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Scientific Materialism


In the first chapter of his Pragmatism (1907), "The Present Dilemma in Philosophy," the American philosopher William James (1842–1910) sought to define the terms of the reigning intellectual debate of the day by dividing the members of opposing camps into two temperaments: the "Tender-Minded" and the "Tough-Minded." Members of the first camp were "intellectualistic," "idealistic," "religious," and "dogmatical"; those in the second were "sensationalistic," "materialistic," "irreligious," and "sceptical." In practical terms, the contest between the two was in fact quite lopsided, however, for the tough-minded crew had at its disposal, or so it seemed, the entire scientific community, a mountainous array of "facts," a stock of immutable "natural laws," and the almost daily disclosure of some technological innovation or improvement that constituted a latter-day miracle of progress. The tender-minded, more often than not, were forced to retreat behind genteel "principles" or established social convention or to take comfort in some vague religious feeling or idealistic absolute. But most men and women, insofar as they had a philosophy at all, never straightened out their system in any rigorous way. Instead they lived, as James phrased it, "vaguely in one plausible compartment of it or another to suit the temptations of successive hours" (p. 5).

Nevertheless the building-block philosophy of scientific materialism contributed in a hundred subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways to the disquieting erosion of faith and conviction throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century. In a lecture in 1913 the historian of ideas A. O. Lovejoy observed that a "mechanistic cosmology and a quasi-mechanical biology bred much of that mid-Victorian melancholy which is so conspicuous a phase of the English literature of the past century" (p. 30). Lovejoy quoted from James Thomson's despairing poem "The City of Dreadful Night" to convey the troubling implications of a universe in which all is but "mouldering flesh / Whose elements dissolved and merged afresh" (p. 30):

Infinite aeons ere our world began,
Infinite aeons after the last man
Has joined the mammoth in earth's tomb and womb.

(P. 30)

William Vaughn Moody, in "The Menagerie" (1901), put the matter more comically but no less pungently:

Helpless I stood among those awful cages;
The beasts were walking loose, and I was bagged!
I, I, last product of the toiling ages,
Goal of heroic feet that never lagged,—
A little man in trousers, slightly jagged.

(P. 580)

How such a bleak outlook should gain so much as a toehold, much less the ascendancy in the temperament of a natively hopeful people, is an interesting chapter in American cultural history.


Two scientific discoveries in the nineteenth century combined to make a mechanistic point of view of the universe not merely plausible but seemingly comprehensive. The first was the law of conservation of force, arrived at independently by several scientists in the 1840s. This law, combined with the related law of the conservation of matter, provided a systematic framework that paved the way for scientific advances that were both theoretically consistent and practically beneficial. Scientific discovery and technological innovation enjoyed the mutual advantage of not merely studying phenomena but creating them, both in the laboratory and in the marketplace. The mechanistic regularity of the heavens was replicated in steam engines, threshing machines, and interchangeable parts, and the concrete application of these principles seemed to corroborate a mechanistic physical theory at the same time that it created a self-validating environment.

The law of the conservation of force had important social as well as scientific implications. As Ronald E. Martin has observed, "One of the most pervasive and oppressive consequences of nineteenth-century science and its theory of force conservation was the force-cause-determinism it forged out of mechanics and metaphysics" (p. 30). This law enabled one to treat inorganic matter with meticulous calculation, for it allowed one to suppose that in any particular system the amount of matter and energy was constant and that change could be considered as the predictable transformation of matter and the distribution of force according to demonstrable physical laws. Organic matter posed a different problem, and chemists and biologists often found it necessary to bring in some concept of a vital inner principle to account for the biological transformations of adaptation, growth, regeneration, and repair. With the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859), however, there appeared an avenue of inquiry that might reconcile the incompatible laws of inorganic and organic matter. For the principle of natural selection proposed that the evolution and function of life could be entirely explained in terms of environmental conditions, without reference to any internal life force. For Herbert Spencer and others this meant that life could be studied empirically and at last be shown to participate in the universal laws of the redistribution of matter and energy.


