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The term materialism, derived from the Latin word materia (timber, matter), was coined about 1670 by the British physicist Robert Boyle (16271691). Its French equivalent, materialisme, was used probably for the first time by Pierre Bayle (16471706), although it was not yet listed in his famous Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697). The German term Materialismus seems to have been introduced around 1700 by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (16461716). Since then it has been employed to denote any theory that considers all events in the universe to be sufficiently accounted for by the existence and nature of matter.

Historians of philosophy often distinguish between different versions of such theories: theoretical materialism, the philosophical doctrine according to which, in contrast to idealism, matter is the only substratum of all existence and all mental or spiritual phenomena are merely functions of it; psychological materialism, which claims that the soul or spirit of living organisms consists only of matter or is a function of physical processes; physiological materialism, according to which mental activities can be explained as biological processes; and dialectical materialism, or its variant historical materialism, which regards all important historical events as result of the economic developments of the human society. Finally, the term materialism is also used in the disapprobatory sense of denoting excessive desire for material goods and wealth.

Ancient Greek materialism

Following Friedrich Albert Lange's influential History of Materialism (1865), which opens with the statement that "materialism is as old as philosophy, but not older" (p. 7) many historians identify the beginning of materialism with the birth of Greek philosophy in the sixth century b.c.e. They regard Thales of Miletus, who is generally credited with having been the founder of Greek science, mathematics, and philosophy, as the first proponent of materialism. They claim that his well-known statement "all things are water" implies that water is the only and universal substratum of which all other bodies are merely modifications. Although Thales's specific choice of water as the fundamental matter did not satisfy his successors, his distinction between appearance and a reality that becomes comprehensible through the unifying function of reason was of lasting consequence for philosophical thought. His disciple, Anaximander of Miletus, replaced water by the more abstract apeiron, some kind of infinite and indistinct eternal matter to which everything that exists owes its being. Anaximander's disciple, Anaximenes, in turn called the fundamental cosmic matter "air" or "breath" claiming that air, when cooled, becomes vapor or mist, when rarified fire, and when condensed wind, cloud, water, earth, or stone. It should be noted, however, that at those early times matter and mind, or body and soul, were not sharply distinguished from one another so that the apparently purely material substratum included a spiritual ingredient. Some historians of philosophy prefer therefore to call these Ionian philosophers not materialists but hylozoist. The term hylozoism, derived from the Greek words for wood and life, means that there exists only matter, but this matter is animated, matter and life being inseparable.

A more authentic materialism is the atomism developed by Leucippus and elaborated by his disciple Democritus of Abdera who flourished about 400 b.c.e. They taught that there exist only empty space and atoms, which are indivisible, indestructible, and imperceptibly small particles of matter, differing in size and shape and moving in space. About a century later, Epicurus (341270 b.c.e.) adopted the Democritian theory of atoms as a mechanistic explanation of all phenomena and used it as the basis of his philosophical system, which became known as Epicureanism. The most influential expositor of Democritian materialism and Epicurianism was the Roman philosopher and poet Lucretius of the first century b.c.e. In the six books of his poem De Rerum Natura (On the nature of things), he presented a materialistic explanation of mind, of soul, and of sensation, as well as of the phenomena of life, and thus taught the groundlessness of the fear of death and divine punishment since the event of death is merely the dispersion of the atoms.

Modern materialism

Due to the facts that the Christian Fathers, like Tertullian (c. 160c. 240 c.e.), Arnobius (253c. 327 c.e.), or Lactantius (c. 250c. 325 c.e.), rejected philosophy as a heathen product, and that since the thirteenth century Aristotelianism, which rejected atomism, dominated Western thought until the age of the Renaissance, materialistic theories were virtually anathematized prior to the seventeenth century. Their revival is attributed mainly to the empiricist Pierre Gassendi (15921655), a Catholic priest with orthodox views in theology, but nevertheless a staunch opponent of Scholastic Aristotelianism, and to the political writer Thomas Hobbes (15881679), the son of a clergyman. Gassendi revived Epicurean atomism but made it compatible with Christian doctrine by asserting that atoms are not eternal but have been created by God. In his Syntagma Philosophiae Epicuri, published in 1658, Gassendi developed an atomistic theory that extends over physics and psychology without denying the existence of divine providence. Hobbes started with the notions of space and time, which he regarded as correlatives of the primary attributes of body, namely extension and motion. The resulting system turned out to be a rigorously deterministic materialism. Since all that really exists is, according to Hobbes, material and extended, the human soul cannot be immaterial; even thought must be some kind of an action of bodies. Furthermore, since human beings and the society of human beings are but groupings of bodies, the laws of human behavior and of human societies must obey the laws of motion as they are known in physics.

