From New World Encyclopedia

In philosophy, materialism is a monistic (everything is composed of the same substance) ontology that holds that all that can truly be said to exist is matter; that fundamentally, everything is material and all phenomena are the result of material interactions. As a monist ontology, materialism is different from ontological theories based on dualism (two kinds of substance), or pluralism (several kinds of substance). In terms of singular explanations of the phenomenal reality, materialism stands in sharp contrast to idealism, which is also a monistic ontology that holds that the only thing that can be said to truly exist is idea, or immaterial substance. It also differs from dual-aspect monism which suggests there is one reality with two different aspects. Materialists, thus, deny the existence of God or a spiritual world.

Science uses a working assumption, sometimes known as methodological naturalism, that observable events in nature are to be explained only by natural causes without assuming the existence or non-existence of the supernatural. Materialists have often been determinists, holding to the claim that, "There is a cause for every event," although that view is not required in order to be a materialist.

Dialectical and historical materialism derived from the thought of Karl Marx was the ideology of Communist states in the twentieth century. It claimed that matter is in motion and that human social relations, culture and institutions were determined by the productive relations (types of ownership) which in turn were determined by the forces of production (the level of technology).

The biggest challenge materialists have faced is to define what matter is. Modern philosophical materialists extend the definition of matter to include invisible scientific postulates such as energy, forces, and the curvature of space, as well as dark matter and dark energy, which exist in mathematical equations but are scientifically undetectable. In this case, it is not clear on what basis a spiritual dimension is dismissed. Philosophers such as Mary Midgley suggest that the concept of "matter" is elusive and poorly defined.[1] As materialists keep changing the definition of matter, materialism could be described as unfalsifiable.

The other problem that materialism has is to explain is consciousness: How can something oblivious of the world become conscious of the world?[2] Materialists claim that mental events are merely complex chemical interactions taking place in the brain. Yet, it is unclear how one gets from chemical reactions and neurological impulses to consciousness and thinking and how electrical impulses in the optic nerve give rise to the colorful view we have. If beliefs and decisions are the product of neurological events it is not clear how they in turn affect the brain so as to initiate an activity. If thoughts are merely chemical interactions why should people pay any attention to them and ascribe truthfulness to some and falsehood to others?

Finally, a materialistic explanation is reductionist and so must explain human behavior in terms of physical causes, impulses, and responses and not in terms of beliefs, free choice, and thoughtful decisions. By doing so, it undermines ethics, which presupposes human free will and concomitant responsibility.

The religious critique of materialism is that it does not take account of and explain the plurality of human experience which includes experiences of a non-material reality, such as the divine and the spiritual world. It also cannot explain the human tendency to worship and search for a meaning and purpose in life. Instead, it focuses exclusively on the physical, observable world.


Materialism flows from the idea that only that which can be perceived exists. What is not perceivable, then, does not exist. In that sense it is a very subjective perspective which does not give weight to the testimony of others. This is why materialists do not accept the testimony of people who have had an out of body experience at face value. Because sense-perception is the only acceptable form of knowledge, matter becomes the only reality. Any other experience that does not fit with this is generally dismissed as impossible or some ad hoc materialist explanation is given. Inference from analogy is also rejected.

The definition of "matter" in modern philosophical materialism extends to all scientifically observable entities, such as energy, forces, and the curvature of space. In this sense, one might speak of the "material world."

Materialism has frequently been understood to designate an entire scientific, rationalistic worldview, particularly by religious thinkers opposed to it, who regard it as a spiritually empty religion. Marxism also uses materialism to refer to the scientific worldview. It emphasizes a "materialist conception of history," which is not concerned with metaphysics, but centers on the empirical world of actual human activity (practice, including labor) and the institutions created, reproduced, or destroyed by that activity (as is the case with historical materialism, or materialist conception of history).

Thought and consciousness are functions of matter secreted by the brain in the same way as the liver secretes bile.

Materialism is sometimes allied with the methodological principle of 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, a more general level than the reduced one. 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 influentially argued this view, according to which empirical laws and explanations in "special sciences" such as psychology or geology are invisible from the perspective of, say, basic physics. A vigorous literature has grown up around the relation between these views.