More than Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) enjoyed widespread popularity and exerted enormous intellectual and social influence in America. Between 1862 and 1903, authorized editions of Spencer's works sold some 370,000 copies. A civil engineer by training, Spencer, as self-appointed philosopher and moralist, had been concerned with evolutionary principles, especially as they related to human psychology, well before Darwin published his revolutionary findings. But with the assistance of Darwinian principles converted to his own purposes, Spencer constructed a vast architecture of the universe based on evolutionary principles, but he did so in ways that did not seem to challenge religious orthodoxy, at least in no deliberately confrontational ways. His First Principles (1862) had consigned God or any other transcendent explanation of the cosmos to the realm of the "Unknowable" and then had proceeded to sketch out with great particularity, but also with great vagueness, his own "synthetic" philosophy. In subsequent works he would extend the reach of his vision into such diverse areas as sociology, psychology, politics, and ethics and find them all to be consistent with his overarching explanation of evolutionary change. It was in the universal application of his philosophy to diverse fields and disciplines that his thinking acquired its "synthetic" character.

Though himself an agnostic, Spencer did not challenge religious sensibility the way that Darwin had done, particularly in The Descent of Man (1871), by detecting a simian ancestor in the great family tree. To the contrary, a host of Spencerians gladly adopted the evolutionary point of view and assisted in the work of claiming new intellectual and cultural territory and reconciling the claims of science with religious faith.

Among others, John Fiske, in Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy (1874), Henry Ward Beecher, in Evolution and Religion (1885), and Lyman Abbott, in The Theology of an Evolutionist (1897), were able to embrace a Spencerian evolutionary perspective without severely damaging religious orthodoxy. Fiske and Abbott in fact insisted that Darwinism and evolutionism were not synonymous, whereas Spencerism and evolutionism were. More concretely, the laws of physics and biology could, with some finesse, be introduced to the average man or woman in ways that reinforced rather than disturbed religious conviction. J. Dorman Steele, in his Fourteen Weeks in Natural Philosophy (1872), one of a series of his high school textbooks in the sciences, insisted that nature is "interwoven everywhere with proofs of a common plan and a common Author." Steele moved effortlessly from the explanation of particular laws of mechanics to spiritualized observations, such as that the "confused" noises of nature, softened by distance, adjust to the key of F and therefore combine in an "anthem of praise which Nature sings for His ear alone" (p. 182). Similarly, in the concluding paragraphs of the book Steele echoes the synthetic, mechanistic philosophy but with an evangelical tang added:

No force can be destroyed. A hammer falls by the force of gravity and comes to rest, but its motion as a mass is converted into a motion of atoms, and reveals itself to the sense of touch as heat. Thus force changes its form continually, but the eye of philosophy detects it and enables us to drive it from its various hiding-places still undiminished. (P. 316)

"The Correllation of the Physical Forces" is the grand and inspiring law of nature and, at the same time, palpable evidence of a "Divine Hand" at work in the universe. Thus might scientific materialism be adjusted to existent, and transcendent, prepossessions.

But Spencer's appeal, particularly in the United States, was the result of other factors as well. First, he was accessible in ways that Darwin was not. William James once remarked that Herbert Spencer was the right philosopher for those who had no special interest in philosophy. Second, despite certain leaps in logic, his work was saturated with "facts," and these facts in turn were enlisted on behalf of an overarching argument that, on the one hand, seemed particular enough to be convincing and, on the other, capacious enough to be recognizably harmonious. Finally, Spencerian evolution was decidedly upbeat—it was progressive, reassuring (if not altogether hopeful), and confident. It became, in T. J. Jackson Lears's words, a "secular religion of progress, a social scientific version of the optimistic, liberal Protestantism which pervaded the educated bourgeoisie" (p. 22). And, one might add, it occasionally appealed to the self-educated proletariat as well. The naturalist writer Jack London (1876–1916), in the largely autobiographical character of Martin Eden, spoke his admiration unmistakably:

Here was the man Spencer, organizing all knowledge for him [Eden], reducing everything to unity, elaborating ultimate realities, and presenting to his startled gaze a universe so concrete of realization that it was like the model of a ship such as sailors make to put into glass bottles. . . . All the hidden things were laying their secrets bare. He was drunken with comprehension. (Pp. 99–100)

Quite as much as Émile Zola, Herbert Spencer was an important influence on several American literary naturalists.

