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Materialism in Eighteenth-Century European Thought

Seventeenth-century Background, The Eighteenth Century, French Materialism, English Materialism, Conclusion, Bibliography

Materialism is the generic name of a variety of doctrines that deny the existence of non-material substances. Materialism may be either a metaphysical or a methodological concept. In its most coherent and radical form, it is a type of monism, the metaphysical position stating that there is only one principle—matter and its properties—in terms of which all reality is to be explained.

In the eighteenth century, materialism developed into a philosophy and gained a following that continues into the present day. Some eighteenth-century materialist philosophers were downright atheists. A few philosophers, such as the Stoics or Thomas Hobbes, while not atheists, held that God is corporeal. Others preferred some form of deism, the idea that a transcendent, noninterventionist God rules the world through constitutive laws of nature. For them, materialism was a methodology to follow when inquiring about the natural world, rather than a complete metaphysical commitment.

Materialism should not simply be identified with the Enlightenment, the eighteenth-century cultural movement that endorsed an understanding of the natural world, including humankind, based exclusively on reason, with no possibility of appeal to the supernatural. The Enlightenment included a secular interpretation of ethics and politics. While materialistic trends were an important part of the Enlightenment, its scope and philosophical commitments were far broader and more varied, involving an agenda that was political as well as philosophical including, in the case of several important thinkers, a straightforward belief in a God who acts in the world.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Macrofauna to Mathematics