Academic Philosophy

Conception of Faith with Marx, Feuerbach and Kierkegaard

  • For the bachelor course 'history of modern philosophy' of the Radboud University Nijmegen


Feuerbach, Marx and Kierkegaard are three generation companions. They grew up and studied in a time in which Hegel's philosophy was academically the most dominant.1 Hegel's philosophy was one that put the emphasis on an all-encompassing world-spirit. A world-spirit in which indeed human individuals were contained, but who as subject certainly did not get the first attention.2 As well Feuerbach, Marx as Kierkegaard would somewhere find discontentment in handling this line of thought and would from that discontentment each in their own way give form to their philosophy. Because in Hegel's philosophy the concept of faith and of the all-encompassing world-spirit played such an important role would the concepts of faith of Feuerbach, Marx and Kierkegaard oppose that of Hegel. The taking under close consideration of the concepts of faith of the above mentioned three post-Hegelian philosophers can with this given in the back of the mind result in an interesting consideration.

Conception of Faith with Feuerbach

Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) was an atheist and a materialist,3 and the contrast with a Hegelian image of a spiritual world-spirit may with this be set clear. Although completely different from Kierkegaard (as shall show later) did also Feuerbach put man central. The putting central of man does in Feuerbach's philosophy actually take place through a reduction of religion and the contents of religion to creations of human consciousness or subconsciousness.4 The divine wisdom is in reality human wisdom, the secrets of theology are in reality those of anthropology, and the absolute spirit is in reality the so called ending spirit (of man). Thus is God a projection of human nature. Man cannot think, dream, imagine, feel, believe in, want, love and worship any other being as absolute than the essence of human nature.5

From such a point of view does religion change from an institutional given to a practical and intrinsic human given in everyday life. Instead of religion staying as institute on the highest and first place does now the inter-human relation come first. This is according to Feuerbach the true religion, and the love between humans becomes the first commandment.6 Not the blessing of the priest makes a relation such as a marriage sacred, but the relation of two humans that love each other itself sanctifies such a marriage. And what goes for marriage goes for all moral relations.7 Morals then according to Feuerbach are not found in the institutionalised church. When morals are grounded in theology can the most immoral things be justified.8 The morals of human relations however are only grounded in those relations themselves, and thus not in theology. Feuerbach's plead thus asks us to become conscious and to relate our (Christian) images of faith back to our human nature.9

Conception of Faith with Marx

Karl Marx (1818-1883) was initially a follower of Feurbach10 but thought that he did not go far enough. Feuerbach brought religion back to a pure human essence. That human essence stays according to Marx however, when related to an isolated human individual, an abstract idea without practical value. And it is exactly that practical value that is so important in Marx's philosophy. Philosophers have always been too theoretical according to Marx. They always have interpreted the world in different ways while it is the point to change it.11 Thus is it the point to find the conception which carries within itself a practical value. Marx finds this by not stopping at the human essence of Feuerbach, but to place it in a social context. We don't find human essence in abstract in the individual but in the social interaction and relations with which people relate to each other.12 Change of consciousness then can only be established by changing the social context of humans. Marx, looking at the social context of his time, saw that that was one of alienation. In the social structure that led to divided and specialised labour did Marx see that humans alienated from their products of labour, and with that alienated from their own essence.13 That social structure with the thereto related division of labour brought as well a class difference with it.14 Classes which throughout history had always fought for rule. This is according to Marx a dialectical process.15 The one class dethrones the other. After that is the ruling class the cause of a new class difference (because that new ruling class unjustly claims to speak for the whole population), after which the new underclass after a course of time dethrones again the then ruling class. With this does Marx acknowledge Hegel's vision that history is dialectic. Where however Hegel saw a dialectic of ideas there sees Marx thus a dialectic of classes. And like Hegel sees Marx an end of this dialectical process. An end that will be established when the labour class, the proletariat, after a revolution will be victorious. Then according to Marx there will be no more contradictory interests because there will be no division of labour. Everyone can strive for one's own wishes in labour, and society regulates the general production. The end of alienation of labour and human essence shall deliver an excess of products by which money and pay can be done away with and everyone can take from the general stock which he needs.16 This shall also give man fulfilment because he will have the freedom to realise his own potencies.17 Then alienation of one's own essence is of the past, and the with alienation along going need for religion as an opium shall therewith also fall away. Religion as illusionary happiness must be conquered for the true happiness.18