Since only matter exists, religion is usually regarded as an aberration and something which does not fall into their realm of study.

Because all that exists is matter, pleasure and pain are central facts of life. So an unqualified hedonism has often been the ethical ideal of materialists. Virtue is an illusion and enjoyment is the only reality.

History and varieties of materialism

Ancient Greek philosophers like Thales, Parmenides, Anaxagoras, Democritus, Epicurus, and even Aristotle prefigure later materialists. Thales began the process of attempting to answer the question, "What exists, as the foundation or basis for all existence?" He was not satisfied with a supernatural answers which tended to be question begging. His answer was water. Other ancient Greeks answered the question with "Air," "Fire," or "The Boundless." Democritus developed the doctrine of atomism, the view that the smallest lump or particle of physical existence is an atom, meaning "that which cannot be cut." Epicurus argued that ultimate reality consisted of invisible and indivisible bits of free-falling matter called atoms randomly colliding in the void.

The poem, De Rerum Natura, by Lucretius recounts the mechanistic philosophy of Democritus and Epicurus. According to this view, all that exists is matter and void, and all phenomena are the result of different motions and conglomerations of base material particles called "atoms." De Rerum Natura provides mechanistic explanations for phenomena, like erosion, evaporation, wind, and sound, that would not become accepted for more than 1500 years. Famous principles like "nothing can come from nothing" and "nothing can touch body but body" first appeared in the works of Lucretius.

Aristotle, in his theory of hylemorphism, or matter-form combination as the internal cause of a thing, held that material is the foundation or substrate of form—form and matter always appear together in his view. Matter is the foundation of extension. Two things with the same form—for example, two fish that are alike because they come from the same spawn, or two leaves that look alike, or two coins from the same mint using the same dyes to produce them—are distinguished and separated by their being two different lumps of matter.

In Ancient Indian philosophy, materialism developed around 600 B.C.E. with the works of Ajita Kesakambali, Payasi, Kanada, and the proponents of the Cārvāka school of philosophy. Kanada was one of the early proponents of atomism. Like the Greeks, they also suggested there are the four fundamental elements of earth, water, fire, and air, from which everything is composed. A particular modification of these elements produces intelligence which dissolves when the elements from which it arises are dissolved.[3] The Nyaya-Vaisesika school (600 B.C.E.-100 B.C.E.) developed one of the earliest forms of atomism. The tradition was carried forward by Buddhist atomism and the Jaina school. Later Indian materialist, Jayaraashi Bhatta (sixth century C.E.), in his work, Tattvopaplavasimha (the Upsetting of All Principles) refuted the Nyaya Sutra epistemology. The materialistic Cārvāka philosophy appears to have died out some time after 1400 C.E.

In China, Xun Zi developed a Confucian doctrine that was oriented on realism and materialism. Other notable Chinese materialists include Yang Xiong and Wang Chong.

In early twelfth century al-Andalus, the Arabian philosopher, Ibn Tufail (Abubacer), wrote discussions on materialism in his philosophical novel, Hayy ibn Yaqdhan (Philosophus Autodidactus), while vaguely foreshadowing the idea of a historical materialism.[4]

In the seventeenth century, Thomas Hobbes and Pierre Gassendi revived the materialist tradition, in opposition to René Descartes' attempts to provide the natural sciences with dualist foundations. For Descartes, body (material) and mind (immaterial) are completely different substances without any commonality or similarity in their natures; thus, he was left with the enormous problem of attempting to explain how body and mind can interact, a problem he never succeeded in solving except through his wholly unsatisfactory and ad hoc claim that it occurs through the pineal gland. Hobbes extended materialism by using it to account for language and epistemology. Gassendi accounted for the operations of the physical world including sensation through materialism, but he also held to an active intellect in humans and to a God in the universe.

The next major materialist work to be published in Europe was Baron Paul d'Holbach's La Systeme de la Nature (The System of Nature), in France in 1770. It was condemned by Louis XVI's government. D'Holbach based his mechanical determinism on Newtonian physics and Lockean psychology. He argued that every event in nature, including all human thought and moral action, was the result of an inexorable chain of causation rooted in the flux of atomic motion. Like Lucretius, he insisted there was no reality other than matter moving in space, as Newton theorized in his laws of motion and gravity. Following Locke, D'Holbach attributed all thought to images impressed on the mind's tabula rasa, or blank slate, in wholly mechanical fashion according to these same laws of motion.

