Bakunin and Feuerbach:
On Religion, Philosophy, and Naturalism

by Paul McLaughlin

2.14 Bakunin and Feuerbach: On Religion

This brings us to the third major influence on Bakunin here: that of his "beloved philosopher”, arguably the greatest Left Hegelian thinker, Ludwig Feuerbach. [140] According to Bakunin, it remained for Feuerbach, after Hegel, to finally “put an end to all the religious insanities and the divine mirage" by showing "how the divine ideas . . . were successively created by the abstractive faculty of man". [141] Hence it was Feuerbach who developed Hegel's insight into the inextricable relation between human consciousness and the divine idea—between man and God, between religious subject and religious object—most satisfactorily, demonstrating that the divine idea—God, the Absolute, the Supreme Being—is in fact limited by human consciousness and that religious developments consequently reflect developments of human consciousness itself. The focus of Feuerbach's analysis of religion (or the consummate religion at any rate) is therefore man, the supposed subject of religious experience, rather than the divine idea as such, the supposed object of religious experience—whatever this object may be called. As Feuerbach himself expresses this in the Preface to the second edition of Das Wesen des Christentums (The Essence of Christianity) (first edition, 1841; second edition, 1843):

This philosophy has for its principle not the Substance of Spinoza, not the ego of Kant and Fichte, not the Absolute Identity of Schelling, not the Absolute Mind of Hegel, in short, no abstract, merely conceptual being, but a real being, the true Ens realissimum—man. [142]

Feuerbach's critical analysis of religion, then, is an attempt, as he sees it, to translate the propositions of religion—predications of the religious object—into "plain speech"—into predications of the religious subject. In other words, what he calls his "historico‑philosophical analysis of religion" aspires to be "the revelation of religion to itself [i.e., the religious subject], [or] the awakening of religion to self‑consciousness". The negative conclusion of this analysis is that “the object of religion in general, the Divine essence, in distinction from the essence of Nature and Humanity . . . is only something in the imagination, but in truth and reality nothing". [143] Feuerbach must therefore ask the central question: how this nothingness came to be represented as Absolute Being.

Religion has its origin, according to Feuerbach, in the unique and defining "inner" existence of man, that is, in man's unique capacity to converse with himself—so that he is at once both I (or subject or individual) and Thou (or object—to himself—or species‑member). Thus, religion has its origin in man's unique capacity to relate to his own nature as a member of a distinct species, through the faculty of understanding (which simply designates “the thinking power" in general here). Feuerbach continues: "Religion being identical with the distinctive characteristic of man [once again, his inner existence, governed by thought], is then identical with self‑consciousness—with the consciousness which man has of his own nature". But since religion is, by definition, consciousness of the infinite, it follows that man's nature is itself infinite. As Feuerbach puts it, "in the consciousness of the infinite, the conscious subject has for its object the infinity of its own nature", or, more accurately, the theoretical "infinitude of his species", which transcends the limits of his individuality. Feuerbach concludes:

Man has his highest being, his God, in himself, not in himself as an individual, but in his essential nature, his species. [144]

Religion, the consciousness of the infinite or God, is therefore nothing but the self-consciousness of man. Nevertheless, religious consciousness is characterized by ignorance of this identity: to it the divine and the human are antithetical. (This contradiction mirrors that which Hegel had already exposed in religious consciousness.) The development of religious consciousness, however, consists in the emergence of such an identification, so that "what was formerly contemplated and worshipped as God is now perceived to be something human". (This is a philosophical achievement according to Hegel's Phenomenology account—or an achievement of speculative philosophy, as Feuerbach himself will argue.) Religion, then, culminates (and transforms into speculative philosophy) in the recognition that "the antithesis of divine and human is altogether illusory, that it is nothing else than the antithesis between the human nature in general and the human individual". So, once again, the divine arises within human consciousness—it is the product of the dialectic between man as subject and man as his own object, that is, the I‑Thou dialectic. Specifically, it is the product of man's subjective objectivity—his nature or his species being as a rational creature—being projected outside of him, into the realm of nothingness, and subsequently opposed to him. Feuerbach expresses this in the following manner:

The divine being is nothing else than the human being, or, rather, the human nature purified, freed from the limits of the individual man, [and] made objective—i.e., contemplated and revered as another, a distinct being. All the attributes of the divine nature are, therefore, attributes of the human nature. [145]

Since all divine attributes are in fact human attributes, all religious predicates are anthropomorphisms. Feuerbach maintains, furthermore, that "If thy predicates are anthropomorphisms, the subject of them is an anthropomorphism too”. This means that all religious statements, all religious propositions, can be transformed into human statements, so to speak, or anthropological propositions, by means of the method of inversion—by simply inverting the subject and predicate of every religious proposition. Feuerbach describes this method in the following way:

. . . that which in religion is the predicate we must make the subject, and that which in religion is a subject we must make a predicate, thus inverting the oracles of religion; and by this means we arrive at the truth. [116]

