[Author’s note: this series of posts is a much-expanded and hopefully much-improved version of the series that began here, which is desirable to reprint lest it disappear from that site. The question that came to me was, Why not refurbish as well? Most of my philosophical works are works in process, anyway, with nothing ever in an absolutely final form. Hence this vers. 2.0. In this republication, the breaks between parts have come out different, because I wanted to keep each part to a size as accessible as possible to readers many of whom, at this stage of my life, are not trained philosophers.]
“ … we are living in a material world
And I am a material girl.
You know that we are living in a material world
And I am a material girl.”
~ Madonna, “Material Girl” (1984)
Madonna’s first big hit defined, in part anyway, the mindset of a generation. What did this generation want? Material affluence, which became an ideal in the 1980s and beyond after its repudiation two decades before. While that earlier era had its problems as we’ll see, the new materialism, which we might call “Gekkoism” (“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good …” Gordon Gekko, portrayed by Michael Douglas, told a startled audience in an infamous scene in the 1987 film Wall Street), opened the door to the kind of business behavior which brought about the S&L crisis, a couple of decades later the Enron and Worldcom debacles, and then finally in 2007-08, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
No, unbridled greed is not good! Greed by itself does not work! But the story is longer and more complicated than this.
The word materialism has more than one meaning. It does not refer just to a preoccupation with material goods, affluence, or pleasures and excesses, though those are legitimate uses of the term. As explained in my Four Cardinal Errors (2011), and in my ebook Philosophy Is Not Dead (2014), materialism also names a comprehensive philosophical worldview which began to replace Christianity as an intellectual and cultural force, first in Europe in the mid to latter half of the 1700s and then more rapidly in the 1800s. Arguably by 1900 this process was complete in the major intellectual centers.
In the 1830s, Auguste Comte (1798 – 1857) offered a philosophical ideology known as positivism, which would ensure that materialism became the dominant philosophy of science. Among its targets was that branch of philosophy known as metaphysics: the theory of reality in the broad sense. According to the positivist view of language, declarative statements were either analytic, empirical, or cognitively meaningless. Statements of worldview did not clearly belong to the first two, which ruled them out of legitimate intellectual discourse: a stance we might call antimetaphysics, which also has roots in the extreme empiricism of David Hume (1711 – 1776) as we will see below.
Karl Marx (1818 – 1883), meanwhile, developed his dialectical materialism underwriting a theory of historical progress resulting from material economic forces that would culminate in Communism. Marx was essentially an Hegelian who drew his materialism from Ludwig Feuerbach (1804 – 1872). Communism was his Hegelian Absolute. But material forces and their embodiment in human social relations would bring about his ideal world as capitalism gave rise to socialism, which in turn gave rise to communism which Marx, interestingly, saw as stateless (there were no longer class interests for the state to be used to defend and so it would “wither away”).
In the life sciences, materialism was rapidly replacing all that had come before. Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) offered a materialist theory of the origins of species, including humanity, with his theory of evolution by natural selection. His theory drew on the population-growth model put forth by Thomas Malthus (1766 – 1834), who held that as food production improved, the population growth this gave rise to would invariably outstrip the improvements, leading back to such factors as ruthless competition for the necessities of life and abject poverty for those who lose out. Darwin combined this with the uniformitarian geology of Sir Charles Lyell. Lyell rejected earlier models of Earth history, nearly all of them based on the idea that something akin to a Biblical flood, and instead asserted that “the present is the key to the past.” That is, when interpreting the records left in rocks, including fossils, we should assume that they can be explained in terms of natural processes we can observe happening today.
Darwin’s theory quickly became a cornerstone of modern science. Paleontologist J. Marvin Weller (1899 – 1976), writing in his classic text The Course of Evolution (1969), observed:
The announcement of Darwin’s theory of evolution in the mid-nineteenth century marked the beginning of a new era in biologic science. Actually this theory embodied no fundamentally new idea, but it did combine older concepts in a fresh and convincing way and carried them to their logical conclusion. Darwin was particularly fortunate in his timing because the intellectual atmosphere in England was favorable for the consideration of a new materialistic theory of evolution, and he promptly gained the active support of several able and aggressive young biologists (pp. 1 – 2; emphasis mine).
