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Materialism is the philosophy that explains the nature of reality and the world – physical, social, cultural, etc. – in terms of matter. It asserts that reality and the universe are first and foremost material; they exist outside of human thought and ideas and are independent of the human mind. The human intellect can come to know the world of matter through experience and sense perception and can interact and shape the material world; but the world of material existence is primary. Philosophical materialism stands in opposition to the philosophy of idealism that states that ideas, thought, and mind are the essential nature of all reality and the world of matter is a reflection of mind, thought, and ideas.
Materialism, the philosophical outlook of science, has been an important philosophy in eras of scientific development in ancient times as early as the fourth century BCE among Greek philosophers, and in modern times in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Newton’s scientific study of nature and the emerging social science of the Enlightenment Philosophes.
The centrality of materialism in shaping modern social theory emerged in the 1700s and 1800s. Several important streams of social thought informed by the materialist worldview and the scientific method developed, namely the mechanical materialism of Feuerbach, and the dialectical and historical materialism (i.e., historical materialism) of Marx and Engels. The empiricism and positivism of Saint-Simon, Comte, and Durkheim presented itself as science based in materialist methodology, but was actually rooted in philosophical idealism.
Mechanical materialism analyzes social life and even idea systems such as religion in terms of material conditions, but is static in its overall worldview and offers no theory of human agency or future beyond what was then emerging (i.e., industrial capitalism). Social theory and research in the mechanical materialist tradition remains an important tendency in sociology, and examines materially based social problems, especially various forms of social inequality and domination.
Historical materialism critically analyzes capitalism and its antecedents. It embodies a dialectical image of the social world and a dialectical method, and views the structures and processes of capitalism as a transient stage of human social development giving way to its negation through contradictions and antagonisms that give rise to socialism and communism. Historical materialism as a revolutionary theory and practice in the twentieth century has been located primarily in political struggles and building socialist states outside the academy.
Throughout history historical materialists have lifted up as their mantra in response to mechanical materialists Marx’s famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point however is to change it” (Marx & Engels 1986: 30).
- Hennessy, R. & Ingraham, C. (eds.) (1997) Materialist Feminism: A Reader in Class. Routledge, New York.
- Marx, K. & Engels, F. (1986) Selected Works. International Publishers, New York.
- Oppenheimer, M., Murray, M., & Levine, R. (eds.) (1991) Radical Sociologists and the Movement: Experiences, Lessons, and Legacies. Temple University Press, Philadelphia.