Materialism is a form of philosophical monism which holds that matter
is the fundamental substance in nature, and that all things, including
mental aspects and consciousness, are results of material
In Idealism, mind and consciousness are first-order realities to which
matter is subject and secondary. In philosophical materialism the
converse is true. Here mind and consciousness are by-products or
epiphenomena of material processes (the biochemistry of the human
brain and nervous system, for example) without which they cannot
exist. According to this doctrine the material creates and determines
consciousness, not vice versa. Materialists believe that
the physical laws that govern it constitute the most reliable guide to
the nature of mind and consciousness.
Materialist theories are mainly divided into three groups. Naive
materialism identifies the material world with specific elements (e.g.
the scheme of the four elements—fire, air, water and earth—devised
Pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles). Metaphysical materialism
examines separated parts of the world in a static, isolated
Dialectical materialism adapts the Hegelian dialectic for
materialism, examining parts of the world in relation to each other
within a dynamic environment.
Materialism is closely related to physicalism, the view that all that
exists is ultimately physical. Philosophical physicalism has evolved
from materialism with the discoveries of the physical sciences to
incorporate more sophisticated notions of physicality than mere
ordinary matter, such as: spacetime, physical energies and forces,
dark matter, and so on. Thus the term "physicalism" is preferred over
"materialism" by some, while others use the terms as if they are
Philosophies contradictory to materialism or physicalism include
idealism, pluralism, dualism, and other forms of monism.
2.1 Axial Age
2.2 Common Era
2.3 Modern era
2.4 New materialism
3 Scientific materialists
4 Defining matter
6 Criticism and alternatives
6.1 Quantum mysticism
6.2 Religious and spiritual views
6.3 Philosophical objections
Materialism as methodology
7 See also
10 Further reading
11 External links
In 1748, French doctor and philosopher
La Mettrie exposes the first
materialistic definition of the human soul in L'Homme Machine
Materialism belongs to the class of monist ontology. As such, it is
different from ontological theories based on dualism or pluralism. For
singular explanations of the phenomenal reality, materialism would be
in contrast to idealism, neutral monism, and spiritualism.
Despite the large number of philosophical schools and subtle nuances
between many, all philosophies are said to fall into one of
two primary categories, which are defined in contrast to each other:
idealism and materialism.[a] The basic proposition of these two
categories pertains to the nature of reality, and the primary
distinction between them is the way they answer two fundamental
questions: "what does reality consist of?" and "how does it
originate?" To idealists, spirit or mind or the objects of mind
(ideas) are primary, and matter secondary. To materialists, matter is
primary, and mind or spirit or ideas are secondary, the product of
matter acting upon matter.
The materialist view is perhaps best understood in its opposition to
the doctrines of immaterial substance applied to the mind
historically, famously by René Descartes. However, by itself
materialism says nothing about how material substance should be
characterized. In practice, it is frequently assimilated to one
variety of physicalism or another.
Materialism is often associated with reductionism, according to which
the objects or phenomena individuated at one level of description, if
they are genuine, must be explicable in terms of the objects or
phenomena at some other level of description—typically, at a more
reduced level. Non-reductive materialism explicitly rejects this
notion, however, taking the material constitution of all particulars
to be consistent with the existence of real objects, properties, or
phenomena not explicable in the terms canonically used for the basic
Jerry Fodor influentially argues this view,
according to which empirical laws and explanations in "special
sciences" like psychology or geology are invisible from the
perspective of basic physics. A lot of vigorous literature has grown
up around the relation between these views.
Modern philosophical materialists extend the definition of other
scientifically observable entities such as energy, forces, and the
curvature of space. However philosophers such as
Mary Midgley suggest
that the concept of "matter" is elusive and poorly defined.
Materialism typically contrasts with dualism, phenomenalism, idealism,
vitalism, and dual-aspect monism. Its materiality can, in some ways,
be linked to the concept of determinism, as espoused by Enlightenment
During the 19th century,
Karl Marx and
Friedrich Engels extended the
concept of materialism to elaborate a materialist conception of
history centered on the roughly empirical world of human activity
(practice, including labor) and the institutions created, reproduced,
or destroyed by that activity (see materialist conception of history).
Later Marxists, such as
Vladimir Lenin and
Leon Trotsky developed the
notion of dialectical materialism which characterized later Marxist
philosophy and method.
Materialism developed, possibly independently, in several
geographically separated regions of
Eurasia during what Karl Jaspers
Axial Age (c. 800–200 BC).