France. Gassendi's revival of Democritean atomism served as the foundation of what became known as the French materialism of the eighteenth century. Its main representatives are Julien Offray de la Mettrie (also called Lamettrie) (17091751), Claude-drien Helvétius (17151771), Denis Diderot (17131784), Paul Henri Thiry d'Holbach (17291789), and Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabanis (17571808).

Lamettrie came in contact with the Dutch philosopher and iatromechanist Hermann Boerhaave (16681738), who claimed that all organic processes can be explained by the laws of the physical sciences. Influenced by Boerhaave, Lamettrie published in 1745 his Histoire Naturelle de l'Ame (Natural History of the Soul), in which he presented his views concerning the nature of matter, its relation to form, and its capacity for motion and for sensation. Since matter becomes a definite substance through form, which it receives from another substance, form can only be known in its combination with matter. Matter itself is endowed not only with motion; it also possesses the capacity of sensation. In his L'Homme machine (1648), Lamettrie accepted René Descartes's (15961650) view that animals are merely machines and that all intellectual phenomena that they display must be mechanically explainable. But he went further than Descartes when he argued that if an animal can feel and perceive without an immaterial soul due to its nervous and cerebral organization, there is no reason to assume that humans have spiritual souls. Since the laws of nature are the same for all that exists, plants, animals, and humans are subject to the same laws.

Lamettrie's books were publicly burned on account of their materialism and he had to flee to Berlin. Helvétius' work De l'Esprite, published in 1758, was also condemned by the Sorbonne as preaching a materialistic amorality and, like Lamettrie, Helvétius fled to Germany where he was received with high esteem. What Descartes was for Lamettrie, the French sensationalist Etienne Condillac (17151780) was for Helvétius. Following Condillac, according to whom all human faculties are reducible in essence to a sensory basis, Helvétius developed a materialistic philosophy on the fundamental assumption that all that people know they know only through the senses, and hence their ideas of deity, love, the soul, and so on, are merely modified forms of the objects that impress them in their daily material experience. Helvetius's materialism culminated with the conclusion that "enlightened self-interest is the criterion of morals."

Diderot, well known as the editor-in-chief of the French Encyclopédie, changed his views from an initial theism in which he was educated at a Jesuit school, through a period of deism, to an atheistic materialism. Diderot professed a biologically oriented materialism, since for him the entire universe is a perpetual circulation of life in which everything changes, evolution is a wholly mechanical process based on the laws of physics. In his Pensées sur l'Interprétation de la Nature (Thoughts on the Interpretation of Nature, 1754) he declared that the often pronounced view that body is in itself without action and without force is a monstrous error because "matter, but the nature of its essential qualities, whether it be considered in the smallest or largest quantities, is full of activity and force." The soul of the human being, who is part of nature, is not separate from body, and psychology is merely physiology of the nerves.

Holbach spent most of his life in Paris, where he wrote more than four hundred articles for the Encyclopédie. He is known chiefly as the author of the Système de la Nature, ou des Lois du Monde Physique et du Monde Moral (The System of nature, or the laws of the Moral and Physical world), published 1770. It has been called "the Bible of French materialism." It begins with the statement that although man imagines that there exists something beyond nature, all that exists is nature, and nature is nothing but matter and motion. Matter has always existed and has always been in motion. All particular things originate from matter by means of particular motions that are governed by unchangeable laws. Man, who is part of nature and as such a purely material being, only imagines that he has an immaterial soul. But all mental activity is in reality only some motion in the brain. Free activities or free will can not exist since all feelings, volitions, or thoughts are always subject to the eternal and unchanging laws of motion. Life is the sum of bodily motions and ceases when these come to an end. Holbach, more than any other materialist, stressed the point that materialism implies atheism. If there were a God, he argued, God would be located in nature, for there is nothing beyond nature; but if God were part of nature, God would be nothing but matter and motion. The idea of God, he concluded, is only a superstitious product of ignorance and desperation. Holbach even had no qualms to declare that the idea of God is the cause of all evil in society.

