Tag Archives: Ludwig Feuerbach

It is almost two years ago that I started this blog, and I started, with deliberate intent, with Feuerbach. Referring to his Philosophy of the Future, I articulated my conviction that philosophy should come out of the ivory tower and concern itself with the global problems that face us humans and our fellow earthlings. Mentioning the common prejudice about Feuerbach of writing religion off in a simplistic manner, I suggested to come back to that topic some other time. Now is that time. And there are two reasons for it. One is the confusion, around the world, on so-called ‘islamic’ terrorism. The wars for self-rule of certain islamic groups are mistaken by many as a direct expression of their religion, which in its turn is understood in an essentialist manner. The other reason is that we discussed, recently, in our Africana philosophy reading group, Faith of our Fathers, by Mumia Abu Jamal. In this book, the writer researches the history of spiritual life of those who were taken as slaves from Africa to the Americas and their descendants. In so doing he takes a Feuerbachian approach to religion – seeing it as something constructed by humans to give expression to their desires in an idealized and transcendentalized way.

Feuerbach critiqued Christian religion as it was prominent in his day from a humanist and a socialist perspective. This we see when he wrote in lecture XXX of his Lectures on the Essence of Religion: ‘Christians call it blasphemous or inhuman to deny the existence of a hereafter and so deprive the unfortunate, the wretched of this earth, of their one consolation, the hope of a better world to come. Herein, they still believe, lies the moral significance of the hereafter, its unity with the divine; for without a hereafter there would be no retribution, no justice, no reparation in heaven for the misery of those who suffer on earth, or at least of those who suffer through no fault of their own.’ The hope for a better life after this one for the poor and the oppressed is a false lead in the eyes of Feuerbach, for it detours the belief in the possibility of a good life here and now, which is what people actually desire. Not riches and luxury, but just the necessities to live a human life, necessities which are withheld from many. In such a situation, where religion detracts the poor from their normal desires, Feuerbach sees ‘atheism [as] positive and affirmative; it gives back to nature and mankind the dignity of which theism has despoiled them; it restores life to nature and mankind, which theism had drained of their best powers.’

In the work of Abu Jamal, we see a different outcome, however, of a similar critique of religion. He describes how the slaves of African descent in the Americas, who were forced or enticed to convert to Christianity, saw it as inauthentic. To them it was the religion of their cruel white owners, who used it as a means to subdue them not only corporally and emotionally, but also spiritually. Still, Abu Jamal describes, those who did convert, made their own variety of it, as well as they rediscovered/invented their own versions of islam. Characteristic of these new, African-American religions is that they intimately connect the concepts of spiritual release and this-worldly freedom. Religious speech of freedom and salvation in heaven for the slave was just a means to cover up and justify cruelty. So the new religions of the slaves and their descendants combine worship with engagement for change towards a more just society. This goes also for small initiatives like the ‘natural’ religion of John Africa, which combines a love for nature with a rejection of industrial capitalism. Just one citation of this little known prophet: ‘You see, air is the necessity of God, but pollution is the accessory of civilization ’cause industry is an excess of life.’

When Abu Jamal writes that ‘no religious system exists in a vacuum [as it is] by its very nature, a carrier of culture’ we are reminded of the ideas of Feuerbach. And also in his words that ‘spiritual projections of what is seen as the greatest conceivable good become culturally crystallized as heaven, while most horrific visions find expressions as Hell’. Still there is a – slight, but significant – difference. Feuerbach was convinced that established religion would – in modern times – better be replaced by a humanistic and engaged philosophy. So that the human race could come of age and take responsibility for its own desires and their projections. Abu Jamal, who wrote his book in the isolation of his prison cell sees religions as cultural creations, but as creations that answer to the injustices of the world. He would not want to know better than the ‘poor’, who create and invent these religions, but recognizes the many different expressions the longing for deepest notions of the good must take – these expressions are ways of taking responsibility.

Now I have to return to my point about ‘islamic’ terrorism – and will show how the above analyses can help to fight confusion. The quotation marks not only aim to signify that terrorism that claims to be religious shows inauthenticity – like the false Christianity of the slave masters. They also indicate that we should not understand ‘islam’ as an unambiguous signifier. There are many (greatly differing) islamic traditions, like there are many versions of Christianity, Buddhism, etcetera. According to our writers, religions are not only cultural carriers, and therefore adapted to different localities and ethnicities – they are also creations and projections of human beings trying to express their desire for the highest good. It doesn’t make sense to debunk them as ‘unenlightened’ projections. It helps to see them as elements in the struggle of human beings to express their longing for a real freedom and a real good life. As difficult as it is to create, together, a world with that kind of freedom and goodness, one can as well maintain that the object of our longing is transcendent, promised by the One who is beyond our world. This should not mean that human beings should honestly maintain that the realization of that object can be postponed to the beyond. It should still be done here and now. Making war can not be part of the effort, therefore, for destroying happiness and peace in actual lives is creating parts of hell here and now.

