Thanks to Sticky Embraces
Today marks the first birthday of “The Space Beyond Being.” I know it is a cliche, but it seems like just yesterday I was searching for a creative outlet for my summertime boredom (if only I had the time to be bored this year…). In celebration of this momentous occasion, I give you this link to my very first post, a review of Michel Henry’s Marx: a Philosophy of Reality; a fortuitous first post, given the prominent role that both phenomenology and Marxism have played in the last year of blogging.
Also, here are some fun stats:
- Most popular post: Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach” #7
- Total “views”: 6,840
- Most popular search term (leading people here): “summary of Feuerbach”
- Visitors from over 100 nations
Thank you to all of my readers and commentors for a great first year. Here is my Gif(t) to you:
“The highest point reached by contemplative materialism, that is, materialism which does not comprehend sensuousness as practical activity, is the contemplation of single individuals and of civil society.”
Marx’s ninth “thesis on Feuerbach” functions as a bridge, simultaneously summarizing many of the critical points of the previous theses and pointing forward to the essential eleventh. In order to understand this brief text, it must first be recalled that, in his first thesis, Marx established a category of materialism, “contemplative materialism,” primarily identified with Feuerbach. Relying upon a dichotomy between sensuousness (practical activity) and contemplation (i.e. praxis and theoria), Marx rejects contemplative materialism for its reductionism, that is, its emphasis upon the purely rational character of human experience.
In the current thesis, Marx critiques this contemplative standpoint as the
“contemplation of single individuals and of civil society.” Yet, is the contemplation of “single individuals” and “civil societies” not the precise intention of Marx’s own philosophical, historical, political, and economic work? This seems undeniable. In what way, therefore, must this critique be read, if it is not to collapse upon itself, if it is not to function equally as a refutation of Marx’s own project? Here, “contemplation” must instead be read as “mere contemplation.” In this sense, Marx’s rejection of contemplative materialism is essentially politically driven; it is an accusation of quietism. For Marx, one must not merely “comprehend” individuals and society, philosophy itself must be “practical activity,” “sensuousness,” it must effect or affect individuals and society, it must make an actual difference to the experience of real human life.
“All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.”
Alas, after his foray into Feuerbach’s critique of religion, Marx has once again returned to (what may be) the principle question of his theses, practice. If we might return to the intuitions of the first couple theses, it should be recognized that “practice” designated more than mere activity, but instead an entire region being: the subjective, sensuous realm of human activity, the realm of truth. Returning to this realm, this region of Being, Marx’s eighth thesis identifies two important aspects of practice.
First, Marx resolves all social relations into practice. Were practice misunderstood as mere activity, such an assertion would be decidedly banal. Yet, recognizing Marx’s complex notion of practice, as nothing other than the subjective sensuality of human life, the placement of social relation within practice becomes a meaningful analysis. Understood in this way, social relations are abstracted from the theoretical, economical, and political realms which remain fundamentally secondary to living praxis. Instead of being mediated through these structures, sociality is recognized as a direct human connection, a piece of true human life and reality: prior to economics, prior to politics.
Second, Marx identifies this reality, practice, as the means by which the aporias of rational contemplation might be overcome. In his critique of “mysticism,” Marx does not intend a particular religious disposition, but instead employs this term in reference to the philosophical movement beyond human sensuality, the excess of intellectual contemplation. Instead of a radicalized intellectualism (e.g. Hegel, or even Feuerbach’s “contemplative materialism”), Marx proposes the sensuous activity of human life as the single adequate response to the “mysteries” of intellectualism. Instead of pursing the ultimate philosophical questions (freedom, ethics, etc.) into successively more remote abstractions, Marx simply proposes a reliance upon non-contemplative methodology; Marx proposes a solution in the “comprehension of this practice,” that is, in a phenomenology of practical life.
“Feuerbach consequently does not see that the ‘religious sentiment’ is itself a social product, and that the abstract individual that he analyses belongs in reality to a particular form of society.”
Marx’s seventh thesis provides the final assessment of Feuerbach’s religious work and functions as a brief summary of Marx’s critique thereof. As we have now twice noted, in our engagement with the fourth and sixth theses, Marx’s critique rests upon an accusation that Feuerbach was unable (or unwilling) to turn his critique of religion upon his own project and European society in general, particularly that region of society that Marx will later denominate “the bourgeoisie.”
For Marx, the critique leveled against religion by Feuerbach must be turned against Feuerbach’s own societal/philosophic presuppositions precisely because it is from out of this societal/philosophical world that modern European religion emerged. That is to say, the “religious sentiment” is merely a single representative, a manifestation, of this more general “form of society.” To strike at this religious sentiment is, therefore, to miss the primary entity–society, the genesis of alienation in comparison to which “religious alienation” is a mere epiphenomenon.
It is in light of this structure that Marx’s reference to the “abstract individual” can be understood. By reducing religion to anthropology, specifically to the “abstract individual,” Feuerbach normalized his “particular form of society”; he (seemingly subconsciously) erected “man” out of entierly 19th century German material. Yet, as Marx seems to indicate, this constructive project fails, because it falls victim to the very abstraction which it sought to overcome, the abstraction of the irreal concept. As we previously discussed, in our analysis of the sixth thesis, just as Hegel conceived of the objectified Idea, History, Knowing, and (most importantly for Feuerbach) God, Feuerbach’s “man” is abstracted from the sensuous reality of concrete individual life; it is a mere projection, a mere “product,” of its society.
