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Beginning of an introduction to materialism

Modern philosophy

Hegemony of the idealistic thought that was based on that of Plato and of the Christian philosophers, like Saint Augustine (354-430), has last nearly 20 centuries. Materialism, although being not allowed to express itself openly, had never completely disappeared.
Materialism developed again in sixteenth century, starting from a new reading of the ancient texts. Two distinct currents appeared, one English and other French.

In England :
Francis Bacon (1561-1626) wished that the means of dominating nature and of contributing to the wellbeing of society were given to science. For Thomas Hobbes (1598-1679) who denied the existence of soul, experiment is the only foundation of any knowledge. John Locke (1632-1704), for which ideas result only from senses, made of experiment the basis of his philosophy.
Thomas Hobbes

In France :
Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655) proposed an explanation of nature very close to Lucretius' ideas. Rene Descartes (1596-1650), although remaining idealistic and defending religion, recognized a form of dualism with an autonomous matter that obeys to its own laws. He wanted to create a materialist science whose methods he formulated on a mechanist way. For him, man is a soul, but animal is a "machine".

The word "materialism" was used for the first time in 1668 by the writer and mystical philosopher English Henry More (1614-1687). A little later, in 1702, Leibniz (1646-1716) used the word in French to characterize the thought of those who only admit the existence of matter.

"The century of Light" (18th)
The battle against the religious dogmas gave a positive value to materialism that became one of the large currents of thought of the 18th century. It was the opposition between monism and dualism.
Denis Diderot La Mettrie (1709-1751) rejected any dualism body / soul. One century after Descartes, he resumed the concept of the "animal-machine" to extend it to human and to describe him as a "man-machine".
Denis Diderot (1713-1784), who was one of the most famous materialists before Marx and Engels, stated that there is only matter. This is sufficient for explain everything because it is not inert, but always moving and capable of sensitivity.
The philosophers Claude Adrien Helvetius (1715-1771) and Paul-Henri Dietrich baron d'Holbach (1723-1789) also contributed to the development of the materialist thought.

The 19th century
After the French revolution and the events of the beginning of the 19th century, the middle-class wanted to stop the development of the progressive ideas related to materialism. Then, the first half of the 19th century saw a retreat of materialism for the benefit of idealism and religion: Fichte (1762-1814), Hegel (1770-1831).

Initially Hegelian, Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) developed a materialist critic of the speculative thought. "The great fundamental question in philosophy, and especially in modern philosophy, is that of the relation between thought and being." With his anthropomorphic vision of religion ("The Essence of Christianity", 1841), he updated the basic ideas of materialism.
Ludwig Feuerbach

For Auguste Comte (1798-1857), the distinction between matter and spirit was idle. As for his classification of sciences, he defined a hierarchy of phenomena on top of which he placed humanism. A phenomenon of lower row bears a phenomenon of higher row. He called materialism the explanation of the superior by the inferior (example: to explanation of biology by physico-chemistry).

Karl Marx The progress in knowledge, with the major discoveries like alive cell, electricity, Darwin's theory of evolution, offered to Friedrich Engels (1820-1894) and Karl Marx (1818-1883), influenced by Feuerbach, the opportunity to modernize materialism. Their "dialectical materialism" allowed to explain the social behaviors from the economic organization of society.

Materialism comes with sciences and moves according to the progresses of those (for example: the mechanist materialism in the 18th century, dialectical materialism in the 19th century). It defends a scientific approach of reality in every fields: cosmology, biology, sociology. For the latter, materialism has to fight the idea that man is too specific to be apprehended by scientific methods.

"In the philosophical meaning, materialism is first an ontology - a theory of being - or a conception of world. It is the doctrine that affirms that being is only constituted with matter: materialism is a physical monism. As such, it is defined above all by what it excludes: to be materialist, it is to think that there is neither understandable world, nor transcendent God, nor immaterial soul. Nevertheless, it is not to renounce the spiritual values or goods (...). To be materialist, for the modern ones, it is first to recognize that it is the brain that thinks, and to draw all the conclusions from this."
(André Comte-Sponville / born in 1952 / How may we be materialist? How may we be humanist? / 1998)

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