Explaining Materialism

Keith Ward on Materialism, 6     1  2  3  4  5

“It is easy to forget how very recent and meteoric the rise of materialism has been in philosophy”, Ward further explains. “How could it get from being a joke to being a claimant to obvious truth in forty years? I think there have been two major factors at work. One is the rise of cynicism about any sort of idealistic approach to life, about all human institutions, including religious ones, and about the failures of religious people to prevent violence and hatred, and indeed their tendency to increase violence and hatred in the world.”

Here it seems important to make a distinction with regard to the “idealistic approach to life”. It is true to say that there has been a rise of cynicism about “any sort of” such approach. But I think there are nonetheless two basically different sorts that must be kept apart.

One is the strictly philosophical, metaphysical, religious and traditionalist, which may or may not express itself in moral and social concerns, but which, when it does, is allied to a proper, classical and indeed classicist humanistic view of man, based on ethical dualism and realistic discernment with regard to the nature of man, society and the world (something which does not preclude the acceptance and incorporation of the important partial truths of the Enlightenment and Romanticism, or modernity in general, which can contribute to creative renewal of tradition and beneficent change). This is the idealistic approach to life which I am inclined to defend.

The other is the modern romantic and rationalist one which Irving Babbitt calls humanitarian, an undiscerning, illusorily progressivist pseudo-idealism based on a facile, immanentizing modern pantheism and monism in its view of both man and the world. Such idealism often had no problems accepting, in practice at least, materialism as sound, and to affirm it as part of an expression of honest, emancipated, sensual life-affirmation against the bigoted metaphysical idealism and religion of the reactionaries. There is certainly cynicism today about this form of idealism too; the liberals and leftists who used to believe in it are indeed often cynics and rather nihilists in both theory and practice. (There is a third sense of idealism, namely unselfish commitment to things believed in, and various associated qualities. This sense is not really determined by what those things are, but it often merges with the second sense by the addition of the characteristics of humanitarianism.)

This disillusion is made inevitable by the illusoriness of this kind of idealism itself; it was prefigured already in the nineteenth century and has been thoroughly analysed and explained by Babbitt and others. The problem is that it affects also the understanding of and attitude towards the first, genuine form of idealism.

Ward observes that the cynicism “has been largely motivated by the Marxist ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’, the accusation that all religious and moral systems are in fact ideologies, no more than sophisticated disguises for egoistic self-seeking on the part of their proponents”. Ward rightly uses the term “hermeneutics of suspicion” about Marxism, but it should be pointed out that this is not an exclusively Marxist phenomenon. As I remember it, it was introduced by Ricoeur for the purpose of describing a wider range of such hermeneutics, including those of Nietzsche and Freud. The reason Ward does not mention this is perhaps that he does not regard Nietzsche as a materialist, and it is certainly true that those other forms of the hermeneutics of suspicion are more relevant for the understanding of general non- and anti-idealism rather than for materialism specifically.

But classical philosophy “can thus be seen as a disguise for elitist social systems that privilege the sort of cultivated discussion that only leisure and wealth can bring. The realities of life lie further down, in work and physical effort. The material is the real, while the spiritual is a fictitious construct to delude the oppressed and keep them in their place.” Ward enters into the kind of extra-philosophical explanation in terms of an analysis of political and cultural history, psychology etc. which I mentioned as required. He does so both because the extra-philosophical agenda and motivation are obvious, but also because the weakness of materialism as philosophy proper calls for such explanation.

The philosophical arguments of materialism should of course not simply be reduced to and explained in terms of something else, but considered in themselves. But on the condition that they are also considered as such, other explanation is legitimate in the case where other motivation than the purely philosophical is obviously at work. Such explanation of idealism is of course attempted by materialists when they perceive other forces and interests as being involved. The problem is that they do so often inadmissibly reduce and explain away the arguments in terms of those other factors.

As we see, Ward immediately identifies the relation between the growth of materialism and its becoming part of a political ideology as central to the needed explanation: “When Karl Marx boasted that he had taken the philosophy of Hegel, and stood it on its head, so that the world is not the self-expression of Absolute Spirit, as in Hegel, but a purposeless and violent by-product of blind material forces, he described the dethronement of Spiritual reality exactly. The irony is that Capitalists as well as Marxists fell under this revolutionary spell. Capitalists may have resisted the idea of a centralised State-run economy, but they often fell completely for the idea that ‘realism’ requires that the profit-motive (the morally neutral capacity to satisfy any or all desires) is the real driving force of history, and that spiritual ideals are artificial stimulants to distract the attention of the toiling masses.”

It could of course be argued that the capitalists had this orientation even before Marx, ever since the classical liberals and classical political economy, and that it was quite as much Marx who took it over from them, as well as from others. Yet Marxism in its many forms remains a major cause of the ascendancy of materialism, even though many who consider themselves materialists are not aware that to a considerable extent this is why they do so.