Feuerbach resolves the essence of religion into the essence of man. But the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.
Feuerbach, who does not enter upon a criticism of this real essence, is consequently compelled:
- To abstract from the historical process and to fix the religious sentiment as something by itself and to presuppose an abstract – isolated – human individual.
- Essence, therefore, can be comprehended only as “species”, as an inner, mute, general character which unites individuals in a natural way.
In his sixth thesis, Marx returns to (and expands upon) the criticism of Feuerbach begun in the fourth thesis. As we have already seen, Marx’s critique primarily rests upon the accusation that Feuerbach failed to apply his critical analysis of Christianity (and religion in general) to his own project: that his project failed to overcome the self-alienating character of Christianity (particularly, its manifestation in Hegel). Here, however, Marx begins to clarify the precise manner in which Feuerbach’s critique falls short of reality, his reliance upon “man.”
As Marx has now twice alluded, Feuerbach’s critique of religion relies upon the reduction of religious phenomena to their genesis in the essence of man, that is, humanity. In Feuerbach’s anthropological reading of religion, God functions as the objectification (in a Hegelian sense) of the “needs” of humanity; in psychoanalytic language, one could describe God as a projection of human need.
Unfortunately, as Marx notes, such an understanding does nothing to escape the alienated, i.e. objectified, character of Hegel’s God, it fails to recognize the “real essence” of humanity. In this sense, one must simply recognize that Feuerbach has in no way overcome the Hegelian abstraction of the Idea, of God, but instead, merely renominated this abstraction as “Man.”
Such an abstraction has two principal results in Feuerbach’s thought. First, it necessitates that he abstract himself from all concrete living individuals. Second, that this “species” must be understood as the” natural” unity of homogenous individuals. Therefore, prefiguring existentialism by a century, Marx recognizes the necessary failure of this (and any) philosophical project whose primary move involves the abstraction away from concrete individuals: the prioritization of human homogeneity.
To the contrary, Marx recognizes that the true essence of humanity remains “the ensemble of the social relations,” that is, the relation of heterogeneous concrete individuals. For Marx, living individuals cannot be reduced to a simple essence for the precise reason that one cannot bracket the concrete specificity of an individual without losing sight of his/her humanity itself: an eidetic analysis of humanity is simply impossible. Instead, the essence of humanity, its “real essence,” can be nothing more than the recognition of this heterogeneity and the relations between these heterogeneous individuals, i.e. society.
“Feuerbach, not satisfied with abstract thinking, wants sensuous contemplation; but he does not conceive sensuousness as practical, human-sensuous activity.”
In this brief thesis, Marx broadens the specific formulation of his 4th critique. Just as in the former, Marx begins with the recognition of Feuerbach’s movement beyond the logo-centrism of German idealism, particularly as proposed by Hegel. While in Hegel we find a movement driven towards the achievement of an ultimate objective knowledge, “absolute knowing,” Feruerbach remains critical of this abstraction from concrete reality, instead arguing for an emphasis upon sensuous contemplation.
Yet, once again, Marx turns Feuerbach’s critique upon himself, arguing that it is insufficient to merely overturn abstract thinking in favor of sensuous thinking (contemplation). Instead, and more radically, the very philosophical priority of “thinking” itself must be question. Marx therefore proposes as a radical alternative, not an alternate contemplation, but the fully un-objectified reality of praxis: sensuous, human, subjective activity.
“Feuerbach starts off from the fact of religious self-alienation, of the duplication of the world into a religious, imaginary world, and a secular one. His work consists in resolving the religious world into its secular basis. He overlooks the fact that after completing this work, the chief thing still remains to be done. For the fact that the secular basis lifts off from itself and establishes itself in the clouds as an independent realm can only be explained by the inner strife and intrinsic contradictoriness of this secular basis. The latter must itself be understood in its contradiction and then, by the removal of the contradiction, revolutionised. Thus, for instance, once the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, the former must itself be annihilated theoretically and practically.”
In his fourth thesis, Marx directly addresses Feuerbach’s religious notions. He opens the thesis by explicitly supporting the Feuerbachian rejection of a spiritual reality, an “imaginary world” which would float in the heavens: that is, platonic dualism. He marks the religious movement towards a spiritual realm as “self -alienation” [Selbstentfremdung], a term borrowed from Hegel.
In Hegel, “alienation” does not carry the negative connotations that the term will later acquire in Marxism, and instead simply indicates the process of objectification, the movement out of subjectivity into objectivity. For Marx however, as we have seen in the first and second theses, true reality resides solely within the subjectivity of practical activity. For this reason, Marx views any alienation (in particular, the alienation of capital from the worker) as a movement from reality to irreality, to the theoretical realm of the imaginary.
It is in light of this notion of alienation that Marx favors Feuerbach’s critique of religion, as self-alienation par excellence. However, Marx remains critical of Feuerbach, who, he argues, does not carry this analysis to its full conclusion. Instead of simply resolving the religious world into the secular world, Feuerbach should have, Marx argues, undertaken a similar critique of secularity itself. Writing that “the secular basis lifts off from itself and establishes itself in the clouds as an independent realm,” Marx here identifies an identical movement of self-alienation in the generation of secular reality. Like the religious world, the secular world, at least as understood by Feuerbach, is alienated from reality.
Yet, from what reality is the secular realm alienated? From true reality, which is nothing other than the subjective reality of individual, practical, human activity.