The New Materialism

Roy Wood Sellars

IT HAS become quite the custom to add the adjectives, new or modern, to fundamental philosophical positions to indicate that some basic transformation has taken place. The broad principles are the same; and yet methods and concepts have been brought up to date. The new materialism exemplifies this identity with difference. It represents a thorough overhauling of traditional materialism in the light of developments in both science and philosophy.

For quite understandable historical and cultural reasons, it so happened that materialism became a "suppressed alternative" in academic philosophy. Philosophers took no pains to bring it into line with their technical analyses in logic and theory of knowledge or to make it more presentable. In fact, its refutation had become economically schematized. This was made fairly easy in the nineteenth century because of the dominance of Kantianism and idealism. And, after all, science had not yet penetrated far beyond the macroscopic level of the inorganic world. Matter was a term largely symbolic of mass, movement, and blind mechanism. The notions of levels, organization and fields were hardly glimpsed. In my own lifetime, the transformations in both science and philosophy have been astonishing. And I am impressed by those in philosophy almost as much as by those in science. It keeps me on my toes, for instance, to keep up with linguistic analysis. Everything must be stated clearly and analytically.

This development is all to the good. While, however, it was, at first, attached to the Humian type of empiricism with its inclination to sensationalism and phenomenalism, there are many indications that more recognition is being given recently to the realistic meanings of perception and to the rôle of reference and indicative words. What I called "critical realism" and "physical realism" will, I take it, be again explored. But this leads to space‑time corporealism; and then a reconstruction of the essentials of materialism does not seem far off. It must, of course, be an empirically‑minded and plastic materialism. It must avoid both traditional reductionism and mystical holism and work out its categories carefully. Phrases like "blind mechanism" and "epiphenomenalism" betray their background of Cartesian dualism, with life and mind stuck on, as it were, on the outside. That is, clearly, not the right beginning.

In the present paper, I shall stress an empirical type of perceptual and referential realism in epistemology, an exploratory ontology which stresses categories and levels, and an axiology which seeks to do justice to valuations and intelligent action. All of which will sum up to a kind of new deal for materialism. Or shall I call it a fair deal?

This program assumes that it is invalid to start with an a priori notion of materialism and then to belabor it. But it is rightly demanded that materialism do justice to all the facts from the inorganic to the human and the social. Thus, personality and ethical choice must be a part of the picture. But psychology and the social sciences are helping the philosopher here. What materialism intrinsically rejects is the incorporeal and dualism.

It is interesting to note that, in academic philosophy, the  term naturalism was, first of all, widely used, particularly in the United States. Curiously enough, this country was a pioneer. Naturalism signified a rejection of theism and transcendentalism and a stress upon empiricism. On the technical side it was often very vague. Those idealists who became naturalists tended to put emphasis upon human experience in opposition to the notions of absolute idealism. And this could lead to a stress upon scientific method as the defining characteristic of naturalism. It was this direction that American pragmatism took under the leadership of John Dewey (1859‑ ).

But, on the positive side, naturalism could be materialistic. This was the older tradition going back to the Ionians and culminating in the ancient world in Democritus (fl. 421 B.C.), Epicurus (343‑270 B.C.), and Lucretius (99‑55 B.C.). In the modern world it had had continued revivals and reformulations in the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. One of the most interesting of these was the dialectical materialism of the Marxists. Here the stress was upon the rejection of idealism, the acceptance of science, the importance of history, and the replacement of mechanical postulates by what were called dialectical ones. In the English‑speaking world academic philosophy was dominated by epistemological questions as the ante‑chamber to ontological ones. The American realists wrestled with the problem of the physical world and our human knowledge of it. To make a long story short, the critical realists were more explicit in their confrontation with traditional problems, such as those of psychophysics. Here there was a division between the dualists, represented by Lovejoy (1873‑ ) and Pratt (1875‑1944) particularly, and the monists, represented by the panpsychists, Drake (b. 1878) and Strong (1862‑1940) and the materialists, Santayana, (1863‑ ) and Sellars (1880‑ ). The panpsychists became increasingly materialistic in their outlook but rightly emphasized the psychophysical problem: What is the ontological status of sentience? Santayana made much of the realm of essence as additional to that of the realm of matter. "That matter is capable of eliciting feeling and thought follows necessarily from the principle that matter is the only substance, power, or agency in the universe: and this, not that matter is the only reality, is the first principle of materialism." [1] In his article, "What is Materialism?" Sidney Hook (1902‑ ) has raised much the same question in a more pragmatic context. How can the materialist categorize generic properties, consciousness and logical implications? In what sense can they be existentially allocated?