The combination of antimetaphysics and rising materialism in metaphysics began to drive the development of the social sciences as well. Consider the “experimental psychologist” Wilhelm Wundt (1832 – 1920). He developed a program for studying human beings conceived as responding to stimuli: children as organisms: material boys and girls. According to Wundt there was no such thing as a “soul.” The human “psyche” could be understood empirically, without reference to anything that could not be observed in the laboratory, and the results of laboratory science were directly relevant to epistemology and ethics. Wundt explicitly rejected the idea that ethical imperatives needed either a Christian transcendent or Kantian transcendental basis.
Wundt’s program became central to what became known as the Leipzig School, based as it was at the University of Leipzig in Germany. This school became enormously influential via its students. These included Americans such as G. Stanley Hall (1844 – 1924) of Johns Hopkins University who became one of the early leaders in behaviorism in psychology. Hall’s most influential student was John Dewey (1859 – 1952), who founded progressive education under the assumption that education of children should adjust them to groups and to society instead of impart to them the aggregate wisdom of our civilization: its traditions, accomplishments, and so on.
The major French thinker to follow Comte, meanwhile, was Emile Durkheim (1858 – 1917). As a sociologist Durkheim refined positivism in the context of establishing sociology as the primary science of societies as they embraced modernity. His work focused more on institutions than persons, and more on social facts, as he called them, than personal experiences. It simply presupposed, in our terms, the ongoing replacement of Christianity with materialism, seeing this as a necessity of scientific method in inquiry and a product of modernity, its focus on this world, not some other.
Durkheim’s work reveals the beginnings of a darker turn. He recognized that Christianity had been a bulwark within Western institutions and social facts. He looked to ways in which institutions could retain their integrity and coherence, given the changeover. He sought solutions in what he called social integration, the process of bringing peoples and institutions together under an assumption of the possibility and desirability of social unity, of common objectives. Durkheim appears to have been guardedly optimistic that this was possible in the long run, although he worried about the bulwark traditional Christianity supplied not having been replaced in his lifetime. He wrote both that “[r]eligion gave birth to all that is essential in the society,” and at one point described modernity as “a period of transition and moral mediocrity.”
Philosophically, the full implications of the replacement of Christianity with materialism and antimetaphysics had already emerged. Friedrich Nietzsche’s (1844 – 1900) Zarathustra proclaimed in the late 1880s that “God is dead!” followed by his call for a “revaluation of all values.” Nietzsche was one of the most ruthlessly honest thinkers who ever lived. He realized that once God and transcendence vanished from your worldview, everything changed. Every moral and even epistemic conviction those notions made meaningful had stood on a conceptual scaffolding, as it were, the solid ground on which it stood being the God of Christianity. The death of God meant the death of morality as it had been understood since the founding of the Christian Church, and this could not be evaded indefinitely. In a cosmos without God, human beings were on their own, and it was no more helpful to talk about “social integration” or “unity” or some such than it was to invoke Kantian duties, greatest happiness principles, or other philosophical abstractions.
Nietzsche warned that the twentieth century faced an “advent of nihilism.” What is nihilism? Again, the idea is nuanced and can have many different manifestations, but the basic idea is that given no such thing as valuation that is part of the structure of reality, life is valueless, pointless. There is nothing worth believing or doing (etymologically, the term nihilism derives from the Latin word nihil: nothing). Politically and culturally, the specter of nihilism is the specter of delegitimizing all traditions and institutions and razing them to the ground unless their legitimacy can somehow be proven with scientific-Cartesian logic, whatever this would amount to. Nietzsche, contrary to one popular misunderstanding, was not a nihilist. He was not promoting nihilism. He was warning against the nihilism that was inevitable if the purveyors of modernity failed to create a viable ethos for the worldview that had “killed God,” as it were, and for an industrial civilization generally that placed science, technology, and commerce at its center.
Thus we arrived at the end of the nineteenth century — not with a promise of modernity leading towards a scientific / technological Utopia of eternal sunshine, where human beings and their scientific-technological leaders could bask in the warmth of their accomplishments, but rather the threat of major storm clouds gathering on the horizon lest they fail to rise to this occasion.
(To be continued in Part 2 in a few days.)
About Steven Yates
I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.