Part One - From the History of Dialectics

6: Feuerbach –
Once More about the Principle of Constructing a Logic: Idealism or Materialism?

So far we have spoken almost exclusively about Hegel’s positive gains, which constituted an epoch in logic as a science. Let us now touch on the historically inevitable ‘costs of production’ connected with the idealism of Hegel’s conception of thought, and on the defects in his logic that do not permit us to adopt his conception in toto, and that can only be surmounted by developing materialist philosophy.

Historically things developed in such a way that Feuerbach was the first person in Germany to speak about the ‘costs of production’ of Hegelian idealism.

Like every materialist Feuerbach fought the dualist opposing of thought to being as the initial principle of philosophy. In the course of his reasoning, therefore, he naturally reproduced Spinoza’s decisive arguments against Cartesian dualism. This line of polemic, it is true, has to be deduced by analysis, since Feuerbach had in mind not only dualism in the pure form in which it was expressed by Kant, but also the philosophy of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, i.e. the attempts systematically made to overcome dualism ‘from the right’, in the form of idealistic monism. Feuerbach strove, however, to show that the surmounting of dualism in this case inevitably remained fictitious, formal, and verbal and that idealism in general did not, and could not, encroach on the fundamental premises of the Kantian system. In Schelling and Hegel, therefore, he primarily considered the unsurmounted Kant. ‘The Hegelian philosophy is the abolition of the contradiction of thought and being as Kant in particular expressed it, but, mark you, only its abolition ... within one element, within thought.’

As a matter of fact, the so-called philosophy of absolute identity was a philosophy of the identity of thinking in itself; as before there was an unfilled gap between thought and being outside thought. The problem seemed to be resolved only because conceivable being, i.e. being in the form in which it had already been expressed in thought, had been put everywhere in the place of real being. Under the grandiose, profoundly thought-out construction of the Hegelian philosophy, therefore, there was hidden as a matter of fact an empty tautology; we thought the surrounding world as and how we thought it.

So the philosophy of Schelling and Hegel had not, in fact, established any identity of thought and being and not just an ‘absolute’ one, because ‘being as such’ – free independent self-sufficient being existing outside and independently of thought – had simply not been taken into account in it, and remained something wholly immaterial and undetermined.

The fundamental principle of Kantian dualism thus remained untouched. The thinking mind was considered from the very outset as something absolutely opposed to everything sensuous, corporeal, and material, as a special immaterial being, organised in itself and formed by immanent logical laws and schemas as something independent and self-sufficient. Hegel’s Logic also represented thought as the activity of such a supernatural and extraphysical subject, which was then forced to enter into special relations of ‘mediation’ from outside with nature and man so as to shape them in its own image and likeness.

Such a presentation of the thinking mind of necessity presupposed, in addition, that nature and man, as the ‘opposites’ of the mind, or spirit, as the object and material of its moulding activity, were represented as something passive and amorphous in themselves. Only as a result of the moulding activity of the thinking spirit did nature and man become what they were and acquire all their well-known, concrete forms. Moreover, nothing other was represented in fact, as the product of the activity of the spirit, than the empirically obvious state of affairs in the real world; and the whole complicated magic of mediation once more merely served, in the guise of a ‘gift of God’, to return the same determinations to man and nature that had been previously taken from them by the act of abstraction. Without this preliminary ‘robbery’ of man and nature the spiritualistic philosophy could not have attributed a single one of its very impoverished determinations to the thinking spirit.

In this interpretation of the problem of the relation of thought and being, Feuerbach above all saw a scholastically refurbished, ‘rationalised’ theology. The absolute thinking spirit of spiritualism, like the Biblical God, was a fantastic creature, constructed out of determinations alienated from man by an act of abstraction. The thinking about which Hegelian logic was concerned was, in fact, human thought, but abstracted from man and counterposed to him as the activity of a special being existing outside him.

Proceeding from that quite correct understanding (in general and on the whole) of the root errors of Hegelian idealism (and thereby of idealism in general, since the Hegelian system was the most consistent expression of the idealist point of view), Feuerbach rethought the very posing of the problem of the relation of thought to being. It was impossible, he showed, to ask how ‘thought in general’ was related to ‘Being in general’, since that already presupposed that thought (in its form alienated from man) was looked upon as something independent contrasted with being from outside. But being, however, understood not in Hegel’s way, i.e. not as an abstract, logical category, not as being in thought, but as the real, sensuously objective world of nature and man, already included thought. Being included not only stones, trees, and stars, but also the thinking body of man.

