Throughout the history of philosophy a marked tendency to erase matter or physicality can be observed. This starts very early. It can be seen in Parmenides and his equation of thought and being. It can be seen in Plato with his bifurcation of being into the world of appearances and the world of forms, treating the world of appearances as nothing but a source of misleading opinion. It occurs in Aristotle and his treatment of matter (hyle) as a blank and passive stuff awaiting inscription from form or essence. Later it rears its head in scholastic realism (not to be confused with contemporary realisms), that privilege universals over individuals. With the advent of modernity, we encounter this erasure of matter in many of the rationalisms (especially Descartes and Leibniz; Spinoza fairs better), and the sense-data empiricisms that “phenomenalize” being. In 20th century thought, the erasure of matter is found in phenomenology’s subjectivization of philosophy and the linguistic turn. Even in those positions in political theory that refer to themselves as “materialist”, there’s a marked tendency to erasure materiality <em>per se</em> and replace it with oxymorons like “discursive practices”.
Speaking in a very different context, biotheorist Susan Oyama refers to this erasure of matter as “hylephobia”, or a fear of matter. Speaking in the context of genecentric theories of biological evolution such as those advocated by Dawkins and Dennett, Oyama points out the manner in which genecentric theories of evolution effective erase matter by treating genes as pure information that is both the sole unit of selection and that is indifferent to its material substrate. As Dennett puts it,
substrate neutrality: The procedure for long division works equally well with pencil or pen, paper or parchment, neon lights or skywriting, using any symbol system you like. The power of the procedure is due to its logical structure, not the causal powers of the materials used in the instantiation, just so long as those causal powers permit the prescribed steps to be followed exactly (Darwins Dangerous Idea, 51)
A process is substrate neutral if it is indifferent to the material medium in which it takes place. This is how the information contained in genes is conceived by genecentric theorists like Dawkins and Dennett. Issues such as whether or not a particular chemical reaches a cell at a particular point in time, the sorts of chemicals present in the environment, temperature, the presence and absence of light, air pressure, etc., are all irrelevant to selection and development within their framework. Genes– a term, incidentally, that is notoriously difficult to define in biology, believe it or not –are for them like dynamic Aristotlean essences. They are blueprints that contain all the information for what the developed organism will be and that unfold ineluctably, inevitably, in whatever material medium they happen to inhabit. Put differently, material mediums merely carry this genetic information without contributing anything of their own to the formation of the phenotype.
What we have here is a sort of biorationalism or bioidealism. Once again we get the incorporeal, the ideal, the intelligible, erasing matter (parallel trends can be seen in some versions of physics where all being is reduced to either structure or information). A similar trend can be seen in philosophy and the humanities more broadly. Again and again we see a privilege of the discursive, the signifying, the experiential, the textual, the semiotic, over the material. What I would like to understand is why philosophy and the humanities (and academia more broadly) are pervaded by this strong tendency towards idealism. I realize that many will object to this characterization, but like a pair of eyeglasses– which, incidentally, are a material agency –I believe this idealism is so omnipresent that it’s difficult for us to even discern. What is the source of this hylephobia? What is it that generates this perpetual erasure of matter (even among those that call themselves “materialists” working in Marxist traditions)? Conversely, I think we can ask what it is about our historical moment that is suddenly bringing matter into relief in an unprecedented ways in variants of thought falling under the title “new materialism” and in some strains of the speculative realisms (I think some other strains of SR are moving in a highly hylephobic direction). Why is matter today becoming visible in a way that it wasn’t before? What has changed that makes matter a central site for thought?