Exploring Friedrich Engels’ Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy

By Thomas Riggins February 27, 2023

(Read Part 1  HERE)

Engels opens the second part of his essay by saying: “The great basic question of all, especially of latter-day philosophy, is that concerning the relation of thinking and being.” This is one of the oldest questions humans have been interested in, dating back to the earliest appearance of self-consciousness in our species. As we tried to understand the world around us and the forces of nature and the other animals we lived with and are surrounded by, we thought of them as somewhat like ourselves, with some awareness or spirit, and primitive religious views began to develop in our consciousness – such as the idea that there are nature spirits to be appeased, and finally powerful gods and goddesses that could help or hurt humans. We ended up thinking that the world was created by the gods, and finally a supreme God who was also responsible for the existence of humans. Until the creation of modern science the question was: which came first nature or the creators of nature, the spirits or God? —the question was answered: thinking, the gods, mind came first and then nature.

Philosophy, religion, and science began to consolidate around two great schools of thought with regard to this question: 1) Idealism; God and thinking first, man and nature second, and 2) Materialism; nature and man first, and only then can self-consciousness develop in humans, and ultimately, can thinking create the notions of gods and God in its own image — the image of humans. Engels is interested in the state of this argument in his day, when the great champion of Idealism was Hegel and his system, and Materialism was attacking this system in the form of Feuerbach’s philosophy, but more importantly, in the new and improved form that grew out of a synthesis of Hegel’s logical (metaphysical) methods and Feuerbach’s materialism which became Marxism, and which is known today as Marxism-Leninism (AKA Dialectical Materialism). Marxism-Leninism is the result of the development of Marxist theory by Lenin and the experiences of the Russian Revolution. It is based on the belief that the Lenin/Russian Revolution experience still has relevance today for the transition from capitalism to socialism.

Next, Engels points out, we have to ask what is the relation of our thinking to the world, to nature? Can we get a correct reflection of the external world in our ideas of it? The majority of philosophers say “yes.”  For Hegel thinking recognizes itself in the world, our ideas are part of the development in time of the Absolute Idea which has existed before the world from eternity. This is similar to Plato’s view of the things in the external world being imperfect reflections of the world of ideas which exist in “heaven” (or the Mind of God in the Christian view based on Plato). Hegel makes the mistake, as all systematic philosophers do, that since he thinks he has figured out the correct relation between thinking and being (being in the real world) his philosophy is the only correct one.

Besides Materialism there have always been, and still are, practitioners of Idealism. In his day David Hume in the United Kingdom and Immanuel Kant in Germany were the most well-known. Hume was a skeptic, thinking the mind could never get to the basic reality of things (objective or subjective) and Kant also had a similar idea but was not a skeptic. The mind could understand the way the world interacted with it but the things in the world were “for us,” that is, filtered by our perceptions. Therefore, we could never know what they were “in themselves” unperceived. For Engels, Kant took care of Hume and Hegel took care of Kant. Feuerbach took care of Hegel and Marx perfected the Materialism of Feuerbach. The problem was how to get proof for the idea that nature was real, outside of us, and understandable. This was not a philosophical solution, but a scientific one. The answer, according to Engels, was a practical one. We can postulate how nature works and then test our ideas. If we can predict what will happen and it comes about, that is evidence of its independent existence, since our theory doesn’t compel nature to act a certain way, we must adapt our theory to how nature acts independently of us. This is for Engels the proof of Materialism.

Engels now turns to a quote from Feuerbach from Stark (he doesn’t deal with much of the book itself, nor do we have to, as he says, it is “loaded with a ballast of philosophical phraseology.” Feuerbach has taken Hegel’s logic, which is based on the view that the categories of logic are eternal and preexist the actual physical world (this entails a complicated metaphysical argument) and demonstrates that the logic is a product of our minds (which are animal minds) and a part of the physical world from which we developed (Darwin’s theory which came later confirms this). This is Materialism, says Engels, but Feuerbach himself hesitates to completely affirm it. Here is the Feuerbach quote: “To me materialism is the foundation of the edifice of human essence and knowledge; but to me it is not what it is to the scientists and necessarily is from their standpoint and profession, namely, the edifice itself. Backwards I fully agree with the materialists; but not forwards.”

