In philosophy, the theory of materialism holds that the only thing that exists is matter or energy; that all things are composed of material and all phenomena (including consciousness) are the result of material interactions. In other words, matter is the only substance. To many philosophers, not only is 'physicalism' synonymous with 'materialism', but they use both words to describe a position that supports ideas from physics which may not be matter in the traditional sense (like anti-matter or gravity).[1] Therefore much of the generally philosophical discussion below on materialism may be relevant to physicalism. Also related are the ideas of methodological naturalism (i.e. "let's at least do science as though physicalism is true") and metaphysical naturalism (i.e. "philosophy and science should operate according to the physical world, and that's all that exists"). The philosophical alternatives to materialism are some forms of monism (besides the materialistic monism), dualism and idealism.


Materialism belongs to the class of monist ontology. As such, it is 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.

Despite the large number of philosophical schools and subtle nuances between many,[2][3][4] all philosophies are said to fall into one of two primary categories, which are defined in contrast to each other: Idealism, and materialism.Template:Ref label The basic proposition of these two categories pertains to the nature of reality, and 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 is primary, and created matter secondary. To materialists, matter is primary and mind or spirit is secondary, a product of matter acting upon matter.[4]

The materialist view is perhaps best understood in its opposition to the doctrines of immaterial substance applied to the mind historically, famously 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.

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 influentially 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. A lot of vigorous literature has grown up around the relation between these views.

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.[5]

Materialism typically contrasts with dualism, phenomenalism, idealism, vitalism and dual-aspect monism. Its materiality can, in some ways, be linked to the concept of Determinism, as espoused by Enlightenment thinkers. It has been criticized as a spiritually empty philosophy.

During the 19th century, Karl Marx, influenced by Hegel and early positivists, extended the concept of materialism to elaborate a materialist conception of history, which goes beyond metaphysics to apply to sociology and political economy, centered on the roughly empirical world of human activity (practice, including labor) and the institutions created, reproduced, or destroyed by that activity (see materialist conception of history). In psychology, a similar view is called BehaviorismTemplate:Citation needed.

History of materialismEdit

Axial AgeEdit

Materialism developed, possibly independently, in several geographically separated regions of Eurasia during what Karl Jaspers termed the Axial Age (approximately 800 to 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 NyayaVaisesika school (600 BC - 100 BC) developed one of the earliest forms of atomism, though their proofs of God and their positing that the consciousness was not material precludes labelling them as materialists. The atomic tradition was carried forward by Buddhist atomism and the Jaina school.

Xun Zi (ca. 312–230 BC) developed a Confucian doctrine oriented on realism and materialism in Ancient China. Other notable Chinese materialists of this time include Yang Xiong and Wang Chong.

Ancient Greek philosophers like Anaxagoras (ca. 500 BC – 428 BC), Epicurus and Democritus prefigure later materialists. The Latin poem De Rerum Natura by Lucretius (ca. 99 BC – ca. 55 BC) recounts 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 come from nothing" and "nothing can touch body but body" first appeared in the works of Lucretius.

Common EraEdit

Later Indian materialist Jayaraashi Bhatta (6th century CE) 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 CE. When Madhavacharya compiled Sarva-darśana-samgraha (a digest of all philosophies) in the 14th century, he had no Cārvāka/Lokāyata text to quote from, or even refer to. [6].

In early 12th-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.[7]

Modern EraEdit

Later on, Pierre Gassendi represented the materialist tradition, in opposition to René Descartes' attempts to provide the natural sciences with dualist foundations. There followed the materialist and atheist Jean Meslier, Julien Offroy de La Mettrie, Paul-Henri Thiry Baron d'Holbach, Denis Diderot and other French Enlightenment thinkers; as well as in England, the pedestrian traveller 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.

Schopenhauer wrote that "...materialism is the philosophy of the subject who forgets to take account of himself".[8] 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. "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."[9]

The materialist and atheist Ludwig Feuerbach would a signal a new turn in materialism through his book, The Essence of Christianity, which provided a humanist account of religion as the outward projection of man's inward nature. Feuerbach's materialism would later heavily influence Karl Marx.

Materialist conception of history and MarxEdit

In 1870s Europe, there emerged a new philosophical and political theory called Marxism. Its founder, Karl Marx, interpreted the world and its laws by highlighting the materialistic aspects of life as vehicles of world history, and that is why his theory is called materialism.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, turning Hegel's idealist dialectics upside down, came up with two distinct concepts: dialectical materialism and a materialist account of the course of history known as the materialist conception of history, later labeled historical materialism.[10] Marx regarded the base material of the world as productive forces and their corresponding social relations (mainly class relations, e.g. between serfs and their lord, or between employees and their employer). As an expression of these basic social relations, all other ideologies form, including those of science, economics, law, morality, etc. Historical materialism has been expanded upon in the 20th century.