In the Preface of my first book, Critical Realism, [2] I used the expression, the "new materialism"—in this, I believe, antedating Santayana's proclamation of materialism. I here developed both the notion of levels in nature and the double‑knowledge approach to an identity theory of the mind‑brain. I distinguished, but related, mind and consciousness and spoke of mind, henceforth, as a physical category of an emergent level. It may be of interest to state that, in my conversations with Drake and Strong, I found that Drake was opposed to the idea of levels and emergence as mystical, while Strong admitted that he had not, perhaps, recognized sufficiently the importance of organization. This was in 1937 in Fiesole, Italy. Strong had swung away from the notion of essences by this period.

Now it is clear, I take it, from all this that the modern materialist who is a technical philosopher has a big job on his hands in the way of analysis, categorization, and systematic putting together of his results. He must do a job comparable to that of Aristotle's in the framework of modern realism and patterned dynamics. He will, of course, reject the too Platonic conceptions of matter and form of Aristotle for whom there could be incorporeal and meta‑physical forms. Fortunately, he will find leads in modern science and in linguistics.

The coöperative book, Philosophy for the Future, [3] reflects an exploratory program for the development and the clarification of an adequate materialism. The stress laid in this volume, edited by McGill, Farber and Sellars, is upon "The broad, programmatic, and self‑corrective character of modern materialism."

Broadly speaking, then, materialism has always stood for the rejection of the meta‑physical or the incorporeal. It is generically continuous with the Ionic approach to physis or nature. In contrast to the mythologists who wanted a "likely story" of origins the Ionians, sought, in the main, to find out what things are made of and what the particular "go" of them could be. They were guided by the practical arts of the time and arrived in some measure at experimental methods. But there was, in addition, persistent, rational reflection in the way of supplementation. This tended to be intuitive and somewhat pictorial. One can compare in this respect the atomism of Democritus with that of Dalton with his evidential discovery of combining numbers. In modern science the interplay of constitutive and operational factors is still undergoing clarification. Laws, theories and predictions are interconnected. And what we may call the texture of nature is being gradually deciphered. What stands out is its dynamic quality and architectonic subtlety. A perceptual imagination based on macroscopic things is left far behind. Mathematical symbols must now support conception. One other point must be kept in mind, namely, that relations and equilibria are as much a part of the concept of physical systems as are particles. It is the order and patterns of things and processes which science is comprehending; and, as we shall note, such knowledge does not involve any acquaintance with what we may call the stuff, or being, of the external world. Human knowing has to have its verification and confirmation but its disclosures about the world must then be tentatively taken at their face‑value. That, we must say, is the kind of world it is. The alternative is an emotionally motivated agnosticism.

Modem materialism moves up and down from the human to the biological and the inorganic; and back again. Only so can the proper balance be kept. Personality is what it is; and full justice must be done to it. At the same time, this beautiful apple, resting on my desk, ripened by the summer sun is what it is. The new materialism is thoroughly empirical but not positivistic and phenomenalistic. It retains the natural, human awareness of a knower who is also an agent. It handles as it observes.

Plato, it will be recalled, asked the question in the Laws: Which came first, soul or body? His answer was soul. It was the self‑mover. Modern dynamism and evolutionism no longer sees point to the disjunction. Aristotle still retained the vitalism implied and worked out his philosophy of nature in terms of matter and form as largely correlatives. This, we know, was taken up by Thomism and given a more creationalistic framework in terms of the Judeo‑Christian God as the source of creaturely existence. But modern materialism is more empirically minded and begins with primary existence. Thus, it undercuts the Aristotelian construct of matter vs. form. Thought presupposes being and action. It is, itself, largely a form of symbolic action.

