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Materialism is the name given to a family of doctrines concerning the nature of the world that give to matter a primary position and accord to mind (or spirit) a secondary, dependent reality or even none at all. Extreme materialism asserts that the real world is spatiotemporal and consists of material things and nothing else, with two important qualifications: first, space and time, or space-time, must also be included if these are realities rather than mere systems of relations, for they are not material things in any straightforward sense. Second, materialism is fundamentally a doctrine concerning the character of the concrete natural world we inhabit, and it is probably best to set to one side controversies over abstract entities such as numbers, or geometric figures, or the relations of entailment and contradiction studied in logic. A strictly extreme materialism would undertake to show that, to the extent that any of these were genuine realities, they are all material in nature, but the issues raised by abstract entities will not be pursued here. It is with extreme materialist views in the concrete realm that this entry is concerned, and in what follows, "materialist" is to be understood in that sense.

Philosophers and scientists have had various views regarding the constitution and behavior of material objects and over whether every material thing is a body, or whether forces, or waves, or fields of force are also realities in their own right. Thus, the cardinal tenet of materialism, "Everything that is, is material," covers a range of different claims.

To accommodate these differences, a material thing can be defined as a being possessing many physical properties and no other properties, or as being made up of parts all of whose properties are physical. The physical properties are position in space and time, size, shape, duration, mass, velocity, solidity, inertia, electric charge, spin, rigidity, temperature, hardness, magnetic field intensity, and the like. The phrase "and the like" is important, for it indicates that any list of physical properties is open-ended. A material thing is one composed of properties that are the object of the science of physics. And physics is a developing science, in which new properties are still being discovered. The question "What counts as a physical property?" thus has no determinate answer. In consequence, there are also no fully determinate answers for the questions "What is a material thing?" and "What does materialism claim?"

This is less serious for materialism than may at first appear, for there is a broad consensus on which propertiesamong those already knownare the physical ones. And new properties that emerge from research in the physical sciences are, generally speaking, readily identified as belonging among the physical ones rather than representing an anomalous, nonphysical development. It is known well enough what is involved in claiming that something is a material reality, and therefore it is understood well enough what is involved in the various versions of extreme materialism, all of which assert that everything there is, is material.

The psychological characteristics people ascribe to themselves and to one anotherconsciousness, purposiveness, aspiration, desire, and the ability to perceive, for exampleare not considered to be physical properties. So materialism differs from panpsychism, the doctrine that everything material is also at least partly mental or spiritual. Materialism denies the world's basic entities possess these psychological properties. Materialists add that there is no second class of nonmaterial beings in possession of such psychological properties and no others; there are no incorporeal souls or spirits, no spiritual principalities or powers, no angels or devils, no demiurges and no gods (if these are conceived as immaterial entities). Hence, nothing that happens can be attributed to the action of such beings.

The second major tenet of materialism is, accordingly, "Everything that can be explained can be explained on the basis of laws involving only the relevant physical conditions." The differences among materialists over the types of effect material things can have on one another make this second tenet another slogan covering a variety of particular doctrines. Further, although materialists have traditionally been determinists, holding that there is a physical cause for everything that happens, this is not strictly required by materialism itself. Recently, the appeal of determinism has been weakened by the development and success of quantum theory, and many contemporary materialists are not committed to determinism. It should also be mentioned that metaphysical materialism in no way involves an overzealous disposition to pursue money and tangible goods, despite the popular use of "materialistic" to describe this interest.

Nature and Appeal of Materialism

The enduring appeal of materialism arises from its alliance with those sciences that have contributed most to an understanding of the world humans inhabit. Investigations in the physical sciences have a materialist methodology; that is, they attempt to explain a class of phenomena by appeal to physical conditions alone. The claim of materialists is that there is no subject matter that cannot be adequately treated with a materialist methodology. This claim cannot be established by any scientific investigation; it can be established, if at all, only by critical reflection on the whole range of human thought and experience.

Early philosophers proceeded dogmatically, aiming to prove the material nature of the world by mere reflection on what must be. Contemporary materialists are much more modest, offering the claim as a speculative but reasonable generalization from the progress of the physical sciences.

Materialism has been, traditionally, a minority view, indeed a rather daring and scandalous one, but it has made considerable progress over the past century, particularly among educated European peoples. There seem to be three main reasons for this. First, the rise of what might be called "cosmic naturalism"; there has been a decline in those aspects of religious conviction that involve appeal to providential or satanic interventions in the course of events, so that pestilence or climate change, for example, are not attributed to nonmaterial, supernatural forces. Second, the rise of "medical materialism"; the discovery of the biochemical mechanisms involved in neural functioning, and their links to psychological processes, so that it is now taken for granted that thinking, feeling, and the will are subserved by the nervous system, and can be altered by making physical changes by the use of drugs or electrodes. A malfunction of the mind is taken to be a malfunction of the brain. This is a kind of pragmatic materialismthe physical aspects are accorded primacy. Third, the rise of "electronic materialism"; recent years have witnessed an astonishing expansion in the range and sophistication of the mental tasks that digital machines can perform. Not only remembering, recalling, and calculating, but pattern recognition, estimation processes, problem solving, and learning new skills, which hitherto have been the exclusive preserve of living, conscious beings, are now routinely performed by electronic devices that, unless panpsychism is true, are purely physical structures. This has formed the background for an increasingly common assumption that mental activity is a special kind of physical process, which is one critical aspect of materialism.

Materialism remains, nonetheless, a striking and apparently paradoxical doctrine, for it insists that the only differences between human beings and grains of sand prove to be matters of energy flow and structural complexity. People have continued to embrace materialism in the face of the difficulties with which it is beset because it offers a comprehensive, unified account of the nature of reality that is economical, intelligible, and consistent with the most successful of the sciences.

History of Materialism

classical period

Materialism has been a theme in European speculative thought from the earliest periods for which there is any record.

Ionian philosophers in the tradition of Thales (sixth century BCE) attempted to account for the origin and present state of the world by appeal to changes in the state of a fundamental underlying substance (the arche ), which in most cases was held to be of a physical nature. Parmenides of Elea (fifth century BCE) vigorously defended a thoroughgoing monism, maintaining that the world is One, unchanging, eternal, homogeneous, indivisible, indestructible, and without any interior void.

These two threads of thought are combined in the true materialism of Leucippus and his pupil Democritus, who flourished at Abdera in the fifth century BCE. Between them they worked out the first clear conception of matter, the first clear restrictions on the kinds of natural interactions in which material particles could participate, and the first clear program of explanation by appeal to these material interactions alone. The "Great Diakosmos," a lost work written by one or the other (or both), expounded their position. Their basic idea was that the fundamental stuff was of just one kind (matter) and that the fundamental entities were material atoms that were of course by no means unique, but otherwise had all the characteristics of Parmenides' One. These atoms are in constant motion in a void that surrounds them.

Insofar as it can be reconstructed, their doctrine embraced the following theses:

  1. Nothing exists but atoms and empty space.
  2. Nothing happens by chance (for no reason at all); everything occurs for a reason and of necessity. This necessity is natural and mechanical; it excludes teleological necessitation.
  3. Nothing can arise out of nothing; nothing that is can be destroyed. All novelties are merely new combinations or separations of atoms.
  4. The atoms are infinite in number and endlessly varied in form, but uniform in composition, being made of the same stuff. They act on one another by pressure or collision only.
  5. The great variety of things that we encounter in the world is a consequence of the variety in number, size, shape, and arrangement of the atoms that compose them.
  6. The atoms have been in confused random motion from all eternity. This is their natural state and requires no explanation. (Some scholars dispute the attribution of random motion to the atoms and credit the "Great Diakosmos" with advancing the doctrine of an eternal fall through infinite space, which was later presented by Epicurus.)
  7. The basic mechanism whereby complex bodies are formed is the collision of two atoms, setting up a vortex. In the vortex motion is communicated from the periphery toward the center. In consequence, heavy atoms move to the center, and there form a body, which is dense relative to the collection of light atoms around the periphery. The vortex continually embraces any new atoms that come near it in their random motion, and it thus begins a world.

This materialist philosophy requires a mechanical account of human sensation. The Leucippus-Democritus account seems to have been ingenious, speculative, and false. Sensation occurs in the human soul, which, like everything else, is composed of atoms. Objects perceptible by the distal senses sight, hearing, or smell, give off effluences, or images, composed of fine, smooth atoms. There are channels in the eyes, ears, and nose along which these effluent atoms pass to collide with the atoms of the soul and produce sensation. Differences of color, in the case of vision, or of pitch, in the case of sound, are due to the varying smoothness or roughness of the incoming image atoms. With the contact senses touch and taste, it is the size and shape of the atoms on the surface of the perceived object that act on soul atoms in the skin or tongue.

Sensory qualities (for example, sweetness, bitterness, temperature, and color) are thus not qualities of the object perceived, which is a collection of atoms, possessed only of physical properties such as size, shape, mass, and hardness. The sensory qualities are, rather, the effects of that collection of atoms on us, that is, on our soul atoms. Here is an early appearance of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, a distinction every subsequent materialist has also found it necessary to make.

Empedocles (fifth century BCE) founded a medical school in Acragas (Agrigento) in Sicily. His aim was to account in a naturalistic manner for the special features of this world, particularly for the specially organized matter to be found in living creatures. The first appearance of the famous four elementsearth, air, fire, and wateris in his theory. Empedocles seems to have believed that each of these four elements comprised a different type of atom. The creation and dissolution of the macroscopic objects of this world is brought about by the combination and separation of these atoms by two fundamental forces, love and hate, or harmony and discord.

Under the influence of love and hate the world goes through an endless cycle from complete random separation of elements (the triumph of hate), through gradually increasing order, to a complete, calm, spherical, harmonious union (the triumph of love). Hate then begins to exert itself once more. Disintegration sets in, and ultimately the world returns to the state of complete separation of elements. The present state of the world lies between these two extremes. The existence of planetary systems and the origin of animals are thus explained as the influence of love.

Empedocles can be considered a true materialist only if love and hate are either inherent forces in the elemental atoms or themselves material elements with a cementing or corrosive effect on combinations of the other elements; however, he probably thought of them as blind, powerful gods. The rest of his system is similarly ambiguous. On the one hand, he believed in the transmigration of souls and adhered to some kind of Orphic mystery religion; on the other, he gave a mechanical account of sensation, held that the soul was composed of fiery atoms, and said that the blood around the heart is the thought of men. Empedocles' philosophy thus perpetuated the materialist tradition but not in a rigorous or consistent form.

The hostile misinterpretation of his ethics as unworthily hedonistic has made Epicurus (342270 BCE) the most famous of classical materialists. In his middle age Epicurus came to Athens and founded a school where materialism was taught as the sole foundation of a good life, at once disciplined, calm, serene, and free from superstition.

He adopted the materialist metaphysics of the "Great Diakosmos" but gave a modified account of the origin of worlds. There are an infinite number of atoms falling vertically through an infinite space. In one construction of the Epicurean system the heavier, faster atoms occasionally strike the lighter, slower ones obliquely, giving them a slight lateral velocity. In another construction all atoms fall at uniform velocity, and the original deviations from parallel downward motion are left unexplained.

However caused, the original lateral deviations result in more collisions and deviations and the establishment of vortexes. From these vortexes ordered arrangements of atoms arise. The number of atoms and the time available are unlimited, so every possible arrangement of atoms must occur at some time or another. This world, with its marvelously organized living bodies, is thus just one of the infinite, inevitable arrangements into which the indestructible atoms must fall.

The only Roman author of note in the tradition of materialism is Lucretius (born c. 99 BCE), whose long didactic poem De Rerum Natura gives imaginative sparkle to the metaphysics of Epicurus. Lucretius adopted the second account of the fall of atoms through the void and appealed to some form of voluntary action to explain the original deviations from vertical descent. He thus introduced a nonmechanical source of motion, inconsistent with the remainder of his system.

Like Epicurus, Lucretius was motivated by a wish to free people from the burden of religious fear. He argued passionately and at length against the existence of any spiritual soul and for the mortality of humankind. These beliefs have been explicit features of materialism ever since.

seventeenth century

From the close of the classical period until the Renaissance the church and Aristotle so dominated European speculation that materialist theories virtually lapsed. The revival of materialism is attributable to the work of two seventeenth-century philosophers, Gassendi and Hobbes, who crystallized the naturalistic and skeptical movements of thought that accompanied the rediscovery of antiquity and the rise of natural science. Their most important forerunners were probably Telesio, Campanella, and Cyrano de Bergerac, all of whom attempted to combine materialistic views in physics with a psychology based on sensations.

Pierre Gassendi (15921655), who in the last part of his life taught astronomy at the Royal College in Paris, rejected the official Aristotelian philosophy of his time and set about the rehabilitation of Epicureanism. To bring the Epicurean system into closer conformity with Christian doctrine, he claimed that the atoms are not eternal but created. They are finite, not infinite, in number and are organized in our particular world by a providential determination of initial conditions.

