Lange, Friedrich Albert (1828–75)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC048-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2021
Retrieved March 02, 2024, from

2. The History of Materialism

Lange’s influential book is primarily a historical-philosophical reconstruction of the development of materialism throughout the centuries. Lange does not consider the historical course of philosophical ideas as the necessary result of the development of the universal spirit, in the Hegelian sense. Instead, following his philological training, he analyses the influence of the changing social and cultural conditions on the fortunes of philosophical systems.

According to Lange, the main features of materialism were first defined by Democritus: nothing exists but atoms and space; out of nothing arises nothing, nothing that is can be destroyed, all change is only combination and separation of atoms; nothing happens by chance, but everything through a cause and of necessity. Even though this conception is an extremely powerful hypothesis for the scientific investigation of the world, it is incapable of explaining consciousness and its sensory qualities. Moreover, by investigating how our own body interacts with nature in the cognitive processes, even scientific materialism must acknowledge that we can only know the outer world through the medium of our own physiological organisation and its sensory productions. Thus, humanity is bound to come back to the question whether it would be better to start from consciousness and our own mental activity, rather than from material atoms.

For Lange, this step was successfully taken by Kant with his Copernican revolution. Kant built his philosophy upon the defeat of metaphysics at the hands of materialism, and upon materialism’s self-defeat in providing a coherent account of knowledge. Kant granted the role of materialism as a scientific explanation of the world, but established it upon the functioning of our own knowledge and its drive to organise phenomena in causal terms, rather than upon reality, which is bound to remain the limiting concept of the unknowable thing-in-itself.

Of the dead, dumb, and silent world of the vibrating atoms we know nothing, but that it is to us a necessary conception, in so far as we try to represent scientifically the causal connection of phenomena. As, however, we have seen that this necessary conception explains not what is given, namely, our sensations, but only a certain order in their origin and decay, so we must see that this conception, in its whole nature and its necessary principles, is not calculated to reveal to us the ultimate, innermost nature of things.

(Lange, 1925, v. 2: 323–4)

Lange believes that Kant’s insights were later confirmed by the advances in the physiology of sensory organs, such as the formulation of the law of specific nerve energy by Johannes Peter Müller, and the investigation of visual processes by Hermann von Helmholtz. They demonstrated that our perception does not provide an image of the world, being rather the result of our psychophysical activity, that produces sensations and organises them. Thus, Lange attempts to reformulate Kant’s theory of knowledge in the light of these new scientific discoveries, along with the new theory of evolution. He agrees with Kant that the forms of our knowledge are a priori and necessary in their function, insofar as they are the conditions of possibility of experience. At the same time, Lange also states that the forms of our knowledge have a psychophysical origin, being grounded in the constitution and the functioning of our bodies, which are a result of biological evolution. Moreover, he also believes that the forms of knowledge are empirically discovered through the investigation of the experience. Therefore, we cannot identify them with full certainty (like Kant claimed to have done with the table of categories), since all empirical knowledge is provisional and open to error.

It may, indeed, seem very obvious that the rudiments of our knowledge a priori must be also discovered a priori by pure deduction from necessary concepts; and yet this assumption is erroneous. We must distinguish between a necessary proposition and the proof of a necessary proposition. Nothing is more easily conceivable than that the a priori propositions are only to be discovered by the road of experience.

(Lange, 1925, v. 2: 192)

The result of Lange’s reasoning is that we can embrace the latest scientific advances – like Darwinism [Darwin, Charles Robert (1809–82), 3. Natural selection], physiological psychology, and the overall drive to bring all natural phenomena under the law of conservation of energy – without having to embrace materialism. Even though those advances might be the result of materialistic convictions held by scientists, they are not proof of the truth of materialism.

Once we accept that we cannot know the material world in itself, and that our knowledge is founded on a priori principles that lie within ourselves, we can obtain access to the principle of morality too. According to Lange, theoretical materialism (atomistic mechanism [Mechanism, in modern philosophy]) does not overlap with moral materialism (i.e., the idea that egoism is the ultimate source of action) since it can assume sympathy too as the basic human drive. Nonetheless, empirical sympathy towards our neighbour (family, friends…) is not the same as a universal bond that ties us to all mankind. The latter demands absolute value and has a transcendental function, serving as the condition of the possibility of moral. Lange believes that ‘theoretical Materialism cannot, without inconsistency, rise to this standpoint, because to it this starting from the whole and from a general principle existing before all experience, is an error’ (Lange, 1881, v. 3: 304). Therefore, in morality, as in the theory of knowledge, we must overcome materialism and acknowledge the constructive and foundational role of the subject, with its drive towards theoretical and ethical ideals.

Citing this article:
Russo Krauss, Chiara. The History of Materialism. Lange, Friedrich Albert (1828–75), 2021, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC048-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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