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On German Materialism

Interview by Richard Marshall.

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Kurt Bayertz is a philosopher who has written extensively on key contemporary issues such as solidarity, the philosophical issues of race and genetics, the sanctity of life and human dignity but here he talks about the philosophy of German Materialism, and along the way he discusses its history, how it became prominent in the mid nineteenth century, Feurbach, the strong link between philosophy and anthropology, Marx and Engels, the diluting consequence of Haeckel’s monism, materialism’s link with Kantianism, the difficult case of Nietzsche, and how Logical positivism fits in. Keep your feet on the ground for this one…

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Kurt Bayertz: I was attracted to the philosophical way of thinking early on at school; but I had other interests as well. So I enrolled for courses in philosophy, German literature and the social sciences. Towards the end of my studies, a choice had to be made. I chose philosophy – and I have never regretted it.

3:AM: Materialism is one of those terms that along with naturalism, realism and physicalism that can mean different things to different people. Can you sketch what you take materialism to be and how it is distinct from naturalism and physicalism if you think it is?

KB: If we look at the history of philosophy, materialism presents itself as an interlaced building resting on three pillars. (i) The external world (matter, nature, reality) exists independently of all spiritual acts. (ii) The external world is accessible to the human mind; it is possible to achieve genuine knowledge concerning it. (iii) Humans are primarily (but not necessarily exclusively) natural, material beings; they have material needs and it is legitimate to satisfy these needs.

Each of these (ontological, epistemological and anthropological/ethical) assumptions leaves considerable room for diverging interpretations. ‘Materialism’ therefore, is not a single and precisely definable doctrine, but has to be seen as a family of different theories. ‘Naturalism’ is a comparatively young member of the family, stating that the phenomena studied by the natural sciences exhaust reality. ‘Physicalism’ is a special case within naturalism, in that it states that the phenomena studied by physics exhaust reality.

3:AM: You remark that materialism was not a prominent movement in Germany until we get to the nineteenth century? How do you account for this late flourishing in one of the strongholds of philosophy?

KB: There were some materialist thinkers in Germany during the 17th and 18th centuries. But it was dangerous to avow oneself a materialist. The Catholic, as well as the Protestant church and the feudal states, also prosecuted people who did so. So they had to be extremely careful; some of them published anonymously and distributed their texts secretly. They were not, therefore, very influential. In the 19th century things began to change. Materialists were no longer prosecuted, even if it was still impossible for them to get a job at a German university during the whole century. Maybe more importantly, the whole of society, including its ‘superstructure’, was changing. (a) The natural sciences had become a paradigmatic style of thinking about the world; and they showed that it was possible to explain things without reference to supernatural, spiritual powers. (b) The industrial revolution had brought about deep social changes in England and was now moving on to Germany, causing similar changes. (c) Technological innovation like the steam engine and railroads began to affect every day life. (d) Political upheavals like the French Revolution had shown that a different organization of public life was possible. – All that led people to think that a new era had begun and that this also required a new style of thinking. Materialism was not the only new game in town; Utilitarianism in England and Positivism in France were similar philosophical reactions to changes in society.

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3:AM: You say Ludwig Feurbach was a decisive figure in bringing materialism into view in German. Can you say how someone writing initially about aspects of Christianity brought about the change?

KB: Feuerbach’s career is representative in at least two respects. The first is his passage from theology to (idealistic) philosophy, and from there to materialism. In the 1820s he had started to study Protestant theology; he was soon disappointed and changed to philosophy. He studied with Hegel, by far the most influential German philosopher at that time, and a powerful advocate of idealism. But Feuerbach soon became critical of Hegel and of philosophical idealism in general; then, in the 1840s, he slowly came round to materialism (using this term more or less synonymously with ‘empiricism’, ‘realism’ or humanism). A crucial role in his turning away from idealism and towards materialism was played by religion; this is the second point. Feuerbach thought that philosophical idealism was not all that different from religion; a view that Hegel had held, too. If this is true, then one can no longer subscribe to idealism once one has lost one’s faith; and the consequence seems to be that one should then become a ‘materialist’. All this has to be seen against the background of heavy debates about Biblical criticism in Germany during the 1830s, instigated by the book The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined from the Protestant theologian David Friedrich Strauss.

3:AM: You say that his materialism is anthropological, and his anthropology materialistic. Can you flesh out your thinking here?