Gassendi's materialism extended over physics and psychology, undertaking to account for all inanimate changes and for sensation on a materialist basis. He treated the coming into being of particular things as the accumulation of matter about a seed atom.

But his metaphysics was not, strictly speaking, materialistic, for outside the experienced world Gassendi admitted a creative and providential God and an immaterial and immortal intellect in man distinct from his corporeal soul. There are even some lapses in the physics, too, for Gassendi spoke of gravitation as some kind of movement for self-preservation and allowed that growth from seed atoms may be controlled by formative principles other than the natural motions of atoms.

Thomas Hobbes (15881679) was much more consistent and uncompromising. In 1629 he discovered Euclidean geometry and was captivated by its method. During the years that followed he strove to work out a rational philosophy of nature on the Euclidean model.

Hobbes's aim was to discover by cunning analysis of experience the fundamental principles expressing the true nature of everything. The truth of these principles would be manifest to right reason and could thus serve as axioms from which a comprehensive theory of the nature of the world could be deductively derived.

The resulting system is almost pure materialism. Hobbes hoped to use the new non-Aristotelian physics of the seventeenth century as the basis for a final, complete account of reality. From definitions of space and motion he derived the laws of uniform motion. From these, together with a notion of the interaction of bodies, he hoped to proceed to an account of change, thence to an account of sensible change, thence to a theory of the senses and appetites of people, and finally to his notorious civil philosophy.

No part of the universe is not a body, said Hobbes, and no part of the universe contains no body. Hobbes was a plenist, holding all space to be filled by an intangible material ether if nothing else. This doctrine followed directly from his definition of a body as anything existing independently of human thought and having volume. Thus, Hobbes considered God to be a corporeal spirit difficult to distinguish from his eternal, immutable, omnipresent, embodied space, the pervasive ether.

All change in the universe consists in the motion of bodies, so all change reduces to change of position and velocity. Further, nothing can cause a motion but contact with another moving body. The substance of anything is body, and "incorporeal substance" is therefore a contradiction in terms. Hobbes thereby disposed of angels, the soul, and the God of orthodox theology. He departed from strict materialism, however, in his introduction of "conatus" and "impetus" (which are not physical properties) into his account of the initiation of motion and measurement of acceleration. Conatus also enters into Hobbes's account of human sensation and action. Sensations are motions in a person's body, and changes of sensation are changes of that motion. Sensory qualities are really within the perceiver, but by conatus a "phantasm" is projected from the observer onto the observed.

Hobbes was the first to take seriously the problems that language, thought, and logic pose for materialism. He developed a nominalist theory of language and took the subject matter of thought and inference to be phantasms of sense or abstractions from these phantasms. He held, for example, that to remember is to perceive one has perceived. But Hobbes did not make clear just what contact mechanism is at work in mental operations nor whether the phantasms are genuinely corporeal. Thus, in spite of his best efforts, it is doubtful that he developed a fully consistent materialism.

The influence of Gassendi and Hobbes was diminished by the prestige of their brilliant contemporary, Rene Descartes (15961650), who accepted a materialist and mechanical account of the inanimate world and the brute creation but insisted that men had immaterial, immortal spirits whose essential nature lay in conscious thought undetermined by causal processes. According to Descartes, there are in the world two quite different sorts of things, extended (material) substances and thinking (spiritual) substances, which are mysteriously united in the case of humankind. He thus crystallized the tradition of dualism (the doctrine that there are just two fundamentally different kinds of substance), which was until recently materialism's chief rival.

eighteenth century

In Epicurus and Lucretius one motive for working out a materialist philosophy was to provide an antidote for the all too prevalent religious terror of their times. With Hobbes, and again in eighteenth-century France, the corresponding motive was opposition to religious oppression. But in addition, rapid growth in physiological knowledge had given rise to the hope that a complete doctrine of man in purely physiological terms was possible and so generated a medical materialism that made the path of the metaphysicians smoother.

Ever since the time of Democritus, materialists had held that the soul consists of fine particles within the body. In the course of the eighteenth century this suggestion was taken up and amplified, and some attempt was made to give it an experiential basis.

An anonymous manuscript, the Ame materielle, written between 1692 and 1704, contains many ingenious explanations of mental function along Democritean lines. Pleasure and pain consist, respectively, of the flow of finer or coarser particles through the channels of the brain. The passions are a matter of the temperature of the heart. Reason consists in the ordering of the soul's fine particles, and the effect of wine in its course through the body is to dislodge some of these fine particles from their proper places. The manuscript is panpsychic in its expression, crediting the atoms with a rudimentary consciousness and will, but it is materialist in substance, for these qualities are not credited with any causal power. The doctrines advanced were purely hypothetical and, as we now know, false. The Ame materielle had successors in Dr. Maubec's Principes physiques de la raison et les passions de l'homme (1709), which again gave a materialist vision of man a panpsychic dress and opposed Descartes's view of the mind as a thinking substance. During the middle years of the century, Denis Diderot's many unsystematic writings took progressively a more materialistic turn. Diderot's Le reve de d'Alembert is a striking hypothetical account of heredity, growth, and the simpler forms of animal behavior in terms of internal motions of living bodies.

The most famous medical materialist is Jean de la Mettrie (17091751), a doctor with a philosophical bent whose radical views obliged him to leave a fashionable practice in Paris to live in Holland and Prussia. In L'homme machine (1943 [1748]) he presented a view of the human being as a self-moving machine.

After criticizing all views of the soul as a spiritual entity, La Mettrie proceeded to review all the commonsense evidence for the physical nature of mental activity. He cited the effects of bodily needs, aging, and sleep; he pointed to the analogy of the human body to much "lower" forms, which were not supposed to harbor spiritual minds. Anticipating Pavlov, he spoke of the mechanical basis of speech and of the possibilities of educating deaf-mutes and anthropoid apes. He explained learning to perceive and learning to make moral judgments by appeal to modifications of the brain. Human action is accounted for by the then new doctrine of the stimulus irritability of muscles. La Mettrie embarrassed those who held that the soul is a spiritual unity governing all vital functions by observing the continuing function of organs removed from bodies, the muscular activity of dead or decapitated animals, and the ability of a bisected polyp to grow into two complete ones. He explained conscious sensation and the mental capacities of which we are introspectively aware by means of a magic-lantern analogy, but this was unsatisfactory, for the status of the images involved was not made clear.

The details of La Mettrie's physiology, depending as they do on supposed movements of nervous filaments, are false. However, his program of seeking in neural changes the explanation of mental activity has endured, and his claim that appeals to the actions of a spiritual soul can furnish only pseudo-explanations has gained wide support.

Jean Cabanis (17571808), a French doctor, continued this line of thought and in 1802 published Rapports du physique et du moral de l'homme, the most notable innovation of which was to treat the brain as analogous with the digestive system, making sensory impressions its aliments and thoughts its product. The great metaphysical materialist of the period is Paul Heinrich Dietrich d'Holbach (17231789), a German nobleman living in Paris. His work the Systeme de la nature was published under a false name "Mirabaud," with a false imprint "London" (Amsterdam) in 1770. This "Bible of all materialism" is speculative philosophy in the grand style; in it the antireligious motive is again uppermost. Holbach maintained that nothing is outside nature. Nature is an uninterrupted and causally determined succession of arrangements of matter in motion. Matter has always existed and always been in motion, and different worlds are formed from different distributions of matter and motion. Matter is of four basic types (earth, air, fire, and water), and changes in their proportions are responsible for all changes other than the spatiotemporal ones that motion without redistribution can accomplish.

Mechanical causes of the impact type, such as collision or compression, are the only intelligible ones, hence the only real ones. Because human beings are in nature and part of nature, all human actions spring from natural causes. The intellectual faculties, thoughts, passions, and will can all be identified with motions hidden within the body. In action outward motions of the limbs are acquired from these internal movements in ways we do not yet understand.

Holbach based the intellectual faculties on feeling and treated feelings as a consequence of certain arrangements of matter. Introspected changes are all changes in our internal material state. Thus, in remembering, we renew in ourselves a previous modification. He treated personal characteristics and temperament in terms of a person's internal structure and interpreted so-called free action not as motiveless action (an absurdity) but as action that, although seeming to flow from a free choice, actually springs from an ultimately unchosen modification of the brain. Holbach's theory of mind is also interesting because in dealing with wit and genius, it suggests the first behavioral analyses of mental concepts. As consistency required, he held the soul to be mortal. The purity of Holbach's materialism is marred only by his admission of relations of sympathy, antipathy, and affinity among material particles, in addition to their unequivocally physical properties, the primary qualities, gravity, and inert force.

The revolution in chemistry that was effected by Joseph Priestley (1777) in England and Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier in France in the 1770s and 1780s was of importance for the later development of materialism, for it established chemistry as a strictly physical science. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, all properly chemical explanations appeal only to material substances and their natural interactions. Such a chemistry has since been extended in biochemistry to cover all the processes of life, and the case for materialism has thereby been profoundly strengthened. Priestley himself nevertheless vigorously upheld an unorthodox version of Christianity, insisting that the existence of God and the resurrection of the body are not incompatible with a materialist and determinist view of the natural world.

nineteenth century

The philosophers of greatest influence in the nineteenth centuryKant, Fichte, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Lotze, and Mill, for examplewere all of an idealist or phenomenalist bent. The dialectical materialism of Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx is not an extreme materialism of the kind discussed here.

Ludwig Buchner, a minor figure, deserves mention as the first to claim explicitly that materialism is a generalization from a posteriori discoveries. In Kraft und Stoff (1855) he claims that we have discovered (not proven a priori ) that there is no force without matter and no matter without force.

There was during this period a continuation of inquiry and speculation on the physiological bases of mental function. Jacob Molescott (1852), Karl Vogt (1846, 1854), and Emil Du Bois-Raymond proceeded with the investigation of physiological processes along biophysical and biochemical lines. The most important developments were scientific findings that undermined the barrier between physical systems and living organisms and thus softened the natural resistances to materialistic theses.

In 1828 the synthesis of urea was achieved, and this refuted the idea that biochemistry was in some way special and distinct from chemistry. In 1847, Hermann Helmholtz established the conservation of energy in organic systems, making still less plausible any claims that living and nonliving systems could not possibly be comprehended in a single theory.

In 1859 Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species, in 1871 his Descent of Man. T. H. Huxley had produced Man's Place in Nature in 1863. These three works at last provided a plausible, empirically grounded case for two of the main planks of materialism, the claim that the organization of living things into forms admirably adapted for survival and reproduction can be explained without appeal to immanent or transcendent purposes, and the claim that humans are a part and product of the natural world. Since then biologists, physiologists, and pathologists have increasingly taken the truth of medical materialism for granted, couching their explanations in physicochemical terms without questioning the propriety or completeness of successful explanations in this form.

twentieth century

The triumphant progress in the twentieth century of a materialistic biology and biochemistry has almost completely eliminated vitalist notions of living forms as governed by forces additional to, and distinct from, the purely physical forces operating on inanimate matter. The situation of earlier ages has been reversed; it now seems implausible to maintain that the vital functions of living organisms are different in kind from chemical (ultimately, physical) processes. In the attempt to demonstrate that something other than matter exists, it is on mind, rather than life, that the opponents of materialism now rely.

Early in the twentieth century, the behaviorist movement arose, in a development linked to the emergence of psychology as a distinct science in its own right, rather than a branch of the philosophy of mind. Many psychologists became disheartened by the difficulties involved in any introspective investigation of inner mental states, and turned to the study of behavior. In its analyses and explanations of human activities, behaviorist psychology relies as far as possible on publicly observable, physical phenomena of stimulus and response. Its aim was to expel the traditionally conceived inner, immaterial mind from psychology, and in this way was a profoundly materialistic development.

In the realm of the mind, a new challenge for immaterialists has also developed. The rise of cybernetics (the abstract theory of machines) and its applications in computing machinery threatens the idea of a special status for mental activity. The gathering and interpretation of information, the employment of stored information, successful and spectacular problem solving, even analogues of fatigue, overload, and confusion, hitherto all found only among complex living organisms, are now displayed by computing hardware, that is, by material structures all of whose operations can be explained in terms of physical properties alone.

Approaching the issue from the opposite direction, experimental study of the nervous systems of animals and of ourselves is showing, in ever-increasing detail, how artificially induced physical changes in the electrochemical state of the nervous system issue in changes in the subject's mental activity. Displays of emotion, performance in perception and recall, and anxiety and tension are being tied down to brain function in this way.

During the twentieth century, there were in fact three distinct movements of a materialistic stamp in the philosophy of mind. In the 1920s and 1930s some logical positivists, led by Rudolph Carnap (19321933) and Otto Neurath, espoused an epistemic materialism. They held that the meaning of any statement consists in the directly testable statements deducible from it (the protocol sentences). In order for language and meaning to be public and shared, these protocol sentences must be intersubjectively testable. However, because no statement about one individual's experience or thought or other inner psychological state can be tested by anyone else, only sentences referring to the physical properties of physical entities are intersubjectively testable in the required way. Now, because most statements about minds are incontestably meaningful, they must, despite appearances to the contrary, in fact refer to physical properties and entities, even though translations of them into physical terms cannot be provided. In this way the philosophy of language led to a behaviorist materialism.

