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in philosophy, a widely held system of thought that explains the nature of the world as entirely dependent on matter, the fundamental and final reality beyond which nothing need be sought. Certain periods in history, usually those associated with scientific advance, are marked by strong materialistic tendencies. The doctrine was formulated as early as the 4th cent. B.C. by DemocritusDemocritus
, c.460–c.370 B.C., Greek philosopher of Abdera; pupil of Leucippus. His theory of the nature of the physical world was the most radical and scientific attempted up to his time.
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, in whose system of atomism all phenomena are explained by atoms and their motions in space. Other early Greek teaching, such as that of EpicurusEpicurus
, 341–270 B.C., Greek philosopher, b. Samos; son of an Athenian colonist. He claimed to be self-taught, although tradition states that he was schooled in the systems of Plato and Democritus by his father and various philosophers.
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 and StoicismStoicism
, school of philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium (in Cyprus) c.300 B.C. The first Stoics were so called because they met in the Stoa Poecile [Gr.,=painted porch], at Athens, a colonnade near the Agora, to hear their master Zeno lecture.
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, also conceived of reality as material in its nature. The theory was later renewed in the 17th cent. by Pierre GassendiGassendi, Pierre
, 1592–1655, French philosopher and scientist. A teacher and priest, Gassendi taught at Digne, Aix, and the Royal College at Paris and held several church offices. He ranked with the leading mathematicians of his day.
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 and Thomas Hobbes, who believed that the sphere of consciousness essentially belongs to the corporeal world, or the senses. The investigations of John Locke were adapted to materialist positions by David Hartley and Joseph Priestley. They were a part of the materialist development of the 18th cent., strongly manifested in France, where the most extreme thought was that of Julien de La MettrieLa Mettrie, Julien Offray de
, 1709–51, French physician and philosopher. On the basis of personal observation he claimed that psychical activity is purely the result of the organic construction of the brain and nervous system and developed this theory in
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. The culminating expression of materialist thought in this period was the Système de la nature (1770), for which Baron d'HolbachHolbach, Paul Henri Thiry, baron d'
, Ger. Paul Heinrich Dietrich, Baron von Holbach , 1723–89, French philosopher, one of the Encyclopedists. Although a native of the Palatinate, he lived in Paris from childhood.
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 is considered chiefly responsible. A reaction against materialism was felt in the later years of the 18th cent., but the middle of the 19th cent. brought a new movement, largely psychological in interpretation. Two of the modern developments of materialism are dialectical materialismdialectical materialism,
official philosophy of Communism, based on the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, as elaborated by G. V. Plekhanov, V. I. Lenin, and Joseph Stalin.
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 and physicalism, a position formulated by some members of the Logical Positivist movement. Closely related to materialism in origin are naturalism and sensualism.


See D. M. Armstrong, Materialist Theory of the Mind (1968); P. M. Churchland, Scientific Realism and the Plasticity of the Mind (1979) and Matter and Consciousness (1984).

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materialism (PHILOSOPHY)

  1. the doctrine that nothing exists that is not ‘matter’.
  2. the doctrine that ‘matter’ is primary and thought or consciousness is secondary
For either of these definitions the major contrast is IDEALISM. However, problems exist in saying exactly of what ‘matter’ consists, especially given the considerable uncertainty surrounding many of the entities, forces, etc. which populate modern scientific thinking. It has been suggested that the best way to identify the issues that lead to a materialist position (in sense 1 or 2) is to say what materialism opposes. One central position is an opposition to DUALISM, especially a dualism of MIND and BODY (see also DESCARTES). A main argument for opposition is the obscurity of notions such as Descartes’ notion of the ‘mind’. as an ‘immaterial’, non-extended, ‘thinking substance’. The position of ‘identity theorists’, for example, is that any ‘mind state’ assumes a corresponding neurophysiological state (even if it is recognized that a particular mind state can never in practice be reduced analytically). Thus the goal of materialism is to head off any claims for a wholly separate, wholly immaterial realm. At the same time, the mind may be conceived (as for Bhaskar, 1979, ‘emergent powers materialism’) as a substance which is neither material or immaterial; not a substance, but a complex of non-reducible powers. Compare also REALISM. See also HISTORICAL MATERIALISM and CULTURAL MATERIALISM, which usually involve MATERIALISM in senses l and 2 , but are more concerned to make a statement about the fundamental nature of the causation of social phenomena:
  1. for historical materialism, the MODE OF PRODUCTION (the FORCES and the RELATIONS OF PRODUCTION) is the primary determinant of the constitutive role of human consciousness in producing and reproducing social life;
  2. for cultural materialism, ecological and environmental forces are decisive. see also DIALECTICAL MATERIALISM.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