Cabanis, a friend of Holbach, was not always consistent in his philosophical writings, but judging from his principle work, Rapports du Physique et du Moral de l'Homme (On the Relation between the Physical and Moral aspects of man, 1802), he may be best characterized as having been a physiological, or even psychological, materialist. For, in his view, body and mind are not merely interacting with each other but are one and the same thing, and the human soul is matter endowed with feeling. The human being is simply a bundle of nerves, or as Cabanis phrased it, "Les nerfsvoilà tout l'homme!" (The nervesthat's all there is to man). Sensibility and thinking have their foundation in physical processes; when impressions reach the brain, they cause it to act and to "secrete" thoughts just like the liver secretes bile.

England. Cabanis and French materialism in general exerted a lasting influence on later philosophical movements, like that of the so-called idealogues, represented by Destutt de Tracy (17541836), or the epiphenomenalists, like Thomas Henry Huxley (18251895). On the other hand, retrospectively viewed, Cabanis's conceptions of materialism had much in common with the earlier formulation of materialism by Thomas Hobbes. Still, Hobbes was one of the earliest materialists in modern philosophy. As stated in his De Corpore (1655), philosophy means to think, and to think means to combine or separate thoughts; hence the objects of philosophy are composable and decomposable objects or bodies. Pure spirits or God cannot be thought. Since human beings and human society are but grouping of bodies it should be possible to deduce the laws of the behavior of human individuals and societies from the laws of bodies, that is, from the definitions of space, time, force, and power. Geometry describes the movements of bodies in space; physics the effects of bodies upon each other; ethics the movements of nervous systems; and politics the effects of nervous systems upon each other.

Hobbes, like most other English materialists, in contrast to their French counterparts, did not consider atheism to be a logical implication of materialism. In fact, most English materialists reconciled materialism with religious belief. John Toland (16701722), for example, professed in Letters to Serena (1704) and in Pantheisticon (1710) an extreme materialism that, in his view, does not conflict with deism. A typical example of an English materialist is also the physician David Hartley (17051757), the founder of the Associationalist School of psychologists. In Observations on Man, his Frame, his Duty, and his Expectations (1749) he reduced the whole of human thought and sensation to physical vibrations of the brain.

The most famous example of the compatibility of English materialism with religious faith is Joseph Priestley (17331804), known to chemists as the discoverer of oxygen. Although sympathizing with Hobbes and proclaiming the materiality of the soul, Priestley served as a Unitarian minister and believed in the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. As he emphasized in his Disquisitions on Matter and Spirit (1777), "there is nothing inconsistent with Christianity and the conception of the materiality of the human and divine soul."

Germany. In Germany a systematic philosophical materialism could gain ground only after the disintegration of the German idealism, which had culminated with Immanuel Kant (17241804) and collapsed with the death of George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in 1831. Kant, in his influential Critique of Pure Reason (1781), condemned materialism, just like spiritualism, as utterly useless (untauglich ) for any explanation of reality. So did Johann Gottlieb Fichte (17621814), the philosopher of romantic idealism, and his disciple Friedrich Wilhelm von Schelling, according to whom "God affirms himself in Nature." The rise of German materialism in the post-Kantian period received its chief motivation from the achievements of science. The synthesis of urea from cyanic acid and ammonia by Friedrich Wöhler (18801882) and of fructose and glucose from their chemical elements by Emil Fischer (18521919) shattered the traditional belief that organic matter could only be formed by vital processes. Hermann Helmholtz's (18211894) discovery of the conservation of energy in organic and inorganic systems, combined with the atomic theory and Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, contributed decisively to the conception that life, mind, and consciousness are properties of energized matter. Thus, Jacob Moleschott (18221893) denied in his Der Kreislauf des Lebens (The Circularity of life, 1852) the existence of dead matter or of a matter-free force of life.

