Sunday, February 8, 2009

Classical Theories of Religion: Ludwig Feuerbach

The first philosopher I'm going to consider as a part of this series is Ludwig Feuerbach. I'll be posting about his book, The Essence of Christianity, first published in 1841.

Parmenodes set a trajectory of thought in motion that ends in German Idealism. The essence of this trajectory was a distinction between a way of being (actuality, deep essence, beyond the senses, infinite, eternal, absolute) and a way of seeing/seeming (sensory perception, historical experience, variety, chaos, diversity, etc.). Plato, Immanuel Kant, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel all lie in this trajectory, though Hegel attempts to reach some resolution of these two with his System (thesis - antithesis -> synthesis).

Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit signals that knowledge comes through the senses, but that which one seeks knowledge of is Spirit - essentially beyond the senses. This invokes an interaction between the absolute and the temporal, such that Spirit works itself out through history in ways that are largely logical, rational, etc. Thus, non-random phenomenon are manifestations of Spirit gradually manifesting itself in a progressive way.

There is a strong political valence to this theory - Spirit aspires toward freedom, and thus history progressively moves toward freedom. Between 1807 and 1821, on the eve of the Napoleonic victory and later, Hegel became a well-known and conservative philosopher. He wanted a state with a wise central monarch and a powerful Parliament. Likewise, there is a strong influence from Christianity. In the Christian Incarnation, the Word becoming Flesh, Hegel saw and expounded on the interaction of Spirit and Humanity.

More below the fold.

Feuerbach was a student of Hegel, a Left Hegelian. The students of Hegel were split into two camps - the Right and the Left. The Right Hegelians favored Hegel's later writings and saw that the "rational is real and the real is rational," and that this is the best of all possible worlds. The Left Hegelians were completely scandalized by this and viewed the present moment as one that would be overcome in the continuing progress of history.

As I said, Feuerbach was a Left (Young) Hegelian, along with Marx and Engels. Interestingly, all of them focused on religion in their early writings. Here's a brief biography of Feuerbach to give you a sense of context for his writings:

(b. 1804, d. 1872): Feuerbach was initially a student of conservative theology, but hated it and went to Berlin to study under Schleiermacher. However, he then shifted to philosophy and studied with Hegel. He published a book, Thoughts on Death and Immortality, anonymously in 1830, arguing that humans are essentially mortal, and that all religious hopes that were built on the afterlife were mere illusions.

When the authorship of the book was discovered, Feuerbach was fired and never hired to another university. He began publishing works on Spinoza, Leibniz, and Bayle. He retired into the backwaters of Germany and worked on The Essence of Christianity, which was published in 1841.

Friedrich Wilhelm III had been a fairly tolerant monarch during this time, and advocated for some personal freedoms. However, he died in 1840, and his reactionary son, Friedrich Wilhelm IV (who ruled from 1840-1861) ascended to the throne and established censorship laws aimed at people like Feuerbach (the story is actually much more complicated than this. Both monarchs were reactionary in some ways and liberal in others. This is an entirely bare-bones account, however, so I'm only going to reference how this touches on Feuerbach). In 1848, revolutionaries in Frankfurt briefly overthrew the monarch and hailed Feuerbach as an inspiration, and elevated him to a high chair on their Council. He gave regular lectures which were generally seen as quite boring.

The Essence of Christianity was a systematic attempt to recode propositions about the divine in references to humans, basically an anthropological reduction. He rejected the primacy of Spirit, that ideal and absolute things are the actual motivating forces of reality, and tried to reconcile religion and modern philosophy. The book was received as a thunderbolt, and profoundly influenced Marx and Engels in their writings.

The argument of the book really begins with a contrast of humans and animals, and it is noted that definitions always draw at least implicit contrasts. Feuerbach largely ignores any distinction between man or animals and the divine or inanimate, which is interesting in itself, and instead sees the essential difference between man and beast as consciousness (by which he means, in part, self-consciousness and consciousness of the infinite). He concludes that consciousness naturally leads to the contemplation of the infinite, that perfect is not simply a subject and an object, but a subject and object and the subject's awareness of subjectivity.

Feuerbach poses the question of whether all conscious experience involve objects perceived by the senses, and he develops one important exception - God/Spirit. What is it that one knows when one thinks they know God? Is knowledge properly constituted? Or are we mistaken in our supposed perception of God?

Feuerbach argues that we can only know the predicates of the divine, those aspects of the deity we can understand through our experience (some past education in philosophy or logic really helps get this point...). For example, when we say "God is just," Feuerbach argues that this statement is not acceptable as a knowledge statement. It is incorrect to divide God into predicates - any of these predicates are separable as nouns, not adjectives, which are separable from God. "God" is still left over, with no clear reason to attach this term to any of these predicates aside from tradition. Basically, this is an argument that things like "justice" or "merciful" or any such predicate is actually it's own separate thing, separable from God, and only tradition causes us to attach these labels to God. The real "essence" of the signifier "God" is actually empty.

He goes on to suggest that we look to human nature of sensuous experience of these qualities, and argues that all these predicates come from human experience and are then later attached, by tradition and indoctrination, to God. Thus, what can we accurately or appropriately say about love, justice, etc.? They are so highly valued by man as to be constituted as divine. Any statement one might make about God should be reversed: "God is just" is more accurately stated as "justice is divine." This turns these statements into something knowable and defensible, rooted in human nature and human experience.

