AskDefine | Define materialist

Dictionary Definition



1 someone with great regard for worldly possessions
2 someone who thinks that nothing exists but physical matter [syn: irreligionist]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. Someone who is materialistic.


  • The real irony is that "today's generation has become the little materialists and 'fame whores' their boomer parents so reviled. - Best of the American columnists: Are our children a generation of rampant egotists, The Week, Issue 605, page 15.

Extensive Definition

The philosophy of materialism holds that the only thing that can be truly proven to exist is matter, and is considered a form of physicalism. Fundamentally, all things are composed of material and all phenomena are the result of material interactions; therefore, matter is the only substance. As a theory, materialism belongs to the class of monist ontology. As such, it is different from ontological theories based on dualism or pluralism. For singular explanations of the phenomenal reality, materialism would be in contrast to idealism.


The view is perhaps best understood in its opposition to the doctrines of immaterial substance applied to the mind historically, famously by René Descartes. However, by itself materialism says nothing about how material substance should be characterized. In practice it is frequently assimilated to one variety of physicalism or another.
Materialism is often associated with the methodological principle of reductionism, according to which the objects or phenomena individuated at one level of description, if they are genuine, must be explicable in terms of the objects or phenomena at some other level of description -- typically, a more general level than the reduced one. Non-reductive materialism explicitly rejects this notion, however, taking the material constitution of all particulars to be consistent with the existence of real objects, properties, or phenomena not explicable in the terms canonically used for the basic material constituents. Jerry Fodor influentially argues this view, according to which empirical laws and explanations in "special sciences" like psychology or geology are invisible from the perspective of basic physics. A vigorous literature has grown up around the relation between these views.
Modern philosophical materialists extend the definition of matter to include other scientifically observable entities such as energy, forces, and the curvature of space. However philosophers such as Mary Midgley suggest that the concept of "matter" is elusive and poorly defined.
Materialism typically contrasts with dualism, phenomenalism, idealism, vitalism and dual-aspect monism. Its materiality can in some ways be linked to the concept of Determinism, as espoused by fellow Enlightenment thinkers.
Materialism has been criticised by religious thinkers opposed to it, who regard it as a spiritually empty philosophy. Marxism also uses materialism to refer to a "materialist conception of history", which is not concerned with metaphysics but centers on the roughly empirical world of human activity (practice, including labor) and the institutions created, reproduced, or destroyed by that activity (see materialist conception of history).

