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Materialism is a form of philosophical monism or view which holds that matter is the fundamental substance in nature, and that all things and phenomena, including mental aspects and consciousness, are results of complex arrangements and interactions of matter. In idealism, matter is secondary to consciousness and the soul but in materialism, matter is primary and governs the existence of the consciousness and mind.
Materialism as a philosophy is held by those who maintain that existence is explainable solely in material terms, with no accounting of spirit or consciousness. Individuals who hold to this belief see the universe as a huge device held together by pieces of matter functioning in subjection to naturalistic and physical laws. Since materialism denies all concepts of Special Creation, it relies on the Theory of Evolution to explain itself, making beliefs in materialism and evolution interdependent.
Materialism is closely related to physicalism, whereby physicalism is a deeper and more complex view of how life came to be. Philosophical physicalism evolves from materialism with the discoveries of physical sciences and more sophisticated concepts like spacetime, dark matter and so on.
Axial Age Materialism developed, possibly independently, in several geographically separated regions of Eurasia during what Karl Jaspers termed the Axial Age (c. 800–200 BC). In ancient Indian philosophy, materialism developed around 600 BC with the works of Ajita Kesakambali, Payasi, Kanada, and the proponents of the Carvaka school of philosophy. Kanada became one of the early proponents of atomism. Xunzi (ca. 312–230 BC) developed a Confucian doctrine centered on realism and materialism in Ancient China.
Ancient Greek philosophers like Thales, Anaxagoras (c. 500 BC – 428 BC), Epicurus and Democritus prefigure later materialists. The Latin poem De Rerum Natura by Lucretius (ca. 99 BC – ca. 55 BC) reflects the mechanistic philosophy of Democritus and Epicurus. According to this view, all that exists is matter and void, and all phenomena result from different motions and conglomerations of base material particles called “atoms” meaning indivisibles. De Rerum Natura provides mechanistic explanations for phenomena such as erosion, evaporation, wind, and sound. Famous principles like “nothing can touch body but body” first appeared in the works of Lucretius.
Chinese thinkers of the early common era said to be materialists include Yang Xiong (53 BC – AD 18) and Wang Chong (c AD 27 – AD 100). Later Indian materialist Jayaraashi Bhatta (6th century) in his work Tattvopaplavasimha (“The upsetting of all principles”). In early 12th-century al-Andalus, the Arabian philosopher, Ibn Tufail (Abubacer), wrote discussions on materialism in his philosophical novel, Hayy ibn Yaqdhan (Philosophus Autodidactus), while vaguely foreshadowing the idea of a historical materialism.
The French cleric Pierre Gassendi (1592–1665) represented the materialist tradition in opposition to the attempts of René Descartes (1596–1650) to provide the natural sciences with dualist foundations. There followed the materialist and atheist abbé Jean Meslier (1664–1729), Julien Offray de La Mettrie, the German-French Paul-Henri Thiry Baron d’Holbach (1723–1789), the Encyclopedist Denis Diderot (1713–1784), and other French Enlightenment thinkers; as well as (in England) John “Walking” Stewart (1747–1822), whose insistence in seeing matter as endowed with a moral dimension had a major impact on the philosophical poetry of William Wordsworth (1770–1850).
The German materialist and atheist anthropologist Ludwig Feuerbach would signal a new turn in materialism through his book, The Essence of Christianity (1841), which presented a humanist account of religion as the outward projection of man’s inward nature. Feuerbach’s materialism would later heavily influence Karl Marx, who elaborated the concept of historical materialism, which is the basis for what Marx and Engels outlined as scientific socialism
Later, Vladimir Lenin outlined philosophical materialism in his book Materialism and Empiriocriticism, which connected the political conceptions put forth by his opponents to their anti-materialist philosophies. Therein, Lenin attempted to answer questions concerning matter, experience, sensations, space and time, causality, and freedom. More recently thinkers such as Gilles Deleuze have attempted to rework and strengthen classical materialist ideas. Contemporary theorists such as Manuel DeLanda, working with this reinvigorated materialism, have come to be classified as “new materialist” in persuasion.
“The ontology of materialism rested on the illusion that the kind of existence, the direct“actuality” of the world around us, can be extrapolated into the atomic range.” (Werner Heisenberg) New materialism has now become its own specialized subfield of knowledge, with courses being offered on the topic at major universities, as well as numerous conferences, edited collections, and monographs devoted to it. Jane Bennett’s book Vibrant Matter (Duke UP, 2010) has been particularly instrumental in bringing theories of monist ontology and vitalism back into a critical theoretical fold dominated by poststructuralist theories of language and discourse.
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