The truth of religion, then, is that "God is the nature of man regarded as absolute truth". However, since the nature of man is regarded differently in different ages, as man attains greater degrees of self-consciousness, different religions emerge and the very nature of God changes, from "mere nature‑god" (as portrayed in Feuerbach's later writings) to the "God‑man" of Christianity, reflecting man's emergence from the “state of savagery” to the state of "culture". Man is therefore the measure of God—the Absolute Being; or, in Feuerbach's words, “Man, especially the religious man, is to himself the measure of all things, of all reality". In consequence, Feuerbach declares that "Religion has no material exclusively its own"—which implies that, as we have said, the Absolute Being of religion literally amounts to nothing. Everything in the province of religion has merely been lent to it by man, who has transferred all that he values in his nature, in the species as a whole—these "divine” qualities—to the Absolute Being that is God. (Feuerbach's influence on Bakunin here is evident when he writes: "To enrich God, man must become poor; that God may be all, man must be nothing”.) [147] However, man, at the level of religious consciousness, that is, in ignorance, has forgotten the debt. Impoverished, then, he has no choice but to bow down before his master. The gradual development of self-consciousness, on the other hand, represents the reclamation of these qualities, the reclamation of the human from the divine.

Feuerbach does not draw the obvious atheistic conclusion from his argument here that others, including Bakunin, do. In the antithesis of the human and the divine, the divine is not negated as such. Rather, it is tied to the human and the human is itself established as the divine, (As we observed earlier, Feuerbach does not endorse the Bauerian dialectic.) To negate the divine in this relation, Feuerbach claims, would be to negate the human. "Hence he alone is the true atheist to whom the predicates of the Divine Being [in other words, human qualities] . . . are nothing; not he to whom merely the subject of these predicates is nothing". In fact, to the true atheist mystified human qualities are nothing—in themselves. Nevertheless, this dubious claim is the basis of Feuerbach's conception of a new religion, a religion of man—that is, of his vain effort, in the face of his criticism, “to vindicate to life a religious import". However, Feuerbach acknowledges the inevitability of this conclusion at the outset:

My work . . . being evolved from the nature of religion . . . has in itself the true essence of religion—is, in its very quality as a philosophy, a religion also. [148]

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2.16 Bakunin and Feuerbach: On Philosophy

Feuerbach's critique is not a critique of (the theologized Christian) religion alone. It is also—as we see in Vorläufige Thesen zur Reformation der Philosophie (Provisional Theses for the Reformation of Philosophy) (1842) and Grundsätze der Philosophie der Zukunft (Principles of the Philosophy of the Future) (1843)—a critique of (speculative) philosophy. His critique of religion revealed that "The secret of theology is anthropology". His critique of philosophy, on the other hand, reveals that "the secret of speculative philosophy is theology", or that philosophy as it stands—the philosophy originated by Descartes (in "the abstraction of sensation and matter” [201]) and developed by Leibniz, Spinoza, and the German idealists—is simply "the speculative theology". Hence there is no real distinction between theology and speculative philosophy. (Bakunin, following Feuerbach, therefore refers to the single mode of thought that embraces both as theologism.) Feuerbach duly claims that the critical method is the same in the case of both philosophy and religion, so that "we need only invert speculative philosophy and then we have the unmasked, pure, bare truth", which is the following:

Just as in theology the human being is the truth and reality of God, so in speculative philosophy the truth of the infinite is the finite. [202]

Speculative philosophy, Feuerbach argues, deriving the finite from the infinite, the determined from the undetermined, or proceeding from the abstract to the concrete, from the ideal to the real, "never arrives at a true position of the finite and determined"—or (to put it in philosophically unfashionable language) at the truth of reality. Feuerbach declares that "true philosophy" has the duty of inverting its procedure, and revealing that "The infinite of religion and philosophy is and never was anything other than something finite, something determined, yet mystified, i.e., a finite and determined something with the postulate of being not finite and not determined". [203] The objects of both religion and philosophy are therefore mystifications of the real. (We may note the shift in emphasis here from man to the finite. The emphasis will subsequently shift from the finite to the natural, but continuity is preserved and no break occurs at any stage (as I will argue further below); rather, the implicit naturalism in Feuerbach's thought becomes explicit and more coherent.)

The Hegelian philosophy is described by Feuerbach as the "culmination of modern [speculative] philosophy"; as such, the task of the "new philosophy" is to develop a critique of this philosophy, and, thereby, to realize it without contradiction. The contradiction in Hegelian philosophy is expressed by Feuerbach as follows: “The Hegelian philosophy is the last place of refuge and the last rational support of theology". While "Matter is . . . posited in God [or] posited as God [that is, "taken up into the absolute being as a moment in its life, growth, and development"]", Feuerbach explains, positing "matter as God amounts to saying “There is no God", or, what amounts to the same, it is to renounce theology and to recognize the truth of materialism. But at the same time the truth of the essence of theology is nevertheless presupposed”. [204] (This compromise between theology and materialism is metaphysics by Bakunin's definition, above.)