An extremely antireligious version of materialism was published in 1855 by Karl Vogt (18171895) in his Kohlerglaube und Wissenschaft (Implicit faith and science) as a sequel to his famous Göttingen controversy (1852) with the physiologist Rudolph Wagner (18051864), the so-called Materialismusstreit (Controversy about materialism), which raised wide public attention. Of greater influence, however, was Ludwig Buchner's (18241899) materialistic and atheistic book Kraft und Stoff (Force and matter) which, first published in 1855, appeared in more than twenty German editions and was translated into fifteen languages. A noteworthy example of the enormous influence that this book exerted, especially in Germany, is the fact that it prompted Albert Einstein (18791955) in his adolescence to abandon completely his erstwhile youthful religious enthusiasm.

Hegel's death marked the rise not only of this "vulgar materialism," so called because of its propagandist appeal to the broad masses, but also of the politically oriented dialectical materialism. The "left Hegelians," among them Karl Marx (18181883), opposed Hegelian idealism and reduced all its standards to human needs and human existence. Marx and his collaborator Friedrich Engels (18201895) rejected the idealistic philosophy, which regards matter as dependent on mind or spirit, and developed instead a materialistic philosophy called dialectical materialism, according to which a materialistic reality is the substructure to all human social manifestations and institutions. Marx, in Das Kapital (1867), argued on the basis of a historico-sociological analysis of economics that what he called the "bourgeoisie" is no longer capable of coping with the changed conditions of production and must give room to the proletariat. It was mainly Engels who blended Marx's economical doctrine with philosophical materialism. According to Engels the philosophy of materialism is based on the three laws of dialectic: the law of contradiction, the turning of quantity into quality, and the negation of negation to specific logical and methodological problems. Engels's conception of dialectical materialism lies at the foundation of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin's (18701924) Materialism and Empiro-Criticism (1919), which is his only work on philosophical principles and became the canon of the official philosophy of former Soviet Russia and modern China.

The challenge of physics

The conceptual foundations and scientific background of all materialistic systems of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was the notion of matter as conceived by classical physics, that is, as Isaac Newton (16421727) described it, "matter formed in solid, massy, hard, impenetrable, moveable particles" and "mass" being its numerical measure. These particles, whether of atomic or macroscopic size, move through space according to the strict laws of mechanics. The development of modern physics in the first quarter of the twentieth century led to a radical modification, if not complete disintegration, of this classical framework, a process often characterized as the "dematerialization of matter." The traditional representation of atoms, for example, as minute billiard balls complying with the classical laws of motion proved incompatible with the principles of modern physics, which is based on the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. Einstein's famous mass-energy relation, for example, symbolized by E = mc 2, and a simple consequence of the special theory of relativity, is often interpreted as expressing the convertibility of mass or matter into energy or inversely of energy into matter. Werner Heisenberg's (19011976) Uncertainty Principle, one of the axioms of quantum mechanics, whether interpreted as expressing the essential property of material particles never to have simultaneously a definite position and a definite velocity, or whether regarded as reflecting only a limitation on the measurement, as well as Louis de Broglie's (18921987) related principle of wave-particle duality, showed that the ontology of classical physics, on which those materialistic doctrines were grounded, can no longer be maintained. Quantum field theories, which have become the most important tools in understanding the microscopic world, suggest that matter is merely some arrangement of properties of space-time itself, all elementary particles being described as manifestations of quantum mechanical fields.

Modern physics thus presents a serious challenge to conventional materialism. Perhaps the most acceptable answer to this challenge has been given by the philosopher Herbert Feigl in his response to Norwood Russell Hanson's paper "The Dematerialization of Matter," published in 1962 in the periodical Philosophy of Science. "I grant," says Feigl, "the abstract, unvisualizable character of most physical concepts, classical or modern. But I insist that physics deals with happenings in spacetime, and that associated with those happenings there are aspects of mass, charge and motion which leave at least some characteristics of oldfashioned matter unaltered" (p. 569).

