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In Ernst Bloch’s Speculative Materialism: Ontology, Epistemology, Politics, Cat Moir offers a new interpretation of the philosophy of Ernst Bloch. The reception of Bloch’s work has seen him variously painted as a naïve realist, a romantic nature philosopher, a totalitarian thinker, and an irrationalist whose obscure literary style stands in for a lack of systematic rigour. Moir challenges these conceptions of Bloch by reconstructing the ontological, epistemological, and political dimensions of his speculative materialism. Through a close, historically contextualised reading of Bloch’s major work of ontology, Das Materialismusproblem, seine Geschichte und Substanz (The Materialism Problem, its History and Substance), Moir presents Bloch as one of the twentieth century’s most significant critical thinkers.
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Ernst Bloch’s Speculative Materialism

Historical Materialism
Book Series
Editorial Board
Sébastien Budgen (Paris)
David Broder (Rome)
Steve Edwards (London)
Juan Grigera (London)
Marcel van der Linden (Amsterdam)
Peter Thomas (London)

volume 202

The titles published in this series are listed at

Ernst Bloch’s
Speculative Materialism
Ontology, Epistemology, Politics


Cat Moir


Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Moir, Cat, 1983- author.
Title: Ernst Bloch’s speculative materialism : ontology, epistemology, politics / by
Cat Moir.
Description: Leiden : Brill, 2019. | Series: Historical materialism book series,
15701522 ; 202 | Includes bibliographical references and index.
Identifiers: LCCN 2019039728 (print) | LCCN 2019039729 (ebook) |
ISBN 9789004272866 (hardback) | ISBN 9789004272873 (ebook)
Subjects: LCSH: Bloch, Ernst, 1885-1977. | Bloch, Ernst, 1885–1977.
Materialismusproblem. | Materialism.
Classification: LCC B3209.B754 M65 2019 (print) | LCC B3209.B754 (ebook) |
DDC 193–dc23
LC record available at
LC ebook record available at

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To my parents






1 The Materialism Problem 26
2 Ontology 49
Nature contra Mechanism 50
Matter as the Subject of Nature 58
The Logic of Matter 62
Real Possibility 67
Teleology without a Telos 70
3 Epistemology 77
The Structure of the Concept 80
The Influence of Neo-Kantianism 89
The Role of Irony 96
Rationalism, Empiricism, and Practice 100
4 Politics 106
The German Philosopher of the October Revolution?
For Stalin, against Hitler 111
The Politics of Speculative Materialism 116
Speculation, Totality, and Immanent Critique 122


5 Relevance and Critique 130
The Speculative Turn: Bloch and Meillassoux 132
New Materialism: Bloch and Bennett 139
Ecological Materialisms: Bloch, Foster, and Moore 149
Appendix: The Speculative Expanse
Bibliography 167
Index 180


When I picked up Ernst Bloch’s The Principle of Hope for the first time back
in 2009 as a graduate student, I experienced something many readers may
recognise: I found ‘my’ thinker. Bloch’s unique brand of ‘militant optimism’
spoke to the political idealist in me, and his unique style of philosophical writing, far more poetic than anything I’d come across before, activated thoughts
and affects that the drier prose of some of his contemporaries had always
failed to arouse. In fact, the initial opacity of Bloch’s work – the challenge of
trying to figure out what was going on in these weird, monumental texts –
was in many ways its attraction (something I suspect Bloch, who insisted that
the secret path to truth leads us out of ourselves, would have expected and
enjoyed). In short, I wanted to figure Bloch out, and this curiosity was only
compounded when I dug a little deeper into the literature, which often cast
Bloch as a totalitarian or irrationalist thinker. Such interpretations dissatisfied,
because they did not accord with my own reading. Bombastic, intransigent,
unashamedly speculative, complicatedly partisan – I recognised Bloch to be
all these things, but irrationalist and totalitarian? My exegesis told a different
This book is the fruit of that long process of exegesis, much of which centres
on one of Bloch’s least read works, Das Materialismusproblem, seine Geschichte
und Substanz (The Materialism Problem, its History and Substance). Given that
Das Materialismusproblem is yet to appear in English, it is perhaps unsurprising that few English-language commentaries on it exist. Also in the Germanspeaking world, however, sustained engagements with it are scant. Yet as this
book argues, Das Materialismusproblem is crucial to a reading of Bloch capable
of interrogating some of the most persistent misperceptions of his thought.
What follows is thus a historically contextualised, systematic new reading
of Bloch’s philosophy based on a reconstruction of the materialism book in
its intellectual historical context. Its central argument is that reading Bloch as
a speculative materialist in the specific sense outlined in Das Materialismusproblem enables us to correct and nuance some prevalent yet broadly mistaken
ideas about Bloch to be found in the literature, particularly concerning the relationship between ontology, epistemology, and politics in his work. The book
does not assume any prior knowledge of Bloch or his thought, and is written in
such a way as to lay out as clearly as possible the relevant intersections between
Bloch and other thinkers with whom he was directly or indirectly in dialogue.
Nevertheless, it is addressed primarily to a scholarly audience with interests in
the history of philosophy, critical theory, Marxist theory, and twentieth-century



European and world history, and therefore assumes a certain level of familiarity
with historical and intellectual figures, events, movements, and terminologies
relevant to these fields.
Now that I have finished writing the book, I can say that Bloch is no longer
‘my’ thinker in the way that he was when I began working on it. That is, of
course, a good thing, for very good Freudian reasons. That said, every twilight of
the idols is ambivalent, and this one none less so. The years I have spent working on Bloch – as the world has been getting hotter and the possible future
directions of global society and ecology more inscrutable – have indeed convinced me that his concepts of utopia, material entanglement, and collective
agency are highly relevant today, even if the ways in which they may be so are
by no means straightforward or indisputable. So even as one’s interests necessarily evolve, my commitment to incorporating Blochian perspectives into our
twenty-first-century critical toolkit remains. ‘Utopia or bust’ may be a bold
wager, but the insidious attrition of utopian desires in fear of the ‘or bust’ alternative is, in my view at least, a much darker prospect.1
This book is the outcome of my doctoral work, but there are many other
people and institutions who helped it come into being. The beginning of my
research on Bloch coincided with a certain revival of international interest in
his work, and first and foremost my thanks have to go to my former supervisor, Peter Thompson, the previous director of the British Academy-funded
Ernst Bloch Centre at the University of Sheffield, where I completed my PhD.
Without Peter, I would never have encountered Bloch, and without his support
and encouragement this book would never have happened. I am grateful to two
other Sheffield colleagues: Henk de Berg, for his ongoing collaboration in this
and other projects, and Michael Perraudin, for his academic mentorship.
A few years ago, after Peter’s retirement, the Ernst Bloch Centre moved to
the University of London’s Institute for Modern Language Research (IMLR)
under the new directorship of Johan Siebers. Alongside Peter, Johan is the one
to whom I owe the most thanks in the context of this book project. I first met
Johan when attending his extraordinary German Philosophy Seminar, which
he has run at the School of Advanced Study for several years, and his generous
advice and criticism have been invaluable to my work on Bloch.
I would like to thank the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Leverhulme Trust, and the IMLR and Sylvia Naish Fellowship fund for supporting
this project financially, as well as the Ernst Bloch Archive in Bloch’s birthplace
of Ludwigshafen am Rhein, and the Centre for Classical German Philosophy

1 Cf. Kunkel 2014.



and Hegel Archive at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum, for allowing me to conduct
some of my research and writing there. Particular thanks go to Frank Degler,
the former director of the Bloch Archive, and Birgit Sandkaulen, director of
the Centre for Classical German Philosophy and the Hegel Archive. The community of Bloch scholars in Germany, especially Francesca Vidal of the Ernst
Bloch Gesellschaft, and Doris Zeilinger of the Ernst Bloch Assoziation, deserve
special thanks for continuing to advance Bloch research in German. Internationally, in addition to Peter and Johan, Wayne Hudson and Caitríona Ní Dhúill
have done much to rethink Bloch’s place in intellectual and cultural history,
and I thank them for paving the way for and supporting this project from near
and far.
Colleagues at both Historical Materialism and Brill have shown much welcome enthusiasm for this project, as well as for the wider work on Bloch in
which I am still engaged. Without the commitment and scrutiny of Esther
Leslie, Paul Reynolds, Peter Thomas, Sebastian Budgen, and Steve Edwards, this
book would never have been published. Special thanks also to Danny Hayward
for his patient assistance in editorial and administrative matters.
There are many other colleagues and friends I would like to thank for their
roles in helping this book to get over the finish line, but since that list would
be very long, I will single out a few of special importance: Natasha Morris and
Kirsteen Hardie, for putting up with me on the long journey; and Sebastian
Truskolaski and Dan Hartley, whose criticism and friendship throughout the
years I’ve been working on Bloch have made a special difference.
This book is dedicated to my parents, Lindsey and Bill, and my stepdad Andy.
All three of them have influenced me in ways that invisibly impact the book,
even if, sadly, only one of them will get to see it in print.

When the third and final volume of his magnum opus Das Prinzip Hoffnung
[The Principle of Hope], was published in 1959, Ernst Bloch (1885–1977) was
living in the German Democratic Republic.1 He and his wife, Polish architect
Karola Piotrkowska, had moved there a decade earlier when Bloch was offered
the Chair in Philosophy at the newly re-established University of Leipzig. A
committed Marxist, Bloch was initially full of enthusiasm for building socialism on German soil, as he reported to the party newspaper Neues Deutschland
in August 1949.2 However, the honeymoon period would not last long: Bloch’s
heterodoxy, combined with the fact that he never joined the SED [Sozialistische
Einheitspartei Deutschlands (East German Socialist Unity Party)], made him
suspect in the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR), and by 1957
he had been forced to step down from his position. By the time the last instalment of The Principle of Hope appeared, the book was widely seen to confirm
the by then official view of Bloch as a revisionist thinker whose utopianism was
beyond the pale of Marxist orthodoxy.
Writing in the Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie in April 1960, Manfred
Buhr, Bloch’s erstwhile assistant, argued that had Bloch only put the energy
he spent writing The Principle of Hope into the struggle for socialism, he would
have been honoured instead of vilified.3 As it was, for Buhr, Bloch’s latest tome
put him ‘on paths that lead away from the great military road to socialism’.4 ‘The
problems and attempted solutions he raises’, he continued, ‘are anachronistic
in the year 1960 and objectively restore a mode of thought beyond which history has marched’.5 Buhr saw Bloch’s work as outmoded, the relic of an idealist
philosophy that had been definitively superseded by Marxism.
1 Ernst Bloch, Das Prinzip Hoffnung, GA vol. 5 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1985e [1959]). Cf.
Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope (Chicago: MIT Press, 1986). Throughout the book, I refer
to the most recent 1985 edition of the Suhrkamp Gesamtausgabe of Bloch’s collected works
in German. The original publication dates of the works are given in the bibliography. Where
English translations of Bloch’s works exist, I refer to and quote from these, except where a
specific translation issue prompted me to return to the German. Das Prinzip Hoffnung was
first published in three volumes in East Germany by Aufbau-Verlag in 1954, 1955, and 1959.
The first West German volume appeared in two volumes with Suhrkamp in 1959.
2 Cf. Zudeick 1987, p. 186. When quoting from untranslated secondary sources in German, all
translations are mine unless otherwise stated.
3 Buhr 1960, pp. 365–79. In fact Bloch had been honoured just five years previously, when he
was awarded the Nationalpreis der DDR for his services to philosophy.
4 Buhr 1960, p. 365.
5 Ibid.

© koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2020 | doi:10.1163/9789004272873_002



If Bloch was not radical enough for many of his contemporaries in the East,
he was nevertheless deemed too orthodox by many on the other side of the iron
curtain. Ludwig Marcuse’s review of The Principle of Hope was the sharpest of
a number of critical pieces published on Bloch in the Stuttgarter Zeitung in
the spring and summer of 1960.6 Marcuse saw in Bloch’s utopianism a philosophical justification for a Stalinist politics that Bloch had indeed failed to
condemn in the twenties and thirties. ‘Bloch’s scheme is as weak as it ever
was’, he wrote; ‘the devil is here called “the declining class” or “fascism” or “the
exploiter” or “America”; the saviour on the other hand has the name “socialism” or “Vor-Schein” or “realest realism” or “Soviet Union”’.7 For Marcuse, Bloch
was a totalitarian thinker, whose utopia was little more than an apology for the
deficiencies and injustices of the present.
It was Jürgen Habermas’ critical review that was to have the greatest impact
on Bloch’s reception in both the German and English contexts, however. First
published in German in 1960, Habermas’ critique was far more nuanced than
either Buhr’s or Marcuse’s, though it reprised some of the same objections.8
Like Marcuse, Habermas considered Bloch’s philosophy politically problematic, arguing that his utopianism ‘border[ed] on the totalitarian’, and that Bloch
himself merely ‘dresse[d] his intimate relationship to Lenin’s strategy of violence in Gothic rags’.9 Habermas saw Bloch’s philosophy as passé, indeed ‘obsolete’, not only in its language, whose ‘style of late expressionism’ Habermas
believed ‘handicapped’ the reception of Bloch’s work, but also in its substance.10 ‘We are a little tired today’, he claimed, ‘of breaking out into free
nature’, and he questioned whether Bloch’s utopianism ‘did not reflect the
experience of a past generation, whether new generational experiences may
not clash if not with utopia then certainly with Bloch’s initiation into utopia’.11
Here Habermas’ criticism echoes that of Buhr, for whom Bloch’s ideas were also


Marcuse, ‘Bewunderung und Abscheu’, Stuttgarter Zeitung, 12 March 1960, reprinted in
Ernst Blochs Wirkung. Ein Arbeitsbuch zum 90. Geburtstag, pp. 74–84, and Marcuse 1979,
pp. 285–95. Also Siegfried Melchinger, ‘Noch einmal der Fall Ernst Bloch. Nachwort im
Hinblick auf die “Spuren” ’, in Stuttgarter Zeitung, 9 April 1960 ders.: Optimismus mit
Trauerflor, in Stuttgarter Zeitung, 30 May 1960; Richard Biedrzynski, ‘Ein Aufgeklärter
Mystiker. Ernst Bloch vor der Bibliothekgesellschaft’, in Stuttgarter Zeitung, 3 June 1960;
ders. ‘Ein energischer Schwärmer. Zur Begegnung mit Ernst Bloch’, in Stuttgarter Zeitung,
11 March 1960.
Marcuse 1979, p. 292.
Habermas 1960, pp. 1078–1091. Reproduced in Habermas 1981, pp. 141–59. The article was
published in English as Habermas 1969, pp. 311–25. I cite from the English version here.
Habermas 1969, p. 322.
Habermas 1969, p. 315.
Habermas 1969, p. 316.



To be sure, the ideological differences bound up with German division
played a part in Habermas’ assessment. He made plain his irritation that this
renegade from ‘the opposite banks of the Elbe River’ should put forward a
philosophy ‘inspired by the great breath of German idealism’ at a time when
he and other thinkers of a ‘surviving European tradition’ were trapped between
‘Soviet materialism’ and ‘Anglo-Saxon positivism’.12 Yet Habermas’ critique was
not anti-Marxist as such. Rather, he objected to what he saw as the excessive liberty that Bloch took with Marxian ideas. Taking a position that in some
respects paradoxically paralleled Soviet orthodoxy, Habermas argued that
Bloch’s attempt to combine Marxism with classical philosophy was both illegitimate and dangerous. Not only did Bloch mistakenly conclude that Marx’s famous thesis on the abolition of philosophy only applied to ‘philosophy hitherto
existing’ and not to ‘philosophy as philosophy’, according to Habermas; Bloch
was, in his view, also unconcerned with ‘attempting to free us from the societal
immobility of existing contradictions’, despite his emancipatory pretensions.13
These charges – that Bloch was unacceptably committed to a full-bodied mode
of philosophy that had been irrevocably transcended by Marxian theory, and
that he was effectively uninterested in real, practical social struggle – oddly but
substantially replicate the points made by Buhr.
Yet Habermas’ criticism of Bloch was also motivated by more straightforwardly philosophical concerns. In his view, Bloch’s philosophy was ‘pre-critical’;
it had ‘skipped Kant’, returning to the ‘threshold of high speculation’ European
philosophy had achieved with Schelling.14 Indeed, Habermas famously dubbed
Bloch a ‘Marxist Schelling’, and denounced his uncanny hybrid of Marxism and
romantic nature philosophy as a ‘speculative materialism’.15 Habermas’ view of
Bloch would find echoes in the reception of his work for years to come, and
still leaves its trace on it today. But was Bloch really the anti-Kantian, naïveMarxian, messianic nature-philosopher that Habermas believed? Just what was
Bloch’s speculative materialism, and what, if any, meaning can it have for us
These are the questions this book sets out to answer. Its central argument is
that Bloch’s philosophy is indeed best read as a speculative materialism, and
the main part of the book is dedicated to reconstructing this position from an
ontological, epistemological, and political perspective. However, this is not a
sustained critique of Bloch in a Habermasian vein. It is, in many respects, a
defence of Bloch, not because there is nothing in Bloch’s thought to criticise:

Habermas 1969, p. 325.
Habermas 1969, p. 323.



indeed, as we will see, there is much. His philosophy of history suffers in places
from strong traces of Eurocentrism, his discourse of utopia-qua-Heimat is heavily gendered, and the centrality of religious ideas to his philosophy can at first
sight seem obscurantist. While the book addresses some of these criticisms
where they arise (particularly in Chapter 5), it does not seek to address them
systematically, primarily on grounds of focus. The aim of the book is rather
to engage with Bloch’s seemingly paradoxical effort to construct a speculative materialism, and with the real or imagined political consequences of that
effort. For despite its flaws, it is argued here that Bloch’s speculative materialism deserves to be revisited, not least because the rich reception of Habermas’
interpretation has helped to propagate a number of Bloch myths and legends.16
Occasionally the influence of Habermas’ assessment on interpreters of
Bloch has been quite explicit, as in the case of Inge Münz-Koenen’s engagement
with the discourse of utopia in Adorno, Bloch and Habermas, or in Matthias
Meyer’s account of Bloch’s place in the reception history of Schelling’s nature
philosophy.17 Often, however, its impact is felt more subtly. For instance, Habermas’ charge that Bloch’s philosophy is anthropomorphic, inflating features of
human existence to the macro scale of cosmic ontology, also infuses Alfred
Schmidt’s engagement with Bloch.18 Schmidt, too, describes Bloch’s ‘anthropological ontology’ as a ‘speculative materialism’, and criticises it in strikingly
similar terms to those used by Habermas.19 Thus where Habermas finds in
Bloch’s philosophy ‘an inapplicable simile, the analogy of microcosm and macrocosm, of man and universe’, it is precisely the fact that ‘anthropology and
ontology reflect one another in Bloch’s work like microcosm and macrocosm’
that Schmidt finds objectionable.20
As Vince Geoghegan has noted, Habermas did not explicitly question Bloch’s
Marxist credentials as Schmidt did when he argued that Bloch’s emphasis on
the idea of a human essence ‘runs against traditional Marxism’.21 Nevertheless, as we have already seen, the idea that Bloch was somehow inauthentically Marxist seems to have united those who identified with the project of
Marxism like Buhr, and those who took a more distanced, critical, or het16



Jon Stewart’s book The Hegel Myths and Legends (Stewart 1996) influences this study insofar as it, too, sets out to critically address certain claims about Bloch’s work that have often
been repeated as lore rather than rigorously engaged.
Münz-Koenen 1997; Meyer 2014.
Schmidt 1981, pp. 117–34. This essay reprises and develops many of the same arguments
Schmidt brought against Bloch in his 1962 work Der Begriff der Natur in Marx (see Schmidt
1962, pp. 127–64; English translation Schmidt 1971). See also Schmidt 1978, pp. 325–38.
Schmidt 1981, p. 117.
Schmidt 1981, pp. 319–20; Habermas 1969, p. 118.
Geoghegan 1996, p. 159; Schmidt 1981, p. 119.



erodox stance, like Habermas and Schmidt. Insofar as Bloch’s materialism
draws substantially on Marx’s early writings, Habermas argues it is based on
an ‘apocryphal tradition of historical materialism’.22 This critique that Bloch
stretches Marxian thought well beyond its intended scope recurs throughout
the literature. Leszek Kołakowski has voiced doubts about the legitimacy of
Bloch’s attempt ‘to graft onto the inherited doctrine [of Marxism] a complete metaphysic, cosmology, and speculative cosmogony’.23 Martin Jay also
suspects Bloch has pushed Marx too far with a ‘cosmic vision of wholeness’
that ‘clearly transcended anything to be found in Marx or any of his other
Meanwhile, although Bloch is often identified as a Hegelian Marxist, Habermas’ insistence that Bloch’s philosophy is emphatically ‘not a return from Marx
to Hegel’ also finds echoes in the literature.25 Fredric Jameson has argued that
Bloch’s Marxism is indebted less to Hegel than it is to Goethe.26 And when
David Kaufman writes that ‘there is too much Schelling and too much Stalin’ in
The Principle of Hope, he too rehearses Habermas’ suggestion that Bloch combines romanticism and idealism with a political philosophy that is in some
sense intrinsically ‘totalitarian’.27 Habermas’ criticism, then, can be seen to have
set, or at the very least to represent, a certain tone in the literature on Bloch,
one that this book seeks to interrogate and in part to redress.
If Habermas already described Bloch as a speculative materialist in 1960,
his review predates by over a decade the appearance of the work in which
Bloch developed this position most comprehensively: Das Materialismusproblem, seine Geschichte und Substanz [The Materialism Problem, its History and
Substance] (1972).28 There, Bloch explicitly described his own philosophy as
a speculative materialism for the first time, quietly subverting Habermas’ critique. To be sure, both Das Materialismusproblem and The Principle of Hope
belong to the same production cycle: both works were begun during the 1930s,
when Bloch was in exile from fascism. However, as we will see, a fuller exposition of his ontology in Das Materialismusproblem reveals some of the limits of
the Habermasian assessment and its legacy.


Habermas 1969, p. 317.
Kołakowski 2005, p. 421.
Jay 1984, p. 174.
Habermas 1969, p. 313. For characterisations of Bloch as a ‘Hegelian Marxist’, see e.g. Kearney 1984, p. 193; Geoghegan 1996, p. 120; Thornhill 1999, p. 480; Thompson 2013, p. 310; Agar
2014, p. 216; Boldyrev 2014, p. 75.
Jameson 1972, p. 140.
Kaufman 1997, p. 35.
Bloch, 1985g.