one of the two main trends in philosophy, resolving the basic question of philosophy in favor of the primacy of matter, nature, being, the physical, and the objective and regarding mind, or thought, as a property of matter. Materialism stands in contrast to idealism, which takes spirit, idea, mind, thought, the psychic, and the subjective as its point of departure. Recognition of the primacy of matter implies that it was not created but always existed, that space and time are objectively existing forms of its being, that thought is inseparable from matter that thinks, and that the unity of the world consists in its materiality. In answering the second aspect of the basic question of philosophy—whether the world is knowable—materialism holds that reality is adequately reflected in human consciousness and that the universe and its laws are knowable.

The term “materialism” was first used in the 17th century, primarily in the sense of physical concepts of matter (R. Boyle); later it was used in a more general philosophical sense by Leibniz, who contrasted materialism with idealism. Marx and Engels were the first to give a precise definition of materialism. Philosophers, wrote Engels, had been divided into “two great camps,” depending on how they answered the question of the relation between thinking and being. “Those who asserted the primacy of spirit to nature … comprised the camp of idealism. The others, who regarded nature as primary, belong to the various schools of materialism” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 21, p. 283). Lenin also subscribed to this conception of materialism (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 18, p. 98).

The opponents of materialism use incorrect terminology in referring to materialism.

(1) Those who deny or doubt the existence of anything apart from sensations call materialism “metaphysics,” since materialism recognizes the existence of the external world. On the basis of this argument the term “metaphysics” is also applied to objective idealism and fideism, which recognize the existence of absolute spirit or god apart from the experience of individual human beings. Thus, materialism becomes confused with idealism.

(2) Materialism has been called “realism,” since it recognizes the reality of the external world. Noting that the term “realism” is sometimes employed as the antithesis of idealism, Lenin wrote: “Following Engels, I use only the term ’materialism’ in this sense, and consider it the sole correct terminology, especially since the term ’realism’ has been bedraggled by the positivists and the other muddleheads who oscillate between materialism and idealism” (ibid, p. 56).

(3) In an attempt to reduce materialism to the level of people’s everyday, nonphilosophical belief in the reality of the external world, the enemies of materialism call it “naive realism.”

(4) Equating the entire materialist trend in philosophy with mechanical materialism, some critics of materialism call it mechanism. Engels noted that the erroneous equating of the materialistic with the mechanistic comes from Hegel, who sought to derogate materialism with the epithet “mechanistic.”

(5) Frequently the word “materialism” is used arbitrarily in a pejorative sense. “By the word ‘materialism’ the philistine understands gluttony, drunkenness, lust of the eye, lust of the flesh, arrogance, cupidity, avarice, covetousness, profit-hunting and stock-exchange swindling—in short, all the filthy vices in which he himself indulges in private” (F. Engels, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 21, p. 290).

Materialist schools. Materialism has been described from the most varied standpoints and as it relates to various other social phenomena, thus providing the basis for different classifications.

(1) In the progressive development of materialism two historical epochs may be distinguished: pre-Marxist and Marxist materialism. Pre-Marxist materialism encompasses all forms of materialism that historically preceded the emergence of dialectical materialism. Strictly speaking, the materialist schools that have arisen since the appearance of Marxism cannot be included in the pre-Marxist category, since they do not represent a further development of materialism and occupy a special place in the history of materialism. There are two points of view on the chronological boundary dividing the pre-Marxist and Marxist epochs of materialism. According to the first viewpoint, this boundary, common to all countries and peoples, was the mid-1840’s, when Marxism emerged. In that case, however, in countries where the working-class movement developed later, for example, Russia and the Oriental countries, the development of pre-Marxist materialism within those countries would have to be artificially divided into two distinct stages. According to the second point of view, pre-Marxist materialism is the materialism prevalent in a given country prior to the coming of Marxism.