See also Naturalism; Scientism


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Materialism is a philosophical doctrine of existence that argues that human consciousness is determined either principally or exclusively by matter and its change or manipulation. This primacy of matter has its foundation in an early philosophical argument that while material being (or the body) can exist without the mind, the mind is unable to exist without corporeality. Because materialism in its most basic and unifying sense as a doctrine relies on the denial of the nonmaterial (and thus a mechanistic relationship between the nature and its manipulation), many view it as quite different from other conceptualizations of existence (or ontologies) that analyze the relationship between entities such as mind, body, and spirit. It is seen rather as a philosophical assertion in juxtaposition to a doctrine of idealism, and in particular its invocation of the supernatural or disembodied existence. Later forms of materialism proved far less reductionist with respect to the mind and subjective experience; still, at its most basic, materialism implicitly denies the possibly of any Cartesian mind/body dualism, as processes of the mind are subordinated to the physical environment in which they must take place, and not to some disembodied realm of existence.

Questions of materiality are among the oldest of philosophical inquiries. Epicurus and Democritus, the Greek philosophers on whom the noted historical materialist Karl Marx based his doctoral thesis, were among the earliest thinkers to expound a metaphysical doctrine of materialism. Early forms of materialism sought to explain human experience in terms of how atoms interacted with one another in nature to manifest different objects. This type of thinking was opposed to that of some of their Hellenic contemporaries (notably Plato and Aristotle) who proposed the existence of immateriality. It is the implicit denial of a spirit or otherworldly embodiment of the mind in these early forms of materialism that has led many to argue that materialism is an intrinsically atheistic philosophy. This point about the tension between religion and intellectual inquiry is significant, because materialisms emergence as a significant doctrine occurred as a product of Enlightenment questions about the role of science and religion in social life.


Materialism has had a propensity for misrepresentation as teleological and deterministic philosophical doctrine, wherein critics warn of insinuations that matter is being afforded a kind of unmediated rationality in guiding action and history. This is in part attributable to a misunderstanding of the major philosophical and social scientific debates that have taken place since the introduction of the concept of dialectics in the nineteenth century. A common error, for instance, rests on characterizing Marxs historical materialism (a term in fact coined by Friedrich Engels) as such by referencing his introduction to his Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy (1859), in which he concludes that legal and political superstructures arise out of the economic base (infrastructure) of society. Of course, Marx had a lifelong engagement with Hegelian dialectics, and was more centrally concerned philosophically with trying to make sense of the social relations through a theory of praxis, not through a mechanistic determinism. And it is important to understand how such dialectical interventions emerging at that time engaged, and continue to engage, with materialist approaches unabashed in their determinism. The materialist anthropologist Marvin Harris once remarked that Marxs materialism would be palatable if he could just get the Hegelian monkey off his back (Harris 1979). An extreme position (and anticipatory of Harriss reductionist cultural materialism), it does however underscore a fundamental difference about what role ideas, beliefs, or immaterial states have to different kinds of materialists.

Scientific materialism emerged most notably in nineteenth-century Germany as a response to idealism and clerical domination over intellectual life. Ludwig Feuerbach (18041872), a student of Hegel best known as the inspiration for Marxs Theses on Feuerbach (1845), catalyzed a materialist movement that had important consequences for the future relationship between the sciences and religion. Materialists of this ilk believed that the rapid advances in science and medicine occurring at this time constituted evidence of the power of science to answer questions about the material and immaterial alike as reflections of biological, chemical, and physical processes. Such atheism worried many advocates of science and led to the caricaturing of evolution as an antireligious doctrine. The devoutly religious Charles Darwin (18091882) declined Marxs invitation to dedicate Capital (1867) to him because he feared further associations with materialism and social evolutionism.

Scientific materialism did anticipate further problems in philosophy. Indeed, claims about determinism and physicalism remain important to the identity thesis in materialist philosophy, the view that there are no philosophical considerations that rule out the possibility that future scientific inquiry will show that every mental state and event is identical with some material state or event (Rosenthal 2000, pp. 89; emphasis added). Eliminative materialism, for example, has been a subject of interest to some of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century (e.g., Richard Rorty, Paul Feyerabend, W. V. O. Quine, Paul Churchland, and Wilfrid Sellars) who have been concerned with the legitimacy of separating mental states apart from the physical state in which they take place.

