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MATERIALISM . As a philosophical doctrine, materialism can be given a deceptively simple definition: the view that matter is all there is. The simplicity is deceptive because, of course, the term matter can itself be understood in so many different ways. It is more illuminating, perhaps, to define materialism in terms of what it denies. It excludes the existence of entities that are radically different in kind from, and in some sense superior to, the matter of our ordinary experience. It rejects, therefore, a God or gods on whom the universe would depend for its existence or mode of operation; it denies the existence of angels or spirits that can affect the material order while ultimately escaping its limitations; it questions the notion of a soul, if taken to be an immaterial entity separable in principle from the human body it informs. Its two main targets are, therefore, theism and dualistic views of human nature.

Materialism has, in the past, usually derived from one or the other of two sources. The first is the conviction that the world can be understood in terms of a single set of categories derived from our everyday physical experience, without having to introduce a second set of "immaterial" entities of an altogether different kind. The second is the criticism of organized religion on the grounds of its superstitious or politically oppressive character and a linking of religion with belief in gods, angels, souls, miracles. The former allies materialism with naturalism. The stress in both is on "natural" modes of explanation; "supernatural" forms of action are rejected as unnecessary or even incoherent. Materialism also resembles reductionism, since both seek to reduce the diversity of the explanations offered for events in the world to a single category, or at least to a minimal number of categories. There are, for the same reasons, overtones in it of positivism, at least to the extent that both lay stress on science as the only legitimate source of knowledge about the causalities of the world. Where classic materialism would differ from these other philosophic emphases would be mainly in the specificity of its objections to the category of "spirit" on which religious belief is taken to rely.


It is to Aristotle (384322 bce) that we owe the first explicit articulation of a concept of "matter," that is, an underlying substratum to which reference must be made in explaining physical change. Aristotle criticizes the Ionian physicists, his predecessors of two centuries earlier, because of their supposedly exclusive reliance on a common underlying "stuff" (water, air, fire) in explaining change in nature. Such a stuff would retain its own identity throughout all change; substantial change would, therefore, be excluded and the apparently fundamental differences between different kinds (different species of animal, for instance) would be reduced to mere differences in arrangement of the fundamental "stuff." Aristotle rejected this "materialist" doctrine. But he did not believe the Ionians to be materialists. He notes that Thales thought all things to be "full of gods" and to be in some sense "ensouled"; similar views are attributed to the other major figures in the early Ionian tradition. Though these men made the first known attempt to explain physical changes in a systematic way, they did not question the traditional explanatory roles of the gods and of soul.

A century later, the founders of atomism, Leucippus and Democritus, came much closer to a clear-cut materialist doctrine. Their view that all things consist of "atoms," imperceptibly small, indivisible, eternal, and unchanging entities, derived from the metaphysical arguments of Parmenides regarding the One, not from an empirical starting-point in observation. Change is nothing more than the movement and redistribution of atoms in the void. The planets, the stars, and even the earth itself have come to be by the aggregating of vortices of atoms. Since space is infinite, there will be infinitely many worlds produced in this way. Sensation is to be understood in purely physical terms; the soul itself consists of atoms, admittedly smaller and finer than even the particles of fire, but still of the same general kind as other atoms. All interaction is thus mechanical and explanation in terms of final causes is prohibited. Yet the atomists do not appear to have excluded the gods. Though Democritus is critical of those who would base ethical behavior on religious sanctions, he does seem to allow that the gods may visit men. This may, of course, have been no more than a concession to the orthodoxy of the day. Yet it would seem more likely that he had not yet reduced the gods, as he had done soul, to matter.

Epicurus (341270 bce) took this further step. The gods are situated in the intervals between the innumerable universes; they too must be composed of atoms, and they live in a state of bliss undisturbed by the affairs of mortals. Lucretius (9955 bce) popularized the teachings of Epicurus in the Roman world through his great poem, De rerum natura, which was the most complete expression of materialist doctrine in ancient times. The gods here seem to be dismissed entirely; insofar as there is a deity it is nature itself. Lucretius views the state religion of Rome as a primarily political institution and sees no reason for any exception to the atomist claim that all there is, is atoms and void.

The Renaissance

With the growth of Christianity, the attraction of Epicurean materialism diminished. During the Middle Ages, atomism was sometimes discussed by philosophers, but the Aristotelian arguments against it seemed overwhelming. There could be no serious defense of materialism in an age when the influence of spirit, in all its forms, seemed so palpable and when no plausible argument had been found for the claim that all change can be explained in atomic or material terms only. It was only when the "new science" of mechanics made its appearance in the seventeenth century that the outlines of an argument became faintly visible. Galileo and Descartes took for granted that matter is composed of a multitude of tiny corpuscles whose properties ("primary qualities") are precisely those required to make them subject to, and entirely predictable by, mechanical law. There was no real evidence for this, but it seemed plausible to extend the realm of the new mathematicized mechanics to the very small and thus make all types of physical change explicable, perhaps, in mechanical terms.