(2) The only consistent materialism is Marxist materialism. Lenin called Marx “the founder of modern materialism, which is immeasurably richer in content and incomparably more consistent than all preceding forms of materialism” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 18, p. 357).

Inconsistency in materialism manifests itself in various ways, (a) When the materialist line is followed in the interpretation of nature but social phenomena are treated from an idealist standpoint, as was the case with the French materialists of the 18th century, Feuerbach, and the Russian revolutionary democrats of the 19th century. An inconsistent materialist scientist may follow a materialist line in his special field but defend idealism in general philosophical questions (F. Engels, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 22, p. 305). (b) When one group of epistemological questions is answered from a materialist standpoint (for example, the first aspect of the basic question of philosophy) and another group, from the standpoint of idealism or agnosticism, (c) When the universal connection between all phenomena and the development, or self-development, of nature are denied or ignored. In particular, metaphysical materialism is unable to explain the origin of things and phenomena in the universe and often resorts to idealist conceptions of a “prime mover.”

(3) With respect to sociohistorical practice, a distinction is made between contemplative materialism and practically effective materialism. “The chief defeat of all hitherto existing materialism—that of Feuerbach included—is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as human sensuous activity, practice, not subjectively” (K. Marx, ibid., vol. 3, p. 1). The materialism that poses the task not only of interpreting the world but also of changing it is Marxist materialism.

(4) From the standpoint of the method of thought used by materialists, dialectical and metaphysical materialism are differentiated. An inner unity and an inseparable fusion of dialectics and the materialist theory of knowledge are characteristic of dialectical materialism. Metaphysical materialism has many varieties, depending on what aspect of reality or of the process of cognition is made an absolute.

(5) From the point of view of consciousness, scientific materialism is opposed to vulgar materialism. Scientific materialism sees a qualitative difference between the psychic and the physical. In contrast, the vulgar materialism of K. Vogt, L. Büchner, and J. Moleschott equates consciousness with matter. Vulgar materialism manifests itself in the theory of social phenomena as economic materialism, the opposite of historical materialism. Various schools of oversimplified materialism, giving an incorrect explanation of social phenomena, are opposed to historical materialism, including (a) the anthropological materialism of Feuerbach and to some extent N. G. Chernyshevskii, (b) geographic materialism, and (c) naturalistic materialism (naturalism), which regards nature as the determining factor in social development.

(6) From the standpoint of the attitude toward various stages, or aspects, of the process of cognition, a distinction is drawn between the schools of rationalist and sensationalist materialism.

(7) A distinction is also made between conscious materialism and spontaneous, or naive, materialism, which is philosophically unformed. Lenin called the spontaneous materialism of scientists natural-historical materialism. There is an indissoluble bond between the spontaneous materialism of scientists and philosophical materialism as a trend. Natural-historical materialism is a materialism that is “semi-consciously and instinctively faithful to the spirit of natural science” (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 18, p. 243).

(8) Various schools of materialism are classified by national-geographical and chronological criteria. Usually both criteria are combined, producing such classifications as ancient Greek materialism, 18th-century French materialism, and 19th-century Russian materialism. Sometimes such classifications are based on only one of these criteria, for example, ancient materialism or 17th-century materialism, including British, French, Dutch, and other materialists of that time.

(9) A school of materialism may be known by the name of the thinker who developed it, for example, the materialism of Bacon, Feuerbach, or Chernyshevskii. In this type of classification specific features of the philosophical doctrine of a particular materialist are emphasized. However, materialism as a general world view must not be equated with a particular school or with specific scientific theories.

The criterion of the truth of materialism is social and historical practice. It is through practice that the false constructs of the idealists and agnostics are refuted and the truth of materialism demonstrated incontestably. In order to wage a successful struggle against idealism, materialism must be consciously developed philosophically; materialism’s active opposition to idealism is an expression of its partiinost’ (partisanship, party-mindedness). Lenin wrote that “materialism includes partisanship, so to speak, and enjoins the direct and open adoption of the standpoint of a definite social group in any assessment of events” (ibid., vol. 1, p. 419). Thus a distinction is made between militant materialism and materialism that does not engage in active struggle against idealism. Lenin considered it obligatory for militant materialists to maintain ties not only with atheist philosophers but also with scientists (ibid. vol. 45, p. 31).

