Feuerbach -|- Educational Philosophy Theory


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Between Hegel and Marx stands the tragic figure of Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872). After the death of Hegel, the Hegelian philosophy entered into a phase of rapid degeneration. The Hegelian school split into two wings—the right and left. The Hegelian right produced not one figure worthy of mention. The Hegelian left or Young Hegelians represented the radical wing of Hegel’s followers. Active in the 1830s and 1840s, they interpreted Hegel’s ideas in the spirit of German liberalism. Their main emphasis was on the criticism of Christianity.

In 1835 David Strauss, a left Hegelian, published his book Das Leben Jesu (The Life of Jesus), a critical analysis of the Bible, in which Jesus is portrait as an ordinary historical personality. Later Bruno Bauer argued that religion was a false consciousness, and that the person of Jesus was a fiction. Although they made some advances, their general approach remained idealist, and therefore was condemned to sterility. One of the main concerns was the question of how false consciousness arises in society and becomes a power over the minds of men.

Strauss explained this by the traditional persistence of mythological ideas. Bauer traced the source of this phenomenon to the alienation of the products of individual "self-consciousness." Max Stirner’s ideas anticipated anarchism. However, their extreme individualism, according to which the motive force of history was the "critically thinking individual," reduced all their revolutionary threads to empty phrases. They regarded the masses as the "enemy of the spirit" and progress, and had no notion of real social or economic development. However, the bankruptcy of the Hegelian left was finally exposed in the writing of Ludwig Feuerbach and the demolition was completed by Marx and Engels in their earliest joint writings—The Holy Family and The German Ideology.

A key role in the transition from Hegelianism to materialist dialectics was played by Feuerbach. To his own age, he seemed like Promicious, the Titan who dared to steal fire from the gods and give it to humans. The appearance of his book, The Essence of Christianity in 1841, had revolutionary consequences. Specially great was his impact on the young Marx and Engels. Engels later wrote: "Enthusiasm was general and we all became Feuerbachians at once." Feuerbach was a materialist. Born at Landshut in Bavaria, he started to study theology in Heidelberg, but within a year abandoned it, and, at the age of 20, went to Berlin to study philosophy under Hegel.

The young Feuerbach immediately fell under the spell of the great man, and become and ardent Hegelian. He later became a professor of philosophy at Erlangen. Although he was identified with the Hegelian left, Feuerbach was dissatisfied with its empty and abstract idealism, and set out to make a thorough criticism of Hegel’s philosophy from the standpoint of materialism. His writings, specially The Essence of Christianity, contain valuable insights, specially on the subject of alienation and the connection between idealism and religion. He was extremely critical of the idealist nature of Hegelian dialectics. His criticism had a revolutionary impact, and helped to shape the ideas of Marx and Engels. Unfortunately, Feuerbach ultimately failed to live up to his promise. His main mistake was, to use the German expression, to throw the baby out with the bath water. In rejecting Hegel’s philosophy he also rejected its rational core—dialectics. This explains the one-sided character of Feuerbach’s materialism, which caused its downfall.

At the centre of Feuerbach’s philosophy is man. But Feuerbach takes man, not as a social being but as an abstract individual. He regards religion as the alienation of man, in which human traits are made objective and treated as a supernatural being. It is as if man suffers from a kind of split personality, and contemplates his own essence in God. Despite its limitations, The Essence of Christianity still retains considerable interest, for its brilliant insights into the social and historical roots of religion. Ultimately, however, his conclusions are extremely weak. His only alternative to the domination of religion is education, morality, love, and even a new religion.

Marx and Engels were disappointed by Feuerbach’s reluctance to draw all the conclusions from his own ideas. Feuerbach was persecuted savagely by the authorities, dismissed from the university in 1830, he spent his last years a tragic and virtually forgotten figure in an obscure village. The revolution of 1848 consigned the ideas of Feuerbach and the Hegelian left to oblivion. Ideas which had seemed radical before now appeared irrelevant. Only the revolutionary programme of Marx and Engels stood the test of fire.

Feuerbach did not understand the revolution, and remain aloof from the new movement founded by Marx and Engels, although at the end of his life he joined the German Social Democratic Party. Feuerbach’s most important role was to act as a catalyst for the new movement. Somebody once remarked that the saddest phrase in any language is "might have been." This is more true of Feuerbach than any other philosopher. Having spent the greater part of his life in the wilderness, in the end, his destiny, like a philosophical John the Baptist, was to prepare the way for others.

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