From the beginning there is a curious horror of materialism.  Legend has it that the Platonic school strove to destroy the writings of Epicurus and his followers.  Later there was a concerted attempt to destroy Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura.  This assault was so successful, that only one copy of the book was ever found by Poggio in the 15th century.  Before proceeding, I should be clear that I’m not advocating for any particular form of materialism (e.g., classical atomism).  For reasons that I hope will become a bit clearer in this post, the concept of matter must necessarily remain underdefined, such that the materialist must necessarily become comfortable working with what I call “anomalous concepts”.  At most we can say that materialism is the thesis that being is essentially composed of physical stuff.  What that stuff might be—indivisible atoms in a variety of shapes, energy, something else besides –remains open.

From a religious point of view, it is easy to understand hostility towards materialism.  Materialism undermines and challenges the immortality of the soul, along with the idea nature is providential, reflecting the will and plan of the divine.  However, these considerations aren’t sufficient to explain widespread opposition to materialism, for we find widespread hostility towards materialism in secular circles as well.  It is not at all unusual to hear those who would never dream of claiming that the soul is immortal or that nature reflects a divine plan hurling epithets at materialist thought accusing it of everything from mechanism (modern science, I think, has safely undermined the thesis of mechanism advocated by thinkers like Laplace), to claiming that the concept is fundamentally incoherent such that we should abandon the idea of matter altogether, e.g., Ladyman and Ross’s Everything Must Go.

read on!

Perhaps the charges of the incoherence of the concept of matter provides a clue to the horror of materialism.  In works like Negative Dialectics and his sublime Lectures on Metaphysics, Adorno repeatedly makes the point that matter, materiality, is that which perpetually challenges the sovereignty of thought.  There is something about matter that perpetually challenges and evades our ability to think it.  There matter is plain as day, but there is something about matter that thought can never digest; that perpetually escapes thought.  Let’s return to Aristotle.  In the Categories Aristotle tells us that all of substance is composed of substances.  By “substance”, Aristotle is referring to that which exists in and through itself and which is not predicated of anything else.  Roughly he is referring to individual things:  a person, a flea, a star, a peacock, etc.  Individual things have a material dimension—what they are made of –and a formal dimension; their pattern or structure.  Form is what can be known of a substance, because form is that which repeats as a generality or that can migrate from substance to substance and from substance to thought.  Form is that which we can retain of substance and carry with us.  It is that which can be repeated in the sense of generality.  All coffee cups of a particular kind can share the same form, while nonetheless being distinct individuals (because of their matter?).

Form (pattern/structure/essence) is that which is thinkable in things.  This seems plainly obvious.  Clearly when I think the tree, I don’t produce a tree in my mind, but some sort of pattern or structure of that being that more or less isomorphically maps onto the tree out there in the world (this seems to be the idea behind the correspondence theory of truth, anyway).  However, as sensible as this model of being is, when we begin to think through its ramifications, perplexity ensues.  We’re curious about the material side of the substance-structure.  What exactly is a matter denuded of all form?  If we draw a distinction between form and matter in substance, there must be some positive features of matter that make it this or that sort of materiality, yet the only answers we can come up with as to what this might be refer to form!  Something about the materiality of the substance escapes our ability to think it.  Something about materiality always seems to withdraw from thought (and here, I’m always perplexed by Harman’s rejection of materialism, despite my deep sympathy for his object-oriented philosophy, because materialism seems so close to his position in some ways; though he does advocate for formal substances, drawing on Suarez and Zubiri).

The more we attempt to think the materiality of matter, the more we find that it escapes our ability to think it.  And this seems to be reason to reject the existence of matter altogether, as Ladyman and Ross proposed.  If it cannot be thought, then it must not be.  Yet once again, there it is as plain as day.  When the materialist crudely rejects the idealist by kicking a door, this is what she is pointing out.  There is something that remains—a sort of objet a or real –that can’t be captured by thought, but that is nonetheless an endless provocation to thought.  In a more sophisticated form, this seems to be the core idea behind Adorno’s negative dialectics.  There is always something that escapes conceptuality (form), the material, that can’t be digested by thought but that also can’t be ignored by thought.  Logics of domination, Adorno argues, are always premised the erasure of this material surd that perpetually escapes and evades thought—they perpetually erase the material –while a negative dialectics would preserve the space of the objet a, the remainder and the surplus, that perpetually disrupts the ability of conceptuality to totalize and exhaust being.  Why this horror of matter?  Why this desire to erase matter?