Depending on the manner in which materialists themselves express their views, there is a direct and open materialism and a shamefaced and concealed materialism. The latter may even be disguised as agnosticism in deference to so-called public opinion in the capitalist countries (F. Engels, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 22, pp. 302-03).

Under modern conditions militant materialism, adhering to the principle of partiinost’, is atheistic. However, prior to the 19th century, progressive philosophical currents were often obliged to adapt themselves to the dominant religious ideology, slipping into pantheism or deism.

Types of materialism and their class basis. The content of materialism constitutes the sum total of its basic premises and principles, and the form of materialism is its overall structure, as determined chiefly by the method of thinking through which a particular tendency within materialism is developed and substantiated. Thus, the content of materialism includes that which is shared by all schools and currents of materialism, that which distinguishes them from idealism and agnosticism. The form of materialism refers to the special features of particular schools and trends. Such a demarcation, however, is relative and conventional. The form of materialism affects its content and introduces substantial modifications into it. Thus, for example, dialectical materialism is qualitatively different (not only in form but also in content) from vulgar, metaphysical, and all other types of materialism, although it shares with them features that are characteristic of all materialism. The consecutive phases of a particular type of materialism are viewed as stages in its development. But when a radical change in form occurs, when an old form of materialism is replaced by a new one, it is said that the type of materialism has changed. The change of form takes place chiefly under the impact of progress in scientific knowledge and social development. Engels wrote that “Just as idealism underwent a series of stages of development, so also did materialism. With each epoch-making discovery even in the sphere of natural science it has to change its form; and after history was also subjected to materialist treatment, a new avenue of development opened here too” (ibid., vol. 21, p. 286).

Each epoch-making discovery in 20th-century natural science —in physics (relativity theory, quantum mechanics, the use of atomic energy, and the deeper knowledge of elementary particles), in molecular biology (the discovery of the “mechanism” of biosynthesis and of the physical and chemical principles of heredity), and in cybernetics, astronomy, and other sciences— has called for continual change and development in the form and content of dialectical materialism through its enrichment with generalizations drawn from the new scientific discoveries. All the principles of dialectical materialism have been preserved in this process, being confirmed, developed, and made more specific.

In accordance with the three main stages in the development of knowledge, three basic types of materialism may be distinguished.

(1) The naïve, or spontaneous, materialism of the ancient Greeks and Romans, which was combined with a naïve dialectics. Ancient science was not subdivided into separate fields, but had a unitary philosophical character—all branches of knowledge came under the aegis of philosophy and were subordinated to it.

(2) The metaphysical, or mechanistic, materialism of the 17th and 18th centuries. Science was rapidly becoming differentiated, breaking up into separate fields, which were freed from the tutelage of philosophy. A break between materialism and dialectics occurred; only elements of dialectics remained in materialism, and the prevailing outlook was metaphysical.

(3) Dialectical materialism, in which materialism and dialectics are organically reunited, so that complete unity is established between dialectics (the doctrine of development), logic (the doctrine of thought), and the theory of knowledge. The great idea of the universal connection and development of nature entered science. The various sciences, fragmented until then, were not only integrated with each other but also with philosophy. The further differentiation of the sciences occurred in conjunction with their integration.

In addition to the basic types of materialism, there were intermediate ones, constituting a transition from one basic type to another. In the development of materialism sudden changes were always preceded by a gradual preparation. The following types of materialism have been identified as transitional.

(1) The materialism of the ancient East, which preceded the materialism of classical antiquity. For the most part this was prematerialism, since the beginnings of materialism in the ancient Eastern philosophical teachings had not yet been completely separated from mythological concepts and had not detached themselves from anthropomorphism and hylozoism.

(2) The materialism of the Renaissance combined features of naïve materialism and naïve dialectics with the beginnings of a metaphysical world view. Thus, strictly speaking, Renaissance materialism was transitional between the naïve materialism of antiquity and the metaphysical materialism that had not yet been formed. In some respects, certain early systems of 17th-century materialism, such as Bacon’s, were of this kind.