Any systematic insight into the perspective of the new materialism must rest upon developments in theory of knowledge, ontology and cosmology, and axiology. It is to these that I now briefly turn.


In its rejection of scholasticism, modern philosophy passed to a vague complex of dualism and subjectivism. Mind, vaguely conceived, was set over against matter; and mechanism was opposed to teleology. At the same time, a puzzling, psychological subjectivism was inaugurated by both Descartes and Locke. What a quagmire for thought and culture! No wonder that it has taken centuries of scientific growth and philosophical analysis to escape from it.

There are two reasons why. epistemological clarification is so much needed. First, because one easily gets puzzled in ontology unless one is guided by a clear conception of the nature and reach of human knowing. And, second, because modern philosophy got off to a too subjectivistic start with Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume and Kant. It seemed to philosophers that they were shut up into their own minds and left to the contemplation of what were usually called ideas. The corporeal world, even that of their own bodies, retreated and became transcendent as extra‑mental. It has been a fairly complicated business to work back to a proper, realistic framework of a designative and manipulative sort tied in with behavior and language. Man had to discover again that he was primarily an organism, alert to the things around him, and not a disembodied mind or soul.

Much of the original difficulty sprang, as we have indicated, from an overstress upon the causal approach to perception, unbalanced by the supplementary emphasis upon response, manipulative meanings, pointing, and linguistic symbolization. There can be little doubt that the soul‑body dualism of the Platonic‑Christian tradition supported this simplification. With the supplanting of Scholasticism by scientific method, even what was valuable in Aristotelianism was ignored. As against the Thomists, I think that, in the long run, it was for the best; for it meant that the whole complex had to be thought through in the light of the growth of science and of an accompanying effort at philosophical analysis.

Since I must make a long story short, I think it best to emphasize the perplexities associated with the concept of matter. While scientists, like the ordinary run of men, kept on thinking in terms of denotable and manipulatable things and their constituents, philosophers were dominated by their subjectivistic gambit, which had switched attention from the actual references and claims of human knowing to such entities as sensations, images and concepts. Now there are, no doubt, such entities; and they play their part in human knowing. But concentration of attention on them and on mental processes in general eclipsed the primary task which should have been a study of perceptual references and assertions. The result was both bad psychology and bad epistemology. Berkeley's to be is to be perceived symbolizes the mistake. It ignores the designations and manipulative meanings basic to perception and assumes that knowing is a kind of acquaintance, a sensing. On these terms, material things become x's. But is not the whole perspective perverted? If we can designate the things around us and confirm facts about them, does science ask for more? Matter is that which can be designated, located and manipulated; and not that which ought to be intuited, as sensations can be.

The false gambit is exposed in Mill's definition of matter as the permanent possibility of sensation. In our own day, phenomenalistic positivists have sought to reduce material‑thing sentences to a string of sentences about future sensations, obtainable conditionally. I have the impression that the failure of this effort is leading them to take the realism of language more seriously. [4] It will, I think, be found that critical realism can avoid Santayana's realm of essences along these lines.

Just one other point and I must end this epistemological section, which is designed to prepare the way for a materialistic ontology. The physical realist cannot accept Hume's treatment of causality, logical as it is, within his framework. Are there not executive meanings of agency and action for both percipient and thing perceived? Extreme rationalists have sought to identify executive meanings with logical necessity. I can see, at most, an analogy. The modern materialist rejects both Humian psychologism and logical rationalism. Causal activity is an ontological category. But, of course, specific causal laws must be empirically discovered.


Modern ontological materialism is tied in closely with science. Its job is clarification of categories. As I have indicated, it must do to‑day what Aristotle sought to do in his day. What is the status of relations and processes? How shall we think of the generic? How shall we conceive organization? What is the existential basis of properties? What shall we mean by dispositions and habits? Here we have, I think, the possibility of a new kind of nominalism which stresses similarity but has nothing in common with psychologism of the Berkeley‑Hume type. Things can have similar natures. We can then think of these generically. But we must not project our verbalized distinctions into nature and make entities of them. Even to call them entia rationis may easily be misleading.

