all the revolutionaries uphold Grover Furr and his work. humanist and revisionists have not broken with Feurbach and Hegelian Idealism while working under the cloak of Marxism, while revolutionaries uphold the materialist and scientific contributions of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin.
    There is no such thing as Maoism in my opinion, but only Mao Zedong thought. Why? because Leninism is the Marxism in the age of imperialism. What is Maoism then? Have we gone beyond imperialism, and thus beyond Leninism? Obviously not. However, the experience of Mao and the Chinese is substantial, which is why it merits the term 'Mao Zedong thought'.

    1. I've mentioned Furr elsewhere and appreciate his research. I don't think it's fair, though, to begin with a bifurcation about "humanists" and "Hegelian idealists" being one side and anti-revisionists on the other. There are revisionists who also support Furr; this is just bad logic.

      As for your claims about Maoism, this is also bad logic. Maybe you should read what I've written elsewhere. If you begin by deciding that the qualification for something that is post-Leninist (while also being Leninist) has to do with a simple definition of "Leninism is the Marxism in the age of imperialism" then of course you'll get the answer you've already decided ahead of time. But this is just a terrible definition of Leninism to begin with, and thus leads to a terrible straw-person understanding of Maoism. Read what I've written on this blog in that regard, though I'll just be brief here. Leninism is Leninism because it, in continuity-rupture with Marxism and established after a world historical revolution, possesses universal aspects that can be applied in every particular situation (i.e. the theory of the vanguard, the theory of the state and revolution, etc.). Maoism is Maoism for the same reason: it also possessed a world historical revolution that, learning from the impasse encountered by the Soviet Revolution, went further and also has universal aspects (the theory of the mass line, the theory of cultural revolution, etc.). Of course you can find aspects of Maoism in Leninism just as you can find aspects of Leninism in pre-Leninist Marxism, but the only reason we find these aspects is in retrospect, because of world historical revolution.

      To use the definition of Leninism you provided is to make Leninism little more than "the marxism of x" and to argue that revolutionary science cannot develop any further, and thus should not be a science. Moreover, it's ahistorical because imperialism predated Lenin and existed, though in a different form, in the days of Marx (Lenin is even clear that imperialism predated him, but is speaking of a particular variant of imperialism). So in that case you could argue that there is nothing new about Lenin if he was just "Marxism in the era of imperialism" since the era predated him.

      Let us not be dogmatic here; it prevents a proper scientific understanding of theory and ends up being reduced to the kind of slogan-thought that harmed the NCM.

  3. be curious to read your manuscript when it comes out. a problem with that i sometimes see is this;
    1) activists who are marxists use philosophical terminology without the necessary training, ie they do not really know what 'idealism' is, but call their enemies metaphysical and idealist. as though these were sins.
    2) the use of philosophical terms also, again at the hands of non-philosopher Marxists, creates at times tons of bullshit, and causes the reverse effect of people having too much of philosophical terms in politics. ie instead of a disagreement that says " i think your position is wrong because x, y, z, instead we get, you're wrong because you're an idealist and you do not understand dialectics'.
    3) more for fun, but are there any philosophers or philosophical schools that you would say are 'onanistic' or intellectual masturbation today? analyticals? laruelle?

    1. I think all philosophical schools, including those that proclaim fidelity to Marxism can be guilty of philosophical "onanism". Really, this is the danger of over academization and I'm sure I can be accused of being guilty of this at certain points, hahaha.

      I agree that marxists often use philosophical terminology, or just even general theoretical terminology, without the "necessary training". I particular think this is a problem when people throw about the word "dialectics"––that's probably my biggest pet peeve. This does indeed create a lot of bullshit and can be extremely alienating; then again, the over academization of marxism and the "intellectual experts" also produces bullshit. Probably the latter is the reason for the former, at least at some point.


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