German Marxist (Hegelian Marxist) philosopher associated with the Frankfurt School for Social Research (Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Eric Fromm, Walter Benjamin, Sigfried Kracauer, etc.)
He had a position at the University of Leipzig (1918–33).
He ended up in the US after fleeing the Nazis but returned to Leipzig in 1948. He was forced to defect to West Germany in the early 60's and settled in Tübingen and taught at the university there.
I first came across Bloch in an Aesthetic Theory class taught by a favorite professor back at Rutgers in undergraduate days. That little book about the expressionist debate with the aforementioned Frankfurt School thinkers and Georg Lukacs and Bertolt Brecht. A beautiful little book called Aesthetics and Politics. Bloch's essay starts the whole thing off and in contrary to the somewhat dry prose of the rest of the book; his essay is a rush of imagery and allusions - almost an expressionist work in itself.
I looked for more stuff in the library on him or by him and by luck found a three volume work called Principle of Hope. It traces strains of utopian thought through history - in cultural expressions; religious thought and political action. But it is not simply an encyclopedic or historical treatment of the subject (i.e. de Rougemont's Love in the Western World. No, the remarkable aspect of this work is a basic ontological claim - and by extension the historical method which accompanies this claim.
Ah - but I make it sound so dry and really it is not. If you are reading this and your eyes glaze over at words like 'ontology' (not because it is hard but because when we discuss it it becomes dry and abstract - reified to borrow the Frankfurt School terminology. Pick up Bloch and let the language carry you until the thoughts begin to make sense. It is not hard like the translations of Derrida or Heidegger nor the English of Frederic Jamison or Homi Bhabha or Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, etc... It's hard because he is speaking directly at you (perhaps like Nietzsche did for his generation) and is using a terminology that is at once complex and simple.
The 'upright glance' is an example that comes to mind. The ability of a human to look clearly and directly at other humans. To be neither slave nor master (in the Hegelian meaning of those words. So what I meant in the previous paragraph about him speaking directly to you - is that he presupposes an upright glance in the reader...
The ontological claim he makes can be classified as an open ended, negative, plural ontology. Negative here doesn’t have pejorative connotations. Hegelian negation indicates a gap between potentiality and existence. Thus hunger and desire as expressed in art, music or literature - the hunger for transcendence - indicates a negation.
Plural indicates a social aspect to identity. Homo oeconomicus. We don’t start out alone and we don't see the world as atomized individuals.
An ontological claim is a basic statement of our being and identity - i.e. Aquinas (esse est percipe) or DesCartes (cogito ergo sum). Bloch's could be expressed as "We are becoming". A simple unremarkable statement on the face of it without the epoch-making grandeur of "I think, therefore I am". Bloch's ontological claim puts the category 'hope' at the very center of human identity. And by doing so injects a Copernican twist to the Cartesian claim. Human existence is fundamentally stateless. Categories of Reason provide some structure but cannot begin to satisfy true human needs. Utopian thought orients this stateless existence towards a goal. 'We are becoming' human.
"Man cannot live on bread alone, unless he doesn't have any" Art, music, technology - many of our productions contain a germ of utopian content. Dream images of a life without work, food for all, enduring peace. These dreams permeate our culture and fragments of a desired whole are found in high and low places. The fairy tale of a child and the symphony.
But it is not to say that this is a simple positivistic progression towards perfection - a la Disney or the 1939 World's Fair. The reality is that history is a multidimensional fluid dialectic. It is not pointing in one direction. The content of the present is full of the unexpressed dreams of the past and glimpses of a possible future.
A category that shows up in Heritage of out Times - the nonsynchronous contemporainity - explains this. The work as a whole is remarkable in that it was an early analysis of fascism from the point of view that the fascists were co-opting the dream images of the current society and using them to promote a backward looking vision. The fascist allusions to 'Blood and Soil', the Fatherland and racial identity are all examples of this.
I think Bloch's analysis in Heritage can be made of current US corporate and political life - mutatis mutandis. And his philosophy has had an impact in a number of movements (liberation theology, Green movement, etc.).
This little writup is in no way even scratching the surface of this man and his work. I was reminded of the excitement of first reading Bloch back in Prof. Bronner's Aesthetics class because I noticed that Bloch's first work Spirit of Utopia was published in English last September. And not to belabor the point but I have not begun to get over that month yet. Nor begin to comprehend it. I watched it all from my balcony overlooking the Hudson River. For me Bloch is perhaps a start.
Incomplete list of Works in English (ie the ones I have):
Principle of Hope
Spirit of Utopia
Heritage of Our Times
Atheism in Christianity
Man on His Own
On Karl Marx
Philosophy of the Future
numerous essays on Art, Literature, Aesthetics and Politics