The Basic Idea
What do you think of when you hear that someone is “materialistic”? Perhaps you visualize them spending all their time in a busy mall, swiping multiple credit cards, and carrying bags of clothes and accessories. Maybe it’s all to the soundtrack of Madonna’s “Material Girl”. Today, the colloquial definition of materialism means owning plenty of expensive items and valuing these over things non-material things, like an experience or activity. But this isn’t how the idea started out.
While extreme consumption may be what we associate with materialism today, the idea of materialism has a long and dynamic philosophical history, which began over 2000 years ago in the first millennium BCE. Materialism, as a philosophical theory, can be defined by two claims:
- Material matter is the only thing in our reality that truly exists;
- Nothing else exists apart from material matter.1
In other words, anything that actually exists can only be made up of material matter.
Theory, meet practice
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Materialism: Philosophical Materialism states that everything that truly exists is matter; everything is material, thus all phenomena we see are a result of material interactions.2
Ontology: A branch of philosophy which deals with the questions of being and existence.3
Monism: Any philosophical theory that states that everything is only composed of one substance.2
Physicalism: A philosophical theory which states that the nature of the actual world is exclusively physical matter. Physicalism is very similar to the concept of philosophical materialism, however it includes other forms of physical existence such as force. This inclusion makes physicalism almost synonymous with the modern definition of materialism. For this reason, many use the terms materialism and physicalism interchangeably.4
Dualism: Any philosophical theory that states that everything is only composed of two substances.2
Pluralism: Any philosophical theory that states that everything is only composed of several substances.2
Materialism has a long and complex history. While it emerged organically in many parts of the world, its beginnings are generally associated with the Carvaka School of Ancient Indian Philosophy, who began studying materialism as early as 600 BCE (2600 years ago). Around 200 years later, quite a few Ancient Greek Philosophers such as Democritus, Epicurus, Thales, Lucretius, and even Aristotle also began contributing to classical ideas of Materialism.
Democritus developed the philosophical idea of atomism, which is the view that the smallest unit of physical existence is an atom, translating to “that which cannot be cut.” Epicurus built upon atomism by advocating for the idea that everything that truly exists consists of invisible and indivisible particles of free-falling matter called “atoms,” which bump into each other randomly. Scientists tend to support atomism today, as an updated version of the concept is taught in schools. Modern adaptations include the addition of protons, neutrons, and electrons.
The first documented materialist literature was written by Lucretius around 50 BCE, titled “De Rerum Natura” (“The Nature of Things”). In this poem, he recounts the philosophy of Democritus and Epicurus, agreeing that existence only consists of two things: matter and void. Anything that occurs is a result of matter in motion or different combinations of matter. This argument was used by Lucretius to explain phenomena such as wind, sound, and evaporation.5, 6 Aristotle’s famous theory of hylomorphism argues that every physical object is a combination of matter and form. If two things have the same form, it is because they come from the same “spawn.” So, for example, if two leaves look alike, they are only distinguished because they are separated into two different lumps of matter.6, 7
While materialism began to pop up in other parts of the world, such as in China and Arabia, the next major contribution would not show up for a few hundred years. This delay was due to Christianity’s condemnation of materialism, which contradicted the Christian belief in the existence of spirits. 17th Century philosophers Thomas Hobbes and Pierre Gassendi are recognized to have revived materialism, when they used material theory in opposition to French Philosopher René Descartes’ dualism.