Georgi Plekhanov and Vladimir Lenin are famous for developing the concept of dialectical materialism. In his Materialism and Empirio-Criticism ([1909] 1947) Lenin sought to develop a philosophy of materialism that relied less on the reductionist claims of nineteenth-century vulgar materialism. He eschewed the trivializing analogies of the scientific materialistssuch as that thoughts were to the brain as bile was to the liverevoked to assert that nothing other than matter existed, in favor of a materialism that saw mental processes as emanating from material ones. Although also clearly influenced by Feuerbach, Lenin claimed that the material world (nature) was primary and the mind and spirit were secondary in a dependent relationship for the development of knowledge.

Some contemporary materialist philosophers remain wary of mind/body dualism generally, in particular of theories that either deny causal interaction between the mental and the physical, deny causal efficacy to mental states, picture the mental and the physical as being two wholly distinct realms of being, or fail to give integrity to one term of the mind-body relationship (Peters 1995, p. 8). Notwithstanding philosophical debates as to the efficacy of mental and material realms as categories of analysis, the legacy of materialist philosophy for the social sciences can be said to be twofold. First, materialism abjectly underscores empirical method and observation as essential for an adequate understanding of human societies. And second, it has legitimated the innovation and honing of viable methods for comprehending human action through an emphasis on materiality (and the manipulation thereof) as an entry point of social analysis.


To understand the significance of materialism to contemporary social science, it is necessary to identify the fundamental changes that the academy has undergone in the last two centuries toward the formation of sciences of social processes. In the nineteenth century Auguste Comte (1798-1857) authored a theory of social physics, a primitive social science method based on an analogy to the physical sciences that had a profound influence on the development of positivism. The vitality of empirical and positivist theory during this period was aided by the derivation and development of empirical methods that proved successful in their capacity for establishing laws for social processes. The philosopher Ian Hacking (1990) has argued that the honing of techniques for prediction and the establishment of probability in both the physical and social sciences created conditions of possibility for contemporary ways of thinking about the knowability of the world. Among materialist scholars there remains much difference with respect to the degree to which the world is exhaustively knowable. Cultural materialism, for instance, rejects dialectics outright, prioritizing instead positivism, probability, and the primacy of human use of the environment for the understanding of social process. Still, materialist doctrine in the social sciences has become more of an operationalization of a particular positivist method than an outright philosophical account of human activity.

There are a number of methodical approaches to the study of materiality that have become increasingly popular in the social sciences, particularly as all of its disciplines have sought to make sense of social processes that are increasingly informed by global flows of information, communication, and technology. Economics for the most part has always remained unabashedly materialist, methodologically individualist, and positivist as a discipline. Cultural ecological approaches historically have been significant traditions in anthropology and geography. And long-standing subdisciplines such as economic sociology and economic anthropology have gained increased visibility as scholars throughout the social sciences have increasingly queried the meanings and impacts of globalization. Two relevant approaches to the contemporary study of materiality in the social sciences merit particular notice.

Since the mid-1980s there have been numerous studies devoted to the study of a single material object with the aim of understanding the complexities of human global relationships. These commodity biographies have traced the social and economic importance of various globally significant commodities, including tobacco, coal, potatoes, cod, bananas, and salt (see Mantz and Smith 2006, pp. 7880 for summary). Some of these scholars were influenced by Arjun Appadurais groundbreaking anthology The Social Life of Things (1986), and accordingly tend to orient themselves to discussions of how consumption of material objects frames political economic relationships. Others, emphasizing the importance of global production systems to the origination of political economic inequalities, originate their work in Sidney Mintzs The Sweetness of Power (1985), or more broadly in the cultural ecology and political economic traditions from which it came. Mintzs account shows how sugar played an instrumental role in building the economies of industrial Europe around extractive plantation production regimes in the Caribbean. A more recent study has attempted to understand how political economic structural inequalities developed under capitalism are taking on a parallel form in the digital age with the extraction of Congolese coltan, an ore essential to digital technologies such as mobile phones (Mantz and Smith 2006).