Marx and Engels used the term "materialism" to refer to a theoretical perspective that holds the satisfaction of everyday economic needs is the primary reality in every epoch of history. Opposed to German idealist philosophy, materialism takes the position that society and reality originate from a set of simple economic acts which human beings carry out in order to provide the material necessities of food, shelter, and clothing. Materialism takes as its starting point that before anything else, human beings must produce their everyday economic needs through their physical labor and practical productive activity. This single economic act, Marx believed, gives rise to a system of social relations which include political, legal and religious models usually intended to facilitate this process or justify the current social system in existence.

Scientific socialism holds that social mores, values, cultural traits and economic practices are not the property of some immutable natural law (as in idealism), but are products of the social environment and are thus relative to the specific form of social organization in existence. These social relations are determined by material forces in society, such as the productive forces, natural environment and the level of technology.

Scientific materialistsEdit

Template:See also Many current and recent philosophers—e.g., Daniel Dennett, Willard Van Orman Quine, Donald Davidson, John Rogers Searle, and Jerry Fodor—operate within a broadly physicalist or materialist framework, producing rival accounts of how best to accommodate mindfunctionalism, anomalous monism, identity theory and so on.[11]

Scientific 'Materialism' is often synonymous with, and has so far been described, as being a reductive materialism. In recent years, Paul and Patricia Churchland have advocated a radically contrasting position (at least, in regards to certain hypotheses); eliminativist materialism holds that some mental phenomena simply do not exist at all, and that talk of those mental phenomena reflects a totally spurious "folk psychology" and Introspection illusion. That is, an eliminative materialist might suggest that a concept like 'belief' simply has no basis in fact - the way folk science speaks of demon-caused illnesses. Reductive materialism being at one end of a continuum (our theories will reduce to facts) and eliminative materialism on the other (certain theories will need to be eliminated in light of new facts), Revisionary materialism is somewhere in the middle.[11]

Some scientific materialists have been criticized, for example by Noam Chomsky, for failing to provide clear definitions for what constitutes matter, leaving the term 'materialism' without any definite meaning. The problem of providing such a definition seems particularly challenging given the fact that contemporary physics does not have a single notion of matter; rather physics has two different and contradictory theories of matter, general relativity and quantum theory. Chomsky also points out that the concept of matter has been expanded in the past to accommodate new scientific discoveries, and it's possible it will happen again, so scientific materialists are being dogmatic in assuming the opposite.[12]

Defining matterEdit

The nature and definition of matter - like other key concepts in science and philosophy - have occasioned much debate.[13] 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),[14] or a number of discrete, unchanging constituents (atomism)?[15][16][17][18][19][20] Does it have intrinsic properties (substance theory),[21][22] or is it lacking them (prima materia)?

One challenge to the traditional concept of matter as tangible "stuff" came with the rise of field physics in the 19th 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, the Standard Model of Particle physics uses quantum field theory to describe all interactions. On this view it could be said that fields are prima materia and the energy is a property of the field.

According to the dominant cosmological model, the Lambda-CDM model, less than 5% of the universes energy density is made up of the "matter" described by the Standard Model of Particle Physics, 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.[23] 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 behaviour of traditional matter" then there is no reason in principle why entities whose existence materialists normally deny should not be considered as "matter".[24]

While it is believed by many physical scientists that the concept of matter has merely changed, rather than being eliminated, some have taken a more extreme position. For instance Werner Heisenberg once said “The ontology of materialism rested upon the illusion that the kind of existence, the direct ‘actuality’ of the world around us, can be extrapolated into the atomic range. This extrapolation, however, is impossible . .. atoms are not things.”. Likewise, some philosophersTemplate:Which? feel that these dichotomies necessitate a switch from materialism to physicalism. Others use the terms "materialism" and "physicalism" interchangeably.[25]

Indeed the concept of matter has changed many times in response to new scientific discoveries, often being expanded to incorporate properties which were previously thought of as immaterial. For example Newton's theory of gravitation required attributing to matter the ability to interact through 'spooky' action-at-a-distance, a property viewed as immaterial under the earlier Cartesian concept of matter. Other examples are given above. Thus materialism has no definite content independent of the particular theory of matter it's based on; and any property may be considered material, if one defines matter such that it has that property.[26]

