Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of classical German philosophy



Considerations on the book by Fredrich Engels

The new materialism advocated by Engels, anchored mainly in the progress of the sciences of nature and history, as presented in 1878 in the book Anti-Duhring, dispenses with the help of superior knowledge, “especially devoted to studying universal concatenations”. To the extent that this study was considered the priority task of philosophy, the last Engels re-updates, in a new key, the topos essentially Young Hegelian to which, together with Marx, he adhered in the 1840s: overcoming (cancel, that is, at the same time negation and realization) of philosophy.[I]

This overcoming – dealt with in passing in the Anti-Duhring, dedicated above all to the “positive exposition” of the dialectic through the determination of its new supports – assumes a greater importance and dimension in a text ten years later, Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of classical German philosophy, whose main subject, summarized in the title, is a reckoning between materialism and philosophy. It is there that Engels' positions on science, philosophy and their mutual relations are articulated as a more coherent and ordered set, which does not fail to highlight and crystallize the ambiguities and contradictions of his conception.



The almost twenty years that elapsed between the death of Hegel (1831) and the failed revolution of 1848 are marked, in German thought, by the conviction that we were living in a decisive period of human history, where the truth could only be found and put into question. practice in the territory delimited by the “concrete material existence of man”. The abstract principles of philosophical knowledge, rejected in their transcendence, were transformed into the foundations of emancipatory action, since from now on it was up to men themselves to “determine the rational course of history”.[ii] The promise of temporal realization of reason and individual freedom, inscribed in Hegelian philosophy under the aegis of the consummation that announced the end of philosophy, then becomes a task for the future. As concrete historical possibilities, different modalities and conceptions of this “realization” compete on a common ground: the negation of philosophy.

Abandoned for a long time, this issue suddenly returns, in a new guise, to the corpus theorist of Marxism in 1888. Engels, in his eagerness to produce a “concise and systematic exposition” of his relations with Hegel's philosophy, in addition to stressing the importance of Ludwig Feuerbach's influence in the formation of historical materialism, presents Marxism as one of the results of the “decomposition” of the Hegelian school. Once these links are highlighted, in order to avoid the interpretation that inserts Marxism as one more school in the series of philosophical systems, Engels is forced to highlight the specificity of the philosophy of the Young Hegelians and, consequently, of Hegel himself.[iii]

Insofar as he privileges, in his understanding of Young Hegelianism, the philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach,[iv] presented as the conclusive link in a chain that begins with David Strauss and passes through Bruno Bauer and Max Stirner – abandoning any reference to those authors, such as Moses Hess, Arnold Ruge or Cieszkowski, whose political concern is more explicit[v] –, Engels shifts the question of the “practical realization” of philosophy to a secondary plane. The overcoming of philosophy is now exposed as a disintegration, that is, as a process that unfolds in the very field of this knowledge.

Retrospective criticism, Fredrich Engels' analysis disqualifies Ludwig Feuerbach's thought (based on his philosophical premises, in particular his materialism) by way of comparing his achievements with the achievements of Marxism. He adopts, however, at the same time, a condescending attitude, as he transforms the adversary of yore, fiercely fought into the german ideology, at a necessary moment in an intellectual and historical journey.

In this version, the Feuerbachian restoration of materialism initially played a productive role. By emphasizing the independence of nature in relation to philosophy, Feuerbach would have untied the knot forged by the Young-Hegelian mixture of French materialism and Hegelianism, which made possible, among other things, the critique carried out by Marx and Engels in The Holy Family.

Feuerbach, however, would not have fully developed the potential opened up by his philosophy. His trajectory, described by Engels as the march of an unorthodox Hegelian towards materialism, stopped before the task of overcoming (“critically destroying its form, but conserving the new content acquired by it”) Hegel's philosophy.

Thus, once the system was broken, the complete rejection of Hegel's legacy led Ludwig Feuerbach back to the positions of eighteenth-century French materialism. Prisoner of a mechanical and anti-historical version, he was unable to develop his materialism, as he did not apply it either to the natural sciences or to historical knowledge, opening the way for the reintroduction of idealism in his thought (mainly in the fields of philosophy of religion and of ethics). It is this mixture, the coexistence of materialist and idealist trends, which configures his philosophy as a moment of transition, as an intermediate link between Hegel's idealist philosophy and the materialist conception of history.

The entire course of this path unfolds, according to Engels, through the convergence – at least with regard to overcoming philosophy – of two initially antagonistic lineages: the idealist, characterized by the affirmation of the predominant character of the spirit, and the materialist, which emphasizes the primacy of nature. Idealist systems became impregnated (as a result of the pantheistic effort to reconcile spirit and nature) with an increasingly material content, to the point where they became, with Hegel's system, a "materialism turned upside down". idealistically”. Materialism, in turn, went through a series of phases, successively changing its form according to the latest discoveries in the field of natural sciences and, since Marx, in the field of history.