The second most notable piece of literature in Materialism history is La Systeme de la Nature (“Systems of nature”) by French-German Philosopher Baron Paul d’Holbach. Written in 1770, the work was condemned by French King Louis XVI’s government and overshadowed by Descartes’ dualism theory, which continued to be more popular with the Christian masses. In his writing, D’Holbach argued that everything occurring in nature was the result of a chain reaction from the “flux of atomic motion.” His claims resembled that of Lucretius, as d’Holbach claimed that reality simply consisted of matter moving in space. His ideas also resemble that of Newton’s laws of motion and gravity.5, 6
Later on in 1859 and 1871 Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, respectively, which introduced his naturalistic account of the origins of biological species and structures, known today as “evolution” or “Darwinism”. Modern notions of materialism were largely strengthened by Darwin’s theory of evolution.8 Today, many believers in Darwinist evolution are materialists.6
By the end of the 19th century, philosophical materialism had returned to popularity. With the rising success of the scientific discipline, it is safe to say that the majority of scientists and philosophers today would say that they agree with some form of materialism.5
Aristotle, as implied by easily being recognized by only his first name, is one of the most influential philosophers in Western culture. Both a researcher and a writer, Aristotle’s work has shaped centuries of western philosophy and continues to be influential to this day. From the discipline of logic, metaphysics, and philosophy to aesthetics and rhetoric, Aristotle continues to shed light on and spark debate on a variety of philosophical topics.9
Democritus was an Ancient Greek pre-Socratic philosopher (however some historians argue that he is better classified as a scientist), recognized as one of the two founders of ancient atomic theory. Due to the emphasis he placed on cheerfulness, he is known as the “laughing philosopher”, renowned for his contributions to mathematics and geometry. For example, Democritus was one of the first Greek philosophers to recognize that a cone has one-third the volume of a cylinder with the same base and height. Democritus is also credited with developing one of the first anthropological theories, which stated that our foraging ancestors had no language initially, but developed one through a need for communicating thoughts and ideas.10, 11
While widely recognized as one of the founders of modern political philosophy, Thomas Hobbes was an English philosopher known to have a wide-range of interests. He was a defender of materialism against Cartesian and Aristotlelian conflicting arguments, and advocated for how humans ought to live in harmony and avoid societal conflict. Hobbes and French philosopher René Descartes had many interactions throughout their careers, all of which were characterized as a mixture of respect and dismissal. Hobbes published quite a few pieces of philosophical writing, most notably Leviathan, in which he outlines what we know today as the social contract theory.12, 13
René Descarte was a French philosopher, sometimes even called the “first modern philosopher.” He is recognized for several achievements within the realm of algebra, geometry, and philosophy: co-framer of the sine law of refraction, proposer of the formation of the earth and planets within a naturalistic perspective, composer of the modernized mind-body problem, and more. His mind-body problem posed conflicts with pure materialists, because he proposed that an immaterial world existed alongside our world of matter (the mind vs the brain), and that they interacted with each other through the pineal gland. His most famous writing, titled Meditations, questions the possibility of knowledge and provides the philosophical foundations for science as we know it today.14, 15
Materialism’s consequences involve the implications for the existence of non-material things. Materialism states that what cannot be perceived does not exist, which includes ghosts, spirits, God, or any immaterial content of the mind. Out-of-body experiences and knowledge stemming from anything but sensory perception are also not acknowledged by traditional materialists. This greatly contradicts many religions such as Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, which rely on the existance of an immaterial diety and humans having spirits as a fundamental belief.5
Today, the philosophical idea of materialism has translated into the societal understanding of valuing material goods and possessions over spiritual well-being and values. This is where we get the imagery of excessive shopping and hoarding when hearing the word “materialism” or “materialistic.” While similar to the philosophical definition of materialism, this societal understanding acknowledges the existence of spiritual and immaterial well-being, but simply places precedence of the physical reality over that which is non-physical.
Materialism stands in great contrast with quite a few philosophical ideas, particularly idealism, which is another form of monistic ontology. Idealism argues the exact opposite of materialism: that the foundation of reality consists only of what is mental, such as the mind (unlike the physical brain), spirits, reason, and will.16 Philosophical materialism also holds contradicting views to pluralism, dualism, and other philosophical forms of monism.
In 1718, the first edition of German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s Critique of pure reason argued that objects in time and space are simply “appearances”, and that humanity does not know anything about the real substance of these appearances. This idea, known as transcendental idealism, has been heavily debated by Kant readers about what Kant’s transcendental idealism truly is.17 This idea poses a contradiction to materialism, as it discounts the entire existence of physical objects and claims that they are merely appearances.
