What Is Materialism? - History and Definition

The beginning of a manuscript of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura
The beginning of a manuscript of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura, currently in the collection of the Cambridge University Library. This is not one of the manuscripts with independent authority for the transmission of the text of Lucretius. This manuscript was created in 1563 in Paris. LegesRomanorum / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

What is Materialism?

Materialism is the idea that everything is either made only of matter or is ultimately dependent upon matter for its existence and nature. It is possible for a philosophy to be materialistic and still accord spirit a (secondary or dependent) place, but most forms of materialism tend to reject the existence of spirit or anything non-physical.

Important Books on Materialism

De Rerum Natura, by Lucretius
Systeme de la nature, by d’Holbach

Important Philosophers of Materialism

Parmenides of Elea
Thomas Hobbes
Paul Heinrich Dietrich d’Holbach

What is Matter?

If materialism argues that matter is the only or primary thing that exists, what is matter supposed to be? Materialists disagree on this, but generally accept that something is material if it has physical properties: size, shape, color, electrical charge, spatial and temporal location, etc. The list of attributes is open-ended and disagreements tend to be in what qualifies as a “physical property.” It can be, therefore, difficult to identify the boundaries of the class of material things.

Materialism and the Mind

A common critique of materialism involves the mind: are mental events material or themselves the result of matter, or are they the result of something immaterial, like a soul? Consciousness is not usually though of as a property of material things — atoms and tables are not conscious, for example.

How is it possible then for particular configurations of matter to give rise to consciousness?

Materialism and Determinism

Because materialists only accept the existence or primacy of material things, they also only accept the existence or primacy of material explanations for events. Whatever happens in the world, it must be explained and explainable by reference to matter.

Materialism thus tends towards determinism: because there are material causes for every event, then every event follows necessarily from its causes.

Materialism and Science

Materialism is closely associated and aligned with the natural sciences. Modern science involves the study of the material world around us, learning about material events, and theorizing about their material causes. Scientists are materialists in that they only study the material world, although they may personally believe in non-material entities. Science in the past has tried to incorporate vitalist ideas and the supernatural, but those efforts failed and have since been discarded.

Atheism and Materialism

Atheists are usually materialists of some sort, rejecting the idea that there exists anything independent of the workings of matter and energy. Materialism often entails atheism unless a person believes in a purely physical god, but atheism does not entail materialism. It may be hard to believe in a god in a materialistic philosophy, but an atheistic philosophy need not be materialistic.