An outline of philosophy

2. Materialism versus idealism

Ted Tripp

Source: Victorian Labor College lecture, circa 1970
First published: Labor College Review, 1990-94
Transcription, mark-up: Steve Painter

From the earliest Greek philosophy, of which European philosophy is but a continuation, the philosopher has had to contend with the question: how is reality known? The answer is given from two principal viewpoints, the materialist and the idealist. The materialist method stands at one pole, the idealist at the other.

The distinctive features enabling us to recognise a materialist thinker can be summarised as follows:

1. The Basic proposition of materialism refers to the nature of reality regardless of the existence of humankind. It states that matter is first in order. When the earth was still a flaming sphere, resembling the sun today, before it cooled there was no life on its surface, no thinking creature of any kind. First we had matter incapable of thought, out of which developed thinking matter, humans.

2. The second aspect of materialism covers the relations between matter and mind. If what we have said above is the case — and we know it is from natural science — mind does not appear until we already have matter organised in a certain manner. The human brain, a part of the human organism, thinks. And the human organism is matter organised in a highly intricate form.

3. It is clear from the above why matter may exist without mind, while mind may not exist without matter. Matter existed before the appearance of any kind of mind on the earth’s surface. Matter existed before the appearance of a thinking human. In other words, matter exists objectively, independently of mind. Mind is a special property of matter organised in a special manner.

What are the distinctive features of idealism?

1. The basic element of reality to the idealist is mind, or spirit. Everything else comes from mind or spirit and depends upon its operation.

2. Mind or spirit exists before and apart from matter. Spirit is the abiding reality; matter no more than a passing phase, or illusion.

3. Mind or spirit is identical with, or emanates from, the divine, or at least leaves open the possibility of supernatural existence, power and interference.

4. From this it can be seen that idealism is a diluted form of the religious conception, according to which a divine mysterious power is placed above nature, the human consciousness being considered a tiny spark emanating from this divine power, and the human a creature chosen by god. The number of absurdities associated with idealism; such views as deny the external world, ie, the existence of things objectively, independent of the human consciousness, will be brought to the notice of students later in this course: it will be seen that the extreme and most consistent form of idealism leads to the height of absurdity in the so-called solipsism (Latin solus, alone, only; ipse, self). In a word, nothing exists outside myself, there is only my ego, my consciousness, my mental existence; there is no external world apart from me; it is simply a creature of my mind. For I am aware only of my internal life, from which I have no means of escaping.

Thus, it must be noted that the basic propositions of these two types of thought are absolutely opposed to each other. One must be right, the other wrong. Whoever maintains consistently the position of one is inescapably led to conclusions exactly contrary to the other.

Other points of view

We see that materialism and idealism are the two main tendencies in the field of philosophy, but there are other viewpoints also, combinations of ideas and methods that occupy a position between these extremes. For example, agnostics, who cannot decide whether an external reality actually exists apart from ourselves and whether it is possible to know it. They remain suspended between materialism and idealism.

In close association with the agnostics is the theory of knowledge devised by the German philosopher Kant. He taught that things in themselves existed as objective realities. This was in accord with materialism. But he then stated that humankind could never know them; all we could know were phenomena or things as they appeared to us. This placed Kant back among the idealists.

Many pragmatists refuse to take a firm stand on whether nature exists independently of human experience. They are not sure whether experience necessarily arises out of nature and after it, or whether nature emerges from experience. Although pragmatists claim to have overcome the opposition between materialist and idealist standpoints, they actually dodge the decisive issues between them in the theory of knowledge.

All these types of thinking are confused and inconsistent over fundamental problems. They usually end up in alignment with idealism.

The Milesian contributions to materialism

The Milesian school (about 585 BC) set aside religious attitudes and ideas, laying the foundations for materialist philosophy. The Iliad and The Odyssey, attributed to Homer, and completed about 550 BC held a place in Greek education and imagination comparable with that of the Bible in the Western world. In the opening scene of The Iliad, Homer tells how the Greeks camped before Troy for ten years, had been struck by a plague. Instead of searching for natural causes for this epidemic Homer attributed it to the anger of the gods for some unknown offence. The story goes that the Greek general, Agamemnon, had seized the daughter of a local caretaker of Apollo’s shrine. Apollo had answered the prayers of his priest for revenge by bringing the plague upon the camp. Acting upon this, the Greek generals forced Agamemnon to give up his concubine. This appeased Apollo, who lifted the plague.