The task of the new philosophy—being the realization of the Hegelian philosophy without  contradiction—is therefore the development of the true materialist philosophy (and the negation of metaphysics). Or, in the terms of Bakunin's dialectic, the new philosophy will consist in the fulfillment of the antithetical philosophy, materialism, not in any mediating philosophy, that is, metaphysics. (Feuerbach, contemptuous of philosophical professionalism and its fixed terminology, identifies the new philosophy as materialism, realism, empiricism, naturalism, etc., depending on context. On the whole, I favor the suitably inclusive, and frankly more accurate, term naturalism, but, following Feuerbach's lead (for the simple reason that Bakunin does), I use the terms more or less interchangeably.)

Feuerbach's alternative formulation of the above is the following: "The recognition of the light of reality [that is, sensuous materiality] in the darkness of abstraction [that is, spiritual ideality] is a contradiction; it is the affirmation of the real in its negation [it is, that is to say, an abstract recognition of the sensuous]. The new philosophy is the philosophy that thinks of the concrete [the real] not in an abstract [or ideal], but in a concrete [or empirical] manner. It is the philosophy that recognizes the real in its reality as true, namely, in a manner corresponding to the essence of the real"—which is sensuousness. Feuerbach continues: "Only a sensuous [or material] being is a true and real being. Only through the senses, and not through thought for itself, is an object given in a true sense [i.e., immediately]". The object—the other, the "not‑I"—is given to the subject—the self, the "I"—in sensation. Sensation alone explains the reciprocity of this very relation: "Only sensuous [or material] beings affect one another. I am an 'I' for myself and simultaneously a 'thou' for others. This I am, however, only as a sensuous being". By contrast, the "abstract mind”—that which, in Cartesian fashion, abstracts from reality in its sensuousness—"can . . . only arbitrarily connect the being‑for‑others [or object] with the being‑for‑itself [or subject]. [205]

In sense perception, therefore, there is—in principle—no contradiction between the sensuous “subject" and the sensible "object"; indeed, the sensuous “subject" is at once a sensible "object" for itself and others; and the sensible “object" is—qua material "object"—at once potentially a sensible ‑subject" itself (as Diderot's materialism implies). (Wartofsky expresses this idea in the following way: "Sensation [the "subjective" dimension of reality for Feuerbach] is a dispositional property of ["objective"] matter, once this matter has been organically absorbed, [or] transformed into living stuff, and comes literally to constitute the sense organs themselves as material organs". [206]) It is only by idealizing the sensible "subject" (with, say, Kant), so that the subject in effect determines the object, or by idealizing the sensible "object" (with, say, Locke), so that the idea of some nebulous object in effect determines the subject—in both cases quite mysteriously, since a qualitative contradiction, a contradiction in kind, is assumed—that the contradiction between “subject" and "object" becomes problematic, or, in fact, mysterious.

The essential interconnectedness of reality, the unity of the totality of nature in its sensuous materiality, is crucial to Feuerbach. Hence, he writes, "That of which I think without sensation I think of without and apart from all connection", that is, partially, abstractly, and falsely. The preoccupation of modern philosophy with the "immediately certain” was exposed by Hegel as partial, abstract, and false in this sense. Hegel revealed the mediacy of immediacy, while, however, insisting on the immediacy of truth in a richer sense. Here Feuerbach makes the pertinent point that "It is scholasticism to make mediation into a divine necessity and an essential attribute of truth", so-called. Bearing in mind the supposedly rich vein of European thought, stretching from Marx to Derrida, and excluding the less profound Feuerbach and Bakunin, the following statement by Feuerbach strikes me as being momentous: "Who can elevate mediation [implicitly or explicitly] to necessity and to a law of truth? Only he who himself is still imprisoned by that which is to be negated [i.e., the irreconcilable metaphysical conflict between "subject" and "object"] . . . in short, only he in whom truth is only a talent, a matter of special, even outstanding, ability hut not genius and a matter of the whole man. Genius is immediate, sensuous knowledge. What talent has only in the head genius has in the flesh and blood; namely, that which for talent is still an object of thought is for genius an object of the senses". [207]

Feuerbach's preliminary remarks on the new philosophy are worth commenting on further in this context, given the obscurantism and scholasticism of contemporary philosophy, not least in the "Continental" tradition. He begins with the apparent truism that "Philosophy is the knowledge of what is”—or the pursuit of such knowledge. He adds, "To have articulated what is such as it is, in other words, to have truthfully articulated what truly is, appears superficial. To have articulated what is such as it is not [on the other hand], in other words, to have falsely and distortedly articulated what truly is, appears profound". The Franco‑Germanic alliance might well take note. However, in case the Anglo‑American alliance feels justified by Feuerbach's maxim— "Truthfulness, simplicity, and determinacy are the formal marks of the real philosophy”—he adds the following stipulation:

The new and only positive philosophy is the negation of academic philosophy . . . the negation of philosophy as an abstract, particular, i.e., scholastic, quality. [208]