(3) The materialism that immediately preceded dialectical materialism and that to some extent developed parallel to it. It had already transcended metaphysical materialism and contained elements of dialectics but had not yet risen to the level of dialectical materialism and did not extend materialism to social phenomena. This type of materialism arose in the 18th century (J. Toland) and in the early 19th century, for example, SaintSimon and, particularly, the Russian revolutionary democrats.

(4) Among the intermediate types of materialism, a special place is held by those that arose within the framework of a prevailing religious and idealist ideology and therefore could not be openly materialist, for example, the materialist tendencies in medieval philosophy, which may be regarded as a transitional stage from scholasticism and theology to materialism. Historically this form preceded the materialism of the Renaissance and laid the basis for its formation.

Throughout history, materialism as a philosophical doctrine was generally the world outlook of the progressive, revolutionary classes. However, it would be an oversimplification to connect directly the views of a particular materialist thinker with his class origins or social and political beliefs. The history of materialism shows that such connections are of a mediated nature. It may happen that in a given historical situation an exponent of materialism is found in the camp of reactionary social forces, whereas an idealist philosopher may speak for the progressive forces in society. But for the purpose of discovering the class roots and sources of materialism in general, it is not these internally contradictory situations that are crucial but rather the general trend of materialism as a philosophical doctrine, reflecting the more progressive tendencies in social development—its link, through natural science, with the progress of the forces of production and the struggle against religion and idealism.

The same type of materialism, for example, metaphysical or mechanistic materialism, may have different class roots depending on time and place, functioning under certain conditions as a progressive trend and under others as a reactionary or, more specifically, a revisionist trend. The same social class at approximately the same stage of social development (for example, the revolutionary bourgeoisie, opposing feudalism and striving for political hegemony) may, in different countries and under varying historical circumstances, assume a different philosophical garb, not necessarily materialist. Inconsistent materialism, when it becomes the world outlook of a particular class, to a certain extent corresponds to the inconsistency of the class itself in its emergence as a revolutionary force in social development. The completely consistent nature of dialectical materialism is directly dependent on the consistency and revolutionary character of the working class and constitutes an important part of that class’ world outlook. The retreat from dialectical materialism in philosophy is objectively connected with the retreat from revolutionary Marxism-Leninism in practice, in politics.

Periods and lines of development in materialism. The laws of development of materialism may be divided into two groups: (a) those which constitute the driving forces of materialism and which belong to the realm of practical activity (social-production and ideological activity) and the class struggle and (b) those which express the relative autonomy of materialism’s development as a trend and which are related to the logical consistency of the origin and succession of its stages. Both groups of laws interact.

In the history of materialism there is a strict line of succession between earlier and later doctrines and systems; new doctrines and systems arose and developed out of earlier ones. Three types of succession may be observed. (1) Direct progression from one system to another, where the later system represents a development, sometimes one-sided, of the preceding system, as in the case of Hobbes, the systematizer of F. Bacon’s teachings. (2) Divergence in a line of development, when two different and, under certain circumstances, antithetical new systems originate in a single system, for example, the development from Locke to the subjective idealism and idealist sensationalism of Berkeley and to French materialism and materialist sensationalism. In this case criticism of the original system is possible from the standpoint of both later systems, particularly from “the right,” from the standpoint of a more overt idealism, and from “the left,” from more consistent materialist positions, for example, the critique of Kantian doctrine. (3) A convergence or even fusion of aspects contained in philosophical systems that previously had developed separately, for example, the transition from Cartesian materialism and Lockean sensationalism to 18th-century French materialism or, even more strikingly, from the idealist dialectics of Hegel and the metaphysical materialism of Feuerbach to dialectical materialism. This kind of blending of progressive aspects of previously separate or even antithetical philosophical currents occurs as an organic reworking of the content of earlier trends from a new, unified, and integral point of view. It is not an eclectic combining and reconciling of previously separate or even hostile philosophical tendencies.

The main lines of development of materialism are described below.