History of materialism

In Ancient Indian philosophy, materialism developed around 600 BCE with the works of Ajita Kesakambali, Payasi, Kanada, and the proponents of the Cārvāka school of philosophy. Kanada was one of the early proponents of atomism. The Nyaya-Vaisesika school (600 BCE - 100 BCE) developed one of the earliest forms of atomism. The tradition was carried forward by Buddhist atomism and the Jaina school.
Xun Zi developed a Confucian doctrine oriented on realism and materialism in Ancient China. Other notable Chinese materialists of this time include Yang Xiong and Wang Chong.
Ancient Greek philosophers like Thales, Parmenides, Anaxagoras, Democritus, Epicurus, and even Aristotle prefigure later materialists. The poem De Rerum Natura by Lucretius recounts the mechanistic philosophy of Democritus and Epicurus. According to this view, all that exists is matter and void, and all phenomena are the result of different motions and conglomerations of base material particles called "atoms." De Rerum Natura provides mechanistic explanations for phenomena, like erosion, evaporation, wind, and sound, that would not become accepted for more than 1500 years. Famous principles like "nothing can come from nothing" and "nothing can touch body but body" first appeared in the works of Lucretius.
Later Indian materialist Jayaraashi Bhatta (6th century CE) in his work Tattvopaplavasimha ("the Upsetting of all principles") refuted the Nyaya Sutra epistemology. The materialistic Cārvāka philosophy appears to have died out some time after 1400 CE.
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.
Later on, Thomas Hobbes and Pierre Gassendi represent the materialist tradition, in opposition to René Descartes' attempts to provide the natural sciences with dualist foundations. Later materialists included Denis Diderot and other French enlightenment thinkers, as well as Ludwig Feuerbach, and, in England, the pedestrian traveller John "Walking" Stewart, whose insistence that all matter is endowed with a moral dimension had a major impact on the philosophical poetry of William Wordsworth.
Schopenhauer wrote that "...materialism is the philosophy of the subject who forgets to take account of himself." (The World as Will and Representation, II, Ch. 1). He claimed that an observing subject can only know material objects through the mediation of the brain and its particular organization. The way that the brain knows determines the way that material objects are experienced. "Everything objective, extended, active, and hence everything material, is regarded by materialism as so solid a basis for its explanations that a reduction to this (especially if it should ultimately result in thrust and counter-thrust) can leave nothing to be desired. But all this is something that is given only very indirectly and conditionally, and is therefore only relatively present, for it has passed through the machinery and fabrication of the brain, and hence has entered the forms of time, space, and causality, by virtue of which it is first of all presented as extended in space and operating in time." (ibid., I, §7)
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, turning the idealist dialectics of Georg Hegel upside down, provided materialism with a view on processes of quantitative and qualitative change called dialectical materialism, and with a materialist account of the course of history, known as historical materialism.
Many current and recent philosophers — e.g. Dennett, Quine, Davidson, Searle, Fodor and Kim — operate within a broadly physicalist or materialist framework, producing rival accounts of how best to accommodate mind functionalism, anomalous monism, identity theory and so on.
In recent years, Paul and Patricia Churchland have advocated a more extreme position, eliminativist materialism, which holds that mental phenomena simply do not exist at all -- that talk of the mental reflects a totally spurious "folk psychology" that simply has no basis in fact, something like the way that folk science speaks of demon-caused illness.

Defining matter

The nature and definition of matter have been subject to much debate, as have other key concepts in science and philosophy. Is there a single kind of matter which everything is made of (hyle), or multiple kinds? Is matter a continuous substance capable of expressing multiple forms (hylomorphism), or a number of discrete, unchanging constituents (atomism)?
Does it have intrinsic properties (substance theory), or is it lacking them (prima materia)?
Without question science has made unexpected discoveries about matter. Some paraphrase departures from traditional or common-sense concepts of matter as "disproving the existence of matter". However, most physical scientists take the view that the concept of matter has merely changed, rather than being eliminated.
One challenge to the traditional concept of matter as tangible "stuff" is the rise of field physics in the 19th century. However the conclusion that materialism is false may be premature. Relativity shows that matter and energy (including the spatially distributed energy of fields) are interchangeable. This enables the ontological view that energy is prima materia and matter is one of its forms. On the other hand, quantum field theory models fields as exchanges of particlesphotons for electromagnetic fields and so on. On this view it could be said that fields are "really matter".
All known solid, liquid, and gaseous substances are composed of protons, neutrons and electrons. All three are fermions or spin-half particles, whereas the particles that mediate fields in quantum field theory are bosons. Thus matter can be said to divide into a more tangible fermionic kind and a less tangible bosonic kind. However it is now known that less than 5% of the physical composition of the universe is made up of such "matter", and the majority of the universe is composed of Dark Matter and Dark Energy - with no agreement amongst scientists about what these are made of. This obviously refutes the traditional materialism that held that the only things that exist are things composed of the kind of matter with which we are broadly familiar ("traditional matter") - which was anyway under great strain as noted above from Relativity and quantum field theory. But if the definition of "matter" is extended to "anything whose existence can be inferred from the observed behaviour of traditional matter" then there is no reason in principle why entities whose existence materialists normally deny should not be considered as "matter"
Some philosophers feel that these dichotomies necessitate a switch from materialism to physicalism. Others use materialism and physicalism interchangeably.

Criticism and alternatives

A number of philosophers and scientists are highly critical of materialism.
Theologian-philosopher Alvin Plantinga criticises it, and Theologian-philosopher Keith Ward suggests that materialism is rare amongst contemporary UK philosophers: "Looking around my philosopher colleagues in Britain, virtually all of whom I know at least from their published work, I would say that very few of them are materialists.".