The task of philosophical inquiry, then, is to articulate reality or nature in its sensuous materiality, as it is. In Feuerbach's words, "All sciences must ground themselves in nature". By this means, and by this means alone, can inquiry progress beyond the merely speculative: hence, "A doctrine is only an hypothesis as long as its natural basis is not uncovered". Crucially, Feuerbach goes on: "This holds particularly for the doctrine of freedom. Only the new philosophy will succeed in naturalizing freedom, which formerly was an unnatural and supernatural hypothesis". (In my view, Bakunin's philosophy must be understood in light of this proposition. (Take the following example: “we have envisaged ["the human world”, with its potentiality for freedom] hitherto as the manifestation of a theological, metaphysical, and juridico political idea, [but] now we must renew the study of it, taking nature as the point of departure and the specific physiology of man as the guiding thread". [209]) What is more, the project of naturalizing freedom is fundamental to anarchism as a whole, most obviously the anarchism of Bookchin.) The new philosophy is therefore materialistic and naturalistic, and, as such, best suited to a new—and mutually fulfilling—alliance, in fact, re-alliance, with science:

Philosophy must again combine itself with natural science and natural science with philosophy. This combining, based on mutual need and inner necessity, will be more lasting, more successful, and more fruitful than the previous mésalliance between philosophy and theology [that is, more fruitful than metaphysics]. [210]

Feuerbach suggests a more precise direction that the new philosophy might take, and it is the inadequacy of his sketch that demonstrates that the “new" philosophy of the Principles is very definitely a philosophy of the future. Central to Feuerbach's position is an empiricist epistemology. However, his dispute with traditional empiricism is that “it forgets that the most important and essential sense object of man is man himself [or] that only in man's glimpse into man is the light of consciousness and understanding kindled". Ideas therefore originate in man, but not man in isolation, as idealism—deriving ideas "from the 'I' without a given sensuous 'thou'—holds. Rather, ideas—and reason—are the product of "communication and conversation between man and man". Hence, "the community of man with man is the first principle and criterion of truth and generality". Feuerbach vitiates his aforementioned critique of scholasticism at this point, arguing that "The certainty of the existence of other things apart from me is mediated for me through the certainty of the existence of another human being apart from me”, and that "That which I alone perceive I doubt; only that which the other also perceives is certain". [211] This, so redolent of much twentieth century philosophy, is scholasticism. And thus Feuerbach's materialism—of this period—collapses, Wartofsky explains: "to argue for a view very much like Kant's [—] that the objectivity of what is is attested to by the fact that not I alone, but others too agree on what is—[is] a rather weak position, given Feuerbach's earlier critique of Kant”. Or, "Feuerbach [insists] that the senses give us truth, that is, the thing‑in‑itself, as objectively existing. But here, he argues for objectivity as intersubjectivity, in a Kantian way. How can these two alternative positions cohere?". [212] They cannot, but Feuerbach manages to overcome such incoherence by developing a stricter anti‑Kantian argument in his later work.

The flaw in Feuerbach's so‑called materialism (to this point) is that the object of sensuousness is conceived of as being necessarily a mystical Thou rather than a real object. Therefore, Feuerbach, in seeking to demystify the epistemological relation between the real subject and the ideal object, succeeds only in mystifying the real object that he discloses—in idealizing it once again by humanizing it. (Contemporary scholastics tend to call this humanization—which they too practice—contextualization.) That is to say, once the real object is obscured by the mystical Thou, it in fact escapes any concrete cognitive relation and becomes a mere topic Of conversation. Clearly, this topic of conversation—as opposed to the material object as such—is hugely appealing to speculative philosophers, past and present.

Feuerbach, in spite of his earlier insight, therefore makes community in the most abstract sense (an intersubjective community of I and Thou), or the mediation of communal discourse, "a divine necessity and an essential attribute of truth”. As he puts it himself, "The true dialectic is not a monologue of the solitary thinker with himself, it is a dialogue between I and thou". This is anti‑materialistic scholasticism—and, importantly, an aspect of Feuerbach's thought that is replicated by Marx (since he shares the anthropocentric thrust of it). Nevertheless, Feuerbach seems to grapple with this side of his argument. He writes, "The sensuous is not, in the sense of speculative philosophy, the immediate; it is not the profane, obvious, and thoughtless that is understood by itself". Feuerbach, following Hegel, asserts the mediacy of such immediacy. However, he also insists, with Hegel, on the immediacy of truth in a richer sense: "Immediate, sensuous perception comes much later than the [primitive perception of the] imagination and the fantasy". (Thus, Feuerbach's is a "sophisticated immediacy". Sensible reality "is not immediately given, tout court, but has to be achieved as immediate. [The] suggestion therefore is that this sensibility, as achieved, is a product of scientific inquiry [or] an achievement of culture and education, and therefore of history". [213] Sensation is an acquired ability to grasp without impediment—unimpeded, that is, by theology, metaphysics, etc. [Incidentally, this notion of immediacy has the advantage of forestalling charges of subjectivism, inability to deal with error, and so on.]) Contradicting the scholastic side of his argument, then, Feuerbach continues:

The task of philosophy and of science in general consists, therefore, not in leading away from sensuous, that is, real, objects, but rather in leading toward them, not in transforming objects into ideas and conceptions, but rather in making visible, that is, in objectifying, objects that are invisible to ordinary eyes. [214]