At the same time, a growing field of material culture studies has emerged with a specific interest in the consumptive dimensions of human social economic practice (e.g., Miller 2004). Though many of these scholars certainly would not recognize themselves or their approaches as materialist per se, the fact that their entry point remains largely concerned with the human use of material objects indicates their importance to the legacy of materialism in the social sciences. With influences from linguistics and semiotics, and a foundation that engages (at times both sympathetically and critically) with the Frankfurt school, this school of thought has been concerned principally with attempting to unravel the social meaning of objects. This tradition represents a radical break from the traditional domination of studies of the material by materialists. The departure is reflected in a philosophical heritage indebted to the early-twentieth-century German sociologist Georg Simmel (18581918), as a purported alternative to the materialism of Marxian political economy. A number of the commodity biographies approaches likewise endeavor to move the focus of the study of objects away from their productive sites and instead into the consumptive realms in which they have discernible semiotic and sociological meaning.

There are a number of reasons why the study of material objects has moved away from the materialist philosophy in which it was once firmly ensconced. First, approaches having determinist legacies or metanarrative claims have become unpopular among a large number of social scientists, particularly given the influence of postmodernism in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Second, the end of the cold war has precipitated an increased discomfort with dialectical materialist approaches that were influential to the creation and development of Soviet socialism. At the same time, the scientific materialist approaches of the nineteenth century, as well as the more orthodox approaches of the twentieth century such as cultural materialism, have not been appealing to social scientists uncomfortable with their unwavering dedication to physicalism. And finally, a historic divide between the humanities and sciencesa rift separating what C. P. Snow referred as two cultures (1959)remains unresolved and taxing for the development of a unified and truly interdisciplinary social scientific theory and method. Nonetheless, there remain dedicated approaches to political economy principally influenced by materialist philosophy and method that hold great possibility for unifying various approaches to the study of material objects in the social sciences.

SEE ALSO Marx, Karl; Marxism; Materialism, Dialectical


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Marx, Karl. [1867] 1990. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Vol. 1. Trans. Ben Fowkes. New York: Penguin Books in association with New Left Review.

Miller, Daniel, ed. 2004. Materiality. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Miller, Richard W. 1984. Analyzing Marx. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Mintz, Sidney W. 1985. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Viking.

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Jeffrey Mantz

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"Materialism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 14 Dec. 2017 <>.

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materialism In sociology and related disciplines, the word materialism has three quite distinct meanings which are, however, to some extent interconnected, and very commonly confused with each other. The first meaning is drawn from popular moral or political controversy, according to which materialism refers to a prevailing pattern of desire for mere sensory enjoyments, material possessions or physical comfort, at the expense of any higher moral or spiritual values or concerns. This usage is generally pejorative.

The second meaning is to designate a range of metaphysical positions (philosophical views about the fundamental nature of reality). Though recognizably materialist metaphysical positions were advocated as early as the fifth century BCE in Greece, promulgation of materialism as a modern world-view dates from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries CE in Europe. Whereas in classical times matter had been opposed to form, the dominant early modern contrast was between matter and spirit or mind. Descartes's metaphysics reduced all existence to two fundamental substances: matter, characterized by extension, the substance of bodily existence; and mind, not spatially located, and characterized by thought. The contemporary advances in the science of mechanics provided the basis for early modern philosophical accounts of matter, and also seemed to hold out the promise of ultimately accounting for all phenomena in mechanical terms. The early chapters of Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan are a remarkable early example of such a materialist attempt (contra Descartes) to account for human mental operations such as perception, memory, volition, the emotions, foresight, reasoning, and so on, in terms of the concepts of mechanics.

In a period during which clerical authority and political power were closely intertwined, such doctrines were bound to be seen as radical and subversive in their implications. In the nineteenth century socialist and communist doctrines were associated with materialism, by advocates and opponents alike. However, with changes in science and especially with the development of the life-sciences, the content of materialist doctrines also shifted. Organic (as distinct from mechanical) metaphors became more prominent, and processes of development and historicity entered into philosophical representations of the material world. These features were particularly evident in the mid-nineteenth century materialist revolt against the German idealist tradition, led by Feuerbach, Marx, and Engels.

These thinkers rejected both idealism and the narrower reductive forms of materialism which had been based on mechanics, and which had been incapable of taking full account of sensuous existence, of the emergence of conscious and active human subjects. These phenomena were, however, to be understood not by any concession to idealism; but, rather, by taking advantage of the increasingly complex and sophisticated account of matter itself, as made available by ever-advancing scientific knowledge. Engels later came to systematize the principles of this philosophical approach under the title dialectical materialism.