The Milesians delivered a mortal blow to this mythological outlook by disposing of all gods. They went back to the beginning of all things and asked: what created the world and how was it done? These original materialists offered a coherent account, crude and inadequate as it was, of the creation of the world and of humankind without bringing in the gods or magical forces of any kind. The quality of this achievement can be gauged by noting that, during the same period, Judaism was emerging in Palestine, the religion of Zoroaster in Persia, Buddhism in India and Taoism and Confucianism in China. While countries were producing new religions the Milesians were breaking with the religious outlook altogether.

Origin of the laws of dialectics

The Milesians regarded the universe as composed of four major elements: earth, air, fire and mist. All the rest, the heavenly bodies, the world, plants, animals and humans, were in one way or another derived from the interactions of these elements. However, they offered no explanation of why things had to change or why they could not remain as they were. The first answers to this problem are found in the writings of an aristocrat, Heraclitus of Ephesus.

Heraclitus (500 BC) was designated by the German philosopher George Hegel (1770-1831) as the originator of the laws of dialectics. The old Greek philosophers, said Frederick Engels, were all natural-born dialecticians in their thinking. They looked upon phenomena as constantly changing and in perpetual motion, noted their interconnections, oppositions and contradictions as well as their transitions into something other than their original state. Heraclitus was the first theoretical analyst of the general process of change. He singled out fire as the first principle, the ultimate substance of things, from which all others were produced The following text from Heraclitus was preserved by Clement of Alexandria:

This world, which is the same for all things, was made by no god or man. It has always been, it is, and will be, an ever-living fire, kindling with measure and being quenched with measure.

An illustration of dialectical thought is his doctrine that everything flows. He gave picturesque examples of the universality of change. The sun is not only new every day but always continuously new. We cannot step twice into the same river, for its waters are ever-flowing, ever changing. All objects are and are not; they are never the same but always changing into something else. By this reasoning Heraclitus dissolved all fixed states of being into the process of perpetual becoming in which every object enters existence, stays for a while and then passes away.

He endeavoured to explain why not even the most stable and solid substances could remain unaltered or at rest. Everything is composed of opposites, he said, which are always in a state of tension. Any given form of matter is the result of the balance of opposing forces within it. This balance, however, is constantly being upset by the movement, the interaction, the contention of its warring opposites.

All things are involved in a dual movement; one emanates from the oscillations generated by the interactions of the opposites within itself; the other from the movement of the whole either toward or away from its source. And one of these antagonistic forces is gaining on the other all the time until in the end it proves triumphant.

Pairs of opposites must be considered as internally unified, Heraclitus taught. Disease makes health pleasant; hunger brings satisfaction. He cited the screw and its movement to illustrate this unity of opposition. The screw engages in two opposite forms of movement at one and the same time: straight and crooked. The spiral motion characteristic of its function has a contradictory nature; it goes both around and up, rotating on the same plane and on a different one at the same time.

The law of the identity or interpenetration of opposites as a primary feature of all things and as the explanation for their becoming and change we owe to Heraclitus. With its aid he was able to give a theoretical explanation of both the harmony and the disruption of things, of their intimate interconnection and transition from one into the other.

“The fairest harmony is born of things different, and discord is what produces all things.” Even the most harmonious and integrated unit cannot remain as such indefinitely because of the incessant movement of its opposites, the unbalancing of its contending inner forces. “Strife is the father of all things, the king of all things, and has made gods and men, free men and slaves.”

The vestiges of all beliefs to be found in the Milesian thinkers signify only that they could not go farther than the scientific knowledge and social framework of their epoch. It would have been unhistorical, unrealistic and unreasonable to have done more.

They stand at the entry of philosophic inquiry. It evolved something new, which went beyond the ideas of its predecessors and thereby promoted the progress of human thought.

The Atomists

The Atomists were the second outstanding school of materialist philosophy in Greece. They carried forward the Milesian investigations of nature and speculation about its processes. The real founders of this school were Leucippus (about 500 BC and Democritus about 460 BC). They conceived that matter is divided into small particles with empty space between them. They taught that everything consists of atoms and vacuum. Atoms are hard and have form and size; they are invisible, have no colour, taste or smell, since these are secondary or subjective properties, and they are in ceaseless motion.

Leucippus and Democritus postulated two kinds of ultimate existence. The full and the empty, the something and the nothing, the atom and the void. One was equivalent to being; the other to not being. Thus, they were in opposition to the Eleatic School (founded about 540 BC) which concluded that all things were essentially fixed and motionless and that change was an illusion of the senses.

Theophrastus, Aristotle’s successor as head of the Academy in Athens, wrote of Leucippus: “He assumed innumerable and ever-moving elements, namely, the atoms. And he made their forms infinite in number, since there is no reason why they should be one kind rather than another, and because he saw there was unceasing becoming and change in things. He held, further, that what is is no more real than what is not, and both are alike causes of the things that come into being: for he laid down that the substance of the atoms was compact and full, and he called them what is, while they moved in the void which he called what is not, but affirmed to be just as real as what is.”