Pierre Gassendi (15921655) could now revive the ancient Epicurean atomism and present it as the best available (though admittedly hypothetical) scientific explanation of the sensory qualities of things. However, he did not carry his Epicureanism all the way to materialism; though an opponent of the claims to demonstrative knowledge made by scholastics and Cartesians alike, he was not disaffected with religion and saw no reason to extend atomism to the soul or to use it to deny the need for a creator God. His friend Thomas Hobbes (15881679) had no such scruples. A severe critic of institutional religion, he argued that mechanical modes of explanation must be extended not only to sensation but to thought, which is no more than the motion of material particles in the brain. Nothing other than body can exist, so that God, if he exists (and Hobbes's real views on this issue are very difficult to discover), must be corporeal.

Reductive Materialism

If all material things are to be understood by a single set of laws, the general laws of mechanics, it would follow that human action, too, can be reduced to mechanical law. This is the conclusion Hobbes reached; Descartes avoided it only by placing within man an immaterial mind. Reductive materialism or sharp dualismthese seemed to be the only options, if one decided to bring the entire domain of physical interaction under one science. Most philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries found the alternatives unappealing, but it was not at all evident where a stable solution might be found. In France, where reaction against royal as well as ecclesiastical authority continued to mount, reductive materialism found favor with a number of writers, of whom the most original was Denis Diderot (17131784), editor of the great Encyclopedia. Influenced by George-Louis Buffon's Natural History (1749), he speculated about the sort of developmental laws that might have brought about the organic world we know from an initial chaos of material particles. A number of medical writers, of whom the most notable was Julien de La Mettrie (17091751), were at the same time developing a materialist physiology in which human action is reduced to simple mechanical causes. Paul d'Holbach (17231789), on the other hand, was much more metaphysical in his approach. His Système de la nature (1770) was the most thoroughgoing materialist statement of the century; in it, the two sources of classic materialism are especially evident: a conviction that because matter is one, only one sort of explanation is permissible, and a strong hostility to religion.

But the weaknesses of this kind of material monism were still evident. The claims to explain in mechanical terms the operations of the human body, to reduce sensation and thought to mechanical action between molecules, and to derive the profusion of organic species from an original undifferentiated matter were still almost entirely promissory. Materialism was still, at best, a program, not an achieved philosophy. To become something more, a genuine materialist science would have to be available to serve as support. And one of the fundamental premises of classic materialism, its reductionist principle, might have to be abandoned.

Major philosophers of the day were struck by the crudity, as they saw it, of the materialist doctrine. Hegel, in particular, attacked the mechanistic presuppositions of Newtonian science, its assumption that all motion can be explained by the single science of mechanics. In its stead, he attempted to construct a philosophy of nature and a theory of history in which spirit is the moving force. Motion involves contradiction, since for it to occur, a body has to be "both here and not here at the same time." Thus, contradiction pervades both nature and society; it is out of the consequent struggle and opposition that advance comes.

Dialectical Materialism

The most influential form of nonreductive materialism is undoubtedly that of Marx and Engels. Marx took over much of the structure of Hegel's account of society and of social change, retaining the discontinuities of the Hegelian "dialectical" method, but inverting the order of matter and mind. Mind originates from matter (as the reductive materialists had held), but in a discontinuous way that makes it irreducible to the categories of matter (which they had denied). Beliefs in God or in an immortal soul are no more than the projections of those who would rationalize an unjust social order instead of trying to change it. All knowledge of the world and of society must be based on sense experience and ultimately on science.

Marx's "historical materialism" is restricted to human history; by taking economic and industrial factors as the fundamental agencies of change, Marx believed that he could give a thoroughly "materialist" (i.e., empirical, naturalistic, scientific) account of history. Engels went on to a broader focus on nature. His "dialectical materialism" (as Plekhanov later called it) is first and foremost a philosophy of nature in the Hegelian tradition. He rejects Ludwig Büchner's claim that the sciences alone suffice; in Engels's view (and this has become a central tenet of Marxist-Leninist thought), positivism is inadequate because the sciences have to be supplemented by a unified and guiding philosophy. This philosophy is "dialectical" because it recognizes the presence of contradictions and of discontinuous change in nature and is unified insofar as it proposes a scheme that can grasp things in their totality. Engels characterizes as "idealist" any philosophical view that would deny that mind and spirit must originate from matter. Thus, anyone who believes in a transcendent God or in the dualism of soul (mind) and body would automatically qualify as "idealist" in this new sense.

The attempt on the part of Marx and Engels to "materialize Hegel" led to notable internal strain (many have argued, incoherence) within the materialism they proposed. On the one hand, there is the stress on the primacy of sense-experience (which is said to "reflect" the world) and consequently of science. On the other, the dialectical element (which is crucial to Marx's political theory) is difficult to sustain by science alone, unless it be almost emptied of content. This tension is even more evident in Lenin's version of dialectical materialism, which tries to mediate between positivism and Hegelian idealism, utilizing a rather naive realist epistemology.

