Philosophy for the Future:
The Quest of Modern Materialism


The growth of science and technology, the advance of medicine, universal education, and general enlightenment have greatly increased the valid authority of science. Any number of social questions which were once the exclusive prerogative of religion and conventional morality are now recognized as falling within the sphere of the social sciences. Sex and family relations are examples. Virtue and wickedness have largely given way to personality adjustment and maladjustment; and crime is traced in considerable measure to social causes. The schoolboy is no longer beaten as inherently bad or lazy because he neglects his studies. Nutritional, medical, personality factors are, instead, investigated, and the home life and associates of the boy are searched for contributing causes. In this shift from moral condemnation to technical remedies, we see the concurrent rise of science and humaneness. This kind of progress has resulted in an increasingly materialist outlook. But, as we shall see, it is a more subtle and adequate kind of materialism.

The purpose of this cooperative book in which scientists and philosophers collaborate is, quite simply, the exploration and reformulation of materialism.

Although anticipated by the Milesians and Heraclitus of Ephesus, the first clear‑cut materialists of ancient Greece were Leucippus, Democritus, and Epicurus. A passage from Lucretius' poem "On the Nature of Things" will show the searching insights of these ancient thinkers:

                          But nature 'twas
Urged men to utter various sounds of tongue,
And need and use did mould the names of things,
About in same wise as the lack‑speech years
Compel young children unto gesturings,
Making them point with finger here and there
At what's before them.*

[*William Ellery Leonard's translation, Everyman's Library.]

The early Greeks wrote the first chapter of materialism, but many more are still to be added.

In this volume we are concerned mainly with modem materialism. Scientists have joined philosophers to examine the issues with as much light and as little heat as possible. Modern materialism, as we understand it, asserts the following: The inorganic pattern of matter is prior to living, minded and purposive organisms, which arise gradually and only‑ as a result of a complex evolutionary development. With the advent of organic life, new, biological laws begin to operate. The principles of physics and chemistry necessarily apply, but are not by themselves sufficient to the biological level. Thus mechanism or the theory that physicochemical explanation is adequate to all levels, is emphatically rejected. If a thing can be explained by physics and chemistry, however, it must be so explained, and there is no justification for adverting to any other level of the organization of matter. The inorganic and organic constitute distinctive levels, which can be referred to as lower and higher, in the sense that organic material systems are more highly organized and more complex, exhibiting new behavior traits. There are also many subsidiary levels, gradients, and resonances within the inorganic and organic. Within the organic, for example, we have cell, tissue, organ, organ system, organism, and population. Each level except the first contains all lower levels within it. For example, the tissue contains cells, which in turn have chemical components. The cell within a, tissue, however, does not behave just as it does outside the tissue. Chemistry within the cell, too, is altered by the envelope which contains it. The one‑floor plan of the classical biological mechanism is thus superseded by a modern structure displaying many diverse stories. The top stories, however, are always supported by the lower floors; and all floors must rest upon the ground floor studied by physics and chemistry. The diverse stories, the modern materialist insists can be easily confirmed by scientific methods. Organized matter reveals integrative levels of organization characterized by distinctive laws.

As to the nature of matter, the materialist as a philosopher has nothing factual to add to the account of the scientists, although scientists may sometimes use "matter" in a limited sense (interpreting light, for example, as matter if it is corpuscular, but not if it is of wave form). The materialist holds that philosophers cannot improve upon the descriptive concepts of matter supplied by the working scientists of his time. He accepts what the physicist, chemist, biologist, histologist, etc. say as the best approximation at any given time. But he should be able to add considerable epistemological clarification along with semantic and categorial analysis. History shows this is also needed.

The theory of integrative levels turns its back upon any crude mechanism, much as recent science is doing, but also guards against new and subtle forms of Vitalism. In conformity with the findings of the biological sciences, purpose, intention, plan are confined to the top reaches of the phylogenetic scale. General teleology is therefore excluded. The modern materialist forgoes the comfort, unless it be in poetic reverie, of imagining that the order of nature is attuned to his purposes, or endowed with sensitivity and beneficence. Such longings have yielded myths in all ages, but are scarcely appropriate for a scientific era like our own. The materialist makes himself at home in the world, not by investing Nature with purpose, but by transforming it to meet his needs. The vast strides already accomplished by science in controlling and utilizing and molding nature are an earnest of the advances to be worked for and achieved in the future. Modern materialism is thus marked by an effective, working optimism.