Did you immediately get the references to other philosophers that this title implies? Did you think of Bertrand Russell’s book ‘Why I am not a Christian’? Or rather of Friedrich Nietzsche’s essays titled ‘Why I am so clever!’ and ‘Why I write such good books!’? Well, I did, after I thought it up. Russell’s text was meant to give a criticism of Christianity, of course, and the personalized sentence was meant to give it urgency, and to draw attention. Nietzsche’s texts did more, philosophically. They criticized the idea that philosophy can be detached from the individual that writes it, and in the meantime they make you smile, at least they did that to me, as the irreverent boasting so strongly goes against the grain of the courteous style of classical philosophy. Untill Nietzsche philosophers succesfully upheld the image that they could erase themselves as individuals, giving the weight of universality to their thoughts, and in the meantime, through the backdoor so to speak, bestow fame upon their own, impersonalized selves as ‘thinkers’. Plato was ‘a great thinker’, it is said. Never ‘he was a great man’.

Since Nietzsche, and to be sure some others from his times, we can not get rid of the nagging truth that there is a man, or a woman, speaking in those venerable texts. And of recent, with the appearance of Heidegger’s notebooks, it gets more and more difficult to separate thought from life. Feuerbach already was very clear in this point, of course, the thinker whose words I took as the motto of this very blog: ‘try not to think as a thinker, but as a human being.’ What you feel, what you have enjoyed and what you have suffered not only will appear in your work, but you should let your work profit from it, more, express it in your work, to let others get a fair view of your experiences and be able to dialogue with your thoughts in the context of your life, and possibly to learn from them.

Just a few days ago I realized why I am a philosopher. And by that I do not mean to say why I became one, why I decided to go and study philosophy a long time ago – this had a very simple reason: I had the impression that the study of philosophy would help me the most to better my writing, which was my main goal when I was young. And it did. I also do not mean to say anything about the advantageous effects being a philosopher might have – like being able to clear up minds, my own and other’s, or being able to enhance the knowledge of why our world is like it is, etcetera. These are all positive effects of being a philosopher, to my view. What I mean with the title of my post of today is, however, something else: just what makes me passionate about what I am doing, right now, every day anew, if possible. What makes me enthusiastic. Why I LIKE it. I just suddenly saw that doing philosophy to me is the possibility of being in an adventure. The adventure of the mind, so to say.

Feyerabend said it very clearly, in his ‘Against Method’, although he was speaking about science: only ‘a little brainwashing [makes] the history of science duller, simpler, more uniform, more ‘objective’ [than it actually is]’. In fact it is ‘as complex, chaotic, full of mistakes, and entertaining as the ideas it contains’. The same goes for my pathway through philosophy: it is complex, sometimes chaotic, it contains mistakes, and it is entertaining. And I want to add this: it is exciting. Learning something new from time to time, seeing new connections, after having read so many books and articles some times without really knowing why – untill they suddenly and unexpectedly get connected amongst each other, creating new views to understand things which were irritatingly incomprehensible before. I just like it, like wandering, not knowing where I will go when I start out. The best views are the unexpected ones. The sudden glittering sunlight on a canal, when I take an alternative route with my bike. Finding an unknown part of town, or of countryside. Meeting people who have a view of life I did not know before. Learning from grief and disappointment, from success, and from shame. In doing philosophy, which is always mixed with all these personal events: suddenly getting enlightened about something which seemed closed to understanding for years on end. Yes! I like it!


I promised to practice involved philosophy. And I think I did some of that, relating philosophical thought to aspects of the present human condition in which I see myself involved. What are those things in which I am involved? Globalization and the economic situation (which I hesitate to call capitalist, as I find more and more there is something problematical about it which goes beyond socialist/communist versus capitalist); migration and human rights; situations which could be called ‘racist’, although they are no longer about race, but more about ethnicity/culture/religion; the administrative pressures on care, learning, and life in general; our relation to nature… I have touched on those themes in several posts. One theme that I have neglected so far, thereby obeying a general trend, is that of the question of female-male relationships, which we used to call the feminist question, reintroduced under a new name in 1984 by Luce Irigaray as the ethics of sexual difference.

This neglect is nothing but an ostrich attitude, a natural attitude to want things away that are too ugly to look at. Just as the world after 1989 adopted the self-gratulatory mood of having reached the era of freedom and democracy, sustained by free economic exchange without borders (characterized by Derrida as the noisiest gospel), opinion leaders now for some time seem to carry the message that freedom and equality has in principle been reached for women worldwide (despite some backward problematic areas and events, like rape in civil wars, or child marriage in poor and unenlightened countries). Of course, women are granted civil rights in large parts of the world, since the twentieth century, and morally this situation has the stronger position worldwide. Still, one senses often, in some sense nothing has been reached. And Irigaray probably has found the problematic spot: ‘In politics, some overtures have been made to the world of women. But these overtures remain partial and local: some concessions have been made by those in power, but no new values have been established.’ (my italics)

