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Bible Encyclopedias

1911 Encyclopedia Britannica


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(from Lat. materia, matter), in philosophy, the theory which regards all the facts of the universe as explainable in terms of matter and motion, and in particular explains all psychical processes by physical and chemical changes in the nervous system. It is thus opposed both to natural realism and to idealism. For the natural realist stands upon the common-sense position that minds and material objects have equally effective existence; while the idealist explains matter by mind and denies that mind can be explained by matter. The various forms into which materialism may be classified correspond to the various causes which induce men to take up materialistic views. Naïve materialism is due to a cause which still, perhaps, has no small power, the natural difficulty which persons who have had no philosophic training experience in observing and appreciating the importance of the immaterial facts of consciousness. The pre-Socratics may be classed as naïve materialists in this sense; though, as at that early period the contrast between matter and spirit had not been' fully realized and matter was credited with properties that belong to life, it is usual to apply the term hylozoism to the earliest stage of Greek metaphysical theory. It is not difficult to discern the influence of naïve materialism in contemporary thinking. We see it in Huxley, and still more in Haeckel, whose materialism (which he chooses to term "monism") is evidently conditioned by ignorance of the history and present position of speculation. Cosmological materialism is that form of the doctrine in which the dominant motive is the formation of a comprehensive world-scheme: the Stoics and Epicureans were cosmological materialists. In anti-religious materialism the motive is hostility to established dogmas which are connected, in the Christian system especially, with certain forms of spiritual doctrine. Such a motive weighed much with Hobbes and with the French materialists of the 18th century, such as La Mettrie and d'Holbach. The cause of medical materialism is the natural bias of physicians towards explaining the health and disease of mind by the health and disease of body. It has received its greatest support from the study of insanity, which is now fully recognized as conditioned by disease of the brain. To this school belong Drs Maudsley and Mercier. The highest form of the doctrine is scientific materialism, by which term is meant the doctrine so commonly adopted by the physicist, zoologist and biologist.

It may perhaps be fairly said that materialism is at present a necessary methodological postulate of natural-scientific inquiry. The business of the scientist is to explain everything by the physical causes which are comparatively well understood and to exclude the interference of spiritual causes. It was the great work of Descartes to exclude rigorously from science all explanations which were not scientifically verifiable; and the prevalence of materialism at certain epochs, as in the enlightenment of the 18th century and in the German philosophy of the middle ,9th, were occasioned by special need to vindicate the scientific position, in the former case against the Church, in the latter case against the pseudo-science of the Hegelian dialectic. The chief definite periods of materialism are the pre-Socratic and the post-Aristotelian in Greece, the 18th century in France, and in Germany the ,9th century from about 1850 to 1880. In England materialism has been endemic, so to speak, from Hobbes to the present time, and English materialism is more important perhaps than that of any other country. But, from the national distrust of system, it has not been elaborated into a consistent metaphysic, but is rather traceable as a tendency harmonizing with the spirit of natural science. Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Mill and Herbert Spencer are not systematic materialists, but show tendencies towards materialism.

See METAPHYSICS; and Lange's History of Materialism.

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Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Materialism'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. 1910.

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