“The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”
Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) became famous with his book, Das Wesen des Christentums [The Essence of Christianity] (1841) where he forwarded a materialistic critique of religion in an attempt to apply the Hegelian concept of alienation to the religious sphere. Employing the ‘method of inversion,’ Feuerbach argues that everything we say about the divine is in effect the objectification of our own essence. Theology is in fact anthropology. ‘God’ is a ‘mystified’ expression of human knowledge and reality. Religion, thus, inverts the relationship between subject and predicate. Human beings, who are the real subjects, has been “impoverished” since all its best qualities have been projected unto the divine. God is nothing but a projection of our human longings.
As we have seen in the Critique to Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx used this same method to critique the political realm. However, it was in the Theses that he began to distance himself from Feuerbach’s ‘materialist’ direction. He now considers it insufficient.
The Passive Materialism of Feuerbach and Left-Hegelians
He writes: “The chief defect of all previous materialism – that of Feuerbach included – is that things [Gegenstand], reality, sensuousness, are conceived only in the form of the object, or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence it happened that the active side was in contradistinction to materialism set forth abstractly by idealism – which, of course, does not know real, sensuous activity as such. Feuerbach wants sensuous objects, really distinct from the conceptual objects, but he does not conceive human activity itself as objective activity. In Das Wesen des Christentums, he therefore regards the theoretical attitude as the only genuinely human attitude, while practice is conceived and defined only in its dirty-Jewish form of appearance. Hence, he does not grasp the significance of ‘revolutionary’, of ‘practical-critical’, activity.” [Thesis 1]
‘All previous materialism’, that is, 18th century French materialism, is judged by Marx as passive as it views reality only contemplatively, theoretically. This brand of passive materialism (Feuerbach’s included), even as it deals with material sensuous objects, “does not seek to understand the force that creates the objects, [a force] which is itself practice grounded in the subject, the active man.”
Marx’s critique of Feuerbach was also directed against all Left Hegelians. Though, in their critique of politics, the Left Hegelians have rightly located the human reality in its material matrix (against Hegel’s idealism), their view of it is still passive and theoretical. If any change is effected by their criticism, it is confined to the mere domain of abstractions. It fails to grasp that the factors which form or deform human reality have been brought about by the practical activity of humans themselves. And if change should come about, it is to come as well from human praxis.
The irony, however, is that it is not ‘materialism’ but ‘idealism’ which comprehends this crucial assertion (i.e., the ‘active side’ of knowing). Idealism does not passively receive sensuous perceptions. It constructs and, in some way, ‘creates’ reality. Its deficiency, however, lies in the fact that it “does not also know sensuous activity as such”. Its ‘constructs’ get no hold of concrete material reality. In Marx’s unmasking of the Hegelian Geist, he also wants to prove that the idealist creation is nothing else but a ‘construct’ of consciousness, that is, a mere invention.
Where does Marx locate himself?
Marx thus positions himself between these two inadequate assertions. His theory has been given two names: naturalism, to emphasize the natural ‘sensuous reality’ upon which the whole theory rests and, humanism, to point out the active practical activity with which matter is acted upon by human beings themselves. In German Ideology (1845-46), to which the Theses on Feuerbach serve as a preface, Marx and Engels call it ‘practical materialism’ – expressing both its materialist and activist practical accents.
But what actually is this ‘sensuous human activity’ called ‘practice’? In polemics with the traditional views of the human being as ‘rational’, and with Feuerbach who views it as a passive materiality, Marx states:
“Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion, or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organization. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life.”
The Deeper Dimensions of Praxis
Practice also has a deeper dimension. What Marx rejected in Feuerbach’s practical materialism in Thesis 1 is its utilitarian orientation as expressed in the phrase ‘dirty Jewish form of appearance’. Despite the decidedly economic foundations of his theory, what Marx proposes is a concept of practice which goes beyond the mere use and exploitation of objects solely for utilitarian satisfaction of needs. That ‘real sensuous activity’ called practice is in fact a spontaneous and creative emergence. As Thesis 3 states: “The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.” His earlier analysis of human alienation is a pre-requisite to the understanding of this concept.
