Quo Vadis, Materialism? Nowhere, It Seems…

I mentor a few young philosophers; which basically means young readers of philosophy pester me for answers, and I annoy them with corrective questions.  Occasionally, I do give them something like an answer, but it is mostly for the purposes of spiking their silly ideas into the sand, causing their thought process to begin again fresh, humbled.  Socrates’ modus operandi may have been likewise inspired.  The question I’m going to address has been posed to me in a variety of different ways, and I’m not quite sure how to best reformulate the question.  I think it would be approximately accurate to recast the question as follows:  Isn’t there an issue with the fact that “matter” seems to be a metaphysical concept, yet it is referred to as a physical entity?  Another way of asking the question might be: Why would a scientist hold a materialistic worldview in conjunction with their scientific perspective, if materialism is a philosophical presupposition that is grounded metaphysics?  The concern I’m faced with, in these young students, is that, in their philosophical reading from ancient times onward and their penchant for popular scientific literature, they are detecting that there is no necessary connection between scientific theories and practices, on the one hand, and a materialistic worldview, on the other.  I’m torn on the matter of expressing my thoughts when they are struggling with ideas, because they are vulnerable, perhaps even liable, to commit an argumentum ad verecundiam, as if I know what I’m talking about.


A short response is satisfactory for now, I think, and for good reason.  The reason is this: having discussed the concept of what “matter” is with philosophers and scientists over hundreds of hours, it is clear to me that none of them know what they mean by word.  Actually, I know what they want to mean, rather, but the problem is that, once brought to light that what they wish the concept to be can’t actually be reified in any meaningful way, there is endless ad hoc substitutions, vague ersatz definition supplements, and sometimes accusations that, “oh! You are just philosophizing [and annoying me by revealing my definitive cognitive dissonance and egregious lack of clarity of thought]!”  Scientists, especially physicists, like to give water-tube toy definitions of matter, once they struggle after just a couple of seconds.  (You know, those rubber, gel-filled toys in which you squeeze one side, and the gel squirts to the other end.)  The water-tube toy “definition” is that matter is a different form of energy.  There is a bit of irony in that, as I’ll end with some closing remarks on the Logical Positivists/Logical Empiricists and W.v.O. Quine –the latter being a product of the former in ways.  The upshot from those remarks will be clear.


The big problem with materialism, aside from the fact that nobody seems to know what they mean by “matter,” is that there was a commonsense usage which did little to transform from ancient times.  The beginnings of the concept of matter in Greek philosophy begins with “hyle,” which can be swapped with “stuff,” or even as non-descript stuff (e.g., excrement, again, as used today in vulgar social contexts).  The non-descript and inert nature of this hyle is what defined it, entirely, as a phenomenal entity.  There was nothing metaphysical about, and it was present in givenness, plain and simple.  It seems to be that, as separation of materials (e.g., separation of clays from soil and ores, etc.) from one another came to conscious inquiry and foundationalist hierarchies of ontology came about, philosophers wanted to explore a newer concept, hypokeimenon.  It’s a bizarre, hard-to-explain shift in thinking that occurred: the Greeks wanted to know what gave rise to phenomena.  As you can read throughout Plato, especially in texts like the Theaetetus, Plato’s (and Socrates’) philosophy had at its heart the distinction of reality and appearance –hence, Bertrand Russell’s later title.  Obviously, the Greek philosophers became interested in the hyle under the hyle, and the underlying hyle was called the hypokeimenon: that’s the metaphysical stuff that underlies and gives rise to the stuff that is merely apparent, and not necessarily real in the fullest sense, known as hyle or matter.  The interest, from then on, was what gave rise to the appearance of matter.  On and off throughout history, philosophers had some rather forgetful bouts with the history of philosophy, wherein they proposed “matter” to be somehow fundamental, disregarding the plenitude of questions posed by philosophers before them.


Filling in the details of this history and the nature of philosophical inquiry might be a little blogging project I take up at some later point, but there are two major developments in the history of philosophy that are most relevant here.  The first is the coming of idealism, which was effectively the realization that the physical world is comprised of characteristics (e.g., extension, penetrability/impenetrability, etc.), rather than requiring a strange ancient folk-philosophical concept, namely, “matter,” which represented a time when metaphysics and ontology were naively compressed into a single, unconsidered existence, when the stuff of appearance was also what was underlying.  (As strange as that sounds, it will be relevant in a second, when the Logical Positivists come on the scene.)  Leibniz was perfectly capable of developing is theories of natural philosophy (now called “physics”), despite rejecting these strange ancient ideas about matter, and occupying an intellectual space of idealism.  Leibniz, being deeply metaphysical, discarded with the ancient folk-philosophical concept.  There was no need for it.  (And what the heck does anybody mean by “matter,” anyway?)  A great deal of the development of natural philosophy into later “hard science” was the pursuit for more metaphysical understanding of the stuff of givenness, such as in the work of Newton, Lemonosov, and Lavoisier; but no deeper metaphysical underlying cause of the world of appearance was understood.