By their specific union of what is with what is not, the Atomists reconciled the contradictory positions of Heraclitus that everything flowed and of the Eleatic School that nothing changed. The coupling of the atoms with the void explained both permanence and change, motion and rest, identity and difference. Neither changed in themselves but their incessant interactions gave rise to all the changes, combinations and differences of things in the universe.

It is important to note the Atomist conception of the world, for the void was no less essential to their theories than the atom. The notion of the void made motion theoretically explicable as well as sensibly apparent. The void in which the atoms moved and had their being was like nature, but it was completely featureless and wholly penetrable. The void was as passive and permeable as the atoms were restless and self-enclosed.

The Atomists had many incorrect notions about the universe. They believed that larger bodies fall faster in empty space than smaller ones. Another of their beliefs was that the fundamental physical elements were unchangeable and alike in substance. This has been disproved by modern science.

John Dalton’s experiments showed that the atoms of the elements were not alike; each had its characteristic weight. It was demonstrated in the 20th century that even the weight of atoms of the same elements is variable (isotopes). We now know that instead of being incapable of alteration and division, atoms are highly mutable, fissionable and fusionable. Moreover, atoms can act and react upon one another not simply by mechanical pressure and collision but also in electrical and other ways.

However, these developments do not invalidate the importance of the Atomists’ discoveries. They presented an accurate a picture of the inner constitution of the natural world and the modes of its operation and evolution as was possible with the available information, techniques and ideas.

In his book on the electron published in 1917, the American physicist and Nobel prize winner Milliken asserted: “These principles with a few modifications and omissions might almost pass muster today.”

Idealism of Plato and Aristotle

Most of the Atomists’ writings have been lost, but the scope of interests and investigations that inspired and supported these ideas can be judged from a list of their treatises compiled by scholars in Alexandria. Subjects covered include ethics; natural science (cosmology, astronomy, psychology and sense perception); logic (problems and criticisms of past theories); mathematics (geometry and numbers); music (rhythm and harmony, poetry and phraseology); technical works on medicine, agriculture, drawing and painting etc). Although they were more correct than their rivals and attracted allegiance from some of the finest minds, they were not a popular or dominant school of thought.

The reason for this is to be sought in the economics of the day. The idealist teachings of Plato (427 BC) and Aristotle (384 BC) reflected the conditions of the slave system. They were the ideological expression of the slaveholding aristocracy in its defensive battle for supremacy against the democratic tendencies emanating from the mercantile and plebeian forces in the Greek city-states. Idealism responded to the historical predicament in which the Greek propertied classes of money-lending landowners and slaveholders found themselves towards the close of the fifth century. For decades the Greek city-states had been racked by class dissension in which now the oligarchy and now democracy had the upper hand.

After imperialist expansion brought affluence and then disaster to the city, Athenian mercantile and maritime democracy came close to a dead end. It could neither help Athens regain its former greatness nor go further in changing its constitution because of the irremediable antagonism between the freeman and the slave. This period was the twilight of the first experiment in democratic government.

The idealists defended the oligarchic reaction against democratic forces. In his Dialogues, Plato takes up certain questions and lets discussion in an imaginary conversation play round them, showing their bearings and their implications, putting tentative solutions of them in the mouth of someone. There is no doubt that the Dialogues give us most of the leading ideas of his system of thought. Mystical craving was the deepest motive in Plato’s philosophy. He was driven to look for stable intellectual concepts by the need of the soul to find something stable on which it could rest in the midst of a world of change and passing away.

Plato felt a horror of change, especially concerning the desire to know. We could not really know things that were always changing and becoming something else, like the objects of our sensual experience. They slipped away in the midst of our attempt to grasp them. He sought to oppose change with geometry, in which we could acquire knowledge about the properties of figures that was absolutely stable, firm and quite independent of the imperfections of any figure we might draw. The circle of which geometry spoke, when it said such and such things were true of the circle, was not any such visible circle — for no visible circle was an absolutely perfect circle — it was the ideal circle. And yet the ideal circle did not belong to a world of merely human imagination. For the things that geometry said were true of the circle really were true, whether men apprehended them or not.

The word Plato applied to this perfect circle, which was not to be seen anywhere in our world, and to other similar entities was idea which meant shape or figure. But the word was also used in the sense of sort or kind. In this sense, the ideal circle stood for a whole class of things, circles. All the visible specimens of the class were imperfect approximations more or less to the class type, the perfect circle, which was unseen. If in geometry there was a possibility of stable knowledge in spite of the variability of things seen and handled, it seemed to Plato that, by laying hold of the idea, real knowledge in other fields could be gained in the same way. There must be an idea of men, to which all men in our world approximated more or less nearly. There must be an idea of justice to which our conception of justice approximated. Here we must understand the idea not only as existing in the mind but to mean for Plato that which had real existence apart from the human mind.