In ancient Indian philosophy, materialism developed around 600 BC with
the works of Ajita Kesakambali, Payasi, Kanada, and the proponents of
Cārvāka school of philosophy. Kanada became one of the early
proponents of atomism. The Nyaya–
Vaisesika school (c. 600 BC – 100
BC) developed one of the earliest forms of atomism, though their
proofs of God and their positing that consciousness was not material
precludes labelling them as materialists.
Buddhist atomism and the
Jaina school continued the atomic tradition.
Xunzi (ca. 312–230 BC) developed a
Confucian doctrine centered on
realism and materialism in Ancient China.
Ancient Greek philosophers like Thales,
Anaxagoras (c. 500 BC – 428
Democritus prefigure later materialists. The Latin
De Rerum Natura
De Rerum Natura by
Lucretius (ca. 99 BC – ca. 55 BC) reflects
the mechanistic philosophy of
Democritus and Epicurus. According to
this view, all that exists is matter and void, and all phenomena
result from different motions and conglomerations of base material
particles called "atoms" (literally: "indivisibles"). De Rerum Natura
provides mechanistic explanations for phenomena such as erosion,
evaporation, wind, and sound. Famous principles like "nothing can
touch body but body" first appeared in the works of Lucretius.
Epicurus however did not hold to a monist ontology
since they held to the ontological separation of matter and space i.e.
space being "another kind" of being, indicating that the definition of
"materialism" is wider than given scope for in this article.
Chinese thinkers of the early common era said to be materialists
include Yang Xiong (53 BC – AD 18) and
Wang Chong (c AD 27 – AD
Later Indian materialist
Jayaraashi Bhatta (6th century) in his work
Tattvopaplavasimha ("The upsetting of all principles") refuted the
Nyaya Sutra epistemology. The materialistic
appears to have died out some time after 1400. When Madhavacharya
compiled Sarva-darśana-samgraha (a digest of all philosophies) in the
14th century, he had no Cārvāka/Lokāyata text to quote from, or
even refer to.
In early 12th-century al-Andalus, the Arabian philosopher, Ibn Tufail
(Abubacer), wrote discussions on materialism in his philosophical
Hayy ibn Yaqdhan (Philosophus Autodidactus), while vaguely
foreshadowing the idea of a historical materialism.
The French cleric
Pierre Gassendi (1592–1665) represented the
materialist tradition in opposition to the attempts of René Descartes
(1596–1650) to provide the natural sciences with dualist
foundations. There followed the materialist and atheist abbé Jean
Meslier (1664–1729), Julien Offray de La Mettrie, the German-French
Baron d'Holbach (1723–1789), the Encyclopedist
Denis Diderot (1713–1784), and other French Enlightenment thinkers;
as well as (in England)
John "Walking" Stewart (1747–1822), whose
insistence in seeing matter as endowed with a moral dimension had a
major impact on the philosophical poetry of William Wordsworth
The German materialist and atheist anthropologist Ludwig Feuerbach
would signal a new turn in materialism through his book, The Essence
of Christianity (1841), which presented a humanist account of religion
as the outward projection of man's inward nature. Feuerbach's
materialism would later heavily influence Karl Marx, who elaborated
the concept of historical materialism, which is the basis for what
Marx and Engels outlined as scientific socialism:
The materialist conception of history starts from the proposition that
the production of the means to support human life and, next to
production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all
social structure; that in every society that has appeared in history,
the manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided into
classes or orders is dependent upon what is produced, how it is
produced, and how the products are exchanged. From this point of view,
the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are
to be sought, not in men's brains, not in men's better insights into
eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production
and exchange. They are to be sought, not in the philosophy, but in the
economics of each particular epoch.
— Friedrich Engels, Socialism: Scientific and Utopian
Vladimir Lenin outlined philosophical materialism in his book
Materialism and Empiriocriticism, which connected the political
conceptions put forth by his opponents to their anti-materialist
philosophies. Therein, Lenin attempted to answer questions concerning
matter, experience, sensations, space and time, causality, and
More recently thinkers such as
Gilles Deleuze have attempted to rework
and strengthen classical materialist ideas. Contemporary theorists
such as Manuel DeLanda, working with this reinvigorated materialism,
have come to be classified as "new materialist" in persuasion.