The beginnings of translation into behavioral terms was offered for some psychological expressionsfor example, "is happy"by directing attention to the way in which the use of such expressions is taught. A key element in teaching such an expression is to point to people behaving happily. In this emphasis on the conditions under which an expression can be learned, the positivists anticipated the favorite strategy of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1953) and moved away from complete dependence on their general doctrines of meaning and verification.

During the middle years of the twentieth century, the analytic behaviorists, in particular Gilbert Ryle (1949) and his followers, offered to show that descriptions of states of mind are essentially dispositional, so that attributions of intention and intelligence, choice and desire, excitement and fear, and other mental states are all to be understood as attributions of a disposition to behave in a characteristic manner in appropriate circumstances. Dispositions are held by most thinkers to issue from some standing or recurrent underlying state, and with these analytic behaviorists the relevant states underlying human mental life were assumed to be states of the body. Their manifest intention to exorcise any spiritual soulas Ryle would put it, any "ghost in the machine"places them in the materialist tradition.

Wittgenstein, although he disdained the title behaviorist, belongs to the same group. He insisted that in any acceptable analysis of a mental concept the description of a person's state of mind must make reference only to publicly detectable features of the organism and its behavior. His many subtle discussions of mental concepts are all attempts to identify the patterns of behavior whose display would constitute being in a given state of mind. To attribute that state of mind to someone is to attribute a disposition to display the relevant pattern of behavior. The alternative analysis that interprets the various states of mind as states and processes in a spiritual soul is, according to Wittgenstein, not merely false, it is unintelligible.

On two key points the analytic behaviorists were not convincing. First, if mental states are dispositions to display particular patterns of behavior, they cannot be causes of the behavior in question. It cannot be that a man's anger made him shout, for the shouting is itself just an aspect of the anger. Nor can a woman's pride have made her stubborn. Yet this causal link between a mental state and the characteristic behavior pattern that springs from it, is at the heart of how we understand one another.

Second, some inner mental episodes, such as afterimages, pains, sudden unsought recollections, dreams, or flashes of insight, resist any plausible dispositional analysis. The mind does seem to be a collection of categorical states, items, or events in addition to a cluster of dispositions. The effort to correct both these weaknesses, first the denial of any categorical component, and later the denial of any causal power to the mind, was a significant factor in materialism's subsequent development.

The third group of twentieth-century materialists embraced a theory of mind known as central-state physicalism, from which contemporary materialism derives. The central-state physicalists held that although it may be that some mental states can be understood dispositionally, there are many mental states, items, or events that must be accorded a straightforwardly categorical status. These categorical mental states turn out to be, as a matter of contingent fact, states of the central nervous system. To introspective awareness they do not seem to be neural states, but the explanation for this is that the nervous system is presented to itself in an opaque or covert fashion.

The mind has many aspects, and mental life underpins almost every distinctively human capacity. Most of our distinctive capacities have been pointed to as showing that a living human being must be something more than a mere assemblage of atoms. To understand ourselves, we cannot do without the concepts of perception, belief, and intelligence; action, decision, and choice; motive, drive, and need; feeling, emotion, and mood; temperament and character. We will also need to treat of consciousness and self-consciousness. The task for materialists is to explain how merely material structures could exhibit all these mental attributes. In attempting this, two basic approaches were at first adopted, the behavioral and the topic neutral.

Behavioral strategy

The central-state physicalists were able to appropriate the earlier work of the behaviorists and accept that the attribution to an organism of some of the mental predicates (for example intelligence, equanimity, or ambition) is in reality the attribution of a disposition to behave in a characteristic way under suitable conditions. The organism displaying the behavior, the form the behavior takes, and the conditions under which it is manifested, are all specifiable in purely physical terms. Moreover, the remarkable subtlety and complexity of human behavior, which until the twentieth century appeared to surpass anything of which a mere machine could be capable, no longer has such immaterialist implications, for now the development of electronic machines suggests that the ability to duplicate human performance is possible. In particular, the self-monitoring features of conscious behavior can be displayed by material systems.

Topic-neutral strategy

Many mental states resist the behavioral strategy: being in pain, seeing a color, or feeling depressed, for example. For these, a different claim was made: To attribute such a state is to assert that there is present within the organism some state or process that typically arises from a particular kind of stimulus and/or typically issues in a characteristic kind of behavior. A burning pain, for example, is a state of a person typically arising from excessive heat on the skin, and characteristically issuing in applications of soothing cream to the affected part. Mental predicates of this kind have been called topic-neutral because they do not specify the nature of the inner state in question. The inner state is not described either as material or as immaterial. To say that someone is in pain, the argument runs, does not of itself imply that the experience belongs to a immaterial mind. It implies only that the person is in some central state or other, arising from the states and processes in the sensory system (input), and issuing in certain behavior patterns (output). When we attempt to identify this central state, we find that the sensory system provides inputs to the organism's central nervous system, which in turn sets in train the muscular movements required for any type of behavior. If inner states admit of the topic-neutral treatment, they, too have no immaterialist implications.

Among early central-state physicalists, some, such as Paul K. Feyerabend (1963) and Hilary Putnam, claimed only that this is the most promising line for investigation to now take. Others, such as U. T. Place (1956), J. J. C. Smart (1959, 1963), and Herbert Feigl (1958), went further and held that any alternative dualist view is already frankly incredible.

Contemporary Materialism

During the later years of the twentieth century, under the influence chiefly of David Armstrong (1968) and David Lewis (1972), the topic-neutral strategy was taken up and developed. The behavioral strategy became less prominent, as more and more mental attributions were interpreted as asserting that the organism was in an appropriate categorical state. And the role of the mental as the causal bridge between stimulus and response was taken up and emphasized. Mental states came to be regarded as theoretical constructs and assimilated to other theoretical entities more familiar from other sciences, as philosophers adopted a third strategy for accounting for mental descriptions in a material world.

causal/theoretical strategy

In a complete departure from the behaviorist viewpoint, which saw mentality as a matter of the outer effects of stimuli, the new position is that the really essential thing about any mental state is its causal role, as the crucial inner intermediary between input and response. The idea is that the activity of conscious living beings calls for explanation, and the most appropriate explanations will attribute to such organisms inner states, produced by environmental and remembered elements, and producing behavior that, in the light of the organism's beliefs, is best suited to fulfilling its purposes.

So the mind becomes an inner, theoretical entity, the that-which-best-accounts-for the phenomena of conscious behavior. The analogy was drawn with the gene in biology, that-which-best-accounts-for the phenomena of heredity, and with lightning, that-which-best-accounts-for flashes, thunder, and some kinds of storm damage.

Then, still following the analogy, the research question becomes that of finding which element in the world turns out to fill the theoretical role in question. Structures crucially involving the DNA molecule, as it turns out, best account for heredity. Electrical discharges, as it turns out, best account for the flashes, rumbles, and damage of electrical storms. This is a matter of the contingent identification of underlying structures and processes as the causal bases for patterns of observed phenomena. So with the mind: It is the central nervous system (brain, optic nerve, spinal chord, and some other components) that, as it turns out, fulfills the mind's causal role as the intermediary and clearinghouse between the inputs, many of which we know as experience, and the outputs that consist in purposive activity.

In this way functionalism, the dominant form of contemporary materialism, developed. It has two components. The first component is a theory of the mind, which asserts that the essential feature of the mind is its causal role, and identifies the different states of mindbeliefs, fears, plans, twinges, and so forthin terms of their particular places in the whole mental causal scheme. This theory of the nature of mind lends itself to materialism, but is not itself materialist. It is topic-neutral, allowing for any of a number of views of what it is that provides the causal bridge between inputs and responses. The second component in functionalist materialism is the theoretical identification of the mind with the central nervous system. This is a contingent assertion about what minds turn out to be in this world. As such, it is vulnerable to various empirical developments, as all substantial empirical claims should be.

Objections to Materialism

the possibility of scientific refutation

Materialism is a strong version of naturalism. It asserts that everything whatsoever that occurs in this world is the result of the operation of physical forces in accord with physical laws. So a spectacular and unequivocal divine intervention in the course of nature, such as the Apocalypse and the Day of Judgment as described in the book of Revelation, would spell the end of materialism as a credible philosophy.

Less spectacular developments could have the same impact. The firm establishing of parapsychological powers (telepathy, clairvoyance, or psychokinesis) would do so, for by definition any paranormal phenomenon involves knowledge or action by a mind in defiance of physical law. So also would developments in neural science that uncovered variations in effectual states of mind without any appropriate change in states of the central nervous system. Or changes in the central nervous system linked to changes in mental state, such as forming a new resolution, that systematically violate the probabilities for neural change that physical laws set forth and that defy any modification to accepted physical laws.

Materialism, being vulnerable in these ways, remains to that extent speculative. But whereas a watching brief needs to be kept over the progress of scientific investigations, it is fair to say that there is at present no serious threat from these quarters. The credibility of positive paranormal results has, if anything, diminished in the course of the past half century. And we are very far indeed from being able to assert that the activity of the brain is physically anomalous. Quite the contrary; so far, no apparent violations of physical law have been found.


Materialism not only holds that there are no supernatural interventions in the course of nature, but that there are no divine beings of any kind. To defend materialism on these points, one must first show that there is no valid deductive argument for the existence of a necessary being, then sustain the view that this world does not call for a divine creator as the best explanation for its existence and character.

Next, one must deny that religious experience reveals a supernatural realm, as vision provides access to a physical one. Adopting the skeptical empiricists' critique, one can argue that religious experience is not sufficiently uniform, widespread, and unanimous to warrant abandoning the natural modes of explanation that have served so well in all other enquiries, especially as supernatural hypotheses face peculiar difficulties when it comes to putting them to the test. The materialist position is strengthened by the promise of continued success in finding concrete natural explanations of religious experience through developments in sociology, psychology and physiology.

If these positions can be established, claims to the existence of God and the occurrence of miracles are established neither by argument nor in experience and so must be considered as interpretative hypotheses laid upon the experienced world. The materialist must again urge that in framing hypotheses, as in seeking explanations, there is no sufficient reason for deserting the natural for the supernatural. In such circumstances as these considerations of parsimony exclude all supernatural entities from any reasonable ontology.

Materialists must show that, contrary to the claims of Spiritualists and Buddhists, there is no sufficient reason to believe in survival of bodily death or in reincarnation. And indeed there are plausible arguments that both doctrines rest on untenable views of the self. These arguments do not impugn the possibility of bodily resurrection, but that is compatible with materialism.


Materialism has in the past been assailed as incomplete. Even if, in a great advance on its predecessors, modern cosmology does provide explanations for the origin, persistence, and motion of the fundamental particles, it provides none for the initial conditions from which these derive. Nor does materialism make intelligible why each fundamental interaction has had one result and not another. The reply, now widely accepted, is that all chains of explanation must eventually come to a terminus and that to seek to go beyond contingent truths concerning the items and processes in this world is to go hunting a mare's nest.

the mind and human experience

There is no doubt that our own conscious experience provides the greatest intuitive challenge to materialism. C. D. Broad in The Mind and Its Place in Nature (1925) formulates many people's reaction to the suggestion that mental events are physical events, such as molecular movements, taking place in our body:

About a molecular movement it is perfectly reasonable to raise the question "Is it swift or slow, straight or circular and so on?" About the awareness of a red patch it is nonsensical to ask whether it is a swift or slow awareness, a straight or circular awareness, and so on. Conversely, it is reasonable to ask whether it is a clear or a confused awareness, but it is nonsense to ask of a molecular movement whether it is a clear or a confused movement. Thus the attempt to argue that "being a sensation of so and so" and "being a bit of bodily behavior of such and such a kind" are just two names for the same characteristic is evidently hopeless. (p. 623)

Indeed, this attempt is hopeless, but it is not one a materialist must make. We need to distinguish the process of being aware from the item of which we are aware. The two "names" that materialists claim to name the same thing are "subject S having sensation P " and "subject S undergoing bodily changes Q," and it has become clear since Broad wrote that what is or is not nonsensical is not an immediate deliverance of introspection, but an issue in the fashioning of concepts to improve theories of the world. As for P, which is the item of which S is awarewhat Broad calls the sensation S hasthere would be no absurdity if this could be dealt with by a topic-neutral strategy. We are aware that something is going on in us, which deserves the description "red patch," but according to the topic-neutral strategy, the nature of what is going on is not part of what we are conscious of. The fact of the matter, according to the materialists, is that we have a covert presentation of bodily changes Q to the person S, who is having the sensation. Nevertheless, the two main stumbling blocks for functionalist materialism both concern the character of our inner life.

The qualia problem

The topic-neutral or causal/theoretical strategies may well be satisfactory for those inner states that have no special "feel" about them, such as deciding. We can decide to do something, and be aware that we have decided, but that awareness carries no special feel or twinge or glow with it. We are aware that something is going on in us, something that will have an impact on how we behave by bringing a new causal factor into our life. But that state, and our awareness of that state, reveal nothing about its nature as material or immaterial. Decisions and intentions are thus favorable candidates for a topic-neutral analysisso, too, is doing mental arithmetic, where the process leads to changes in what one will say or do, but carries no other inner characteristics that one is aware of.

