Philosophical materialism maintains that all things can be understood in terms of matter in motion. The only things that exist are matter and energy. Because of this, there is an association between different varieties of materialism and the scientific method. Many scholars credit Greek philosophers such as Democritus and Epicurus as the intellec­tual predecessors to philosophical materialism.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, material­ism emerged as a philosophical tradition. Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655) raised the question of consciousness as integrated into the physical world and known through the senses. Julien Offray de La Mettrie (1709-1751) and Baron Paul Heinrich Dietrich von Holbach (1723-1789) taught that consciousness is simply the conse­quence of the biological structure and activity of the brain. Dialectical materialism and physical- ism have existed since the 19th century as the modern expression of philosophical materialism. Physicalism is the point of view that any observed study can be articulated as a record of visible physical objects and events.

The main principle of dialectical materialism is that everything consists of matter briskly in motion, and everything is constantly changing, breaking down, and dying, while constantly being renewed and reborn. This is “the struggle of opposites.”

Physicalism, or logical positivism, states that most things can be understood through science and mathematics. The pronouncements made by meta­physics, ethics, and religion are pointless, because their proposals cannot be verified by observation and experimentation or by logical deduction.

Three themes relate historical materialism to social action. They are materialism, action, and freedom. Action within nature is central to movement. Freedom through action is central to liberation and sovereignty. By way of action, we continuously alter the orchestration we have with nature. Given this, preexisting but changing boundaries limit freedom. Frontiers we cannot transgress include the physical universe, biology, ecology, social arrangements, technology, popula­tions, organization, social design, and the mode of production. Theory leads to action; from action comes theory, freedom, determinism, and moral choice. This interaction cannot be separated. Natural history, which consists of geology and biology, is in inseparable unity with human his­tory, which includes history, sociology, anthropol­ogy, and psychology.

Methodological Materialism

Karl Marx

The German economist Karl Marx (1818-1883) subscribed to the concept that there are real regu­larities in nature and society that are independent of our consciousness. This reality is in motion, and this motion itself has patterned consistencies that can be observed and understood within our con­sciousness. This material uniformity changes over time. For Marx, tensions within the very structure of this reality form the basis of this change; this is called dialectics. These changes accumulate until the structure itself is something other than the original organization. Finally, a new entity is formed with its own tensions or contradictions.

Human interaction in a natural setting is a given, because people are, at their core, a part of nature. It is because of this interaction that people are able to live. Through cooperation and labor, people produce what they need to survive. People live both in a community and in a natural environ­ment. Any study of history cannot separate people from either the social or the natural environment.

According to Marx, the interaction between a social organization, called relations of production, and the use of technology within an environment, called forces of production, can be used to under­stand many particulars about the total culture. The evolution from band-level society to tribal-level society, tribal to chiefdom, and chiefdom to state­level society, has to take into consideration changes in the organization of labor, including the growing division of labor and ultimately changes in the technology people use.

With changes in the organization of labor, there are corresponding changes in the relationship to property. With increasing complexity of technol­ogy and social organization, societies move through these diverse variations to a more restrictive con­trol over property; eventually, in a state society, restrictions develop around access to property based upon membership in economic classes.

A social system is a dynamic interaction among people, as well as a dynamic interaction between people and nature. The production required for human subsistence is the foundation upon which society ultimately stands. From the production of the modes of production, people produce their cor­responding sets of ideas. People are the creators of their ideology, as people are continually changed by the evolution of their productive forces and of the relationships associated with these productive forces. People continually change nature and thus continually change themselves in the process.

Julian Steward

Julian Steward (1902-1972) is credited with the twin concepts of multilinear evolution and cultural ecology. Multilinear evolution is the exploration of recurring themes in cultural change. Cultural laws are then described in ways that make these changes clear. What become apparent are patterns of his­torical change that explain arrangements of the interaction between parts of a society and the larger environment. Cultural traditions are made up of basic characteristics that can be studied in context. Similarities and differences between dis­tinct cultures can be studied in a meaningful way, and cultural change becomes more understand­able. The evolution of recurrent forms, processes, and functions in different societies has similar explanations. However, each society has its own specific historical and evolutionary movement.