BASIC LINE OF DEVELOPMENT IN THE MATERIALISM OF THE ANCIENT EAST AND CLASSICAL ANTIQUITY. The most important factor in the development of the naïve materialism of antiquity and of the ideas preceding it is the ascent from conceptions of the world, nature, and matter consisting of concrete images (including crudely anthropomorphic views) to the generalized and abstract conceptions of the properties and structure of matter developed by the ancient atomists and representing the highest stage of early materialism. The tendency to ascend from the concrete to the abstract is found everywhere in the development of materialism, both in the countries of the ancient East and in the classical world. In the materialism of classical antiquity, as in ancient Greek philosophy as a whole, all later trends in materialism appear in embryo: mechanistic, metaphysical, dialectical, and vulgar materialism. Aristotle’s universal system synthesized several lines of materialism—the embryonic forms of dialectical materialism (Heraclitus), the doctrine of the four immutable roots of all structures in the world (Empedocles) that in Aristotle’s system acquired the capacity to be transformed into one another, and the concept of apeiron, the infinite material substance lacking any concrete characteristics which might make it perceptible (Anaximander). There are strong elements of idealism in Aristotle’s system, although he did criticize the idealistic premises of his predecessor Plato. In general he vacillated between materialism and idealism, leaning toward materialism primarily in his Physics, which expounds his doctrine of nature. The struggle between materialism and idealism in ancient philosophy was manifested most sharply and clearly in the conflict between the opposing trends, or lines, of Democritus and Plato (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 18, p. 131).

LINES OF PRESERVATION AND ACCUMULATION OF THE ELEMENTS AND GERMS OF MATERIALISM IN MEDIEVAL PHILOSOPHY. Materialism was supplanted by idealism in the Middle Ages, a period in which religious ideology was dominant. This may be explained not only by social factors but also by epistemological considerations: the inability of ancient materialism to explain the relation of mind to matter or to show the origin of consciousness. Although idealism’s answers to the basic epistemological questions were incorrect in principle, it did not reduce consciousness to matter, as had naïve materialism.

In Western Europe the official church ideology retained all that was reactionary in Aristotle’s doctrine and rejected everything progressive. By contrast, in the countries of the Arab East, Central Asia, and Transcaucasia, elements of materialism were preserved and the line of materialism of that time was represented in the works of various commentators on Aristotle and of such thinkers as Avicenna. In medieval scholasticism the struggle between materialism and idealism was manifested in the conflict between nominalism and realism. In various scholastic schools, there were germs of materialist views, such as the first attempt to formulate a concept of sense experience (R. Bacon) and the question posed by J. Duns Scotus, “Is matter not capable of thought?” However, all this was far from being a fully developed materialist line.

MAIN LINES OF THE REVIVAL AND DEVELOPMENT OF MATERIALISM IN EARLY MODERN TIMES IN EUROPE. In the 15th and 16th centuries the exponents of materialism and of nascent natural science focused primarily on the question of experience as the only source of knowledge and the sole criterion of its correctness. They opposed scholasticism and church dogma, which regarded the study of the writings of ancient authorities and sacred books as the only source of knowledge and the collation of texts as the sole criterion of truth. British materialism of the 17th century grew out of empiricism, which subsequently evolved into sensationalism. In the late 16th and 17th centuries the materialist ideas of natural science (Galileo, F. Bacon, R. Descartes) were directed against the absolutes of the medieval scholastics and oriented toward study of the real (and in this case, mechanical) properties and relations of phenomena in nature.

The early systems of materialism in various countries contained elements of naïve materialism and naïve dialectics in which certain features of ancient materialism were clearly revived. Such was the materialism of the Italian Renaissance in the 15th and 16th centuries, whose foremost exponents were Leonardo da Vinci and G. Bruno, and the 17th-century materialism of F. Bacon, who conceived of matter as being qualitatively diverse. Later these concepts were supplanted by mechanistic doctrines in which matter was interpreted as being abstractly mechanical (Galileo) or abstractly geometric (Hobbes). However, in certain cases a naïve but fundamentally correct concept of nature was retained for a longer period, for example, the 17th-century concept of heat as motion (F. Bacon) and as molecular motion (Boyle and Newton), which only in the 18th century gave way to the metaphysical concept of the caloric.