Feuerbach develops an important (though poorly named) concept, Deuteroscopy, or "double-vision." He argues that when humans look at other humans, they seem them as double (basically, mind and body, with all of their usual predicates and oppositions attached - clean vs. unclean, pure vs. dirty, good vs. evil, etc.), and then also think that the phantasmic second is something more than human (the mind must be divine). This second phantom (something separated from human experience and reality) is a sort of optical illusion and gets labeled as God. It is not a pure mirror of the human - the divine doesn't have limits and is elevated with all of the positive qualities in humanity - it is the idealized half of an error of double-vision. Thus, the other half (the merely human, the body, etc), gets short shrift, which for Feuerbach is an act of theft or alienation - the human subject removes from itself its best attributes and infuses them into something else called God. For the human, this means that we denigrate and subordinate ourselves to an imagined superior, and establish a false hierarchy, in which is embedded a sense of dependency, and thus we are always inadequate and defective in comparison. We come to believe that we are guilty and flawed to begin with, and in need of help from above. The human condition is constituted as defective by an act of self-impoverishment, given away to an imaginary extra-human. Thus, we are in need of establishing a salvific experience with an alienated portion of one's own self - we must be redeemed by the portion of ourselves which we alienated and set above our selves, and this is the essential essence of Christianity and its story of salvation.

Basically, Feuerbach's argument about religion is that we have institutionalized a grave error in misrecognizing and inappropriately attributed human's highest qualities to an imagined other. We take human qualities, idealize them, and attribute them to something other than ourselves, thus constituting ourselves as lower and debased, and in need of salvation from "above," which, really is only our own idealized qualities.

The book also deals with an analysis of Creation. Creation accounts, Feuerbach argues, alongside of descriptions of the deity, are constitutive of human consciousness and how humans understand their relationship to the world/nature. He takes into consideration Greek and Hebrew creation narratives and sets them up as opposing camps.

Greek creation accounts allow for science and invention because of its polytheism. Gods are, in some measure, their domains. The deities are the natural world, and the natural world is seen as divine. A deity is assigned to each important piece. The divine does not stand outside or above creation, but is embedded and infused with the natural world. Humanity should understand itself as a piece of the world with awe and reverence and wonder at its fascinating beauty. This inspires art and science. In general, Feuerbach argues, this is a much healthier relation to nature (it is also intriguing to note that many creationists today argue for this view of the deity, that God is somehow infused in the natural world. They seem to forget that this sort of pantheism or panentheism are typically opposed to a transcendent God, and have been considered heresies to Christianity by most groups for their history. Which isn't to say that some Christian groups do not entertain these ideas, but, it is interesting to hear someone argue that God is wholly Other, transcendent and incalculable to human reason, but that God is also infused into every piece of the natural world and the universe is a reflection of him. It doesn't seem to provoke cognitive dissonance in many people, but, having some training as a philosopher, you start to analyze exactly what these people are saying and realize that it doesn't make a whole lot of sense.)

In opposition to the Greek creation accounts, Feuerbach considers the Hebrew/Genesis creation account. He sees this arguing that nature is created for the disposable use and domination by humans. God is viewed as outside and above Creation, with humans are above and over everything else with a right to use it how they will. This separates humans from awe and wonder, we are constituted as subjects relating to objects, with the world as an object to us. Here Feuerbach coins a very interesting phrase, "Mann ist was er isst." - "Man is what he eats." He summarizes the Hebrew view as egoism - selfish preoccupations and disinterest in external objects which suffer the consequences of said egoism. He generalizes this from the creation account to the Hebrew Bible, to the Jewish people, to the modern German Jew, to capitalism (and parasitism). Yes, Feuerbach reflects the general sentiment of anti-Semitism that has such a long history in Europe.

Continuing in this generally racist slant, Feuerbach viewed Greek polytheism as a prototype for Aryan/proper German people, and constituted Christianity as an heir to Judaism with two troubling problems:

1) A bad relation to an imaginary divine - humans are viewed as dependent and inadequate. Feuerbach wanted us to save our dignity and realize that we had good qualities that could be put to use by us, in our own time.

2) A bad relation to the natural world - humans are exploitative and uncaring. We now see the natural world as merely so much disposable goods and live as parasites on it. Likewise, we view the divine as above, in control of, and not subject to the natural world, and this reflects for him a general relation between matter and Spirit, which, for Feuerbach, was merely an illusion. Matter and humanity are real, Spirit is a deuteroscopic mistake of belief with highly problematic consequences - humans are compelled to destroy nature (and one another) because their illusion is supposed to (in apocalyptic scenarios), or because their illusion tells them to do so.

Philosophically, Feuerbach argues that all knowledge is sensuous - if there is no sensory information, it is not an object, but a projection/alienation/illusion. Thus, since God/Spirit is not present to our senses, we have no knowledge of it, and it is a projection/illusion. Those inside the religious circles merely recode this as "faith."

So, what is to be done? How do we erase an illusion, and what are the consequences of doing this? Feuerbach wants us to redivinize man - to empty the container of "God" and restore the proper attributes of humanity to their proper locations, in humanity.

Well, that covers it for Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity. The next installment of this series should cover Marx's "Contributions to a Critique" and "Theses on Feuerbach." Any feedback or comments are welcome, and I'll try to answer any questions to the best of my abilities. But, no, I probably won't tell you whether I actually agree with anything Feuerbach wrote about, as that's not what this series is about.

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