Feuerbach's inability to ground his materialism in the Principles can be explained in his own terms. His materialism is purely speculative, that is, scholastic: it is not the product of a mutually fulfilling alliance with natural science. In other words, lacking a natural basis, it is merely hypothetical. It is the task of the nature‑philosopher of the future to uncover this natural basis—and not simply to sanction effective relativism speculatively (in the name of the "divine necessity" of mediation) in the manner of so much contemporary thought. (There is good reason for philosophers to refuse to undertake this task, or even to deny its meaningfulness: quite simply, to acknowledge the necessity of this task would be to render philosophers with no idea of, interest in, or capacity for scientific endeavor superfluous. Philosophy as a specialized field makes sound economic and psychological sense, and might well wish to maintain it itself (even if this results in the intellectual disenchantment of humanity). The specialization of science might be criticized along the same lines, though there is a degree more justification for it practically speaking. It is incumbent on philosophers, therefore, to pursue the alliance.)

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2.18 Bakunin and Feuerbach: On Naturalism

Feuerbach summarizes his thinking in The Essence of Religion in the following manner: "the foundation of religion is a feeling of dependency; the first object of that feeling is nature; thus nature is the first object of religion". There are, therefore, two elements in this account of religion which require further explanation: the first element is the "subjective" element; the second element is the "objective" element. Feuerbach says of the subjective element that “we find no other appropriate and all‑embracing psychological explanation of religion than the feeling or consciousness of dependency". This feeling of dependency is chiefly manifest as fear. Hence primitive religions exhibit a preoccupation with "the frightening aspects of nature”, while, in more developed religions, "the supreme Godhead is a personification of those natural phenomena which arouse the highest degree of fear in man: he is the god of storms, of thunder and lightning". [221] Feuerbach claims that this holds even for Christians, in whom the religious sentiment is most prevalent in the moment of fear.

Fear is only the negative expression of the feeling of dependency. It is the positive expression of this feeling that explains why the religious sentiment is not merely fleeting. This positive expression is simply the opposite emotion attached to the same object (of fear). Feuerbach characterizes it as "the feeling of release from danger, from fear and anxiety, a feeling of delight, joy, love, and gratitude", and concludes: “Fear is a feeling of dependency on an object without which I am nothing, which has the power to destroy me. joy, love, [and] gratitude are feelings of dependency on an object thanks to which I am something, which gives me the feeling, the awareness that through it I live and am". [222]

Religion, in this fundamental sense—as the consciousness of dependency or the rudimentary expression of man's relation to nature (as "it seems to his uncultivated and inexperienced reason, [that is] to his imagination and feeling")—is "essential to or innate in man". However, this is not religion in its entirety: it "is not the religion of theology or theism, not an actual belief in God [as] a being outside and above nature", which develops much later through "hyperphysical speculation and reflection", and obscures man's relation to nature, exalting him above it. Feuerbach attacks the "arrogant, presumptuous ecclesiastical religion" which upholds such absurdity; indeed, he recognizes that "being ecclesiastical, [it] is now represented by a special official class". He even voices his approval for the "simple fundamental truth" of nature religion in quasi‑ecological terms: "man is dependent on nature . . . he should live in harmony with nature . . . even in his highest intellectual development he should not forget that he is a part and child of nature, but at all times honor nature and hold it sacred, not only as the ground and source of his existence, but also as the ground and source of his mental and physical well-being". Feuerbach insists that this "ecological" perspective is not religious, or a deification of nature, in the sense of theology or pantheism. Rather, it is based on the simple conviction that man should "make no more, but also no less" of nature than it merits. He adds: "Nature religion, pantheism, makes too much of nature, while conversely, idealism, theism, [and] Christianity make too little of it, and indeed ignore it". [223]

Feuerbach adds that the subjective or psychological element of his account can be reduced to the principle of egoism. To worship a god out of fear or, what is the same thing, gratitude—in other words, to worship something upon which one feels dependent—is in fact to feel dependent upon one's own needs. As Feuerbach puts it: "Dependency on another being is in reality a dependency on my own being, my own drives, desires, interests. Consequently, the feeling of dependency is merely an indirect, inverted or negative feeling of egoism, not an immediate egoism, however, but one mediated by and derived from the object on which I feel dependent". Hence, the strength of religious feeling—the degree of religious reverence—reflects the strength of desire. Desire, however, implies a lack. When one comes to possess what one previously lacked, therefore, the religious feeling tends to wane. In any case, Feuerbach concludes:

. . . the feeling of dependency has led us to egoism as the ultimate hidden ground of religion. [224]

Feuerbach turns specifically to the objective clement of his account. He distinguishes nature as the first object of religion from the object of religion at a later stage; he distinguishes, that is, between the natural object and the spiritual object of Christianity, which, as he demonstrated in The Essence of Christianity, is man himself, or, rather, human nature. These two objects reflect different needs: the "finite, real, and sensuous" object of paganism reflects "an immediately sensuous or physical need", whereas the “infinite, universal, merely cogitated or represented object" of Christianity reflects "a need of the soul", the desire for "eternal life". Of course, since the spiritual object has no existence apart from the natural object, and since the real physical need takes precedence over the spiritual need, the objective element in Feuerbach's mature account of religion is nature itself. In Feuerbach's words:

