Materialism is the usually monistic philosophical view that the only reality that can truly be said to exist is matter and all that results from its continuous transformation. This means that all things are fundamentally and essentially material; that is, the foundation and substance of reality is material. See also: Empiricism vs Sensationalism vs Materialism.

Strictly speaking, only materialistic systems can be defined as those that make matter a metaphysical principle in an attempt to explain “form by content, things by materials. In modern scientific thought, on the other hand, materialism is a working hypothesis to explain the unification of sensible data outside of presumed mental activities, where the concept of matter would be valid insofar as it is capable of unifying all phenomena. It follows that the physical hypothesis is not materialistic in that, in order to unify all sensible data, it must resort to the abstract power of the mind, even if it regards the result as something external to itself.

The criticism of materialism centers on these two problems: matter and all the other postulates of materialism are ultimately reduced to the concept, i.e., they are mental values, and consequently the mind is not destroyed by them, but remains, even according to materialism, in the fullness of its functions; materialism has as its foundation an absolute datum that is immediately grasped by the mind, while experience presents itself in disordered and constantly changing impressions.

The answer given by materialism to these objections is as follows: the act of knowing has a subjective aspect, which is always in activity, and an objective aspect, which remains passive; of this act only the passive aspect, in full autonomy from all activity, is to be grasped in materialism. In the history of philosophy, materialism does not manifest itself as a continuous and regular movement, but in fits and starts and discontinuities: in the early days of philosophical speculation, the search turns to the fundamental matter of the cosmos; Epicureanism entrusts the formation of matter to the random association of atoms, thus emphasizing the absence in this process of any reality transcending the world; the end of life is pleasure, and death is only the dissolution of the atoms (united by chance) that formed an entity.

In the Renaissance, Hobbes introduced materialism into political life, asserting that only absolute power could restrain men who, each for himself, ran in pursuit of pleasure. The French Enlightenment was imbued with materialism in the thought of La Mettrie, for whom human action, virtue, and society are all based on the pleasure of the senses, and d’Holbach, who saw nature as matter and motion in which man as a physical being is placed. Materialists were also the evolutionists of the 19th century: E. Vogt called thought a “secretion of the brain“; L. Buchner identified consciousness and thought with the force that matter releases from the animal body; J. Moleschott asserted that thought and consciousness are the product of matter carried by the bloodstream to the brain; the greatest of them, E. Haeckel, reduced the phenomena of nature to transformations of matter, including living substance; therefore, thought is a character of matter and as such is found in all things.

Metaphysical materialism

Metaphysical materialism is a doctrine that reduces all reality to matter and the movements and combinations it produces. In antiquity, metaphysical materialism was informed by the atomism of Democritus, of which Epicurus and the Latin poet Lucretius (De rerum natura) were convinced proponents. Condemned by the spiritualistic view of Christianity, metaphysical materialism reappeared in the 18th century with Diderot, Helvetius, d’Holbach, La Mettrie, Cabanis, and took on a mechanistic meaning; Vogt, Buchner, Moleschott, and Haeckel put the concept of force at the heart of matter, and as such was accepted and propagated by German positivism.

Historical materialism

This is the canon of interpretation of human history elaborated by Marx and Engels in its theoretical principles and then developed and applied by Marxist thought and practice. The basic thesis of historical materialism is that “the mode of production of material life conditions the process of social, political and spiritual life. It is not man’s consciousness that determines his being, but, on the contrary, his social being that determines his consciousness” (Marx, “Preface” to The Critique of Political Economy, 1859). The mode of production is the structure of society, the basis to which the life and struggle of the social classes adhere, according to whose interests and social practice a coercive, juridical and ideological superstructure arises: moral, religious, philosophical, scientific and artistic-cultural.

The mode of production of the material means of society is constituted by the unity between the productive forces and the relations of production. The productive forces of a given society are the totality of the instruments of production and the technical-productive capacities of the workers. The relations of production have their basis in the ownership of the means of production and also include: the relations between people and between people and the means of production (organization of work); the relations between people in exchange; and the mode of distribution of the product.

The fundamental law of development in history lies in the contradiction between the productive forces and the relations of production: when the latter compress the growth of the productive forces and thus prevent the satisfaction of the ever-increasing needs of the population, an epoch of social revolution opens up, through which the power of the class that possesses the ability to expand production emerges. Thus, through the incessant class struggles between the exploiting classes and the working classes, new dominant classes and new modes of production gradually emerge: the primitive economic form based on the communal ownership of the gens, while enlarged and reproduced in the Asiatic mode of production, rapidly dissolves in the Greco-Roman world, giving rise to the slave economy, which in turn is overwhelmed by feudalism, which is first corroded and then destroyed by modern bourgeois capitalism. This is the last antagonistic form of the productive process, whose overthrow by the proletariat will be followed by the socialist mode of production and finally by communism.

Dialectical materialism

Within the framework of Marxism-Leninism, whose cardinal line of development is the work of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao, dialectical materialism seeks to identify the more general laws of becoming common to the processes of nature, society and thought. Therefore, dialectical materialism is the ontological, gnoseological and methodological foundation of the theoretical principles of the “world conception of the proletariat”, principles that aim to transform and integrate the totality of science and culture, but mainly concern the scientific view of history, the structure of society and economy, and the ideology for the realization of communism.

According to dialectical materialism, matter in motion exists from eternity and leads to a very late and elevated stage of evolution in animal man, the spirit. Matter, therefore, is independent of consciousness; but it can be known and transformed by man, who, oriented by his needs and practice, selectively perceives through the senses the superficial characters and effects (appearances) of objectivity, and then elaborates explanatory theories to try to grasp the deeper and more circumstantial objective connections, which, going beyond the phenomenon, approach the essence of things.

The truth, always approximate, of any theory is tested by experiments, which nonetheless involve an advance into the heart of the object. Thus, in knowledge and action, there is a constant dialectic between sensible experience or practice and theory, between implementation and project. In the search for the specific laws governing events and objective relations, scientific inquiry has always been guided by general views on the universal form of the connections between things and their becoming. Thus, Aristotelian finalism, deterministic mechanism, and casualistic empiricism have succeeded and intertwined.

Dialectical materialism seeks to preserve the merits of these traditional ways of thinking by overcoming their one-sidedness and closure in a conception of becoming that has its fulcrum in the contrast, contradiction, or struggle between united and opposing bipolar tendencies, which gives rise (through the so-called “negation of the negation”) to new syntheses, to new results that are always provisional: To the “devouring” of one of the two poles by the other, or to the overcoming of the differences between the previously contradictory aspects, or to a new balance between the two polarities, according to the type (antagonistic or integrative or complementary) of the contradiction. The transition from quantitative change to qualitative leap expresses the evolutionary logic of matter as it is constrained in the dialectical structure of contradiction.

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