Materialism is the philosophical position which holds that reality and human perception can be understood as direct results of the interactions of matter. Materialism is opposed to idealism, which considers the mind, ideas, or ideal forms to be the origin of all phenomena. Materialism, in contrast, posits that these ideas themselves can or could be understood as proceeding from material conditions: for example, the origin of a society's values, attitudes, and culture are to be found ultimately in material factors like access to resources and geographic features like navigable rivers and mountains.
Materialism was developed independently in many ancient societies, including in Ancient Greece beginning with Thales and in India with the Carvaka school. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels are two of the most significant materialist thinkers in modern history. Their materialist methods of analysis, now known as historical materialism and dialectical materialism, remain relevant tools for analyzing human history, ideology, and economic development. Marxist dialectics is based on the idealist philosophy of G. W. F. Hegel, but inverted, or as Marx put it, "turned right side up again". Joseph Dietzgen, a German socialist, formulated a similar materialist philosophy of socialism indepently of Marx and Engels and was the first to coin the term "dialectical materialism".
Most ruling classes throughout history have rejected or suppressed materialist analysis in favor of an idealist form of understanding, such as religious or mystical thought. In medieval Europe, materialism and other forms of skepticism were derisively called "Epicureanism" and became a bogeyman used to attack commoners who questioned the power of the Church or the truth of its mysteries. However, the bourgeoisie, because of their unprecedented dependence on the development of science and technology, viewed materialism as a natural weapon against the existing order of feudal and absolutist society. From the late 17th century, bourgeois and progressive authors undertook a ruthless destruction of the idealist superstructure, replacing Christianity, the divine right of kings, and the authority of scripture with Deism, atheism, secularism, Biblical criticism, sociology, political philosophy, and political economy. It is important to note that rather than being reinforced by modern developments in science, this radical materialism was their prerequisite, making possible modes of inquiry which would have been impossible in the stagnant idealism of the feudal order. Just as the ancient Greek philosophers were able to make rapid scientific developments only after they had broken with the old conceptions of reality, this bold, axiomatic assertion of the materialist worldview opened the door to modern chemistry, meteorology, atomic theory, evolutionary biology, neurology, cosmology, and geology, all of which reinforce modern materialist beliefs and the erosion of religious faith.
However, just as every social formation had done before, bourgeois society became a fetter on human progress, giving way in bursts to superstition: first in 19th century Europe in the face of sweeping social revolution; continuously in the United States in response to the capitalist contradictions made unresolvable by the escape valve of westward expansion; eventually in the academic sphere in the form of postmodern reaction to the Marxist threat of the 20th century. Mainstream economics is often abstract and anti-empiricist, rendering it unable to predict crises or formulate useful policies. In the 21st century, the material promises of the 18th century bourgeois revolutions, including freedom, equality, and democracy, have arguably been replaced by abstractions with no relation to the daily experience of the masses. Thus materialism remains a subversive force, inimical to bourgeois domination.
Philosophical materialism is unrelated to "economic materialism" or "consumerism", a social belief which attaches success and status to the acquisition of commodities; incidentally, this social belief can itself be analyzed as a result of material factors.
Thales taught that everything was reducible to one material substance or arche, and identified this substance with water. Other authors argued that reality was reducible to fire, water, air, and earth, and sought explanations for biological phenomena in these substances. Aristotle also held materialistic ideas in contrast to the Platonic idealism of his teacher. The most important materialist school, however, was founded by Democritus and Epicurus, who argued that reality was reducible not only to substances, but finite particles of these substances, a theory known as atomism. The work of both authors is largely lost to us, mostly passed down indirectly in the poem De rerum natura by Lucretius, a follower of Democritus who wrote centuries later. Lucretius described multiple phenomena now known to be explainable only by atomic motion, including what is now known as the Brownian motion of particles:
For thou wilt mark here many a speck, impelled
By viewless blows, to change its little course,
And beaten backwards to return again,
Hither and thither in all directions round.
Lo, all their shifting movement is of old,
From the primeval atoms; for the same
Primordial seeds of things first move of self,
And then those bodies built of unions small
And nearest, as it were, unto the powers
Of the primeval atoms, are stirred up
By impulse of those atoms' unseen blows,
And these thereafter goad the next in size:
Thus motion ascends from the primevals on,
And stage by stage emerges to our sense,
Until those objects also move which we
Can mark in sunbeams, though it not appears
What blows do urge them.
Medieval philosophers recognized the monumental importance of ancient philosophy and, rather than ignore it, attempted to co-opt thinkers like Aristotle and Plato into a Christian worldview. Epicureanism, however, was deemed irreconcilable and essentially banned from serious academic discussion.
Ibn Ṭufayl was an important materialist thinker whose major work Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān influenced the Western materialism of the Renaissance era.
Chinese philosophy taught of five basic elements: the four Western elements plus metal. Confucianism and Taoism both have materialistic elements and share an emphasis on living experience rather than life after death. Wang Chong, a Confucian from the 1st century AD, had already begun to criticize the mysticism which had sprung up around Confucius in the two centuries since his death and asserted that there were no phenomena beyond what could be observed, including spirits and an afterlife.
Early modern and modern era
Dialectical materialism is the adaption of Hegel's dialectics to Feuerbach's materialism. It is called dialectical materialism because its approach to the phenomena of nature, its method of studying and apprehending them, is dialectical, while its interpretation of the phenomena of nature, its conception of these phenomena, its theory, is materialistic.
Historical materialism is the extension of the principles of dialectical materialism to the study of social life, an application of the principles of dialectical materialism to the phenomena of the life of society, to the study of society and of its history.
- Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, a materialist analysis of history which remains popular but controversial
- Historical materialism
- Ludwig Feuerbach
- Marx, Karl. "Capital Vol. I, Afterword to the Second German edition". Marxists Internet Archive. Retrieved 6 Aug 2023.
- Lucretius (2000). Lucretius: Of The Nature of Things. A metrical translation by William Ellery Leonard. Project Gutenberg. Translated by Leonard, William Ellery. OCLC 79434549.
- See Flynn, Tom, ed. (2007). "Wang Ch'ung". The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. p. 808-? and Flynn, Tom, ed. (2007). "China, unbelief in". The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. pp. 172–3. ISBN 978-1-59102-391-3.