[Nature] is a fundamental, first and last being which we cannot leave behind without losing ourselves in the realm of fancy and vacuous speculation . . . [We] must stay with nature and cannot derive from nature a being distinct from nature, a spirit, a thinking being whom we place between it and ourselves ... [If] we produce nature out of spirit, the product will be a subjective, formal, intellectual abstraction and not a real, objective creation and being. [225]

Thus, in The Essence of Religion, Feuerbach attempts to provide a fundamental, naturalistic account of religion, such as was lacking in The Essence of Christianity. So what is nature? Feuerbach describes it, in effect, as the totality of causality, or as “the sum of . . . cosmic, mechanical, chemical, physical, physiological, [and] organic . . . causes" in their interaction. Hence: “Nature has no beginning and no end. Everything in it is relative, everything is at once cause and effect, acting and reacting on all sides". Unlike Bakunin, and in keeping with his earlier writings, however, Feuerbach suggests a distinction between the natural, so understood, and the human. He excludes human activity and thought from the natural realm, and implies that while man is the product of nature and is dependent on it, he is somehow distinct from it and merely enclosed by it. Hence man is natural only insofar as he “acts instinctively and unconsciously". [226] Thus, despite Feuerbach's naturalism, a certain dualism persists—a dualism Bakunin was to reject. Nevertheless, this detracts little from Feuerbach's analysis of nature in terms of causality.

The understanding of nature as the totality of interactive causality or as an "endless chain [or "infinite series"] of causes" leaves no room for the first cause. The first cause is "a mere concept, a figment of thought; it has only logical and metaphysical, but no physical significance". This theologico-metaphysical concept, which requires that we “effect a leap out of the series" of causes, is introduced by reason, almost arbitrarily, as a matter of convenience; thus, it reveals "the limitations of man's thinking [in] his taste for convenience". (This limitation is both natural and practical, since "The very nature of thought and speech [as well as] the requirements of life itself oblige us to make use of abbreviations on every hand, to substitute concepts for intuitions, signs for objects, in a word, the abstract for the concrete, the one for the many, and accordingly one cause for many causes". However, it would seem that this limitation is something that one can become conscious of and, to that extent at least, overcome.) Feuerbach continues: "this need of mine to break off the endless series is no proof of a real break in the series". What is more, reason, properly applied, actually confirms the infinity of this series:

Even though reason rebels against tracing back causes ad infinitum . . . such an endless series is by no means incompatible with a reason formed by observation of the world. [227]

Feuerbach describes the process by which reason makes the concrete and complex abstract and simple for the sake of convenience as follows: "Even in the area of human consciousness, even in the realm of history . . . we see how, partly out of ignorance to be sure, but partly out of the mere tendency to abbreviate and make things easy for ourselves, we break off our historical investigations and substitute One Cause, One Name for the many names the many causes it would be too complicated, too tedious to track down, and which in fact often escape man altogether". The very idea of God is introduced by reason as a matter of

convenience. It is, in the case of polytheism, a collective name, and, in the case of monotheism, a generic name that conveniently substitutes for the various natural attributes it would be too complicated and tedious to explain. As such, religion represents the lazy evasion of scientific inquiry; a means by which to explain away, for example, the infinity of temporal and spatial relations by referring to the eternal and omnipresent God, the power of nature by referring to the omnipotent God, and causality itself by referring to the First and Absolute Cause. Thus, Feuerbach concludes that while "It is a universal doctrine in our upside‑down world that nature sprang from God . . . we should say the opposite, namely, that God was abstracted from nature and is merely a concept derived from it", or that God is nature "removed from physical perception". [228] Hence, religion obscures the object of sensuous perception, the object of science.

The ethical and political implications of this view of nature as the true object of religion are suggested by Feuerbach. Of the ethical implication, Feuerbach says that, contrary to popular belief, in annulling what is Above Man theologically", such a view does not annul the “ethically Higher". In other words, the ethical subsists independently of the divine, as the "human ideal and aim". [229] Hence naturalism and atheism do not imply amoralism (versus Leszek Kolakowski, who supports the notion that "If God does not exist, then everything is permitted", a notion that leads to an utterly cynical argument for the existence of God [230]) . However, while the ethical and the natural are regarded as compatible, Feuerbach does not seem to believe, as Bakunin does, that the ethical is the highest development of the natural, since he maintains a distinction between the natural and the human. As I have said, a certain dualism persists.

Feuerbach's political claim, on the other hand, is this: "Nature does not culminate in a monarchic summit; it is a republic. Those who are accustomed to a monarchy cannot conceive of human society without a prince, and likewise those who have grown up with the idea of a Father in Heaven find it hard to conceive of nature without a God, without an extranatural or supernatural being, as of a state or nation without a royal idol situated outside and above it". He goes on: "just as the republic is the historical task, the practical goal of man, so his theoretical goal is to recognize the republican constitution of nature, not to situate the governing principle of nature outside it, but to find it grounded in nature". [231] Bakunin would argue that the idea of the republican constitution of nature or society is almost as stupefying as that of the monarchic government of nature or society, since, according to him, as we have seen, all government is separate and hostile to that which is governed. There may be government of the people, but it is never by the people and for the people. As for the government of nature, it necessarily presupposes the idea of divine legislation, a patent absurdity in naturalistic terms.