The case is otherwise, however, with sensations and feelings. To see a red patch is to be aware of an inner state that has a redness about it, that sets it apart from the green and blue patches we see. This difference is not obviously a difference in how we discriminate the two items, and react to them, as is brought out by the spectrum-shift arguments, which point out that although your outward color-vision behavior may match mine, you may see reds as I see pale pinks, or blues as I see greens.

To be in love is certainly to be in a state apt to issue in a characteristic pattern of behavior. But it is more than that; there is a complex of feelings involved that do not of themselves involve behavioral differences, but differences in consciousness, by comparison with those not in love.

To be angry, or in pain, or delighted, carry special sensations or feelings with them too. All such sensations or feelings are known as qualia, and the qualia problem is the problem of fitting them in to a materialist world view. It is notorious that when you are seeing something green, and therefore experiencing a sensation of green, there is no green physical surface anywhere inside you. The sharp pangs of pain are similarly elusivethe neural activities have been found that occur when pain is felt, but the painfulness of pain does not seem to be present among them.

Qualia seem to be an important part of being conscious. They seem to make a difference to how we speak and act, yet they stand outside the network of physical causation, neither taking energy in their production, nor having any force to apply to change the world. They challenge the deep materialist commitment to the physical closure of the natural world. If only physical items can have physical effects, then qualia cannot even produce our awareness of them, nor our capacity to describe them, which makes them paradoxical items indeed.

There have been attempts to account for them behavioristically, as dispositions to act and react in particular ways. Perhaps the most promising materialist suggestion is that the intrinsic qualities of sensations are in reality purely schematic and enable us only to distinguish one sensation from another. Inner states notoriously elude direct characterization. Our attempts to describe them often proceed by comparison with other sensations directly or ultimately picked out by reference to their stimulus and/or response. For example, we describe smells as of cinnamon or of rotten eggs (stimulus) and as appetizing or nauseating (response); we speak of pains as jabbing, burning, or like "pins and needles." Feelings of anger, shame, pride, and fear are all described in terms of bodily temperature.

If the sameness or difference of inner states but not their nature is given introspectively, sensations could well be states of the nervous system typically connected with stimulus and/or response, even though we are not aware of this. This strategy for dealing with qualia faces the problems of spectrum-shift arguments, because two sets of sensations, tastes for example, could be shifted relative to one another along a spectrum, yet perform equally well in informing us of the sameness or difference, and typical causes and effects, of our inner states.

The qualia problem was long emphasized by F. C. Jackson (1998) in a series of influential articles. His most recent stance is the "there must be a solution" solution: Somehow, qualia must be reconcilable with materialism, even if we cannot see how.

The insight problem

The second currently most acute problem for materialism concerns the nature of human insight and understanding. When we learn to speak a language, we acquire the ability to conduct a conversation satisfactorily; that is, to make appropriate responses to the speech of others, to initiate conversations using sounds the other recognizes and responds to. But to properly understand, more than linguistic competence is required. This was dramatized by John Searle (1992) in his "Chinese Room" argument: If someone who had no understanding of Chinese but who could recognize Chinese characters were shut away in a room, and provided with pieces of Chinesequestions and so forththrough a mailbox, that person could, using a computerized dictionary for example, choose appropriate Chinese-character responses. This is a linguistic competence that does not include understanding and is clearly deficient by comparison with the capacity of a genuine Chinese speaker. The missing component, understanding or insight, proves just as elusive as do the qualia to materialist studies of the nervous system.


Materialism faces several other more general objections, for the most part of a logical kind, that must be faced.

The argument from self-destruction

A popular argument for disposing of materialism is this:

All doctrines concerning the nature of the world are arrived at by inference.

Thus, a fortiori, materialism is so reached.

But if materialism is true, inference is a causally determined process in people's brains, and not a rational process.

Materialism is therefore a doctrine arrived at by nonrational causal processes.

Thus, if it is true, there can be no reason to think it so.

This argument has a long history, being found in Epicurus and developed and defended by J. B. S. Haldane (1932) and Karl Popper (1977). Nevertheless, it is invalid. That the course of a given process of inferring was determined by the structure of a brain does not entail that it was an unreasonable inference. Nor does it entail that there could be no ground for thinking it reasonable. We can see that this is so, by comparing reasoning in people with calculating in adding machines. The result reached is a causal consequence of the structure of the machine; it is nonetheless a correct one, and one we are entitled to rely on. Haldane later retracted his argument (1954).

Asymmetrical knowledge of physical and mental states

Another common argument against materialism points out that, although ordinary people can recognize thoughts and feelings and intentions, they are completely ignorant of processes in the central nervous system, and so the mental occurrences cannot be identified with any such physical events. Friedrich Paulsen, for example, argued to this effect in chapter one of his Introduction to Philosophy (1895 [1892]).

This argument is also, as it stands, invalid. It is like arguing that because the police know some of the characteristics of a man who committed a crime but do not know anything about John Smith, John Smith could not possibly be the man who committed the crime. A similar reply is provided by Place and Smart in articles cited in the bibliography.

The argument would be valid if another premise were added: In introspection the full nature of mental events is disclosed. But there is no good reason for thinking this premise is true.

A variation of this argument claimed that introspective knowledge of our own mental states is incorrigible, whereas no knowledge of anything physical is incorrigible, so mental states cannot be physical. This argument faded from view after Armstrong exposed its weakness: We can and do make mistakes about our own inner mental states.

The general nature of human reason

Keith Gunderson (1964) revived an argument of Descartes's to the effect that men are not machines, even cybernetic machines, and therefore not merely material. In all known machines the matching or surpassing of a human intellectual ability is a specific outcome of a specific structure. Each skill is a skill at some specific task and no other. But in human beings, intellectual skills are generalized and come in clusters; human reason is a tool for all circumstances. Thus, it is not proven that the human skill and that of the machine arise from a like inner structure. On the contrary, the reasonable conclusion is that the machine's skill and the human skill are to be explained in different waysthat is, a person is not any kind of machine.

The reply available to materialists is that this argument is premature. The simulation of human performance by material assemblages is in its infancy. There seems no reason to suppose a machine with generalized skills impossible.


Unlike the situation with anything physical, in the realm of the mind there are relations that can exist even in the absence of one of their terms. These are the intentional relations, which include intending, believing, hoping, fearing, and desiring. The argument from intentionality rests on this peculiarity and may be put this way:

A peculiarity of many mental states is their essential connection with an object. In intending, I must intend something, and in hoping, I must hope for something.

However, whereas when I kick something, the thing I kick must exist, the thing intended or the thing hoped for may or may not have any real existence.

In this way some mental states differ essentially from all physical states.

Thus, materialism cannot be true.

The materialist reply to this argument is that intentional "relations" are strictly speaking not relations but monadic states that are identified by reference to what would fulfill them or constitute their exercise. These are possible states or circumstances that, were they actual, would be material. It is a further question, however, whether the existence of mere, unactualized possibilities is compatible with a strict materialism.

Logical connections between distinct existences

The essential link between a mental state and the behavior to which it gives rise has also been seen to rule out materialism:

Where an intention is carried out, both the intention and the thing intended exist.

They are two different things.

Nevertheless, they are logically connected, because what was carried out makes the intention what it was.

But any two different physical items are only contingently connected.

Hence, mental states cannot be physical items.

Materialists urge in rebuttal that this is a consequence of the peculiarly causal character of mental states and has its counterpart in the uncontroversially physical realm.

Thus if we describe arsenic causally as a lethal poison, there is a logical connection between drinking the lethal poison arsenic and dying, even though the arsenic, the drinking, and the dying, are all distinct existences.

Nonreductive Materialism

Despite the progress made in rebutting the classical objections to materialism, and despite the current popularity, in English-speaking philosophy, of functionalist physicalism as a philosophy of mind, uneasiness remains that materialism accords insufficient recognition to consciousness and its highest expressionsmusic, literature, love, and fine feeling generally, as well as culture, morality, and religious aspiration. In response to this, there have been some attempts at a softer materialism that tries to accord to the physical a primary but not exclusive place. While everything depends on the physical, it does not reduce to the physico-chemical, but rather supervenes upon it. The most thorough attempt in this direction is J. F. Post's The Faces of Existence (1987). A further step away from extreme materialism is taken in Nicholas Maxwell's The Human World in the Physical Universe (2001), which advocates a dual-aspect position while clinging to the central materialist claim that the universe is a closed system, in which the only causally effective forces are the physical ones.

See also Philosophy of Mind.


general histories of materialism

Lange, Frederick Albert. Geschichte des Materialismus (1865). Translated by E. C. Thomas as The History of Materialism. London: Truebner, 18771892. This classic is by far the most important secondary source in the history of materialist theories. All English editions since the London edition of 1925 include an introduction by Bertrand Russell titled "Materialism."

Lewes, George Henry. The Biographical History of Philosophy. London: C. Knight, 1845. A lively and idiosyncratic history, with good comments on materialist philosophers.

Vitzthum, R. Materialism: An Affirmative History and Definition. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1995. Accessible work, emphasizing the scientific aspects of the development of materialism.

classical period

Aristotle. Metaphysica. Translated by W. D. Ross as Metaphysics Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924. Most easily accessible source for ancient world opinion on materialistic Greeks.

Burnet, John. Early Greek Philosophy. 4th ed. London: A & C Black, 1930.

Burnet, John. Greek Philosophy; Thales to Plato. London: Macmillan, 1914. Standard account of ancient philosophy.

Lucretius. De Rerum Natura. Classic presentation, in Latin verse, expanding and occasionally modifying the doctrines of Epicurus. Translated by Rolfe Humphries as The Way Things Are. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969. Another edition, translated by R. E. Latham. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1961.

seventeenth century

Brandt, Frithiof. Den mekaniske Naturopfattelse hos Thomas Hobbes. Translated by Vaughan Maxwell and Annie Fairstoll as Thomas Hobbes' Mechanical Conception of Nature. London: Librairie Hachette, 1928. Detailed and definitive.

Cyrano de Bergerac, Savinien de. Etats et empires de la lune and Etats et empires du soleil. 1657, 1662. Translated by Richard Aldington as Voyages to the Moon and the Sun. New York: Orion Press, 1962. These fictional works epitomize the seventeenth-century movement toward materialism.

Gassendi, Pierre. Animadversiones in Decimum Librum Diogenis Laerti. Lyons, France, 1649.

Gassendi, Pierre. De Vita et Moribus Epicuri Libri Octo. Lyons, France, 1647.

Gassendi, Pierre. Philosophiae Epicuri Syntagma. Lyons, France, 1649.

Gassendi, Pierre. Syntagma Philosophicum. Lyons, France, 1658. These four works appeared together in Opera Omnia. Lyons, France, 1658. Facsimile reprint Stuttgard-Bad-Cannstatt, frommann, 1964. In these four works Gassendi expounds and defends Epicurus (except where his views conflict with Catholic doctrine.)

Hobbes, Thomas. English Works, edited by William Molesworth. London: Bohn, 1839.

Hobbes, Thomas. Latin Works, edited by William Molesworth. London: Bohn, 1839.

Mintz, Samuel I. The Hunting of Leviathan. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1962. Narrates contemporary reactions to Hobbes.

Peters, Richard. Hobbes. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1956. Interesting and comprehensible introduction.

Rochot, Bernard. Les travaux de Gassendi sur Epicure et sur l'atomisme 16191658. Paris: Libraire Philosophique, 1944. Most accessible modern treatment of Gassendi.

Spink, John S. French Free-Thought from Gassendi to Voltaire. London: University of London, Athlone Press, 1960.

eighteenth century

Cabanis, Pierre-Jean-Georges. Rapports du physique et du moral de l'homme. Paris, 1802. English translation by M. D. Saidi. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1981.

Diderot, Denis. Oeuvres completes. Paris: Garnier Freres, 1875.

Holbach, Paul Heinrich Dietrich d'. Systeme de la nature par Mirabaud. 1770. Translated by H. D. Robinson as The System of Nature. Edited by Denis Diderot. Boston: J. P. Mendum, 1853. Classic treatise.

La Mettrie, Julien Offray de. L'homme machine. 1748. Translated and edited by Ann Thom as Machine Man. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996. There is also a critical edition with notes by Aram Vartanian. Princeton, 1960.

Maubec. Principes de la raison et les passions de l'homme. Manuscript held in the Bibliotheque nationale in Paris (B.N. n.a.f.r.14709).

Priestley, Joseph. Disquisitions Relating to Matter and Spirit. London: J. Johnson, 1777.

nineteenth century

Buchner, Ludwig. Kraft und Stoff (1855). Translated by J. Frederick Collingwood as Force and Matter. London, Truebner, 1884.

Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man. New York: Appleton, 1871.

Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species. London: John Murray, 1859. Classic treatise.

