History of materialism

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC122-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2020
Retrieved April 15, 2021, from

4. Materialism in the nineteenth century

By the nineteenth century, materialism could be said to have achieved eminence in so far as the pursuit of scientific knowledge was conducted according to naturalistic principles and free from the constraints of religious doctrine. However, in society as a whole, religious belief was still pervasive, and, in universities, philosophy was dominated by idealist thinkers hostile to materialism. There was no advance in the core philosophical teachings of materialism, but there were three crucial developments, each one very different from the others.

The first was the advent of evolutionary theory. In the wake of Darwin’s revolutionary ideas the argument for the existence of god from the design of living things began to seem grounded on very thin ice. In addition, the idea that human beings may have evolved from the same ancestors as apes, and so be themselves apelike, radically undermined the special status of the human species in religious teachings.

This first development was a powerful boost for materialist thought, but the second development foreshadowed the subsequent demise of traditional materialism in the twentieth century. Advances in science were beginning to expose the inadequacies of a materialist ontology. There were pre-existing problems. Newtonian mechanics, the greatest achievement of the Scientific Revolution, contained the idea of gravitation as a force acting instantaneously at a distance, which couldn’t be accommodated in an ontology where events were conceived ultimately as consisting of the collision of particles. Things became worse in the nineteenth century. The investigation of electricity, magnetism, heat and light, and the subsequent postulation of the electromagnetic field all suggested the inadequacy of traditional materialism.

The third development stemmed from the work of a German philosopher who came to be the principal critic of the idealist philosophy then dominant in the universities. Ludwig Feuerbach had been a follower of the idealist Hegel, but in his writings turned Hegelian philosophy on its head and declared that it is not thought or spirit that is primary but matter. He was also a critic of Christianity, but his primary historical importance lies in his influence on Karl Marx, possibly the most famous materialist in history.

Marx made oblique contributions to traditional philosophical materialism. He did not bring new ideas to the philosophical tradition. The idea of the economic foundations of society determining in some way the social and cultural superstructure calls to mind the idea of non-material things being dependent for their existence on a material basis, but his idea of the material basis is a matrix of social relations in the economic foundations of society, and so quite different from the material basis as understood in the materialist tradition. The concept of dialectical materialism may well be seen as a philosophical hypothesis about the structure of change and development in society and nature, but again, it is not specifically associated with the materialist tradition. However, he was an ardent champion of the negative claim of materialism, in so far as he was a vigorous opponent of religion, and his crucial contribution was to attach materialism to a militant radicalism that wanted to confront the existing centres of power and authority – the church and the state – in the name of the oppressed people of the world. ‘Philosophers have only interpreted the world’, he said; ‘the point is to change it’ (Marx 2000).

Citing this article:
Brown, Robin Gordon and James Ladyman. Materialism in the nineteenth century. History of materialism, 2020, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC122-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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