Of course, Feuerbach's politics here (like those of Marx) are essentially Hegelian, that is, statist, and Bakunin has nothing but contempt for such a position. We might say of Feuerbach (and Marx), then, that he is so accustomed to the idea of the State, or so attached to Hegel's mystification of the State (whatever "inversions" he performs), that he cannot conceive of human society without political authority. (The influence of Hegel's politics on Feuerbach is made explicit, for example, toward the end of his Provisional Theses, where he refers to Hegel's Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts (Elements of the Philosophy of Right), and argues that "The state is the realized, cultivated, explicit totality of the human essence", which is little more than a restatement, in his own terms, of Hegel's claim that "The state is mind on earth . . . consciously realizing itself there". Furthermore, Marx's claim (of 1843) that "Hegel starts from the state and makes man the subjectified state [whereas] democracy starts from man and makes the state objectified man” is little more than a restatement, in his own terms, of Feuerbach's "inversion". (For that matter, lest one is inclined to defend Marx on the basis of his youth, his later claim (of 1875) that “Freedom consists in converting the state from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it" amounts to much the same thing.) [232]

Whether the State fulfills itself in man or man fulfills himself in the State (and whether the State is superimposed on society or the State is subordinate to society)—whatever all this means—makes little difference from the practical point of view because, in either case, the State is conceived as an abstraction, not concretely, as the concrete manifestation of political authority in one form or another.)

Nevertheless, Feuerbach uncovers the ground of religious authority and establishes, at least provisionally, the relation between religious authority—divine and ecclesiastical—and political authority. (His concept of the "special official class", which Bakunin re‑employs, is central in this regard.) Bakunin would maintain, however, that Feuerbach— following Hegel—misunderstands or mystifies political authority in "rationalizing" it, and this mystification of political authority is something Bakunin deplores. (This mystification, again, occurs with the claim that the State exists over and above "the strictly political state" as “the actuality of the ethical Idea”, that is, as an ethical community, or as "the actuality of concrete freedom". [233] The notion that the political and the ethical are in any way related, that the State is anything other than political, or that the State is the domain of concrete freedom, is unacceptable to Bakunin.)

While Feuerbach's achievement lies, therefore, in exposing the mystification of religious authority, Bakunin's lies in exposing the mystification of political authority and, by extension, scientific authority. As such his thought represents the culmination of the Left Hegelian project, which Marx defined in the following way: "It is . . . the task of philosophy, which is in the service of history [and therefore freedom], to unmask human self‑alienation in its secular forms, once its sacred form has been unmasked. Thus . . . the critique of theology [is transformed] into the critique of politics". [234] However, among all the proponents of this project (such as Bruno Bauer, Ruge, and Marx) Bakunin was the only one to hold that just as the conclusion of the critique of theology is anti‑theologistic, that is, naturalistic and atheistic, so the conclusion of the critique of politics is anti-political, that is, anarchistic. Bakunin, in other words, is the sole Left Hegelian to bring the project to its logical conclusion.

Apart from Bakunin, Edgar Bauer made some ground in this regard, but became disillusioned and abandoned the project. As for Stirner, whatever we might say of his anarchism (that is, regardless of his critique of the State), his thought, far from representing the culmination of Left Hegelianism, as has been widely held, in fact represents a premature rejection of it and a subversion of the naturalistic conclusion of its basic critique of religion. It represents, that is to say, a (supposed) rejection of Left Hegelianism in its anthropocentric forms, in ignorance of its naturalistic potential. Stirner's egoism presents no threat to naturalism. Indeed, Stirnerian egoism—"the assertion. . . that man is not the measure of all things, but I am this measure"—is simply another form of anthropocentrism; that is, another form of the prioritization of the human subject over the real or natural object (with the consequent generation of an idealized object) in the epistemological relation. (Perhaps it is the logical form of this prioritization, but what of it?) Hence Stirner's most absurd—and blatantly idealistic—statement: "Objects are to me only material that I use up". [235] The ecological implications of this view, for instance, are fairly obvious.

Feuerbach, for whom atheism and naturalism are one and the same thing, regards all forms of anthropocentrism as theistic in his later writings, and would therefore concur with the above critique of Stirner. He writes: "The difference between atheism or naturalism, the doctrine which interprets nature on the basis of nature or of a natural principle, and theism, the doctrine which derives nature from a heterogeneous, alien being distinct from nature, is merely that the theist takes man its his starting point and proceeds to draw inferences about nature, whereas the atheist or naturalist takes nature as his starting point and goes on to the study of man. The atheist takes a natural [that is, logical], the theist an unnatural [that is, illogical] course". [236] Is this not the very difference between Feuerbach's approach in The Essence of Christianity and his approach in The Essence of Religion?

