Sophia Patel took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2016. In this post she writes about ‘materialist’ as a philosophical keyword.

What do Kanye West, Karl Marx and Lucretius have in common?

While this may sound like the set up for a terribly unfunny joke, rather than the introduction to the history of a philosophical word, it is not. What these three all share is that they could all be identified by the word ‘materialist.’

Although I cannot comment on whether or not Kanye believes that ‘physical matter is the…fundamental reality and that all being…can be explained as manifestations… of matter,’ in the philosophical sense of the word, the popular economically focused definition, of ‘a preoccupation with material…things’ seems to fit him to a tee.[1]

The fact that materialism as a word, contains three very different concepts (philosophical, historical and economic) makes its history fascinating to track and raises questions as to links between the concepts: If someone holds the belief that all there is is matter, is that individual more likely to value material things? It seems this is not the case.

Philosophical materialists, in the simplest sense, argue that all of reality can be reduced down to the organisation of matter in a certain way. While idealists such as Plato argued that mind and matter were separate and that mind ruled over matter, materialists have argued that there is no such thing as a separate ‘mind.’ Mechanical materialism as a theory states that the world is made up of imperceptibly small objects that interact with each other. This theory denies the existence of immaterial things such as the mind. However, since more is now understood about the difference between matter and energy, the usage of the term materialism has evolved to include those who  base their philosophy on physics to explain existence. This Physics based materialism has been termed ‘physicalistic materialism.’[2]


Democritus, one of the fathers of materialism. Image Credit: Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, 2016

The materialist tradition entered both Eastern and Western philosophy in approximately the fifth century BCE, with the Carvaka school of philosophy in India and the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus in the West. Democritus argued that the world and everything in it, including the soul, was made up of nothing but atoms and empty space. Epicurus would go on to develop Democritus’ views, adapting and expanding his idea of atoms and how their collisions resulted in free will. These ideas continued to be built upon in the first century BCE in Rome, where the Epicurean, Lucretius penned The Nature of Things, outlining his materialist views.

Materialism enjoyed little popularity through the medieval period, possibly because, as a theory, it is naturally secular, denying the existence of anything but matter. In Britain, it was not until the early seventeenth century that Thomas Hobbes, remembered often for his political philosophy, asserted his materialist ideas. He believed that humans and their minds were entirely material, later even extending this to the belief that God too was a material being. However, this was not a popular or mainstream strand of philosophical thinking in Britain at this time. The tradition gained more popularity in France through the eighteenth century, though this could largely be ascribed to the negativity facing orthodox Christianity at this time.

Materialist thought was strengthened in Britain by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which helped to prove the similarities that existed between animals and humans, as well as provide an alternative explanation to the design argument.


U.T. Place and his brain. Is his consciousness stored in there? Image Credit: University of Adelaide

The mid twentieth-century, with its increasing knowledge of physics and biochemistry, meant a resurgence in the popularity of philosophical materialism. British philosopher, U.T. Place penned his ‘Is Consciousness a Brain Process?’ in 1956 while teaching in Australia. This paper, with its thesis regarding mental states’ relationship with neural states, helped to cement Place and his theory in the centre of modern materialist philosophy. However, while earlier scientific advancement frequently served philosophical materialism’s interests, advancing knowledge of physics towards the end of the twentieth century has meant that materialism has increasingly come under fire. This criticism has frequently originated in Britain, with the English philosopher Mary Midgley criticising materialism for failing to define what matter actually consists of. [3] Similarly, the English physicist Paul Davies argued that materialism has been disproven by scientific findings. This was demonstrated in  his 1991 book The Matter Myth with John Gribbin in which they argue ‘Quantum physics undermines materialism because it reveals that matter has far less ‘substance’ than we might believe. But another development goes even further… this development is the theory of chaos.[4]

While the philosophical concept of materialism may not seem like a topic that would easily translate into popular culture, some materialist ideas do occasionally disseminate into popular discourse, particularly in America. The American Atheists founder Madalyn O’Hair based her form of atheism on the materialist idea that nothing exists but natural matter. Materialism is also the subject of American punk rock band, Bad Religion’s, 2002 song ‘Materialist.’ The song, while obviously not focussing on the minute details of philosophical materialism does raise several of the concepts, stating ‘mind over matter, it really don’t matter.’ The fact that this was one of the few mentions philosophical materialism received in popular culture suggests that it a more learned theory that has not spread very far into wider society.