One of the major tasks of the idealists was to rehabilitate the religious outlook, which for many reasons had fallen into disrepute. It had been weakened by the clash of moral standards attending the civil war, and unsettled and old views of the universe along with the positions of the ruling classes. The growing disbelief in the ancient creeds and rituals had to be countered by the reinforcement of religion. The idealist philosophers undertook this by their own methods. For them was the special task of renovating religion for the educated aristocrats.

The idealist revisions of the nature of the gods arose from political calculations as much as from theoretical considerations. Religion was an indispensable instrument in the technique of aristocratic rule. The value of religion as social cement and an instrument of class domination was clearly recognised, candidly discussed and openly acknowledged by the idealists. Plato coupled with his immortality of the soul that according as men lived righteously or unrighteously, purely or sensually, they would be happy or miserable in the world beyond death. He opposed democracy, for him it meant the things he hated — agitation, disorder, noisy ignorance, indefinite variability. His ideal was a state remote from the demoralising influences of commerce, in which an established order worked generation after generation, in which the citizens were distributed in fixed classes and an aristocracy of the wisest ruled — all clear, clean and beautiful and restfully changeless.

In The Republic, Plato disclosed how conscious the Athenian oligarchs were of the usefulness of religious doctrines in maintaining class rule by advocating the “noble lie”. After having divided the inhabitants of his ideal state into the three categories of rulers, auxiliaries and producers, he discussed the means whereby this social hierarchy could be perpetuated and the decisions of the rulers enforced.

Plato asked: “How can we contrive one of those expedient falsehoods we were speaking of just now, one noble falsehood which we may persuade the whole community, including the rulers, themselves, if possible to accept?”

He answered that it would be best to present the formation of the class-divided society as an old Phoenician story; that is, invest its origins with an aura of antiquity to place it beyond immediate investigation and easy check-up. Then he goes on to say: “We shall tell them that all of you are brothers; but, when God was fashioning those of you who are fit to rule, he mixed in some gold, so these are the most valuable; and he put silver in the auxiliaries, and iron and bronze in the farmers and the craftsmen. Since you are all akin, your children will mostly be like their parents, but occasionally a golden parent may have a silver child or a silver parent a golden child, and so on; and therefore the first and foremost task that God has laid upon the rulers is, of all their functions as guardians, to pay the most careful attention to the mixture of metals in the souls of children, so that, if one of their own children is born with an alloy of iron or bronze, they must not give way to pity but cast it out among the craftsmen and farmers, thus assigning it to the station appropriate to its nature; and conversely, if one of these should produce a child with silver or gold in it, they must promote him to the guardians or auxiliaries, according to his value, in the belief that it has been foretold that, if ever the state should fall into the keeping of a bronze and iron guardian, it will be ruined. That is the story. Can you suggest any device by which we can get them to believe it?”

“Not the first generation, but perhaps their sons and descendants and eventually the whole posterity,” came the reply.

In this passage the connection between religious fables and the techniques of class domination is exposed to full view. To justify the caste system of Plato’s Republic, the citizens are to be duped into believing the noble lie that God created social distinctions. Plato was not the only one, then or since, to point out the political value of the noble lie in upholding social inequality.


Aristotle gave theology its name and regarded it as the highest of the sciences. In his system of ideas the divine is the immortal, the unchangeable, the ultimate source of motion, which is itself unmoved and unmovable.

In his book on metaphysics, Aristotle argues that there must be an eternal substance that causes eternal circular motion, and to be everlasting this substance must be immaterial. There must be something that moves the starry heavens without itself being moved. This unmoved mover is God, who directly sets the stars in motion by inspiring love and desire in their souls. All other things derive their movements from the same prime mover. This prime mover is knowledge that has only itself for its object. God’s sole activity is that of knowing.

Concerning astronomy and physics, Aristotle marks a step back from Plato, who had taught that the earth moved, and that it was not the centre of the universe. Aristotle had the earth once more unmoving at the centre of the universe. This scheme remained dominant, with certain modifications right up to the Middle Ages. Thus Aristotle’s false theories became the great hindrance to any advance in astronomical science until the days of Copernicus.

Christian theology plundered Plato and Aristotle and is deeply indebted to them. No small measure of their prestige and sustained influence as a philosophical tendency is due to their theological and teleological doctrines, which have proved to be enormously helpful to ideologists of the upper classes ever since.