Marx’s Criticism of Feuerbach and Its Application to Kierkegaard

Karl Marx has a clearly expressed critique of Ludwig Feuerbach; this critique is contained in Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach.” Of course there is no expressed criticism by Marx of Søren Kierkegaard since Marx was not familiar with Kierkegaard’s works. But it is still of interest to compare the two viewpoints in light of the important influence of these two philosophers on modern theology. In this paper I will review Marx’s criticisms of Feuerbach and discuss their application (if any) to Kierkegaard. I hope to show that the criticisms do not apply.

Marx’s first criticism of Feuerbach (Marx: I, II, V, IX) is that Feuerbach did not conceive of the reality of human sensuous activity. Feuerbach’s analysis of Christianity is essentially a passive one (i.e. contemplative, and psychological (Feuerbach, xxxv), and it is clearly stated that for him, the relation between thought and matter is a passive one.) Hence, even if thought and ideas are not mechanistically determined, material relations are–since man can do nothing in response (activity). For Feuerbach then, the objects of the senses are objectively real as objects of contemplation, but not the human activity. Feuerbach could not account for the reality of a revolution.

Kierkegaard does not fall to the objection of ignorance of sensuous activity. (The exercise of free will as activity will be discussed in a proceeding paragraph.) In Philosophical Fragments there are two alternatives discussed: Socrates and the Teacher. Although the Teacher is of primary importance to Kierkegaard’s theology, we can find human sensuous in both of them. (Recall that Kierkegaard does not use the separate categories, mind and body.) For Socrates, the human activity is dialog. Through dialog, the man’s condition is changed. In the case of the Teacher, the activity is learning on the part of the man (a subtle activity to be sure). This activity is still a real sensuous activity according to Kierkegaard’s categories. We will recall that the whole point of the discussion of Socrates and the Teacher centers around the Moment. That is, Kierkegaard is concerned more with how man obtains the truth than with what follows (at least in Philosophical Fragments). But Kierkegaard himself is a disciple of the Teacher, and demonstrates his conception of that role as part of the secular value structure, a part of the state, and as a financial institution (Perkins, 7).

Marx further criticizes Feuerbach (Marx, III) because Feuerbach only considered man as a product of environment, not allowing man’s activity to change that environment. (This criticism also applies to historical interpretations such as that of Lessing (Lessing, Ch. 5) in his notion of the education of the race). A view such as Feuerbach’s then leaves man finally at the mercy of his environment; this is a mechanistic determinism.

Kierkegaard escapes this criticism in a very fundamental way by denying that man is totally a product of his environment. The very existence of the Teacher is a possibility for a man to transcend the limits of his production. Further, the decisiveness of the moment excludes determinism and positively affirms free will. If the moment is to be decisive, then it must come into existence. That which is necessary (in the Kierkegaardian sense) cannot come into existence. Therefore, the moment is not necessary. (Kierkegaard, the Interlude). The moment is only possible. This possibility could be otherwise, thereby affirming man’s free will. If man has free will, he cannot be at the mercy of his environment.

Marx noted that Feuerbach failed to explain the occurrence of religious sentiment in man (Marx, IV). Feuerbach’s secularized Christian mythology and theology fails to explain why man creates the mythology and the theology. For Marx, this separation of the other world is a reflection of the self-contradiction and alienation of the secular world.

Kierkegaard was not, of course, pursuing a program of reinterpreting theology into a secularized study. But more fundamentally, theological systems and mythology are major themes in Kierkegaard. Acceptance of the Teacher is derived from decisiveness of moment, and not from historical theological premises. The moment is, therefore, not derivable from sentiment, or from any evolutionary or dialectic process. It follows that the moment has no secular interpretation. (In the next two paragraphs on historical method, I will discuss in more detail the moment as a historical event, and the moment as having a historical interpretation.)

Although Marx does not explicitly criticize the lack of historical analysis in Feuerbach, it is implicit through the criticisms. Feuerbach’s analysis of Christianity is primarily psychological (mental vs practical), which is history–contemplation is not.

As I said earlier, the moment for Kierkegaard is a historical event. Yet the encounter with the teacher is not analyzed historically.1 How does Kierkegaard escape Marx’s criticism of ignoring a historical analysis of historical events? In two respects Marx’s criticism is not applicable. First the moment is individual, not social. Indeed, it is impossible for a personal encounter to be analyzed in social terms, and for Marx, history is primarily a social phenomenon. Hence, the historical method is not applicable (for Marx) to personal experience. Secondly, Kierkegaard’s moment cannot be analyzed in historical terms because it has no historical cause. It is not part of a historical process and it is not due to sensuous activity. So although the moment is not necessary, and therefore historical, it is not subject to a historical analysis.

It is this non-historical nature of the moment which avoids the question of historical knowledge and faith (these are problems addressed by Lessing (Lessing, 51-56)). For Kierkegaard, historical knowledge is not the prerequisite for faith. The disciple at second hand (in a different historical period) is at no advantage. (Kierkegaard, Ch. 5, Perkins, 19-20).

The most important criticism of Feuerbach is that of his idealism (Marx, VI). The most evident aspect of this idealism is Feuerbach’s view of man as a species-being (Gwattunswesen). For Marx, this abstract being is transformed into an individual in a particular society. That is, the generalization of man (for Marx) is not an abstraction, but a collection.

We then must address the question of how concrete the man is for Kierkegaard. As previously stated, the encounter with the Teacher is an individual experience, and has no meaning for a collection of individuals, a society, or an abstraction. The man is generalized in the sense that any man can experience the Teacher, but an actual occurrence of the moment requires a particular individual.

Another criticism of Feuerbach is that he did not successfully resolve the problem of why mystery leads theory into mysticism (Marx, IX).

This criticism, as well as any, shows the basic problem in the application of the criticisms to Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard does not find any necessity to treat mysticism in his theology. The lack of the traditional categories is inherent in Kierkegaard’s theology, since it is based on such a simple premise (the moment is decisive).2

As we have seen, the criticisms of Feuerbach, leveled by Marx do not apply to Søren Kierkegaard because of the radically different categories involved in the three authors. As far as the “Theses on Feuerbach” is concerned, Marx and Kierkegaard present alternatives. From Kierkegaard’s point of view, Marx could well fit the category of Socrates, setting up a clear either/or choice.3


Notes:

  1. We must not lose sight of the fact that Kierkegaard also makes a psychological analysis of his man in the moment, see The Concept of Dread, and Sickness Unto Death, but as we will see, the difference between Feuerbach and Kierkegaard is in the type of event analyzed.
  2. We cannot say that Marxism as a whole could coexist with Kierkegaard’s theology. One main point of difference is that the existence of the Teacher (From Marx’s viewpoint) debases the man and leads him into illusory happiness and away from true happiness. This we have an either/or.
  3. Marx becomes Socrates, dialogue becomes dialectics, and man becomes Society.

References:

Marx, Karl, Marx and Engels on Religion, Shoken Books, New York, 1964; Roman numerals refer to headings in “Theses on Feuerbach.”

Feuerbach, Ludwig, Essence of Christianity (tr. George Eliot), Harper and Rowe, New York, 1957.

Perkins, Robert L., Søren Kierkegaard, John Knox Press, Richmond, VA, 1969.

Lessing, Gotthold, Lessing’s Theological Writings (tr. and selected by Henry Chadwick), Stanford University Press, 1967.

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