Bloch began writing Das Materialismusproblem while in exile in Prague
from 1936 to 1938. In January 1937, he wrote to Walter Benjamin that the book
manuscript he was working on had expanded to a thousand pages.29 Four hundred of these were devoted to ‘a history of particularity-universality problems’
and ‘a history of the concept of matter’.30 A year later, early in 1938, Bloch sent
a summary of the book to the Deutsche Akademie in New York. Theorie-Praxis
des Materialismus [Theory-Practice of Materialism], as it was then titled, was
to be a ‘philosophical foundation of dialectical materialism’ in three parts: one
on logic, one on epistemology, and the third a historical investigation of the
concept of matter.31
The publication of Bloch’s materialism book would have to wait, however,
since in March 1938, Hitler invaded Austria, and it seemed certain that Czechoslovakia would be next. In April the Blochs boarded a ship for New York, where
they would remain for 11 years. It was thus not until 1972 that the third, historical
part of Bloch’s expansive project on the history of materialism was published
in revised and expanded form, under the title Das Materialismusproblem, seine
Geschichte und Substanz. The preface reveals that Bloch’s aim in the book was
unchanged: it was to ‘rethink the concept of matter within dialectical materialism’, and indeed although it was first published in 1972, it remains primarily
an intervention in debates about science and metaphysics that had taken place
within the Communist International in the 1920s and 1930s.32
In its final form, Das Materialismusproblem also broadly exhibits the structure alluded to in the letter to Benjamin. Six main sections follow the preface.
The first, ‘Der Ruf ins Wirre’ [‘The Call into Turmoil’], begins, as all Bloch’s works
do, from the perspective of an embodied experience characterised by lack
and desire.33 In Das Materialismusproblem, this is then followed by ‘Zeichen
des Fliessenden und des Stehenden’ [‘Signs of the Flowing and Static’], which
traces how a dialectical struggle between theories of movement and stasis – in
themselves ‘both misleading’ – has shaped the history of philosophy.34 In one
aspect, Bloch suggests, this dialectic appears as a question of the relationship
between the general and the particular, and this is the focus of the first of two
main ‘courses’ in the book: ‘Die Lehren vom Einzelnen-Allgemeinen, den Stoff
angehend’ [‘Doctrines of the particular-general, in relation to matter’] ‘leads

Bloch 1985r, p. 664.
Cunico 2000, p. 455.
Bloch 1985g, p. 15.
Cf. Bloch 1985g, pp. 21–3. The composition of the book is significant for thinking about
Bloch’s epistemology, as well as his ontology. See Chapter 3.
Bloch 1985g, p. 18; cf. Bloch 1985g, pp. 24–31.



from pre-Socratic incursions to the foundations of the question of universals in
Socrates, Plato, Aristotle’ and on through the history of thought up to Marx.35
It is followed by a second course, ‘Die Lehren von der Materie, die Bahnungen
ihrer Finalität und Offenheit’ [‘Doctrines of matter, preparations of its finality
and openness’], which deals with the question of matter, ‘not only as a history
of materialism’, but also presenting it in ‘idealistically rich’ status as an ‘embarrassment’ with which materialist thinking must always be ready to grapple.36
Bloch reaches his speculative ‘conclusion’ in the next two sections: ‘Zum
Kältestrom-Wärmestrom in Naturbildern’ [‘On the cold stream-warm stream in
images of nature’] deals with the ‘not only formalised, but energetic something
in the matter of modern physics’, and includes an extended engagement with
Engels’ essay on the Dialectics of Nature.37 The final chapter in this section,
Chapter 40, ‘Kältestrom und Wärmestrom, doch beide zugleich’ [‘Cold stream
and warm stream, indeed both at once’], concludes the portion of Das Materialismusproblem written during the 1930s as part of the original Theorie-Praxis
des Materialismus project.38 The seven chapters in the final section, ‘Zum Verhältnis Sein-Bewusstsein, Zweck und Novum im spekulativen Materialismus’
[‘On the being-consciousness relation, purpose and the new in speculative
materialism’] were written in 1969–71, when Bloch ‘revised and expanded’ the
manuscript with the help of his assistant Burghardt Schmidt.39 This is the section in which Bloch elaborates his own concept of matter most concretely. The
text ‘Avicenna und die aristotelische Linke’ [Avicenna and the Aristotelian Left],
written in 1952, is also included as an Appendix (Chapter 48) in the final version
of the book.40
Ultimately – and here Habermas’ characterisation is broadly accurate – Das
Materialismusproblem develops a concept of matter as the self-realising impersonal agent of nature: the possibility of utopia resides in matter itself, he argues,
and human beings, as matter-become-conscious, are capable of realising it.
Nevertheless, there are many respects in which a close reading of the materialism book, situated in its intellectual-historical context, can offer valuable
correctives to the main points of Habermas’ critique. For instance, whereas
Habermas claims that Bloch’s ontology as it is presented in The Principle of
Hope is ‘not a return from Marx to Hegel as some might assume’, but rather to
Schelling, an analysis of Das Materialismusproblem reveals that Bloch’s spec35

Bloch 1985g, p. 18; cf. Bloch 1985g, pp. 32–131.
Ibid. Cf. Bloch 1985g, pp. 132–315.
Bloch 1985g, p. 20; cf. Bloch 1985g, pp. 316–76.
Cf. Cunico 2000, p. 455.
Cf. Bloch 1985g, pp. 377–478.
Bloch 2018. See bibliography for reference.



ulative materialism is at least as much of a Hegelian inheritance as it is a
Schellingian one.41
In particular, Bloch’s concept of matter is a speculative construct in the
Hegelian sense that it rests on a certain realism about universals that Bloch
inherits from Aristotle via Hegel. Moreover, even if the Aristotelian influence
on Bloch’s theory of matter is evident in the relevant sections of The Principle
of Hope, this picture only becomes fully clear in the materialism book, with the
extended discussion of the problem of universals. Certainly, Schelling remains
a key influence on Bloch’s ontology; however, where Habermas’ interpretation
shifted the emphasis away from Hegel towards Schelling, this book works to
shift it back somewhat, to show that and in what way Bloch was a Hegelian
Marxist also at the ontological level.
If Habermas called Bloch’s Hegelian credentials into question, others have
challenged his Marxist pedigree. Detlef Horster notes that the view that Bloch
has nothing in common with Marx has united so many otherwise divided Marxists, and as we have already seen, Bloch’s recourse to a naturalistic ontology
is one of the objections apt to motivate such a claim.42 For Schmidt, Bloch’s
emphasis on the ‘gaping, striving, alogical in the world and the human being’ is
at odds with Marxism’s traditional concerns, namely the socio-economic analysis of capitalism and its associated relations of production.43 However, what
Schmidt and others miss in their assessment of Bloch’s utopianism as going
‘beyond’ a mature Marx characterised as uniquely preoccupied with questions
of political economy is the fact that, for Bloch, the labour of the imagination
is itself a historical force. Ernest Mandel acknowledges this when he writes
of hope and anticipation as themselves categories of historical materialism in
the same way as social labour and self-consciousness.44 The following analysis
therefore sets out to show how Bloch’s speculative materialism did not transgress the limits of a Marxian historical materialism, but rather built on and
worked productively, originally and critically with it.
In so doing, it also seeks to reassess the dual charges of anthropomorphism and teleology that are manifested in Habermas’ criticism of Bloch’s vision
of nature as ‘led to its goal by the hand of man’.45 Certainly, human being,
and the idea of natural purposiveness associated with it, and with organic life
more generally, are central to Bloch’s thought. However, this book seeks to challenge the idea that to reason about nature as a whole on the basis of human

Cf. Habermas 1969, p. 313.
Horster 2006, p. 30.
Schmidt 1981, p. 119.
Cf. Mandel 2002, pp. 245–59.
Habermas 1969, p. 319.



experience is illegitimate. Hans Jonas has argued in this vein that from the perspective of a monistic ontology – and Bloch’s is not the only ontology of this
kind: Jonas reminds us that the theory of evolution that still today dominates
both scientific and everyday conceptions of the relationship between being
and time is also a monism – ‘the case against anthropomorphism in its extreme
form becomes problematical and is on principle reopened’.46 With this in mind,
Bloch’s speculative materialism is interpreted here as an attempt to do what the
philosopher Isabelle Stengers claimed in the 1980s is the task of all materialist
thought: namely, to ‘understand nature in such a way that there would be no
absurdity for it to have produced us’.47
The second of Habermas’ major criticisms challenged here concerns Bloch’s
epistemology. Habermas’ claim that Bloch’s speculative materialism ‘skipped
Kant’, or was ‘pre-critical’ in its epistemology, goes right to the heart of a central issue in the history of Marxism: the legacy of the so-called reflection theory
of knowledge. There is by now a standard narrative of this legacy according to
which reflection theory represents an anti-Kantian tradition inherited by dialectical materialism via Hegel.48 Whereas Kant had argued that reality as it is
in itself remains ultimately inaccessible to human knowledge, Hegel has often
been interpreted as reinstating a pre-critical insistence on the absolute identity
of thought and being, according to which concepts simply reflect the world as
it really is. Although Marx and Engels frequently criticised this idea, which they
called Hegel’s method of ‘speculative construction’, Engels in particular – so the
argument goes – can nevertheless be seen to have adopted Hegel’s anti-Kantian
epistemology, for instance in the polemical work Anti-Dühring, where he criticises the post-Kantian tradition of positivism represented by Eugen Dühring
among others.49 According to proponents of this argument, Lenin would then
take up Engels’ position in his Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, in which he
rejects the positivist epistemology of Ernst Mach, and declares it incompatible
with Marxist orthodoxy.50
Habermas’ claim that Bloch’s epistemology ‘regresses’ to a ‘pre-critical’ position puts him in a complex relation to this trajectory. On the one hand, the


Jonas 2001, p. 37.
Stengers 2011, pp. 368–80, 368.
Cf. Cornforth 1954; J.E. Blakeley 1964; Sayers 1985; Rockmore 1996. None of these commentators makes this argument in the schematic, condensed, and therefore necessarily rather
crude form in which I am making it here. In fact, all of them in different ways also criticise this line of interpretation. Nevertheless, one can find a version of this intellectual
genealogy mapped out in each of these works in more detail than it is possible to present
Cf. Marx and Engels 1975a, pp. 57–60; Engels 2010.
Lenin 1977.



