The Exceptionality of Materialism

Keith Ward on Materialism, 5     1  2  3  4

“Materialism has rarely seriously been on the agenda of classical philosophy”, Ward says. Materialists are perhaps not quite as rare in European philosophy as in Indian thought (where it is necessarily represented only by those who – and I think there are, before the importation of Western scientisms and Marxism of course, only two schools – position themselves outside of the major spiritual traditions), but it is remarkable that they are not so much less rare as one might think. Before materialism became part of a political ideology, Marxism, they were in fact very few in the West.

The first philosophical formulation of materialism is still relevant to its definition or for accounts of what materialists mean: “Democritus’ theory that nothing finally exists except material particles with mass, position and velocity, interacting with one another in more and more complicated ways, did not have much appeal as a description of the value-laden, complex world of human experience, with all its depths of feeling and varieties of intellectual description.” This points to some of the experience that is part of the philosophical point of departure and basis of personalism, and to the reasons why this experience speaks against materialism. Personalism is, or should be, a form of idealism.

Ward remembers “the occasion when materialism first hit the world of Oxford philosophy”. This is remarkable. Ward was born in 1938. But he is of course not saying materialism had been unknown in Oxford philosophy. Many of the basic materialist positions became prominent in the nineteenth century and had been widely discussed since then, although materialism has certainly been further developed and radicalized in recent decades, a fact which Ward also discusses. What he means here is that materialism was not embraced and defended by Oxford philosophers – that it didn’t quite “hit” it.

Also, he is speaking only of materialism, not of atheism. It is quite possible to be an atheist without being a materialist, like Hume, and Ward notes elsewhere that there are more atheists than materialists in the history of Western philosophy. It is also possible to be a non-materialist but not an idealist. It is all a matter of various levels of experience, insight, and coherence and comprehensiveness of reasoning. But we define materialism here primarily in such a way as to make it impossible to be both a materialist and a theist, or one who affirms the spiritual view of the world – as the position that matter is all there is, the position of reductionist materialism. But the question of this kind of materialism turns out to be inseparable from a secondary definition, the one according to which materialism is merely the affirmation of the existence of such a thing as matter as understood by materialists in itself, with the exception of its quality of being that to which all reality can be reduced.

As late as the early 1960s, reductionist materialism was unknown in Oxford, Ward recounts. There were then “three main Professors of Philosophy in Oxford – Gilbert Ryle, A. J. Ayer, and R. M. Hare. Hare was an Anglican, Ryle an agnostic, and Ayer an atheist. But they all agreed that materialism was an over-dogmatic, impoverished and over-simplified form of belief that completely failed to account for the sheer diversity of the human world, the importance of human experience, and the exigencies of morality.” This is clearly important to note for those who object to other aspects of the work of those non-idealists.

Ward’s account of the “hitting” is fascinating: “I was sitting in one of Gilbert Ryle’s seminars in 1963 when a visiting Australian doctor, David Armstrong, presented a paper defending a materialist theory of mind. I still remember the sense of shock as this heretical Australian laid into Ryle’s concept of mind and insisted on the need for a purely materialist account of consciousness. It seemed so far beyond the bounds of plausibility that some of us were not sure if it was tongue-in-cheek or not.

Well, it was not. And in about forty years materialism, sometimes called ”physicalism”, has risen to a position of such prominence in philosophy that the materialist Daniel Dennett can say, quite falsely in fact, that virtually every serious philosopher is a materialist.”

Early on, I came to think that materialism was in fact philosophically refutable, in the sense in which things are at all refutable by philosophy. I.e., I came to think it was refutable not only in terms of spiritual experience and realization, but on the theoretical level, through the particular intellectual discipline of philosophy. Materialism – all possible variations of Democritus’ basic theory – always seemed unbelievable and often simply absurd to me. Therefore I could never take the materialist or physicalist development in the last forty years, which Ward mentions, quite seriously. I could hardly even really accept it as philosophical.

Not only did the materialists for the most part have an often clearly identifiable agenda and motivation, which are not in themselves of a philosophical nature. And these do require analysis in terms of political and cultural history, psychology, and other perspectives. They also made false claims of the kind Ward cites from Dennett. It is obvious, despite the recent development, not only how many serious philosophers are not materialists, but how many serious philosophers are idealists and personalists.

The exceptionality of materialism implied by the majority consensus is of course also in itself a part of the case, for the obvious reasons that follow from the ones that make the consensus such a part, although it is certainly not in itself a sufficient one.

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