Philosophical Prelude to Marx– Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach

Last year was Karl Marx’s bicentenary, ie. 200th birthday. The terms most easily stringed along with Marx’s legacy are ‘class conflict’, ‘communism’ or ‘communist revolution’. Social science courses today have circulated several renditions of Marx’s work. Most of Marx’s work was in the form of scattered notes and had to be compiled together and even the compiled books need a fine understanding of the tradition of knowledge to correctly interpret what Mark actually meant. Today, people who know nothing about Marxian perspective will arbitrarily mouth Marx as the father of the “Left”. Secondary commentaries of Marx’s work are abundant. But more often than not they are incomplete and also limited to focusing on one confined sphere of Marx’s work and philosophy. It is also true that there is a Young Marx and an Older, Mature Marx in the span of his writings. Generally, only the political quotient of his legacy is remembered and the purely philosophical roots (which were equally revolutionary in the history of ideas) is neglected.

It is important to understand that reading Marx (or any social theorist) in isolation is not sufficient. Marx’s ideas did not emerge out of thin air. His ideas were very much a result of a conversation or engagement with the ideas of those before him as well as his contemporaries. If we are to make a timeline of the German tradition of thought which Marx falls into, it would begin with Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (who Marx was most influenced by), Young Hegelians like Bruno Bauer and Ludwig Feuerbach (who provides ultimate bridge in terms of ideas from Hegel to Marx).Each of them added something new to understanding knowledge and finally enabled Marx to “to turn Hegelian philosophy upside down” to create his materialist interpretation of history.

Kant holds an important place in the history of thought itself. Kant lived in the time of German Idealism of late 18th and early 19th century. Kant brought about a revolution in the history of thought because the pre-Kantian world held that the mind had to accommodate to the world for knowledge to be possible, however, Kant gave experience as the basis of knowledge to the world. The mind applied itself to the world for knowledge to be possible. He gave that the sensory world, was intuited by the self, with the help of the mind. He told the world that knowledge was not given, but was created because of intelligible structures in the mind. According to him, spatial and temporal constructs in the mind existed a priori to experience and help in synthesizing experience to create “knowledge”.

Kant was also the first to speak of dualisms. He talked about the binary between appearance and essence, phenomena and nomena, subject and object and mind and world. He sought to find a causality in these dualisms, whether one followed from the other. Kant was the father of Transcendental Idealism and Theory of Causality. In the Kantian world, the ‘self’ was a project of knowledge, for knowledge to be possible rationality was a must. Marx engaged with Kant’s ideas years later and found a problem in terms of how to apply such idealist theories to the real world. Much of Marx’s beginning of thought started with the problem of finding real world applications to binaries.

Fichte, who is said to have provided the bridge from Kant to Hegel in terms of ideas, carried forward the idea of the binaries and extended that binary between logic and truth on the one side and human intervention the other. This was a very important binary that Fichte gave to the philosophical world. Because Marx wasn’t an armchair philosopher, even Fichte falls short for Marx, although Marx read his works quite seriously.

It is important to understand that Marx was looking for a standpoint where the object is not given, where the object is in development. In search of a thought paradigm where the rationale of the object was not pre-given, he delved into Hegel’s philosophy where the ‘object’ was disclosed in the contradictions. Hegel brings about a closure to dualisms and dichotomies by saying that contradictions exist only for the object to find its unity in the end after a series of negations.

Hegel was also an idealist. According to him the center of existence of man is in his head (reason). Reality for Hegel did not exist without its idea. Hegel traced the development of the ‘Geist” (mind/spirit). This is extremely important because Hegel introduced the historical dimension and historical movement in philosophy which Marx continued and built on. In Hegel’s time, philosophy was no longer about the given-ness of doctrines, a developing spirit was on a quest to attain absolute knowledge through a series of negations. Hegel’s thought continued to dominate and his system rested on the search for absolute knowledge. Hegel’s conception of “absolute knowledge” which was the beginning and end of series of dialectical reason was unity with divinity. For him alienation from divinity had to be resolved through a series of negations and unity with the divine restored. This was the course of development of the spirit or “consciousness”.

The presence of Christianity in Hegel’s thought struck the school of ‘Young Hegelians’ like Bruno Bauer and Feuerbach. They attempted to secularize Hegelian doctrines. The way they did this was by humanizing the “divinity” Hegel spoke of as nothing but man’s highest developed consciousness which he aspired to reach. Such a secularization of Hegel’s Dialectical method allowed them to move the concern of Hegelian philosophy from religion to politics. This was an important shift in thinking that facilitated Marx’s thought. Even one of Marx’s most early works was ‘On the Jewish Question’, attempting to find the link between religion and politics.

Feuerbach was the immediate influence to Marx and it is Feuerbach who began the transition from idealism to materialism in German thought and Marx refined it and gave us the intricate concept of Historical Materialism. If for Hegel, the starting point was the divine, Feuerbach’s reversal meant that the starting point was now real men and the real world rather than divine beings. For him, alienation from one’s own spirit led to creation of religion as a crutch and the ultimate unity or “absolute knowledge” at the end of the series of negations was not unity with the divine but unity with the community. Hence this was a revolution in the universe of ideas, that ‘being precedes thinking’. Ideas follow from matter and are not a priori was established.

Marx engaged with Hegel and Feuerbach’s thoughts over many years and in his critique of their work he developed his own principles which formed the basis for his theories. In Marx’s critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of State, his criticism is that Hegel subjectifies the predicate. Hegel envisions men as subjects of the state and not the state being an object of man’s common will. Marx is quite clear in his head that men can’t attain highest manifestation of society without a state. Man by nature is competitive because of economic competition. Marx felt that it was necessary for a state to regulate economic affairs for harmonious coexistence of civil society. Instead of religion (as in the case of Hegelian system), Marx pegs future of mankind onto the institution of the state. Democracy proceeds from man and makes the state, where men participate in the state and see themselves in the state. Universal suffrage for Marx makes existence political. It is important to note that this is his early stage of thoughts where he was still thinking along the lines of reform rather than evolution.

Marx to a large extent agrees with Feuerbach except in the fact that Feuerbach’s conception of reality lacks human subjectivity and human practice. Feuerbach regards theoretical attitude as the only genuine attitude. The last line of Marx’s ‘Thesis on Feuerbach’ reads “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways, the point however is to change it.

This historical timeline of ideas provides us with a base to start studying Marx’s original works and a picture of what ideas he was most deeply influenced by. The concept of Dialectic, of duality, of historical dimension and secularization of absolute knowledge were taken by Marx and in his quest to explain his times he came up with Materialism: of production and reproduction of material being imperative to creating history.

Picture Courtesy- DomTotal

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