The third meaning of materialism in familiar sociological usage is also associated with Marx and Engels. In this meaning, materialism asserts the primacy of need-meeting interaction with the natural environment both to the understanding of human social structures and patterns of conflict, and also to long-run sequences of historical change. Though there is an obvious affinity between this doctrine and metaphysical materialism, they are quite logically independent of one another. The later writings of Marx and Engels contain attempts to define and classify the basic variant forms of human society in terms of the social organization of the activities of material production, distribution and consumption. The modes of production thus distinguished were held to have their own distinctive patterns of social dominance, subordination, and conflict, as well as definite tendencies for historical change, and possible transition to new forms. Cultural forms, ways of thinking, and political institutions were held to be characteristic of each mode.

This approach to social explanation, so-called ‘historical materialism’, is often criticized for its over-emphasis on economic life at the expense of political or cultural processes. Arguably, however, both Marx and Engels distanced themselves from such economic determinist or reductionist interpretations of their work. Partly this is a matter of the non-correspondence between their concept of ‘mode of production’, on the one hand, and the set of activities conventionally labelled ‘economic’, on the other. Also, however, even in societies where there are institutional separations between economic and political, artistic, and other practices, historical materialism asserts that such non-economic activities have their own relative autonomy within a range of sustainable possibilities whose limits are set by the economic structure. One of the most challenging problems addressed by twentieth-century Marxists has been to provide more rigorous and empirically defensible accounts of these relationships. It is arguable that historical materialism, with its emphasis on need-meeting interactions with nature, is only beginning to reveal its full potential towards the close of the twentieth century, as social scientists increasingly turn their attention to environmental problems.

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materialism, in philosophy, a widely held system of thought that explains the nature of the world as entirely dependent on matter, the fundamental and final reality beyond which nothing need be sought. Certain periods in history, usually those associated with scientific advance, are marked by strong materialistic tendencies. The doctrine was formulated as early as the 4th cent. BC by Democritus, in whose system of atomism all phenomena are explained by atoms and their motions in space. Other early Greek teaching, such as that of Epicurus and Stoicism, also conceived of reality as material in its nature. The theory was later renewed in the 17th cent. by Pierre Gassendi and Thomas Hobbes, who believed that the sphere of consciousness essentially belongs to the corporeal world, or the senses. The investigations of John Locke were adapted to materialist positions by David Hartley and Joseph Priestley. They were a part of the materialist development of the 18th cent., strongly manifested in France, where the most extreme thought was that of Julien de La Mettrie. The culminating expression of materialist thought in this period was the Système de la nature (1770), for which Baron d'Holbach is considered chiefly responsible. A reaction against materialism was felt in the later years of the 18th cent., but the middle of the 19th cent. brought a new movement, largely psychological in interpretation. Two of the modern developments of materialism are dialectical materialism and physicalism, a position formulated by some members of the Logical Positivist movement. Closely related to materialism in origin are naturalism and sensualism.

See D. M. Armstrong, Materialist Theory of the Mind (1968); P. M. Churchland, Scientific Realism and the Plasticity of the Mind (1979) and Matter and Consciousness (1984).

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ma·te·ri·al·ism / məˈti(ə)rēəˌlizəm/ • n. 1. a tendency to consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values. 2. Philos. the doctrine that nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications. ∎  the doctrine that consciousness and will are wholly due to material agency. See also dialectical materialism. DERIVATIVES: ma·te·ri·al·ist n. & adj. ma·te·ri·al·is·tic / məˌti(ə)rēəˈlistik/ adj. ma·te·ri·al·is·ti·cal·ly adv.

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"materialism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 14 Dec. 2017 <>.

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materialism System of philosophical thought that explains the nature of the world as dependent on matter. The doctrine was formulated in the 4th century bc by Democritus. Plato developed the contrasting philosophy of idealism. The early followers of Buddhism were also materialists. Dialectical materialism as formulated by Karl Marx is a modern development of the older theory. See also Epicurus; monism

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"materialism." World Encyclopedia. . 14 Dec. 2017 <>.

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