As the following passage, published in 1857, makes clear, Herbert Spencer had certain ideas about progress and evolution even before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species (1859). Darwin gave Spencerian notions a certain legitimacy, however, and encouraged the philosopher to give ever broader application to evolutionary principles in what became known as Social Darwinism. Among Spencer's more influential and controversial works are The Study of Sociology (1873), Man versus the State (1884), and The Principles of Ethics (1892). Spencer was even more influential in the United States than in Europe, and his reputation was at its highest point in the 1870s and early 1880s.

We believe we have shown beyond question, that that which the German physiologists have found to be the law of organic development, is the law of all development. The advance from the simple to the complex, through a process of successive differentiations, is seen alike in the earliest changes of the Universe to which we can reason our way back, and in the earliest changes which we can inductively establish; it is seen in the geologic and climatic evolution of the Earth, and of every single organism on its surface; it is seen in the evolution of Humanity, whether contemplated in the civilized individual, or in the aggregation of races; it is seen in the evolution of Society in respect both of its political and economical organization; and it is seen in the evolution of all those endless concrete and abstract products of human activity which constitute the environment of our daily life. From the remotest past which Science can fathom, down to the novelties of yesterday, that in which Progress essentially consists, is the transformation of the homogeneous into the heterogeneous.

Herbert Spencer, "Progress: Its Law and Causes," Westminster Review 67 (April 1857), p. 465.

The unified vision of scientific materialism articulated a universal philosophy undergirded by a single principle that evolved inevitably and progressively forward, a philosophy that could be wholly understood in terms of matter, motion, and force. In fact, for Spencer, progress of any sort should not be measured by the degree to which it contributes to human happiness; instead, progress was in and of itself constant differentiation and a movement toward more and more complex forms. Spencer's law of evolution was stated straightforwardly, if rather obscurely, in his First Principles: It was "an integration of matter and concomitant dissipation of motion; during which the matter passes from an indefinite, incoherent homogeneity to a definite, coherent heterogeneity; and during which the retained motion undergoes a parallel transformation" (p. 396, his italics). Thus, for example, the homogeneous fertilized egg of a mammal, through ongoing differentiation, multiplies not only in mass but also in its several distributed functions (sight, digestion, circulation, and the like) to become a coherent and complex organism capable of acting efficiently in the world. This same process is evidenced in the development of societies—from "primitive" tribes, wherein its members perform more or less the same functions, to "advanced" industrialized societies in which individual members perform highly specialized tasks that contribute to a complex and heterogeneous (and hence progressive) civilization. For the idealist philosopher Josiah Royce (1855–1916) this definition illustrated the "beautiful logical naïveté" of the synthetic philosophy: "If you found a bag big enough to hold all the facts, that was a unification of science" (p. 115). More jocularly, William James translated Spencer's definition of evolution as a "change from a no-howish untalkable all-alikeness to a somehowish and in general talkaboutable not-all-alikeness by continuous sticktogetherations and somethingelseifications" (Miller, p. xxxv).


For the less skeptical (or the more canny), however, scientific materialism provided a foundation for a uniquely Western version of progress, one that might be extended as a warrant for the way things are and should be. It could be applied as the sanctification of industrialization, the division of labor, and the concentration of capital and energy in the hands of the "fittest" (Spencer's word, not Darwin's). It could justify colonial imperialism that forcibly dragged "primitive" (which is to say homogeneous) peoples and whole cultures into the "modern" (highly specialized and therefore heterogeneous) world of the nineteenth century. It might serve to reinforce a "scientific racism" that declared the inferiority of nonwhites as self-evidently a matter of evolutionary law, not social justice. On the other hand, the same system could be enlisted on behalf of social reform; for if natural organisms are shaped by external surroundings, then one should seek to improve the social and natural environment of the woe-begotten instead of making vain appeals to Christian redemption or moral suasion. Jacob Riis in How the Other Half Lives (1890), for example, revealed in prose and in photographs the appalling condition of life in the slums, and in blueprints and diagrams he documented the crowded spaces and unhealthy lack of ventilation and natural light. Stephen Crane was affected by Riis's work, and as he wrote on the cover of the copy of Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (1893) that he presented to Hamlin Garland, he sought in that novel to show that "environment is a tremendous thing in the world and frequently shapes lives regardless."

