Lecture Notes, Philosophy 151

Marx, Feuerbach & Hegel

October 26, 1995

Before returning the the Marx material, I want to elaborate on an issue in Hegel, i.e., the relationship between the constraints placed on the citizen by the state and the freedom of activity of the individual. Philosophers have dealt with the issue in a number of ways, for example, by claiming that the individual must subordinate his freedom to law, on the grounds that the source of law is found in God (the "divine right" theory). Others have claimed the state derives its authority from the people. Hobbes described a social contract whereby individuals give up a large portion of their personal liberty in exchange for the protection of the state. This kind of theory is found by Hegel to be inadequate, a kind of generalization of subjective freedom. Rousseau held that the state should reflect the "general will," which represents the moral essence of human beings. Here we come much closer to Hegel's view that the authority in the rational state is a reflection of the spirit of the people.

Last time, we ended with Marx's claim that naturalism both overcomes and contains what is true in idealism and materialism. I had characterized these positions metaphysically, that is, as descriptions of the nature of the real. Marx tended to look at them epistemologically as well. Thus idealism is not only the doctrine that the real consists of thoughts and the special objects of thought; it is also holds that knowledge is obtained through thinking alone (rationalism). Materialism (for Marx) is not only a claim that only the material is real, but also that the real is known through the observations of the senses (empiricism).

Idealism and materialism are both one-sided. There is more to the world than the pure objects of thought. In this empiricism is correct. (Feuerbach had made this criticism against Hegel.) But epiricism carries with it a passive relation to the real. It is to be observed, perhaps to be interpreted, but otherwise left as it is. Against this, Marx advocated a practical philosophy, whose purpose is to change reality.

Correspondingly, Marx's conception of nature was quite different from what had gone before him. Human beings are natural creatures, not disembodied egos. But nature, including human nature is not fixed: it is dynamic. It remakes nature and in the process, through its activity, makes itself what it is. The "entire so-called world history is only the creation of man through human labor and the development of nature for man" ("Private Property and Communism").

What, then, is this human nature? Here Marx was much influenced by Feuerbach. He had argued that the human being is distinguished from the other animals by its ability to consider its own being, its own nature. A dog may know other dogs, or itself, but it does not know what it is to be a dog. "Strictly speaking, consciousness is given only in the case of a being to whom his species, his mode of being is an object of thought" (Introduction to The Essence of Christianity). This ability to conceive ourselves as a species allows us to conceive the essences of other things. Thus Feuerbach's starting point is anthropological.

Feuerbach's most famous conclusion was that the human being seeks its essence in another being: God. Thus human beings are alienated from themselves. We project our human qualities onto God, who is represented as wise, just, loving, etc. In turn, we become an object for God, and a greatly diminished one at that. "To enrich God, man must become poor" (Introduction to The Essence of Christianity).

But there is a paradox in our creation of God. On the one hand, God is made a free and independent being, and so God's activity is said to be self-contemplation (as with Aristotle). But God also finds himself in his creations (a projection of the human quality of sympathy) and so is dependent upon them. Thus "God has his consciousness in man, and man his being in God." It was Hegel who tried to overcome this opposition, but he was unsuccessful. It is only by recognizing that in God we have created an image of ourselves that the opposition is overcome. Theology thus is really anthropology.

Marx's standpoint was political: the issue is not how we see ourselves, but how we act. He commented that "the essence of man is not an abstraction inherent in each particular individual. The real nature of man is the totality of social relations" ("Theses on Feuerbach"). Thus Feuerbach assumed a "theoretical" standpoint typical of German philosophy, which "descends from Heaven to Earth" ("German Ideology"). On Earth, human beings live their lives in the natural world, pressed by human needs. It is the social condition which gives rise to philosophical abstraction. "Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life" ("German Ideology").

Even if Feuerbach could explain the religious by reference to the secular, theology by anthropology, he cannot overcome the alienation which gave rise to religion in the first place. This is because the contradiction which gave rise to the religious has not been overcome.

Hegel's method has it that contradictions are overcome by the reconciliation of opposites in a higher point of view. But Marx rejects this methodology as an intellectual construction. Opposition, alienation, can only be overcome through the destruction of those conditions which give rise to it in the first place. If the Holy Family is a projection of the alienated human family, then the human family must be abolished.

[ Lecture Notes Menu | Course Home Page ]