Later materialists included Denis Diderot and other French enlightenment thinkers, as well as Ludwig Feuerbach, who had a huge impact on Freud and Karl Marx. In England, the pedestrian traveler John "Walking" Stewart, whose insistence that all matter is endowed with a moral dimension had a major impact on the philosophical poetry of William Wordsworth.

The leading philosophers of the nineteenth century—Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Mill, and the British and American idealists—were all idealists or phenomenalists. Schopenhauer, for example, wrote that "…materialism is the philosophy of the subject who forgets to take account of himself" (The World as Will and Representation, II, Ch. 1). He claimed that an observing subject can only know material objects through the mediation of the brain and its particular organization. The way that the brain knows determines the way that material objects are experienced. He wrote:

Everything objective, extended, active, and hence everything material, is regarded by materialism as so solid a basis for its explanations that a reduction to this (especially if it should ultimately result in thrust and counter-thrust) can leave nothing to be desired. But all this is something that is given only very indirectly and conditionally, and is therefore only relatively present, for it has passed through the machinery and fabrication of the brain, and hence has entered the forms of time, space, and causality, by virtue of which it is first of all presented as extended in space and operating in time (Ibid., I, §7).

Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871), and T.H. Huxley in Man's Place in Nature (1863) presented a naturalist account of the origin of biological structures and species, including man, and today's adherents of Darwinist and neo-Darwinist evolution are mostly materialists.

Unlike Aristotle who held that the natural state of matter is to be at rest and that motion occurs only when there is an active mover causing matter to be in motion, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels asserted that matter is naturally in motion. Moreover, by turning the idealist dialectics of Hegel upside down, they claimed that both qualitative and quantitative changes in matter occur through a process of dialectic. They called this dialectical materialism and they also accounted for historical changes with a materialist account of the course of historical development, known as historical materialism. Lenin systematized these ideas and defined matter in this way "For the sole 'property' of matter with whose recognition philosophical materialism is bound up is the property of being an objective reality, of existing outside of the mind." This, of course, leaves unanswered the question "what is mind?" For this reason, later Marxists such as Georg Lukács and Antonio Gramsci abandoned ontological dialectical materialism.

In the United States, there was a non-dialectical form of materialism that is sometimes called Naturalism. Two of its many members were George Santayana and John Dewey.

By the end of the nineteenth century, under the influence of Ernst Mach and other positivists, philosophical materialism came into prominence again, especially in the twentieth century. The members of the Vienna Circle and the Logical Positivists were almost all materialists. One issue faced by the Logical Positivists was how to give a materialist account of statements about minds. Rudolf Carnap, for the most important example, held that

…the meaning of any statement consisted in those directly testable statements deducible from it (protocol sentences). The protocol sentences must be intersubjectively testable, and the only intersubjectively testable sentences refer to physical properties of physical entities. Hence, those meaningful statements about minds which do not deal with hypothetical constructs must refer to such physical properties and entities, even though we cannot yet give their physical translations. The beginnings of translation into behaviorist terms was offered for some psychological expressions.[5]

Logical positivism was shown to be incoherent and even its preeminent advocate, A.J. Ayer, recognized that it was a blind alley. As a result, theologian-philosopher Keith Ward suggests that materialism is rare amongst contemporary UK philosophers: "Looking around my philosopher colleagues in Britain, virtually all of whom I know at least from their published work, I would say that very few of them are materialists."[6]

Defining matter

Today's scientific materialism is based on and contains a complex understanding of elementary sub-atomic particles—leptons, quarks, photons, and whatever other particles are discovered or proposed, along with the properties of each of those particles—plus forces and energy and force-fields and whatever other such are discovered or postulated, along with the realization of a relation between matter and energy as expressed in Einstein's famous formula E=mc2.

Nevertheless, the nature and definition of matter have been subject to much debate,[7] as have other key concepts in science and philosophy. Is there a single kind of matter which everything is made of (hyle), or multiple kinds? Is matter a continuous substance capable of expressing multiple forms (hylomorphism)

Without question, science has made unexpected discoveries about matter. Some paraphrase departures from traditional or common-sense concepts of matter as "disproving the existence of matter." However, most physical scientists take the view that the concept of matter has merely changed, rather than being eliminated.

