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Introduction | History of Materialism | Types of Materialism
Introduction Back to Top

Materialism holds that the only thing that can be truly proven to exist is matter. Thus, according to Materialism, all things are composed of material and all phenomena are the result of material interactions, with no accounting of spirit or consciousness. As well as a general concept in Metaphysics, it is more specifically applied to the mind-body problem in Philosophy of Mind.

In common use, the word "materialist" refers to a person for whom collecting material goods is an important priority, or who primarily pursues wealth and luxury or otherwise displays conspicuous consumption. This can be more accurately termed Economic Materialism.

With its insistence on a single basic substance, it is a type of Monism (as opposed to Dualism or Pluralism), and it can also be considered a variety of Naturalism (the belief that nature is all exists, and that all things supernatural therefore do not exist). It stands (like the related concept of Physicalism) in contrast to Idealism (also known as Immaterialism) and Solipsism. Physicalism, however, has evolved with the physical sciences to incorporate far more sophisticated notions of physicality than just matter, for example wave/particle relationships and non-material forces produced by particles.

History of Materialism Back to Top

The Carvaka school of Ancient Indian philosophy developed a theory of Materialism and Atomism as early as 600 B.C.

Ancient Greek philosophers like Thales, Parmenides, Anaxagoras, Democritus, and then, later, Epicurus and Lucretius (99 - 55 B.C.) all prefigure later materialists, and contributed towards the classic formulation of Materialism. Lucretius wrote "De Rerum Natura" ("The Nature of Things"), the first masterpiece of materialist literature, around 50 B.C.

During the long reign of Christianity, denial of spirit as the basic reality was condemned by the Church, and it was not until the 17th Century that interest in Materialism was revived by the scientist Pierre Gassendi (1592 - 1655) and the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, as well as other French Enlightenment thinkers including Denis Diderot (1713 - 1784).

The second masterpiece of materialist literature was Baron Paul d'Holbach's anonymously published "La Systeme de la Nature" ("The System of Nature"), which appeared in France in 1770, although the Dualism of Descartes remained more popular, largely owing to its compatibility with Christianity. The German philosopher Ludwig Buechner's influential "Kraft und Stoff" ("Force and Matter") followed in 1884.

With the triumphs of science in the 19th and 20th Century, (not least Charles Darwin's works on evolution and advances in atomic theory, neuroscience and computer technology), a majority of philosophers today would probably identify themselves as materialists of one kind or another.

Types of Materialism Back to Top

The various types of reductive and non-reductive Physicalism are discussed in that section, but there are some other related concepts which can be mentioned briefly here:

  • Dialectical Materialism is the philosophical basis of Marxism and Communism. The term, which was never actually used by Marx himself, refers to the notion of a synthesis of Georg Hegel's theory of Dialectics (the concept that any idea or event - the thesis - generates its opposite - the antithesis - eventually leading to a reconciliation of opposites - a new, more advanced synthesis) and Materialism (in the respect that Dialectics could also be applied to material matters like economics).
    The application of the principle of Dialectical Materialism to history and sociology, the main context in which Marx used it, is known as Historical Materialism (see below).

  • Historical Materialism (or the "materialist conception of history") is the Marxist methodological approach to the study of society, economics and history which was first articulated by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1820 - 1895), and has been expanded and refined by many academic studies since. It is essentially the application of the principle of Dialectical Materialism (see above) to history and sociology.
    According to Marx, for human beings to survive, they need to produce and reproduce the material requirements of life, and this production is carried out through a division of labor based on very definite production relations between people. These relations form the economic base of society, and are themselves determined by the mode of production which is in force (e.g. tribal society, ancient society, feudalism, capitalism, socialism), and societies, and their cultural and institutional superstructures, naturally move from stage to stage when the dominant class is displaced by a new emerging class in a social and political upheaval.
    Although Marx himself said that he was only proposing a guideline for historical research, by the 20th Century the concept of Historical Materialism had become a keystone of modern Communist doctrine.

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