Modern materialism is hospitable to every effective method of the sciences, and excludes no procedure which is likely to yield understanding or prediction. It characteristically emphasizes explanation in terms of causal and genetic relations, in contrast to idealism, which makes the relations of ideas primary, and explains the course of the world in terms of abstractions. While insisting on the indispensability of highly specialized, detached studies of various subject matters, the modern materialist recognizes the equal importance of integrating special departmental studies into a comprehensive world view. He thus emphasizes, in contrast to many other philosophical tendencies, the interrelatedness of things. Materialism does not doubt the possibility of satisfying man's need for a comprehensive picture of the universe, and asserts the capacity of scientific methods eventually to cope with basic human problems. It therefore combats agnosticism, skepticism, and all irrational confessions of defeat.

Thought and symbolism have a strategic role in the material world at the human level, but always in close connection with brain events and brain traces. No mental process occurs without its appropriate neural patterns. In the behavior of the organism, the psychic and biological are fused. The movement of an animal is not merely transposition in space but also movement to escape, for example, or movement for food. Movement is psychobiological. There are not two processes that satisfy basic needs and desires—one mental, the other physical—but rather one psychobiological process. The study of behavior is the only scientific approach to the understanding of mind; but this does not rule out hypotheses as to the contents of other minds, that is, reconstructions of mental states of others, on the basis of behavior. Language is here of primary import. Introspection is, of course, a valid method, but the final test of it is behavioral. Obviously excluded by our position are dualisms, parallelisms, and simple or reductionist identity views of mental and bodily processes.

The psychobiological individual must be understood in his development and relations. Personality is conditioned by society and can only be comprehended in its historical context. The alleged conflict between the individual and society as such is artificial, for a human being is highly socialized. Conflicts which arise are concrete and historical. In accounting for the development of societies and their members, increasing importance has been assigned to economic factors, such as natural resources, technology, and ownership relationships; but it is necessary to recognize. likewise the interweaving of other factors, such as education, art, and morals. The latter themselves, however, are not independent of economic conditions. To be rejected, in our view, are historical idealism, extreme economic determinism, and romantic pluralism, that is, the view that no systematic empirical account of history is possible.

The advance of science, technology, industrial organization, and rationality opens up the opportunity of a far fuller servicing of human needs than has ever been possible before. It is the socio‑economic organization of men which lags behind, and prevents the full realization of human values inherent in our industrial and scientific efficiency.

Because modern materialism recognizes that cultural values must, in general, wait upon the servicing of vital needs, it favors forms of social organization which release the productive forces of the economy, so that men, living in some leisure and dignity, can express their genius, their intellectual and artistic bent. It demands a society which organizes full production for the maximum benefit of all its members. There is no evidence meanwhile that, with security and basic needs supplied, man will not make good use of his additional leisure and abundance, realizing indefinite potentialities.

Like naturalism, modern materialism is opposed to any other criterion of human value and policy than human needs and aspirations. It combats all forms of authoritarianism in morals and arts, opposes reduction of ethics to mere formalism, and rejects the appeal to any supposed extranatural source of experience. With the removal of a supernatural perspective, man must stand consciously on his own feet. Let him rise to his full stature and dignity.

The term "naturalism" has been defined by R. B. Perry as "the philosophical generalization of the sciences," and it has been determined with respect both to the content and to the method of the sciences. Unfortunately, the historical forms of naturalism have often been distinguished by their readiness to compromise, or cautiously to set limits to the use of scientific method. Thus, the naturalism of Spencer was tempered by his agnosticism; and the same may be said of Huxley. Added to this fact is the further circumstance that the evolutionary movement eventuated in what may be called a "pseudo‑evolutionary" social philosophy, often referred to as "social Darwinism," in which there was a dangerous confusion of biological and social concepts. It is a notorious fact that writers such as Pearson and Kidd extolled or apologized for social conflicts in the name of biological values. The general term "naturalist" has been applied not only to such types, but also to the pantheistic Haeckel, to some emergent evolutionists with their natural piety and theistic acknowledgments, and to the contemporary group influenced by Dewey. In the recent volume Naturalism and the Human Spirit (edited by Y. H. Krikorian) the reader is informed that "contemporary naturalism recognizes much more clearly than did the tradition from which it stems that its distinction from other philosophical positions lies in the postulates and procedures which it criticizes and rejects rather than in any positive tenets of its own about the cosmos."