charge of having ignored Kant implies that Bloch espoused the same crude
epistemology of which so many dialectical materialists have – often but not
always correctly – been accused. However, by reaching back to Schelling as the
pinnacle of the pre-critical moment, Habermas disrupts the typical genealogy
associated with reflection theory, implicitly identifying Hegel as the heir to the
Kantian project. In this respect I agree with his assessment, though I intend to
show that Bloch, too, stands in this lineage. This project involves a certain deflationary reading of Hegel as opposed to the boldly metaphysical one that was
dominant during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.51 Drawing on
contemporary scholarship on Hegelian metaphysics, I make a case for a reading of Hegel that allows us to perceive these connections and their influence
on Bloch’s thought more precisely.52
The more direct impact of Kant on Bloch cannot be forgotten here either,
however, and the following analysis of Das Materialismusproblem highlights
the persistent influence of both Kant and neo-Kantianism on his speculative
materialism. Ultimately the book claims that Bloch’s epistemology performs
a delicate balancing act between Kantian criticism and Hegelian conceptual
realism, in which the world is understood to be neither ultimately resistant nor
fully transparent to our knowledge of it.
Of course, an alternative epistemological path can be traced from Kant
through the history of Marxism, one that places greater emphasis on the practical dimension of knowledge rather than its conceptual dimension. This tradition, too, is visible in Bloch’s work. In particular, Bloch’s epistemology also
draws resources from Marx’s theory of praxis and Feuerbach’s concept of embodied cognition. These two elements come together in Bloch’s commentary
on the epistemological group of Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach in The Principle
of Hope, where he insists that ‘even when thinking we can only proceed from
the sensory. Perception, not the concept which is merely taken from it, is and
remains the beginning where all materialist cognition identifies itself’.53 This
same idea is repeated at the very beginning of Das Materialismusproblem, in
the fragment titled ‘Das Spüren’ (feeling), which reads: ‘We begin with almost
nothing. That drives us, wants to feel more. Looks around, feels and grasps’.54
Touch is thus the most immediate sense for Bloch, the one through which the
inner drive first comes into contact with the not-I in the world: the first step in
the acquisition of knowledge. The centrality of the sense of touch to the mater51

Cf. Pippin 1989.
Cf. Stern 2009.
Bloch 1986, p. 255.
Bloch 1985g, p. 21.



ialism book is obvious from its composition: beginning with ‘feeling’, it then
moves through ‘seeing and thinking’, and ‘thinking the body’, to finally reach
the stage of being ‘in one’s own skin’ with speculative materialism.
Not only composition, but also an appreciation of Bloch’s literary style thus
becomes necessary when considering his epistemology. In addition to tracing
a discursive connection in Bloch’s work to these various theories of knowledge,
this book claims that, at the formal level of his writing, Bloch’s use of romantic
irony punctures the illusion that thought and language have access to a mindindependent totality. Scholarship on Bloch never fails to mention his style, nor
to acknowledge his debt to German expressionism, sometimes approvingly,
sometimes more critically. Wayne Hudson and Hans Heinz Holz have arguably gone furthest in appreciating the role form plays for Bloch in constructing
meaning. For Holz, it is the fact that philosophy is more closely bound to language than any other academic discipline that is behind Bloch’s idiosyncratic
style. Whereas science generally ‘finds its object sphere already linguistically
captured and preformed’, he argues, ‘philosophical research first has to provide
the linguistic means in order to say what it wants in an appropriate way’.55 This
explains Bloch’s ‘difficult’ and ‘often dark’ diction for Holz, who nevertheless
insists that ‘philologically exact analysis mostly reveals that this difficulty is the
mode of adequate expression’. Hudson meanwhile recognises Bloch’s style as
a form of ‘recursive modernism’, and argues that, like his friend and contemporary Walter Benjamin, Bloch regarded literary techniques such as allegory,
symbolism and montage as ‘a form of materialist cognition … designed to reveal
traces of world contents not given in the abstract appearance of capitalist society’.56
Both Holz and Hudson thus recognise Bloch’s style as more than the antique
remnant of a bygone age, which is how Habermas saw it. As important as their
interpretations are, however, that they too miss the fact that Bloch’s use of these
techniques also has an ironic function, signaling his insight into the impossibility – in the present, at least – of fully articulating the absolute. This book
pushes their line of argumentation further: by tracing the influence of German
romantic thought on his writing, it demonstrates that Bloch’s style actually performs substantial epistemological work. Poetic irony formed an integral part of
the romantics’ stance on the relationship between philosophy and poetry after
Kant. Bloch’s reception of German romantic thought and literature was enthusiastic, and it is argued here that his stylistic debt to the romantics informed
his theory of knowledge.

Holz 1975, pp. 38–9.
Hudson 1982, p. 2.



The third aspect of Bloch’s interpretation engaged with here concerns the
claim that his utopianism is a more or less direct intellectual justification or
expression of Soviet totalitarianism. It is well known that during the 1930s, at
a time when Stalin’s show trials were cause for many of Bloch’s contemporaries to lose faith in the Soviet project, Bloch clung fast to the idea that the
Soviet Union was the only possible bulwark against the global threat of fascism. During precisely the period of the Stalinist purges, Bloch controversially
celebrated the Soviet dictator as the ‘real leader [Führer] into happiness’, and
an ‘upright figure of love’.57 Bloch rejected the accusations of mass murder
and creeping dictatorship as American propaganda, dismissing even his friend
Joachim Schumacher when, returning from Moscow, Schumacher told Bloch
that he himself, a veteran and committed Communist Party member, had been
intimidated and threatened by the Soviet regime. It is considerations such as
these that led Jack Zipes in his introduction to a special issue of New German
Critique on Bloch and Heidegger from 1988 to ask why, knowing what we know
about the political commitments of these two figures, should we engage with
their philosophies at all? It is a relevant question, and one with which anybody
must grapple who agrees with the raft of ‘European intellectuals’ Zipes cites –
Habermas included – that Bloch was ‘the most significant unorthodox Marxist
of the 20th century and a philosopher with great integrity’.58
Bloch has been called a ‘left-wing Heidegger’ on account of certain similarities, particularly in his early work, between his ontology and Heidegger’s.59
Whether or not the philosophical comparison sticks, it is certainly politically
instructive. For unlike Bloch, who remained officially non-aligned throughout
his life, Heidegger was a member of the German Nazi party from its inception,
and whereas Heidegger never renounced his allegiance to the party, Bloch did
later explicitly retreat from the sympathies he expressed with Stalinist policy
in the 1930s. With these considerations in mind, the question Zipes raised,
as to why Bloch has so clearly been excluded from mainstream philosophical
discourse on account of his political commitments while Heidegger has been
given so much attention, bears repeating.
Unfortunately, a full answer to that question is beyond the scope of this
book. What it is possible, indeed necessary, to do here is to point out that it
is entirely plausible to condemn Bloch’s political position in the 1930s without
making the illegitimate leap to arguing that his philosophy was tout court an
expression of those specific views. For one thing, the foundations of Bloch’s

Bloch, ‘Originalgeschichte des dritten Reichs’ (1935) in Bloch 1985d, pp. 146–7.
Zipes 1988, p. 8.
Thompson, ‘Religion, Utopia, and the Metaphysics of Contingency’, in Thompson and
Žižek (eds.) 2013, p. 82; cf. Riedel 1994, pp. 216–45.



speculative materialism were laid down well before the Soviet Union even
came into being. The idea of the not-yet, which Bloch would later apply to
material reality as an incomplete process of self-realisation, has its origins in
the phenomenology and neo-Kantianism of the turn of the twentieth century.
Furthermore, utopianism is not the intellectual handmaiden of political totalitarianism, as some have argued; rather, as Bloch and Theodor Adorno – both
‘iconoclastic’ as opposed to ‘blueprint’ utopians – recognise, its primary function is as a mode of criticism.60 To be sure, Bloch’s speculative materialism
pushes the model to the extreme by asserting that the fabric of reality itself
is utopian in the sense of being literally not yet ‘there’, incomplete. Yet his speculative theory fulfils the same function as any utopia by demonstrating that the
current order is not natural and necessary, but contingent, and therefore open
to transformation.
It is precisely this critical function of utopia that is on display in Das Materialismusproblem. Written during the period when Soviet dogma was hardening,
a close analysis of that book reveals that Bloch’s speculative materialism in
fact constitutes an immanent critique of orthodox Marxism, oriented towards
achieving what Bloch nevertheless saw as Marxism’s fundamental objectives:
freedom, equality, peace, justice, and solidarity, including with non-human natural subjects.
One might well argue that the contemporary significance of Bloch’s speculative materialism lies in the fact that these are still valid objectives, and still
far from being achieved. Perhaps that alone would be enough to counter the
charge of obsolescence levelled against Bloch by Habermas, Kołakowski and
others. Yet this book aims to go further still, to show how Bloch anticipated
certain philosophical concerns that have recently begun to attract attention
again. The ‘speculative turn’ in continental materialism and realism has seen
contemporary thinkers such as Slavoj Žižek and Quentin Meillassoux grappling with questions of ontological incompleteness and radical possibility in
ways that bear striking similarities to Bloch’s work.61 However, whereas Bloch’s
and Meillassoux’s speculative materialisms may appear similar on the surface,
the differing genealogies of ‘speculation’ and ‘materialism’ that underpin their
philosophies are in fact coupled with quite different social and political visions. Bloch’s thought is also at home amid the revival of interest in vitalist
materialisms in recent years. In this regard, the book explores the similarities
and divergences between concepts of material agency developed by Bloch and


Cf. Jacoby 2005.
Cf. Bryant, Srnicek, and Harman (eds.) 2011; Meillassoux 2008.



contemporary new materialist Jane Bennett.62 It also situates Bloch in an ecoMarxist genealogy that speaks to the concerns of contemporary figures such
as John Bellamy Foster, Jason W. Moore, and Andreas Malm.63 Despite subtle
differences in their positions, these figures all argue that the environmental
crisis has brought into focus an inextricably entangled, dynamic relationship
between social and natural processes that Marx and Engels acknowledged in
their critique of capitalism. Indeed, as Bellamy Foster has argued, this entanglement forces us to revisit aspects of Engels’ Dialectics of Nature that were
long considered to be beyond the pale.64 With its long excursus on Dialectics
of Nature, Bloch’s materialism book undoubtedly stands in this tradition of
thought. As this book aims to show, then, not only was Bloch raising, in the midtwentieth century, some of the same questions as these contemporary figures,
but he often found illuminating answers to them. Meanwhile, the light thrown
back on his work by contemporary theorists also reveals some of the limitations
in his work. By bringing Bloch into dialogue with contemporary speculative
materialism, new materialism, and eco-Marxism, this book demonstrates that
his thought is far from obsolete.
Given that Das Materialismusproblem remains untranslated into English,
it may be unsurprising that there has been almost no engagement with it in
the Anglophone literature on Bloch. However, even in the German context
it remains widely overlooked. Holz has been the only figure so far to engage
systematically with it, primarily in his 1975 work Logos spermatikos. Holz’s intervention is hugely valuable in that it represents the only sustained engagement
to date with Bloch as a speculative materialist.65 By reading Das Materialismusproblem, Holz almost inevitably acknowledges aspects of Bloch’s speculative
materialism that Habermas neglected. However, he nevertheless fails in my
view to successfully extricate Bloch from the substance of Habermas’ criticisms.
Holz is certainly far more thorough in his treatment of Aristotle’s influence
on Bloch than Habermas, tracing in detail the way in which Bloch transforms
categories from Aristotle’s theory of actuality into a dialectical concept of matter. Holz points in this regard to a traditional ‘confusion’ in the history of philosophy between the concept of matter as ‘the amorphous material that receives
its particular way of being through the addition of form and only then becomes

Cf. Bennett 2010. For more on the new materialisms, see Coole and Frost (eds.) 2010, and
Dolphijn and van der Tuin (eds.) 2012.
Bellamy Foster 2000; 2002; Bellamy Foster, Clark, and York 2012; Bellamy Foster and Burkett 2016; Moore 2015; Moore (ed.) 2016; Malm 2016.
Cf. Bellamy Foster 2017.
Holz 1975. See also Holz 2012, pp. 483–508.



