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What is materialism?
If Hegel spins in his grave, it is as a dreidel: on his head.
We must understand this word at the outset in terms of the political relations which are its referents. Here we may follow Schmitt:
... all political concepts, images, and terms have a polemical meaning. They are focused on a specific conflict and are bound to a concrete situation; the result (which manifests itself in war or revolution) is a friend-enemy grouping, and they turn into empty and ghostlike abstractions when this situation disappears. Words such as state, republic, society, class, as well as sovereignty, constitutional state, absolutism, dictatorship, economic planning, neutral or total state, and so on, are incomprehensible if one does not know who exactly is to be affected, combated, refuted, or negated by such a term.
From this perspective, we can see two primary camps using the word today. There are those that use it to condemn an impoverishment of the spirit in modern society; then there are those, perhaps rarer, who use it in an ideologically Marxist sense to refer to material analysis whereby the cultural superstructure is seen as merely reflecting the economic substructure. These two meanings are not necessarily inconsistent, one must simply interpret each instance of usage based on its context.
But there is also a third interpretation of materialism, that of the philosophical sense. Here we must distinguish at the outset an inverted counterfeit: the scientific worldview is not strictly materialist; it is a mundane idealism, one which reduces all to quantity and ‘common sense.’ Here it is again more political, operating as an exclusion; it is not so much an accurate statement of metaphysical inheritance. Of course, most would not even openly avow themselves as materialists in this sense, though they may buck if you accuse them of idealism; yet most every scientist, from the physicist to the economist, and especially the softer sciences—all of these are idealists in practice. Idealism, says Ilyenkov, is the particular delusion of the mental-theoretical class; it is for them a necessity of the trade, for what is a scientist without hypotheses? These hypotheses entail the systematic positing of causal entities: ideas. Such ideas are then, provided they are not falsified, or that their falsification can somehow be suppressed; thereby are these ideas taken as causal entities—at least in practice, even if as much may be disavowed—i.e., as the actual determinants of existence. Maistre caricatures this quirk of scientific ‘materialism,’ of “supposedly wise men”: describing their idealism as a claim to “teach planets how long they must last.”1
Here we are brought to the point at which Marx was said to have turned Hegel on his head; and in this we find the true meaning of our third materialism. This difference is perhaps best summarised by Lenin:
For Hegel action, practice, is a logical ‘syllogism,’ a figure of logic. And this is true! Not, of course, in the sense that the figure of logic has its other-being in the practice of man (= absolute idealism), but vice versa: man's practice, repeating itself a thousand million times, becomes consolidated in man's consciousness by figures of logic. Precisely (and only) on account of this thousand-million-fold repetition, these figures have the stability of a prejudice, an axiomatic character.2
The distinction, in other words, is that for Hegel the practical aspect is understood as an emanation of an eternal logic; in contrast, Lenin specifies that from the perspective of dialectical materialism—and recall, that it is dialectical and hence maintains the same logical form which Hegel touted—it is the logical forms as present to man's consciousness which follow from the embodied activity of man in his environment. This is further clarified by Ilyenkov:
Thinking, understood as a specifically human capacity to relate to any thing in accordance with its own measure and form, does not ‘wake up to self-consciousness,’ but originally emerges in the process of the immediate and objective human activity.3
Dialectical materialism, in this sense, therefore entails an emphasis on embodiment and dialectical activity in the world. This is then seen as the seed from which all ideality grows, for then the task is to trace this unfolding into the world; it is this which can be seen as the key narrative in Marx’s Capital, which Ilyenkov takes as the principle exemplar of this method. Yet the same can also be seen elsewhere, as echoed in Piaget, for instance, or the psychoanalytic theory of Winnicott—indeed, even Freud engages such a method in his essay on negation:
Expressed in the language of the oldest—the oral—instinctual impulses, the judgement is: ‘I should like to eat this,’ or ‘I should like to spit it out’; and, put more generally: ‘I should like to take this into myself and to keep that out.’ That is to say: ‘It shall be inside me’ or ‘it shall be outside me.’
We ought not, therefore, understand this form of (dialectical) materialism as poorly represented by its vulgar forms; it is something else entirely, a method which aims to avoid the self-deification inherent in idealism. This entails a reorientation of philosophy towards embodiment in its relation to the immediate environment, that place whereby ideality is drawn from experience; in this, metaphor takes a central role, by which we abstract (literally, draw from) concrete materiality and redeploy this in ideality via language so as to extend our imagination beyond sensible immediacy.4 That we have forgotten this original font is hardly surprising in light of the extent to which our intellectual capacities have developed; and moreover, the value which such intelligence is assigned in our technological society. Everywhere we encounter only ideality; it is the city in which every object has its meaning, is placed and planted (or removed) all for specific reasons. This World is a cage of mirrors; to escape requires a return to immediacy, to nature and embodiment—in other words, to life itself.5
Maistre, An Examination of the Philosophy of Bacon, p. xiii.
Lenin in Ilyenkov, Intelligent Materialism, p. 21-22.
Ilyenkov, Intelligent Materialism, p. 22.
See, in particular, Lakoff and Johnson: Metaphors We Live By.
I am a hypocrite, of course, here stuffed full of words; but nonetheless, I know this.