A Short Annotated Bibliography on Materialism
Greek and Roman Materialism
1941 Basic Works. Richard McKeon, ed. New York: Random House.
Aristotle claimed that Thales (6th Century BCE) was the founder of Greek philosophy. According to Aristotle, Thales was the first to suggest that there was a single material substratum for the universe. Thales believed that water was the primary stuff of nature, the essential reality of all other phenomena. Aristotle argued that Thales chose water because he saw the essential part it played in nourishing life so that heat might come from it, since what is alive has heat. The significance of Thales is not in his choice of water as the essential substance, but that he attempted to explain nature by the simplification of phenomena and sought causes within nature itself rather than from the gods. (See Aristotle’s Metaphysics, On the Heavens, Politics, and On the Soul)
Cohen, S. Mark, Patricia Curd, and C. D. C. Reeve, eds.
1995 Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy From Thales to Aristotle. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.
Cohen et al. have compiled a volume of readings in ancient Greek philosophy.
This volume is useful in that it contains all of the surviving material
by and about important pre-Socratic materialist philosophers. Among
these are Anaximander, Anaximenes, and Heraclitus.
Anaximander was a student for follower of Thales. Anaximander agrees with Thales that there is one material stuff out of which everything in the cosmos is constructed, but he disagrees with Thales on the nature of this stuff. He argues that if the originating material is something as definite as water, then it cannot really become everything else. He claimed that the single original material must be something boundless or indefinite. This material is in motion, which gives rise to the opposites hot and cold. The hot eventually formed the sun and other heavenly bodies, and the cold matter is a dark mist that formed the air, earth and waters.
Anaximenes was a student of Anaximander. He agreed that there was a basic material that composed the cosmos, but he proposes a different nature for this material, which he called Aer. Aer is usually translated as “air” but it is more like a dense mist. Aer is indefinite enough to produce other things, but it is not as vague a concept as Anaximander’s boundless. Anaximenes is important in that he improves on the theories of Thales and Anaximander by discussing the processes by which the formation of things take place. He claimed that through condensation and rarefaction, aer was transformed into everything else.
Heraclitus (540 BCE - ??) was not a member of the intellectual tradition of Thales. He argued that there was a single divine law of the universe, which he called logos, which rules and guides the cosmos. This logos is an independent, objective truth that is available to all people. He argued that even though there is universal change, there is still a single, unchanging law of the cosmos. The physical sign of the logos is fire, and element that is always changing, yet always the same. Heraclitus is important for his belief that sure and certain knowledge can be acquired.
1965 The Origins of Materialism. New York: Merit Publishers.
This book is interesting in that it places the so-called “Pluralists” – Anaxagoras and Empedocles – into the materialist camp. Anaxagoras and Empedocles can be viewed as eclectics, using both materialist and idealist explanations to account for reality. Empedocles (492 BCE - ??) posited that the cosmos is comprised of four basic elements – Earth, Air, Water, Fire – and governed by two motive forces, Love and Strife. Anaxagoras (500 - 428 BCE) relied on material arguments when it found it possible, but in questions he was unable to answer, he explained them by reference to the mind and spirit. He is important in that he goes beyond Empedocles’ idea of four elements, and claimed that the principle building block were what he called “seeds.” Seeds were infinite in number, variety, and in smallness, and contained within them the qualities of everything else. These seeds were also unchanging and indestructible.
1999 The Atomists, Leucippus and Democritus. C. C. W. Taylor, ed. Toronto:
University of Toronto Press.
It is difficult to distinguish the work of Leucippus from that of his
more famous pupil, Democritus (460 – 370 BCE). Aristotle credited
Leucippus with originating the theory of atomism. Leucippus’s theory
stated that everything thing is composed of matter, which consists of an
infinite number of small indivisible particles called “atoms.” Atoms
are constantly in motion, and through collisions and regroupings with other
atoms form various compounds. The cosmos was created by the collision
of atoms that gathered together to form a “whirl.” At the center
of the cosmos was the drum-shaped earth.
Democritus elaborated on the views of Leucippus. He asserted that space, or the “Void” had an existence as did matter. This Void was a vacuum, an infinite space in which moved an infinite number of atoms that made up the physical world. Atoms were homogenous, and differed only in shape, position, arrangement, and magnitude. Atoms differed in quantity, but differences of quality (such as temperature, solidity/fluidity, etc.) are only apparent, caused on our senses by different combinations and configurations of atoms. Atoms are eternal, so it may be said that nothing comes into being or perishes in the absolute sense of the word.
1963 The Philosophy of Epicurus. George Strodach, ed. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
Epicurus (341 – 268 BCE) based his philosophy on the atomism of Democritus.
He was obliged to revise this philosophy in the light of idealist criticism.