actual’, and as a designation of the ‘substantial being of the world with regard to
the way it is made’.66 The former, Holz claims, is matter as the Urgrund of being
as we find it listed in Aristotle’s table of categories; it is likened to the indeterminate grammatical subject, which only becomes actual in its predicated
particularity. The latter, meanwhile, is described in terms of a ‘being already
endowed with predicates’, which is nevertheless material in its substance.67
This, then, is the logical-ontological problem at the heart of the concept of matter: how can it be used to describe both being in general, and the particular
forms that being takes?
Holz correctly identifies Bloch’s re-functioning of Aristotle’s theory of possibility and actuality as a solution to precisely this problem. Bloch’s matter is
simultaneously dynamei on, or what-is-in-possibility – the ‘subject’ of nature, or
the original (un-)ground of being – and kata to dynaton, what-is-according-topossibility – the actual shapes material possibility takes at a particular moment.
However, Holz’s insight here – that Bloch’s reception of Aristotle clearly went
decisively beyond anything the latter intended – is also important.68 Curiously, however, Schelling is never mentioned in this context, even though he
was so central to Bloch’s understanding of the utopian ‘unground’ of being, as
Habermas convincingly showed. Even in Holz’s discussion of Bloch’s concept of
nature, it is Hegel, not Schelling, whom he singles out as Bloch’s primary influence in this regard. Although it is pleasing to see Hegel returned to this picture
from which he had been left out by Habermas, by omitting Schelling entirely,
Holz fails to address those aspects of Bloch’s Schelling reception that Habermas raises and with which any assessment of his speculative materialism must
Meanwhile, although he usefully reintroduces Hegel into places where he
is missing from Habermas’ account, Holz leaves Hegel out where one might
expect him. For instance, he argues that it is a ‘Leibnizian approach [which]
provides the scheme of a dialectical logic that coincides with ontology’ for
Bloch.69 Indeed, Holz insists that key Leibnizian principles underpin Bloch’s,
indeed any, speculative materialism. Emphasising Leibniz’s influence on Bloch
certainly highlights an insufficiently appreciated aspect of his thought. However, surely it is Hegel, not Leibniz, from whom Bloch inherited the logical
framework that informs his theory? Elsewhere Holz does acknowledge the
influence of Hegel’s logic, for instance when he argues that Bloch’s ‘concept
of a speculative materialism is introduced outside a strict context of deduc66

Holz 1975, p. 49.
Holz 1975, p. 120.
Holz 1975, p. 125.
Holz 1975, p. 130.



tion, and remains within the Hegelian insight that “totality contains within
itself those determinations which from the perspective of dogmatism are valid
in their separation as fixed and true”’.70 However, Holz’s acknowledgement of
Bloch’s Hegelianism here simultaneously implies the view, which he shares
with Habermas, of Bloch as essentially an opponent of Kant.
For it is Kant, above all, who is associated with the method of philosophical
deduction, which Hegel – and indeed Bloch – eschewed.71 Moreover, Hegel’s
speculative method was intended to show that the antinomies of thought identified by Kant were in fact illusory from the perspective of reason, which aims
to elucidate the totality of thought and being rather than being satisfied with
the fixity and separation characteristic of the logic of the understanding.72 By
confronting Bloch and Hegel on the one hand as practitioners of speculative
reason, with an implied Kant as the advocate of critical reason on the other,
Holz positions Bloch’s speculative materialism as a Hegelian, but anti-Kantian,
inheritance. Yet if Holz aligns himself with Habermas in seeing Bloch as Kant’s
adversary, he parts company with him in his understanding of Hegel as also
essentially a critic of Kant: for, as we have seen, Habermas implies a continuity between the Kantian and Hegelian projects.73 This study aims to draw out
the concordances between Kant, Hegel, and Bloch that have fallen between the
cracks of Habermas’ and Holz’s analyses.
Another question for Bloch’s speculative materialism, which Habermas
raises and with which Holz fails successfully to deal, is its relationship to the
reflection theory of knowledge. To be sure, Holz assures us that to characterise
Bloch’s concept of matter as speculative
does not mean that it reflects its object as it is, but rather that it creates
it in the construction of its concrete genesis (as a concept) and that the
thing it refers to can only be given in this process of creation of its conceptual reflection.74
However, Holz nevertheless persists in using the metaphor of the mirror as
a kind of shorthand for the theory of knowledge that he sees underpinning
Bloch’s theory. In doing so, he implicitly places Bloch in the same epistemo-


Holz 1975, p. 125.
For Hegel’s criticism of Kantian deduction, see Hegel 1991, pp. 20, 42. For more on Bloch’s
criticism, see Bloch 1985t, pp. 45, 77, and 84, and Bloch 1985g, pp. 62, 69, 70.
Cf. Hegel 1991, pp. 32, 48, as well as Hegel’s doctrine of the concept in Hegel 2010.
Cf. Holz 1975, p. 131.
Holz 1975, p. 124.



logical lineage of dialectical materialism as Habermas does, whereas Bloch’s
theory of knowledge, as we will see in due course, is much more complex.
In the final assessment, it is not entirely clear from Holz’s perspective how
Bloch’s speculative materialism differs from the dialectical materialism of, say,
Lenin. Here again his account does not go significantly beyond that of Habermas, for whom Bloch’s philosophy was effectively a transvested Leninism. Certainly, as we will see, Bloch affirms aspects of Lenin’s philosophy, especially
his later writings on Hegel, which Bloch, like Holz, distinguishes in theoretical sophistication from the earlier Materialism and Empirio-Criticism.75 Holz
follows Habermas, however, in failing to perceive the critique of Lenin implicit in Das Materialismusproblem. This is undoubtedly due in part to the fact
that Bloch’s engagement with Lenin always seems on its surface to indicate
intellectual approval. Furthermore, during the period in which the first draft
of Das Materialismusproblem was written, Bloch was indeed more ideologically disposed to aspects of Leninism than at any time before or after. Nevertheless, the critique of Lenin and Leninism is a seam of Bloch’s thought that
runs deep, and as this book argues, it is also present in Das Materialismusproblem.
The aim of this book is thus to challenge Habermas’ reading of Bloch’s speculative materialism, which was based on The Principle of Hope, by examining his
writings on materialism during the years 1933–8, that is, during the period of his
European exile before he emigrated to America, where work on The Principle
of Hope began. In doing so, I hope to address and in some cases challenge several of the concerns about Bloch’s speculative materialism raised by Habermas
in his influential review of that later work, and repeated by numerous scholars
since. The book focuses above all on Das Materialismusproblem, and on related
writings dating from the same period, which have been published in Gerardo
Cunico’s volume Logos der Materie [The Logos of Matter] (2000). I have also
drawn extensively on Bloch’s published letters, from this and other periods.
The first four chapters provide an exegesis and analysis of an aspect of
Bloch’s speculative materialism, responding in the process to relevant questions raised in Habermas’ review. Chapter 1 sets the scene for the investigation by exploring the conflict between ‘materialist’ and ‘speculative’ modes
of thought with which Bloch engaged. Chapter 2 analyses Bloch’s ontology,
demonstrating that it was much more than merely a Marxist interpretation of
Schelling’s nature philosophy, but also contains elements of Marxist, Feuerbachian, and Hegelian inheritance. Chapter 3 examines Bloch’s epistemology, and


Holz 1975, pp. 127–8, and p. 132.



makes a case for the continued influence of Kant on Bloch’s theory of knowledge. Chapter 4 defends Bloch’s speculative materialism against the charge
that it was intrinsically totalitarian, while nevertheless acknowledging that he
at times adopted political positions that can be considered extreme. Finally,
Chapter 5 takes on the charge of obsolescence by demonstrating the relevance
of Bloch’s concerns about freedom and agency to debates within contemporary
The approach taken here resists a prevalent idea in Bloch scholarship that,
to quote Jay, Bloch’s ‘intellectual and political character seems to have matured
at a specific moment in time and remained relatively unchanged for the remainder of his life’.76 Bloch’s philosophy did change over time, largely though
not exclusively in response to the shifting historical circumstances in which he
found himself.
The world into which Bloch was born on 8 July 1885 was in the grip of rapid
change. The rise of industrial capitalism in Imperial Germany had brought
prosperity to many, and misery to many more. Nowhere was this contrast more
apparent than in the glaring difference in living standards between the workers’
town of Ludwigshafen, where Bloch grew up, and the more affluent Mannheim
across the bridge. Bloch would later call Ludwigshafen the ‘merciless, naked
face of late capitalism’, and indeed the town was home to the chemicals factory
of BASF, the largest concern within IG Farben, which would manufacture the
Zyklon B gas used to murder Jews during the Holocaust.77 Meanwhile, Bloch
became acquainted with Mannheim by going to the palace library to read the
philosophy books that were forbidden at home.
If Bloch’s family environment was neither happy nor conducive to study, it
was nevertheless economically comfortable: Bloch’s father, Max, was a civil servant working for the royal Bavarian railways, while his mother, Bertha, with
whom he had a ‘difficult’ relationship, was a housewife.78 Liberal social reforms
had ensured Jewish families like Bloch’s rights and opportunities they had
never enjoyed before, but it had come at a price: thorough cultural assimilation,
which, however, did nothing to offset increasing anti-Semitism among those
resentful of the newly found wealth and social standing of many Jews. When
the First World War broke out in 1914, Bloch was disappointed to see German
nationalism on display among Jews, including his former teacher Georg Simmel, with whom Bloch broke after Simmel donned the uniform of an imperial
reserve officer.

Cf. Jay 1984, p. 176.
Zudeick 1987, p. 27.
Zudeick 1987, p. 12.



Bloch’s intellectual development up to 1918 was one of immersion in traditions old and new. After convincing his father to allow him to study philosophy by taking him to a monument erected in memory of Schelling by King
Maximilian II of Bavaria, Bloch enrolled to study philosophy, physics, German, and music at the University of Munich. There he studied under Theodor
Lipps, whose work on the unconscious Freud so admired. Through Lipps Bloch
was introduced to the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Max Scheler.
He also read Nietzsche, whose thought profoundly influenced the artists and
thinkers of the Expressionist generation. Bloch was no exception: Manfred
Riedel has emphasised the extent to which Bloch’s early thought is marked by
the Nietzscheanism of the turn of the century.79 Lonely in Munich, however,
after a semester Bloch transferred to Würzburg, ‘the authentic place of [his]
intellectual youth and period of experimentation’, where he studied with Oswald Külpe, the founder of the Würzburg School of Denkpsychologie.80 Here
Bloch completed his doctoral thesis in 1908 on the neo-Kantian philosophy
of Heinrich Rickert in which he attempted to show how a critique of neoKantianism could lead to a new utopian philosophy. However, although Bloch
primarily saw himself as a critic of neo-Kantianism, the movement profoundly
influenced his thinking. Indeed, it was his reading of Kant that first led him to
the idea of the ‘not yet conscious’, his ‘first and only original thought’.81
After his promotion, Bloch moved to Berlin where he studied with Simmel,
whom he and others of his generation saw as the most interesting thinker
of their time. Here Bloch also met Georg Lukács, with whom he struck up
a crucial friendship. For Lukács, Bloch ‘spoke the mother tongue of classical
philosophy’ in an environment of mostly sterile academic discourse.82 Bloch
recalled the pair initially being so close that they had to create a ‘nature reserve’
of differences so that they did not always say the same thing in company.83
Indeed, in the years before the First World War they were in almost daily
contact, either in person or by letter. It was Lukács who drew Bloch more
decisively towards Marxism, though the Hungarian always saw his friend as
primarily a utopian thinker, and their friendship became increasingly strained
as their political inclinations diverged. Nevertheless, to begin with Bloch had
a profound influence on Lukács, whom he followed to Heidelberg in 1912.
There, the pair joined the circle around Max and Marianne Weber, who found

