The Third International after Lenin

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

November is Dialectical Materialism Month

Below is an excerpt from The Origins of Materialism: The evolution of a scientific view of the world. This book deals with the first steps in the development of the materialist conception of the world. Author George Novack traces the history of materialism from its origin 2,500 years ago in the bustling cities of ancient Greece, and explains why materialism remains today a bulwark against obscurantism and reaction of all kinds. Copyright © 1965 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.


Every philosophy has dealt with two questions: what does reality consist of and how does it originate? And, after the earliest Greeks, every philosopher has had to answer the further question: how is reality known? The answers given to these fundamental questions have determined the nature of the philosophy and the position of the philosopher.

Almost from the beginning of philosophy there have been two principal viewpoints on these problems: the materialist and the idealist. In his pioneering History of Philosophy Hegel declared that “throughout all time there has only been one Philosophy, the contemporary differences of which constitute the necessary aspects of the one principal.” To be sure, in distinction from other forms of intellectual activity the function of philosophizing has maintained certain common features which give it continuity from the Greeks to the present day. But this process of generalizing thought has been at bottom a unity of divergent, and ultimately opposing, ways of rationally explaining the universe. The materialist method stands at one pole; the idealist at the other.

What are the essential principles of materialism which mark it off from all other tendencies in philosophy? What are its distinctive features which enable us to recognize a materialist thinker and to classify a person as reasoning along materialist lines? Let us list them in a very summary manner.

1. The basic proposition of materialism refers to the nature of reality, regardless of the existence of mankind. It states that matter is the primordial substance, the essence, of reality. Everything comes from matter and its movements and is based upon matter. This thought is expressed in the phrase: “Mother Nature.” This signifies in materialist terms that nature is the ultimate source of everything in the universe from the galactic systems to the most intimate feelings and boldest thoughts of homo sapiens.

2. The second aspect of materialism covers the relations between matter and mind. According to materialism, matter produces mind and mind never exists apart from matter. Mind is the highest product of material development and animal organization and the most complex form of human activity.

3. This means that nature exists independently of mind but that no mind can exist apart from matter. The material world existed long before mankind or any thinking being came into existence. As Feuerbach said: “The true relation of thought to Being is this; Being is subject, thought is predicate. Thought springs from Being, but Being does not spring from thought.”

4. This precludes the existence of any God, gods, spirits, souls or other immaterial entities which are alleged to direct or influence the operations of nature, society and the inner man.

These are the elementary principles of the materialist outlook. By these signs shall you know a materialist or conversely, a non- materialist, whether or not that person knows what kind of thinker he really is.

What the materialist principles signify can be further clarified by contrasting them with a quite different way of interpreting the world: the idealist philosophy. One of the dialectical modes of explanation is to show how a thing is related to its own opposite. For example, to understand what a female is also involves knowing what makes a male and how he functions in the cycle of reproduction. If we want to find out what a capitalist is, we have to know the makeup and development of the wage-worker as well. Only then can we comprehend the essential nature of the capitalist system which is based upon the relations between these two interdependent yet antagonistic social classes.

The philosophical opposite of materialism is idealism. These two modes of thought reciprocally define and limit each other in the province of philosophy.

It should be noted that the basic propositions of these two types of thought are absolutely opposed to each other. One must be right and the other wrong. Both cannot be correct. Whoever maintains consistently the position of the one is inescapably led to conclusions exactly contrary to the other.

Materialism and idealism are the two main tendencies, lines, camps in the field of philosophy, just as the capitalist and working classes are the two principal and decisive social forces in contemporary society.

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