Rotenstreich summarizes this double direction in Marx:
On the one hand, practice “gives rise to historical life in that it produces the actual dynamics of that life.” On the other hand, it also “determines the direction of that life, that is, the realization of the idea within historical reality.” It is then from this double perspective that Thesis 11 which has become a catchphrase for the Marxist theory of praxis can be better understood:
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”
But this does not also mean rejecting the necessity of a well-grounded theory and interpretation. Thesis 11 does not mean a total disavowal of the need to interpret the world. Praxis also needs the active or constructive dimension to which idealism strongly adheres.
Raymond Williams, a British neo-Marxist, read this central Marxist term by pointing to this dialectical interaction:
“Practice informed by theory and also, though less emphatically, theory informed by practice, [is] distinct both from practice uninformed by or unconcerned with theory and from theory which remains theory and is not put to the test of practice. In effect it is a word intended to unite theory with the strongest sense of practical activity: practice as action. Praxis is then also used, derivatively, to describe a whole mode of activity in which, by analysis but only by analysis, theoretical and practical elements can be distinguished, but which is always a whole activity, to be judged as such.”
Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M.
St Vincent SchoolofTheology - Adamson University
 K. Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 5 (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1976), 3-5, 6-8 [Engel’s Edition]. This text has been held by many Marxists as central to the interpretation of the concept of praxis in Marx. Lobkowicz, however, forwards a nuanced view on the subject. He argues that the present importance given to the Theses is vastly overrated. He takes issue with Sidney Hook [see S. Hook, From Hegel to Marx: Studies in the Intellectual Development of Karl Marx (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Michigan University Press, 1962)] who devalues the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts as Marx’s immature work, and enthrones the Theses on Feuerbach as the turning point to his mature writings. Why the gap in valuation, asks Lobkowicz, while in fact these two works were written only with a difference of a few months in between. Lobkowicz is more sympathetic to Nathan Rotenstreich’s Basic Problems of Marx’s Philosophy (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965) which takes both works seriously. However, Lobkowicz still wonders “why the ‘basic problems of Marx’s philosophy’ should be sought in a few remarks which have become famous only because Engels published them at a time when merely a few could still remember the feverish discussions of the 1840’s and no one, including Engels himself, had a clear idea about Marx’s early philosophical thought.” See N. Lobkowicz, Theory and Practice, 409-10.
 L. Feuerbach, Das Wesen des Christentums, ed. W. Schauffenhauer (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1973 ), trans. as The Essence of Christianity by G. Eliot, introduction by K. Barth and foreword by R. Niebuhr (New York: Harper and Row, 1957).
 K. Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, Vol.5, 3.
 N. Rotenstreich, Basic Problems of Marx’s Philosophy, 29. We are indebted to this excellent study in this section.
 K. Marx and F. Engels, The German Ideology, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 5, 38: “in reality and for the practical materialist, i.e., the communist, it is a question of revolutionizing the existing world, of practically coming to grips with and changing the things found in existence.” It is also from this same perspective we can understand the term ‘historical materialism’ – a phrase with which Marxist theory later came to be called but which Marx himself has never used.
 K. Marx and F. Engels, The German Ideology, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 5, 31.
 Feuerbach did not at all neglect the human ‘practical’ dimension. It could be discerned in his discussion of the Jewish concept of God in The Essence of Christianity. The Jewish God who creates out of his own will is, in reality, a projection of the power of the human will. But ultimately it is an expression of the Jewish egoist-utilitarianist outlook. This is what Marx meant when he denounced Feuerbach’s notion of ‘practice’ as merely resting on its ‘dirty Jewish form of appearance’. The term ‘dirty’, however, was never used by Feuerbach. See N. Rotenstreich, Basic Problems of Marx’s Philosophy, 30-31.
 K. Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 5, 4.
 N. Rotenstreich, Basic Problems of Marx’s Philosophy, 37.
 K. Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 5, 5.
 R. Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (London: Fontana, 1983), 318.