Tag Archives: Marx


Poppy Waring took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2016. In this post she writes about ‘egoism’ as a philosophical keyword.

Egoism is hardly a word that you’re likely to come across in your day to day life. In fact, I’d happily put bets on some high percentage of people having no definition to hand. Despite this, it’s also not exactly hard to grasp roughly what it discusses. ‘Ego’ is the self. As egoism stems off from this word, it encapsulates all philosophies linked to self-interest. These days it has also become linked to hedonism (as the press release for the egoistmobile ‘The Egoist’ tells us), probably due the worlds continued confusion between words that only have a few letters difference between them.

Something which became clear when I started my research for this blog was that there is a LOT of confusion regarding the differences between egoism and egotism. So, to clarify, here’s the differences:

  • The definition, according to the Oxford English Dictionary of egotist is ‘The obtrusive or too frequent use of the pronoun of the first person singular: hence the practice of talking about oneself or one’s doings.’
  • So egoism is more abstract and a course of actions, where as egotism require an personal involvement to be discussed.
  • Egoism is self-interest, where as egotism is self-obsession.

In the present day, we are probably far more familiar with the term egotism since it so often seems to come up when talking about celebrity culture. So in present day popular culture, Kanye West, is the prime example of egotism – his self professed love of his self, and placing of himself as the most important person alive right now could be the distilled essence of egotism. Yet I suppose if he’s acting like this purely to get exposure, there is an argument that his actions are egoistic… Probably best to avoid dwelling on that for now though…

One of the earliest examples of egoism in writing can be found in the works of Hobbes. In Leviathan, he states that ‘No man giveth but with intention of good to himself; because gift is voluntary; and of all voluntary acts the object to every man is his own pleasure’. It is this that would shape psychological egoism, countering the common hailing of altruism by religion. Skipping ahead, Max Stirner would advance the discussion of egoism away from purely psychological egoism and ethical egoism, going on to become one of the most influential writers on the subject. His exploration of the concepts found in ‘The Ego and His Own’, would bring egoism into then modern concepts, such as anarchism, libertarianism and individualism.

If you allow me to make a rather sweeping tour of the philosophical writings on egoism, one also can’t ignore the impact of Nietzches writing. It would shape the writing of most after him on the subject, whilst due to the notoriety of his linking with the ideologies of Nazism. It also would be where Marx and Engel would find a source of critism from which to build their own theories of Marxism/communism. Nietzche, argues that at our hearts we all follow egoism, but does not believe this is a bad thing – in true Neitzsche style he remains pretty silent on the moral implications on this, purely attempting to understand the way the world works. 

Egoism started to appear in popular culture. Some of the key British thinkers, writers and artist of the period, the Bloomsbury group, which would carry through in to the Edwardian era. Writers such as Erza Ound, Richard Adlington and T.S. Eliot would champion the self. Many of these ideas would be published, either in their own books or in Dora Marsdens influencial publication ‘The Egoist’. Whilst ‘The Egoist’ was an intellectual magazine, written for the educated middle classes, it also was published as all modern magazines would be. Unlike journals, it also contained advertising, and readers could write in to express their thoughts on articles from previous issues. 

The objective of the Women Movement being the development of the individual Ego… it appeals to the spirit of woman – Dora Marsden

Dora Marsden’s publications would go on to shape the progression of the feminist movement. Marsden played a large role in progressing feminism on from suffragettes, who were relatively altruistic in their actions and arguments. From around 1912 onwards, as the Freewoman became the New Freewoman, and the New Freedwoman became the Egoist, Dora Marsden moved away from the suffragette moment, towards a feminism which has far more similarities with todays feminism than the so called first wave. Other writers from this era, such as Virginia Wolfe would also find a sense of their self in the principles of egoism and feminism. In the footsteps of Marsden, as an egoist philosophy. The writer Rose Young would later describe feminism as concerning individualistic self development – crucial meaning that egoism in the realm of empowerment is not inherently selfish. Women for centuries have been expected to be altruistic, caring for their families at the expense of being able to explore their own identities and capabilities. Whilst men have been taught to always be egoistic firstly, and to strive towards altruism, women have always been expected to already be altruistic, and so egoism is a revelation to women allowing for self discovery and empowerment.

Whilst egoism fell out of popular favour throughout the war period, there were still a handful of writers who would carry to baton on from earlier writers such as Nietzsche and Stirner, developing their theories on egoism. Perhaps the most influential of these was Ayn Rand. In her work, The Virtue of Selfishness she makes the case for selfishness, reminding us that we inherently fear the criticism as we are told it is a negative trait. Whilst in popular culture, the rise of socialism, free love and hippie culture in the 60s would suggest the continuing trend away from egoism. Yet if we actually take a close examination of the protests we find that actually pretty much all of them actually have self interest at their hearts. The most obvious example of this would be the movement of sexual liberation, and as previously stated the feminist movement as was concerned with allowing women to be as egoist as men had been allowed to be for centuries. Even outside of this though, the anti-war protests, were often about preventing the self being sent to war as their more altruistic parents and grandparents had been. There is probably an argument for many social protests since the 60s being more egoistic than we would like to imagine – from the miners strikes, to the marchs of students for free education.

Rands work, outside of her own fiction writing such as The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, would go on to influence those in many other unlikely fields, which would lead to her understanding of egoism permeating the public psyche even to the present day. For instance it is said that the comic book writers Steve Dikto and Frank Miller of Spiderman and Batman fame accordingly found some inspiration for the nature of their heroes in Rands writing. And with the continued popularity of comic book adaptions and the ‘antihero’, I think it would be fair to say that the idea of the self-serving anti-hero is pretty big in the present. I’ve been told that Deadpool is a pretty Randian (anti)hero…

And so we return to the present day. Whilst you might not see ‘EGOISM’ in flashing lights anywhere, it remains a constant in oour understanding of actions. In psychology, we continue to analyse whether we do anything for truly altruistic purposes. Just as the self remains a continuing obsession, we continue to live in an egoistic society. With the continued championing of ‘follow our dreams’, it seems pretty logical that This asides, what is clear, is that in todays society, where capitalism reigns supreme unchallenged, egoism is just another fact of life, and therefore has fallen out of common discourse.



Lucy Delap, The Feminist Avant-Garde: Transatlantic Encounters of the Early Twentieth Century

Mark s. Morrisson, The Public Face Of Modernism: Little Magazones, Audiences, and Reception

Eleanor M. Sickels, The Gloomy Egoist: Moods and Themese of Melancholy from Gray to Keats, (New York, Octagon Books, 1969)

(ed) Peter Singer, Ethics, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994)


David Ashford, ‘A New Concept of Egoism:The Late Modernism of Ayn Rand‘, Modernism/modernity, Volume 21, Number 4, November 2014,

Michael Slote, ‘Egoism and Emotion‘, Philosophia, June 2013, Volume 41, Issue 2, pp 313-335


Oxford English Dictionary

Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy


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’ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/materialism

[2] John Jamieson Carswell Smart, ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica,’ Materialism http://www.britannica.com/topic/materialism-philosophy

[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), http://socialistworker.org/2011/10/28/why-was-marx-a-materialist

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) http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/3207

Bettany Hughes, ‘Socrates – a Man For Our Times,’ The Guardian, (2010), http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/oct/17/socrates-philosopher-man-for-our-times

Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, (50 BCE) http://classics.mit.edu/Carus/nature_things.1.i.html

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)