"New materialism" has now become its own specialized subfield of
knowledge, with courses being offered on the topic at major
universities, as well as numerous conferences, edited collections, and
monographs devoted to it. Jane Bennett’s book Vibrant
UP, 2010) has been particularly instrumental in bringing theories of
monist ontology and vitalism back into a critical theoretical fold
dominated by poststructuralist theories of language and discourse.
Scholars such as Mel Y. Chen and Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, however, have
critiqued this body of new materialist literature for its neglect in
considering the materiality of race and gender in particular.
Other scholars such as Hélene Vosters have questioned whether there
is anything particularly "new" about this so-called "new materialism",
as Indigenous and other animist ontologies have attested to what might
be called the "vibrancy of matter" for centuries.
Physicalism and Scientific materialism
Many current and recent philosophers—e.g., Daniel Dennett, Willard
Van Orman Quine, Donald Davidson, and Jerry Fodor—operate within a
broadly physicalist or materialist framework, producing rival accounts
of how best to accommodate mind, including functionalism, anomalous
monism, identity theory, and so on.
Scientific "Materialism" is often synonymous with, and has so far been
described, as being a reductive materialism. In recent years, Paul and
Patricia Churchland have advocated a radically contrasting position
(at least, in regards to certain hypotheses); eliminativist
materialism holds that some mental phenomena simply do not exist at
all, and that talk of those mental phenomena reflects a totally
spurious "folk psychology" and introspection illusion. That is, an
eliminative materialist might believe that a concept like "belief"
simply has no basis in fact—the way folk science speaks of
demon-caused illnesses would be just one obvious example. Reductive
materialism being at one end of a continuum (our theories will reduce
to facts) and eliminative materialism on the other (certain theories
will need to be eliminated in light of new facts), Revisionary
materialism is somewhere in the middle.
The nature and definition of matter—like other key concepts in
science and philosophy—have occasioned much debate. Is there a
single kind of matter (hyle) which everything is made of, or multiple
kinds? Is matter a continuous substance capable of expressing multiple
forms (hylomorphism), or a number of discrete, unchanging
constituents (atomism)? Does it have intrinsic properties
(substance theory), or is it lacking them (prima materia)?
One challenge to the traditional concept of matter as tangible "stuff"
came with the rise of field physics in the 19th century. Relativity
shows that matter and energy (including the spatially distributed
energy of fields) are interchangeable. This enables the ontological
view that energy is prima materia and matter is one of its forms. On
the other hand, the Standard Model of
Particle physics uses quantum
field theory to describe all interactions. On this view it could be
said that fields are prima materia and the energy is a property of the
According to the dominant cosmological model, the Lambda-CDM model,
less than 5% of the universe's energy density is made up of the
"matter" described by the Standard Model of Particle Physics, and the
majority of the universe is composed of dark matter and dark
energy—with little agreement amongst scientists about what these are
With the advent of quantum physics, some scientists believed the
concept of matter had merely changed, while others believed the
conventional position could no longer be maintained. For instance
Werner Heisenberg said "The ontology of materialism rested upon the
illusion that the kind of existence, the direct 'actuality' of the
world around us, can be extrapolated into the atomic range. This
extrapolation, however, is impossible... atoms are not things."
Likewise, some philosophers[which?] feel that these dichotomies
necessitate a switch from materialism to physicalism. Others use the
terms "materialism" and "physicalism" interchangeably.
The concept of matter has changed in response to new scientific
discoveries. Thus materialism has no definite content independent of
the particular theory of matter on which it is based. According to
Noam Chomsky, any property can be considered material, if one defines
matter such that it has that property.
George Stack distinguishes between materialism and physicalism:
In the twentieth century, physicalism has emerged out of positivism.
Physicalism restricts meaningful statements to physical bodies or
processes that are verifiable or in principle verifiable. It is an
empirical hypothesis that is subject to revision and, hence, lacks the
dogmatic stance of classical materialism.