This could very well explain the uncanny feeling that having one’s rights been granted does not repair all the damage which has been done to our world. The brave appeal that Irigaray has made (for which she has of course been heavily criticized too) is that we should still begin to have a ‘nontraditional, fecund encounter between the sexes’. I must admit that her book has only been looked into by me, since I bought it in 2006: it silently beckons me to read it fully. I have my excuses: my teaching program has been restricted to introductory courses, so I could not do it within my teaching assignment. And I had other things to read that seemed more coherent with my research plans. But it must also have satisfied the ostrich in me. For I live every day with a lot of silent discontent concerning her subject. No, more, not only discontent, but actual difficulties in speaking and acting from my heart. A hundred silent obstacles each day. The fecund encounter between the sexes barely exists, say Irigaray: ‘It does not voice its demands publicly, except through certain kinds of silence and polemics.’ Mostly silence, to my view. In 1984 we had polemics still, they are gone.

So, what is her point? Her ambitious point – that ‘sexual difference is probably the issue in our time which could be our “salvation” if we thought it through.’ The point is, that as long as we have not tried to understand the relation of sexual difference as being one of the fundamentals of being human, we have not reached the beginning of understanding ourselves as a species. Let alone be in a position to take a critical view at our so-called ethics and politics, our ‘mastery of nature’ and our ‘progress’. The foundation for her thought Irigaray found in the work of the philosopher which I chose to discuss in my first post, as my point of departure, so to say: Ludwig Feuerbach. Feuerbach was the first to draw our attention to the fact that the thinker is always already a sensuous, sensual being – male or female. That no thought is disconnected from our experiencing – body and soul – of our world. Feuerbach was also the one who drew attention to the fact that in religion, we, human beings, create the images of what a better, an ideal life could be like: it is there that we store, reconstruct and take care of our values. (I must stress here that the same goes for ‘atheistic’ or ‘humanistic’ religion as providing places where values are maintained)

So here, in the realm of values, contends Irigaray, we could expect a really fresh vision towards the contradictions in which we are stuck these days. That is what ‘salvation’ means. We can be saved from the false words of freedom and morality which cover up secret wars and suppression of freedoms. But the work has not been done, it has not even been started (not only not by me, postponing reading her book from cover to cover, but neither by critical thought, or philosophy). To lift a tip of the veil of this work: it presupposes the full acknowledgment of ‘incarnation’ – of the ‘memory of touching’ – where, before any formal rights will have been granted, alterity (another word for freedom) already might have been destroyed – or rescued.

Luce Irigaray was born in 1930 in Belgium. She has a name in deconstructivist feminist philosophy. I cited from the 2004 Continuum English edition of her An Ethics of Sexual Difference, originally published in French in 1984 as Éthique de la Différence Sexuelle.

Once upon a time, when I was a poor student of philosophy, I stumbled upon a book named Principles of the Philosophy of the Future. I had never read a text by its author, Ludwig Feuerbach, but the title uplifted my mood. It was reduced in price, so I could buy it… the only problem being that it contained the reprint of its original edition in Gothic script. Because of its affordability, however, I decided I would learn to read it, and was happy when I finally managed to do so.

Feuerbach is a philosopher who is read too little. Most people know his name only from introductory courses in philosophy or theology, and name him in one breath with Marx. ‘Oh, Feuerbach, that’s the one who said religion is human projection!’ Well, there would be more to be said about that characterization, but it is not my aim here and now. Feuerbach wrote his pamphlet-like book on philosophy (published in 1843), aimed at ‘pulling philosophy down from the divine, self-sufficient bliss in the realm of ideas into human misery’, into ‘the realm of embodied and living souls.’

The reason for Feuerbach to try to revolutionize philosophy was the predominance of idealistic, otherworldly thinking in the midst of great social change. The reason that we should widely re-read his book is that, although philosophy in our days is no longer idealistic, it surely is otherworldly. Not in the sense of focusing on the spiritual or the religious, but by focusing only on questions of academic interest, forgetting the huge problems most human beings, as well as the non-human earthlings (animals, plants), face every day in our times.

It is perhaps not the primary aim for philosophers to change the world, as Marx urged them to do, but it should certainly be their aim to change our understanding of the world, so it can come to light what has been silently screaming for change. Feuerbach thought that philosophy should take the place of religion, providing moral and spiritual direction to humankind. He was not right in that point, since we better draw from multiple guiding traditions, in stead of looking for a single one to take the lead. With William James I hold that human imperfection asks for plurality in views and philosophies, since we can never reach absolute certainty. With Feuerbach I strongly agree, however, that philosophy, ‘without damaging the dignity and independence of theory’ needs a practical direction. It should look global problems, as they relate to our behaviour, in the eye, and focus on ‘the needs of mankind and of the future’.

All citations are taken from Ludwig Feuerbach, Principles of the Philosophy of the Future, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis/Cambridge, 1986 [1843].

Ludwig Feuerbach lived from 1804-1872.