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The materialism is an epistemological and ontological position that all processes and phenomena in the world of matter returns and their laws and conditions.

In the fundamental question of philosophy , materialism distinguishes itself from all other philosophies. The idealistic solution to the basic question of philosophy is based in all variants on the primacy of consciousness over matter. Materialism assumes that even thoughts , feelings or consciousness can be traced back to matter . He explains the human world surrounding and in their ongoing processes without God . In contemporary philosophy, the term “ physicalism ” is often used synonymously with “materialism”. Opposite concepts are idealism , for which only the contents of consciousness are actually real, and dualism , for which the physical and the psychic represent two strictly separate, independently existing areas of being.


The concept of materialism is an 18th century creation. Until the middle of the 18th century, “naturalist” appeared in the two fundamentally different meanings of “natural scientist” and “materialist”. In Germany there is also "realist" for "materialist" (W. Kraus).

Even at La Mettrie, the term had a central meaning. In his work L'homme machine (Man - a machine) from 1747 it says: “I trace the philosophical systems from the human soul back to two. The first and oldest is the system of materialism; the second is that of 'spiritualism'. ”Also in Diderot's encyclopedia article on immaterialism or spiritualism (1765) and in Holbach's systems de la nature (system of nature, 1770),“ materialism ”and“ immaterialism ”or“ spiritualism ”are used juxtaposed. Holbach writes: “If, with the help of experience, we were to recognize the elements that make up the basis of the temperament of a person or of the greater part of the individuals who make up a people, we would know what would be right for them, which laws and Facilities would be necessary and useful for them. In a word: morality and politics can take advantage of materialism which the doctrine of spiritualism can never give them and which this doctrine prevents them from even thinking about. Man will always remain a mystery to anyone who insists on seeing him through the prejudiced eyes of theology. ”In Helvetius's posthumous work De l'homme (Vom Menschen 1772) it is emphasized that the words“ materialist ”and“ enlightener “Are synonymous.

Kant also differentiates between “materialism” and “spiritualism” (Religion within the Limits of Mere Reason, 1793). For Hegel "materialism", "naturalism" is the consistent system of "empiricism" (ENZ. 1830, § 60). In his book On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany (1834), Heine points out that in France a distinction is made between “sensualism” on the one hand and “spiritualism” - sometimes also “rationalism” on the other. However, he himself prefers the distinction between "materialism" and "idealism". He defines materialism as the doctrine of spiritual knowledge through experience, through the senses, as the doctrine of a posteriori ideas, and idealism as the doctrine of innate ideas, of a priori ideas.


The origins of materialism lie in Greek natural philosophy . Important thought leaders include a. Thales , Anaximander , Epicurus , but above all Leukippus and Democritus , the founders of material atomism . The natural philosophers sought natural explanations of reality instead of mythological ones. The natural philosophy is thus also considered to be the forerunner of modern science .

La Mettrie , followed by d'Holbach , Helvétius and Diderot, should be mentioned as representatives of materialism in the Age of Enlightenment from 1750 onwards . The pseudonymous publication of Holbach's Système de la nature in 1770 caused a sensation, both among the reconnaissance and among their opponents . This two-volume work presents a mechanistic view of the world in which nature works by itself and all processes run deterministically . The work explicitly advocates atheism, which it attests to have moral superiority, and argues against various proofs of God . However, the philosopher René Descartes had a materialistic worldview more than 100 years earlier . He reduced the living organism (including humans) to its mechanics and defined matter as the counterpart to spirit .

The French mathematician, physicist and philosopher Laplace designed a strictly mechanistic, deterministic worldview based on the philosophers of the Enlightenment . He claimed that the knowledge of the present state of every particle in the universe made it possible to determine the state of the universe at any future point in time on the basis of the laws of nature (cf. Laplace's demon ). Various objections can be raised against the idea of ​​the Laplace demon, which are based on principles recognized by Laplace's physics. Today, the Laplace demon only serves to illustrate a strictly deterministic worldview.

From the 1840s onwards , Marx and Engels developed Young Hegelian materialistic turns of the absolute idealism of Hegel , with recourse to English economics (in particular Smiths and Ricardos ) and ideas of French socialism, further to a materialistic philosophy of history (called historical materialism by the late Engels and his successors ) and dialectical method . Engels also turned against the then emerging non-dialectical scientific materialism - which in the materialism dispute came into conflict with the emerging neo-Kantianism , which also renounced Hegel - sometimes referred to as vulgar materialism . The dialectical materialism is linked in particular to the Engels in Anti-Dühring and Dialectics of Nature to made a weltanschauung and was awarded the historical materialism together hegemonic basic philosophical approach in the socialist states (see. About Josef Stalin About Dialectical and historical materialism ). On the other hand, some Marxist materialists see the limits of dialectics , of which Marx already hinted at. Georg Lukács saw the dialectic limited to human history, while Antonio Gramsci was not prepared to accept either a limitation of the dialectic to humans or an extension to nature. Other Marxists largely abandoned the reference to dialectics: parts of neo-Kantianism sought to combine Kant's philosophy with historical materialism. Louis Althusser initially opposed a structuralist interpretation of Marx to Hegelian interpretations and later formulated an aleatoric materialism following on from Greek atomism . Depending on the current of Marxism, materialism is associated with an impetus for economics, society, (natural) science, nature or (following the theses on Feuerbach ) practice with different weightings. As the essence of Marx, Theodor W. Adorno identified critical materialism as distinct from the philosophical vulgar materialism, the critique of idealism, which makes it a starting point for his negative dialectics .