Religious and spiritual objections

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, materialism denies the existence of both God and the soul. It is therefore incompatible with most world religions including Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and arguably some schools of Buddhism.


In most of Hinduism, Buddhism, & Transcendentalism, all matter is believed to be an illusion called Maya, blinding us from knowing the truth. Maya is the limited, purely physical and mental reality in which our everyday consciousness has become entangled. Maya gets destroyed for a person when they perceive Brahma with transendental knowledge.
Kant argued against all three of materialism, normal idealism (which he contrasts with his "transcendental idealism") and dualism. However, Kant also argues that change and time require an enduring substrate., and does so in connection with his Refutation of Idealism
Postmodern/poststructuralist thinkers also express a skepticism about any all-encompassing metaphysical scheme.
Philosopher Mary Midgley, among others , argues that materialism is a self-refuting idea, at least in its eliminative form. While some critics hold that matter is an ill-defined concept, it is not clear that substitutes, such as Spirit, or Hegelian Geist fare any better.

Other ontologies

Bundle Theory. It can be argued that it is the properties of material bodies, such as size and shape, which are perceived, and not the material substrate itself. Locke said we "know not what" the basic substance is.As Berkeley wrote "I acknowledge it is possible we might perceive all things just as we do now, though there was no Matter in the world; neither can I conceive, if there be Matter, how it should produce any idea in our minds". If mind-independent properties (properly speaking property-instances or tropes) are held to exist in association with each other but without a material substrate, bundle theory results. If bundle theory is shown to be illogical or inconceivable, the existence of a substrate is thereby demonstrated conceptually, despite the unpercievability of matter per se.
Idealism. An argument for idealism, such as those of Hegel and Berkeley is ipso facto an argument against materialism. Matter can be argued to be redundant, as in bundle theory, and mind-independent properties can in turn be reduced to subjective percepts.
Dualism. If matter is seen as necessary to explain the physical world, but incapable of explaining mind, dualism results.
Emergence, Holism and Process philosophy are some of the approaches that seek to ameliorate the perceived shortcomings of traditional (especially mechanistic) materialism without abandoning materialism entirely.

Materialism as methodology

Some critics object to materialism as part of an overly skeptical, narrow or reductivist approach to theorizing, rather than to the ontological claim that matter is the only substance. Particle physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne objects to what he calls promissory materialism — claims that materialistic science will eventually be able to explain phenomena it has not so far been able to explain. He prefers dual-aspect monism to materialism.
The psychologist Imants Barušs suggests that "materialists tend to indiscriminately apply a 'pebbles in a box' schema to explanations of reality even though such a schema is known to be incorrect in general for physical phenomena. Thus, materialism cannot explain matter, let alone anomalous phenomena or subjective experience , but remains entrenched in academia largely for political reasons." (Compare with Charles Fort)


  • Churchland, Paul (1981). Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes. The Philosophy of Science. Boyd, Richard; P. Gasper; J. D. Trout. Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press.
  • Flanagan, Owen (1991). The Science of the Mind. 2nd edition Cambridge Massachusetts, MIT Press.
  • Fodor, J.A. (1974) Special Sciences, Synthese, Vol.28.
  • Gunasekara, Victor A. (2001) "Buddhism and the Modern World". Basic Buddhism: A Modern Introduction to the Buddha's Teaching". 18 January 2008 .
  • Kim, J. (1994) Multiple Realization and the Metaphysics of Reduction, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 52.
  • Lange, Friedrich A.,(1925) The History of Materialism. New York, Harcourt, Brace, & Co.
  • Moser, P. K.; J. D. Trout, Ed. (1995) Contemporary Materialism: A Reader. New York, Routledge.
  • Schopenhauer, Arthur, (1969) The World as Will and Representation. New York, Dover Publications, Inc.
  • Vitzthum, Richard C. (1995) Materialism: An Affirmative History and Definition. Amhert, New York, Prometheus Books.
  • Buchner, L. (1920). Force and Matter. New York, Peter Eckler Publishing CO.
  • La Mettrie, Man The machine''.
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