KB: Feuerbach places the human being center-stage in his philosophy. Philosophy has to be anthropology, or so he claims. And, in so far as he conceives of the human being as a primarily material (or, as he himself puts it: ‘sensual’) being, it is fair to speak of an ‘anthropological materialism’.

What he had in mind can best be seen when we turn to his philosophy of religion. In his epoch-making work “The Essence of Christianity” (incidentally first translated into English by George Eliot), Feuerbach argued that the mysteries of theology have to be untangled by anthropology: human beings know some things, but not everything; they are powerful, but within limits; and they are good and just, at least some of the time. They now imagine someone having all these properties, only perfectly so. This is the birth of God, whose main properties (omniscience, omnipotence etc.) are nothing but idealized human properties.

3:AM: Marx and Engels were also working at this time weren’t they? They were materialists of a different kind weren’t they – historical materialists?

KB: Like Feuerbach, Marx, too, started out as a Hegelian Idealist. He turned to materialism under the influence of Feuerbach, but then took a different road that led him to a different conception of what ‘materialism’ is or should be. For Feuerbach, being a materialist meant to focus on nature, and ‘anthropological materialism’ meant to focus on human nature. Being interested in politics and social reform, Marx concentrated on society and on history, not on nature. Together with his friend Engels, he struggled to explain social structures and their development; they tried to understand contemporary capitalism and its future prospects.

Feuerbach did not have much to say on these topics. He continued to be a philosopher, while Marx and Engels wanted to leave philosophy behind and develop an empirical and, at the same time, critical social science. Their explanation of social consciousness owed a lot to Feuerbach; but Marx’ social ontology was very different from Feuerbach’s conception of reality.

3:AM: A third kind of materialist were the scientific materialists – how did they differ from the anthropological materialists and the historical ones?

KB: The scientific materialists were influenced by Feuerbach, too; especially Jacob Moleschott. But they thought that Feuerbach was still much too philosophical, too speculative, and not scientific enough. Unlike Marx and Engels, they rejected any idea of an autonomous science of society. For them, there was no science and no reasonable/rational thinking outside the natural sciences.

3:AM: Are the scientific materialists wanting to replace philosophy? Are they precursors to the contemporary scientists like Hawking who can see no point in philosophy now natural science is so powerful?

KB: Yes! They believed that everything which can be explained will – at the end of the day – be explained by the natural sciences. There was no room for philosophical explanations; not to mention religious or other explanations. In that respect they were the precursors of Ernst Mach, of the early Ludwig Wittgenstein, of the ‘Wiener Kreis’, of many later philosophers, and of scientists like Hawking, too.

3:AM: How did materialism in modernity become political?

KB: Materialism has always been political, at least in the eyes of its opponents. This could already be seen in Antiquity, when Plato threatened materialists with jail (Nomoi X), and later when Christianity had become the hegemonic spiritual force in Europe and allied with the ruling forces of feudal society: all kinds of a-religious or anti-religious philosophy, materialism included, became automatically ‘political’ in that they seemed to undermine the foundations of the established social order. This was confirmed by contemporary reactions to Hobbes or to French materialism in the 18th century, accused of having brought about the French Revolution. The element of truth in this accusation is that materialism was critical of religion and superstition from its beginnings; it is therefore necessarily in tension with social institutions if these are displayed as possessing any kind of transcendent dignity.

In the 19th century, some materialists began to form an alliance with radical political reform movements, some even with revolutionary movements. Marx and his followers tried to ground their revolutionary politics in Historical Materialism – in the end they failed, though, as attested by the decline of the labour movement and the disappearance of socialism in Eastern Europe. The scientific materialists strived for rational reforms of society, for its modernization. They claimed that science was not only a weapon of spiritual enlightenment, but (together with technology) also the positive foundation of all politics: if social, political or economic problems can be solved at all, they can be solved by science and technology. This idea of a depoliticized politics has become very influential in western countries and still holds today: politics is applied science.

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3:AM: You say that materialism became part of the zeitgeist in Europe but then got diluted and you give Haeckel’s monism as an example of this. Can you sketch what you mean by dilution and how the story of monism helps illustrate what you’re arguing?