Materialist in the economic or ethical sense is used to identify someone interested in the enjoyment and comforts that material possessions bring. Economic materialism is closely linked to social issues such as class, in which social positioning and success is often determined by one’s material possessions.

As early as the fifth century BCE Socrates spoke out against economic materialism asking What is the point of walls and warships and glittering statues if the men who build them are not happy? However, now more than ever we exist in a society where materialism and the constant drive to possess more ‘things’ is always there; from television, to popular music, to targeted advertising on social media. Material culture is so pervasive that an American survey found that one in every fourteen people would murder someone in exchange for three million dollars.[5]

A key area for the dissemination of materialistic ideologies is through rap and hip hop culture. British rapper Tinie Tempah’s 2010 hit Miami 2 Ibiza reads more like a list of brands and labels than a song at times, as he sings ‘I got a black BM, she got a white TT, She wanna see what’s hiding in my CK briefs.’ While this may be a slightly more subdued list when compared to the yachts and bentleys listed by American rappers, the fact remains that it links the importance of material possessions to success and status in society.


Macklemore and Ryan Lewis encouraging us to be thrifty. Image Credit: Macklemore, 2012

In response to materialistic culture and the recent financial difficulties that have plagued America and Britain, artists such as Macklemore in his 2012 hit ‘Thrift Shop’ have attempted to distance themselves from such themes. In the song he praises bargain hunting while simultaneously mocking materialist culture stating ‘They be like, “Oh, that Gucci – that’s hella tight. I’m like, Yo – that’s fifty dollars for a T-shirt… I call that getting tricked by a business’ Alongside the song, Macklemore instructed fans to look for his merchandise at thrift shops to avoid the increased prices at venues. Indeed, while popular culture is often responsible for driving economic materialism in culture, it is also a conduit for spreading ideas against materialism. Chuck Palahniuk lamented in his 1996 novel Fight Club, as did the 1999 film of the same name, “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.”

While in philosophy, ‘Materialist’ has usually been used in the philosophical sense, it does not mean that philosophers have ignored economic materialism as a concept. Bertrand Russell, condemned economic materialism, stating that: ‘It is a preoccupation with possessions, more than anything else that prevents us from living freely and nobly.’

Dialectical or historical materialism has also been a more common usage of the word. Materialism in this sense was made popular by the fact that it was the common philosophy of the communist countries. Dialectical materialism is a theory of how changes occur throughout the history of humanity. Karl Marx was the first to identify as a historical materialist in the nineteenth century. This theory suggested that the material conditions of society’s mode of production were what ultimately defined its ability to develop and organise itself. He stated that people “make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves.” However, since Marx created this concept the theory has been modified and adopted by Marxists and non-Marxists alike. [6]

One word with three very different meanings and even more different histories. Though there is apparently no real link between economic and philosophical materialism, their evolution as words in relation to one another is fascinating. Philosophical materialism is constantly advancing to make use of new discoveries in physics and the sciences, but still remains rooted in the same ideas expressed by Democritus. Economic materialism, though popular culture occasionally attempts to fight against it, has however, become a almost inescapable part of modern life.


[1] Merriam Webster Dictionary, ‘Materialism’

[2] John Jamieson Carswell Smart, ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica,’ Materialism

[3] Mary Midgley, The Myths We Live By (London: Routledge, 2003)

[4] Paul Davies and John Gribbin, The Matter Myth: Dramatic Discoveries that Challenge Our Understanding of Physical Reality (London: Simon & Schuster, 1991)

[5] Bernice Kanner, Are You Normal about Money? (Princeton: Bloomberg Press, 2001)

[6] Paul D’Amato, ‘Why was Marx a materialist?’ (2011),

Further Reading

Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (London: John Murray, 1859)

Paul Davies and John Gribbin, The Matter Myth: Dramatic Discoveries that Challenge Our Understanding of Physical Reality (London: Simon & Schuster, 1991)

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, (1651)

Bettany Hughes, ‘Socrates – a Man For Our Times,’ The Guardian, (2010),

Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, (50 BCE)

Mary Midgley, The Myths We Live By (London: Routledge, 2003)

Madalyn O’Hair, Why I Am an Atheist: Including a History of Materialism (New Jersey: American Atheists Press, 1991)

U.T. Place, ‘Is Consciousness a Brain Process?,’ British Journal of Psychology, 47:1 (1956)