Materialism – A Brief Introduction


Materialism is a set of related theories which hold that entitles and processes are composed of – or are reducible to – matter, material forms or physical processes. All events and facts are explainable, actually or in principle, in terms of body, material objects or dynamic material changes or movements. In general, the metaphysical theory of materialism entails the denial of the reality of spiritual beings, consciousness and mental or psychic states or processes, as ontologically distinct form, or independent of material changes or processes. Since it denies the existence of spiritual beings or forces, materialism typically is allied with atheism and agnosticism.’

The English word ‘matter’ has its origins in the Latin words ‘mater’ (i.e. ‘mother’), and ‘materia’ (i.e. ‘all physical things’). As existence is composed of matter, matter is viewed as the foundation of all things. Generally speaking, all matter is said to possess both volume and mass. Within the Chinese language, the concept of ‘matter’ can be expressed using the ideograms ‘物质’ (wu4zhi2). ‘物’ (wu4) is written using the left-hand particle ‘牛’ (nui2) – meaning ‘cow’, ‘bull’, or ‘ox’, and the right-hand particle ‘勿’ (wu4) – originally meaning ‘flag’. When combined together, the ideogram ‘物’ (wu4) literally means ‘matter’, ‘things’, and ‘objects’. ‘质’ (zhi2) is written using the ideogram ‘贝’ (bei4) – meaning a hard sea shell, and the right-hand particle ‘斦’ (yin2) – originally written as ‘two axes’, but also used to refer to a measure of weight equalling around one kilogram (i.e. ‘two catty’). Within Chinese thought, when taken together, the concept of ‘物质’ (wu4zhi2) represents the entirety of existence, or by implication, that physical substance which possesses  (measurable) mass and volume. Ancient India, despite its association with spirituality within popular culture, developed a school of materialist thinking named ‘Lokayata’ (लोकायत) in Sanskrit, which suggests a system of developed thought grounded in the observation (or perception) of the physical world (which is directly accessible to the senses). This school rejected all religious thought that advocated karma and karmic retribution, a belief in ‘invisible’ theistic constructs, and any notion of ‘rebirth’ or ‘reincarnation’. Therefore, the validity of inference and the authority of scripture are firmly rejected. For the Lokayata followers, only that information directly perceived through the senses is real. The Lokayata developed a theory of physical existence that involved four basic elements which combine to generate all of material reality. As a consequence of this thinking, Lokayata is associated with ‘atheism’. The origin of this school is problematic (due to the loss of primary texts), but evidence suggests a date anywhere between 600 – 300 BCE – with the possibility that the ideas associated with this school could be far older.

Whatever the case, the Buddhist Pali suttas mention the Lokayata, which is associated within the tradition of Buddhist commentary, as representing a ‘hard materialism’ (not favoured by the Buddha). However, detailed with the ‘five aggregates’ teaching of the Buddha, it is clear that his system of mind-matter integration is a form of ‘soft materialism’, which recognises a plurality, (but not a duality). This is because the Buddha’s system is premised upon ‘rupa’ (रूप) – or ‘physical matter’, which he defines as particles (paramanu) that flash in and out of existence (similar to the observed behaviour of sub-atomic particles within quantum physics). The Buddha sees the physical world as ‘existing’, but being non-substantial and changeable in nature. This ‘Buddhist’ definition of matter is different to that of the ‘Ucchedavada’ (ဥေစၧဒ) – which the Buddha criticised for assuming a permanent and unchanging physical world – despite the fact that the Buddha agreed with the Ucchedavda that there is no ‘atma’, or permanent soul. The Buddha’s soft materialism deviates away from the hard materialism of the Ucchedavada (which maybe directly linked to the Lokayata), by stressing that karma does function (in a limited, non-theistic sense), and that moral behaviour is required to escape worldly suffering.

Western scholars tend to date the Buddha as living either 563-480 BCE, or 483-400 BCE, whilst within traditional Chinese Buddhism, his date is given as 1028/29-948/49. Obviously, the Buddha’s existence, if dated accurately, would determine the antiquity of the Indian schools of materialism. In ancient Greece, however, the materialist origins of philosophy are said to have developed through the thinking of Democritus (460-370 BCE), who conceived of the universe as being composed of tiny, irreducible atoms unobservable to the naked eye. These atoms operate in a deterministic fashion, and combine to form the various forms associated with physical existence. Epicurus (341-270 BCE) – the student of Democritus, developed this thinking by asserting that every so often atoms ‘swerved’, as a means to explain unusual behaviour or happenings in the physical world. Ancient India developed a theory of materialism, whilst Buddhism developed a theory of the atom, but the (modern) Western world follows the ancient atomic models as devised within the Greek philosophical tradition. Whatever the origin, the doctrine of materialism stands in philosophical opposition to that of ‘idealism’. Idealism is usually understood as advocating that ‘mind’ is primary, and that the physical world exists only as an expression or appearance of that mind. This suggests that the physical world is not truly ‘material’, but rather ‘psychological’, or ‘mental’ in origination and nature. Within the Western philosophical tradition, theistic idealism is associated with Berkley, transcendental idealism of Kant, and the absolute idealism of Hegel. Idealism is often interpreted as being a secular version of theology, and directly related to ‘creationism’, whereby the physical world is viewed as being created by an unseen theistic entity (theology), or ‘projected’ into existence by the agency of mind (idealism), as if by an act of will and/or perception.

