What is Anthropological Materialism?

Marc Berdet, University of Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne, CETCOPRA.

Version française / Deutsche Fassung

“The history of anthropological materialism stretches, in Germany, from Jean Paul to Keller (passing through Georg Büchner and Gutzkow); in France, the socialist utopias and the physiologies are its precipitate.” [1]

In The Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin tries to re-evaluate a neglected tradition, “anthropological materialism”, born at the beginning of the 19th century. It develops itself particularly during a moment anterior to the Congress of Tours, a moment anterior to the development of Marxism: the period of the 1820’, 30’s and ‘40s. The surrealists, for him, are heirs to anthropological materialism because they try to relocate themselves to this historical moment. [2]

For Benjamin, French anthropological materialism (Fourier, Saint-Simon, Démar, Ganeau, Toussenel, Vésuviennes, fusionisme, “Jenny l’ouvrière”, Balzac) expresses itself in the collective, in urban physiology and above all in socialists utopias, while German anthropological materialism (Jean Paul, Keller, Hebel, Büchner, Gutzkow, Scheerbart, Feuerbach, Nietzsche) expresses itself in the individual, almost in a pedagogical relation. Anthropological materialism found in Germany its most incisive formulation because its opposite, idealism, was formulated with the greatest clarity, but it found in France its most collective formulation because it was there that the political thought was formulated with the greatest intensity. [3]

Benjamin brings together, under this name, French and German writers, philosophers and activists who, facing the nascent industrial world, develop a very similar vision of the world (“materialism”) applied to human issues (“anthropological”).

He re-forms therefore a tradition of which these authors were unaware even though there are clear relationships and reciprocal influences between them.

“We smile at the chimerical pretension [of Saint Simon] to trace all physical and moral phenomena back to the law of universal attraction. But we forget too easily that this pretension was not in itself isolated; under the influence of the revolutionizing natural laws of mechanics, there could arise a current of natural philosophy which saw in the mechanism of nature the proof of just such a mechanism of social life and of events generally.” [4]

Anthropological materialism combines paradoxically a romantic vision of human beings with a scientific vision of material energies. It was a reaction against the disenchantment of modern life.

Toussenel: “Fourier … claims to ‘join together and enframe, within a single plan, the societary mechanics of the passions with the other known harmonies of the universe”. [5]

“Materialism” refers to Newtonians forces of universal gravitation; “anthropological” refers to physical forces of attractions and repulsions that result from them and such as they apply themselves to a pedagogical process, for the individual, or to a political arrangement, for the collective. In a better world, in a society without classes, universal gravitation applies to humans in their sociability under social passions, sympathies and antipathies.

“The anthropological materialism is comprised within the dialectical.” [6]

Benjamin tries to revaluate this neglected tradition especially against dialectical materialism that eclipses anthropological materialism in the second part of the 19th century. Anthropological materialism contains elements which are refractory to Marxism. The power of anthropological materialism is to merge moral non conformism and proletarian revolution. [7]


[1] PW (W8,1) [AP 633].

[2] PW (a1,1) [AP 698].

[3] “the role of anthropological materialism in France should be compared with its role in Germany. It might turn out that there, in France, it was the human collective that stood at the center of interests, while here, in Germany, it was the human individual. We must note, as well, that anthropological materialism attained sharper definition in Germany because its opposite, idealism, was more clearly delineated over there.” PW (W8,1) [AP 633]. “Fourierist pedagogy, like the pedagogy of Jean Paul, should be studied in the context of anthropological materialism.” PW (W8,1) [AP 633].“The words of Jean Paul which I put at the head of this biography of Fourier – ‘Of the fibers that vibrate in the human soul he cut away none, but rather harmonized all’ – these words apply admirably to this socialist, and in their fullest resonance apply only to him. One could not find a better way to characterize the phalansterian philosophy.” Ch. Pellarin, Notice bibliographique (1839), p. 60, cited in A. Pinloche, Fourier et le socialisme (Paris, 1933), p. 17-18, cited in PW (W1,1) [AP 620].

[4] Willy Spühler, Der Saint-Simonismus, Zürich, 1926, p. 29, cited in PW (M2,7) [AP 420].

[5] Toussenel, in Armand and Maublanc, Fourier, Paris 1937, vol. 1, p. 227; citing Fourier, Traité de l’association domestique-agricole, Paris and London, 1822, vol. 1., p. 24-26, and Théorie de l’unité universelle, 1834, p. 31, cited in PW (W13,1) [AP 641-642]

[6] PW (U12,4) [AP 591].

[7] PW (a1,1) [AP 698].

This short text was presented first at the conference untitled At the Crossroads of Magic and Positivism: Walter Benjamin and Anthropology, 1-3 September 2009, Worcester College, Oxford.

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