Moleschott, Jakob. Der Kreislauf des Lebens. Mainz, Germany: Von Zabern, 1857.

Passmore, John. A Hundred Years of Philosophy. London: Duckworth, 1957. Readable and authoritative guide.

Vogt, Karl. Kohlerglaube und Wissenschaft. Giessen, Germany: Ricker, 1855.

Vogt, Karl. Physiologische Briefe. Giessen, Germany, 1854.

twentieth century

Armstrong, David M. A Materialist Theory of the Mind. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968. A modern classic, first systematic exposition of central-state physicalism.

Carnap, Rudolf. "Psychologie in physikalischer Sprache" (19321933). Translated by Frederick Schick as "Psychology in Physical Language," in Logical Positivism, edited by A. J. Ayer. Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1959. Epistemic materialism.

Eliot, Hugh. Modern Science and Materialism. London: Longmans, Green, 1919.

Feigl, Herbert. "The 'Mental' and the 'Physical.'" In Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science. Vol. 2, edited by Herbert Feigl et al. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1958. Identifies mental states with brain processes.

Feyerabend, Paul K. "Materialism and the Mind-Body Problem." Review of Metaphysics 17 (1) (1963): 4966. Claims materialism is the only plausible view.

Hook, Sidney, ed. Dimensions of Mind: A Symposium. New York: New York University Press, 1960. Deals with the relations of mind, body, and machinery from many points of view.

Lewis, David K. "Psychophysical and Theoretical Identifications." Australasian Journal of Philosophy 50 (1972): 249258.

Nagel, Ernest. "Are Naturalists Materialists?" In his Logic without Metaphysics. Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1957.

Popper, Karl, and John C. Eccles. The Self and Its Brain. New York: Springer International, 1977. Full-scale attempt at a Cartesian dualism. Includes discussion of the argument from self-refutation.

Place, U. T. "Is Consciousness a Brain Process?" British Journal of Psychology 47 (1956): 4450. Pioneering paper in central state physicalism.

Ryle, Gilbert. The Concept of Mind. London: Hutchinson, 1949. Readable and influential advocacy of analytic behaviorism.

Skinner, B. F. Science and Human Behavior. New York: Macmillan, 1953. Major statement of methodological behaviorism.

Smart, J. J. C. Philosophy and Scientific Realism. London: Routledge and Kegan Pual, 1963. Amplification of Smart's materialism.

Smart, J. J. C. "Sensations and Brain Processes." Philosophical Review 68 (1959): 141156. Classic and influential pioneering physicalist paper.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Blackwell, 1953. Influential but difficult reappraisal of the logic of mental concepts.

contemporary materialism

Braddon-Mitchell, David, and Frank Jackson. The Philosophy of Mind and Cognition. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996. Best modern introduction, with discussion of the qualia problem.

Chalmers, David J. The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Presents a moderate dualist position.

Churchland, Paul. A Neurocomputational Perspective. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989. Shows how information systems can exhibit mental powers.

Dennett, Daniel. Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little, Brown, 1991. Functionalist account of consciousness.

Gillett, Carl, and Barry Loewer, eds. Physicalism and Its Discontents. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Sympathetic treatment of difficulties for materialism, with useful bibliography.

Jackson, Frank, ed. Consciousness. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 1998. Collection of articles, including some on qualia.

Kim, Jaegwon. Mind in a Physical World. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998.

Lycan, William G. Consciousness and Experience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996. Functionalist view.

Lycan, Willaim G., ed. Mind and Cognition, An Anthology. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999. Collection of influential articles.

Maxwell, Nicholas. The Human World in the Physical Universe: Consciousness, Free Will, and Evolution. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001. Presents a dual-aspect reconciliation of physical science and conscious experience.

McGinn, Colin. The Problem of Consciousness. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990. Argues the problem is beyond our competence to resolve.

Papineau, David. Philosophical Naturalism. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993. Concerns supervenience and physicalism.

Poland, Jeffrey. Physicalism; The Philosophical Foundations. Oxford: Clarendon, 1994. General and systematic presentation of the philosophy of materialism.

Post, John F. The Faces of Existence. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987. Propounds nonreductive materialism.

Rosenthal, David, ed. The Nature of Mind. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Collection of influential articles.

Searle, John. The Rediscovery of the Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992. Antireductionist materialism.

Thau, Michael. Consciousness and Cognition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

philosophical objections

Armstrong, David M. "Is Introspective Knowledge Incorrigible?" Philosophical Review. 72 (1963): 417432.

Broad, Charlie Dunbar. The Mind and Its Place in Nature. London: Harcourt, Brace, 1925. Readable review of various doctrines of the mind.

Ducasse, Curt John. Nature, Mind, and Death. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1951. Dualist attack on materialism.

Foster, John L. The Immaterial Self: A Defence of the Cartesian Dualist Conception of the Mind. London: Routledge, 1991.

Gunderson, Keith. "Descartes, La Mettrie, Language and Machines." Philosophy 39 (1964): 193ff. Revives argument from the generalized nature of reason.

Haldane, J. B. S. The Inequality of Man. London: Chatto and Windus, 1932. Presents the argument from self-refutation.

Haldane, J. B. S. "I Repent an Error." The Literary Guide. (April 1954): 7 and 29. Retracts argument from self-refutation.

Lewis, C. S. Miracles. New York: Macmillan, 1947. Expounds argument against materialism as self-refuting.

Paulsen, Friedrich. Einleitung in die Philosophie. 1892. Translated by Frank Thilly as An Introduction to Philosophy. New York: Holt, 1895. Idealist attack on materialism.

Plantinga, Alvin. "Probability and Defeaters." Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 84 (3) (2003): 291298. Argues that materialism is self-subverting.

Keith Campbell (1967, 2005)


views updated Jun 27 2018


Materialism posits the epistemological primacy of matter over ideas, mind, values, spirit, and other incorporeal phenomena. Philosophical perspectives stressing the fundamental importance of physical conditions and needs have grown more elaborate with the increasing differentiation and autonomy of secular knowledge from religion. Materialists oppose magical, religious, and metaphysical explanations of worldly affairs, criticizing their role as mystifications and socioeconomic or political legitimations. The enduring debate over materialism and idealism (which gives primacy to ideas) centers on the two approaches' relative effectiveness as guides to scientific, technical, and sociopolitical practices. In social science, materialism refers to often tacit metatheories, or heuristic devices, which frame distinctive types of research problems, hypotheses, concepts, and theories stressing the causal force of physical realities on sociocultural matters.

Two contrasting threads of the materialist tradition have divergent consequences for the behavioral and social sciences. Reductionists posit that phenomena are determined strictly by physical causes. Their view that existential knowledge is a reflection of corporeal conditions denies the autonomy of psychological and sociocultural factors and, thus, suggests that the behavioral and social sciences have no distinct content. Nonreductionists hold that psychological and sociocultural phenomena arise from and are dependent upon physical substrata. They also accord "primacy" to physical realities and corporeal impulses, motives, values, representations, and interests, seeing them as basic constraints that "determine," or channel, the direction of human practices. By contrast to reductionists, however, they treat the sociocultural realm as an "emergent," "sui generis," "relatively autonomous" domain having distinct properties, processes, and laws and exerting reciprocal causality with the material realm. Implying inter-penetrating sociocultural and material spheres, they include socially constituted entities and processes (e.g., technology and labor) as prime "material" determinants.

Modern materialism is rooted in ancient Greek conceptions of elementary bodies. Atomistic philosophers held that all existing things are composed of indivisible, ultimate objects of the same material in perpetual motion in empty space. They argued that perceptible objects derive from atoms of various sizes and shapes colliding, getting entangled, and forming different combinations, and that sensations arise from atoms passing through the sense organs and impacting on the soul (also composed of atoms). From the start, materialists considered knowledge to be a "subjective" manifestation of "objective" reality, holding that physical realities ultimately determine individual experiences and sociocultural constructions. However, claims about the scope of this determination varied widely with the degree to which the thinker adhered to reductionist or nonreductionist presuppositions.

Atomistic materialism reemerged as a major cultural force during the Renaissance science revolution. Galileo and Newton again portrayed physical reality as ultimate particles moving in empty space, but their distinction between precisely measurable, primary sensory qualities (i.e., length, width, weight, figure) and nonmathematizable secondary qualities (e.g., color, smell, taste, texture) established a sharp boundary between objective and subjective experience and decisive methodological standard for distinguishing science from metaphysical, aesthetic, or sociocultural thought. The capacity of diverse observers, employing the same experimental techniques, to arrive at similar findings supported materialist claims about the primacy of the physical world and certainty of objective knowledge.

The extraordinary success of Newtonian science contributed greatly to an extensive secularization of knowledge that reduced barriers to materialist approaches in human affairs. For example, Hobbes argued that social actions are also effects of matter in motion; material primacy is manifested in the dominant drive for self-preservation, all-pervasive power struggles, and subsequent need for absolute monarchy. Locke's Newtonian theory of mind held that primary sense qualities reflect external objects and that complex ideas merely combine the simple ones received directly from sense experience. However, Descartes' dualistic vision of a materialist physical world and an autonomous mind blessed with innate ideas of divine origin exemplifies the seventeenth century tendency to provide separate grounds for science, which avert direct subversion of religion. The power of the Roman Catholic Church and its censors, who saw materialism as a subversive force, was already inscribed powerfully in the earlier trial and conviction of Galileo and in his concession to dualism. Even Hobbes left space for spiritual realities. The strong subjectivist currents and subject-object dualism in Western philosophy derived from its earlier religious roots and its lack of autonomy in relation to the Church.

Enlightenment thinkers fashioned a new cultural space for free inquiry and autonomous science, subverting the power of religion and paving the way for modern materialism. La Mettrie, D'Holbach, and Diderot held that all experience has material causes. Idealizing Newtonian mechanics, the philosophes believed that naturalistic explanation of all phenomena would demystify religious and metaphysical superstition, limit the rule of the Church and nobility, and animate scientifically guided social reform. Revolutionary advances in eighteenth-century medicine, chemistry, and biology upheld their faith in materially based rationality, disenchantment, and progress. The later social revolutions against the ancien régime, secularization of political power, and gradual rise of liberal democracy favored the spread of materialist thinking in new social domains.

Manifesting Enlightenment culture, Karl Marx set the agenda for modern materialism. Even today's debates about the topic center on different interpretations of his work. Following Feuerbach, Marx charged that religion and its secular, idealist substitutes (e.g., Hegelian philosophy) are "inverted," or "alienated," projections of human capacities and potentialities. As "natural beings," he argued, people must satisfy their needs by appropriating and shaping physical objects. Although he attacked Hegel's speculative history of "spirit," Marx retained his view that people create themselves and their societies through their labor. Young Marx called for a "true" materialism, or a new science of humanity focusing on "social relationships." He wanted to illuminate ideologically obscured forms of socially structured production and exploitation, which, in his view, constitute the "real history" of "corporeal" human beings.

Divergent strains of Marxian materialism—"dialectical materialism" and "historical material-ism"—are rooted ultimately in tensions between the political and scientific sides of Marx's and Engels' works. The terms were coined after Marx's death and codified into a variety of schematic orthodoxies. Dialectical materialism is a philosophy of nature developed first by Engels, elaborated by Plekhanov and Lenin, and fashioned by Marxist-Leninists into an eschatology of the communist movement. Serving primarily as a political ideology and metalanguage that justified communist states and insurgencies, it did not have much impact on social science outside the communist regimes and movements. By contrast, historical materialism, Marx's main metatheory of social development, has much relevance for sociology. Yet even this approach was stated variously by him, and gave rise to conflicting interpretations. The elder Engels ([1890–1894] 1959, pp. 395–400), who earlier helped Marx frame his theories, berated first-generation "Marxists" for using materialism "as an excuse for not studying history," or as a dogmatic Hegelian "lever for construction," instead of as "a guide to study." Accepting partial responsibility for the later vulgar interpretations, he admitted that Marx and he, in the heat of political battle, often spoke with too much certainty. However, he insisted that Marx and he opposed the idea of all-encompassing, mechanistic causality by narrowly conceived economic factors and that their materialism meant nothing more than that "the production and reproduction of real life" is "the ultimately determining element in history."

Engels implied a problematic split in Marx's thought. On the one hand, Marx sometimes implied, in Hegelian fashion, progressively unfolding stages of history, animated by relentless technological advance and ever more unified classes rationally taking account of material factors, controlling them, and speeding history to an "inevitable" emancipatory conclusion. Such points were warranties for his political program. On the other hand, the scientific side of Marx's work breaks from teleological thinking. His historical materialism stresses empirical inquiry about specific material conditions and practices and their sociocultural consequences among particular groups in finite space and time, and calls for reconstruction of theory and practice in light of the findings. This approach has more affinity for the empirical and secular thrust of the Darwinian revolution than for earlier Enlightenment ideas of progress and science, which implied a new faith or civil religion. After the failed revolutions of 1848 and the rise of the new Napoleonic dictatorship in France, Marx qualified his formerly highly optimistic views about "making history," holding that we do not make it in accord with circumstances or outcomes that we freely choose. This insight was precursory to his mature work on capitalism, which, although retaining certain Hegelian taints, manifested clearly his historical materialism.

