DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC098-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 30, 2023, from

3. Modern materialism

During the first half of the seventeenth century the atomistic materialism of the Greco-Roman period was revived in a paradoxical way by Pierre Gassendi. He appreciated the scientific interpretation of nature and the methods of science but, at the same time, preserved the Christian idea of the immortality of the soul and conceived of God as the creator of the atoms. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes presented a systematic theory of nature and human nature that was largely, though not completely, materialistic. Apart from attributing ‘drive’ or conatus to human action and sensation, Hobbes virtually banished the concept of ‘incorporeal substance’. In theory and sentiment Hobbes was a materialist thinker, although not a consistent one. The early eighteenth century saw the publication of the first of many works that defended a materialistic and mechanistic interpretation of mankind’s nature on the basis of physiological theory. In L’Homme machine (1748) Julien de La Mettrie, a philosophical physician, described human beings as self-moving mechanisms and sought a neurological basis for mental activity. An advance on previous attempts to develop a systematic materialism is Paul H.D. d’Holbach’s 1770 Système de la nature (The System of Nature). Here, a consistent naturalistic materialism is expounded in that cognitive and emotive states are reduced to internal material ‘modifications of the brain’. Though not calling it such, d’Holbach presents a form of physiological determinism.

With the rapid growth of the sciences, the astronomical discoveries of Copernicus, the theories of Galileo, and the systematic conception of nature in the physical theory of Isaac Newton, naturalistic interpretations of a variety of phenomena became more and more prevalent. This scientifically founded picture of reality lent greater plausibility to the principles of materialistic theory. The astronomer and mathematician Pierre Laplace (1749–1827) produced a sophisticated astronomical theory which, he thought, illustrated that a supermind, knowing all the states and conditions of every existing entity, could predict the total state of the cosmos in the next moment. When Napoleon I was shown a copy of Laplace’s work, he is supposed to have commented on the absence of any mention of God. Laplace replied, ‘I have no need of that hypothesis’. Laplace’s mechanistic materialism became, in the hands of many thinkers, the definitive explanatory principle of all events.

The formulation of the biological theory of evolution by means of natural selection by Charles Darwin virtually eliminated teleological explanations of biological phenomena and thereby buttressed material and physical interpretations of organic development. With the advances in chemistry achieved by Lavoisier (1743–94) in France and John Dalton (1766–1844) in England, the reductive analysis of natural phenomena to chemical substances, elements and processes bolstered the empirical, naturalistic and materialistic interpretations of phenomena. During the nineteenth century many philosophical thinkers sought to build theories on the foundation of scientific facts, principles or laws. The historical materialism developed by Marx and Engels sought to formulate laws of social, economic and historical development, but did not defend metaphysical materialism (see Dialectical materialism). The general appeal of materialism in the nineteenth century is shown by the popularity of the 1855 work by Ludwig Büchner, Kraft und Stoff (Force and Matter), which passed through sixteen editions. Although philosophically crude, it is an accessible compendium of popular materialism. In 1852, Jacob Moleschott had defended the reduction of force to matter, the doctrine of the conservation of matter, and a species of objective relativism in Der Kreislauf des Lebens (The Cycle of Life). Following the ill-chosen analogy between the brain and thought and the digestive system in Jean Cabanis’ Rapports due physique et du moral de l’homme (Relations of the Physical and the Mental in Man) (1802), Karl Vogt proclaimed that the brain ‘secretes’ thought the way the liver secretes bile. Despite such excursions into ‘vulgar materialism’, the nineteenth century became a period of intense debate for scientists and philosophers alike in regard to the limits of scientific knowledge and the epistemological problems of metaphysical materialism. This was fuelled by a Neo-Kantian movement which, particularly in Geschichte des Materialismus (History of Materialism) (1865) by F.A. Lange, held that materialism is a useful methodological principle in science, but questionable as a reductionist metaphysics. The concepts and postulates of science are theoretical entities or conventional notions formed by the mind. Their usefulness does not, according to Lange, warrant their role as bases for materialism.

Citing this article:
Stack, George J.. Modern materialism. Materialism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC098-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2023 Routledge.

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