Thus, to represent being as something deprived of thought meant to represent it incorrectly, to exclude man, capable of thinking, from it in advance; and that meant to deprive being of one of its most important ‘predicates’, to think of it ‘imperfectly’. The argument given here repeated the course of Spinoza’s thought, was its developed interpretation, its translation into the language of a more modern philosophical terminology.

The whole problem thus boiled down to resolving whether thought could, in general, be distinguished from man as a material, sensuously objective creature, and to fixing it and considering it from the very beginning as something independent, in contrast to everything corporeal, sensuous, and material; or whether thought should be understood as a property (‘predicate’) inseparable from man. Feuerbach considered the decisive argument in favour of materialism to be the arguments of natural science, medicine, and physiology. Materialism, relying on medicine, was also ‘Archimedes’ fulcrum in the dispute between materialism and spiritualism, for it was a matter here, in the final count, not of the divisibility or non-divisibility of matter, but of the divisibility or non-divisibility of man, not of the being or not-being of God but of the being or not-being of man, not of the eternity or temporality of matter but of the eternity or temporality of man, not of matter scattered and extended outside man in heaven and earth but of matter concentrated in the human skull. In short, it is a matter, in this dispute, so long as it is not conducted in mad confusion, only of the head of man. It alone is both the source and the goal and end of this dispute’. [from feuerbach’s On Spiritualism and Materialism]

Feuerbach considered that the basic problem of philosophy was thus, and only thus, put on a firm footing of fact, and so, naturally, resolved in favour of materialism.

Thought was the real function of the living brain, and was inseparable from the matter of the brain. If we had brain matter in mind, then it was quite ridiculous in general to ask how thought was ‘linked’ with it, how the one was connected with the other and ‘mediated’ it, because there simply was no ‘one’ and ‘the other’ here, but only one and the same thing; the real being of the living brain was also thought, and real thought was the being of the living brain.

That fact, expressed in philosophical categories, revealed ‘the immediate unity of soul and body, which admits of nothing in the middle between them, and leaves no room for distinction or even contrast between material and immaterial being, is consequently the point where matter thinks and the body is mind, and conversely the mind is body and thought is matter’. The ‘identity’ of thought and being, so understood, must also (according to Feuerbach) constitute an axiom of true philosophy, i.e. a fact not requiring scholastic proof and ‘mediation’.

Feuerbach did not reproach Schelling and Hegel at all for having recognised in general the unity (‘identity’) of thought and being in the thinking man, but only for having tried to depict it as the final unity of opposites, as the product of the joining together of an insubstantial thinking spirit and unthinking flesh. He reproached them with thus having tried to stick together a picture of the real fact from two equally false abstractions, of proceeding from illusion to fact and from abstraction to reality.

The materialist, Feuerbach affirmed, must proceed in the opposite way, taking as his starting point the directly given fact, in order to explain the origin of those false abstractions that idealists uncritically accepted as facts.

Schelling and Hegel started from the thesis of the initial opposition of incorporeal thought and of flesh without thought in order ultimately to reach the unity of the opposites. That was the false path of spiritualism. The materialist must proceed from the factual direct unity (indivisibility) of the human individual in order to understand and show how and why the illusion of an imaginary opposition of thinking and corporeal being arose in the head of this individual.

The illusion of the opposition of the thinking spirit and the flesh in general, was consequently a purely subjective fact, i.e. a fact existing only in the head of the human individual, a purely psychological fact. It arose for a quite natural reason, precisely because the thinking brain was the same sort of material, sensuous organ as all of man’s other organs.

The position was the same as with the eye, the organ of vision. If I saw stars by means of the eye, then quite understandably I could not at the same time see the eye itself; and conversely, if I wanted to examine the eye, even in a mirror, I would have to turn my gaze away from the stars. Vision would be impossible in general if I were to see all the detail of the structure of the eye itself at the same time as the object, i.e. all the inner material conditions by means of which this vision was effected. In the same way, too, ‘the brain could not think if, in thinking, the organic foundation and conditions of thought became objects of its consciousness , i.e. the material structures and processes themselves by means of which thinking took place in the body of the brain. As structures they became objects only for physiology and anatomy. As the organ of thought the brain was structurally a functionally adapted exactly so as to perform activity directed toward external objects, so as to think not about itself but about the other, about the objective. And it was quite natural that ‘the organ gets lost, and forgets and disavows itself in the opus fervet (the work heat) of its own activity, the activity in its objects’. Hence, too, arose the illusion of the complete independence of everything corporeal, material, and sensuous, including the brain, from thought.