Following Adam Smith, Marx held that a specialized division of labor enhances productive powers geometrically. However, by contrast to Smith, he specified that capitalism's exceptional productivity derives expressly from its historically specific forms of complex cooperation, which end the relative isolation of peasants and other independent producers. Marx charged that economists mystify this process by obscuring the fundamental role of labor and portraying capitalist growth as if it were animated by a "fantastic . . . relation between things," rather than by a specific type of "social relation" (Marx [1887] 1967, pp. 71–83). He saw the unequal relationship between capitalists and workers as the "secret" of capitalist accumulation. Treating associated labor and related forms of social organization, extraction, and domination as the decisive "material" forces in human affairs, Marx averted the reductionist physicalism of the early atomists, awkward dualism of the Renaissance thinkers, and mechanistic determinism of the dialectical materialists.

Marx and Engels ([1845–1846] 1964, pp. 31–32) said that the "first premise of all human history" is the production of "the means of subsistence" and a characteristic "mode of life." As productive forces are refined, they held, growing surpluses offer provision beyond subsistence and allow certain individuals and strata to be freed from direct production for other activities, including the creation of fresh technical knowledge and new productive forces. Marx and Engels contended that incremental advances in production generate increasingly elaborate socio-cultural differentiation, class structure, and domination and more universal "class struggles" over the productive forces. In their view, material determination in the "last instance" means that socially structured patterns of production, extraction, and disposition of surplus shape social development. A materialist sociology focuses on these processes and their consequences. The central tenet of historical materialism is that the "base," or "mode of production," determines "superstructure," or "the forms of inter-course." The base is composed of "productive forces," which contribute directly to production for material needs (i.e., natural resources, tools, technical knowledge, labor power, and modes of cooperation), and "property relations," which provide certain "classes" effective control over production and relegate others to direct labor. "Superstructure" is composed of nonproductive types of social intercourse (i.e., noneconomic forms of public organization, private association, and thought), which are determined by and, in turn, maintain, or reproduce, the base.

There is a core technological root to Marx's materialism, but he also implied reciprocal causality between the physical and sociocultural realms. Thus, he was not a reductionist. Although granting productive forces ultimate theoretical primacy, his historical analyses dwelled more on property relations and class dynamics. Moreover, he did not hold that material determination operated with the same intensity throughout society. Rather, he emphasized that its strongest force is exerted in institutions that play a direct role in reproducing the mode of production and that the rest of society and culture has much more autonomy. For example, under capitalism, mainstream public discourses about property rights or free trade are central to ideology, but most music and fiction, as well as Marx's critical writings, bear only the broad imprint of the level and form of productive development. Marx envisioned society as composed of interdependent social structures and cultural forms, implying that each element has a distinct impact on the whole. Yet he still saw the base as the most decisive factor shaping overall society and its internal relations. He treated the productive activities of subordinate producers and surplus extraction by superordinate classes as the most central and obscured processes in social life and the root of the most major institutions, conflicts, and transitions.

In a much-debated argument about the capitalist mode of production, Marx held that the rate of profit would fall under highly mechanized production. He believed that the trend toward automation in heavy industry reduces the proportion of direct laborers to fixed capital, diminishing the ultimate source of capitalist profit and requiring hyperexploitation of remaining workers to pay for vastly increased technical investment. Marx argued that the classes would be compressed into a tiny monopoly stratum of owners and a huge impoverished mass of de-skilled workers and permanently unemployed people. However, he also held that science and technology, having replaced direct labor as the leading productive force, would provide the material basis for proletarian revolution and an emancipated, postcapitalist order (i.e., scientific production and administration, greatly reduced work and material necessity, and uncoerced cooperation). This hopeful scenario about collective agency and planning as replacing blind history, and material determinism as becoming truly "in the last instance," went beyond the scientific thrust of historical materialism and reflected the Hegelian residue in his thought.

By the early twentieth century, pathbreaking ideas about electromagnetic fields, relativity theory, and quantum mechanics relativized space and time, eroded the borders between energy and mass, and fashioned a new relational cosmology that undermined Newtonianism. Similarly, Nietzsche, James, Dewey, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein subverted the foundations of modern Western philosophy. Major social changes accompanied the intellectual shifts. A more complex system of classes and subclasses, new types of workplaces, indirect forms of ownership and control, and state intervention altered the structure of capitalism and blurred the line between base and superstructure. Stalinism; fascism; resurgent irrationalism; and persistent racial, ethnic, gender, and religious splits also cried out for new types of theory. In this climate, Marxists tended to drift toward new types of cultural theory or to embrace dialectical materialism, which remained the official ideology of global communism.

In the 1930s, when sociology was being transformed into a professionally specialized discipline in the United States, Talcott Parsons relegated Marx to the status of a footnote in the history of social theory and gave a strong primacy to values and ideas that turned Marx on his head. Parsons's leading role in post–World War II sociology helped harden mainstream opposition to materialism. Claiming that class was no longer a prime basis of association, a determinant of political and cultural beliefs, or a source of major social conflicts, numerous North American sociologists and many thinkers from other liberal democracies argued that materialism did not come to terms with the nascent "postindustrial society." Although certain critics dissented, most mainstream sociologists dismissed materialism as a crude ideology, or simply ignored the approach.

Materialist themes appeared much more prominently in later 1960s social theory, animated, in part, by New Left attacks on functionalism and positivism. Very influential among European theorists, Lewis Althusser's "structuralist" interpretation of Marx radically revised materialism. However, G. A. Cohen's Karl Marx's Theory of History (1978) helped stimulate wider efforts to reconstruct historical materialism (e.g., Anderson 1974a, 1974b; Shaw 1978; McMurtry 1978; Roemer 1982; Bhaskar 1989). Dispensing with overt political facets and overcoming conceptual gaps, the new works were more systematic versions of the original approach. However, they did not have much impact on mainstream sociology.

Materialist theory fell on hard times in a climate where "post-materialist" identity politics were ascendent over labor-centered or class politics, and failed communism and resurgent neoliberalism seemed to doom the socialist "alternative" (Anderson 1983; Antonio 1990). In this climate, a new "cultural sociology" blossomed as part of a broader interdisciplinary turn to "representation" and "discourse." Postmodern arguments about the primacy of culture were often pitched directly against Marxian materialism, which they declared moribund. These new cultural theories tended to shift the focus among "critical sociologists" from "structural determinants" (i.e., production and labor) to "cultural surfaces," especially mass entertainment and other signifiers of mass consumption. Many of these theorists argued that a defining feature of postmodern culture is its increased, or, even, total autonomy from material underpinnings.

Although materialist theory has declined in recent years, historical-comparative and empirical work, manifesting tacit materialism and clear connections to nondoctrinaire forms of Marxism, was well established in North American sociology by the 1980s. It still flourishes among significant subgroups in the discipline. These thinkers do not directly employ the base-superstructure model (which is now associated with dialectical materialism and dogmatic Marxism), but they share historical materialist presuppositions, albeit often fused with other traditions. Recent historical changes are intensifying interest in materialist themes. First, neoliberal globalization and restructuring stimulate heated debates over multinational firms, international finance, socioeconomic dislocations, and related public policy initiatives. Second, the collapse of eastern European communism and global decline of communism raise major questions about socioeconomic reconstruction in postcommunist society and detach materialism from communist politics. Third, new materialist critiques counter claims about the primacy of culture and representation in interdisciplinary theory circles. Historical materialism is a heuristic device that poses problems and hypotheses, and is perhaps best judged on this account. Consider the current "materialist" issues below.


As in Marx's time, today's materialism arises in a climate of perceived rupture, or the end of the post–World War II socioeconomic system and its distinctive patterns of growth, regulation, and geopolitics. Materialists focus on the shifts in the system of production and their impacts on other aspects of social life, especially on inequality, conflict, and politics.

Globalization and Restructuring. Recent materialist work focuses on the new "flexible" forms of production, network firms, international division of labor, and multinational economic blocs—for example, the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA) and the European Union (EU). The core debates among these analysts concern the shape, permanence, and consequences of the new global economy and the degree to which it departs from postwar capitalism (i.e., they ask whether a new multinational, or "post-Fordist," phase of capitalism has replaced "Fordism," or simply modified it.) (e.g., Harvey 1989; Harrison 1994; Gordon 1996).

Income and Wealth Inequality. Neoliberal deregulation, free trade, and recommodification of public goods have increased global disparities of wealth, income, jobs, and life chances (Braun 1997; Davis 1992). Inequality is most extreme between the richest and the poorest nations, but it has also grown considerably within societies, including wealthy ones, such as the United States. Materialists debate the scope of economic inequality, its relation to global restructuring, and its consequences.

Class, Labor, and Politics. Materialists also focus on the impact of restructuring and polarizing labor markets on organized labor. For example, they ask: Are new types of unions arising among formerly unorganized low-wage service workers and professional groups? Will transnational labor organizations arise in the emergent economic blocs? Are new fusions of class politics and cultural politics arising?

The State. Materialists raise questions about the impact of capital mobility and new forms of international financial and labor markets on the state's capacity to protect and regulate its various environments and maintain public goods (e.g., health, education, welfare, retirement). They also study the role of the state's police and military arms in the global political economy.

Environmental Issues and Sustainability. Increasing threats of resource depletion, global warming, hazardous waste, and overall environmental destruction, the need for alternative forms of energy and technologies, and the communist regimes' dismal environmental records have stimulated sharp criticism of earlier materialism's "productivism" and inattention to the costs, risks, and limits of growth. They pose questions about sustainable growth and material limits to political aspirations.

Communication and Information Technologies. These industries play a major role in globalization and restructuring and, thus, are a central focus in fresh materialist inquiries.


Although certain thinkers (e.g., Wallerstein 1991; Postone 1993; Wood 1995; Wright 1997) have begun reframing materialism in light of the recent historical changes, more fundamental rethinking of the tradition is likely, especially in the two broad areas discussed below.

The Role of Technology. This area has long been a central focus of materialism. In the late nineteenth century, Marx held that science and technical knowledge were already becoming the primary productive force, altering fundamentally the capitalist mode of production and materialist dynamics of all preceding epochs. Certain contemporary theorists argue that information and communication technologies are giving rise to an "informational society" (e.g., Poster 1990; Castells 1996). These thinkers raise basic questions about previous ideas of production, property, labor, organization, and other aspects of earlier materialism, which could lead to a new generation of theories framed around a knowledge-driven logic of material development.

Materialism and Politics. The effort to unify theory and practice, and the consequent fusion of science and politics, generate distinct resources (i.e., they provide a "critical" thrust) as well as major sources of tension (i.e., between science and ideology) in Marxian materialism. As "critical theorists," materialists focus on the contradictions between democratic ideology's claims about freedom, equality, abundance, and participation, on the one hand, and actual conditions of capitalist and state socialist societies, on the other. They claim to illuminate the determinate, historical possibilities for progressive social change (i.e., "emancipatory" structural factors, cultural conditions, and social movements), which favor reconstructing modern societies according to revised versions of their own democratic ideals. However, the failure of proletarian revolution and communism have blurred materialist political aims. Some materialists abandon critical theory completely, fashioning a strictly empirical sociology, while others substitute highly generalized ideals of "discursive" or "radical" democracy and cultural politics for socialism. It is hard to predict the fate of critical theory, but increasing inequalities in wealth, polarizing labor markets, and declining social benefits raise major questions about unmet needs and the material bases of inclusive democratic citizenship. The bankruptcy of soviet-style regimes and the erosion of social democracies make materialist political goals an open question, but the consequent loss of certainty undercuts the tradition's dogmatic side and increases chances for theoretical reconstruction and restored vitality.


Anderson, Perry 1974b Lineages of the Absolutist State. London: New Left Books.

——1974a Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism. London: New Left Books.

——1983 In the Tracks of Historical Materialism. London: New Left Books.

Antonio, Robert 1990 "The Decline of the Grand Narrative of Emancipatory Modernity: Crisis or Renewal in Neo-Marxian Theory?" In George Ritzer, ed., Frontiers of Social Theory: The New Syntheses. New York: Columbia University Press.

Bhaskar, Roy 1989 Reclaiming Reality. London: New Left Books.

Braun, Denny 1997 The Rich Get Richer: The Rise of Income Inequality in the United States and the World, 2nd ed. Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers.

Castells, Manuel 1996 The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture: Vol. 1: The Rise of Network Society. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell.

Cohen, G. A. 1978 Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Davis, Mike 1992 City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. New York: Vintage Books.

Engels, Friedrich (1890–1894) 1959 "Letters on Historical Materialism." Pp. 395–412 in Lewis S. Feuer, ed., Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books.

Gordon, David M. 1996 Fat and Mean: The Corporate Squeeze of Working Americans and the Myth of Managerial "Downsizing." New York: Free Press.

Harrison, Bennett 1994 Lean and Mean: The Changing Landscape of Corporate Power in the Age of Flexibility. New York: Basic Books.

