The Principle of Hope

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The Principle of Hope
The Principle of Hope (German edition).jpg
Cover of the German edition
Author Ernst Bloch
Original title Das Prinzip Hoffnung
Translator Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, Paul Knight
Country Germany
Language German
Subject Utopia
  • 1954 (in German)
  • 1986 (MIT Press, in English)
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
ISBN 978-0262521994 (vol. 1)
978-0262522007 (vol. 2)
978-0262522014 (vol. 3)

The Principle of Hope (German: Das Prinzip Hoffnung) is a book by the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, published in three volumes in 1954, 1955, and 1959, in which the author explores utopianism, studying the utopian impulses present in art, literature, religion and other forms of cultural expression, and envisages a future state of absolute perfection. The Principle of Hope has become fundamental to dialogue between Christians and Marxists.[1]


Originally written between 1938 and 1947 in the United States,[1] an enlarged and revised version of The Principle of Hope was published successively in three volumes in 1954, 1955, and 1959. Bloch, who had emigrated to the United States in 1938, returned to Europe in 1949 and became a Professor of Philosophy in East Germany. Despite having initially supported the regime, Bloch came under attack for his philosophical unorthodoxy and support for greater cultural freedom in East Germany, and publication of The Principle of Hope was delayed for political reasons.[2]


Bloch's theories have been summarized by the philosopher Leszek Kołakowski in his Main Currents of Marxism (1976), and the description that follows is based on Kołakowski's account: Bloch observes that throughout history, and in all cultures, people have dreamed of a better life and constructed various kinds of utopias. Utopian dreams are present in art forms such as poetry, drama, music and painting, and in elementary form in children's dreams, fairy-tales, and popular legend. Utopian impulses can also be found in architecture, medicine, sport, dancing and circuses, as well as in specifically utopian literature and in the entire history of religion. Some utopias relate simply to immediate private ends, but the higher kind of revolutionary utopia envisages the end of human suffering. For Bloch, the positive utopia is the expectation of absolute perfection. Revolutionary utopias of past ages were seen by Bloch as reflections of humanity's desire for perfection, post-Marxist utopias were all seen by him as reactionary. Bloch insists the only two possible outcomes to history are absolute destruction and absolute perfection.[2]

European philosophy prior to Karl Marx was seen by Bloch as being largely content with interpreting the existing world rather than planning for a better one. For unclear reasons, philosophy appears to have been less marked by utopian impulses than other areas of culture. Bloch criticized Plato's theory that knowledge is anamnesis, the remembering of something previously forgotten, for being centered on the past, and believed that it had been repeated throughout the history of philosophy. Even philosophies that projected a future state of perfection were defective in Bloch's view, since they always imagined this state realized first in the abstract and therefore had no understanding of real change and no orientation toward the future. Such philosophies, in which perfection or salvation was represented as a return to a lost paradise instead of the creation of a new one, included those of Philo, Saint Augustine, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.[2]

Twentieth century philosophies, such as those of Henri Bergson and Alfred North Whitehead, which attempted to describe real change and maintain an openness to the future, did not receive Bloch's approval. Bloch believed that Bergson's philosophy was not one of anticipation: in it the new is simply an abstraction, a negation of repetition. Kołakowski suggests that Bloch believed that not only philosophy but all human knowledge prior to Marx was capable only of describing the past, and could not anticipate the future. He viewed this problem as being worsened by capitalism, which turned all objects into commodities and reified thought. Bloch, who on this point largely follows the views of György Lukács and the Frankfurt school, believed that reified thought expresses itself as fact-worship, which is devoid of imagination and incapable of either apprehending the whole or grasping the essential in the course of history. Kołakowski writes that Bloch's comments about non-Marxist philosophies are little better than casual condemnation and make no attempt at analysis.[2]

Psychoanalysis was seen by Bloch as a negation of the future. Bloch wanted to replace the concept of the unconscious with the "not yet conscious", that which is latent within us in the form of anticipation but is not yet articulate. He was critical of the psychoanalytic unconscious, since he saw it as being based on accumulations of the past, and therefore containing nothing new. In Bloch's view, this backward orientation was even more evident in the work of Carl Jung, who interpreted the human psyche in terms of collective prehistory, than that of Sigmund Freud. Bloch viewed Jung as a fascist,[2] and related his concept of the collective unconscious to fascist praise for primitive instinct and the will to power.[3] Alfred Adler's theory of the will to power as a fundamental human impulse was seen by Bloch as a "typically capitalist idea". Bloch believed that all forms of psychoanalysis were backward looking because they expressed the consciousness of "the bourgeoisie", a class without a future.[2] Corrington defends Jung against Bloch's criticisms, writing that Bloch fails to recognize that Jung attempted to balance archetypes against each other precisely to prevent what Bloch saw as the undesirable consequences of Jungian theory. He states that Marxists such as Bloch are incapable of recognizing the power of archetypal structures because of the materialism inherent in their framework.[3]