Within the subject of ‘philosophy of mind’, the theory of materialism has three distinct definitions, the first two of which represent ‘hard’ materialism, and the third ‘soft’ materialism:

  1. Eliminativism. This theory seeks to ‘eliminate’ entirely any notion of ‘mind’, and all theories of ‘psychology’ from modern science, on the grounds that such notions are the product of misunderstanding, and akin to ‘fairy tales’ that are the product of the residue of religious thinking. How human beings perceive their own minds is viewed as erroneous and the consequence of historical and cultural conditioning. As a consequence, as there is ‘no mind’ in reality, there can be no true experience of ‘raw feelings’ (qualia), or the exercise of intentionality. Theories of psychology are viewed as expressions of out-dated science which need to be abandoned as a necessary means to progress scientific understanding.
  2. Reductionism. In its simplest form, ‘reductionism’ reduces all psychological states to that of easily observable and measurable behaviour (i.e. ‘behavourism’). This reduces mind states to a mode of expression acceptable to modern science. Mind processes might exist as a function of the physical brain, but are viewed as knowable only through the measuring of behaviour. Other than as a producer of behaviour, the mind cannot be directly understood (because although it might generate qualia and intentionality, it does not ‘independently’ exist), and is of no further interest to reductionist.
  3. Irreducibility of mind. Although it might be accepted that ‘mind’ could exist as an apparent independent entity, nevertheless, its existence is so inherently related to matter, that this apparent ‘independence’ is not an issue. The mind is related to matter in a matter far more profound than mere causal independence. This means that the irreducibility of the mind is not a threat to the primacy of the materialist theory. Mind is a product of matter, even if the exact process of the emergence of consciousness from matter is as yet not fully understood.

Karl Marx studied Hegel’s absolute idealism, and understood it (through the work of Feuerbach) to be ‘inverted’ in nature. When turned the right way around, Marx developed the theory of ‘historical materialism’ (which replaced Hegel’s theory of ‘historical idealism’). The theory of historical materialism is ‘scientific’ in nature, and states that it is the economic reality of a society that determines the physical reality of that society. This is an ongoing historical process that does not allow for any ‘divine intervention’ in the affairs of humanity. It is through this materialist theory that Marx explains the historical reasons why it is that the impoverished working class (i.e. proletariat) exists in a subordinated and exploited manner, whilst being dominated by affluent middle class (i.e. bourgeisie), and how it is that this situation contains within itself, the seeds of its own inevitable transformation (through the agency of ‘revolution’). On this point, Marx states ‘In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.’ (Preface: A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy). Marx goes on to say that at some point in time, the material productive forces if become so strong that they out-grow the current organisation of society, and come into direct conflict with the existing (bourgeois) relations of society. As the workers become aware of their own material and productive powers, they mass organise and initiate an era of social revolution, eventually seizing the means of production, and radically transforming society through the agency of a socialist revolution. This is the playing-out of class antagonisms, and explains why Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov further developed this idea (in 1891), by referring to this process as ‘dialectical materialism’. This was developed from the work of Friedrich Engels (found in his book entitled ‘Dialectics of Nature’) whereby Engels uses the term ‘materialist dialectics’ as a means to combat and neutralise ‘idealistic dialectics’. The theory of scientific socialism as developed by Marx and Engels adopts a materialist outlook to explain human society and the human condition, but Marx and Engels rejected two forms of materialism prevalent in the 19th century, namely those of the ‘mechanistic’ and the ‘metaphysical’ variety. Marx rejected the mechanistic view because it suggested nothing could be changed, and he rejected metaphysical view because he recognised the existence and purpose of a human consciousness – even if it is generated from the brain and conditioned by outer circumstances and events. Marx views the immense productive forces of labour as the driving force behind the unfolding of history. The unfolding of the historical process is not a passive or indifferent passing of events, but is a dynamic, directing and transformative force within human affairs. Metaphysical materialism, strictly speaking denies the existence of this dialectical and historical materialism that Marx clearly sees as operating throughout human history, where it has reached a particular intensity after the Industrial Revolution. The concept of ‘dialectics’ within Marxism can also be applied to personal education, and the development of a proletariat mind that is freed of the oppression and limitations of the past, and which is collective in outlook, and thoroughly progressive and scientific in nature. This maybe taken as the use of Hegel’s dialectic of thesis, antitheses and synthesis – reworked to interpret the changes of the material world (through the negation of the negation) rather than the changes of the ‘idealistic’ (or ‘religious’) world.



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