What is Materialism?

What is Materialism?

Materialism has been for many centuries, if not the most popular of all philosophies, at least among the most popular.

Its popularity in all ages seems to be due very largely to the simplicity of the theory which it offers. Simplicity and clearness, the conspicuous characteristics of most materialistic theories, are very high merits in a philosophy, and no view which is not simple and clear is likely to be true; but the search after these qualities may easily lead to the false simplicity of abstraction and the false clearness of arbitrary dogma.

The most familiar criticism of materialism is that which points out its failure to account for certain facts in the world, and demonstrates the inadequacy of all materialistic explanations of such things as thought, action, æsthetic and moral values.

Such a criticism emphasises not the fact that no materialistic explanation of these things has ever yet proved satisfactory; for that would be a superficial and unfair method of attack, seeing that no theory can claim to account for everything; but rather the fact—for it does seem to be a fact—that the very method and presuppositions of materialism prevent it from ever coming any nearer to an adequate description of these things.

To take one case only, that of action: the peculiarity of action is that it is free and self-creative, not determined by any external circumstance; but according to the materialistic presupposition, action must be a kind of motion in matter, and therefore, like all other motion, cannot be free and must be causally determined by external circumstances. This is not to explain action, but to deny its existence. And therefore materialism seems to be an instance of the opposite error to dualism; the error of denying the existence of a fact because it will not fit into a system. But it must not be forgotten that this error too is half a virtue; and the respect with which philosophers such as Hegel treat materialism is due to the recognition that the materialist has the courage of his convictions and faith in his logic.

We shall not develop this criticism at length. It has been often and brilliantly done by abler hands. We shall confine our attention to certain difficulties which arise not from the deficiencies of materialism in its relation to the facts of life, but from its own internal obscurities.

The theory itself, in its simplest terms, seems to consist of two assertions: first, that all existence is composed of a substance called matter, and secondly, that all change is due to and controlled by a principle known as causation.

The simplicity and clearness of the theory, therefore, depend upon the simplicity and clearness of these two conceptions, matter and causation; and we shall try to find out whether they are really as simple and as clear as they appear to be.