In philosophical terms, the concept of matter advances the fact that all things are made up of matter and all thoughts are created as a result of the interaction of matter. Conventionally, materialism argues that matter is the only substance in existence. There are currently many schools in philosophy that explain materialism although evidently, materialism can be equated to idealism and at the same time, materialism theories can be contrasted with idealism and neutral monism (Stalin,1938).
However, these concepts relate to their views on reality and the specific answers they give towards perplexing questions in philosophy. Materialism can be best comprehended through its interaction with other theories of immaterialism because it purports that matter is the primary substance of human thought and it builds on itself. This study will further analyze this concept and identify its contributions and applications.
Materialism developed from several views developed in possibly different geographical locations. Inherently, the first level of concept development started in the axial age which was largely characterized by the works of Karl Jaspers (George, 1979).
In Indian philosophical circles, materialism developed from the works of Ajita Kesakambali, Payasi and Kanada; in China, it developed from the works of Xun Zi, Yang Xiong and Wang Chong while in Greece, it developed from the works of Anaxagoras, Epicurus and Democritus and Lucretius (George, 1979, p 11).
Earlier principles of materialism were developed from the principles that there was no way something could be built out of nothing and equally, “nothing” could have the effect of touch. These concepts were developed from epistemological studies that majorly concentrated on the train of thought and the nature and scope of knowledge.
Epistemological studies sought to determine what human beings know, the nature of knowledge, the acquisition of knowledge, and if human beings comprehend what they know. Most studies advanced from this school of thought sought to determine what people now term as their beliefs, the truth and the justification that makes concepts truthful. Deeper analyses determined how knowledge is produced and how different claims sum up what we now term as knowledge.
From this school of thought (epistemology) materialism developed because it sought to explain how knowledge is acquired. Materialism therefore came in to identify that matter builds on knowledge. Further, materialism explained that a person can only know material objects through constant mediation in the human mind which is facilitated by how the brain is structured. Baruss (1993) affirms that:
“Everything objective, extended, active, and hence everything material, is regarded by materialism as so solid a basis for its explanations that a reduction to this (especially if it should ultimately result in thrust and counter-thrust) can leave nothing to be desired. But all this is something that is given only very indirectly and conditionally” (pp. 254-55)
Real Life Applications
All substances in the world regardless of whether they are in solid, liquid or gaseous forms often consist of protons, neutrons, and electrons which are components that mediate fields of different substances. Currently, it is believed that about 5% of the universe is made up of such matter and most universal components are composed of material matter, but there is little agreement regarding what constitutes this matter (Sadoulet, 2007, p. 61).
The Darwin theory is also a real life application of the concept of materialism because it identifies that what we know as organic matter today (with regard to the nature of plants, animals and man) was developed from decades of progressive development. This severely dented concepts advanced by the epistemological stand on nature.
The materialist concept can also be analyzed in form of a quantitative to a qualitative process. For example, when water is at room temperature, it has no effects in its present state but a change in temperature causes a shift in the nature of matter to either gas or liquid.
Another example is that, in order for a platinum wire to glow, a significant amount of matter change needs to be observed in form of heat that changes the state of matter of the platinum wire, enabling it to glow. Every matter can therefore be changed through a shift in the nature of matter as can be seen through the illustration of liquid water which changes to gaseous form and at the same time, it can revert back to liquid form. Stalin (1938) affirms that
“What are known as the constants of physics (the point at which one state passes into another – J. St.) are in most cases nothing but designations for the nodal points at which a quantitative (change) increase or decrease of movement causes a qualitative change in the state of the given body, and at which, consequently, quantity is transformed into quality” (pp. 30).
Real life applications can also be found in the field of chemistry whereby qualitative changes arise as a result of a shift in the quantitative composition of matter. For example, when analyzing the components of oxygen, it involves two atoms but if it were to contain three, we would obtain a new qualitative component: ozone.
This will be a totally new component which if contrasted with the original oxygen; is distinctively different in terms of odor while its reaction is also totally different. In the same regard, we can also obtain a totally different substance if we react oxygen with sulphur or nitrogen (two matters mixing) because we will obtain a different substance that also has a totally different matter composition from the parent substances.
Contrary to most concepts that purport a different view other than the materialistic view (like the idealistic view), materialism observes that matter is a realistic thing and not a cognitive sensation as is asserted by the epistemological view (Baruss, 1993, p. 254).
Matter is therefore quite distinct from our thoughts while consciousness is a secondary form that comes from an interaction of matter. Human thought is therefore reflective of matter and it is also a reflection of a high level interaction of matter that occurs in the brain. Materialism therefore asserts that thought is a direct product of matter and that trying to differentiate the two would be a wrong thing. Stalin (1938) affirms that:
“The material, sensuously perceptible world to which we ourselves belong is the only reality…. Our consciousness and thinking, however supra-sensuous they may seem, are the product of a material, bodily organ, the brain. Matter is not a product of mind, but mind itself is merely the highest product of matter” (p. 27).
In a way, we can deduce the fact that materialism was a development of epistemology because it sought to answer important questions of epistemology asking: How do we know what we know? And what is knowledge? Bluntly, materialism answers this questions by affirming that human beings know what they know as a result of interaction of matter and knowledge is a product of a high level of matter interaction in a most sophisticated level of brain development.
Baruss, I. (1993). Can We Consider Matter As Ultimate Reality? Some Fundamental.
Problems with a Materialist Interpretation of Reality. Ultimate Reality and Meaning: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Philosophy of Understanding, 16(3-4), 245–254.
George, N. (1979). The Origins of Materialism. New York: Pathfinder Press.
Sadoulet, B. (2007). Particle Dark Matter in the Universe: At the Brink of Discovery? Science, 315(5808), 61–63.
Stalin, J. (1938). Dialectical and Historical Materialism. Retrieved from https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1938/09.htm