In order to understand the meaning of this convergence, or rather, the way in which Engels reconciles – by definition – opposing trends, it is necessary to examine some of the assumptions of this approximation, at first sight disconcerting and paradoxical.

The confluence between the turn towards materialism (effected through the transmutation of idealism and a conceptual refinement of materialism, as well as an intersection, resulting from the incorporation, albeit modified, of Hegel's method by Marxism) and the denial of philosophy rests, ultimately, on the determination of the concept of philosophy by German idealism, or rather, on the thesis spread by Schelling and Hegel that “all and any philosophy is idealism”.[vi]

Engels' adherence to the idealist definition of philosophy, in addition to allowing him to associate materialism with the end of philosophy, also enables him to carry out an extremely complicated operation: the justification of the incorporation, by the materialist conception of history, of the material content of Hegelian philosophy. In this sense, his first step is to minimize the role played by the concept of absolute in Hegel. Thus, instead of emphasizing that such an association, the unification of philosophy and idealism, can only be sustained from the assumption and point of view of the absolute, Engels maintains the result, the identity that suits him, refusing the premise, the conceptual moment whose center is the absolute.[vii]

While discarding this conventional interpretation, Engels highlights the contradiction revealed by the German intellectual debate of the 1830s-40s about the famous passage from the Preface to Philosophy of law – “all that is real is rational; and whatever is rational is real.” Conservatives and revolutionaries alike claimed (according to Engels, not without reason) this phrase as corroboration of the validity of their particular interpretation of Hegel's thought and as a kind of endorsement of their religious and political stance.

On the one hand, when one differentiates, with Hegel, “real” from “existing”, also paying attention to the historical character of social forms, “reality” becomes subject to corrosion in an incessant process that converts it, in the course of of time, in a succession of irrational residues, devoid of necessity and, therefore, of the right to exist. Intrinsic to the dialectic, the revolutionary aspect predominates: “The proposition of the rationality of every real effective element dissolves, according to all the rules of Hegel’s method of thinking, in this other: everything that exists is worthy of perishing” (Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of classical German philosophy, P. 23).

But it is also possible, on the other hand, without betraying Hegel, to privilege the internal link of his concept of reality with the notion of necessity, which would legitimize, by attributing reason to the existing, certain social and knowledge forms, including the State. Prussian. This duality, inscribed at the heart of Hegel's philosophy, derives from the contradiction between the method (anti-dogmatic, averse to absolute truths) and the internal needs of the system that made possible the reintroduction of dogmatism, that is, the requirement (for Engels inherent in any systematic project) of completing the ordering of the material by adopting as closure some kind of absolute truth.[viii]

In Engels' interpretation, the prominent role attributed by Hegel to the system stems above all from his idealism. Not exactly in the sense that it is a specific way of articulating the material (that is, a specific relationship between concepts and data, theory and facts, logic and history, a priori and a posteriori) and, therefore, an option among others, but an essential attribute of every philosophical procedure. Engels says: “For all philosophers it is precisely the “system” that perishes, and this precisely because it stems from an imperishable need of the human spirit: the need to overcome all contradictions. But if all contradictions are eliminated once and for all, we land on the so-called absolute truth: universal history is at an end and yet it must go on, even though it has nothing left to do – hence a new, insoluble contradiction. ” (Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of classical German philosophy, P. 31).[ix]

Hegel's own method (to the extent that it conceives nature, history and the world of the spirit as an incessant process of transformations and changes) calls into question the claim of his philosophy to present itself as a summary and compendium of an absolute truth, even if in the form of the totality of a logical and historical process.[X] Hegel limits the application of the dialectic to the self-development of the concept, that is, to a movement that, according to Engels, exists and goes on “from eternity, who knows where, but, in any case, independently of any thinking human brain”.[xi]

To eliminate this “ideological distortion”, to get rid of this “idealistic crust”, rescuing the revolutionary character of the method, it is enough to return “to materialistically apprehending the concepts in our head as images derived from effective things, instead of apprehending effective things as images derived from this or that stage of the absolute concept” (id., ibid., p. 91). This transcription of the dialectics of the concept to the condition of “a conscious reflection of the dialectical movement of the effective world”, that is, of nature and history; the materialist consideration of Hegelian philosophy, seems sufficient to restore the dialectic “from the head on which it was, back to the feet” (id., ibid.).