He began by codifying the essential positions of atomism into twelve principles:
1) Matter is uncreatable; 2) Matter is indestructible; 3) The universe consists of solid bodies and void; 4) Solid bodies are either compounds or simple; 5) The multitude of atoms is infinite; 6) The Void is infinite in extent; 7) Atoms are always in motion; 8) The speed of atomic motion is uniform; 9) Motion is linear in space, vibratory in compounds; 10) atoms are capable of swerving slightly at in point in space and time; 11) Atoms are characterized by three qualities: weight, shape and size; 12) The number of different shapes is infinite, merely innumerable. Epicurus’ major innovation was in his idea that atoms can swerve. He advanced this theory for two reasons: It made possible the entanglement of atoms which would otherwise fall in parallel lines and never meet to form compounds; and in morality it liberated humankind from subjection to an infinite and inescapable chain of physical causation and made freedom of choice possible.
1977 The Nature of Things. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Lucretius (96 – 51 BCE), the Latin poet-philosopher is known for his single long poem, De rerum natura (The Nature of Things). The poem is the fullest extant statement of the physical theory of the Greek philosopher Epicurus. The poem discusses the twelve principles set forth by Epicurus, but it elaborates on certain aspects of his work. For example, Lucretius states that the soul is made of exceedingly fine atoms. The soul is born and grows with the body, and at death is dissipated like “smoke.” He argues that humans know by sense perception, which is infallible. However people argue by reason, and reason can make false inferences. Another important point that Lucretius makes is that humans naturally seek pleasure and avoid pain. They will succeed in maximizing their pleasure and minimizing their pain only if they are able, through philosophy, to overcome the fear of death and of the gods.
1898 The First Philosophers of Greece. New York: Scribner.
This is another collection of the remaining fragments by the pre-Socratic
Greek philosophers, similar to that of Cohen et al. Good source for
information on early materialists such as Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes,
and Heraclitus, as well as the “pluralists” Anaxagoras and Empedocles.
Enlightenment Materialism to Feuerbach
1981 Institutio Logica (1658): a critical edition with translation and introduction.
Howard Jones, ed. Assen, The Netherlands: Van Gorcum.
Materialism languished throughout the medieval period, but the Epicurean tradition was revived in the 17th century in the atomistic materialism of the French Catholic priest Pierre Gassendi (1592 – 1655). Gassendi rejected the innate ideas of Descartes and emphasized the inductive method and the senses as primary sources of knowledge. However, as a mathematician, he also accepted deductive reasoning. Gassendi also argued for a mechanistic explanation of nature and sensation. Gassendi's theories are considered to have prepared the way for modern empirical methods, anticipating those of the English philosopher John Locke and the French philosopher Étienne Bonnot de Condillac.
1839 The English works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury. William Molesworth,
ed. London: J. Bohn.
The English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was more complete and inclusive in his philosophical efforts than many of his contemporaries. He produced one of the most systematic philosophies of the early modern period--an almost completely consistent description of nature, man, and civil society according to the tenets of mechanistic materialism. Hobbes's primary metaphysical presumption was that the basic reality is matter in motion. The real world is a material universe in constant movement, and the phenomena, the causes and effects of which it is the business of philosophy to uncover, are either the mutual action of bodies or the effects of bodies upon minds. Hobbes's philosophy was a restatement of Greek atomistic materialism with applications to the realities of Renaissance politics
1988 Principles of philosophy. Lewiston, NY: E. Mellen Press.
René Descartes (1596-1650) proposed a dualistic philosophy, which made a complete split between mind and matter. However, in his theory of the physical world, and especially in his claim that animals are automata, Descartes’ philosophy had a mechanistic materialist side to it. 18th century materialists, such as La Mettrie, Diderot, and d’Holbach, took up these ideas.
1924 An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Oxford: Clarendon press.
Locke's (1632-1704) Essay was an attempt to produce the total world of man's conceptual experience out of a set of elementary sensory building blocks, moving always from sensation toward thought and from the simple to the complex. He argues that the ultimate source of men's ideas is sensation, and that all mental operations are a combining and compounding of simple sensory materials into complex conceptual tools.
Locke’s theory was based upon a kind of sensory atomism, which sees the mind as an agency of discovery rather than of creation and views its ideas as "like" the objects that are the sources of the sensations it receives. But it also claims that an important distinction must still be made between "primary qualities" such as solidity, figure, extension, motion, and rest, which are the actual characteristics of objects themselves, and "secondary qualities" such as color, taste, and smell, which are simply the internal consequences of how the mind is affected by them.
Julien de La Mettrie
1912 Man a Machine. Chicago: Open Court Publishing Company.
The influence of Locke spread to France, where it united with the mechanistic side of the teachings of Descartes to create an entire school devoted to a sensationalistic materialism. In Man a Machine, Julien de La Mettrie (1709 – 1751) applied Descartes views about animals to humans. A personal illness convinced him that psychic phenomena were directly related to organic changes in the brain and nervous system. La Mettrie’s materialistic interpretation of psychic phenomena laid the groundwork for future developments of behaviorism and played an important part in the history of modern Materialism.