What’s going on here? Engels says Feuerbach has mixed up the general  concept of Materialism (matter first, mind second) with the particular form this concept assumed in the 18th century – a crude mechanical materialism that existed before the development of the Hegelian dialectic and which was still being preached in the time of Feuerbach by the natural scientists and medical doctors who had not, for the most, part studied the logic of the Hegelian system. In the same way that 18th century Idealism evolved and developed into Hegelianism, so Materialism evolved and  developed into a more sophisticated form as the result of the development of science in the 19th century.  Feuerbach, I think, as a student of Hegel should have known this, but Engels holds that he never properly understood Hegel’s dialectic.

There were two limitations that were responsible for the mechanical nature of 18th century materialism. The first was the state of science at that time, which was dominated by the mechanistic universe of the Newtonian system. This mechanistic worldview was applied not only to physics, but to biology and chemistry as well, when both of the latter two sciences were just in their infancy compared to physics, and higher laws of process and change played second fiddle to mechanics. This was also true in geology at that time as the age of the earth was still considered to be rather young due to Biblical influences.

The second limitation was related to the first— this was “the inability  to comprehend the world as a process.”  This also applied to the concepts of history. Everywhere there were essential unchanging factors at work that were cyclical in nature. Civilizations started out small, grew, and collapsed, and the cycle then repeated itself. Even Hegel, Engels maintains, fell victim to this mechanical essentialism with his philosophical system, although it contradicted his philosophical method which was dialectical and not mechanical. It took the work of Feuerbach and later Marx (and Engels as well) to overcome this contradiction. Nature operates according to the laws of Hegel’s logic, which are external to Nature, and Nature is an alienation of matter from its essential logical being. But the concepts of the logic start from primitive notions (Being versus Nothingness leading to Becoming, etc.,) until the whole of the system culminates due to permutations, contradictions, development of new concepts, etc., until the Absolute Idea is arrived at.

The logical world is one of process, evolution, change, and progressive development; but the world of man (history) and nature are just mechanical reflections of this system of logic. Matter is inert and non-dialectical. This is the conservative element in Hegel. His system was supposed to justify the world as it is, and the ruling classes of his day appreciated this. Engels says, “the method, for the sake of the system, had to become untrue to itself.” But lurking within the Hegelian system was this revolutionary method, which was disinterred by Marx and Engels, a method which could lead to the overthrow of ‘’what is’’ and its replacement with a revolutionary new world order. The history of the last two centuries has been the painful labor of the world process to deliver and bring to birth the resolution of this contradiction.

It was during this period, the mid-19th century, that history too began to be studied in a scientific manner. The bourgeois materialists descending from the 18th century didn’t see history as a developing progressive process. The Middle Ages, for example, were dismissed as a backward era that had to be overcome to get civilization back on the track laid out in the classical era of Greece and Rome. Engels says this is all wrong— the Middle Ages were a time of great progress marked by the “extension” of European civilization, the consolidation of the nation state, and technical advances that the 14th and 15th centuries introduced. It wasn’t until after the 1848 Revolutions that scientific history really got off the ground, stimulated by the rapid development of the natural sciences.

Engels now seeks to explain why Feuerbach’s materialism, while it stood head and shoulders above the old mechanical materialism inherited from the Enlightenment, still missed the boat and did not really become modern enough to serve as the basis of the materialist worldview of Marx and Engels. It was not really the fault of Feuerbach. Because his philosophy was progressive ahead of his time he was banished from Academia for political reasons and ended up living out in the boondocks cut off from the intellectual ferment going on in post 1848 Europe. Therefore, he was not able to fully update his materialism to the dialectical level that Marx and Engels achieved.

We will soon see, in Part III, to what extent Feuerbach still had some views based on Idealism, but first we must go over a critique of Starck’s views about Feuerbach’s “Idealism.” Engels says Starck found Feuerbach’s “ idealism in “the wrong place”. Here is what  Starck says: “Feuerbach is an idealist; he believes in the progress of mankind.” As far as Feuerbach’s philosophy is concerned, Starck continues, “The foundation, the substructure of the whole, remains nevertheless idealism. Realism [materialism-tr] is for us  nothing more than a protection against aberrations , while we follow our ideal trends. Are not compassion, love, enthusiasm for truth and justice ideal forces?”

Starck here confuses ethical commitments to “ideals” that people have with the philosophy of Idealism, which maintains that the basis of existence, of Being, is ontologically some mental or spiritual  essence or substance that predates matter and from which the material universe derives its being. These are two entirely different uses of the word “idealism”, and we should not confuse them. If Starck doesn’t understand this difference, then “he has lost all meaning of these terms” in this context.

Coming up next Part III “Feuerbach”

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Get the latest news and analysis, plus special commentatory from Editor Donald Courter.

You have been subscribed.
Marx, Engels, Lenin