Criticism and alternativesEdit

The professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame Alvin Plantinga criticises it, and the Emiritus Regius Professor of Divinity 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."[27]

Scientific rejection of materialismEdit

Some modern day physicists and science writers such as Paul Davies and John Gribbin have openly expressed how scientific finds in physics such as quantum mechanics and chaos theory have disproven materialism. In their 1991 book The Matter Myth in the first chapter titled The death of materialism they wrote:


Religious and spiritual objectionsEdit

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, materialism denies the existence of both deities and "souls."[28] It is therefore incompatible with most world religions including Christianity, Judaism and Islam. In most of Hinduism and Transcendentalism, all matter is believed to be an illusion called Maya, blinding us from knowing the truth. Maya is the limited, purely physical and mental reality in which our everyday consciousness has become entangled. Maya gets destroyed for a person when they perceive Brahman with transcendental knowledge.

Kant argued against all three forms of materialism, subjective idealism (which he contrasts with his "transcendental idealism"[29]) and dualism.[30] However, Kant also argues that change and time require an enduring substrate,[31] and does so in connection with his Refutation of Idealism[32] Postmodern/poststructuralist thinkers also express a skepticism about any all-encompassing metaphysical scheme. Philosopher Mary Midgley,[33] among others,[34][35][36][37] argues that materialism is a self-refuting idea, at least in its eliminative form.

Other ontologiesEdit

Template:Unreferenced section

Bundle Theory Edit

It can be argued that it is the properties of material bodies, such as size and shape, which are perceived, and not the material substrate itself. Locke said we "know not what" the basic substance is.[38] Template:Failed verification Template:Clarify As Berkeley wrote "I acknowledge it is possible we might perceive all things just as we do now, though there was no Matter in the world; neither can I conceive, if there be Matter, how it should produce any idea in our minds". If mind-independent properties (properly speaking property-instances or tropes) are held to exist in association with each other but without a material substrate, bundle theory results. If bundle theory is shown to be illogical or inconceivable, the existence of a substrate is thereby demonstrated conceptually, despite the imperceivability of matter per se.

Idealism Edit

An argument for idealism, such as those of Hegel and Berkeley is ipso facto an argument against materialism. Matter can be argued to be redundant, as in bundle theory, and mind-independent properties can in turn be reduced to subjective percepts.


If matter is seen as necessary to explain the physical world, but incapable of explaining mind, dualism results. This actually has much broader implications.

Other approaches Edit

Emergence, holism and process philosophy seek to ameliorate the perceived shortcomings of traditional (especially mechanistic) materialism without abandoning materialism entirely.

Materialism as methodologyEdit

Some critics object to materialism as part of an overly skeptical, narrow or reductivist approach to theorizing, rather than to the ontological claim that matter is the only substance. Particle physicist and Anglican theologian John Polkinghorne objects to what he calls promissory materialism — claims that materialistic science will eventually succeed in explaining phenomena it has not so far been able to explain.[39] (Polkinghorne prefers dual-aspect monism to materialism.[40])

The psychologist Imants Barušs suggests that "materialists tend to indiscriminately apply a 'pebbles in a box' schema to explanations of reality even though such a schema is known to be incorrect in general for physical phenomena. Thus, materialism cannot explain matter, let alone anomalous phenomena or subjective experience,[41] but remains entrenched in academia largely for political reasons."[42] (Compare with Charles Fort.)

See alsoEdit






a. Template:Note label Indeed it has been noted it is difficult if not impossible to define one category without contrasting it with the other.[3][4]