The conditions for this inversion would therefore be, in the same movement, both the abandonment of the envelope, “the universal and compact system, definitively shaped”, in which Hegel would intend to frame the sciences of nature and history, and the suppression of philosophy itself. : “… all philosophy in the sense in which the word is known until today will also end. The 'absolute truth' unattainable by this route and by each individual is abandoned, and instead we pursue the relative truths attainable by the route through the positive sciences and the connection of their results through dialectical thinking. With Hegel, philosophy in general ends. On the one hand, because he gathered in his system, in the most grandiose way, the entire development of philosophy; on the other hand, because, albeit unconsciously, it shows us the way out of this labyrinth of systems towards positive and effective knowledge of the world (id., ibid., p. 33).[xii]

The task proposed by Engels encompasses only the “critical destruction of form”. Getting rid of the philosophical crust, doing without this “science of sciences that seems to float over the other particular sciences, summarizing and synthesizing them”, does not mean throwing away the content, the encyclopedic richness of Hegel's work. Despite the sometimes arbitrary constructions, imposition of the system, the “treasure of erudition” that fills his books must be incorporated into the organized knowledge of the world, now organized, with the autonomy of specific disciplines, on a new level.



In the evolutionary line of the other trend, the materialist (early guarantee of the presupposed convergence), another heritage of philosophy plays a central role, the dialectical method. Taken as a “science of the general laws of movement, both of the external world and of human thought”, elevated to the condition of a separate set of laws, dialectics, transposed from a philosophical method to a scientific one, becomes the methodology proper to “positive knowledge”. and effective in the world”. In the field of natural sciences, throughout the 95th century, the emergence of new specialties, physiology, embryology, geology; the decisive discoveries of the cell, the transformation of energy and the evolution of the species would, according to Engels, open the way for a new conception of nature that brings it closer to the processes of historical development. This led to a profound modification of this knowledge, which surpassed the stage of mere “collecting sciences” – focused on the study of objects (living or dead) as ready-made things –, became “ordering sciences” – dedicated to the study of “processes, of the origin and development of these things and of the connection that links these natural processes into a great whole” (id., ibid., p. XNUMX).

The concern with the connection of natural phenomena within a given domain, but also between different specialties, the resulting overall view spontaneously impose, even on scientists trained in the “metaphysical” tradition, the dialectical interpretation of nature. The chaining of the results of these different types of knowledge would already form, in Engels' assessment, a system of nature solid enough to liquidate the venerable philosophy of nature.

The historical study of society, or rather the investigation of human activities, under the influence of Karl Marx's discoveries, which put an end to the philosophy of history, also underwent a similar process in which, despite differences between agents (here men endowed with consciousness that act in pursuit of certain ends under the impulse of reflection or passion, there blind and unconscious factors that act on each other in reciprocal connection), the applicability of the same immanent general (dialectical) laws was emphasized.[xiii]

The overcoming of so many logical antagonisms, the gradualism, without discontinuities, of the passage from idealism to materialism, from the philosophical to the scientific method, from the philosophical system to the positive and effective knowledge of the world, which both the idealist and the materialist series arrive at independently , are anchored, to a large extent, in a peculiar facet of historical development: “Philosophers, however, in that long period from Descartes to Hegel and from Hobbes to Feuerbach, were by no means impelled to advance, as they believed, by force alone. of pure thought. On the contrary. What, in fact, impelled them to advance was, namely, the powerful and ever faster impetuous progress of natural sciences and industry (id., ibid., p. 49).

The optimistic emphasis (including in the field of social implications) on the development of productive forces results from a conception of practice that favors “experimentation and industry” as decisive factors in this process. On a theoretical level, the appeal to such a pair would be enough not only to refute Kant's epistemological agnosticism (centered on the infamous thing-in-itself), but also to challenge “all other philosophical manias”.[xiv]

That said, it is not at all unreasonable to say that the last Engels, despite only emphasizing the negation of philosophy, remains faithful to the Young Hegelian motto of the realization of philosophy. In fact, what has changed substantially between The Holy Family (1844) and Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of classical German philosophy (1888) was the conception of practice, which acquired less and less political-social (or, if you prefer, subjective) contours, not the project of realizing philosophy through practice.

*Ricardo Musse He is a professor at the Department of Sociology at USP. Organizer, among other books, of Contemporary China: Six Interpretations (authentic).



Fredrich Engels. Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of classical German philosophy. Translation: Vinicius Matteucci de Andrade Lopes. Bilingual edition. São Paulo, Hedra, 2020, 170 pages.



[I] The young Engels, in texts prior to the writing of The situation of the working class in England (1844), defined communism, which he adhered to before Marx, as a "derivation, an inevitable conclusion" of German philosophy (see Stedman Jones, "Portrait of Engels" p. 396-402). Even in this book, from 1845, according to Engels himself, one can still find, clearly visible, “the marks of classical German philosophy” (Engels, Preface from 1892 to The situation of the working class in England”, p.125).