What if materiality is the originary wound in thought that undermines and disrupts our narcissistic drive towards mastery and omnipotence?  Let’s turn to Hume.  Empiricism has always been associated with materialism and has encountered similar hostility.  It is difficult to disentangle sensation and materiality; perhaps because sensation is the sole means by which we encounter materiality.  In an Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume argues that all of our ideas arise from impressions (sensations).  I’m not certain this is the case, but what interests me here is how he distinguishes impressions and ideas.  The distinction between the two, he says, is a felt distinction, not a conceptual distinction.  Impressions, Hume says, have a certain liveliness and vivacity, a certain intensity, that is lacking in ideas.  Ideas are less lively, vivacious, and intense.  Consider the experience of eating a grapefruit.  There is the texture of the fruit, the sweet and sour taste on the tongue, the smell of the fruit, the sounds I hear as I dig my spoon into it.  Now, consider laying sleeplessly in bed late at night, thinking about eating a grapefruit.  The thought or idea of the grapefruit lacks this intensity.  It barely or not at all produces any taste in my mouth, nor does it have any smell or texture.  At best, I get a pale, anemic copy of the fruit itself.

When I teach Hume, I always emphasize that the distinction between ideas and impressions has to be learned by our minds and can break down in certain significant circumstances.  With respect to the latter, certain experiences where we are fully of need (being lost of in a desert, suffering great hunger and thirst) or where certain intense emotions animate us (profound grief or fright, deep longing) can lead us to experience ideas as impressions.  The distinction between impressions and ideas comes to be mapped on to the distinction between reality and thought, the external world and the internal world, but this distinction is porous, fraught, and unstable.  Internal impressions (sensations that arise from our emotional life, needs, and drives) can provide an animating charge to our ideas that makes our ideas seem like things in the external world, that make them seem real, when they are productions of our minds.  But I digress.

The more important point, is that the distinction between ideas and impressions is a distinction that we must learn.  Developmental psychology teaches us—whether in its proper psychoanalytic form or other forms –that infants aren’t born able to distinguish between fantasy (ideas) and reality (impressions).  For them it’s all the same.  Concretely, what does this mean?  It means that the infant will try to satisfy its desire through fantasy.  In the absence of the caregiver to satiate his hunger, the infant will suck an imaginary bottle.  The problem is that the imaginary bottle does not provide the impressions or sensations that accompany a real bottle.  There is no sweetness of formula, no cool smoothness flowing across the tongue, and above all, no warmth in the belly as the infant is filled.  The idea of the bottle is a disappointment.  And perhaps this is the originary formula of the real:  that the real is that which is discovered through disappointment.  This, at least, is what Freud suggested.  Thought discovers the “reality principle” through disappointment or an encounter with the fact that it’s not sovereign and therefore cannot produce what it desires through thought alone.

Might this not explain hostility to materialism both in its religious and secular variants?  Thought dreams, in an obscure and unconscious way, of being sovereign and omnipotent.  It would like to establish an identity between thinking and being.  In matter and experience, thought discovers an affront to that will to power, that drive to omnipotence; for it discovers that it cannot produce through thought alone what it desires.  The trauma of this discovery is not to be underestimated, for the withdrawal of the real and material is accompanied by all sorts of erasures aimed at covering over this lived demonstration of impotence that take a variety of conceptual forms.  Confronted with vehement rejections of neo-materialism and object-oriented ontology on the grounds that they undermine agency, denigrate humans, and undermine our privileged place in the world, I will thus not be surprised, as these orientations of thought obscurely allude to a primordial wound or trauma that much strives to cover over and erase without ever successfully being able to do so.  Perhaps this is what I’m revolving around in my recent meditations on examples and their irreducibility.