Access to the full content is only available to members of institutions that have purchased access. If you belong to such an institution, please log in or find out more about how to order.


History of materialism

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC122-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2020
Retrieved June 15, 2024, from

Article Summary

Materialism is an ontological theory, that is, a theory about the kind of things that exist. In its simplest form, it can be understood to be making one claim that has two aspects. The claim is that only material things exist; this has, first, the positive aspect that material things exist, and second, the negative aspect that nothing else exists apart from material things. Thus existence is granted to sticks and stones, and denied to souls, spirits, heaven and hell, and the possibility of an afterlife.

Materialism, then, has a close connection with atheism, but it is important to distinguish materialism from atheism, for two different kinds of reason. First, many of the materialists in the ancient world believed in gods, which were for them not spiritual entities but rather constituted by matter like everything else. Second, there were philosophical traditions that denied the existence of any gods but which did believe in other spiritual entities like souls.

Materialism emerged in the first millennium bce in various parts of the world. In that period there were no sharp divisions between philosophy, science, and religion. Materialism was the principle alternative to religious conceptions of reality, its negative aspect having primary significance in this context.

From the difference between materialist and religious conceptions of reality there arose different approaches to epistemology and methodology. Whereas the religious worldview incorporated supernatural explanations of natural phenomena, materialism always looked for naturalistic explanations rather than, for example, those that referred to the supposed emotional states of the locally popular supernatural beings. Religious traditions commonly held sacred texts to be sources of knowledge, both about the world and about how people should live their lives. In contrast, materialist thinkers believed in the primary importance of the observation of nature through our sense organs in the search for knowledge of the world. With regard to morality, the early materialists such as Democritus and Epicurus thought people should seek pleasure and happiness in life, and that there were no grounds to fear retribution or punishment after death, and no reason to obey injunctions about behaviour based on religious beliefs (other than the often realistic fear of worldly retribution or punishment). Later materialist thought was not directly associated with any specific ethical perspective.

Citing this article:
Brown, Robin Gordon and James Ladyman. History of materialism, 2020, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC122-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

Related Articles