  2. Template:Citation Alternative ISBN 978-0028-94950-5
  3. 3.0 3.1 Template:Citation Alternative ISBN 978-0140130690
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Template:Citation
  5. Mary Midgley The Myths We Live By.
  6. History of Indian Materialism, Ramakrishna Bhattacharya
  7. Dominique Urvoy, "The Rationality of Everyday Life: The Andalusian Tradition? (Aropos of Hayy's First Experiences)", in Lawrence I. Conrad (1996), The World of Ibn Tufayl: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Ḥayy Ibn Yaqẓān, pp. 38-46, Brill Publishers, ISBN 90-04-09300-1.
  8. The World as Will and Representation, II, Ch. 1
  9. The World as Will and Representation, I, §7
  10. Template:Citation
  11. 11.0 11.1, by William Ramsey
  12. Chomsky, Noam (2000) New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind
  13. Template:CathEncy
  14. "Hylomorphism" Concise Britannica
  15. "Atomism: Antiquity to the Seventeenth Century" Dictionary of the History of Ideas
  16. "Atomism in the Seventeenth Century" Dictionary of the History of Ideas
  17. Article by a philosopher who opposes atomism
  18. Information on Buddhist atomism
  19. Article on traditional Greek atomism
  20. "Atomism from the 17th to the 20th Century" Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  21. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on substance theory
  22. The Friesian School on Substance and Essence
  23. Bernard Sadoulet "Particle Dark Matter in the Universe: At the Brink of Discovery?" Science 5 January 2007: Vol. 315. no. 5808, pp. 61 - 63
  24. For example C. S. Lewis in The Great Divorce suggested that Heaven was composed of super-massive matter that was more substantial than normal matter
  25. "Many philosophers and scientists now use the terms `material' and `physical' interchangeably" Dictionary of the Philosophy of Mind
  26. Chomsky, Noam (2000) New Horizon's in the Study of Language and Mind
  27. Is Religion Dangerous? p 91
  28. Template:CathEncy
  29. see Critique of Pure Reason where he gives a "refutation of idealism" in pp345-52 (1st Ed) and pp 244-7 (2nd Ed) in the Norman Kemp Smith edition
  30. Critique of Pure Reason (A379, p352 NKS translation). "If, however, as commonly happens, we seek to extend the concept of dualism, and take it in the transcendental sense, neither it nor the two counter-alternatives — pneumatism [idealism] on the one hand, materialism on the other — would have any sort of basis [...] Neither the transcendental object which underlies outer appearances nor that which underlies inner intuition, is in itself either matter or a thinking being, but a ground (to us unknown)..."
  31. "Kant argues that we can determine that there has been a change in the objects of our perception, not merely a change in our perceptions themselves, only by conceiving of what we perceive as successive states of enduring substances (see Substance)".Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  32. "All determination of time presupposes something permanent in perception. This permanent cannot, however, be something in me [...]" Critique of Pure Reason, B274, P245 (NKS translation)
  33. see Mary Midgley The Myths we Live by
  34. Baker, L. (1987). Saving Belief Princeton, Princeton University Press
  35. Reppert, V. (1992). "Eliminative Materialism, Cognitive Suicide, and Begging the Question". Metaphilosophy 23: 378-92.
  36. Seidner, Stanley S. (June 10, 2009) "A Trojan Horse: Logotherapeutic Transcendence and its Secular Implications for Theology". Mater Dei Institute. p 5.
  37. Boghossian, P. (1990). "The Status of Content" Philosophical Review 99: 157-84. and (1991) "The Status of Content Revisited". Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 71: 264-78.
  38. Essay Concerning Human Understanding Locke, J.
  39. However, critics of materialism are equally guilty of prognosticating that it will never be able to explain certain phenomena " Over a hundred years ago William James saw clearly that science would never resolve the mind-body problem".Are We Spiritual Machines? Dembski, W.
  40. Interview with John Polkinghorne
  41. Template:Citation
  42. Template:Citation

Further readingEdit


  • Buchner, L. (1920). Force and Matter. New York, Peter Eckler Publishing Co.
  • Churchland, Paul (1981). Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes. The Philosophy of Science. Boyd, Richard; P. Gasper; J. D. Trout. Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press.
  • Flanagan, Owen (1991). The Science of the Mind. 2nd edition Cambridge Massachusetts, MIT Press.
  • Fodor, J.A. (1974). Special Sciences, Synthese, Vol.28.
  • Gunasekara, Victor A. (2001). "Buddhism and the Modern World". Basic Buddhism: A Modern Introduction to the Buddha's Teaching". 18 January 2008 .<>
  • Kim, J. (1994) Multiple Realization and the Metaphysics of Reduction, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 52.
  • La Mettrie, La Mettrie, Julien Offray de (1748). L'Homme Machine (Man a Machine)
  • Lange, Friedrich A.,(1925) The History of Materialism. New York, Harcourt, Brace, & Co.
  • Moser, P. K.; J. D. Trout, Ed. (1995) Contemporary Materialism: A Reader. New York, Routledge.
  • Template:Citation Alternative ISBN 978-0140130690
  • Schopenhauer, Arthur (1969). The World as Will and Representation. New York, Dover Publications, Inc.
  • Seidner, Stanley S. (June 10, 2009). "A Trojan Horse: Logotherapeutic Transcendence and its Secular Implications for Theology". Mater Dei Institute
  • Turner, M. S. (2007). Quarks and the cosmos. Science 315, 59–61.
  • Vitzthum, Richard C. (1995) Materialism: An Affirmative History and Definition. Amhert, New York, Prometheus Books.


External linksEdit


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