Materialism is a philosophical system that maintains not only that everything is made up of matter but that, fundamentally, all phenomena result from material interactions.
As a philosophical system, materialism belongs to the class of monist ontologies, and finds its first developments in pre-Socratic thought – although it was never stated as such until the 17th century. It admits multiple interpretations, both naturalistic and historical. Sometimes associated with reductionism, sometimes with realism or mechanism, it is used as an argumentative weapon by the philosophers who opposed idealism, still dominant in philosophy until the end of the 19th century.
A branch of materialism is closely related to physicalism, which postulates that everything that exists is a physical manifestation. Philosophical physicalism is an evolution of materialism which is based on discoveries in the physical sciences, in order to include more sophisticated notions than that of “matter”, such as: space-time, energy, force fields , etc. Also, in analytical philosophy, the term “physicalism” is often preferred to that of “materialism”, while some authors use them as synonyms.
The philosophical conceptions which are opposed to materialism include idealism, certain forms of philosophical pluralism, dualism, or even spiritualism.
Definition and origin of the concept
In philosophy, materialism is the doctrine that there is no other substance than matter. It is therefore opposed to dualism which admits the existence of two distinct substances: spirit and matter. The term appeared in the second half of the 17th century to designate philosophies which deny the existence of spiritual substances (“souls”) and only recognize that of bodily substances. Materialism is opposed to both dualism and spiritualism, for which the spirit constitutes the substance of all reality.
The philosophical meaning of the word “materialism” is historically primary. The old meaning has fallen into disuse, although preserved in its English-speaking use (“materialist”, in the 16th century, designated the apothecary or the chemist: the one who dealt with “materials”). It is only retrospectively that we qualify as materialist certain doctrines prior to the use of the word, doctrines of which the oldest seem to date back to ancient Greece, or even ancient India.
Materialism and its monism
(Christian Wolff, to whom we probably owe the first definition of philosophical materialism.)
The first explicit definition of philosophical materialism seems to have been formulated late by Christian Wolff in a work dating from 1734:
“We call materialists the philosophers who assert that there are only material beings or bodies […] Materialism admits only one kind of substance.”
Materialism is therefore first defined as a monism of matter, or physical monism, which affirms the unity of the world as well as its material character. Materialist monism is thus openly opposed to the dualism of mind and body, but not to pluralism, since matter is made up of a multiplicity of bodies.
A problematic consequence of this definition concerns the status of thought. Materialism is in fact a position which expresses itself on the nature of the mind, understood in its relation to the body. He considers in particular that the existence and the nature of bodies do not depend on thought. But the question arises as to whether thought exists as a material characteristic of the body, especially of the brain, which amounts to considering it as one of the vital processes among others, or if it exists as a specific property attributed to the organization of matter.
An ontological position
Materialism is an ontological doctrine, on the nature of being; it should not be confused with scientific realism or empiricism, which are gnoseological doctrines, on the basis of knowledge. Generally speaking, materialism rejects the existence of the soul, the Hereafter and God. As for the mind (or psyche), it makes it a property of matter, or considers that it has no reality of its own, that it refers to an erroneous conception of the human being and the living (see eliminativist materialism).
Over the centuries, materialism has appeared in various forms. In particular, there is a naive and spontaneous form of materialism and a mechanistic form more in line with scientific realism. There are also reductionist forms of materialism, which do not recognize specificity in the human sciences (e.g. physicalism, biologism), and non-reductionist forms, which recognize this specificity (e.g., historical materialism, functionalism).
The ontological position common to the various forms of materialism can have consequences on the ethical level: if everything is matter, it is the body and not some spiritual substance such as the soul or God that must be privileged. Hence this constancy of philosophical materialism to lead to an ethics associated with the body – an ethics of pleasure and happiness – unless it is precisely this ethics that justifies adherence to a materialist ontology.
The materialist definition of matter
As a philosophical option, materialism is based on a minimal philosophical definition of matter which does not depend directly on that given by the physical sciences, a definition which has changed in depth throughout history.
Materialists most often define matter negatively and in a relational way, in connection with notions of mind or thought. Matter is thus defined as:
- a universal reality which does not depend on thought, and in particular on the representation that we have of it;
- a fundamental principle which is the cause or the reason for the emergence of the spirit.
As for the positive characteristics of matter, it is up to the physical sciences to define them.