At the turn of the twentieth century, a group of physicists, mathematicians, and a few philosophers, called the Vienna Circle, sounded the death knell of matter.  What was matter, anyways?  The Vienna Circle completely revamped the philosophy of science by putting everything into terms of phenomena and logical rules of behavior.  (An oversimplification, but fine for this discussion.)  Maybe no greater representative of the group of intellectuals was Rudolf Carnap, who sought at every turn to destroy and eliminate all traces of metaphysics from the sciences.  It often goes unnoticed, but all traces of any notion like matter was eliminated, save for the respect in which matter was meant to refer to a kind of phenomena.  Its existence was purely linguistic and referential to phenomena of types.  Were I an historian in 1930, I probably would have been writing about how the Vienna Circle had put an end to the vague antiquated folk-philosophical concept of matter.  Where is the need for it?  What conceptual work does the word do?  As I mentioned, nobody can really even say what they mean, especially when words from the ancient version, like “indefinite” and “inert,” are stripped away.  After the Vienna Circle, W.v.O. Quine would present a philosophy of science that was both influenced by the Vienna Circle, but one that also rejected it in a linguistic turn: his proposal was that science is a sort of network of linguistic statements that are revised, interconnected, and necessarily interdependent.  It’s for this reason that the definition of matter given by scientists today is ironic.


In large part, it is my opinion that the absurd philosophy and dogmatic views of Bertrand Russell have done a great deal to revive the folk-philosophical concept.  I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader, especially those who have read Appearance and Reality, to consider why Bertrand was so worried about matter.  What could he socially and politically gain?  I’ll give you two hints: 1) in history, what positions did people historically hold who made authoritative statements about metaphysics? and 2) what was Russell’s annoyance with George Berkeley in Appearance and Reality?  Understand these things, and you understand a great many things about the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.


To close, for those interested in shifting the definition of matter to be mass-bearing objects of spatial extension, then you have a big problem, which is quite sophisticated.  The nature of the problem is that mass is not a definite idea, in itself.  Not only does the meaning of the term change between times and contexts, but there are also some procedural experimental difficulties in distinguishing mass from other concepts.  The work highlighting all of these issues is Max Jammer’s work, Concepts of Mass in Classical and Modern Physics, which contains a discussion of experimental and theoretical physics related to the notion of mass, the concept’s historical transformations, and a philosophical examination of the concept throughout history.


Filed under Ancient Greek, History and Philosophy of Science, History of Science, Metaphysics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Philosophy of Science, Pure Philosophy, Science

9 responses to “Quo Vadis, Materialism? Nowhere, It Seems…

  1. PeterJ

    Hi David – This is one of the most sensible comments on materialism that I’ve read. Russell was a very good writer and very poor thinker in my not so humble opinion. Bradley’s ‘Appearance and Reality’ shows us how to do it.

    • Thanks for the comment Peter. As much as I dislike the disposition of Bertrand Russell, he was a great thinker. I believe he was a wrangler, which is a top mathematician in the UK system of university education, and his display in formal logic is to be lauded for both its creativity and clarity. BUT! But I think he is emblematic of a fear we all need to have in the 21st century, namely, that very intelligent and mentally capable people can, at a moments notice, discard their capacities of right thinking to take up rationalization, in order to persuade others of things they wish to be true. Philosophy requires a certain and high degree of willingness to go where thought takes one, because it is only thought, rightly performed, that is capable of taking the thinker to truth. The thinker is only capable taking thought (i.e., the rationalization process) to pre-fabricated, paper-thin fact statements about how one wishes and hopes the world is. This is what a rhetorician-dogmatist does. I said this is a cautionary tale in the 21st century, because the rhetorician-dogmatists are everywhere, especially in politics. It’s hard to find real philosophers anywhere, even in philosophy departments, and Bertrand Russell has a great deal to do with that. I still enjoy his ideas, but very few of them I find to hold any kind of truth. Bradley was much more a philosopher than Russell, that’s for sure.

      • PeterJ

        I’d have no argument with any of that, David, and think you put it very well. Real philosophers seem to be rarer than ever and to be virtually extinct in the profession. I’d agree that Russell has something to do with this. If one compares the philosophical writings of physicists in the early 20th century with those of today it feels like we’ve regressed back to childhood, and I suspect that Russell and some of his crew did a lot to encourage this disrespect for philosophy.

        If you don’t know of him you might like to check out Russell’s colleague George Spencer Brown, one of many philosophers Russell was too blinkered to understand.but whose ideas were way ahead of his own. Brown deals properly with logic as it applies to ontology, although one could argue that there’s a better way.

      • Yes, I agree about the disappearance of philosophers in the profession. I often say to peers that almost all of the remaining philosophers live in other academic departments or have gone on to some profession; and even a few have moved into solitude.

        I’ve read Brown’s “Laws of Form,” for my Master’s in Humanities, because I was studying a physics phenomenon, called “self-organizing criticality,” in relation to Susan Oyama’s work and in relation to Maturana, et. al. These are the sorts of extremely creative ideas I most enjoy.

      • PeterJ

        Oh yes. Varella and all that. Great to meet someone who has studied Brown. Doesn’t happen often. I;m off to read some more of your writing.

      • Thanks. Yeah, there are a few of us in the States reading Brown, Varella, etc. right now. I was encourage to read him by a PhD out of Penn State, who guided me on MA in Humanities (which pretty much entirely studies in philosophy, so I could avoid a traditional department). There are some folks at Indiana University extensively studying this stuff, too.

  2. Hi David – just got here on Peter’s recommendation and I agree with all he says. it’s funny, once someone ‘gets’ that “matter” is a metaphysical concept and not some scientifically ascertained phenomenon, it’s so obvious, they often wonder how it was possible they hadn’t seen it before.

    On to reading some more of your writing!

    • Hi, Don. Yes, that’s key! Thanks for the comment.

      • PeterJ

        David – Just a note to say, in relation to our other discussion elsewhere, that Brown’s calculus describes exactly the same universe that Nagarjuna’s logical argument describes. Either they’re both right or both wrong.

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