History of materialism

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

3. Materialism in the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment

In the scholastic, theological philosophy of the Middle Ages, material things came to be understood as things that took up space, that were ‘extended’ in space. The Latin term for this was res extensa, material thing, and this stood in contrast to res cogitans, thinking thing. So reality was thought to include these two types of substance, and while there were differences in the theories of different philosophers, there was a near consensus about the existence of these two kinds. Materialist philosophy, which would later deny the existence of thinking substance, has no presence in the Western philosophical world of the Middle Ages.

At the time Lucretius’ poem was discovered, European society was dominated by Christian, specifically Catholic, thought. However, from 1400 to 1800 this pre-eminence was severely shaken. Advances in mathematics, astronomy, and physical sciences were encouraging the growth of a new mentality which was seeking a naturalistic understanding of reality, and many discoveries were in evident conflict with biblical teaching. Lucretius’ poem had a central place in this transformation. Within a hundred years of its being rediscovered, it was read widely among the European intellectual elite, and admired by many great thinkers including Montaigne and Francis Bacon.

The scientific method can be seen as the formalisation and refinement of materialist epistemology. Observation, experimentation, hypothesising, and testing – the basic elements of the scientific method – captured precisely the outlook of the materialist philosophers, rejecting the idea of knowledge through revelation and sacred texts, and explanation in terms of supernatural forces. The overarching perspective of the new physical science came to be called the mechanical philosophy, in which the world was seen as like a mechanical clock whose inner workings were to be investigated and described. This was materialism in action, although many of the great scientists of this period were devout religious believers.

With regard to the negative claim of philosophical materialism, and the associated critique of religion and the religious establishment, the authority of the church at the time discouraged open avowal of materialist and atheistic belief. It is probable that Hume was an atheist, and he presented very powerful arguments questioning the probability of miracles, and rebutted an argument from Newton who argued for the existence of god with the claim that the structure and form of living beings imply the existence of a creator.

Perhaps the most comprehensive statement of the materialist philosophy and worldview came in 1770 with the publication of The System of Nature by Baron d’Holbach. Tellingly, he thought it prudent to publish the work anonymously.

Citing this article:
Brown, Robin Gordon and James Ladyman. Materialism in the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. 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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