Cf. Riedel 1994.
Zudeick 1987, p. 31.
Zudeick 1987, p. 37.
Zudeick 1987, p. 28. For more on Bloch’s friendship with Lukács, see also Boldyrev, 2013,
and Münster 1982.
Zudeick 1987, p. 43.



their prophetic manner off-putting. Weber, too, would disappoint the pacifist
Bloch by showing his nationalist stripes when the time came.
Like many of his generation, Bloch believed that an apocalyptic renewal
was needed to secure humanity’s salvation from what Hegel once called the
‘slaughter-bench’ of history.84 Yet unlike some of his contemporaries, Bloch did
not see war as the solution: while in exile in Switzerland after 1917, he moved
in pacifist circles and wrote anti-nationalist opinion pieces in the émigré press.
Bloch looked to Russia and the promise of socialist revolution as the foundation of a new society, though the utopian future he envisaged was not one
cut off from tradition. His first major published work, Geist der Utopie [Spirit of
Utopia], combined the romantic force of German expressionism with a brand
of Marxism that emphasised Christian values. It was Bloch’s first wife, Elsa
von Stritzky, an aristocratic sculptor from Riga, who inspired in Bloch a positive appreciation of Christianity. A person of deep faith, von Stritzky met
Bloch in the summer of 1911 and the pair was married two years later. However,
Elsa suffered from an obscure recurrent illness, and she died at their home in
Garmisch in 1921. Widely admired by all who knew her, Elsa’s loss affected Bloch
deeply. A second edition of Spirit of Utopia, published in 1923, was dedicated to
her memory.
While the chiliast enthusiasm of Thomas Münzer als Theologe der Revolution [Thomas Münzer as Theologian of the Revolution] (1921) must have been
inspired in part by Elsa’s faith, it also bears the trace of Bloch’s encounter with
the founder of the Dada movement Hugo Ball, whom he met in Zürich while
the pair were working on the Freie Zeitung.85 Ball’s own Zur Kritik der deutschen
Intelligenz [Critique of the German Intelligentsia] (1919) displays some striking
parallels with Bloch’s Münzer book, so much so that Ball would reportedly
accuse Bloch of plagiarism.86 However, as Anson Rabinbach has shown, Ball’s
text is a damning document of his anti-Semitism, which Bloch roundly condemned when it was published, and which very probably caused the end of
their friendship. Nevertheless, Bloch’s proximity to Expressionist and other
avant-garde artistic circles decisively influenced his philosophy during this
period. In Spirit of Utopia, first published in 1918, Bloch advocated a utopian
fusion of art and life in order to overcome alienation, though it was an art that
valorised craft and ornament over the minimalism of modernist design.87

Hegel 2007, p. 21.
Bloch 1985b.
Cf. Ball 2005; Ball 1993.
Bloch 1985c; 2000. The edition history of Geist der Utopie is complex. The first edition, published in 1918 by Duncker & Humblot, differs significantly from the revised 1923 edition



If Bloch sought to mobilise folk culture in the service of social emancipation,
however, he nevertheless vehemently opposed the völkisch nationalist ideas
that nourished the growth of fascism in Weimar Germany. In his 1919 pamphlet,
Vademecum für heutige Demokraten [Handbook for Contemporary Democrats],
Bloch called to the like-minded among his generation to oppose the reactionary forces that would, he was sure, unleash fresh disaster in Europe if the last
vestiges of what David Blackbourn has called the Prussian ‘military-agrarian
complex’ were not dismantled.88 Bloch predicted that, failing a ‘social revolution of the heart’, chimerical notions of ‘blood’ and ‘race’ would be triumphant,
and advocated the establishment of a ‘fully realised moral world parliament’ to
facilitate ‘reconciliation’ between Germany and the rest of the world.89
Bloch’s predictions were prescient. As fascist ideas took hold during the
1920s and early 30s, he watched in frustration as the German left seemed capable of talking only in numbers and figures while the fascists appealed to
hearts and minds, appropriating the messianic language of Reich and Führer. In
Thomas Münzer, Bloch sought an example for the modern left in the history of
the radical current of the Reformation, an event he saw as representing a foundational split in Germany’s pre-history between revolutionary and reactionary
tendencies. Erbschaft dieser Zeit [Heritage of Our Times] (1935) developed this
idea further with a critique of National Socialism that explained its rise partly
in terms of a fundamental non-synchronicity (Ungleichzeitigkeit) between different sectors of modern society.90 Bloch identified the Nazis’ uncanny ability
to fuse the values and symbols of a traditional, pre-capitalist way of life with
those of a modern, technologised industrial society as a defining factor in their
Soon after Hitler came to power, a warrant was issued for Bloch’s arrest,
and in 1934 he and Karola, whom he had married that same year, went into
exile. They fled first to Paris, then to Prague, then finally in 1938 to the United
States, where they remained for over a decade. It was here that Bloch wrote The
Principle of Hope, a phenomenological exploration of what he called our ‘anticipatory consciousness’: an awareness of the possibility of a different, better


published by Paul Cassirer Verlag. The Suhrkamp edition was also significantly revised
and updated before it was first published in 1964. The English translation, published by
Stanford University Press, is based on this revised 1964 version of the text. I refer to the
English edition throughout, except where significant changes have been made between
the editions. A facsimile of the 1918 edition is included as volume 16 in the German Gesamtausgabe.
Blackbourn 2011, p. 26.
Cf. Bloch 1985s, pp. 521, 527.
Bloch 1985d; Bloch 1991.



world, so often the subject of art and religion, but which Bloch also glimpsed
in everyday life, from the utopia of romantic love to the pursuit of advances in
medicine. The ‘principle of hope’ means seeing in things as seemingly banal as
the fairground or the lottery the longing for something more, even if their utopian promise remains abstract. The ‘American Dream’ – ‘To each his chicken
in the pot and two cars in the garage’ – was thus for Bloch also a ‘revolutionary dream’, though it was far from the utopia he sought.91 ‘In America’, Bloch
would later claim, ‘millionaires begin washing dishes, while philosophers finish
up doing it’, his irony barely concealing a certain contempt for a society which,
in his view, mistakenly valued monetary wealth above culture and ideas.92
Unable to speak English, Bloch led an isolated life in the USA, surrounded only by German émigré scholars and financially dependent on Karola
as the breadwinner. Bloch’s hopes of securing a position at the Institute for
Social Research in exile were thwarted not only by his linguistic shortcomings,
however, but also by his political stance during these years. Bloch’s failure to
condemn the Moscow show trials, and his insistence that the hope of socialism
was in Stalin’s hands, earned him the scorn of his Frankfurt School contemporaries: the Director of the Institute, Max Horkheimer, rejected him as ‘too
communist’.93 In a letter from 1942, meanwhile, Bloch disparages the Institute’s ‘Horkheimerism’, and when Leo Lowenthal later recalled that one of the
‘defenders of the Soviet Union’ – he must have meant one of Wittfogel, Grossman, and Bloch – referred to the members of the Institute as ‘the swine on 117th
street’, one suspects that it is Bloch to whom he refers.94
Yet Bloch’s isolation was undoubtedly somewhat cultivated: he longed for
the language and traditions of his homeland or Heimat. In a speech to the
Association of German Writers in Exile in 1939, Bloch claimed that the German language, and therefore also German culture, was under threat from two
sides: in exile from English and at home from its fascist distortion.95 In a letter
to Adolph Lowe from June 1946, Bloch makes it clear that he regarded himself as continuing in a tradition of German thought that stretched from Kant
through the idealists, Marx and on to his contemporaries. ‘That I have the German standpoint,’ he writes, ‘is, for a philosopher, the opposite of misfortune’.96
It is perhaps little wonder, therefore, that Heimat is elevated in The Principle of
Hope to the utopian symbol par excellence.

Bloch 1986, p. 35.
Zudeick 1987, p. 352.
Bloch 1981, p. 136.
Cited in Geoghegan 1995, p. 19.
Bloch 1985j, pp. 277–300.
Bloch 1985r, p. 757.



Given Bloch’s unease in America, it was a particular stroke of good fortune
when in 1949 he was offered a Chair in Philosophy at the University of Leipzig,
in the newly established East German state. Bloch’s work was little known
among his new colleagues. Indeed, the Romanist Werner Krauss, who wrote
to offer Bloch the position, apparently had to work hard to get two faculties
to agree to his invitation.97 Bloch himself initially hesitated in accepting the
invitation – after all, this would be his first official position at 63, an age when
others were considering retirement. However, keen to advance with his work
and return to his homeland, Bloch accepted the post, and in an interview with
the party newspaper Neues Deutschland in August 1949, declared himself full
of enthusiasm for the project of building a socialist utopia on German soil.98
Bloch’s work during his early GDR years demonstrates a certain conformity with the orthodoxy of the time. The essay ‘Partisanship in science and
the world’ [Parteilichkeit in Wissenschaft und Welt] from 1949 clearly demonstrates Bloch’s adherence to the Marxist doctrine of partisanship [Parteilichkeit], according to which academic scholarship was obliged to prioritise the
history and interests of the oppressed masses above all else.99 This was not
only a matter of scholarly or political obligation, however. According to the tenets of Marxist-Leninist ideology, partisanship in science reflected the objective
truth of historical progress according to which the working classes would triumph where they had not already done so. Bloch’s declaration in his 1949 essay,
that ‘Marxism claims all progressive tendencies around the globe for itself; the
strongest partisanship [in science] is founded in what is most real about the
object’, undeniably sees him toe the party line. Meanwhile, it is no coincidence
that Bloch’s depiction of seventeenth-century philosopher and jurist Christian
Thomasius as a ‘German scholar without misery’ [ein deutscher Gelehrter ohne
Misere] in a long essay published in 1953 came shortly after the SED officially
decided at its party congress to abandon the Engelsian ‘misery concept’ of German history that had hitherto dominated official Marxist historiography.100
The picture was, however, more complex than these examples might suggest. East German censorship restrictions undoubtedly influenced some of
Bloch’s editorial decisions: the published correspondence between Bloch and
his editors at the Aufbau-Verlag clearly demonstrate that he was encouraged to
massage more references to Stalin into his manuscripts.101 Furthermore, as the

Cf. Zudeick 1987, p. 184.
Cf. Zudeick 1987, pp. 186–7.
Bloch 1985j, pp. 330–45.
Cf. Bloch 1985f; Bloch 1996.
Bloch 2006, pp. 33, 154.



