In this week’s episode we discuss Karl Marx’s “On the Jewish Question.” At the outset of this brief introduction I think it is important to note that there are a number of aspects to Marx’s piece that for reasons pertaining to time limits we were unable to cover. Among these aspects is the history and debate concerning “the Jewish Question” in German society up to the point of Marx’s writing. In the future I think it would be good for us to revisit this piece by Marx in relation to some secondary literature that focuses on the various aspects of the Jewish Question in Germany. In particular, engaging Bruce Rosenstock’s book Philosophy and the Jewish Question: Mendelsohn, Rosenzweig, and Beyond in tandem with this piece might help shed light on some particularities that characterised that debate.
Initial qualifications aside, I found our discussion of Marx to be helpful in synthesizing the range of theoretical issues we had been discussing in the previous two episodes pertaining to the concept “religion.” To recap (in very general terms), we first saw in our examination of Fitzgerald’s article how he seeks to deconstruct the concept of religion by showing how its construction has no referent in the world. What we call “religion” is really a protestant western imposition of categories upon a diverse array of power-relations, practices and institutions that are too broad to coincide with the limited contours of the concept. Basic questions about the history of the concept “religion” and the nature of “the concept” within a philosophical register began emerging for us and we decided to move from Fitzgerald a few steps back to examine some “classic” texts.
Feuerbach gave us a notion of religion as projection of human deficiency, a result of our limited understanding of the world that we may leave behind upon recognising its nature as such. The concept “religion” thus takes on a concrete form and function in Feuerbach’s analysis, is an autonomous determination that is capable of affecting negatively other aspects of the human life and thought and is something that is constructed, that has an origin and is not an apriori element of human being. Here we found ourselves, to a greater or lesser degree, dissatisfied with the way the Feuerbach positions the concept “religion” in a singularly causal relation to the rest of human life. How is it that religion serves as the problematic human construct that leads to misunderstandings and division in other arenas of human life? Why is is not that other determinations in thinking and social life affect the religious in a negative way too? Thus, we arrive at Marx.
Marx sets up our discussion of how religion figures into a larger problem of political and social alienation through his critical analysis of and response to Bruno Bauer’s work on the “Jewish Question.” At issue for Marx is the way in which civil society and political society are distinguished in relation to the question of how Jews are to become liberated from their current situation in Germany. For Bauer however, the state of alienation that characterizes the relation between Jews in Germany and the Christian state is the result of a purely religious difference, a “religious opposition.”
“How is religious opposition made impossible? By abolishing religion. As soon as Jew and Christian recognize that their respective religions are no more than different stages in the development of the human mind, different snake skins cast of by history, and that man is the snake who sloughed them, the relation of Jew and Christian is no longer religious but is only a critical, scientific, and human relation.”
Here Bauer makes a similar move that Marx locates in Feuerbach with regard to the relation between religion and societal ills. In the latter’s case, problems pertaining to division in society and religion are the result of conflicts between differing identities within a separate sphere of human being – the religious. As we discuss in the Feuerbach episode, the operational definition of the concept “religion” is a stop-gap measure that is meant to fill-in empty spaces in our understanding of the world – i.e. “Im not sure what stars are, they must be my ancestors or deities that control the universe.” Once we realise that religious understandings of the world are not only flawed in their various propositions, but are also simply the result of a lack of proper understanding, we are able to reject religion and pursue real knowledge.
Bauer’s assertion that the abolition of religion itself is the goal for which German society should strive demarcates the concept “religion” as a quasi-autonomous and deeply flawed sphere of being and thinking for human beings. As with Feuerbach, we see within Marx’s construal of Bauer a one-directional causal notion of religion: religion is able to affect negatively the other aspects of societal life, yet these other dimensions of society are unable to affect negatively the sphere of religion. So the sphere “religion” becomes the causal mechanism for alienation and division within society. A coincident result of Bauer’s construal of the concept “religion” is that “society” becomes an abstract concept insulated from value-critique. Religion is that which misunderstands, divides and contradicts rational thinking, society is the neutrally blank space in which rational individuals exist.
As Joel notes in our discussion, it is precisely this construction of religion in tandem with the rendering of society as a neutral space that Marx’s critique of the distinction between civil society and political society is meant to challenge. For Marx, emancipation means the collapsing of the distinction between a person’s abstract “citizen” life and the private workaday life that the individual lives – i.e. a person’s religious and social life. Bauer is only able to conceive emancipation as emancipation from religion, emancipation at the level of privatised identity of persons, as that singular determination which bears responsibility for the division between Jews in Germany and Christians. Marx challenges the causal ordering that Feuerbach and Bauer assign to the religion-society relation, illustrating that religious division is epiphenomenal to a much more basic division – the alienation of the social and political person itself.
Our discussion pivots from a summary discussion of Marx’s argument into questions pertaining to the operative concept of religion implicit in Marx’s argument. Here we debate the appropriateness of characterising Marx’s concept of religion – a concept that manifests only indirectly within Marx’s work itself – as another iteration of “projection.” I will leave it up to our listeners to decide whether that is an appropriate descriptor or not. For myself, I am of the view that while Marx correctly identifies the deficiencies of a causally one-directional model of projection vis-à-vis Feuerbach and Bauer, he is unable to conceive of the concept such that religion and non-religious aspects of human being function in a multi-directional feedback loop of causation. I take this latter sort of model as that which is operative within the work of social theorists such as Max Weber, Emile Durkheim and Horkheimer and Adorno and I think that the movement in these thinkers away from a one-directional model is an important move that our future episodes will certainly need to discuss.
Listen to Episode 3: