In this post, I am going to give a brief overview of the essential views of three highly influential philosophers: Immanuel Kant, Georg W.F. Hegel, and Ludwig Feuerbach. Yes, I touched upon Kant in an early post, but he deserves another look, especially as we delve into the 19th century.
Immanuel Kant: What is “Real”? Ask a Scholar!
The philosopher who most impacted the 19th century was the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804 AD). Indeed, as some have said, “The 19th century was but a footnote to Immanuel Kant” (Revolutions in Worldview 284). Kant’s full philosophy is far too vast to adequately cover in a mere blog post, and so, even having written an earlier post on Kant, I want to touch upon Kant again, yet limit myself to the major features of his philosophy that proved to be so influential in the subsequent generations.
Essentially, Kant divided all reality into two separate spheres: that of the physical world of science and knowledge (phenomenal), and the religious/spiritual world of faith (noumenal). The physical world, that of nature, was something that could be measured, fact-checked, and observed—it was therefore able to be objectively analyzed and studied by a truly objective skeptic/scientist. On the other hand, the non-material spiritual world, was something that really couldn’t be measured, fact-checked, or observed—it was therefore something that could not really be “known” in any scientific, “objective” sense. And because of that, it was something that could only be blindly believed, based on a supposedly religious authority.
Or to further simplify things, according to Kant, objects in the physical world could be known through objective analysis, whereas the objects in the noumenal world could only be believed, through faith, based on a religious authority, someone like a priest. Therefore, it came to be assumed that a “disinterested scholar” possessed a superior position to that of a priest or cleric, because the scholar could “analyze things objectively and scientifically,” whereas a priest or cleric would be hopeless subjective in his opinions—after all, the priest was dealing with blind, subjective belief, and the scholar was dealing with facts.
Back to Greek Philosophy…but Let’s Flip Everything on its Head
But notice how the very way in which Kant set out his argument immediately pushes you to one ultimate conclusion: the physical world is really real and able to be known, but the so-called “spiritual” world is, well, maybe real, sort of…you can’t really prove it…so maybe it’s not really real—it’s just a matter of faith!
And just like that, in a rather ironic twist, the unified world of the concrete and the spiritual that Christianity had been proclaiming and laboring to achieve for 1800 years (call it the new creation, if you will) had been ripped apart into the same two separate spheres that had confounded Greek philosophers over 2000 years earlier.
But the irony of it was is that, whereas the classical philosophers largely saw the non-material universals in the World of Forms as being “really real,” and the material particulars of the natural world as being more or less shadowy, inferior copies of the universals, Kant (and the philosophers that came after him) proclaimed that it was the particulars of the natural world that were “really real,” and the supposed universals of the noumenal world that were essentially “less real.”
So What’s the Problem? (That Ole “Particulars vs. Universals” Conundrum)
Yet placing ultimate reality within the particulars of the natural world creates a fundamental problem: what does that make man, and how is he—a creature of the natural world—able to discern and truly know what is “really real”? How can he be sure that what he perceives in the natural world is actually true? How can he trust his perception? Kant’s answer was this: within each brain of each human being, there are “categories of reason” that help make sense of the sensory impressions that our senses take in. Think of this as something like a coin machine for knowledge. Everything that our senses take in is akin to different “coins”—and they get poured into our brains that contain this “categories of reason.” Therefore, each sensory impression gets funneled into the proper “slot” within the brain—and that is how our brains make sense of what our senses perceive.
So what Kant did was (a) take the classical philosophical concept of “the universals” that existed in a purely separate and non-material “World of Forms,” (b) re-label them as “categories of reason,” and (c) locate them within the human brain. The problem, of course, is that his claim of “categories of reason” within the brain really wasn’t an objective, factual concept that could be scientifically known…and therefore, how could anyone really know if it was objectively real?
And so, in his attempt to place the locus of knowledge in the mind of the objective scholar (and not the subjective faith of a religious priest), Kant ultimately achieved nothing. The idea of a purely objective scholar existing within the natural world, and being a part of that same natural world, is nonsensical. Without the real existence of universals, no real knowledge of the particulars in nature can be achieved. And simply changing the concept of universals and making them into “categories of reason” that exist within biological brains doesn’t really get you anywhere.
Plato was the one who said that particulars in the natural world are nothing more than shadows of copies of the real universals that exist in an entirely different, non-material World of Forms. By contrast, Aristotle said that the particulars in the natural world have worth, and essentially contain within them the very real universals—therefore particulars are essentially universals in process.
But Kant did something radically different than either Plato or Aristotle. Kant said that only the particulars are really real, and objective, and measurable; and the supposed universals really are just different categories within the brain that filter the perceptions of the “really real particulars” into knowable details.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: A New Kind of Pantheism, and Religious Evolution
Yet, it is hard for people to let go of the sense of there being a real, spiritual world. It was G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) who tried to “save” religion from the onslaught of radical Enlightenment thinking. For a time, Hegel seemed to have been successful; yet it must be pointed out that the “religion” that Hegel was attempting to save was decidedly not Christianity. In reality, it was nothing more than a vague pantheism.
Hegel attempted to argue that the entire course of history was purposed by the Absolute Mind. Yet it was not like this Absolute Mind was a master puppeteer, simply pulling the strings of history. Rather, Hegel suggested something more akin to an “evolution of ideas.” Simply put, Hegel said that the Absolute Min was slowly evolving in both ideas and the history that it shapes. In other words, human history progresses through battling ideas that shape the world. This progression came in the forms of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.
