Any theory emphasizing the existence, priority, or value of matter or material objects; though the popular sense of emphasizing the value of material things is uncommon in philosophy.
Usually materialists say that matter alone exists, everything else (notably minds or spirits and their ideas and experiences) being analyzable in terms of matter (a form of reductionism; also see: identity theory of mind); or else, more weakly, that though minds and so on may be different from matter, they originated from matter and would not exist without it (a form of emergence theory).
A slightly less weak materialism would add that such minds would vanish were matter to vanish (since they still depend on it causally). For a still weaker version see immaterialism. Materialists may also deny the substantive and irreducible existence of abstract objects like properties, numbers, propositions, and so on though this is usually less emphasized.
Modern physics has cast the notion of matter itself into some confusion, though in ways that have not so far greatly affected the above debates; problems concerning it, and in particular its relation to space, go back at least to Rene Descartes (1596-1650) and indeed to Plato (4th century BC).
Also see: dialectic
A Quinton, The Nature of Things (1973)
Materialism belongs to the class of monist ontology, and is thus 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. It can also contrast with phenomenalism, vitalism, and dual-aspect monism. Its materiality can, in some ways, be linked to the concept of determinism, as espoused by Enlightenment thinkers.
Despite the large number of philosophical schools and subtle nuances between many, all philosophies are said to fall into one of two primary categories, defined in contrast to each other: idealism and materialism.[a] The basic proposition of these two categories pertains to the nature of reality—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 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.
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.
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. They also developed dialectical materialism, by taking Hegelian dialectics, stripping them of their idealist aspects, and fusing them with materialism (see Modern philosophy).
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 material constituents. Jerry Fodor 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.
Before Common Era
Materialism developed, possibly independently, in several geographically separated regions of Eurasia during what Karl Jaspers termed the 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 the Cārvāka school of philosophy. Kanada became one of the early proponents of atomism. The Nyaya–Vaisesika school (c. 600–100 BC) developed one of the earliest forms of atomism (although 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.
Ancient Greek atomists like Leucippus, Democritus and Epicurus prefigure later materialists. The Latin poem De Rerum Natura by Lucretius (99 – c. 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. Democritus and 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 the given scope of this article.
Early Common Era
Wang Chong (27 – c. 100 AD) was a Chinese thinker of the early Common Era said to be a materialist. Later Indian materialist Jayaraashi Bhatta (6th century) in his work Tattvopaplavasimha (‘The upsetting of all principles’) refuted the Nyāya Sūtra epistemology. The materialistic Cārvāka philosophy 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 (or Lokāyata) text to quote from or refer to.
In early 12th-century al-Andalus, Arabian philosopher Ibn Tufail (a.k.a. Abubacer) wrote discussions on materialism in his philosophical novel, Hayy ibn Yaqdhan (Philosophus Autodidactus), while vaguely foreshadowing the idea of a historical materialism.
Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) and 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), along with the works of the French materialists: Julien Offray de La Mettrie, German-French Baron d’Holbach (1723–1789), Denis Diderot (1713–1784), and other French Enlightenment thinkers. In England, John “Walking” Stewart (1747–1822) insisted on seeing matter as endowed with a moral dimension, which had a major impact on the philosophical poetry of William Wordsworth (1770–1850).
In late modern philosophy, German 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 introduced anthropological materialism, a version of materialism that views materialist anthropology as the universal science.
Feuerbach’s variety of materialism would go on to heavily influence Karl Marx, who in the late 19th century elaborated the concept of historical materialism—the basis for what Marx and Friedrich 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 (1880)
Through his Dialectics of Nature (1883), Engels later developed a “materialist dialectic” philosophy of nature; a worldview that would be given the title dialectical materialism by Georgi Plekhanov, the father of Russian Marxism. In early 20th-century Russian philosophy, Vladimir Lenin further developed dialectical materialism in his book Materialism and Empirio-criticism (1909), which connected the political conceptions put forth by his opponents to their anti-materialist philosophies.
A more naturalist-oriented materialist school of thought that developed in the middle of the 19th century (also in Germany) was German materialism, members of which included Ludwig Büchner, Jacob Moleschott, and Carl Vogt