But the illusion is understandably no argument in favour of idealism. Of itself, in spite of the inevitable illusions, thought always remained the material activity of a material organ, a material process. ‘What for me, or subjectively, is a purely mental, immaterial, unsensuous act, in itself or objectively is a material, sensuous act.’ ‘In the brain-act, as the highest act, arbitrary, subjective, mental activity, and involuntary, objective material activity are identical and indistinguishable.’

Thus the logic of the struggle against dualism and spiritualism directly forced Feuerbach, in essence, to express a dialectical proposition to recognise that the living, thinking brain was an ‘object’ in which there proved to be directly identical oppositions, namely, thought and sensuously objective being, thinking and what was thought, the ideal and the real, the spiritual and the material, the subjective and the objective. The thinking brain was the special ‘object’ that could be properly expressed in philosophical categories only through directly identifying mutually exclusive determinations, through a thesis that embraced a direct unity, i.e. identity, of opposing categories.

Not having mastered dialectics in its general form, Feuerbach, it is true, often wavered, constantly admitting determinations that he was then forced to correct, supplement, and make specific; as a result his exposition was made rather nebulous and ambiguous, but the essence remained the same.

It was just because thinking was a material process, the material activity of a material organ directed to material objects, that the products of that activity (thoughts) could be correlated, compared, and collated with ‘things in themselves’, with things outside thought, which everybody did at every step without the aid of the mediating activity of God or an absolute spirit. Concepts and images existed in the same space and in the same time as real things; and one and the same subject thought about and sensuously perceived the surrounding world, and that subject was precisely the human individual, the same individual who really lived and existed as a sensuously objective creature. The unity (indivisibility) of the object, of the surrounding, sensuously objective world, corresponded to the unity (indivisibility) of this subject. Just as a thinking and sensuously contemplating person was one and the same person and not two different beings coordinating their inter-relations with the help of God or the absolute spirit; so the world thought of, on the one hand, and sensuously contemplated, on the other hand, were again one and the same world (namely the real one), and not two different worlds between which one had to look for a special passage or bridge, or mediation, resorting to the aid of a divine principle.

That was why determinations of the world in thought (logical determinations) were directly and spontaneously determinations of the sensuously contemplated or intuited world. And it was absurd to ask what was the special relation of the system of logical determinations to the sensuously given world, to the world in intuition and representation. A logical system was nothing else than the expression of the determinateness of the sensuously contemplated or intuited world. The question of the relation of logical and metaphysics was also an illusory and sham question. There was no such relation, because logic and metaphysics were spontaneously and directly one and the same. The universal determinations of the world in thought (logical determinations, categories) were nothing else than the expression of the abstract, universal determinateness of things given in intuition, because both thought and intuition (contemplation) had to do with one and the same real world.

And if by logic was understood not a collection of rules for the expression of thought in speech, but the science of the laws of development of real thinking, then, similarly, by logical forms must be understood not the abstract forms of sentences and expressions, but the abstract, universal forms of the real content of thought, i.e. of the real world sensuously given to man. ‘The so-called logical forms of judgments and conclusions are therefore not active thought-forms, not causal conditions of reason. They presuppose the metaphysical concepts of universality, singularity, and particularity, the whole and the parts, necessity, foundation and consequence; they are given only through these concepts; they are consequently arbitrary, derived, not original thought-forms. Only metaphysical conditions or relations are logical ones – only metaphysics as the science of categories is the true esoteric logic – that was Hegel’s profound thought. The so-called logical forms are only abstract, elementary speech-forms; but speech is not thought, otherwise the greatest chatter-box would be the greatest thinker.’

Thus Feuerbach agreed completely with Hegel on logical forms and laws being absolutely identical with metaphysical ones, although he understood the reason and the grounds for that circumstance quite differently from the idealist Hegel. Here we have a clearly expressed materialist interpretation of the principle of the identity of the laws and forms of thought and being. From the materialist point of view it states that logical forms and patterns are nothing else than realised universal forms and patterns of being, of the real world sensuously given to man.