Harvey, David 1989 The Condition of Postmodernity: An Inquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell.

McMurtry, John 1978 The Structure of Marx's World-View. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Marx, Karl (1887) 1967 Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1. New York: International Publishers.

——, and Frederick Engels (1845–1846) 1964 The German Ideology. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Poster, Mark 1990 The Mode of Information: Poststructuralism and Social Context. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Postone, Moishe 1993 Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx's Critical Theory. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Roemer, John E. 1982 A General Theory of Exploitation and Class. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Shaw, William H. 1978 Marx's Theory of History. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Wallerstein, Immanuel 1991 Unthinking Social Science: The Limits of Nineteenth-Century Paradigms. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity.

Wood, Ellen Meiksins 1995 Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wright, Erik Olin 1997 Class Counts: Comparative Studies in Class Analysis. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Robert J. Antonio


views updated Jun 08 2018


A philosophical position that regards matter as the only reality. Materialism is principally opposed to spiri tualism, which admits the reality of spirit, and to ide alism, which reduces matter itself to an idea or other manifestation of mind. The various forms it has assumed throughout history may be described as classical materialism and as dialectical and historical materialism. The former, which flourished in antiquity and modern times, proposes that all changes are merely quantitative and that these suffice to explain thought and phenomena otherwise attributed to spirit; the latter, originated by K. marx and F. engels, places a dialectical process within matter and uses this to explain the evolution of thought and man's history. This article considers only classical materialism, treating it in its Greek and Roman period and in its modern development; the other forms are treated elsewhere (see materialism, dialectical and histori cal).

Greek and Roman Period

In classical antiquity materialism was foreshadowed in the teaching of the early Greek naturalists who attempted to explain the universal in terms of one or other material principle (see greek philosophy). It received systematic expression in the work of the atomists Leucippus and Democritus, and was more fully developed by Epicurus, whose doctrine was given wide diffusion through the efforts of the Roman poet Lucretius.

Leucippus and Democritus. For these thinkers, the only thing that really exists is the plenum, although this is not a unity, being divided by the void into a plurality of principles of being. Motion and alteration take place in this void, through processes of rarefaction and condensation associated with variations in the size of empty space. These processes presuppose that two bodies cannot occupy the same space or undergo any type of compenetration.

Atoms. Although Leucippus called the plenum "what is" and the void "what is not," he regarded the latter as being as real as the former and reckoned both as the causes of things. For him, atoms existing in empty space are the basic principles of the universe. These are infinite in number, invisible because of their smallness, endowed with extension and corporeality, and on this account called "first bodies." Physically indivisible also, they are named from this property τομα, meaning indivisibles. They are qualitatively similar in all respects, differing from each other only quantitatively and spatially. From such atoms, themselves ingenerable and uncorruptible, all others things are generated. The different characteristics of such bodies are traceable to the various sizes, shapes, positions, and arrangements of atoms within them. Their generation and corruption is nothing more than a combination and separation of atoms, and their growth and diminution similarly an addition and subtraction of atoms.

The appearances of things do not constitute truth, although truth can be discerned from appearances through a proper understanding of what is perceived. The qualities that appear in things are really qualities of the senses (πάθη τ[symbol omitted]ς ασθήσεως); the various shapes and arrangements of atoms so affect man's senses as to provoke a reaction from them. Thus democritus states: "According to convention (υόμ[symbol omitted]) alone is there sweet, bitter, warm, cold, and color; in reality there are only atoms and empty space" (H. Diels, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker: Greichisch und Deutsch, ed. W. Kranz [Berlin 196061]9). The ultimate principles can be grasped only by the mind. Democritus here foreshadowed the distinction between primary and secondary qualities that was to be proposed with the beginnings of modern science.

For Democritus, atoms have properties that are independent of man's mode of conceiving them, viz, shape or form, size, heaviness, hardness, and perpetual motion. Size is immediately dependent upon shape, and heaviness upon size. Atoms are fitted with hooks, loops, and fasteners of various sorts; these make possible their entering into different types of lattice structures and combinations. (see atomism.)

Origins. Little is known of early discussions regarding the initial movement of atoms and the circumstances of the world's origin. Since atoms are in eternal movement, Democritus assigned it no cause; in his view, what never has a beginning needs no cause. Empty space is not the cause of motion, but rather a presupposition or condition for its possibility. Governed by the law that like seeks like, the lighter and finer atoms rose to constitute the rotating mass of the heavens, while the heavier and larger atoms gathered together at the center and formed the body of the earth. The stars were carried upward by a type of vortex motion and made to glow by their rapid rotation. Similar explanations were offered for other cosmic phenomena.

Like Leucippus before him, Democritus taught the necessity ([symbol omitted]υάγκοη) of all events. "Nothing arises without a cause, but everything for a determined reason and from necessity" (frg. 2). Thus chance was banished from the universe. Necessity was conceived mechanically: pushes and pulls propel atoms to and fro in eternal motion. All other types of causality were neglected by these thinkers, so much so that Aristotle could reproach them for their laziness in investigating the origins of motion (Meta. 985b 18).

Spirit. Democritus did not deny the superiority of spirit; he recognized the soul's supremacy over the body, but thought that soul could be explained in terms of atoms. In Aristotle's account, Democritus allowed for soul and spirit without distinguishing between the two, regarding them as composed of atoms of fire that were spherical in shape, the finest and smoothest of the atoms (Anim. 405a 813, 406b 1522). Since there was no qualitative difference between bodily atoms and soul atoms, the soul-body problem posed him no difficulty. Likewise, in his view, no clearly defined boundary separated the living from the nonliving. Man, whom he regarded as a microcosm, abounds in soul atoms that are spread all over his body; between any two bodily atoms there is always a soul atom. The soul is therefore material, the principle of motion in living bodies, and also the principle of perception and of thought. How unity is achieved between the bodily atoms interspersed with soul atoms, or how a peculiar combination of matter can produce the unity of consciousness and of the spiritual life, is left unexplained.

Epicurus and Lucretius. The Socratic philosophers reacted strongly against the doctrines of Leucippus and Democritus, but materialism soon found another supporter in epicurus, who developed the system in greater detail and strengthened its foundations. He maintained that nothing comes from nothing, for otherwise everything might come from everything. In his view, bodies alone exist and only the void is incorporeal. Like his predecessors, he distinguished between composed bodies and simple bodies or atoms, which are absolutely unchangeable. Since space is infinite, atoms must likewise be infinite in number. Epicurus ascribed motion to his atomsa constant motion "downward," although he supplied no referent for this direction. Since, in his view, atoms deviate from their uniform motion, they collide and group themselves in various combinations, thus giving rise to the bodies of experience.

Epicurus conceived soul as a kind of vapor spread throughout man's body and associated with its heat. Bodies surrounding man continually give off minute particles that penetrate to his soul through sense organs and there excite mental images. With the dissolution of man's body, his soul is also dissolved.

Epicurean materialism received poetic expression and further development in the didactic poem De rerum natura of lucretius. Disturbed by thoughts on death and disquieted by religious faith in the gods and in a future punishment, Lucretius launched an impassioned battle against religion. Among the Epicureans the key problem had already arisen whether fear of death or fear of the gods was the greater evil. Lucretius dispensed with the gods but, in attempting to disprove the immortality of the soul, emphasized the reality of death more strongly than any other philosopher. He himself could not put his speculative ideals to practice. The poet within him fought against his restrictive materialism, and St. Jerome records that he put an end to his own life. His poem, however, still stands as the most appealing and cogent explanation of materialism in classical antiquity.

Modern Development

Christianity provided an effective barrier to the growth of materialism, and only with the humanist revival of the classics in the Renaissance did it again assert itself. It reached the peak of its development in the 18th and 19th centuries, after which it bequeathed its inheritance to Marxism and to the 20th-century development of dialectical materialism.

18th Century. The materialism of the 18th century was never completely disjoined from the materialism of antiquity, particularly that of Epicurus. deism sought only to have the universe rid of chaos and the world left alone, but the step from deism to materialism was short. John locke took a skeptical position with respect to the spiritual soul, admitting the possibility that soul was merely matter. René descartes extended his mechanistic explanation of nature to plants and animals, denying any type of soul in either and conceiving both as machines. It remained only for someone to apply this thought to man. J. O. de La Mettrie did this in his Histoire naturelle de l'âme (1745) and L'Homme machine (1748). His thesis that the substance of things is unknowable is similar to agnosticism, but his statement that man knows through the properties of matter and that these properties can explain the higher functions of the soul has broader implications. La Mettrie traced the difference between man and animals to differences in brain size and structure and, with complete lack of evidence, maintained that animals are capable of speech and of having a culture. His atheism was without a theoretical foundation since he regarded it as a condition of human existence.

In 1776 there appeared anonymously in Amsterdam a book entitled Le Système de la nature. Its author was the German Baron P. H. D. von holbach, then living in Paris; his work was destined to become the bible of materialism. Here the basic thought of a radical materialism was systematized and extended over a wider range. For Holbach, the only thing that exists is matter in motion. La Mettrie had previously distinguished between motion and perception as different properties of matter, but now perception came to appear as a particular kind of motion.

The materialistic determinism of La Mettrie and Holbach seemingly did away with evil, guilt, and disorder. Freed of illusions, man could take his fate and his future into his own hand; he could forge his own happiness. With God and immortality, faith and the fear of a future life set aside, the way seemed open for the full development of man. Just how freely obligations and norms could be conceived on the basis of a naturalistic determinism had already occupied the thinking of Diderot, Voltaire, and Frederick the Great. Yet G. W. leibniz had shown that man, despite mechanical and mathematical explanations of phenomena, could give nature another meaning, while Shaftesbury, J. G. Herder, and Goethe had demonstrated that a mechanical conception of nature need not lead one to atheism.

19th Century. There are various reasons why materialism occupied such an important place in mid-19th-century Germany. For example, the extravagance of Hegel's idealism led his opponents to war against a spiritual metaphysics and even against Christianity. Hegel's a priori construction of nature likewise encouraged those with scientific mentalities to make exact inductive investigations. The younger generation thereupon relinquished the lecture hall of Hegel for the laboratories of the leading natural scientists. As they became more interested in the sensible and material world, their interest in atomistic and mechanistic explanations of nature led them to a mechanistic philosophy.

Science and Technology. The success of the natural sciences and the related rise of technology aided this movement. Already flourishing in France and England, the positivistic, utilitarian, and industrial revolution, with its great discoveries and improvements of living conditions, dulled interest in knowledge of man's inner nature and thereby banished from the universe the living, the besouled, and the spiritual. Contributing to such philosophical consequences were two misinterpreted discoveries of natural sciences: the law of the conservation of energy and the first synthesis of an organic chemical, urea, from inorganic matter.

Young natural scientists, particularly biologists and physicians, including Karl Vogt (181795), Jakob Moleschott (182293), and Ludwig Büchner (182499), were spokesmen for the materialist movement. Büchner's Kraft und Stoff (Frankfurt 1855) went through 20 editions and served as the handbook of German materialism. In it, he used his fundamental principle that every power is joined to some matter to exclude an other-worldly creator. He and his associates directed their battle against any special kind of vital force and against a substantial, spiritual, immortal soul. Denying the basic distinction between living and non-living, they treated the living entirely as a complex problem in mechanics.

German materialism in the 19th century was itself only a further development of the French. Popularized by Descartes and La Mettrie, the mechanistic theory of life had found wide diffusion. The machine generally hypnotized scientists: plants and animals, man himself, and the universe were regarded as machines. Physiologists were at work with phenomenological methods to explain mental processes. Vogt, following the French physician P. J.G. Cabanis (17571808), maintained that thought stands in the same relation to the brain as bile does to the liver and urine to the kidneys. Teleology was excluded from the universe; there was no dominion of spirit in and over nature. Belief in God was regarded by such thinkers as L. feuerbach as an illusion of man's mind.

Evolution. Advocating an evolutionary materialism and invoking Darwinist principles, D. F. strauss and E.H. Haeckel thereupon assumed prominence in the materialist movement. Strauss, a follower of the Hegelian "left" (see hegelianism and neo-hegelianism) and already famous for his radical Bible criticism Leben Jesu (Tübingen 1835), passed in his more mature work, Der alte und der neue Glaube (Leipzig 1872), from Hegelian idealism to materialism. For him, as for Hegel, new developments in biology led to a reinterpretation of the whole of nature.

The universe, in Strauss's view, is one mass of matter moving in infinite space and in infinite time. There is nothing outside of it, under it, before it, or after it. It is an infinite summation of universes that contains, in an unending circle of generations and corruptions, an eternally similar source of life within itself, a phoenix that burns itself out only to give birth from its ashes to a new life, a being that can be identified only with God.

For Strauss, as for other materialists, there is no essential distinction between living and nonliving; life is only a particular, though complicated, type of mechanism. Darwin's principlesthe survival of the fittest, natural selection, small mutations taking place over a long period of timehe used to explain how various species take their origin. In man the organic evolutionary process reaches its highest point on this planet. All soul activities and spiritual life are traced back to the motion of atoms. Man has not come forth from the hand of God, but has sprung upward from the depths of nature. His first state was not the higher state of Paradise, from which he could fall, but that of an animal from which he has always been rising. There is no longer room for a supernatural God, for a realm of spirit, for a distinction between soul and body.

