A Note on the Question of Materialism

Image by Bryan Christie

Image by Bryan Christie

David J. Allen

What makes a philosophy materialist? At the most basic level, it might seem that the term ‘materialism’ serves to delineate a certain ontological position – for example, the ‘materialist’ may be the philosopher for whom any non-material being supervenes on the material. While this ontological characterisation is certainly true to some extent, it fails to capture the real essence of materialism. Materialism is not so much a position as a problematic. The materialist is precisely the philosopher for whom subjectivity is a problem.

As the contemporary French philosopher Alain Badiou illuminatingly states in his recent magnum opus, ‘the essential trait of an idealist philosophy [is] that it calls upon the subject not as a problem but as a solution […]. The materialist thrust of my own thought [...] derives from the fact that within it the subject is a late and problematic construction, and in no way the place of a solution to a problem of possibility or unity’ (Logics of Worlds, trans. A. Toscano, London: Continuum, 2009, p. 101). Here the real essence of the division between idealism and materialism is brought to light: it is not simply a distinction between beliefs concerning being’s supervenience on the material, but a split at the level of metaphilosophy, at the level of the decision as to what is philosophically problematic.

This subtle shift in our understanding of the distinction between materialism and idealism has various interesting consequences. Firstly, once we understand that materialism is a problematic, it becomes evident that contemporary philosophy of mind is materialist in its very foundations. The so-called ‘hard problem’ of consciousness, for example, is a paradigmatic materialist formulation. Although it is certainly open that one could provide an ‘idealist answer’ to the hard problem, this is a somewhat misleading phraseology: what one really offers in this case is a refusal of the problematic from which the question draws its philosophical significance. In fact, the whole enterprise of a ‘philosophy of mind’ – where the ‘of’ is in the objective genitive – is at heart materialist. This is perhaps why, although there remains a small minority of dualists in the midst of the materialist consensus of contemporary philosophy of mind, there are no idealists to speak of.

This brings us to our second interesting consequence. Materia-lism is ultimately a philosophy of subjectivity, and idealism a philosophy of matter, where the latter is conceived very broadly as that which is not straightforwardly identical with the subject. As such, a materialist must eventually turn philosophically to the question of the subject, even if this is simply to dismiss subjectivity as an epiphenomenon or as a Palaeolithic theory. Conversely, idealism need turn to the subject only as the solution to the aporias of matter. In this regard, the phenomenological tradition provides some of the paradigmatic figures of idealist philosophy – from Heidegger, whose Dasein permits the formulation of the question of the meaning of Being, to Sartre, whose self-‘nihilating’ nothingness grounds the irresolvable dialectic of being and nonbeing.

Interestingly, although idealist philosophies have all turned rapidly to the subject, they do so only to bring subjectivity to bear as a tool in the resolution of material aporias. This is the fact that the ontological understanding of idealism obfuscates. By formulating idealism in terms of a rejection of the ontological fundamentality of the material, the ontological definition obscures the fact that idealism is only instrumentally concerned with the non-material; its real concern is matter, as can be seen in Husserl’s (idealistic) incitement to ‘return to the things themselves’. If materialists seem reluctant to find the time to discuss the subject, seemingly preferring the stability of ‘worldly’ concerns, this is a neglect born of the desire to evade a task of great difficulty but also of great importance, not a reflection of the irrelevance of subjectivity to the materialist schema.

Third consequence: materialism need not be subject to naturalism. That is, materialism need not subordinate itself to the thought of the natural sciences. Matter is that which, for the materialist, is not of ultimate philosophical concern. While in many materialisms this has manifested itself in a relinquishing of the thought of matter to the natural sciences, this need not be the case. Materialism need only subject itself to some consistent thought – external to philosophy – of the being of matter. Matter might be thought mathematically – as in Badiou’s work – or in the socio-political terms of bodies and power – as in the thought of Michel Foucault. The only restriction is that matter must ultimately be a category whose composition philosophy can take for granted. This is not to say that the materialist cannot elucidate and articulate the precise composition of this category from a philosophical perspective, but only that it is not philosophically problematic in its very being in the manner of subjectivity. Matter may permit philosophical elucidation, but subjectivity requires it if materialism is not to degenerate into an incoherence born of neglect. Insofar as subjectivity is – at least prima facie – a gap in any consistent thought of matter, a coherent materialism must find some way to shut it up.

I have posed in this brief note the following claim:

(M) Materialism is not an ontological position, but a problematic – viz. the philosophical problematic of subjectivity.

As such, the split between materialism and idealism is not ontological but metaphilosophical. From this, I have drawn three consequences:

(M1) The philosophy of mind is a materialist project.
(M2) Materialism is a philosophy of subjectivity, idealism a philosophy of matter.
(M3) Materialism is not subject to natural science, but simply to some consistent, extra-philosophical thought of matter.

I hope these consequences serve to convince the reader of the interest in this reformulation of the orthodox conception of materialism. And if the reader regards herself as a materialist, I hope this discussion will prompt her to fix her mind anew on the question at the heart of her endeavour: the question of subjectivity.

David J. Allen is a philosophy graduate of the University of York

Alain Badiou, Logics of Worlds, trans. A. Toscano, London: Continuum, 2009, p. 101

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