introduction to the published version of Bloch’s lectures on the history of philosophy, delivered in Leipzig from 1950 to 1956, makes clear, even Bloch’s choice
to teach ‘bourgeois’ philosophy in Leipzig was regarded as a political issue in a
context in which philosophy itself had become an ideological battleground.102
Bloch’s insistence on the importance of Marxism’s Hegelian legacy, in particular, made him a subversive figure in a context in which Hegelianism was
practically a ‘swearword’. Following the publication of his book Subjekt Objekt.
Erläuterungen zu Hegel [Subject-Object. Explanations of Hegel] in 1951, a debate
erupted that would eventually see him forced to step down from his position.103 With Bloch accused of revisionism by Party Chairman Walter Ulbricht,
his students were openly harassed, and his publications blocked. Following
his address to the 20th Party Congress of the Communist Party in Moscow, in
which he called on the SED government to abandon the Soviet Union’s Stalinist
education policy and promote academic freedom, Bloch’s position as a critic of
the GDR regime was beyond doubt. In December 1957 he was summoned before
a tribunal where his philosophy was denounced as un-Marxist, and he himself
was declared unfit to teach.
It is hardly surprising, then, that when the Blochs were visiting West Germany in 1961, and they heard the news that a wall had been erected overnight
in Berlin, they decided to seek asylum in the Federal Republic. In his inaugural lecture as honorary Professor at the University of Tübingen, Bloch, now
76, admitted that his hopes for the GDR had been ‘disappointed’.104 Unfettered
by the constraints of (self-)censorship, in Tübingen Bloch’s critique of the East
became more explicit; later he would claim that ‘those who are now jumping over the wall from East to West Berlin are truly making a leap from the
kingdom of necessity into the kingdom of freedom’.105 Indeed, this new-found
freedom allowed Bloch to concentrate more or less undisturbed on his work.
In addition to the revision and long delayed publication of Das Materialismusproblem, three new works emerged during this period. The Tübinger Einleitung
in die Philosophie [Tübingen Introduction to Philosophy] (1963) is the definitive document of Bloch’s thinking during his Tübingen period, and encapsulates his mature philosophy in nuce.106 With the appearance of Atheismus im
Christentum [Atheism in Christianity] (1968), Bloch’s complicated relationship
to the heritage of messianism would be clarified: here, Christianity emerges for

Cf. Ruth Römer and Burghardt Schmidt’s introduction to Bloch 1985t, p. 7.
Bloch 1985h.
Bloch 1998, pp. 339–45.
Traub and Wieser (eds.) 1975, p. 20.
Bloch 1985m.



Bloch as ‘a form of communism which was not yet ready or able to recognise
or understand itself’, as Peter Thompson puts it.107 Meanwhile with Experimentum Mundi, which the by now almost completely blind Bloch revised with
significant assistance from Burghart Schmidt, Bloch was finally able to publish
the utopian system of categories he had been working on since the 1930s.108
Bloch’s exile from the GDR was not sufficient reason for him to give up on
socialism altogether, however. Until the end of his life, he continued to campaign tirelessly for social justice and freedom of speech, and against fascism
and war. With long experience as one of the last remaining of the pre-1918 generation, Bloch was active during the student-led unrest of 1968 in Germany,
allied with figures like Rudi Dutschke, and with something of a cult profile himself. Just two weeks before he died at home aged 92 on 4 August, 1977, he wrote a
letter to the German anti-nuclear lobby which described the neutron bomb as
‘one of the greatest perversions that human beings have ever created’.109 Bloch
never lived to see the ‘end of history’, but even if he had, it is unlikely it would
have shaken his faith in utopia: in its critical power to shine a light on the deficiencies of the present state of things, and in its ability to inspire us to fight
for something better. That a better world is possible, indeed that its possibility
inheres in the fabric of reality itself, is the central claim of Bloch’s speculative
materialism. We may not know whether we will achieve it, but it is a powerful
claim, one that continues, consciously or unconsciously, to motivate every sort
of human action. This is why I argue that Bloch’s speculative materialism bears
revisiting, both as a product of its own time, and as a lesson for ours.

Bloch 1985n. Cf. Bloch 2009, p. xviii.
Bloch 1985o.
Zudeick 1987, p. 310.

chapter 1

The Materialism Problem
Between 1936 and 1938, Bloch was living in exile in Prague. During that time, he
worked on two manuscripts concurrently, neither of which was ever published
in its intended format. Nevertheless, there is plentiful textual evidence for both
projects in his correspondence. As Bloch wrote to the Deutsche Akademie in
New York in early 1938, the first planned book, Aufklärung und rotes Gesicht
[Enlightenment and the Red Face], was to be an ‘investigation of the problems
and problematic of the irrational’ – in other words, a systematic continuation of
the line of enquiry he had been pursuing in Heritage of Our Times, published in
1935.1 The second was Theorie-Praxis des Materialismus, a ‘philosophical foundation of dialectical materialism’, which would include sections on logic, epistemology, the history of materialism, and a system of categories.2 Bloch mentions this text in a letter he wrote to Joachim and Sylvia Schumacher in May
1936. There, he wondered whether, with this new work, he would ‘declare war’
on his erstwhile friend Lukács, with whom he had been publicly quarrelling
for some time.3 In September that year, he wrote to Max Horkheimer that the
third section had emerged out of an introduction he intended to write to a proposed anthology of writings on ‘non-mechanical materialism’: excerpts from
the works of Robinet, Bruno, Avicebron, Averroes.4 A year later, Bloch declared
the book ‘complete’ at 900 pages in a letter to Theodor and Gretel Adorno.5
In November 1944, however, and by now in the USA, he told Adolph Lowe he
was revising the manuscript, which had something ‘very refreshing’ about it,
after several years working on the ‘wish-image subjectivisms’ of The Principle
of Hope.6
In his entry on Bloch’s speculative materialism in the Bloch-Wörterbuch,
Holz argues that the interval between the publication of The Principle of Hope
and Das Materialismusproblem has led to frequent ‘misunderstandings’ of
Bloch’s work, in particular the perception of him as an idealist thinker.7 In


Cunico 2000, p. 454.
Bloch 1985r, p. 497.
Bloch 1985r, p. 676.
Bloch 1985r, p. 438.
Bloch 1985r, p. 746.
Holz 1975, p. 486.

© koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2020 | doi:10.1163/9789004272873_003

the materialism problem


particular, Holz sees it as having ‘hidden’ the fact that the ‘half revolutionary,
half eschatological system of the subjective factor’ on display in The Principle
of Hope was underpinned by a ‘fully devised conception of materialism’.8 As if
to highlight this very fact, Das Materialismusproblem opens with a quotation
from Chapter 18 of The Principle of Hope, which forms a bridge between Bloch’s
phenomenology of hope and his ontology of the not-yet:
the transition from the realm of necessity into that of freedom only finds
land in unenclosed process-matter. Precisely those extremes that have
previously been held as far apart as possible: future and nature, anticipation and matter – collide in the due rigor of historical-dialectical
materialism. Without matter no basis of (real) anticipation, without (real)
anticipation no horizon of matter is ascertainable.9
Yet Bloch far from abandons his emphasis on the question of consciousness
in Das Materialismusproblem. Indeed, the eponymous ‘problem’ at the heart
of Bloch’s investigation is not, as Holz has claimed, that it ‘must work out a
system of categories that does not allow matter itself to become enraptured
into transcendence’.10 To be sure, the question of the concept of matter is central to Das Materialismusproblem. However, concepts and categories themselves
already imply the existence of consciousness, and indeed, as Bloch tells us, it is
primarily the ‘aporia’ of the being-consciousness relation that poses the most
challenging and fertile problem for materialist thought.11
Bloch sees this problem closely related to what he calls the ‘antinomy’ of
the quantity-quality relation, arguably even as a species of it – after all, consciousness is a qualitative experience that somehow emerges amid a quantity
of non-conscious material phenomena.12 Yet since it is only because there is
consciousness that these considerations arise at all, this ‘aporia’ occupies a privileged position. Thus it turns out that Bloch’s ‘materialism problem’ is what the
philosopher David Chalmers would later, and in quite a different philosophical
register from Bloch’s, call the ‘hard problem of consciousness’: it is the question



Holz 1975, p. 486.
Cf. Bloch 1986, p. x; p. 237. Note that here, as elsewhere, I have adapted the translation of
Plaice, Plaice, and Knight in the English version of The Principle of Hope. There, ‘zusammenschlagen’ is rendered as ‘chime together’; I have changed it to ‘collide’. I have also
chosen ‘rigour’ instead of ‘groundedness’ for ‘Gründlichkeit’.
Holz 1975, p. 495.
Bloch 1985g, pp. 459–66.


chapter 1

of how minds, with their qualities of experience and freedom of intentionality,
can arise in a world that science tells us is governed by deterministic laws.13
Of course, this question has a long history, but it emerged in its modern form
in the context of the so-called materialism debate of the mid-nineteenth century. Herbert Schnädelbach has described the intellectual atmosphere in Germany after Hegel’s death in 1831 as a ‘commonplace polemic against romanticidealist natural philosophy’, and indeed this was a period in which a variety
of materialisms flourished in philosophy, politics, and natural science alike. As
the dominance of idealism waned, and biology began to emancipate itself from
natural philosophy, German scientists and critical thinkers began to call traditional ideas about consciousness and free will into question.14
The emergence of the cell theory of life among young German scientists
such as Matthias Jakob Schleiden, Theodor Schwann, and Rudolf Virchow, in
particular, began to invite materialist explanations of phenomena that had
previously been the preserve of either religion or a still theologically inspired
natural philosophy.15 Virchow’s proclamation in 1845 that ‘[l]ife is essentially
the activity of cells’ provoked profound questions concerning the emergence of
life, human consciousness, and free will.16 Empirical science appeared to have
proven that life begets cellular life, but if that was the case, how did the first cell
come into being? Even if cell theory could explain the body in natural scientific
terms, what about the mind? Was that just the product of cellular activity, too?
If it was, what did that mean for the idea of free will and responsibility for one’s
For a number of ‘scientific’ or ‘mechanical’ materialists, as they would become known, the answers to these last two questions were relatively simple:
from the perspective of modern biology, consciousness was nothing more than
an accidental product of the brain’s physical processes. There was no free will,
and certainly no God. Carl Vogt was a Professor of Zoology at Giessen, who
had studied chemistry there with Justus Liebig, a soil scientist whose work
profoundly influenced Marx’s theory of metabolic rift.17 Vogt’s experiments
with live subjects had convinced him that ‘the seat of consciousness, the will,
and thought must be sought only and exclusively in the brain’.18 Yet since he


Chalmers 1996.
Schnädelbach 1983, p. 100.
Cf. Wittkau-Horgby 1998, pp. 47–76.
Virchow 1845, p. 8.
Cf. Bellamy Foster 2000.
Vogt 1846, p. 322; Vogt 1852, p. 443, Vogt describes how he ‘cut away the mental functions’
of a live pigeon as he ‘cut away its brain piece by piece’.