In the 18th century, as the metaphysical, mechanistic idea of the separation of matter and motion took hold, efforts to overcome this separation intensified in several materialist systems. Some materialists attempted to regard natural bodies as having internal activity, or motion, although motion was interpreted as being mechanical and therefore by its nature external to matter. Examples of such attempts may be found in the Cartesian school among certain French materialists, in Lomonosov’s atomic-kinetic concept, in Toland’s idea of the inseparability of matter and motion, and in the dynamic atomism of R. J. Bošković and his follower J. Priestley. Dialectics as an integral doctrine evolved only out of German idealism; in the materialist systems a metaphysical and mechanistic point of view generally predominated, although there were elements of dialectics in Descartes, Diderot, Lomonosov, Priestley, Toland, and especially, Boskovic. Atomist ideas were revived and developed by almost all schools of materialism: they were elaborated as mechanistic atomism by Galileo, F. Bacon, Boyle, Newton, Gassendi, Spinoza, the 18th-century French materialists, and Lomonosov.

The struggle of materialism against idealism developed in the Renaissance as a struggle against the dominant religious ideology. Later, more consistent materialist doctrines, such as those of Hobbes and the 18th-century French materialists J. La Mettrie, C. Helvétius, D. Diderot, and P. Holbach, revealed themselves to be atheistic doctrines. The late 17th-century English materialists took a compromising attitude toward religion: Boyle and Newton, for example, sought to reconcile science and religion. The 17th and 18th centuries saw a struggle between the new materialist systems and idealism, such as Hobbes’ opposition to the idealism of Descartes; Berkeley’s, to materialism in general; the 18th-century French materialists’, to Berkeley; and Hegel’s, to the 18th-century French materialists. The struggle broadened to include many aspects and levels and gradually became international in scope.

BASIC LINES OF DEVELOPMENT OF PRE-MARXIST 19TH-CENTURY MATERIALISM IN RUSSIA AND WESTERN EUROPE. The main line of development of 19th-century materialism was its enrichment by dialectics, which had reached its culmination within an idealist framework, in the philosophy of Hegel. It was necessary to combine materialism with dialectics by reworking it from a materialist position, a process that was begun but not completed by 19th-century Russian materialists. Continuing the materialist tradition of Lomonosov and A. N. Radishchev, A. I. Herzen, V. G. Belinskii, N. A. Dobroliubov, and N. G. Chernyshevskii attempted to fuse Hegel’s dialectics with materialism. In Germany, Feuerbach revolutionized philosophy when he rejected Hegel’s Absolute Idea—in the Hegelian system the creator of all that exists—and returned to materialism. But along with absolute idealism Feuerbach also rejected dialectics. All pre-Marxist materialism was unable to understand or achieve the unity of dialectics, logic, and the theory of knowledge. The Russian revolutionary democrats, including Chernyshevskii and his school, failed to unite dialectics with materialism precisely in the sphere of logic and the theory of knowledge, although they came close to combining them. Lenin noted this aspect when he said that the trouble with the old (pre-Marxist) materialism was its inability to apply dialectics to the theory of reflection and the process of cognition. All the later divergences from dialectical materialism, for example, by the mechanists, largely followed this same pattern.

The problem of the fusion of materialism and dialectics was first solved by Marx and Engels. Their theoretical sources were Hegelian dialectics, the materialism of Feuerbach, and, through Feuerbach, 18th-century French materialism. The interpenetration of materialism and dialectics in Marxist philosophy in the 19th century represented a revolutionary change in the history of human thought—the creation of a genuinely scientific theory of nature, society, and thought and of a method for knowing reality and changing it in a revolutionary way. The most important aspect of this revolutionary change was the application of materialism to the theory of social life and the creation of the materialist conception of history (historical materialism). The further development of dialectical and historical materialism under new historical conditions is linked with the name of Lenin. The decisive factor was the recognition (by Marx, Engels, and Lenin) and the nonrecognition (by the inconsistent materialists) of the organic unity (identity) of dialectics, logic, and the theory of knowledge, which rest on the principle of the unity of the laws of being and knowing, or thinking. Hegel had achieved this unity on an idealist basis. Materialism could not be completely fused with dialectics until the question of this unity was resolved on a materialist basis. All divergences from consistent (dialectical, Marxist) materialism are primarily connected with an insufficiently organic blending of materialism and dialectics.