Herbert Feigl defended
physicalism in the United States and consistently held that mental
states are brain states and that mental terms have the same referent
as physical terms. The twentieth century has witnessed many
materialist theories of the mental, and much debate surrounding
Criticism and alternatives
Some modern day physicists and science writers—such as Paul Davies
and John Gribbin—have argued that materialism has been disproven by
certain scientific findings in physics, such as quantum mechanics and
chaos theory. In 1991, Gribbin and Davies released their book The
Matter Myth, the first chapter of which, "The Death of Materialism",
contained the following passage:
Then came our Quantum theory, which totally transformed our image of
matter. The old assumption that the microscopic world of atoms was
simply a scaled-down version of the everyday world had to be
abandoned. Newton's deterministic machine was replaced by a shadowy
and paradoxical conjunction of waves and particles, governed by the
laws of chance, rather than the rigid rules of causality. An extension
of the quantum theory goes beyond even this; it paints a picture in
which solid matter dissolves away, to be replaced by weird excitations
and vibrations of invisible field energy. Quantum physics undermines
materialism because it reveals that matter has far less "substance"
than we might believe. But another development goes even further by
demolishing Newton's image of matter as inert lumps. This development
is the theory of chaos, which has recently gained widespread
Paul Davies and John Gribbin, The
Matter Myth, Chapter 1
Davies' and Gribbin's objections are shared by proponents of digital
physics who view information rather than matter to be fundamental.
Their objections were also shared by some founders of quantum theory,
such as Max Planck, who wrote:
As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed
science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my
research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter
originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the
particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar
system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the
existence of a conscious and intelligent Mind. This
Mind is the matrix
of all matter.
— Max Planck, Das Wesen der Materie, 1944
Religious and spiritual views
According to Constantin Gutberlet writing in Catholic Encyclopedia
(1911), materialism, defined as "a philosophical system which regards
matter as the only reality in the world [...] denies the existence of
God and the soul", In this view materialism could be perceived
incompatible with most world religions. Materialism
could be conflated with atheism. However Friedrich
Lange wrote in 1892 "Diderot has not always in the Encyclopaedia
expressed his own individual opinion, but it is just as true that at
its commencement he had not yet got as far as
Hinduism and transcendentalism regards all matter as an
illusion called Maya, blinding humans from knowing the truth.
Transcendental experiences like the perception of
considered to destroy the illusion.
Joseph Smith, the founder of the Latter Day Saint movement, taught:
"There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter,
but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes;
We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that
it is all matter." This spirit element is believed to always have
existed and to be co-eternal with God.
Kant argued against all three forms of materialism, subjective
idealism (which he contrasts with his "transcendental idealism")
and dualism. However, Kant also argues that change and time
require an enduring substrate, and does so in connection with his
Refutation of Idealism. Postmodern/poststructuralist thinkers also
express a skepticism about any all-encompassing metaphysical scheme.
Philosopher Mary Midgley, among others, argues
that materialism is a self-refuting idea, at least in its eliminative
An argument for idealism, such as those of
Hegel and Berkeley, is ipso
facto an argument against materialism.
Matter can be argued to be
redundant, as in bundle theory, and mind-independent properties can in
turn be reduced to subjective percepts. Berkeley presents an example
of the latter by pointing out that it is impossible to gather direct
evidence of matter, as there is no direct experience of matter; all
that is experienced is perception, whether internal or external. As
such, the existence of matter can only be assumed from the apparent
(perceived) stability of perceptions; it finds absolutely no evidence
in direct experience.
If matter and energy are seen as necessary to explain the physical
world, but incapable of explaining mind, dualism results. Emergence,
holism, and process philosophy seek to ameliorate the perceived
shortcomings of traditional (especially mechanistic) materialism
without abandoning materialism entirely.
Materialism as methodology
Some critics object to materialism as part of an overly skeptical,
narrow or reductivist approach to theorizing, rather than to the
ontological claim that matter is the only substance. Particle
physicist and Anglican theologian
John Polkinghorne objects to what he
calls promissory materialism—claims that materialistic science will
eventually succeed in explaining phenomena it has not so far been able
to explain. Polkinghorne prefers "dual-aspect monism" to
Some scientific materialists have been criticized, for example by Noam
Chomsky, for failing to provide clear definitions for what constitutes
matter, leaving the term "materialism" without any definite meaning.
Chomsky also states that since the concept of matter may be affected
by new scientific discoveries, as has happened in the past, scientific
materialists are being dogmatic in assuming the opposite.
Antimaterialism - beliefs that are opposed to materialism
Madhyamaka - a philosophy of middle way
Marxist philosophy of nature
Philosophy of mind
Reality in Buddhism
a. ^ Indeed, it has been noted it is difficult if not impossible to
define one category without contrasting it with the other.
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Mary Midgley The Myths We Live By.
^ History of Indian Materialism, Ramakrishna Bhattacharya
^ Dominique Urvoy, "The Rationality of Everyday Life: The Andalusian
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