Materialism faces two big challenges: defining what matter is and explaining the existence of consciousness. Today, contemporary notions of philosophical materialism include scientific concepts which are invisible to the human eye, but are deductible from mathematical equations. Scientists now avidly discuss concepts like forces, dark matter, and dark energy that would have been scoffed at by materialist circles in the past. This continuously evolving definition of what is “material” poses problems for philosophical debate, as it becomes nearly impossible to be sure of what can be debated against or for.6
The existence of consciousness also poses problems to materialism. Materialism reduces mental events to chemical reactions in the brain. But how do chemical reactions lead to phenomena that are integral to the human experience such as thinking or vivid imaginations? If we are to believe materialism’s explanation of consciousness, where is the connection between mere neurological events and being able to dream or be self-aware?6 Materialism does not account for the human experience outside of that which is material, making the philosophical idea difficult to swallow, as we have all had interactions with our immaterial reality. For example, a good majority of you are probably reading this article in your head right now! Clearly, mental events are real and do occur. This has important implications, as mental events like intentionality and mental illness would not be acknowledged by materialists. Knowing that both exist, it is safe to say that we don’t live in a completely (philosophically) materialistic world today.
Levi’s 501 Jeans and Materialism
Few brands in popular culture today hold a lot of significance to consumers. Coca-Cola, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, and Star Wars, are just a few examples of how iconic brands can capture the symbolic imagination of the consumer. One of the most successful of these symbolic brands is Levi’s 501 jeans. However, what is most interesting about 501 jeans is how this symbolic value changed over time.
Initially, the product was developed for miners in California during the Gold Rush who could not find a pair of pants that would last in their harsh working conditions. After World War II, Levi’s began targeting their marketing efforts towards a younger demographic. American actor James Dean drove the symbolism of 501 jeans towards an image of moodiness, independence, and subtle rebellion. Levi’s leaned into this independence associated with the jeans, by engineering various customization capabilities like tie-dying, patchwork and stitchery. This finding was consistent with the scientific observation that after a purchase, symbolism is often added to the product.
Researchers who assessed the value of Levi’s 501 jeans across various pop culture paradigms found that Levi’s 501 jeans generally function as an instrument of confidence and security, as the product’s symbolism facilitates consumers placing themselves in correct social roles and improves their ability to execute said role. Furthermore, there were numerous testimonies of the (literal) life-saving properties of the jeans, adding to perceptions of durability and longevity.
Levi’s 501 jeans were also associated with feelings of comfort, from the product’s adaptability in the range of situations it can be worn in. This adaptability gives the feeling that the jeans can be molded to fit the lifestyle of the wearer. The longevity of the jeans also encourages the embodiment of special memories of when they experienced something significant while wearing their 501 jeans.18 Overall, it is clear that material goods, like a simple pair of blue jeans, can sometimes add significant value to the experiences of the wearer and often can influence how they approach their lives.
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- Brown, R., Ladyman, J.(2020). History of materialism. In The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Taylor and Francis. Retrieved 17 Aug. 2021, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/history-of-materialism/v-1. doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC122-1
- Materialism. Materialism – New World Encyclopedia. (n.d.). https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/materialism.
- Ontology. Ontology – New World Encyclopedia. (n.d.). https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Ontology.
- Stoljar, D. (2021). Physicalism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2021/entries/physicalism/.
- Materialism. The Basics of Philosophy. (n.d.). https://www.philosophybasics.com/branch_materialism.html.
- Materialism. Materialism – New World Encyclopedia. (n.d.). https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/materialism.
- Ainsworth, T. (2020, March 25). Form vs. matter. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/form-matter/.
- Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (n.d.). History of materialism. Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/materialism-philosophy/History-of-materialism#ref68540.
- Shields, C. (2020, August 25). Aristotle. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle/.
- Williams, M. (2016, July 27). Who was democritus? Universe Today. https://www.universetoday.com/60058/democritus-atom/.
- Berryman, S. (2016, December 2). Democritus. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/democritus/.
- Duncan, S. (2021, February 12). Thomas Hobbes. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hobbes/#1.
- A&E Networks Television. (2020, July 21). Thomas Hobbes. Biography. https://www.biography.com/scholar/thomas-hobbes.
- Smith, K. (2018, September 21). Descartes’ life and works. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/descartes-works/.
- Hatfield, G. (2014, January 16). René Descartes. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/descartes/.
- Guyer, P., & Horstmann, R.-P. (2021, February 5). Idealism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/idealism/.
- Stang, N. F. (2016, March 4). Kant’s transcendental idealism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-transcendental-idealism/.
- Solomon, M. R. (1986). Deep-seated materialism: The case of Levi’s 501 jeans. ACR North American Advances.