D’Holbach, Paul Henri
1848 The System of Nature, or Laws of the Moral and Physical World. Boston: J. P.
Baron d'Holbach (1723-1789) followed in the same tradition as La Mettrie. D’Holbach argued that man is the work of nature. He exists within nature and is subject to nature’s laws. There is neither accident nor chance in nature. In nature there is no effect without sufficient cause, and all causes act according to fixed laws. Man is therefore not free for a single instant of his life. D’Holbach’s materialism was intended to rid the scientific world of supernaturalism. This particular edition of D’Holbach’s work contains notes by Denis Diderot (1713-1784), the French encyclopedist who supported a broadly materialist outlook.
1957 The Essence of Christianity. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing.
Feuerbach, (1804-1872), developed one of the first German materialistic
philosophies. In his youth he was a pupil of Hegel, the eminent German
philosopher, whose philosophical idealism he later rejected. In his chief
work, The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach stated that the existence
of religion is justifiable only in that it satisfies a psychological need;
a person's essential preoccupation is with the self, and the worship of
God is actually worship of an idealized self.
More important than Feuerbach's religious psychology is his sensationalistic materialism. According to Feuerbach, people and their material needs should be the foundation of social and political thought. An individual and his or her mind, he held, are products of their environment; the whole consciousness of a person is the result of the interaction of sensory organs and the external world. At one point he asserted “Man is what he eats”, and advocated better food to improve humankind. Feuerbach's emphasis on people and human needs, and his movement toward a materialistic interpretation of society influenced Marx and Engels.
Marx, Engels, and Lenin
1941 Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy. New York: International.
In Ludwig Feuerbach, Engels attempts to complete Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach. He begins with a discussion and critique of Feuerbach’s philosophy, and then concludes with a explanation of dialectal materialism, which combines the dialectics of Hegel with the materialism of Feuerbach.
1959 Anti-Dühring: Herr Eugen Dührings Revolution in
Science. Moscow: Foreign
Languages Pub. House.
Anti- Dühring is Engels’ first statement of the doctrine that came to be known as dialectical materialism. It was written as a polemical tract against Eugen Dühring, a short-lived rival for the intellectual leadership of the German Social Democratic Party. However, the book became a vehicle for the dissemination of the materialist thought of Marx and Engels. Engels explains his materialist views of materialism better than I can hope to:
“The materialist conception of history starts from the principle that production, and with production the exchange of its products, is the basis of every social order; that in every society which has appeared in history the distribution of its products, and with it the division of society into classes and estates, is determined by what is produced and how it is produced and how the product is exchanged. According to this conception, the ultimate causes of all social changes and political revolutions are sought, not in the minds of men, in their increasing insight into eternal truths and justice, but in the changes in the mode of production and exchange; they are to be sought not in the philosophy but in the economics of the epoch concerned.”
1935 Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. New York: International.
"The materialist conception
of history starts from the proposition that the
production of the means to support human life and, next to production, the
exchange of things produced, is the basis of all social structure; that in
every society that has appeared in history, the manner in which wealth is
distributed and society divided into classes or orders is dependent upon
what is produced, how it is produced, and how the products are exchanged.
From this point of view, the final causes of all social changes and
political revolutions are to be sought, not in men's brains, not in men's
better insights into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes
of production and exchange.”
1941 Theses on Feuerbach. In Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical
German Philosophy by Engels. New York: International.
Marx laid out eleven theses on Feuerbach, which Engels later developed. However, these theses are still worry of reading, and contain many dogmatic statements by Marx concerning materialism. Marx claims that the chief defect of all previous materialism is that the object, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or contemplation but not as human sensuous activity. The active side was developed by idealism, but idealism does not know real sensuous. Materialism needs to acknowledge the significance of revolutionary, practical-critical, activity. The materialist doctrine that people are products of circumstance and upbringing, and that, changed people are products of other circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is people that change circumstances. The highest point that can be attained by this “old” materialism is the contemplation of single individuals in “civil” society. In other words, it is not universally applicable, and cannot be used to examine phenomenon above the individual level. Marx further states that the standpoint of this “old” materialism is “civil” society, while the standpoint of his materialism is human society, or socialized humanity. Marx ends by stating that philosophers have only interpreted the world, but the point in to change it.
1970 Preface to a Critique of Political Economy. New York: International.
Marx claimed that his inquiry into a re-examination of the Hegelian
philosophy of law led him to the conclusion that neither legal relations nor political forms could be comprehended whether by themselves or on the basis of a so-called general development of the human mind, but that on the contrary they originate in the material conditions of life. The general conclusion at which Marx arrived, became the guiding principle of his studies, and can be summarized as follows:
“In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”
1970 German Ideology. New York : International Publishers.
"The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of
living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the
physical organization of these individuals and their consequent relation to
the rest of nature....Men can be distinguished from animals by
consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin
to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce
their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical
organization. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly
producing their actual material life.”