One challenge to the traditional concept of matter as tangible "stuff" is the rise of field physics in the nineteenth century. However, the conclusion that materialism is false may be premature. Relativity shows that matter and energy (including the spatially distributed energy of fields) are interchangeable. This enables the ontological view that energy is prima materia and matter is one of its forms. On the other hand, quantum field theory models fields as exchanges of particles—photons for electromagnetic fields and so on. On this view it could be said that fields are "really matter."

All known solid, liquid, and gaseous substances are composed of protons, neutrons and electrons. All three are fermions or spin-half particles, whereas the particles that mediate fields in quantum field theory are bosons. Thus matter can be said to divide into a more tangible fermionic kind and a less tangible bosonic kind. However it is now known that less than 5 percent of the physical composition of the universe is made up of such "matter," and the majority of the universe is composed of Dark Matter and Dark Energy—with no agreement amongst scientists about what these are made of.[8] This obviously refutes the traditional materialism that held that the only things that exist are things composed of the kind of matter with which we are broadly familiar ("traditional matter")—which was anyway under great strain as noted above from Relativity and quantum field theory. But if the definition of "matter" is extended to "anything whose existence can be inferred from the observed behavior of traditional matter" then there is no reason in principle why entities whose existence materialists normally deny should not be considered as "matter."

Particle physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne objects to what he calls promissory materialism — claims that materialistic science will eventually be able to explain phenomena it has not so far been able to explain. Materialists have a tendency to either deny that certain phenomena that they cannot explain are real or to assert that one day they will be explained naturally. In that sense materialism appears to be more a psychological than a philosophical theory. Polkinghorne prefers dual-aspect monism to materialism.[9]


  1. Mary Midgley, The Myths We Live By.
  2. Richard Vitzth, Philosophical Materialism. Retrieved February 7, 2008.
  3. R. Radhakrishnan, Indian Philosophy, Volume 1 (Oxford, 1923, ISBN 0195638190), 279.
  4. Dominique Urvoy, "The Rationality of Everyday Life: The Andalusian Tradition? (Aropos of Hayy's First Experiences)," in Lawrence I. Conrad, The World of Ibn Tufayl: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Ḥayy Ibn Yaqẓān (Brill Publishers, 1996, ISBN 9004093001).
  5. Keith Campbell, "Materialism," in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, p. 183.
  6. Is Religion Dangerous? p. 91.
  7. Catholic Encyclopedia, Materialism. Retrieved May 28, 2008.
  8. Bernard Sadoulet, Particle Dark Matter in the Universe: At the Brink of Discovery? Science 315 (5808): 61-63.
  9. Cross Currents, Interview with John Polkinghorne. Retrieved February 24, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Edwards, Paul (ed.). 1967. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York: Macmillan. ISBN 0199264791.
  • Flanagan, Owen. 1991. The Science of the Mind, 2nd edition. Cambridge: MIT Press. ISBN 0262560569.
  • Fodor, J.A. 1974. Special Sciences, Synthese. Vol. 28.
  • Kim, J. 1994. Multiple Realization and the Metaphysics of Reduction. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. Vol. 52.
  • Lange, Friedrich A. 1925. The History of Materialism. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & Co. ISBN 0415225256.
  • Moser, P. K., and J.D. Trout (eds.). 1995. Contemporary Materialism: A Reader. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0415108632.
  • Reese, William L. 1996. Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion. Atlantic Highlands NJ: Humanities Press. ISBN 1573926213.
  • Schopenhauer, Arthur. 1969. The World as Will and Representation. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. ISBN 0486217612.
  • Vitzthum, Richard C. 1995. Materialism: An Affirmative History and Definition. Amhert, NY: Prometheus Books. ISBN 1573920274.
  • Buchner, L. 1920. Force and Matter. New York: Peter Eckler Publishing CO.
  • La Mettrie, Julien. Man the Machine. ISBN 1419132288.

External links

All links retrieved November 7, 2022.

General philosophy sources


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