Despite the incessant insistence throughout the twentieth century that materialists are often good and morally upright people while religious and metaphysically idealist people are evil, oppressive hypocrites,  and indeed the obvious truth of this insistence in many cases, what we have long seen before us is a culture continuously declining under the impact of materialism, along with public and private morality. Materialism often has very real existential consequences, both for the materialists themselves, decisively shaping their lives, their personal development and their spiritual destinies, and for the lives of others who live together with them. Although theoretical and practical materialism are different things, and although theoretical idealists can be practical materialists and theoretical materialists can be practical idealists, they are nevertheless related things.

It was obvious from the beginning that the problem of materialism had a political dimension or a dimension of political philosophy and ideology, a dimension which had to be addressed as such. Opposing materialism had to involve opposing Marxism, or Marxism as materialism, as including the affirmation of matter as what Marx considered matter to be. Understandably, and in strict accordance with Marxist ideology, idealism, in a vague sense, was always a main enemy in the rhetoric of the communist regimes, and sometimes personalism too. But opposing materialism also had to involve opposing capitalism and the main forms of liberalism, for the reason Ward mentions.

Most materialist radicals were once idealists in the second sense described above. They opposed what they perceived to be the narrow-minded, egotistical and materialistic conservatives. Needless to say, there were such conservatives, conservatives who were certainly not idealists in the first sense. There were decisive partial truths in the radicals’ criticism, truths which of course need to be affirmed and assimilated by the creative traditionalist defender of an alternative modernity. Marxists opposed idealism because it was perceived to be only an obstacle to the spread of the truths of historical and dialectical materialism. They rejected personalism because it saw the person it defended as only the bourgeois individual that was the class enemy. They turned against Christianity and the churches because they were inextricable ideological parts of the oppressive power-structures of the remaining, semi-feudal class society. But it soon turned out the whole truth was different and much more complex than the radicals thought.

There are, of course, also other reasons for the ascendancy of materialism: “In addition to this sense that the material, not the spiritual, is the driving-force of history, the incredible progress of the natural sciences is the second major factor that has contributed to the rise of materialism.” Ward gives examples of this from cosmology, genetics, and brain and computer science, examples of how developments in those fields have made materialism seem more plausible. These examples, which I will not cite here, do not make it particularly clear to me why this should necessarily be so. And Ward will soon proceed to show how other developments in science have rather made materialism seem utterly implausible.

But, Ward says, “It can look as if our increasing knowledge of physical processes is at last revealing the secrets of consciousness and thought. It is not only ideas that are ideological constructs. Now minds themselves are often seen as illusions produced by physical processes in the brain.” I have to admit I have always found it impossible to understand how people can experience themselves and reality in this way. Is it really true that there are people who see their minds, consciousness and thought as illusions? Ward’s further description hardly makes it more comprehensible:

“Classical philosophers began from what was most evident to them – their own experiences and thoughts. But now science seems to some to show that experiences are by-products of brain-processes, and brains can function very well whether or not conscious experiences exist. Thoughts are the dimly perceived epiphenomena of computational sequences in the brain-computer, which are the really effective causes of all our apparently mental behaviour. Marxism dethroned Spirit from having a primary role in how the world is. Science has dethroned consciousness from having a primary role in our understanding of the world. Thus materialism pricks the bubble of our spiritual illusions, and reveals that we are in fact computational, inefficiently designed and largely malfunctioning, physical entities without any larger purpose or meaning within the blind, pointless, freak accident of a wholly physical universe.”

From the Vedantic perspective and that of similar traditions, materialism is of course accounted for in terms of an imperfect awareness of reality caused by ignorance and illusion and a low level of development of consciousness. This, clearly, must on this view be what on the deepest level explains the contemporary materialist view of reality described by Ward, although it has spread due to distinctive historical forces and agendas. As phenomenology too attests, for philosophers to ”begin from” a ”wholly physical universe” etc. and not from ”their own experiences and thoughts”, presupposing that the former and not the latter is ”most evident to them”, involves a strange and inadmissible speculative leap. It is based on illusion.

Despite all the historical developments that have, as it were, facilitated, reinforced and promoted this illusion, Ward still finds the materialist conclusion absurd. Yet the reason some of “the ablest contemporary philosophers” are materialists is, Ward thinks, “partly because it takes a huge amount of logical ingenuity to make the materialist programme seem plausible, so that it is an interesting challenge to good philosophers”. This explanation is revealing with regard to contemporary philosophy and the general cultural and intellectual climate in which it has developed. Later, he returns to the explanation of materialism on a more fundamental and timeless level.

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"A Self-realized being cannot help benefiting the world. His very existence is the highest good."
Ramana Maharshi