Conception of Faith with Kierkegaard

Stronger and more explicit than Feuerbach and Marx did Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) oppose Hegelian thought, whereby he all but shun irony and sarcasm.19 Like Feuerbach did Kierkegaard (in contrary to Hegel) put individual man central, this however not as object of study but as acting individual in the world. Kierkegaard did not only push against Hegel's thought, but in fact against the whole academic philosophical tradition. All those theoretical philosophies were considered by Kierkegaard as not relevant for daily life as it is experienced and lived by the individual.20 Concepts only express possibilities, but actuality, existence, has always reference to the individual. Human reality then can only be seen adequately from the first person perspective. The acting individual and not the onlooker has to be the philosopher.21 And what is it that that philosopher from the first person perspective sees? The answer is: choice. Being human means choosing. This is a brute truth, for that means that there is no external authority on which man can rely to come to choice. It is then not the character or the essence of man that determines his choice, but it is the choice that determines his character or essence. Existence precedes essence.22

So reality is a brute reality. Not for nothing do people engage in theoretical concepts that withhold them from coming eye to eye with this reality. Kierkegaard postulates three stages of life of which the first two can be seen as escape routes of the human that doesn't dare to handle the truth. The first of the three is the aesthetic, in which man searches egoistically for the satisfaction of his own senses. In the second stage, the ethical, has man accepted general applied norms and values by which he lets himself being led. The third stage then calls Kierkegaard the religious stage.23 It is this third stage, and the transition thereto, which is of great import in Kierkegaard's philosophy. This religious stage is with Kierkegaard certainly no institutional religious given. The step towards it is also certainly no objective and rational thought out step. No, it is a jump into the deep. It is a letting go of all dogmatic and rational securities for a devotion of the passionate inwardness. This is for Kierkegaard the earlier mentioned brute truth.24 Kierkegaard gives to this stage the predicate 'religious' because his description of truth and of faith are the same.25 Would man be able to conceive God objectively, would he know rationally, then it would not be faith anymore. No, man can only have true faith with objective insecurity. This form of faith is according to Kierkegaard the true concept of faith.26

Comparison and Critical Notes

When we consider the above three philosophers we see that they all three sought a contrast with Hegel's image of faith by putting man central. Hereby it can be stated that Feuerbach in his method still stayed reasonably faithful to the academic philosophical tradition by positing a structured and rational theory. His philosophical thought was thus perhaps a reasonably radical turnaround, his method was this due to the theoretical line of approach definitely not.

Marx has been able to have an appreciation for the theoretical turnaround in Feuerbach's philosophy, however he went further by also putting critical footnotes with the theoretical point of view. Philosophers always had interpreted the world, but according to Marx the point was to change it. Now we can here ask two critical and to each other related questions. The first regards the question what the task of the philosopher has to be. Must he be out to change the world, and if this is so, then in which way can he do this as a philosopher? The thereto related second question regards the practical influence of the theoretical philosophical frameworks throughout history. For have these only been the product of the thought of the time, or did philosophers by making their insights theoretically known also have an influence on the world and brought about a change? In short: must the philosopher also be a conscious context changing politician, or is the sharpness of his written word enough to bring a context into movement. Or is it not at all important that the philosopher changes the world? Marx' answer to his may be clear but is certainly not to be accepted as an obvious truth.

So although Marx thus wanted to break with the theoretical nature of the philosophical tradition it was Kierkegaard that succeeded more in that than Marx himself. Where Marx not just theoreticising but also acting still stayed in the third person perspective (the same perspective as the considering philosopher) wanted Kierkegaard to break this tradition by asserting that philosophising should take place from the first person perspective. Not the onlooker but the acting individual had to be the philosopher. Now it seems difficult to put man more central than that, however such a statement does carry a paradox within itself. Namely at the moment that the reader takes in and accepts the statement (that the acting man himself must be the philosopher) he stopped being himself the philosopher. Now Kierkegaard had not been able to do it differently because publication, reading and acceptance of someone else's ideas also brings along a loss of the first person perspective. Perhaps he himself had seen through this, for publishing in many genres and under many pseudonyms he gave the reader little grip to start to see in any case in him a philosophical authority.27


Although a consideration on the above philosophers deserves an attention much wider than this is it due to lack of space not possible to go deeper into implications of the postulated statements. We have seen three philosophers, three generation and time companions who in their time opposed the Hegelian thoughts, and even the whole academic philosophical tradition. Feuerbach, Marx and especially Kierkegaard have taken up the sword to wage battle against the – according to them – phantom like theories of the academic philosophy of that time. The ironical question resounds if with a counter reaction on their philosophies eventually the dialectical principle of Hegel not became the victorious.