the materialism problem


believed that ‘[t]houghts stand in the same relation to the brain as bile to the
liver and urine to the kidneys’, it was clear that the materialism he espoused left
no room for free will.19 Indeed, Vogt claimed that from the perspective of a consistent materialism, organisms are no more than living machines determined
by their biology.20
Needless to say, Vogt’s ideas were controversial, not least on account of their
implications in the social, political, and spiritual spheres. Yet although mechanical materialism, like Feuerbach’s materialist anthropology and the materialist conception of history of Marx and Engels, had its roots in the Vormärz
period leading up 1848, it was only after the revolution that it really provoked
controversy. For Vogt, scientific materialism represented the new outlook that
would sweep away the outdated traditions of old. In an exchange in the Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung, Vogt singled out Rudolf Wagner, an anatomist and
physiologist in Göttingen, as the worst kind of representative of the old regime.
Wagner had attacked Vogt in the same press earlier that year, claiming that
his materialism replaced God with ‘blind, unconscious necessity’. Vogt retorted
that anyone who rejected his findings had not fully realised the consequences
of modern science for the religious worldview.
This did not play well in the restoration atmosphere of post-1849 Germany,
however, and Wagner’s response at the 1854 congress of scientists in Göttingen
ignited what would become known as the materialism debate.21 Again Wagner attacked materialism on spiritual grounds, claiming that the insight that
certain mental processes follow from certain physical ones did not prove or
disprove the biblical doctrine of the immaterial soul. ‘There is in the biblical
doctrine of the soul’, he argued, ‘not a single point that would contradict any
of the principles of modern physiology and natural science’.22 It was not the
job of science, he argued, to make pronouncements about the nature of the
The second point on which Wagner attacked Vogt was political in nature. In
an impassioned speech to his peers, he pleaded:



Vogt 1846, p. 323.
Vogt 1852, p. 445.
For a selection of texts by authors involved in the debate, cf. Bayertz, Gerhard and Jaeschke
(eds.) 2012. The most complete introduction to the materialism debate in English is still
Gregory 1977. A more recent, thorough summary can be found in Beiser 2014, pp. 53–132.
The chapters on ‘Naturphilosophie, Romanticism and Nationalism’, and especially ‘The
Rise of Materialisms and the Reshaping of Religion and Politics’ in Olson 2008 are also
Wagner 1854, p. 30.


chapter 1

We who are gathered here today, however differently our worldview may
be constituted in each one of us, we, who have together seen and felt
the turmoil of our nation in its last battles, in which many of us participated, we must ask ourselves what the consequences of our results and
our research will be for the education and future of our great people.23
The ‘battles’ to which Wagner referred here were those of the 1848 revolution.
Though Wagner himself had not been on the barricades, Vogt had. Already in
the mid-1830s, while still a student, Vogt had fled to Switzerland on suspicion
of dissent, completing his studies there. Then during the three years he spent
in Paris in the 1840s, he became increasingly politicised, spending time in the
company of anarchists Mikhail Bakunin and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Finally,
when the March revolution reached Giessen, Vogt abandoned his position as
an academic to join the citizens’ army, or Bürgerwehr, and was eventually elected as a deputy to the Frankfurt National Assembly, the democratic parliament
established after the revolution. When the Frankfurt Assembly collapsed in
1849, Vogt was among the 158 representatives who fled to Stuttgart, clinging
on to the hope of constitutional monarchy until the rump parliament was dissolved by force by Württemberg troops. The subtext of Wagner’s critique is
therefore quite clear: if Vogt’s materialism meant that free will is an illusion,
how could he and others be held responsible for their actions?
Mechanical materialism may have been under attack from more conservative quarters, but Vogt did have allies, among them Jacob Moleschott, a Professor
of Medicine in Heidelberg. Feuerbach had been an early influence on Moleschott, who was particularly interested in diet and metabolism. His 1850 work
The Doctrine of Nutrition: For the People [Die Lehre der Nahrungsmittel: Für das
Volk] made the findings of Moleschott’s research available to a broad public as
one of the first works of popular science in Germany.24 Moleschott believed
that materialism must do more than merely deny the existence of God and
the immaterial soul, but had to offer something in place of these things by
making a positive contribution to society. In particular, he was convinced that
nutrition was the foundation of good mental and physical health, and the book
contained detailed nutrition plans to improve the health of the poor.25 When


Wagner 1855, p. 25.
Moleschott 1822. For more on the popularisation of science in nineteenth-century Germany, cf. Andreas Daum 2002.
Although Georg Büchner died in 1837, some thirteen years before Moleschott’s work on
popular nutrition was published, he too was influenced by the idea that food was a determining factor of physical and social health. In his play Woyzeck, the central character, a poor

the materialism problem


he sent a copy of the book to Feuerbach in 1850, he wrote a highly approving
review of it, entitled ‘Science and Revolution’ [‘Die Naturwissenschaft und die
Revolution’]. There, Feuerbach proclaimed that
Food becomes blood, blood becomes heart and brain, thoughts and attitudes. The human diet is the basis of human formation and disposition. If
you want to improve the people, give them better food instead of exhorting them not to sin. Human beings are what they eat.26
Having previously declared his own philosophy ‘beyond’ the distinction between idealism and materialism, under Moleschott’s influence, Feuerbach now
explicitly positioned himself as a materialist.
So too did Ludwig Büchner, a doctor and the younger brother of the playwright and revolutionary Georg Büchner. In his 1855 work Force and Matter
[Kraft und Stoff ], Büchner argued that since science had shown that matter
and force are one, there could be no immaterial soul, which after all would be a
force without a material carrier.27 Although he disagreed with Vogt’s claim that
thoughts were ‘secretions’ of the brain (reminding the reader that Vogt prefaced this statement by saying he was expressing the idea ‘coarsely’), Büchner
nevertheless insisted that the brain is the ‘carrier’ [Träger] of thought.28 Free
will was a ‘chimera’ to the extent that humans believe they act in accordance
with it, Büchner argued – however, he did not deny it entirely.29 To be sure, he
quotes Moleschott approvingly on the matter, who in his book Der Kreislauf
des Lebens [The Life Cycle] argued that there is ‘no free will or act of will that
would be free from the sum of influences that condition the human being in
every moment, and set limits even on the most powerful’.30 However, Büchner
argued controversially that just as human beings, like animals, are conditioned
by their instinct, both animals and humans alike have the capacity to make
decisions, form memories, and put their experience to use in new situations.31


soldier, is driven mad partly by being forced to participate for money in the experiment of
an exploitative doctor who restricts his diet to peas. As Richards 2001, p. 68, confirms, like
Vogt, Georg Büchner had studied medicine in Giessen, and the character of the Doctor in
the play may have been modelled on Liebig, who conducted experiments to measure the
influence of diet on the chemical composition of soldiers’ urine.
Feuerbach 1967–2007, p. 22.
cf. Büchner 1855.
Büchner 1855, p. 172.
Büchner 1855, p. 232.
Büchner 1855, p. 261; cf. von Moleschott 1852, p. 414.
Cf. Büchner 1855, pp. 230–40.


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Marx’s biographer Franz Mehring claimed that Kraft und Stoff had ‘whipped
up a storm in the literary and scientific worlds’, and indeed it was an unexpected
bestseller, so much so that Hermann Langenbeck, a philosophy lecturer in Göttingen, published a short text in 1865 asking whether a ninth edition was really
necessary.32 In fact the book would reach 21 editions, with the last published in
1904, and was translated into fifteen languages. Nevertheless, as Langenbeck’s
polemic indicates, Büchner’s ideas and mechanical materialism in general had
many adversaries. The academic establishment formed one group: Büchner’s
right to teach was revoked after the publication of Kraft und Stoff, and Moleschott was threatened with the same by the rector of Heidelberg University after
the publication of Der Kreislauf des Lebens in 1852. Neo-Kantian scholars like
Langenbeck formed another.
With the rise of the neo-Kantian movement from the 1860s onwards, mechanical materialism faced a serious challenge. Neo-Kantians like Otto Liebmann
and Friedrich Albert Lange were dismayed with the direction philosophy had
taken in the aftermath of Kant’s death. They saw the kinds of ideas put forward
by the German idealists, but also the mechanical materialists, as overstepping
the limits to knowledge that had been set down by Kant in his Critique of Pure
Reason (1781). In 1866, Lange published his History of Materialism and Critique
of its Present Importance, in which he described the mechanical materialists as
‘philosophical dilettantes’ for having ignored the epistemological dimensions
of their claims about the nature of matter. A year earlier, Liebmann had made
similar objections in his book Kant und die Epigonen [Kant and the Epigones]
(1865), in which every chapter ended with the refrain ‘Therefore we must go
back to Kant!’33
At the end of the eighteenth century, with the Enlightenment dispute between reason and faith at its height, Immanuel Kant had set out to challenge
the claims to absolute knowledge made by traditional metaphysics.34 Traditional metaphysics used what Kant called pure or speculative reason to answer
theoretical questions with purely rational answers. Questions of the infinity or
otherwise of time and space; whether the world is made up of simple parts
(atoms); whether everything takes place according to natural laws or whether
there is also spontaneity and therefore freedom in nature; and the question of
the existence of God or a necessary being – all these things were speculated
about by metaphysicians and theologians, even though nobody can ever have
any objectively verifiable experience of any of these things. Kant described
these questions as ‘antinomies’, which, when confronted with pure reason,

Mehring 1931, p. 200. Cf. Langenbeck 1865.
Liebmann 1865.
Kant 1998.

the materialism problem


always result in impossible contradictions.35 For example, it is rationally possible to argue both that God does and does not exist, and there is no way of
empirically verifying whether or not that is true. Kant believed that it was ‘a
customary fate of human reason in speculation to finish its edifice as early as
possible and only then to finish investigating whether the ground has been
adequately prepared for it’.36 His own investigation set out to enquire into precisely these fundaments, that is, into the nature of human knowledge itself.
In an attempt to bridge the gap between Cartesian rationalism and Humean
empiricism, Kant argued that knowledge can only be gained through experience. However, he argued that our experience does not provide knowledge
of the world as it is in itself, but only of how it appears to us as a function of
our cognitive structure. That is to say that the empirical data we observe in the
world conform to certain structures supplied by our reason, such as categories
of quantity and quality, possibility and actuality, cause and effect. These things
were not ‘real’ for Kant, but rather they are structures of our mental apparatus.
When we say we know an object, what we are really saying is that we know the
way it appears to us as a phenomenon, not the way it exists in itself as a noumenon. As such, Kant effectively set limits on what can be objectively known
rather than merely speculated about. The existence of God, the infinity or otherwise of the universe – these things could still be articles of faith, but until or
unless they could be empirically proven, they were not objects of knowledge
in the realm of pure reason. In Kant’s own words, he had to ‘deny knowledge in
order to make room for faith’; nevertheless, one might argue that Kant’s injunction against traditional metaphysics played a key role in undermining the latter,
Kant defined speculative reason as reason applied ‘beyond the boundaries
of experience’.38 The ‘first usefulness’ of his critique of pure reason, he argued,
was that it teaches us ‘never to venture’ beyond these boundaries – or at least,
if we do, then never to call what we find there knowledge.39 Yet according to



Cf. Kant, CPR, A405–583/B432–611. Citations of particular sections of text by Kant usually
specify the unit referred to (whether by page or by section, §). There is one important
exception: references to the Critique of Pure Reason. Kant produced two editions of this
work: the first edition (published in 1781) is cited as CPR A, the second, revised edition
(published in 1787) as CPR B. Following convention, citations refer to one or both editions
by page, but omit ‘p.’ (e.g., CPR A 324/B 380). Where only the A or B page is given, it refers
to material absent from the other edition.
Kant, CPR, A5/B9.
Kant, CPR, BXXX.
Kant, CPR, BXXV.


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neo-Kantian scholar Liebmann, that was precisely what the mechanical materialists had done. In Kant und die Epigonen, Liebmann claimed that the scientific
materialism of his day ‘considers its doctrine [that the world is made only of
matter] to be highly plausible, because it rests on matter as the most solid basis
that everyone can grasp with their hands’.40 But, Liebman continued, ‘somebody only has to ask “Yes, but what is matter, in fact?” and i