Now the materialist is clearly a substantialist so far as this signifies rejection of phenomenalism. But, as I have indicated, his substantialism makes room for processes and relations. It is, likewise, evolutionary and holds that novel wholes can arise through integrative causality. Physics and biology seem to be on the threshold of new insights with regard to texture and processes. The relation of the macroscopic, or molar, to the microscopic must be thought through carefully, especially when the molar object is an organism. The whole is the parts in their spatio‑temporal relations. True; but as biology shows, there may be centers of dominance both genetically and functionally. The disregard of this architecture in terms of isolated factors is what is usually called reductionism, that is, a nothing‑but a priorism. Modern materialism is not epiphenomenalistic and reductive after the fashion of the scientific materialism based on classical physics. Relations, processes, integrative involvement are recognized.

And so we must be careful about terminology. For me, novelty and levels are associated with integrative causality. For Professor Donald Williams [5] reduction seems to be a synonym for analysis. Analysis in situ, so to speak, does not preclude comprehension of relations and patterned processes. No modern materialist impugns what is empirically confirmable. But is there good reason to speak of evolved properties as epiphenomenal to the spatio‑temporal? I grant that they involve these categorial characteristics and are, to that extent, always spatio‑temporal. But the substantialist holds space‑time to be a categorial characteristic of matter and energy. I suspect the influence of S. Alexander's neo‑realism to be operative here. But I am in hearty agreement with Williams's rejection of positivism. Is not the nuclear physicist still trying to probe into the particles and forces which constitute the kernel of the atom?

In ontology, then, the modern materialist stresses aseity as against the contingence notion of creationalism. And he is an ontologist as against phenomenalism and experientialism. In order to be all this, he must be a competent epistemologist as well as have a sense for categories. It is indeed a challenge and promises to give new vitality to philosophy.

There remains in this section one crucial topic for discussion, namely, the mind‑consciousness‑organism problem. In my own writings I have used the formula, the double‑knowledge and emergence approach.

In essentials, it is this. Mind stands for processes and operations and their dispositional conditions. Consciousness for sentiency and awareness; and the organism for the living locus. The highest level of mind involves the use of symbols, worked out in cultures.

In each one's experiencing and awareness he is, I think, literally participating in the neuro‑mental activities of his organic self and, in reflexive self‑knowledge and introspection—not quite the same—can become aware of them—but never exhaustively. Here, and here alone, is each human being, on the inside of nature, his bit of nature. The essential preliminary is to be openminded and not to begin with the Cartesian gambit.

It is important to realize that the sciences, developed around external perception and its manipulative meanings, do not pretend to any intuition of the stuff, or being, of things and events. Those not well trained in epistemology are easily confused. Since neural events must have an intrinsic nature, why not accept the fact that this intrinsic nature rises to a feeling‑quale, say, in the thalamus and to discriminated data in the visual center? Conceptualization of this situation and the proper syntax need to be worked out. The brain‑event is not colored, as we say a surface is colored, but includes a color‑sensation as a qualitative dimension, isolated in awareness. How this is taken up in the complexities of perception and conditioned thereby will gradually be worked out, as more is known of the method of cerebral activity.

In concluding this section I would point out that modern philosophy is very language‑conscious. The new materialism can hardly be new enough unless it can allocate a status for symbols and their meanings. But this does not seem hard to do in the light of the growth of semantics and the psychology of language. Words are reproducible patterns of sound or sight used in syntactical ways and linked with designations and discriminations. Man is a tool‑using animal; and language is his most delicate tool.

There are, of course, all sorts of fascinating questions, such as the relation of logic to ontology, which cannot be taken up in this brief outline. The thesis of the materialist is that any satisfactory analysis can be fitted into his realistic epistemology and ontology. Thus implication is a propositional relation and not, by itself, a bit of matter. The relation of logic to psychology and this to the functioning, symbolizing organism is involved.


I have left myself small space for the discussion of values and ethics; but can, I hope, bring out the essential points.