Less grandly, perhaps, it could provide the premise for science fiction, as in Ambrose Bierce's (1842–1914?) fanciful tale of a chess-playing robot, "Moxon's Monster" (1893). Bierce in fact quotes Spencer's definition of life as a way of overcoming the reader's disbelief in the animating principle of any machine, organic or inorganic, natural or contrived. Consciousness, insists Moxon, is merely the "rhythm" of matter, and the full significance of that remark dawns upon the narrator: "If consciousness is the product of rhythm all things are conscious, for all have motion, and all motion is rhythmic" (p. 131). In the right hands, the same system could supply the stuff of comic advocacy, as in Mark Twain's (1835–1910) A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889). Hank Morgan undertakes to transform Arthurian England into a thoroughly efficient, technologically sophisticated republic, a "man factory." Morgan clearly sees opportunities for such changes all about him. When he comes across a famous religious hermit who for some twenty years has been on a high pillar ceaselessly bowing up and down, Hank deplores the wasted energy:

I timed him with a stopwatch, and he made twelve hundred forty-four revolutions in twenty-four minutes and forty-six seconds. It seemed a pity to have all this power going to waste. It was one of the most useful motions in mechanics, the pedal movement; so I made a note in my memorandum book, purposing some day to apply a system of elastic cords to him and run a sewing machine with it. I afterwards carried out that scheme, and got five years' good service out of him. . . . I worked him Sundays and all; he was going Sundays the same as weekdays, and it was no use to waste the power. (Pp. 259–260)

In later works, such as What Is Man? (1906), Twain was not so sanguine about the implications of a materialistic world in which there was no room for soul or even individuality, much less the sorts of values (loyalty, courage, honor, or free will) that dignified human purposes. For the British poet T. E. Hulme, this sort of world was a "nightmare"; for Joseph Conrad, it seemed a "tragic accident" in which nothing matters except perhaps matter itself. Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869–1935), refusing the materialism of the day, still perceived that current wisdom would have it that one has embarked on some

blind atomic pilgrimage
Whereon by crass chance billeted we go
Because our brains and bones and cartilage
Will have it so.

(P. 143)

The felt oppressiveness of a mechanical explanation of the universe was not an overt rejection of science, of course. Most people were willing to concede that this positivistic system explained something, but what was disturbing was that it purported to explain everything, from one-celled organisms to entire galaxies.


Spencerian materialism was deterministic, but like classical Newtonian physics itself, it was also unified and comprehensive, even elegant. It was progressive and therefore provided a basis for measured optimism, and it was grounded in natural laws. Even so, there existed another scientific law that absolutely contradicted a progressive model of evolution. The second law of thermodynamics, the law of entropy, had been demonstrated in the 1850s, and even though the disturbing implications of this discovery were pointed out to him, Spencer chose to ignore them. The law of entropy holds that, though the amount of energy remains a constant throughout the universe, in any conversion process that same energy (in a steam engine, say) tends to dissipate and therefore become unusable to humans. In his Pragmatism, William James quoted the British philosopher and statesman Lord Balfour on the apparent degradation of the universe:

The energies of our system will decay, the glory of the sun will be dimmed, and the earth, tideless and inert, will no longer tolerate the race which has for a moment disturbed its solitude. Man will go down into the pit, and all his thoughts will perish. . . ."Imperishable monuments" and "immortal deeds," death itself, and love stronger than death, will be as if they had not been. (P. 40)

The lower, not the higher forces of the universe will eventually prevail; in the meantime, human beings are living on borrowed time.

Why this worm at the core of Spencer's system should have slept there for nearly forty years and not received the attention that Lord Balfour and others gave it at the end of the century is something of a mystery. Perhaps this neglect, even willful blindness, says more about the common tendency to accept and be convinced by positive formulations over those that, like the law of entropy, offered such dire prospects. At any rate the idea had sufficient currency in the early years of the twentieth century for Sherwood Anderson (1876–1941), in Winesburg, Ohio (1919), to dramatize in antic fashion a prophet of bad news in the character of Joe Welling, a "man of ideas." Not so coincidentally Welling is an agent for the Standard Oil Company and therefore makes his living by supplying energy to his neighbors. But his real passion is for ideas, which he in turn eagerly foists upon his fellow townspeople. Among those ideas is his belief in ceaseless energy depletion, that the whole world is on fire: "Now what is decay? It's fire. . . . This sidewalk here and this feed store, the trees down the street there—they're all on fire. They're burning up. Decay you see is always going on. It don't stop" (p. 106). Robert Frost took up the same theme in his poem "The Wood-Pile" (1914).