KB: Materialism should not only be seen as a philosophical theory or as a family of philosophical theories; at least in the second half of the 19th century, it was a ‘Weltanschauung’, a political and cultural movement aiming at modernizing German society. (There were similar movements in other countries.) As such a movement it was not clearly confined, but was in touch with other movements and tendencies, e.g. with ‘naturalism’ in literature or with the ‘monism’ invented by Ernst Haeckel as early as the 1860s. Haeckel was not a materialist in any strict sense of the word, but he shared important ideals and goals with scientific materialism, especially the conviction that the natural sciences offered a key to the solution of all riddles of the universe, including the political ones. In 1906, he founded, together with others, the German Monist Society, which was the paradigm for similar societies in other countries.

But the broader this movement became, the weaker its theoretical profile became. Materialism remained an ingredient in the monist hotpot, but it was diluted by other ideas and theories. An example of this dilution is the Monist Society’s take on religion. They, just like the materialists, violently attacked the church, but at the same time imitated it. Haeckel announced a “monistic religion”, and Wilhelm Ostwald gave Monistic Sunday Sermons, which he published in several volumes. Something analogous happened to Positivism: according to Comte, religion had to be replaced by science, but at the same time he founded a Church of Humanity, which became influential in Brazil.

3:AM: Kantian philosophy is often considered the antithesis of materialism but there were those who argued that actually materialism was an integral part. Can you explain how people like Lange could argue this and whether you think there is justification in those views?

KB: If we go back to Kant himself, we will notice that he subscribed to one of the three pillars of materialism I mentioned at the beginning. He was certainly and explicitly a materialist when it came to ontological matters: he thought that matter – including the ‘thing in itself’ – exists objectively and independently of all thinking and believing. He did not accept the epistemological accessibility-thesis, however. This made it possible for Friedrich Albert Lange to argue in his important (and still readable today) History of Materialism that materialism (i) had to be rejected as a philosophy; but that it (ii) was a ‘maxime of scientific research’ insofar as the sciences have to treat their objects as being real. The later Neokantians distanced themselves from Kant, as well as from Lange, because of this concession: they eliminated the ‘thing in itself’ as still too materialistic.

3:AM: What kind of a materialist was Nietzsche? Did he think that the attempts to build a metaphysics out of positivist science or a faith out of science a betrayal of materialism?

KB: Here, like everywhere, Nietzsche is a difficult case. He picked up many of the findings of the natural sciences and sided on this with the scientific materialists who sought to destroy all kinds of traditional beliefs, e.g. in free will or in God. But he parted company with the scientific materialists when it came to their positive goals: democracy, for example.

3:AM: How does materialism relate to logical empiricism?

KB: In some important respects, Logical Empiricism can be seen as a continuation of scientific materialism. Both hold that there is no genuine knowledge outside the natural sciences and that there is no room for philosophical (or other non-scientific) explanations. The difference is that the scientific materialists concentrated on the results of scientific research, while the Logical Empiricists concentrated on science as an attitude or method; the former viewed science as a stash of epistemic products, the latter as an ongoing process.

However, it is easily forgotten that there is a connection between Logical Empiricism and Historical Materialism, too. At least some of the members of the ‘Wiener Kreis’ were Marxists. Especially Otto Neurath tried to reformulate Historical Materialism on the basis of the methodological achievements of the ‘Wiener Kreis’; he gave up on this idea after he emigrated to the US.

3:AM: How do you asses the significance of materialism? Is philosophy constrained by materialism in the contemporary setting? If so, were the early materialists right to say that philosophy is over? What can philosophy offer over and above the materialist?

KB: If we look at the history of materialism from the early 19th century onwards until today, we see an ambivalent picture. On the one hand, its influence on philosophy has grown tremendously. Just think of contemporary philosophy of mind: very few philosophers would deny that all kinds of mental states must have a material basis in brain activities. This is a genuine, a classical materialist thesis! Today it is seen as a trivial truth or as a scientific (not a philosophical) insight. Many of us are much more ‚materialistic’ than they realize; but it would be an exaggeration to say that we are all ‘materialists’. On the one hand, philosophy has lost its comprehensive character, has become much more fragmented than in earlier times. On the other hand, materialism has adopted a more ‘technical’ position. Today, one can think materialistically without being partisan of a ‘Weltanschauung’.

3:AM: And for the readers here at 3:AM, are there five books you could recommend that would take us further into this philosophical world?

KB: Lucretius, De rerum natura. (On the Nature of Things)
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan.
Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity.
Karl Marx/ Friedrich Engels, Die deutsche Ideologie. (The German Ideology)
David Lewis, Papers in Metaphysics and Epistemology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1999.


ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, June 13th, 2015.