First of all, there is no logical connection between ontological materialism and so‑called "ethical materialism." Historically, philosophical materialism has mainly been humanistic and reformist. Concern with power and possessions has been a cultural phenomenon.

It is customary these days to distinguish between simple, natural values and moral valuations connected with the idea of right and of obligation. The latter presupposes the former.

Human beings have drives, wants, desires and purposes in relation to things, events, other persons and situations. Designative cognitions make possible the linkage of these drives with the objective situation. The result is an appraisal of objects and objectives in the light of their bearing upon the self. We develop pro‑attitudes and anti‑attitudes and verbalize them. So far as I can see, there is nothing mysterious about all this. Values are, then, appraisals founded on the affective‑volitional side of the self. They are not arbitrary but testable. It would be a mistake to make them external and observational for they are essentially relational and reflexive. [6]

In the moral life, the justification of choices among values becomes focal. It is the very nature of the moral life to be sensitive to the long run and to the lives of others. Man is a socialized animal. What arises in customary morality is heightened in reflective morality. Reason and sympathetic imagination play an important rôle.

Naturally, the materialist works hand in hand with the social scientist but refuses to ignore the normative question. It is clear that right and good are connected terms. Right expresses responsibility with respect to maximizing good in a given situation and involves agency and responsible choice.

It can be said, then, that the materialist simply deepens the naturalistic outlook in these matters and, like him, rejects the isolation of values from the human situation. There is no sense in speaking of what ought to be apart from needs and purposes. The materialist is more concerned with the perspective of increasing the good than with rigorism for its own sake. With this criterion in mind, it seems to him that moral judgments can be justified, even as empirical statements are confirmable. In the strict sense he is led to distinguish between pure cognition and appraisal as different goals. Appraisal is tied in with human living as a going concern. No more than cognition is it arbitrary.


1. The Philosophy of George Santayana. (New York, 1940), edited by P. A. Schilpp, 497 ff. The primary difficulties are his doctrine of essence and his epiphenomenalism. [—> main text]

2. Critical Realism (Chicago, 1916). See, also, Evolutionary Naturalism (Chicago, 1921) and The Philosophy of Physical Realism (New York, 1932). [—> main text]

3. Philosophy for the Future, The Quest of Modern Materialism (New York, 1949). This is a coöperative book in which scientists and philosophers explore a materialistic outlook of an evolutionary sort. [—> main text]

4. The development of semantics has led away from Humian phenomenalism to a greater stress upon symbols and designation. Russell is a transition figure here. The emphasis should be upon the use of words. [—> main text]

5. Donald Williams, "Naturalism and the Nature of Things," Philosophical Review, Vol. LIII (1944). I suspect that Williams is hesitating between neo‑realism and critical realism. See, also, in this connection the article by Dewey, Hook and Nagel, "Are Naturalists Materialists?" in the Journal of Philosophy, Vol. XLII (1945). A recent summary is to be found in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Sept., 1949, in an article by Harry Ruya and Monroe Shapiro called "Pluralism and Contemporary Naturalism." [—> main text]

6. Much of the ethical discussion of values follows the wild‑goose chase inaugurated by the so‑called "naturalistic fallacy" of G. E. Moore, which he now acknowledges not to be a fallacy. Simple, natural values are presupposed by moral questions. Appraisals are empirical and justifiable. By their very nature values are reflexive and situational. Here the modem materialist is humanistic and cultural. [—> main text]

SOURCE: Sellars, Roy Wood. “The New Materialism,” in A History of Philosophical Systems, edited by Vergilius Ferm (Paterson, NJ: Littlefield, Adamas & Co., 1965 [orig. 1950]), Chapter 33, pp. 418-428.

American Philosophy Study Guide
includes the following:

Reflections on American Philosophy From Within

Some Reflections of Roy Wood Sellars

"Epilogue on Berkeley" by Roy Wood Sellars

Principles of Emergent Realism: Philosophical Essays by Roy Wood Sellars

Philosophy for the Future: The Quest of Modern Materialism

Vienna Circle, Karl Popper, Frankfurt School, Marxism, McCarthyism & American Philosophy: Selected Bibliography

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Marx and Marxism Web Guide

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