This passage will serve clearly to distinguish current naturalism from the frank materialism described above. Whereas this type of naturalism is reluctant to commit itself to a positive theory of the world, materialism endeavors to set forth a synoptic view of man and the universe implicit in the sciences at their present stage of development.

Realism, the view that matter is independent of cognition, is essential to materialism. The Realists, both the New and the Critical, did yeoman service against persisting forms of idealism. In so far as the New Realists were faithful to their realism, and did not resolve matter into sense‑data or so‑called neutral stuff, their thesis resembles a main tenet of materialism. On the whole critical realism is closer to materialism. Both schools, however, were myopic, restricting their interest to a few epistemological and metaphysical questions, whereas the gamut of materialist theory goes far beyond.

Just as realism and naturalism have taken many forms, there are also varieties of materialism. A number of these are listed in the fairly classical summaries of materialism in English, American, German, and French dictionaries and encyclopedias. There is cosmological and ontological materialism, whose dominant motive is a comprehensive world‑scheme. There is medical materialism, directed by the bias of physicians in favor of physiological causes for disease. There is scientific materialism, expressive of the methodology of science and opposed to dualistic vitalism. And there is historical materialism, begun as a protest against the speculative and idealistic approach to history. It held that economic and class relations were the main, though not the only, determinants of social development. And in all this we must be on guard against emotional transfers, such as moral materialism, and question‑begging assumptions.

Materialism has had a long history, reflecting scientific climates and clashing cultural currents. Hobbes turned materialism to defense of secular power against the claims of the Church, and to the undermining of superstition. The spirit of the Enlightenment continues in the writings of Diderot, La Mettrie, Holbach, and Cabanis. The ideas of peace, progress, indefinite perfectibility and equality were impressed upon men's minds. Physiological interest grew. The brain came in for ever more consideration as something of its powers was guessed. In literature, this mode of thought maintained itself with Stendhal beyond the romantic reaction, to Balzac and Zola. The next wave of materialism appeared in Germany, largely as a challenge to speculative idealism. Here Feuerbach played a crucial part in a transition from Hegelian idealism to the dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels. Parallel to this development was the popular materialistic literature of Vogt, Moleschott, and Buchner. Despite crudities and confusions, they were instrumental for a short period in disseminating materialistic ideas and perspectives. Dialectical materialism, on the other hand, has continued its development, and today exerts enormous influence. It is a matter of regret to the Editors that an article on this subject could not be obtained in time.

Almost simultaneously with the understanding of social development came the theory of organic evolution. Now, for the first time, massive evidence was given for the view already suggested by ancient materialists, that man is inseparable from nature, and is the product of a long and continuous development from simpler forms of life.

"Materialism" has been used as a term of opprobrium for so long that numerous scholars who might well identify themselves with it, at least as a broad tendency, have chosen to use other names, and have carefully justified that action by repudiating "crude" forms of materialism in the past. But is it more justifiable to renounce "materialism" because of its crude and partially antiquated beginnings than to repudiate science because so many epochmaking changes in concepts and methods have come only in recent decades? The use of a particular term is not important in itself. The avoidance of a term or designation may however, be important. It would not take long for a truly critical naturalism to become an object of condemnation in fideistic and consvervative quarters, just as forthright materialism is today. The broad, programmatic, and self‑corrective character of modern materialism makes unreserved endorsement possible to scholars who wish to preserve their birthright of independence, and the ideal of following wherever the facts may lead, in all fields of inquiry.

In this Foreword, we must limit ourselves to indicating the questions "to be taken up in the chapters that follow. An effort has been made to integrate science and philosophy in a cooperative and supplementary fashion. In the first part will come relevant historical surveys. In the second, scientists and philosophers delineate different stories of the architectonic of nature. The third part is devoted to a critical study of diverging philosophical positions, such as subjectivism, pragmatism, positivism, and Neo‑Thomism. The stress throughout is upon understanding rather than polemic. It is the feeling of those taking part that the possibilities of a critical modern materialism should be explored.

The vast accumulation of our knowledge of the world, the effective conquest of nature which has transformed the conditions of life, has obliged us all to take stock. In the long run, is it not better to face realities, as the psychologists are constantly telling us? In any case, we are offering analyses, facts and theories for what they are worth. We ask only that they be pondered and, if the spirit moves, that they be discussed.