Haeckel's thought is similar to this. In a series of writings he sought to build Darwinism into a philosophical position. From the time of his Generelle Morphologie der Organismen (Berlin 1866) the fundamental thought behind this position is discernible. Two years later he published Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte, which explained the development of the world from the nebular hypothesis all the way to the origin of the spiritual in man. The work went through ten editions and was translated into 12 languages. A summary presentation of his philosophy was contained in the popularly oriented Die Welträtsel (Bonn 1899), of which 300,000 copies were printed in Germany and which was translated into 15 languages, and Die Lebenswunder (Stuttgart 1904).

Haeckel's theory of substance, in summary, envisioned an unchangeable, infinite matter endowed with eternal, infinite power, developing itself in an infinite and unbounded space and time. The formation of earth is a part of the evolution of the universe; with the appearance of carbon on its surface, organic life begins. In addition to traditional arguments from paleontology and anatomical similarities, Haeckel made extensive use of ontogeny, the basic law of biogenetics, which states that the development of the individual is a miniature reproduction of the development of the species. Knowledge of the animal origins of the human race he regarded as firmly established. He explained the human soul as a natural phenomenon, a physical process brought about by chemical changes and subject to the laws of matter. The material basis for all psychical reality is a body, the psychoplasm; each cell has a soul, and this soul is the sum of the elasticities stored up in the protoplasm. All living souls develop from the soul of the cell and its functions. Haeckel denied any peculiar properties to the human soul and thus any essential distinction between man and animal; he saw in man's gradual and stepwise development from the lower vertebrates his greatest triumph over the rest of nature.

Influence and Critique. The materialist movement reached its peak at the end of the 19th century. At that time scientism and the rationalist mentality held sway over the minds of men; mechanistic determinism and evolutionism seemed then to supply all the answers that could be asked about the physical universe. With the turn of the 20th century, however, advances in physical science, particularly in relativity and quantum theory, shook confidence in the world picture of Newton and Laplace. Scientists themselves gradually drifted away from mechanism; soon even they were questioning their ability to know matter in all its complexity. In philosophy, phenomenology and existentialism came into prominence, and schools that emphasized the reality of life, spirit, and culture attracted new interest. With the exception of Communist-dominated areas, where dialectical and historical materialism was given official endorsement, materialism ceased to be developed as a systematic philosophy. Antispiritualist thinkers, particularly in English-speaking countries, turned instead to pragmatism, naturalism, logical positivism, and analytical philosophy in an attempt to voice anew their materialist prejudices.

The inadequacies of materialism as a philosophy readily manifest themselves to those who examine seriously the concept of matter. Of itself inert and resistive to change, matter is insufficient to explain even motion, let alone life, perception, thought, and the supernatural. Those who maintain that it alone exists or that it alone has explanatory value do so only by blinding themselves to the realities that are most obvious and most intelligible to the human spirit.

See Also: atheism; deism; humanism, secular; rationalism; encyclopedists.

Bibliography: f. c. copleston, History of Philosophy (Westminster, Md. 19461963) v. 1, 47. s. caramella, Enciclopedia filosofica (Venice-Rome 1957) 3:407414. h. kuhn, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiberg 195765) 7:161163. h. braun, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Tübingen 195765) 4:800803. r. eisler, Wörterbuch der philosophischen Begriffe (Berlin 102730) 2:7780. f. a. lange, History of Materialism, tr. e. c. thomas, 3 v. in 1 (3d ed. London 1957), introd. b. russell. c. j. h. hayes, A Generation of Materialism, 18711900 (New York 1941). i. m. bochenŃski, Contemporary European Philosophy, tr. d. nicholl and k. aschen-brenner (Berkeley 1956). a. banfi, Storia del materialismo, 2 v. (Milan 195253).

[h. meyer]


views updated May 14 2018


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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max jammer


views updated May 21 2018





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


Appadurai, Arjun, ed. 1986. The Social Life of Things. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Armstrong, David M. 1968. A Materialist Theory of the Mind. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Campbell, Keith. 1984. Body and Mind. 2nd ed. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Hacking, Ian. 1990. The Taming of Chance. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Harris, Marvin. 1979. Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture. New York: Random House.

Lenin, Vladimir I. [1909] 1947. Materialism and Empirio-Criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing.

Mantz, Jeff W., and Jim H. Smith. 2006. Do Cellular Phones Dream of Civil War? The Mystification of Production and the Consequences of Technology Fetishism in the Eastern Congo. In Inclusion and Exclusion in the Global Arena, ed. Max Kirsch, 7193. New York: Routledge.

Marx, Karl. [1845] 1969. Theses on Feuerbach. In Marx/Engels Selected Works, vol. 1, trans. W. Lough, 1315. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl. [1859] 1971. A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

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.

Peters, Selton L. 1995. Emergent Materialism: A Proposed Solution to the Mind/Body Problem. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Rosenthal, David M., ed. 2000. Materialism and the Mind-Body Problem. 2nd ed. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

Snow, C. P. 1959. The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Jeffrey Mantz


views updated May 18 2018


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


views updated May 23 2018


Materialism is a term with both metaphysical and social meanings. As a metaphysical position materialism regards matter (Latin materia) as the primary or most real substance. In modern times materialism also has taken practical forms. Because science studies empirical objects and because material entities are more perceptible than are immaterial ones, the scientific worldview tends to assume materialism at least for heuristic purposes or on provisional grounds. Moreover, modern technological progress, especially in its early phases, provided mostly material improvements. Thus, one effect that technology seems to have had on culture is the creation of social forms of materialism such as consumerism.

Metaphysical Materialism

As a form of metaphysical monism, materialism attempts to reduce all phenomena to a single basic substance: matter. Thus, the opposites of metaphysical materialism are doctrines such as spiritualism, which holds that spirit is the ultimate reality; idealism, which sees the phenomenal world and matter as creations of the mind; and immaterialism, which rejects the reality of matter itself.

The idea of materialism was present when ancient Greek philosophy originated with Ionian natural philosophers who began to explain phenomena by referring to natural causes instead of religious myths in the sixth century b.c.e. The first systematically materialistic philosophers were the atomists Democritus and Leucippus of Abdera in the fifth century b.c.e. Among the major schools of philosophy in antiquity, Epicureanism professed materialism. In the modern period important materialists have included Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655), Thomas Hobbes (1588–1672), Heinrich Dietrich d'Holbach (1723–1789), Karl Marx (1818–1883), and Friedrich Engels (1820–1895).

One important difference between premodern and modern materialism is that the former tended to promote acceptance of the state of affairs in the world, whereas the latter is used to promote human action to change the world. Marxist materialism strongly illustrates the modern version of materialism. Indeed, Marx and Engels's philosophy developed in the former socialist countries into what was called dialectical materialism. It was materialism in the sense that it strictly denied the existence of immaterial entities, arguing that, for example, religious beliefs were part of a false ideology. The word dialectical referred to the quality of the laws that govern transformations in nature, history, and the human mind. Dialectical materialism saw these laws as based on the interplay of opposites.

Science, Materialism, and Ethics

Because science in principle does not make metaphysical commitments, science is not materialistic in the strict sense of the word. In fact, a more proper term for describing the way science perceives reality is naturalistic. The progress of modern natural science, however, has made materialism a more creditable stance than it was previously. Science studies phenomena that can be experimented on or otherwise brought to the impartial attention of the community of scientists. Clearly immaterial things such as the soul, supernatural events, values, ideals, and meanings are difficult or impossible to research scientifically. Thus, it seems from a scientific perspective that things one cannot examine scientifically are not real.

In practical life and in the adaptation of science the tendency toward materialism is manifested, for instance, in measuring. Measuring is essential in all science-related activities because exact scientific research is based on calculating measured quantities. An object of science must be measurable in some sense. Hence, it is difficult to do scientific research on phenomena in their qualitative aspects. For example, a scientist easily can determine the weight, size, and age of an ancient Chinese vase, but it is impossible to specify scientifically its degree of beauty. In consequence, quantity appears to be "more real" category than quality.

In ethics the success of natural science has had both implicit and explicit consequences. The most explicit consequence was the logical positivist argument in the 1920s that ethics is a merely emotional use of language that lacks empirical content. Although this extreme view soon softened, ethics nevertheless struggled throughout much of the twentieth century against the tendency in a culture dominated by science to perceive reality as being defined by the possible objects of science. For instance, medicine can study whether smoking harms health, but it is a value question whether harming health is wrong. The only scientific approaches to value in this sense appear to consist of empirical research on expressed preferences or arguments for the evolutionary development of certain behaviors. Because values, norms, and ideals in the normative sense—moral sociology is another question—are not objects of scientific inquiry, ethics as a rational pursuit has had a credibility problem.

Technology and Materialistic Culture

Until recently technological advancement has contributed mainly to the improvement of the material conditions of life. This has meant highly increased material well-being for the majority of the people in industrialized societies.

According to some cultural critics, however, this development has not been free of malaise. It appears to those critics that human life has lost some of its dignity in the course of material success. This lack of dignity has been pointed out in consumerism, the loss of traditional skills, the sacrifice of ideals in the search for economic profit and quick satisfaction, and so on. Culture itself has been turned into a commodity to be mass produced and marketed industrially. The rule of quantity over quality in social and political life often is expressed in attitudes that make money and financial success the final arbiters of the good.

Some analyses of contemporary culture have suggested that classical Western ethics is incapable of addressing current issues because it does not pay sufficient attention to the material culture, that is, the production and use of material goods. At the heart of such criticisms is the notion of alienation. Cultural critics are afraid that the materialistic mass culture estranges human beings from themselves, other people, and nature. When it comes to nature, ecological problems are the most pressing issues related to materialistic consumerism.

Immateriality in Science and Technology

However, science and technology also have crucial immaterial aspects. Mathematics is indispensable for science, and mathematical abstractions are clearly immaterial. Moreover, science attempts to find regular patterns in reality and to form lawlike theories to describe those patterns. The structures, laws, and theories that science develops while investigating material reality are all immaterial. In this sense the object of science is material phenomena but the results of research are immaterial concepts that give new meanings to material reality. This is especially true in the most recently developed fields in science, such as computer science, genome studies, and neurological research.

Science can ask the question "What is matter?" but its answers are extremely complex and theoretical. Matter appears to consist mostly of empty space between elementary particles. Modern physics thus challenges any idea of matter "in itself" because what can be known about matter in the early twenty-first century is eminently theoretical and experiment-dependent.

In the realm technology information technologies and nanotechnology, which are highly theory-based forms of technology, deal mostly with immaterial phenomena. Generally speaking, technology can be interpreted as making matter less significant for human beings. For instance, communication and transportation technologies have made the globe "smaller" and reduced the role of time and place, which form the ultimate framework for matter, in human life. In this sense technology has made matter "serve" humankind.

Some essential immaterial aspects can be found in production as well. The emphasis of the economic structure in advanced societies has moved increasingly toward the production of immaterial services and information processing. Furthermore, in designing and marketing material commodities, aesthetic values, symbols, concepts, and myths form something that is now called a "brand." More and more companies do not sell only a material product but market an idea and a lifestyle. One does not buy a cell phone, one buys a successful person's phone.

These transformations in the economic structure and the style of production have been referred to as dematerialization. This term denotes the reduction of material used to produce specific goods and services. Dematerialization has raised hopes that economic growth and ecological sustainability may be reconciled so that consumers characteristically will purchase functions rather than material objects.

These reflections indicate how materialism is an ambivalent issue for science, technology, and ethics. Techno-scientific development has passed through a phase of studying and molding material reality, but currently the most important fronts in science and technology involve work on largely immaterial phenomena.


SEE ALSO Consumerism;Dematerialization;Material Culture;Two Cultures.


Cornforth, Maurice. (1971). Dialectical Materialism. New York: International Publishers. A basic exposition of the Soviet Marxist version of materialism.

Moser, Paul K., and J. D. Trout. (1995). Contemporary Materialism: A Reader. New York: Routledge. Sixteen essays defending science-based materialism or "physicalism," with the final three essays addressing issues of materialism and ethics.

Rosenberg, Bernard, and David Manning White, eds. (1971). Mass Culture Revisited. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold. A good collection of articles criticizing the materialistic culture industry; first published in 1957.

Trungpa, Chögyam. (1973). Cutting through Spiritual Materialism, ed. John Baker and Marvin Casper. Boston: Shambhala. Finds materialism a temptation even in religious practice.

Twitchell, James B. (2000). Lead Us into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism. New York: Columbia University Press. A witty defense of cultural materialism that reviews and rejects many of the criticisms.


views updated May 23 2018

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.


views updated May 29 2018

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. &·te·ri·al·is·tic / məˌti(ə)rēəˈlistik/·te·ri·al·is·ti·cal·ly adv.


views updated May 09 2018

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