That is the reason why Neokantians like Bernstein called consistent materialism spiritualism inside out. Nevertheless Feuerbach’s interpretation of the identity of thought and being remains true and indisputable for any materialist, including the Marxist, but only, of course, in the most general form, so long as we are concerned with the fundamentals of logic and the theory of knowledge, and not with the details of the knowledge built up on that foundation. Since Feuerbach later began a specifically anthropological concretisation of general materialist truths, arguments developed in his exposition that were obviously weak not only in comparison with the Marxist-Leninist solution of the problem, but even in comparison with Spinoza’s conception; and they subsequently gave vulgar materialists, positivists, and even Neokantians occasion to consider him their predecessor and their – though not completely consistent – ally.

A rather more detailed analysis of the features of Feuerbach’s treatment of the identity of thinking and being is not without interest for two reasons: (1) because it was materialism; and (2) because it was materialism without dialectics.

The materialism consisted in this case in an unqualified recognition of the fact that thought was the mode of the real existence of the material body, the activity of the thinking body in real space and time. The materialism appeared, furthermore, in recognition of the identity of the mentally comprehended and sensuously perceived world, Feuerbach’s materialism, finally, was expressed in man’s being recognised as the subject of thought, that same man who lived in the real world, and not a special being hovering outside the world, contemplating and comprehending it ‘from outside’. All those are fundamental tenets of materialism in general, and consequently also of dialectical materialism.

What then were the weaknesses of Feuerbach’s position? In general, and on the whole, they were the same as those of all pre-Marxian materialism, and primarily incomprehension of the role of practical activity as activity altering nature. For even Spinoza had in mind only the movement of the thinking body along the given contours of natural bodies and lost sight of this moment, a point that Fichte made against him (and so in general against the whole form of materialism represented by him), namely that man (the thinking body) did not move along ready-made forms and contours presented by nature but actively created new forms, not inherent in nature, and moved along them, overcoming the ‘resistance’ of the external world.

The chief defect of all materialism up to now (including Feuerbach’s) is that the object, reality, what we apprehend through our senses, is understood only in the form of the subject or contemplation; but not as sensuous human activity, as practice, not subjectively. Hence in opposition to materialism the active side was developed abstractly by idealism which of course does not know real sensuous activity as such. Feuerbach wants sensuous objects, really distinguished from the objects of thought: but he does not understand human activity itself as objective activity.

Hence it followed that man (the subject of cognition) was considered the passive side of the object-subject relation, as the determined member of this inter-relation. Furthermore, man was abstracted here from the combinations of social relations and transformed into an isolated individual. The man-environment relations were therefore interpreted as the relations of the individual to all the rest, to everything that lay outside the individual brain and existed independently of it. But outside the individual, and independently of his will and consciousness, there existed not only nature but also the social historical environment, the world of things created by man’s labour, and the system of relations between man and man, developed in the labour process. In other words, not only did nature by itself (‘in itself’) lie outside the individual but also humanised nature, altered by labour. For Feuerbach the surrounding world or environment given in intuition or contemplation was taken as the starting point, and its premises were not investigated.

When, therefore, he faced the problem of where and how man (the thinking body) was in immediate union (contact) with the environment, he answered: in intuition, in the individual’s contemplation, since it was the individual that he always had in mind. That was the root of all his weaknesses, because in contemplation there was given the individual the product of the activity of other individuals interacting among themselves in the process of producing material life, and those properties and forms of nature that had already been transformed into the properties and forms of the activity of man, its object and its product. The ‘nature as such’ that Feuerbach wished to ‘contemplate’ did not, as a matter of fact, lie within his field of view, because this ‘nature, the nature that preceded human activity, is not by any means the nature in which Feuerbach lives, nor the nature which to-day no longer exists anywhere (except perhaps on a few Australian coral-islands of recent origin) and which, therefore, does not exist for Feuerbach’.

Feuerbach’s attention was also diverted from the real complexities of the social relations between theory and practice, from the division of labour that ‘alienated’ thought (in the form of science) from the majority of individuals and converted it into a force existing independently of them and outside them. He therefore saw nothing in the thought idolised by Hegel (i.e. science) than a certain modification of religious illusions.

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