When it comes to religion, Hegel argued essentially that religious ideas evolve. “Way back when,” Hegel would say, the primary religious idea was that of animism—and that worked for a while (even though it would be wrong to say it was actually “true”); that idea (i.e. thesis) eventually ran into various problems in the world (i.e. antithesis), and the result a new religious idea, namely pantheism (i.e. synthesis). Pantheism, thus became the dominant religious idea, and thus the new thesis. Yet this too eventually ran into problems, and the result was yet another synthesis of religious ideas, namely polytheism. Polytheism then eventually evolved into theism; and then in the Enlightenment, so Hegel claimed, theism was now evolving into deism. The Absolute Mind was working itself out through great ideas that shape history, ever forward. This process was known as dialectical conflict—progress entailed the struggle of ideas in history.
Yeah, But What is Truth?
The ultimate result of Hegel’s thinking, though, was that it completely did away with any concept of actual truth. Hegel’s philosophical outlook essentially said that ideas ultimately are not right or wrong, or true or false. They simply are thought to be true for the time being, until another dialectical move forward progresses history further on to the nebulous concept of Absolute Mind. It nevertheless was a very attractive philosophy for a short time. After all, it maintained the optimistic Enlightenment ideal of progress, while also holding on to a vague notion of spirituality.
Hegel’s dialectic, though, ended up having absolutely disastrous effects on Western philosophical culture. If all history was just one dialectical progress of ideas, and if no idea ever can really be considered true, then what impact does that have on one’s understanding of the Bible? For certain left-wing Hegelians like D.F. Strauss and F.C. Bauer, the answer was simple: the Bible isn’t really “true” in any absolute sense; rather it is just only the product of the historical context in which it was written, nothing more. It might have been thought to be “true” back then, but history has moved on, further progressions of thesis-antithesis-synthesis have happened, and we have moved on. Thus, any truth claims made in the Bible were not really consider absolute anymore. It was “true for them,” or at least seemed to be true for them; but we’ve moved on. The Bible, therefore, was something that certainly could be studied about times and beliefs of the past, but it held little or no impact on the world today.
Hegel’s idea of the dialectical progress of ideas in history also proved to be the unintentional inspiration for a much darker, sinister worldview that came to dominate the later 20th century: Marxism. Yet before we talk about Marxism, we first must say a few things about yet another philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach.
Ludwig Feuerbach: God is Just a Fictional Superman
Now, if Hegel’s dialectic essentially proclaimed that no religious ideas could ever be “true” in any kind of real sense, that led to an obvious question: if the Christian view of God, for example, wasn’t really true, and if that concept of God really wasn’t true, then what did that make the Christian concept of God, really?
Enter Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872). Like his fellow German, Karl Marx, Feuerbach asserted that any and all teachings about God were, in reality, nothing more than veiled assertions about humanity itself. In fact, in his book, The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach asserted that the Christian God—one who was loving, righteous, gracious and merciful—was simply too much like an ideal human being to be taken seriously. Feuerbach actually took the biblical condemnations of pagan idolatry, and turned them against Christianity itself. He essentially accused the OT prophets who railed against foreign idols of failing to see their own idolatry in the form of YHWH.
According to Feuerbach, Christianity was just the last vestiges of a dying superstition—or in Hegelian terms, just yet another thesis about to slowly give way in the ever-evolving progress of human history. Furthermore, in true Enlightenment fashion, since Feuerbach saw Christianity as simply nothing more than superstition, he easily dismissed Christianity’s supernatural claims as being wholly unverifiable and obviously false. Indeed, not only that, but the very Christian God was a being who obviously did not exist—he was just a fanciful projection of the human ideal, created by human beings in their own image, and not vice versa. Supernatural beings did not really exist, claimed Feuerbach, only real, living, breathing human beings existed.
So, if There is No God, Where Does Goodness Come From?
Feuerbach was therefore compelled to find another source of goodness, morality, and dignity—if goodness didn’t come from God, it had to come from humanity itself, within human nature. This, though, as history has clearly shown time and time again, is a highly problematic and ultimately dangerous proposition. In a way, it is very similar to what we’ve seen in ancient Greece and Rome—after it was shown that a society could not be secure with the “the gods” acting as the moral basis for that society, the Romans turned to Caesar, a deified dictator, in hopes to gain a good and secure society, one that was based on and rooted in a man. The results, as we’ve seen were ultimately catastrophic.
With the dawning of the 19th century, the centuries’ old idea of locating goodness and morality within humanity itself still manifested itself, only with one new wrinkle: it was not to be rooted in one man (i.e. Caesar, a king, a dictator), but rather in society as a whole (an idea from Rousseau–“the general will of the people” was to be equated with God). If anything, this was even more naïve than the Roman idea of a deified emperor, for a deified emperor didn’t have to deal with a host of differing views and ideas. To essentially deify society as a whole, Feuerbach foolishly neglected one obvious truth: individual people have differing views of right and wrong, and therefore have differing concepts of morality. Although he might have held up freedom and dignity as essential characteristics of humanity, rooting them within humanity itself, without any reference to God at all, Feuerbach opened the door to moral anarchy.
And was it on the other side of that door? None other than Karl Marx…