[ii] Check out Marcuse, reason and revolution, P. 242-3 and Arantes, resentment of the dialectic, P. 372.

[iii] It is possible, in view of this set of issues, to re-dimension the impact on the Marxist tradition of the publication in 1932, in Marx-Engels GesamtausgabeTwo Economic-philosophical manuscripts (1844) by Karl Marx. More than the discovery of a new continent as they were sometimes presented, it is rather the recovery of decisive material for the discussion of essential topics - "the origin", "the meaning of the theory of scientific socialism", the " relationship between Marx and Hegel” (cf. Marcuse, “New Sources for the Basis of Historical Materialism”, p. 09) – placed on the agenda by the Ludwig feuerbach of Engels and resumed, in a broader key, by History and class consciousness, by György Lukács.

[iv] The presence of Feuerbach already in the title of the book obviously does not result only from the fact that the text was originally composed as a commentary, commissioned by the magazine New time, from the book Ludwig feuerbach by CN Starcke.

[v] What is most striking is the absence of any mention of Moses Hess, whose communism Engels was an adherent of in his youth. On the relation of Marx and Engels to Hess, Ruge and Cieszkowski see Cornu, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, t. 1, p. 132-287, t. 2, p. 01-105 or else Hook, The genesis of Marx's philosophical thought, P. 161-206 and 233-72.

[vi] Schelling says: “If we determine philosophy in its entirety according to what it intuits and exposes everything, according to the absolute act-of-knowledge, of which even nature is, in turn, only one side, according to the idea of all ideas, then it is idealism” (Schelling, Exposition of the universal idea of ​​philosophy in general and of philosophy-of-nature as an integral part of the first, P. 52). For Hegel, the “proposition that the finite is ideal constitutes idealism. The idealism of philosophy consists in just this: not recognizing the finite as the true existent. Every philosophy is essentially an idealism, or at least has it as its principle, and the only problem is [to recognize] the extent to which this principle is actually realized. […] The opposition between idealist and realist philosophy is meaningless. A philosophy which attributes to finite existence a true, ultimate, and absolute being does not deserve the name philosophy” (Hegel, Science of logic, P. 136).

[vii] The simplicity of this operation did not avoid the risks of misunderstanding, on the contrary. Colletti accused Engels (and with him, a whole tradition of Western Marxism) of relying on an (idealist) philosophy of the absolute (see Colletti, Marxism and Hegel, pp. 99-111). Others, such as David McLellan, accuse Engels of having substituted the concept of “spirit” for that of “matter” as an absolute (Cf. McLellan, Engels' ideas, P. 59).

[viii] It goes without saying that the question of the “absolute”, dismissed so easily at other times, returns here, even if through the basement (Engels deals more extensively with the dogmatic character of absolute truths in Anti-Duhring, pp. 71-80).

In accusing Hegel of dogmatism, Engels once again is a tributary of the vocabulary, and in part also the procedures, of German Idealism. The latter, since Kant, has always applied the term “dogmatism” to identify pre-established “consensuses”, which he takes as the favorite targets of the critical task.

[ix] To clarify some of the factors involved in this identification, eminently idealistic, between system and philosophy cf. Adornment, Negative Dialectik, P. 31-39.

[X] See Engels, Anti-Duhring, P. 23.

[xi] See Engels, Anti-Duhring, P. 89.

[xii] Engels never differentiates his dialectic, as exposed in the Anti-Duhring, of the Hegelian dialectic as presented in Ludwig Feuerbach…, except with regard to the envelope (materialist or idealist). In addition, it is practically impossible to distinguish what he says about the Hegelian dialectic from the definitions he offers of the materialist version.

[xiii] Andrew Arato, in “The Antinomy of Classical Marxism: Marxism and Philosophy” (pp. 90-2), points out that the Engelsian version of the dialectic, by not conceiving “substance as a subject”, is unprepared to explain history. This limitation of the Engelsian dialectic, however, does not seem sufficient to support another of his assertions – that this Marxism would restore “the triumph of nature over history”. More cautious, Fetscher accuses Engels of bringing the historical process and the natural process closer together by generalizing the same dialectic for both. According to him, the “parallelism between nature and society leads to a neglect of the 'conscious moment' in the historical process” (id., Karl Marx and the Marxisms, P. 164).

[xiv] Fetscher (Karl Marx and the Marxisms, pp. 161-2) finds there, in the anchoring in the natural sciences of this attempt to supplant philosophy, the germs of industrializing Marxism. The project of the last Engels, totally different from the collective transformation that Marx foreshadowed in the expression “realization of philosophy”, would lead to an “infinite process of knowledge in the natural sciences and in material production” whose most visible political consequences would be the deviation from the task of “ liberation of humanity realized in the proletariat for the liberation of the tendencies of expansion of the productive forces”.

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