Admirers of Stirner such as Lawrence Stepelevich, sidestep the entire issue of Stirner's anthropocentrism by arguing that Stirner reduced Feuerbach to holding an "embarrassingly crude" materialism in his later, and insignificant, writings. (Thus, a break [convenient, as are all breaks posited by scholars] occurred between Feuerbach's Left Hegelian writings and his supposedly non‑Left Hegelian writings as a result of Stirner's immaculate critique. This rather ignores the fact that Feuerbach was heading in the direction of naturalism some time before Der Einzige und sein Eigentum (The Ego and its Own) (1844) was published—demanding the naturalization of philosophy and an alliance of philosophy with the natural sciences in the Provisional Theses and the development of a philosophy grounded on "sensuous perception" in the Principles (versus David McLellan's contention that "This is an aspect of Feuerbach's thought which only came to the fore in his reply to Stirner" [237]) In other words, there is no such break. Feuerbach's naturalism develops within his Left Hegelian philosophy, as a consequence of it: this is made clear by Feuerbach's critique of Hegel in the Principles. Therefore, naturalism is not extrinsic to Left Hegelianism. Stirner, incapable of fending off Feuerbach's naturalism, then, is incapable of concluding the Left Hegelian project.) And yet, at the same time, Stepelevich credits Stirner with having "positively assisted" Feuerbach in this basically sound move—the assumption being that Stirner's egoism is compatible with, or even the premise of, "naturalistic realism". (Hence Stepelevich censures Feuerbach for his "failure" to embrace "concrete individuality, a resolution in accord with his sensuous epistemology". In fact, Stirner's philosophy has little to do with "concrete individuality": it is predicated on an idealized individuality, on the completely abstract autonomous, or potentially autonomous, ego, which is no basis for Feuerbach's naturalism and its realistic epistemology.) [238]


140.  La Théologie politique de Mazzini (Deuxieme partie), p. 271.

141.  Dieu et l’État (the pamphlet, not the note), p. 134.

142.  The Essence of Christianity, p. xv.

143.  Ibid., pp. xiii, xxi, xx.

144.  Ibid., pp. 2‑3, 7, 281.

145.  Ibid., pp. 13‑14. Emphasis added to the word "altogether".

146.  Ibid., pp. 17, 60.

147.  Ibid., pp. 19‑22, 26.

148.  Ibid., pp. 21, 278, xxiii‑xxiv.

201.  Principles of  the Philosophy of the Future, p. 13 (§10).

202.  Provisional Theses for the Reformation of Philosophy, trans. Daniel O. Dahlstrom, The Young Hegelians: An Anthology, pp. 156‑57, 160.

203.  Ibid., pp. 160‑61.

204.  Principles of the Philosophy of the Future, pp. 31‑33 (§§19‑21); Provisional Theses, p. 167.

205.  Principles of the Philosophy of the Future, pp. 49‑52 (§§31‑32).

206.  Feuerbach, p. 384.

207.  Principles of the Philosophy of the Future, pp. 52, 55‑56 (§§32, 37‑38).

208.  Provisional Theses, pp. 162, 168.

209.  Fédéralisme, socialisme et antithéologisme, p. 110. Emphasis added.

210.  Provisional Theses, p. 170.

211.  Principles of the Philosophy of the Future, pp. 58‑59 (§41). Emphasis added.

212.  Feuerbach, pp. 362‑63.

213.  Ibid., p. 374.

214.  Principles of the Philosophy of the Future, pp. 59‑60, 72 (§§43, 62).

221.  Lectures on the Essence of Religion, pp. 25‑27. Emphasis added.

222.  Ibid., pp. 29‑31. Emphasis added.

223.  Ibid., pp. 34‑38, 79. 1 have emphasized the words "special official class".

224.  Ibid., pp. 79‑80. See also The Essence of Christianity, p. 186.

225.  Ibid., pp. 82‑84.

226.  Ibid., pp. 91, 100.

227.  Ibid., pp. 93‑95, 97.

228.  Ibid., pp. 95, 103‑04.

229.  Ibid., pp. 106‑07. Emphasis added.

230.  See Religion (London: Fontana, 1982).

231.  Lectures on the Essence of Religion, pp. 100‑01.

232.  Provisional Theses, p. 170; Philosophy of Right, p. 279 (addition to §258); Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, Collected Works, III, p. 29; Critique of the Gotha Program, Collected Works, XXIV (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1989), p. 537.

233.  Philosophy of Right, pp. 155, 160, 163 (§§257, 260, 267).

234.  A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right: Introduction, p. 311.

235.  The Ego and Its Own, ed. David Leopold (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 311‑13.

236.  Lectures on the Essence of Religion, p. 150.

237.  The Young Hegelians and Karl Marx, p. 131.

238.  "Max Stirner and Ludwig Feuerbach", Journal of the History of Ideas, XXXIX (1978), pp. 455, 462-63.

SOURCE: McLaughlin, Paul. Mikhail Bakunin: The Philosophical Basis of His Anarchism (New York: Algora Publishing, 2002), Part 2.14, 2.16. 2.18; pp. 161-165, 186-194, 197-206 (notes: 237, 243-245).

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