There are many representatives of materialistic positions in analytical philosophy . Various models are being developed as to how consciousness and sensory perceptions (see also Qualia ) can be integrated into a physical world view. While some philosophers want to explain such processes as illusions ( Eliminative Materialism, for example in Paul Churchland and Daniel Dennett ), others emphasize that the psychic is not a separate sphere of being next to the physical, but cannot be completely traced back to the latter (e.g. the abnormal monism in Donald Davidson ).

Criticism of materialism and examination of idealism

Materialism has been criticized from its inception. In addition to confrontations between the various currents of materialism, the confrontation between materialism and idealism mainly plays a role.

Basic positions, epistemology and materialism

One of the main arguments from the idealistic side against materialism is that one cannot understand mental human abilities such as self-confidence in (purely) material terms and cannot be fully reduced to matter . In contrast, one of the most important arguments against idealism or in favor of materialism is that idealism cannot explain the inherent laws of the sensually perceptible world and its observed independence from mental processes.

It is further argued against materialism that materialism cannot explain itself, since it appears as theory and not as matter. Furthermore, the concept of truth (or the entire epistemology ) should not be understood in a purely material way. The theory of knowledge is reduced to an empirical science by materialism. Cultural content, ideas and all immaterial forms would no longer have an independent existence. A critique of knowledge or an independent reflection on knowledge are no longer possible or only possible to a very limited extent in a materialism. A review of scientific hypotheses is only possible within certain metaphysical preconditions.

The objection to this criticism is that matter can very well explain itself, namely by means of its “most highly developed” manifestation, the human brain. In the course of millennia, man has acquired the ability in practical confrontation in and with nature (i.e. through work ) to summarize in thought and language the knowledge that he has conveyed through sensory perception . The results of thinking itself, the ideas, are not material, but are based on the activity of the brain and are thus a product of matter.

An essential critique takes the products of the human mind as the starting point for its argumentation. Even under the assumption that ideas, theories, (construction) plans, technical know-how etc. are produced by the brain (and not by consciousness), it must be taken into account that these could (continue) to exist regardless of their originators. In this respect, people are surrounded by a spiritual world that makes up their cultural heritage.

Against this one can, in turn, say that in other people these ideas are only stored as synapse connections in the brain and are therefore still “mortal”.

Materialism and the perception of space and time

Materialism is based on the basic assumption that we experience the world as it is, that we perceive the thing-in-itself directly, or that our knowledge, in the sense of Popper's falsification, can steadily come closer to the world itself using empirical methods . The approximation expresses the dialectical relationship between absolute and relative truth. Thus nature around us is a fact and our perception of it is correct - even if some things are falsified by colors, sounds etc. through the senses.

The currency of this factual nature is (despite quantum physics still) matter. Space and time are fundamental forms of existence of matter. There is neither an independent space that is in itself nor an independent time that is in itself; they are always bound to matter. The juxtaposition and succession of things are space and time. The theory of relativity has revolutionized the understanding of space and time and uncovered relationships that can be mathematically precisely expressed in formulas and confirmed through experiments.

The materialists see in these utterances a clear contradiction to the statements of idealists like Immanuel Kant . He took the view that in the spirit man can only have a subjective view of nature, while the true form of being of nature is not accessible to him. He went so far as to claim that the orders and structures that we perceive are only introduced by us in our thoughts.

The evolutionary epistemology makes a connection between physicalism and idealism of. According to this, these alleged spiritual a priori are ultimately supposed to be a posteriori after all, namely based on experience - i.e. on an interaction with reality - as our cognitive apparatus has adapted in the course of evolution to the existing spatiotemporal structure of its environment and this is therefore from birth without having to learn to do this.

Assuming that this cognitive apparatus as the brain is also created from matter and that its perception can therefore be traced back to the laws of physics - without necessarily having to explain the experience of perception as a phenomenon - a close alliance has been found that is very popular today .

See also


  • Georg Klaus, Manfred Buhr (Hrsg.): Philosophical dictionary. 2 volumes. 12th compared to the 10th, revised and revised edition, VEB Bibliographisches Institut, Leipzig 1976.
  • Mario Bunge , Martin Mahner: About the nature of things. Materialism and science . Hirzel-Verlag, Stuttgart 2004.
  • Eduard Jan Dijksterhuis : The mechanization of the world view. Springer, Berlin / Heidelberg / New York 1956, DNB 451027213 . (New edition: 1983, ISBN 3-540-02003-9 ).
  • Terry Eagleton : Materialism. Capture and change the world . Promedia, Vienna 2018, ISBN 978-3-85371-433-1 .
  • Frederic Gregory: Scientific Materialism in Nineteenth Century Germany. D. Reidel, Dordrecht 1977.
  • Margarete J. Osler: Mechanical Philosophy. In: New Dictionary of the History of Ideas . 1389-1392.
  • M. Overmann: The origin of French materialism. The continuity of materialistic thought from ancient times to the Enlightenment. Peter Lang, Frankfurt 1993.
  • Annette Wittkau-Horgby: Materialism. Origin and impact in the sciences of the 19th century . Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1998.
  • Martin Küpper: Materialism , PapyRossa Verlag, Cologne 2017, ISBN 978-3-89438-639-9 .

Web links

Wiktionary: Materialism  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Georg Klaus , Manfred Buhr (Ed.): Marxist-Leninist Dictionary of Philosophy , Rowohlt, Hamburg 1972, ISBN 3-499-16155-9
  2. Article space and time. In: Georg Klaus, Manfred Buhr (Hrsg.): Philosophical dictionary. 11th edition, Leipzig 1975.