YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

September 8, 2012

What is a materialist?

What is a materialist? This question cannot be answered without asking what is an organic conservative.  See http://clarespark.com/2010/03/05/organic-conservatives-and-hitler/, in which I give examples taken from my book on the Melville Revival. That essay takes patience and time, so I will attempt a more accessible account below.

This blog focuses entirely on what we mean by materialists and materialism, since the meanings of this term have proliferated, and are frequently deployed in partisan propaganda, but rarely with a definition of what the term signifies.

As a term of abuse, materialism refers to the excessive consumption promoted by free market capitalism, often viewed as a self-serving innovation of “the International Jew.” Leftists, whether of the Democratic Party or of the hard Left, believe that the desire for Things has taken precedence over Love thy Neighbor, and produced a loathsome narcissism, and worse, “bourgeoisifying” what should have been a revolutionary working class. Such love of material comfort, it is alleged, has only served to place the “rootless” individual into the iron cage of materialism (Max Weber), for such a one has emptied herself of “spirituality”.

Minimalist architecture and design addressed the froufrou of excessive ornamentation with a return to simplicity, even austerity. And neoclassical austerity is the preferred style of communism and related ideologies interested in high quality mass production that would re-spiritualize the irreligious urban masses. (One branch of feminist art addressed such austerity as typical of the male sensibility, and produced in reaction, pattern painting. Some of its leading artists have been Miriam Schapiro and Joyce Kozloff, notwithstanding their liberal or leftist sympathies. I could have added Judy Chicago to this group, in her rehabilitation of painting on china or embroidery, once considered to be crafts practiced by women, and demeaned accordingly.)

Joyce Kozloff image

Materialism as empiricism, as a route to knowledge known to some Greek philosophers, was mostly a product of the Reformation and then the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, but even a materialist like Hobbes warned against the untrammeled search for truth as a dangerous “passion.” (Catholic scholars have pointed out that much science was developed by medieval monks, and they are right.)

The German Enlightenment of the 18th century was reactionary as it undermined “materialism” with its mystical notion of national character and Zeitgeist or “the spirit of the age.” Society was held together by mystical bonds of blood and soil, but Herder, the chief proponent of “national character” arranged his different societies in a hierarchy that favored Germans and ancient Greeks. See http://clarespark.com/2010/10/18/the-dialectic-of-multiculturalism-helvetius-herder-fichte/, and http://clarespark.com/2010/07/20/german-romantic-predecessors-to-multiculturalism/.

To conclude this short blog, a materialist historian looks at the evidence of this world, although with a skeptical eye, for we understand that we are capable of misreading primary sources, and that primary source materials are themselves sometimes wrong or distorted by diarists, the records of courts, etc. (Or primary source materials may be hidden by secretive tyrants, an ongoing problem for historians and the better journalists.) We also tend to look to similar material interests as a route to social solidarity, not to mystical bonds that are posited by the organic conservatives (e.g. populists/progressives asserting “the public interest” over the ever-selfish “individual”). And the latter mystics are found all over the political spectrum.  To see “things as they are” is no easy matter, and beware of those experts who abuse “evidence” to please a client or an institution or a political party. For more on this point, see (http://clarespark.com/2013/12/13/culture-wars-religion-and-the-neurotic-historian/.)

Note: My use of the Bauhaus and its neoclassical underpinnings (mystical) are derived from Barbara Haskell’s essay in the catalog to the recent exhibition of Lyonel Feininger’s career in Germany and America. See  http://whitney.org/Exhibitions/LyonelFeininger. Haskell explains that the Bauhaus (Feininger was a member) attempted to revive the medieval unity of arts and crafts, i.e., as a restoration of spirituality. This was a powerful insight for me.

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6 Comments »

  1. “Material ism is empiricism and empiricism is materialism”: so I was told by my science textbook when I was a boy, so I was told by the Marxists I read as a teenager. Materialism and Empricism are two distinct traditions. Materialism goes back to the Atomists Democritus and Epicurus and was revivied in modern thought by the discovery of Lucretius’ poem De Rerum Naturae in the early 15th Century. Empiricism goes back to Pyhrro, comes down to us via Sextus Empiricus (hence the name) and was revived in England following Newton’s Laws of Gravity. Berkeley and Hume were empiricists – they certainly were not Materialists.
    (As an aside Tacitus’ Germania was discovered around the same time as De Rerum Naturae and under the same cirucmstances. How much better for the future of Europe if the monks had recycled the parchment without reading it first).

    Comment by Caedmon — September 9, 2012 @ 6:41 am | Reply

    • I did not equate materialism and empiricism in the blog. But in my studies of social movements and ideology, those ideas that maintained illegitimate authority were sharply opposed to the evidence of the senses or cause and effect. I am well aware that current day postmodernists, for instance, attack science as “a swindle” leading to excessive democracy and a rupture with tradition. I did once plow through all 6 or 8 volumes of Hume’s History of England, and found him the chief of the “moderate men” and a Tory who loathed Locke. Herder was a great admirer of Hume. On this website I have been tracking the noxious influence of German idealism in this country and in Europe. I’m afraid I admire Lucretius (as did Melville) for his banishing religious terrorism (the fear of Hell) from his world view. To conclude this brief response, dialectical materialism is neither scientific nor empirical. It comes from Hegel and his compatriots.

      Comment by clarespark — September 9, 2012 @ 2:57 pm | Reply

  2. I appreciate this blog entry. You frequently use these words but without explanation. I one googled “organic Conservative” only to find that it was a type of english gardening. If I were to define a typology, the polar opposite of materialism would be idealism; that of organic conservatism, individualism.

    Comment by david gansel — September 8, 2012 @ 8:04 pm | Reply

    • I agree that the opposite of epistemological materialism would be idealism. Organic conservatism vs. individuality is something that I have addressed throughout the website. Thanks for the comment. There are leftists that are, underneath the rhetoric, organicists; while there are persons in any political camp who look at real material interests in the world, and try to construct social bonds based on an identity of interests. But you already know that.

      Comment by clarespark — September 9, 2012 @ 12:34 am | Reply


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