Sigmund Freud on Ludwig Feuerbach

Freud extended his store of general knowledge during his prolonged university studies much more energetically than when he was at school. Besides literature, he was particularly attracted to philosophy, a subject he read systematically with his friend Paneth. How great an impression Brentano made on him is shown by the extensive treatment of the problem of God’s existence in the correspondence. It was probably only during that period that Freud ever wavered and wondered whether God might exist after all, whether what he had but recently declared dead might yet be alive and susceptible to proof. However, it was apparently not Brentano who left the deepest impression on Freud, but Feuerbach. “Feuerbach,” he wrote to Silberstein in March 1875, is “one whom I revere and admire above all other philosophers.” For all that, Freud later denied his debt to him, as he denied his debt to others. To a question by Ludwig Binswanger, he replied in 1925: “I certainly read David Friedrich Strauss and Feuerbach with enjoyment and enthusiasm in my younger years. But it strikes me that the effect has not been a lasting one.” [20] More remarkable still is the omission of Feuerbach from The Future of an Illusion, in which he is dismissed with the remark that “I should not like to give an impression that I am seeking to rank myself as one of them” (Feuerbach, certainly Strauss, probably Nietzsche, and possibly Marx). [21]

Which of Feuerbach’s writings Freud read, apart from Karl Grün’s compilation, we cannot tell for certain, though they undoubtedly included Das Wesen das Christentums (The Essence of Christianity) and very likely Theogonie as well. Not only his critique of religion but also his dream theory are fed from this source. In Feuerbach’s “God is the manifest soul, the expressed self of man; religion the solemn revelation of man’s hidden treasures , the confession of his innermost thoughts, the public avowal of his love secrets,” he needed only to replace God or religion with the unconscious to arrive at a basic concept of psychoanalysis.

20. Wilhelm Hemecker, Philosophiegeschichtliche Voraussetzungen der  Psychoanalyse Sigmund Freuds (The philosophical and historical assumptions of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis), inaugural dissertation, Graz, 1987, p. 82.

21. S.E., XXI, p. 35.

From: Introduction by Walter Boehlich (xiii-xxvii), pp. xxvi- xxvii.

I shall cease marveling at your classes. I thank you for your interesting descriptions of the university, beg you to let me have more, and greatly regret the fact that you have left me in the dark about your actual work and your more intimate intellectual and daily life. I should be sorry for instance, if you, the lawyer, were to neglect philosophy altogether, while I, the godless medical man and empiricist, am attending two courses in philosophy and reading Feuerbach [2] in Paneth’s [3] company. One of the courses—listen and marvel!—deals with the existence of God, and Prof. Brentano, who gives the lectures, is a splendid man, a scholar and philosopher, even though he deems it necessary to support this airy existence of God with his own expositions. [4] I shall let you know just as soon as one of his arguments gets to the point (we have not yet progressed beyond the preliminary problems), lest your path to salvation in the faith be cut off. If you should attend Fechner’s lectures and pick up any interesting arguments from him, I should be delighted to hear of them and to pass them on to wider circles.

2. Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872).

3. Joseph Paneth (1857-1890) qualified as a university lecturer in 1886; he is “my friend P.” in The Interpretation of Dreams, S.E., V, pp. 421-425.

4. Published posthumously in 1929 as Vom Dasein Gottes (On the existence of God).

From: Letter  to “Dear Friend,” Vienna, November 8, 1874, from Sigismund, pp. 70-72.

Karl Grün, whose essay on Börne [2] you enjoyed so much, is known to me as well. A few weeks ago I attended a lecture he gave for the benefit of the German Students’Reading Union on the three ages of the human spirit, which culminated in a glorification of modern science and of our most modern saints such as Darwin and Haeckel, promising the students blessing upon blessing. Since he has, moreover, published a biography of Feuerbach [3] which does special justice to the importance of one whom I revere and admire above all other philosophers, I respect the man and am happy to salute so steadfast a champion of “our” truths. I am unable, however, to say anything about his intellectual status. I have not read his cultural history of the sixteenth century, [4] nor any of his other works, though I intend to make good the first omission forthwith. It is typical of our student body that they dismissed the man as a fraud because he dared to speak with enthusiasm of matters one cannot help thinking about with enthusiasm, which did not please them, of course, since a miserable, shallow, urbane and frivolous skepticism, rather than the genuine critical sort which sooner or later leads to a rigorously substantiated conviction, rules the little minds of our fellow students and future world leaders.

As far as politics are concerned, I have reached a low point where I can scarcely lay claim to a political opinion. True, I am a republican, but only inasmuch as I consider a republic as the only sensible, indeed self-evident, system. Hay gran trecho [it is a long way], however, from there to the practical attempt to introduce the republic. I should be very interested to hear whether your social democrats are revolutionary in the philosophical and religious spheres as well; I believe one can tell more readily from this relationship than any other whether they are truly radical in character.

Do me the favor, therefore, of letting me know whatever you can discover in this matter. I am not, incidentally, averse to socialist aspirations, though I am unfamiliar with the forms they assume today. There is truly much that is rotten in this “prison” we call the world, which might be improved by humane measures in education, the distribution of property, the form of the struggle for existence, [5] etc. All these are Mill-ian ideas to which I hope to devote myself with zeal in the near future.

2. Karl Grün was the pseudonym of Ernst von der Haide (1817-1887), a champion of socialism and deputy of the 1848 Prussian National Assembly; for his essay on the writer Ludwig Börne, see “Bausteine” (Building blocks), Darmstadt, 1844, pp. 19ff.

3. Ludwig Feuerbach in seinem Briefwechsel und Nachlasse sowie in seiner philosophischen Charakterentwicklung dargestellt (Ludwig Feuerbach presented through his correspondence  and unpublished works as well as the development of his philosophical character), 1874.

4. Culturgeschichte des sechzehnten jahrhunderts, 1872.

5. Freud used the English phrase, which occurs in Darwin’s works but was not coined by him.

From: Letter  to “¡Querido Berganza!”, Vienna, March 7, 1875, from  “Don Cipion” (94-99), pp. 96-97, 98. ([den ich unter allen Philosophen am hochsten verehre und bewundere]; [eines so gesinnungstuchtigen Kampfers fur “unsere” Wahrheiten]. Freud, Letters, 96; Jugendbriefe, 111.)

SOURCE: The Letters of Sigmund Freud to Eduard Silberstein 1871-1881, translated by Arnold J. Pomerans, edited by Walter Boehlich (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1990), pp. xxvi- xxvii, 70-72, 96-98. [Eduard Silberstein (1857-1925).]

Sigmund Freud on Franz Brentano (& other philosophers)

Ludwig Feuerbach: A Bibliography

The Young Hegelians: Selected Bibliography

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