Marxism, according to Bloch, is the only force that has given humanity a full and consistent perception of the future. Since it recognizes the past only to the extent that it still effects the present, it is entirely oriented toward the future. Marxism is a science that has overcome the opposition between what is and what should be: it is both a theory of a future paradise and a method of creating it. Marxism is a utopia, but one that must be distinguished from the utopias of previous ages because of its concreteness. While it makes no exact predictions about the future of society, it makes possible conscious participation in the historical process that leads to the transformation of society. The new society will be free from alienation and the division of people into classes, and will also achieve the reconciliation of the human race with nature. Bloch considered Marx's comments about "humanization of nature" in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 to be of key importance: a utopia cannot be concrete unless it embraces the universe. Utopias that are limited to the organization of society and ignore nature are no better than abstractions. Marxism's knowledge of this anticipated world and its will to create it have a counterpart in a higher and more real "essential" order, which is not a perfection already realized somewhere but invisibly present as an anticipation in the empirical world.[2]

Kołakowski, who finds Bloch's concept of non-empirical reality to be typically neo-Platonic and Hegelian, writes that Bloch supports it not by appealing to the neo-Platonists or to Hegel, but rather to the Aristotelian concept of entelechy and the "creative matter" envisaged by Aristotle's followers. Bloch believed that the world has an immanent purposiveness that leads to the evolution of complete from incomplete forms. Kołakowski writes that while Aristotle's concepts of energy, potentiality and entelechy are basically intelligible when applied to particular objects and processes, they cannot intelligibly be applied to reality as a whole. He criticizes Bloch's concepts for being purely speculative and having no basis in empirical observation. According to Kołakowski, Bloch argues that any objections to the hope of absolute perfection based on existing scientific knowledge are invalid because "facts" have no ontological meaning. Bloch, recognizing that existing scientific thought does not support his theories, appeals instead to art and the imagination. Kołakowski believes that this approach might be reasonable if Bloch considered himself a poet, but that it is unreasonable given Bloch's claim that his ideas are in some sense scientific.[2]

Bloch argues that realizing the possibilities inherent in the essence of the universe can only be accomplished through human will and effort. Whether the universe is destroyed or brought to perfection depends on the actions of the human race and is not determined in advance. Bloch ascribes to Marx the idea that the human race is the guide of the universe or of Being as a whole. Kołakowski finds that view to be typically neo-Platonic rather than Marxist, and believes that Bloch can attribute it to Marx only by distorting Marx's writings. He also believes that Bloch is unclear to what extent the future is contained within the present: our knowledge of that future may be either real knowledge, or an act of human will. This ambiguity is seen by Kołakowski as typical of the Hegelian and Marxist traditions, which blur the distinction between foreseeing and creating the future. He notes that Bloch attempts to clarify his views by appealing to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz's "little perceptions", a kind of knowledge that is real even though inarticulate. Kołakowski argues that Bloch's approach is designed to avoid the necessity of having to provide reasons for his conclusions. He notes that while Bloch believes that the social organization of his future utopia cannot be described in advance, Bloch nevertheless predicts that it will contain an entirely new kind of technology that will transform human life.[2]

Bloch believed that while traditional religious beliefs in immortality or reincarnation are pure fantasy, they are also a manifestation of the utopian will and human dignity. Kołakowski interprets Bloch as arguing that, while the promises of immortality in traditional religions are vain, under communism it will be possible to overcome the problem of death. Human beings will eventually create God. Bloch writes that "true Genesis is not at the beginning but at the end". He also believed that socialism would be able to guarantee Utopia to inorganic nature.[2]

Scholarly reception[edit]

Kołakowski calls The Principle of Hope Bloch's magnum opus, writing that it contains all his important ideas.[2] The work has been described as "monumental" by philosopher Robert S. Corrington[1] and psychoanalyst Joel Kovel.[4]


  1. ^ a b c Corrington, Robert S. (1987). The Community of Interpreters: On the Hermeneutics of Nature and the Bible in the American Philosophical Tradition. Mercer University Press. p. 103. ISBN 0-86554-284-8. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Kołakowski, Leszek (1985). Main Currents of Marxism Volume 3: The Breakdown. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 425–439. ISBN 0-19-285109-8. 
  3. ^ a b Corrington, Robert S. (1992). Nature and Spirit: An Essay in Ecstatic Naturalism. New York: Fordham University. pp. 68–69. ISBN 0-8232-1363-3. 
  4. ^ Kovel, Joel (1991). History and Spirit: An Inquiry into the Philosophy of Liberation. Boston: Beacon Press. p. 99. ISBN 0-8070-2916-5.