Christianity and Materialism

The progress of science since the mid-nineteenth century has undercut the older reductive materialism by showing that the categories of mechanics at any one time are never definitive and that there are, besides, different levels of explanation that are probably not reducible to one another, not in the sense in which reduction was supposed to be possible, at least. On the other hand, the progress of science has also demonstrated the strength of the naturalistic program of explanation. More and more, it seems possible to explain the entire order of nature in a single interlinked set of categories that leave no gaps "of principle" into which a different order of causality has to be interposed in order to render a coherent account of world process. It is hard not to be a "naturalist" in that sense.

Nonetheless, there are unsolved philosophical problems about the relation of mind and body, about the reality of human freedom in a world scientifically fully explicable, that have led to the formulation of alternatives besides that of a sophisticated nonreductive materialism, alternatives that would still maintain a broadly naturalist orientation. These would differ from materialism in the degree of stress they would lay on causal categories that derive from the domain of mind and freedom rather than from that of mechanical action even if the term mechanical be construed as broadly as it could plausibly be.

When naturalism/materialism is carried to the point of denying the possibility of a creator God or an afterlife for man, a conflict with religious, and specifically with Christian, belief is unavoidable. Christian theologians, however, have gone to some lengths to try to show that the notions of the natural order as sufficient in its own right, or of resurrection as independent of a strong dualism of soul and body, are perfectly compatible withindeed entirely faithful tothe Christian tradition. The grounds for the materialist exclusion in principle of God or of a personal afterlife are thus brought into question.

Some have gone further to argue the propriety of a "Christian materialism" that would draw on the positive insights of the materialist tradition, particularly in its Marxist form. Such a view would suggest that all that happens in nature and in history is in principle explicable at its own level without directly invoking the intervening agency of God. "Christian materialism" would note and deplore the manner in which Christianity, like other religions, has often allowed itself to become the ideological legitimation of structures of social domination. It would oppose the "idealism" that would make Christianity a set of doctrines to be believed rather than a doctrine of redemption that finds its reality first in action and transformation.

The limits of such a view are set by the Christian doctrines of the dependence of nature and history on divine grace and of the entrance of the Word of God, as man, into the human story. There would be the reality to acknowledge of a God whose action entirely transcends the categories of nature. And that is something that materialism cannot do without ceasing (it would seem) to be materialism.

See Also

Aristotle; Descartes, René; Earth; Empiricism; Hegel, G. W. F.; Idealism; Marx, Karl; Naturalism; Newton, Isaac; Positivism; Skeptics and Skepticism.


The most detailed general history of materialism is still Friedrich Lange's Geschichte des Materialismus (Marburg, 1865), translated by E. C. Thomas as The History of Materialism (London, 1925). Many helpful essays will be found in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Paul Edwards (New York, 1967); see, in particular, Keith Campbell's "Materialism"; H. B. Acton's "Dialectical Materialism" and "Historical Materialism"; G. E. R. Lloyd's "Leucippus and Democritus"; R. S. Peters's "Hobbes, Thomas"; and Norman L. Torrey's "Diderot, Denis." For a survey of the varied roles played by the concept of matter in the history of philosophy and of science, see The Concept of Matter, edited by me (Notre Dame, Ind., 1963), especially the essay by Nicholas Lobkowicz, "Materialism and Matter in Marxism-Leninism," pp. 430464. For further reading on Marxist versions of materialism, see Gustav A. Wetter's Der dialecktische Materialismus (Vienna, 1952), translated by Peter Heath as Dialectical Materialism (London, 1958). For a useful historical study of the strains within the Soviet development of materialism, see David Joravsky's Soviet Marxism and Natural Science, 19171932 (London, 1961). In his A Matter of Hope: A Theologian's Reflections on the Thought of Karl Marx (Notre Dame, Ind., 1982), Nicholas Lash defends the view that "it is the 'materialist' rather than the 'idealist' forms of Christianity which conform most closely to the demands of obedience to the gospel" (p. 148).

New Sources

Carrier, James. Gifts and Commodities: Exchange and Western Capitalism since 1700. New York, 1995.

Gillet, Carl, and Barry Loewer, eds. Physicalism and Its Discontents. New York, 2001.

Lund, David. Perception, Mind, and Personal Identity: A Critique of Materialism. Lanham. Md., 1994.

Melnyk, Andrew. A Physicalist Manifesto: Thoroughly Modern Materialism. New York, 2003.

Miller, Daniel, ed. Unwrapping Christmas. New York, 1993.

Vitzthum, Robert. Materialism: An Affirmative History and Definition. Amherst, N.Y., 1995.

Wallace, Alan. The Taboo of Subjectivity: Toward a New Science of Consciousness. New York, 2000.

Ernan McMullin (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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