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What is Materialism?

Updated on May 15, 2010

Materialism in philosophy is the view that everything that exists is either composed of matter or depends on matter for its existence. Materialism is generally contrasted with idealism, which holds that ideas are real and stresses the importance of the mind and soul. Materialists have generally believed that the only things that are real are the things that a person can perceive through his senses and that all events in the universe can be explained by scientific law. Basic to materialism is the denial of the existence of a God who directs the universe and of the immortality of the individual soul.

One of the earliest materialists was Democritus, a Greek philosopher who lived in the 4th century B.C. He taught that everything in the world is composed of minute bits of matter, which he named atoms, and that all events could be explained by the motion of the atoms in space. Similar views were taught by another Greek philosopher, Epicurus, and, in the Roman world, by Lucretius, notably in his poem De rerum natura ("On the Nature of Things").

During the Middle Ages the Christian world view, which is idealistic, rather than materialistic, was universally accepted in Europe, and it was not until the Renaissance period, beginning in about the 1400's, that materialism began to be revived in Western thought. During the next few centuries, materialism gained influence because of the rise of the modern physical sciences, which were concerned with explaining the world in terms of matter and motion. Materialism seemed the obvious philosophy through which men could organize the findings of the new science into a consistent view of the world.

By the 17th and 18th centuries, materialism was advocated by Thomas Hobbes, Pierre Gassendi, Julien de la Mettrie, and Baron Paul d'Holbach.

A reaction against materialism developed during the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly in the works of such idealistic philosophers as George Berkeley and Georg Hegel. After Hegel's death in 1831, however, materialism enjoyed a strong revival. This was due in part to the Industrial Revolution, which focused men's attention on the material conditions of life among the poor. It was concern with the material means of economic production, for example, that inspired Karl Marx to develop his philosophy of dialectical materialism, the official philosophy of Communism.

Science during the 19th century also tended to encourage materialism as a philosophy. Charles Darwin's theory of biological evolution, for example, led many people to believe that man does not possess a unique soul but is merely a more highly complex form of life that evolved from the lower animals and could be explained in terms of purely physical forces.

The physical forces with which science dealt were at first conceived of as mechanical, that is, as attractions or repulsions between bodies moving through space in accordance with fixed laws. Late in the 19th century and in the 20th century, however, the old idea of matter as a solid body gave way to a more complicated view of matter as energy or a field of force. New discoveries in physics have led a number of philosophers to prefer the broader term "naturalism" to describe the philosophy that the real world is the world of nature studied by science.

The Greek philosopher Democritus, an early materialist. Photography by Jean-Louis Lascoux.
The Greek philosopher Democritus, an early materialist. Photography by Jean-Louis Lascoux.


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    • terrecar profile image


      9 years ago from Maryland

      Excellent explanation of materialism vs. idealism.

      There is a "third way", if you will: Dualism (or substance dualism), as proposed by Descartes or more recently Alvin Plantinga.

    • f_hruz profile image


      9 years ago from Toronto, Ontario, Canada

      Dialectical matetrialism helps explain quite well, how the ones in power use religion, nationalism and other forms of mass indoctrination to get average people indoctrinated to permit themselves to be used in wars and not resist the distruction of their own humanity even today ...

    • munirahmadmughal profile image


      10 years ago from Lahore, Pakistan.

      "What is Materialism?"

      The hub is good and informative.

      The good in it is inquisitiveness of man to kow the reality, the truth.

      The information is that man has its limits.

      Worship is the right of the Being beyond whom is none and He is Omnopotent, All-Knowing, All Powerful, Creeator of all,Sustainer of all, Reckoner of all. He says "Be" and it becomes. Spirit is out of His commands. All are answerable to Him, He is answerable to none.

      Peace be on all who conduct well.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      We live to see and study nature and how things where made. I sometimes don't believe what writers normally immagine before their write-ups.It is so wonderful how words are join together.Where do they get these interlectual brain.Wonders shall never end, and L believe some of us will also join you up there if we are permitted.thank you.

    • philosophos profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago

      You've gone off on quite a tangent there loua.

    • loua profile image


      10 years ago from Elsewhere, visiting Earth ~ the segregated community planet

      You have it quite backwards like a quark...

    • loua profile image


      10 years ago from Elsewhere, visiting Earth ~ the segregated community planet

      philosophos, An interesting article, that prompts the comment~

      View: Materialism in philosophy is the view that everything that exists is either composed of matter or depends on matter for its existence. Materialism is generally contrasted with idealism, which holds that ideas are real and stresses the importance of the mind and soul.

      Opinion: By these contrasted definitions the matter strikes at an adjacent spot and does not clarify that the mind is one of the three forms of being as is body and soul... They are the trinity of thought form expressing being in their adjacent universes...

      Materialist have been defined in accordance with selective perspective an in such have eluded a finite definition. Here is an analytical perspective ~

      Matter = material and element as


      bourgeois-conformist = capitalist-materialism and greed


      as opposed to a metaphysical perspective considering the three dimensions of self~

      materialism = body id-universe-measure

      idealism = mind ego-universe-measure

      realism = soul superego-universe-measure

      Matter = mass energy where metaphysics is our thought and animation-universe where:

      By the materialist mentality, today one's survival prowess is measured in dollars; where lifestyles are envied and death is foreclosure and bankruptcy... Actual death is an innocuous affair brought about by social economic disease of stress related illnesses... This modern threat balance gauntlet can only be challenged, fought, and won in the realm of thought, word and deed with swords in terms of one's desire, emotion and will that protect every purpose motive and intent of life, for it is a metaphysical affair, beyond the intelligence and weapons of the basic beast...

    • fatfist profile image


      11 years ago

      I've heard conflicting views about this question: Do materialists actually concede that the mind exists as an abstraction of the physical brain or do they concede there is no mind? By mind I don't imply spirit. A mind only exists by virtue of the physical activity of the brain.


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