Various incorrect ideas have been propounded concerning the origin and development of dialectical materialism. With respect to the origin of dialectical materialism it has been asserted that Marx and Engels created their doctrine through a simple combination of Hegelian dialectics with Feuerbachian materialism. In actuality, Marx described his method as the exact antithesis of Hegel’s method, from which the founders of Marxism extracted only the rational kernel. Similarly, they took only the kernel of Feuerbach’s materialism, rejecting all his metaphysical limitations. Thus Marx and Engels fundamentally reworked the views of their philosophical predecessors, creating a qualitatively new doctrine, dialectical materialism, in which dialectics and materialism interpenetrate. It has also been said that Marx and Engels did not base themselves on Hegelian dialectics at all, that Hegel’s philosophy was an artistocratic reaction against French materialism and the Great French Revolution. In this way the theoretical groundwork of dialectical materialism was denied and the continuity of the historical development of world philosophical thought was broken; Marxism was portrayed as having appeared suddenly, apart from the main paths of development of world civilization.

With respect to the later development of dialectical materialism, it was sometimes alleged that the Leninist stage in Marxist philosophy had two theoretical sources of equal weight, Marx’ doctrine and the materialism of the 19th-century Russian revolutionary democrats. But it is obvious that the materialism of the latter sharply lagged behind Marxist materialism in the most important respect—the problem of fusing dialectics, logic, and the theory of knowledge, not to mention the question of historical materialism. Therefore one cannot place Marx’ teachings, the sole theoretical source of Leninism, on the same level with any other doctrine. This does not rule out the fact that the further development of Marxist materialism not only permits but requires the continual enrichment of Marxism through the experiences of the working-class movement and the achievements of science and culture, including the national culture (and philosophy) of the country in which the development is taking place.

Dialectical materialism, being profoundly antithetical to idealism, also has epistemological sources that are diametrically opposed to idealism. These include strict objectivity in examining all things and phenomena; examination of the object of study from many different angles and flexibility and mobility of the concepts through which the object is reflected; and the indissoluble bond between all scientific ideas (theories, hypotheses, laws, concepts)—that is, between all aspects of scientific knowledge— and the concept of matter, or nature, a bond that ensures that these ideas will be used as relative concepts and prevents them from becoming absolutes. In revealing the epistemological roots of materialism, Engels wrote that “the materialist outlook on nature means nothing more than the simple conception of nature just as it is, without any alien addition” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2d end., vol. 20, p. 513). Discussing the elements of dialectics and the epistemological roots of materialism, Lenin emphasized “the objectivity of consideration (not examples, not divergences, but the thing-in-itself)” (Poln. sobr. sock, 5th ed., vol. 29, p. 202). “All-sided universal flexibility of concepts, a flexibility reaching to the identity of opposites—that is the essence of the matter. This flexibility, applied subjectively = eclecticism and sophistry. Flexibility, applied objectively, i.e., reflecting the all-sidedness of the material process and its unity, is dialectics, is the correct reflection of the eternal development of the world” (ibid., p. 99).

Materialism plays an important methodological role in all fields of scientific knowledge and is applicable to all problems of philosophy and all theoretical problems in natural and social science. It shows science the correct path to knowledge of the real world. Whenever science encounters a complex, as yet unsolved problem, the materialist world view precludes in advance an idealist explanation and orients research toward natural laws of development, toward the real, as yet unknown, connections. “Materialism clearly formulates the as yet unsolved problem and thereby stimulates the attempt to solve it, to undertake further experimental investigation” (ibid., vol. 18, p. 40). Only when scientists, even if unconsciously, follow a materialist course in seeking answers to unsolved scientific problems do they arrive at major discoveries and find constructive ways out of seeming impasses. Rejecting the idea of creation “out of nothing,” materialism demands that the natural causes of the phenomena under study be sought. But materialism can fulfill this demand consistently only by basing itself on the idea of development and universal interconnection, on dialectics. The entire course of development of science and society and of the international revolutionary movement of the working class fully confirms the creative nature and truth of the highest form of materialist philosophy—dialectical and historical materialism.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. Philosophy the monist doctrine that matter is the only reality and that the mind, the emotions, etc., are merely functions of it
2. Ethics the rejection of any religious or supernatural account of things
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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