Radical Enlightenment Seminar

cover small480

History of Materialism and Intelligent Materialism

Charles Wolfe (Université de Toulouse Jean Jaurès)



It is difficult to separate ‘materialism’ as a diverse eighteenth-century philosophical movement from the many polemical arguments surrounding it throughout the century. Like its cognates ‘atheist,’ ‘Hobbist’ and ‘Spinozist’, ’materialist’ was often used more as a pejorative term and a placeholder than as a philosophical position. The polemical dimension is present both in period texts (e.g. Henry More and Ralph Cudworth) and, more surprisingly, in works of the history of philosophy up until the twentieth century (which attack it as a species of libertinism, or as a denial of human agency, the latter critique emanating both from Marxist, phenomenological and Christian positions): it is hard to separate mainstream scholarly assessment from the general tone of opprobrium in what became the received, mainstream vision of the subject, from Friedrich Lange’s Kantian History of Materialism (1866), which was devoted to tracing out the ultimate limitations and aporias of materialism, to other, post-Kantian and Hegelian histories in the nineteenth century but also well into the twentieth. Here I reflect, partly in light of my recent publication Lire le matérialisme (2020), on the possibility of understanding the philosophical import of the history of materialism (including the methodological challenge of understanding a doctrine through its critiques), what sort of ‘types’ or ‘varieties’ of materialism we should distinguish (mechanistic versus vital, metaphysical versus non-metaphysical, cosmological versus psychological, etc.), and the place within (or beyond) these types of what some might call an “intelligent materialism.” If there is, or can be an intelligent materialism, is it somehow above and beyond the methodological complexities detailed above?