Marx, Engels, and Lenin
1974 On Historical Materialism: A Collection. New York: International.
This collection contains works of Marx, Engels, and Lenin on the theory of historical materialism. They deal with the laws governing the development of society, the relation between the productive forces and the relations of production, the basis and the superstructure, the role of the masses and the individual in history, and discuss many other issues. Also included are excerpts from books and articles by Marx, Engels, and Lenin showing how they applied their theories to analysis of contemporary events.
1964 Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Peking: Foreign Languages Press.
Lenin's analysis of modern capitalism. He argues that imperialism is a product of monopoly finance capitalism. At the close of 19th century, a small number of banks had become dominant in the advanced European countries. Controlling vast quantities of "surplus" capital, these banks sought super-profits on investments in colonies and semi-colonies, and this intensified the race for empires among the powers. By 1914, this race had led to war. World War I was therefore imperialist in its origins and aims and deserved the condemnation of socialists. Future wars were inevitable so long as imperialism existed. Imperialism was inevitable so long as capitalism existed. Therefore only the overthrow of capitalism can ensure world peace.
1970 Materialism and Empirio-Criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary
Philosophy. New York: International Publishers.
A philosophical treatise published originally published in 1908. It was directed against the empirio-criticism of Ernst Mach. The book is an addition to Marxists dialectical materialism and historical materialism in the light of new scientific and social developments. Lenin looked critically at agnosticism, empirio-monism, empirio-symbolism, fideism, and physical idealism. Lenin stressed the importance of objective truth and practice, and also made some new contributions to the Marxist theory of cognition.
Jordan, Z. A.
1966 The Evolution of Dialectical Materialism. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Jordan traces the origin and evolution of dialectical materialism. The book is divided into three sections. The first part covers the philosophical sources of dialectical materialism. The second deals with its foundations and revisions (by Plekhanov, Lenin, Stalin, and Engels). The third section discusses the connections between dialectical materialism and historical materialism. This book is good for a detailed description of how dialectical materialism changed over time, and in the hands of different people.
Lange, Frederick A.
1865 The History of Materialism. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.
This book is detailed history of materialism written during Marx’s time.
Lange traces the history of materialist ideas from the Greek atomists to
the 1860’s. Very little reference is made to Marx, but contemporary
issues about which Marx wrote are discussed. This book provides an
example of what was known about materialism. However, the book was
criticized by Marx and others. Plekhanov said that it had "contributed
a great deal, not towards the criticism of materialism but towards spreading
and strengthening among the public a wrong view of the historical development
of materialism and of its importance for modern social science.”
Marx stated in a letter to Engels (March 11, 1865) that it was “confused;
Malthusianism mixed with Darwinian; flirts with all sides--but there are
some nice things against Lassalle and the bourgeois consumers' co-operative
Morgan and Materialism after Marx
Morgan, Lewis H.
1978 Ancient Society. Palo Alto: New York Labor News
In Ancient Society, Morgan argued that the evolution of human society could be divided into successive stages. This evolution proceeded from simple to complex, and Morgan outlined this progress by correlating his states of social evolution with developments in technology, subsistence, and family structure. Ancient Society influenced Marx and Engels in their study of non-Western societies, and was the basis of Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.
1949 The Science of Culture: A Study of Man and Civilization. New York: Grove
Inspired by his reading of Morgan, Leslie White came to the conclusion that unilineal cultural evolution was a valid concept, but that early evolutionists had worked with inadequate data. White believed that a universal quantifiable standard of measurement. He argued that the control of energy was the key factor in cultural evolution and could be used as a standard to measure evolutionary progress. Like Marx, he divided culture into three analytical levels – the technological, sociological, and ideological. White says that technology played the primary role in cultural evolution. White did not use Marxist dialectics in his work.
1979 Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture. New York:
Marvin Harris promotes the theory of Cultural Materialism in his book of the same name (as well as the rest of his books). His approach has been called “vulgar materialism” because of his emphasis on infrastructural determinism. He takes the materialists concepts from Marx, and like White, he divorces it from dialectics. He also viewed culture in the three level sense that was proposed by Marx. In his model the major lines of causation flow from the material base (modes of production and reproduction) upward to the ideological superstructure.
Sellers, Roy, V. J. McGill and Marvin Farber, eds.
1949 Philosophy for the Future: The Quest for Modern Materialism. New York: The
This book is a collection of writings on materialist history and theory
written at mid-century. It includes work by anthropologists, as well
as scholars from many other disciplines. The purpose of the book
is the exploration and reformation of materialism.