Feuerbach and the Philosophy of critical theory

Jean Philippe Deranty*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

1 Citation (Scopus)


It is a hallmark of the Frankfurt School tradition of critical theory that it has consistently made philosophical reflection a central component of its overall project. Indeed, the core identity that this tradition has been able to maintain arguably stems from the fact that a number of key philosophical assumptions have been shared by the generations of thinkers involved in it. These assumptions form a basic 'philosophical matrix', whose main aim is to allow for a 'critique of reason', the heart of the critique of modern society, which emphasises the collective, historically situated and naturalistically grounded nature of rationality. In this matrix, Feuerbach's place has been only a minor one. This paper aims to show that there is more to be retrieved from Feuerbach for critical theory than at first meets the eye. The first section identifies key conceptual features that are shared by the central authors of the Frankfurt School. They signal a collectivist and materialist shift from Kant to Marx via Hegel. This shift is well adumbrated in Feuerbach's emphasis on the 'intersubjective' and social dependency of the subject. However, Feuerbach's decisive philosophical contribution lies in his insistence on the 'sensuous' modalities of intersubjectivity, that is, on the fact that the dependency of subjects on others for the formation of their capacities is mediated and expressed not only through language and other symbolic forms, but also and primarily through embodiment. This Feuerbachian 'sensualism' is a rich, original philosophical position, which is not soluble in Marx's own version of materialism. In sections II and III, I highlight the legacy of Feuerbach's sensualism in two areas of critical theory: first, in relation to the critical epistemology that grows out of the 'philosophical matrix' consistently used by critical theorists; and secondly, in relation to the arguments in philosophical anthropology that are mobilized to promote the critical project. In these two areas, Feuerbach's sensualism - his insistence on the embodied dimensions of cognition and action - represents a useful resource to resist the tendency of critical theory to translate its foundation in the critique of reason into a narrowly rationalistic enterprise.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1208-1233
Number of pages26
JournalBritish Journal for the History of Philosophy
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 2 Nov 2014

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