Cultural ecology is the adaptation of a unique culture, modified historically in a distinctive envi­ronment. This provides for observation of recur­rent themes that are understandable by limited circumstances and distinct situations. The impor­tance here is to discover specific means of identify­ing and classifying cultural types. “Cultural type” serves as a guide in the study of cross-cultural par­allels and regularities. This allows investigation into the reasons for similarities between cultures with vastly different histories. This, of course, depends upon the research problem. But for problems related to historical change, economic patterns are important, because they are more directly related to other social, cultural, and politi­cal arrangements. This is the “cultural core.” Cultural features are investigated in relation to environmental conditions. Unique behavioral patterns that are related to cultural adjustments to distinctive environmental concerns become more understandable. The cultural core is grouped around subsistence activities as demonstrated by economic relationships. Secondary features are related to historical possibilities and are less directly related to historical change. Changes are, in part, evidenced by modification in technology and productive arrangements as a result of the changing environment. Culture is a means of adap­tation to changing environmental needs. Before specific resources can be used, the necessary tech­nology is required. Social relations reflect these specific technological adaptations to the changing environment. These social relations organize spe­cific patterns of behavior and its supportive values. A holistic approach to cultural studies is required to see the interrelationship of the parts.

Leslie A. White

Leslie A. White (1900-1975) looked at culture as a superorganic unit that was understandable only in cultural terminology. The three parts of a culture were the technological, the social, and the ideological. All three parts interact, but the techno­logical was the more powerful factor in determining the formation of the other two. Thus, cultural evo­lution has all three parts playing important roles, with the technological influencing the sociological to the greater degree, and the sociological ultimately determining the ideological. Culture becomes the sum total of all human activity and learned behav­ior. It is what defines history. Through technology, humans try to solve the problem of survival.

To this end, the problem arises of how to capture energy from the environment and use this energy to meet human needs. Those societies that capture more of this energy and use it most efficiently are in a more advantaged position relative to other societ­ies. This is the direction of cultural evolution. What decides a culture’s progress is its capability of “har­nessing and controlling energy.” White’s law of evolution, simply stated, says that a society becomes more advanced as the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year is increased, or as the efficiency of the activity of putting the energy to work is increased. This is cultural evolution.

Marvin Harris

Cultural materialism is based on the concept that human social existence is a pragmatic response to the realistic problems that are the consequence of pres­sures of the interaction between populations, type of technology, and the environment; with the economy as ever-important. Marvin Harris is the major spokesperson for this model, in which the social scientist investigates the basic relationship between particular social activity and overall tendencies.

Human communities are connected with nature through work, and work is structured through social organization. This is the foundation of the production of all societies. The way people come together to provide for their necessities, how these goods are distributed within the population, and networks of trade and exchange establish what is possible for the social organization. This relation­ship between environment, technology, population pressure, and social organization sets up the poten­tial alternative ideologies within any culture.

How the basic needs are met within a society affects all members of that society, though often not equally. Ideology reflects not only the interac­tion between culture and nature but the under­standing of this relationship. The model used is one that begins with the infrastructure, which includes environment, technology, and population pressure, Infrastructure is roughly similar to the Marxist concept of forces of production.

The structure or social organization is similar to the structure in the Marxist theory of relations of production or social organization. Structure is one step removed from the human interface with nature, and therefore the infrastructure has more influence on the structure than vice versa. The superstructure is what would be called ideology, or the symbolic and the ideational by other theories. The superstructure is twice removed from the human interface with nature and thus influenced more by both the infrastructure and the structure. The economy is the interaction between the infra­structure and the structure. This would be the mode of production of Marxism.

Unlike Marxism, cultural materialism empha­sizes the primacy of the infrastructure over the structure in the formative relationship between the various parts of society. Changes in technology that are adaptive, given the environment and population pressure, are likely to be selected for and kept. This, in turn, will create long-range changes in both the structure and superstructure. Marxism, because it is dialectical, explains the relationship between forces of production and relations of production and is more reciprocal than cultural materialism. In Marxism, the forces and relations of production together make up the mode of production or, roughly, the economy. Again, cultural materialism would show, more than Marxism would, that the economy or infrastruc­ture and structure more closely influence the sub­stance of the superstructure. Only in cultural materialism do the forces of production determine the relations of production, and only ultimately does the mode of production control the super­structure using a Marxian model. The materialism of the Marxist is founded upon Hegelian dialec­tics; the philosophical foundation of cultural mate­rialism is logical positivism.

Marxism, cultural ecology, and cultural materi­alism all begin with the first premise that the study of any social system is the dynamic interaction between people, as well as the dynamic interaction between people and nature. Because people come together in groups for human subsistence, they are social animals. This is the foundation upon which society ultimately stands. In producing what people need to live, people also produce their correspond­ing sets of ideas. In this way, it can be said that people are the creators of their history and ideology, though usually not in ways they are aware of. The process is historical, because people are continually changed by the evolution of their productive forces, and they are always changing their relationships associated with these productive forces.