By the close of the nineteenth century a unified, mechanistic explanation of the universe was beginning to break down under the weight of recent scientific disclosures. Studies of light and electricity had years before indicated that light was not mechanical but electromagnetic and had undermined the attendant assumption of classical physics that there existed a cosmic ether through which light passed. Marie and Pierre Curie's experiments with radium called into question the conservation of force and the indivisibility of matter. In 1905 Albert Einstein deduced that time, space, and mass could not be absolutes. Around the same time, several philosophers and scientists were even beginning to question whether the "laws" of science in fact were either absolute or immutable: Might not these laws themselves evolve over time?

Henry Adams (1838–1918), more assiduously than most nonspecialists, had attempted to keep up with the science of his day, and he was more troubled by the evident chaos that the twentieth century promised than by the material uniformity that had characterized the nineteenth. As a historian he could comprehend the shifts of the past so long as the "swerves" were part of a continuous movement. But as he wrote in his third-person autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams (printed privately in 1907), in 1900 the "continuity snapped":

Vaguely conscious of the cataclysm, the world dated it from 1893, by the Roentgen rays, or from 1898, by Curie's radium; but in 1904, Arthur Balfour announced on the part of British science that the human race without exception had lived and died in a world of illusion until the last year of the century. The date was convenient, and convenience was truth.

The child born in 1900 would, then, be born into a new world which would not be a unity but a multiple. (P. 457)

The synthetic philosophy of scientific materialism had been scattered to the winds, and Adams's hypothetical child born in 1900 would be hard-pressed to discover even traces of it by, say, 1920. Even Herbert Spencer himself knew before he died in 1903 that his beautiful system had become nothing more than a monument to dead ideas.

See alsoDarwinism; The Man against the Sky; Naturalism; Philosophy; Science and Technology; Social Darwinism


Primary Works

Adams, Henry. The Education of Henry Adams. Edited by Ernest Samuels. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973.

Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. 1919. New York: Penguin Books, 1960.

Bierce, Ambrose. Tales of Soldiers and Civilians and Other Stories. Edited by Tom Quirk. New York: Penguin Putnam, 2000.

James, William. Pragmatism. New York: Dover Publications, 1995.

London, Jack. Martin Eden. 1908. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1956.

Lovejoy, A. O. Bergson and Romantic Evolutionism: Two Lectures Delivered before the Union, September 5 and 12, 1913. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1914.

Moody, William Vaughn. "The Menagerie." In Nation and Region: 1860–1900, edited by Milton R. Stern and Seymour L. Gross. New York: Viking Press, 1962.

Robinson, Edwin Arlington. The Man against the Sky. New York: Macmillan, 1916.

Royce, Josiah. Herbert Spencer: An Estimate and Review. New York: Fox, Duffield, 1904.

Spencer, Herbert. First Principles. 1867. New York: Appleton, 1894.

Steele, J. Dorman. Fourteen Weeks in Natural Philosophy. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1872.

Twain, Mark. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Edited by Bernard Stein. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979.

Secondary Works

Boeckmann, Cathy. A Question of Character: Scientific Racism and the Genres of American Fiction, 1892–1912. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000.

Hofstader, Richard. Social Darwinism in American Thought. Rev. ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 1955.

Jones, Howard Mumford. The Age of Energy: Varieties of American Experience, 1865–1915. New York: Viking Press, 1970.

Lears, T. J. Jackson. No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture. New York: Pantheon, 1981.

Martin, Jay. Harvests of Change: American Literature, 1865–1914. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967.

Martin, Ronald. American Literature and the Universe of Force. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1981.

Miller, Perry. Introduction to American Thought: Civil War to World War I. Edited by Perry Miller, pp. ix–lii. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1954.

Person, Stow, ed. Evolutionary Thought in America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1950.

Quirk, Tom. Bergson and American Culture: The Worlds of Willa Cather and Wallace Stevens. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

Russett, Cynthia Eagle. Darwin in America: The Intellectual Response, 1865–1912. San Francisco: Freeman, 1976.

Tom Quirk

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