The Editors are grateful to scientists and philosophers who have made this cooperative volume possible. Individual writers are not re­sponsible for the views expressed by others. Such differences of opinion as exist among them are of a kind to be expected in a growing philosophical movement. Philosophy for the future cannot be confined, any more than advancing science, within set limits. It is an enduring quest, and we believe that such a recurrent and perennial philosophy as materialism deserves a more systematic and penetrating study than it has received, up to now, at the hands of scientists and philosophers.

  V. J. McGILL                   


Foreword Roy Wood Sellars, V. J. McGill, Marvin Farber    v
Democritus, Plato, and Epicurus Benjamin Farrington 1
Hobbes and English Political Thought                       Christopher Hill 13
Remarks on the Materialism of the Eighteenth Century H. J. Pos 33
Hegel, Marx, and Engels Auguste Cornu      41

Social Philosophy and the American Scene

Roy Wood Sellars 61
Materialism and Human Knowing Roy Wood Sellars 75
The Category of Substance Everett J. Nelson 106
Mathematics Dirk J. Struik 125
An Astronomer's View of the Universe            Roy K. Marshall 153
On the Structure of Our Universe L. Infeld 173
Quantum Mechanics Melba Phillips 188
Interaction of Physics, Chemistry, and Biology J. B. S. Haldane 202
A Biological Survey of Integrative Levels C. Judson Herrick 222
Levels in the Psychological Capacities of Animals T. C. Schneirla 243
A Psychological Approach to Personality V. J. McGill 287
Psychoanalysis Judd Marmor, M.D. 317
Some Aspects of Historical Materialism Bernhard J. Stern  340
Ethnological Theory Leslie A. White 357
On Some Tendencies in Modern Economic Theory Maurice Dobb 385
Science, Invention, and Social Applications of Technology J. D. Bernal 400
Context and Content in the Theory of Ideas Abraham Edel 419
The Nature and Status of Values John R. Reid 453
A Materialist Theory of Measurement C. West Churchman 476
Logical Empiricism Maurice Cornforth 495
Pragmatism and the Physical World G. P. Conger 522
Aristotelian Philosophies of Mind
(offsite link)
Wilfrid Sellars 544
Existentialism Georg Lukacs 571
Experience and Subjectivism
(Sections I.F-II.D)
Marvin Farber 591
Index   633

SOURCE: Philosophy for the Future: The Quest of Modern Materialism, edited by Roy Wood Sellars, V.J. McGill, Marvin Farber (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1949), pp. v-xiv.

See also

on this site:

"Logical Empiricism" by Maurice Cornforth

"Existentialism" by Georg Lukacs

Experience and Subjectivism (Sections I.F-II.D) by Marvin Farber

Radical Currents in Contemporary Philosophy edited by David H. DeGrood, Dale Riepe, & John Somerville

American Philosophy Study Guide
includes the following & more:

Reflections on American Philosophy From Within: Foreword & Table of Contents

Reflections on American Philosophy From Within: Chapter 1—The Nature of the Project

Reflections on American Philosophy From Within: Chapter 8 — Intersecting Dialectical Materialism

Some Reflections of Roy Wood Sellars

"Epilogue on Berkeley" by Roy Wood Sellars

Principles of Emergent Realism: Philosophical Essays by Roy Wood Sellars

"The New Materialism" by Roy Wood Sellars

Naturalism and Subjectivism: Contents by Marvin Farber

The Issue of Naturalism vs. Subjectivism by Marvin Farber

Heidegger on the Essence of Truth by Marvin Farber

The Search for an Alternative 1 by Marvin Farber

The Search for an Alternative 9: From the Perspective of Materialism by Marvin Farber

on other sites:

Naturalism & Materialism @ Reason & Society

Aristotelian Philosophies of Mind by Wilfrid Sellars

"Existentialism" by Georg Lukacs [also on this site]



The Philosophy of Materialism” [review of Philosophy for the Future] by Hunter Mead (1949)

"Naturalism and Subjectivism: Philosophy for the Future?" by Peter T. Manicas

Interpreting America: Russian and Soviet Studies of the History Of American Thought reviewed by Peter T. Manicas

"Bhaskar and American Critical Realism" by IAN VERSTEGEN

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