Cultural core is the central idea of cultural ecol­ogy. This core is made up of economic patterns, because they are more directly related to other social, cultural, and political arrangements than are interactions between populations, types of technology, or the environment. The cultural core sets the limit of what is possible rather than directly determining what other theorists would call super­structure. Current scholars in the field add the use of symbolic and ceremonial behavior to economic subsistence as an active part of the cultural core. The result of cultural beliefs and practices continu­ing sustainability of natural resources become more likely. Symbolic ideology is as important as economics in defining the cultural core. Through cultural decisions, people continually become accustomed to a changing environment. Cultural ecology is closer to Marxism than it is to cultural materialism.

Finally, in the debate between Hegelian dialec­tics and logical positivism as the philosophical foundation for methodological materialism, the radical behaviorism of B. F. Skinner stands closer to the cultural materialism of Marvin Harris.

  1. F. Skinner

The radical behaviorism of B. F. Skinner (1904-1990) begins with the idea that psychology is the science of behavior and not the science of the mind. The ultimate source of behavior is the exter­nal environment, not the world of ideas. Skinner maintained behavioral explanations of psychologi­cal observable facts as physiological influences. Behavior includes everything that an organism does. Thinking and feeling are other examples of behavior. All behavior is what psychologists try to explain. Skinner promoted the explanation that environmental characteristics are the correct causes of behavior. Environmental factors are external and separate from the behavior being studied, and one can influence behavior by manipulating the environment. Conditioning is caused by the influ­ence of the total environment, including physiol­ogy. Conditioning is also influenced by culture and the ability of the organism to learn its own history. Each individual observes private events, like think­ing, which is also a behavior. Introspection is also a behavior that is affected by the environment.

Radical behaviorism claims that behavior can be studied in the same manner as other natural sci­ences. Animal behavior is similar enough to human behavior that comparisons can be made. Ultimately, for all animals including humans, the environment is eventually the cause of the behavior that is stud­ied; and an inclination for operant conditioning, or the modification of behavior. The occurrence or nonappearance of rewards or punishment is condi­tional upon what the animal does. This is achieved through reinforcement of already existing behav­ior, either by introducing a stimulus to an organ­ism’s environment following a response, or by removing a stimulus from an organism’s environ­ment following a response. Reinforcement will cause a behavior to occur with a greater rate of recurrence. Punishment or removal of the stimulus, also called negative reinforcement, will lead to a decrease in frequency, leading to extinction of such behavior. When an aversive stimulus is inflicted, a subject learns to avoid the stimulus. The avoidance learning may still be in place for a time.

Consistent with the theory of operant condi­tioning, any behavior that is repetitively rewarded, without error, will be more rapidly changed than when behavior is reinforced sporadically. This will lead to a more constant occurrence of a particular behavior and is comparatively more resistant to extinction.

Michael Joseph Francisconi

See also Darwin, Charles; Dialectics; Engels, Friedrich; Farber, Marvin; Feuerbach, Ludwig; Harris, Marvin; Lenin, Vladimir Ilich; Marx, Karl; Presocratic Age; White, Leslie A.

Further Readings

Afanaslev, A. G. (1987). Dialectical materialism. New York: International.

Afanaslev, A. G. (1987). Historical materialism. New York: International.

Bakunin, M. (1970). God and the state. New York: Dover.

Cameron, K. N. (1995). Dialectical materialism and modern science. New York: International.

Engels, F. (1975). The origin of the family, private property and the state. New York: International. (Original work published 1884)

Engels, F. (1977). The dialectics of nature. New York: International. (Original work published 1883)

Engels, F. (1978). Anti-Dühring: Herr Eugen Dühring’s revolution in science. New York: International.

(Original work published 1878)

Foster, J. B. (2000). Marx’s ecology: Materialism and nature. New York: Monthly Review.

Harris, M. (1980). Cultural materialism: The struggle for a science of culture. New York: Vintage Books.

Harris, M. (1998). Theories of culture in postmodern times. Walnut Creek, CA: Rowman & Littlefield.

Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1970). The German ideology. New York: International. (Original work published 1845)

Materialism. In Columbia electronic encyclopedia [Electronic edition]. Retrieved February 27, 2007, from materialsm

Skinner, B. F. (1971). Beyond freedom and dignity. New York: Vintage Books.

Skinner, B. F. (1974). About behaviorism. New York: Vintage Books.

Steward, J. H. (1955). Theory of culture change: The methodology of multilinear evolution. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Vitzthum, R. C. (1995). Materialism: An affirmative history and definition. Amherst, NY: Promethus Books.

White, L. A. (1949). The science of culture: A study of man and civilization. New York: Noonday Press.

What do you think?

Karl Marx

Karl Marx