  1. Wallace Matson, A New History of Philosophy, Volume Two: From Descartes to Searle, Harcourt, Orlando, 2000, p. 548.
  2. Ibidem, p. 473-478.
  3. Ibidem, p. 497.
  4. Ludwig Feuerbach, Das Wesen des Christentums, in: Frank-Peter Hansen (redacteur), Philosophie von Platon bis Nietzsche, Directmedia, Berlin, 1998, p. 408.
  5.  Ludwig Feuerbach, in: Ibidem. "[…], daß der Mensch kein andres Wesen als absolutes, als göttliches Wesen denken, ahnden, vorstellen, fühlen, glauben, wollen, lieben und verehren kann als das menschliche Wesen."
  6. Ludwig Feuerbach, in: Ibidem, p. 409. "Ist das Wesen des Menschen das höchste Wesen des Menschen, so muß auch praktisch das höchste und erste Gesetz die Liebe des Menschen zum Menschen sein."
  7. Ludwich Feuerbach, in: Ibidem, p. 410. "Heilig ist und sei dir die Freundschaft, heilig das Eigentum, heilig die Ehe, heilig das Wohl jedes Menschen, aber heilig an und für sich selbst."
  8. Ibidem, p. 414.
  9. Ibidem, p. 415, ff.
  10. A New History of Philosophy, Volume Two, p. 497.
  11. Karl Marx, in: Thesen über Feuerbach, in: Frank-Peter Hansen (redacteur), Philosophie von Platon bis Nietzsche, Directmedia, Berlin, 1998, p. 8. "Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert, es kömmt drauf an, sie zu verändern."
  12. Karl Marx, in: Ibidem, p. 6. "Feuerbach löst das religiöse Wesen in das menschliche Wesen auf. Aber das menschliche Wesen ist kein dem einzelnen Individuum inwohnendes Abstraktum. In seiner Wirklichkeit ist es das ensemble der gesellschaftlichen Verhältnisse.
  13. A New History of Philosophy, Volume Two, p. 500.
  14. Ibidem, p. 501.
  15. Ibidem, p. 502.
  16. Ibidem, p. 506.
  17. Ibidem, p. 500.
  18. Ibidem, p. 511.
  19. Søren Kierkegaard, Afsluitend onwetenschappelijk naschrift tot De wijsgerige kruimels, in: G. Rasch (vertaler), Denken en Zijn, Boom, Meppel 1982, p. 43.
  20. A New History of Philosophy, Volume Two, p. 547.
  21. Ibidem, p. 548.
  22. Ibidem, p. 549.
  23. Ibidem, p. 549, 550.
  24. Søren Kierkegaard, in: Afsluitend onwetenschappelijk naschrift tot De wijsgerige kruimels, p. 55. "De objectieve onzekerheid, volgehouden in de toewijding van de hartstochtelijkste innerlijkheid, is de waarheid, de hoogste waarheid die er voor een existerende is."
  25. Søren Kierkegaard, in: Ibidem, p. 56. "Maar de gegeven bepaling van de waarheid is een omschrijving van het geloof."
  26. Ibidem.
  27. A New History of Philosophy, Volume Two, p. 548.
  • Ludwig Feuerbach, Das Wesen des Christentums, in: Frank-Peter Hansen (redacteur), Philosophie von Platon bis Nietzsche, Directmedia, Berlin, 1998.
  • Søren Kierkegaard, Afsluitend onwetenschappelijk naschrift tot De wijsgerige kruimels, in: G. Rasch (vertaler), Denken en Zijn, Boom, Meppel 1982.
  • Karl Marx, Thesen über Feuerbach, in: Frank-Peter Hansen (redacteur), Philosophie von Platon bis Nietzsche, Directmedia, Berlin, 1998.
  • Wallace Matson, A New History of Philosophy, Volume Two: From Descartes to Searle, Harcourt, Orlando, 2000.