Skip to content

Materialism and critical realism

Image result for keywords raymond williams
In the first couple of substantive posts on this blog I pinned my colours firmly to a materialist perspective on the social sciences. But what does this ‘materialism’ actually mean? The word is used in many ways, and I should probably start by making clear some of the senses that I’m NOT invoking. First, I’m not arguing for materialism in the common everyday sense of “an overriding or primary concern with the production or acquisition of things or money” (as Raymond Williams put it in his indispensable Keywords). Nor am I invoking a Marxist “historical materialism” or “dialectical materialism” – Marxists are materialists, but materialists need not be Marxists.
Materialism, in the sense I’m using, is about ontology: it’s a belief about what kinds of things exist in the world, what kinds of things can have causal influence in the world – and what kinds of things cannot. Raymond Williams describes this kind of materialism as a “set of arguments which propose matter as the primary substance of all living and non-living things, including human beings” (Keywords again). I might put it as: everything that exists and has causal effects is composed of physical particles, or composes physical particles (though as this is a blog I reserve the right to modify that definition later!).
Some readers might think that’s just obviously true and wonder what all the fuss is about, but others might object violently. The objections generally arise because of the things that materialism excludes from our ontology. Jamie Morgan brought that to my attention recently by questioning whether my materialism excludes anything significant at all. It certainly does, but Jamie’s challenge was useful in prompting me to clarify that. Let’s list some of the things it does exclude:
  • the supernatural: “Gods, gods, spirits, souls or other immaterial entities which are alleged to direct or influence the operations of nature, society and the inner man” (from George Novack’s The Origins of Materialism)
  • immaterial minds: not only souls but also minds that are somehow independent of brains
  • free floating ideas: theories, statements, concepts, or the like that are taken to exist outside human brains. This doesn’t exclude the representation of such ideas in physical objects, but those objects are physical things themselves and ideas cannot exist outside some sort of material substrate.
  • moral values that are thought to exist – or even to be objectively right – independently of what people actually think and independently of particular social contexts
That list has already got me into trouble with some other critical realists – I’ve criticised Roy Bhaskar’s moral realism (in a widely ignored article) and Margaret Archer’s use of Karl Popper’s ‘World 3’ in her account of culture on precisely these grounds. But it also puts me at odds with most forms of religion and all forms of idealism.
But materialism isn’t as simple and straightforward as it might seem. There are two kinds of problems that are worth saying a little more about here. First, the boundaries of what should count as ‘material’ are difficult to define. And second, it is fundamental to all forms of critical realism that our ontology must include more than just the material – so how can materialism be reconciled with my commitment to a version of critical realism?
Let’s start with the boundaries of the material. Early versions of the concept probably depended on the solidity of ordinary middle-sized material objects (Williams tells us that the word material originally referred to building materials such as timber) or at least the fact that they generate a sense of presence when we touch them. But as science advanced, it became clear that those objects were ultimately composed of miniscule particles that certainly couldn’t be touched and aren’t solid in any meaningful sense. Since those particles clearly are real and causally significant, the notion of matter (or ‘the material’) had to be extended to them – extended down the layers of entities that compose the things we’re familiar with in everyday life. As science dives deeper and deeper into fundamental physics, it’s starting to look like the bottom layers (or at least the lowest ones that scientists have so far hypothesised) are so strange that the concept of particles isn’t really a viable way of categorising them, which takes them a step further away from our more mundane experiences of matter. So our concept of what is material has had to evolve in response to those findings, and my own formulation above is a rough and ready way of incorporating whatever science may find about the lower layers into a definition of the material.
But it’s OK for the definition of material to evolve. As Raymond Williams says in a different paper (‘Problems of Materialism’)
Image result for problems of materialism raymond williamsThere are inevitable difficulties in any serious materialism. In its earliest phases it has a comparative simplicity of definition, since it rests on a rejection of presumptive hypotheses of non-material or metaphysical prime causes, and defines its own categories in terms of demonstrable physical investigations. Yet … in the continuing process of investigation, the initial and all successive categories are inherently subject to radical revision, and in this are unlike the relatively protected categories of presumed or revealed truths

But there’s a good reason for that, as Williams tells us: “For the special character of materialism, and that which alone gives it value, is its rigorous openness to physical evidence”. In other words, materialism is ultimately a scientific claim. Materialists are committed to the idea that only certain kinds of things can exist and have causal effects, and they are prepared to revise their definition of those kinds of things in response to the evidence. There is even a point at which evidence could in principle force consistent materialists to abandon materialism: if irrefutable evidence was produced that precisely the sorts of things that materialism specifically excludes were actually causally effective, then materialists would have to admit defeat. Given enough miracles, materialism falls! I don’t see that happening, personally, but I’ve been wrong before.

What about the second problem? In a recent comment on one of my earlier posts, Mervyn Hartwig seemed to question whether my materialism was consistent with critical realism. Let me quote from my own reply to Mervyn:

This, of course, is where Bhaskar’s idea that there is a domain of the real beyond the actual world comes in. I have a thoroughly materialist understanding of the actual … but I have also argued consistently (and consistently with Bhaskar’s early work, I think) that there are aspects of the universe beyond the actual, aspects that we can have true beliefs about which do not depend on the existence or properties of material things. As I put it in my recent review of Tuukka Kaidesoja’s book for the Journal of Social Ontology, “there are true facts about the world, the referents of which are not actual things or events”. In particular, it is true that certain types of things … would have certain types of causal power that arise from their composition and structure, and this is true whether or not examples of the type actually do exist: in other words, there are real causal powers, independently of whether there are any actual objects with those causal powers. 

So, following Bhaskar, I’m making a distinction between the ontological domain of the actual, which includes everything that exists in the universe and everything that happens in the universe, and the ontological domain of the real. The real, according to Bhaskar, includes the actual but is not exhausted by it. One good reason for accepting that is that there are true facts about the world which are not facts about actual things, and the idea of real causal powers describes one such type of fact. So I’m being materialist about the actual, while acknowledging that a coherent ontology must include other elements too. But which other elements? And why not all the things I’ve excluded earlier in the post? That’s a big question, which I can’t guarantee to answer completely, but I will try to make some progress on it in a later post.

Creative Commons License

1 thought on “Materialism and critical realism”

  1. Pingback: Maybe two parts of reality instead of three? – Critical Realism Network

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *