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Essay on Materialism

Materialism refers to a collection of personality traits. The contemporary world is full of people who possess materialistic trait. They have a belief that owning and acquisition of the right properties is the vital ingredients of happiness. These people think that success is judged by the things individual possesses. Philosophers and theologians have been complaining for long that materialism is contrary to moral life. More often the goal of gaining material wealth is regarded as empty and in result it prevents a person from being involved in a normal life. The consequences of pursuing materialistic lifestyle are the inability to reach the state of happiness in one’s life. The empirical studies, carried out to find the correlation between happiness and materialism , have confirmed negative correlation between the two.

Being materialistic is bad, as it leads to the creation of the world of difference in the way people treat other human beings. The materialistic people hardly treat others as their equals and often go extra mile to show off their wealth . They hardly care about anyone but themselves and frequently tend to exploit and trample people through the process of a dog eat dog world. It is, therefore, important for people to follow the teachings of the Bible and become moral. The little things we possess, we need to share with the poor as this will ensure equality in the society. Materialism nurtures corruption and causes the society to be impoverished.

Materialistic people use every available means to ensure that the rest of the people in the society remain poor. The aspect of materialism is more pronounced in the third world countries, where leaders are driven by greed and in the process embezzle public funds to maintain their status.

American Dream

The concept of American dream is often used for the description of any nation-wide ideology, which unites the Americans. The variety of nationalities and races, which populate the South American continent, and the historical fact of their unity caused urgent need for the formulation of the exclusive doctrine, which would rally natives from different countries…

Essay about Loneliness

Although we live in the XXI century and it seems like millions of people are around, we can suddenly become stricken with a sharp pain of loneliness. But it is important to understand the difference between so close notions as “loneliness” and “being alone”. To be alone means to have no company at the moment,…

Schizophrenia – Frightening and Exciting

People have always been and always will be attracted by the visions of strange, frightening and mysterious; and what can be more so, than the things that happen inside human’s mind, when the mind itself seems to rise against the human? Bonuses and Discounts give up to20% off Place an Order

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Book cover

Contemporary Materialism: Its Ontology and Epistemology pp 1–77 Cite as

What is Materialism? History and Concepts

  • Javier Pérez-Jara 12 , 13 ,
  • Gustavo E. Romero 14 , 15 &
  • Lino Camprubí 16  
  • First Online: 05 October 2021

509 Accesses

Part of the book series: Synthese Library ((SYLI,volume 447))

Despite the central presence of materialism in the history of philosophy, there is no universal consensus on the meaning of the word “matter” nor of the doctrine of philosophical materialism. Dictionaries of philosophy often identify this philosophy with its most reductionist and even eliminative versions, in line with Robert Boyle’s seventeenth century coinage of the term. But when we take the concept back in time to Greek philosophers and forward onto our own times, we recognize more inclusive forms of materialism as well as complex interplays with non-materialist thought about the place of matter in reality, including Christian philosophy and German idealism. We define philosophical materialism in its most general way both positively (the identification of reality with matter understood as changeability and plurality) and negatively (the negation of disembodied living beings and hypostatized ideas). This inclusive approach to philosophical materialism offers a new light to illuminate a critical history of the concept of matter and materialism from Ancient Greece to the present that is also attentive to scientific developments. By following the most important connections and discontinuities among theoretical frameworks on the idea of matter, we present a general thread that offers a rich and plural, but highly cohesive, field of investigation. Finally, we propose building on rich non-reductionist materialist philosophies, such as Mario Bunge’s systemic materialism and Gustavo Bueno’s discontinuous materialism, to elaborate powerful theoretical alternatives to both physicalism and spiritualism.

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Some of these philosophers, as we are going to see, used the language of traditional myth to talk about abstract philosophical conceptions; that is, they used that language as a set of rhetorical devices, along with giving traditional concepts (such as “cosmos”) a new philosophical meaning. Only a minority of them still held literal beliefs in traditional mythological elements (such as reincarnation). For that reason, although the new way of thinking that they created emerged from a specific sociocultural context (rather than appearing ex nihilo ), it had enough new and revolutionary features to be considered and classified apart.

Although Hesiod started his Theogony with an impersonal chaos (a prefiguration of later metaphysical notions), he also offered anthropomorphic explanations for the rest of natural phenomena.

According to some scholars, such as Jennifer Peck, Heraclitus’ notions of logos and God, although very similar, should not be identified, since Heraclitus’ logos is the pattern present in all things, whereas God refers to the principle of unity of opposites. It is undeniable that Heraclitus’ fragments are obscure, and often difficult to interpret; but what seems clear is that for him, the notions of God and logos , if not identical, are very similar and refer to the universal impersonal mechanism and structure of reality.

This philosopher introduced an important critique of Parmenides’ view of reality as a (Euclidean) giant sphere: since a sphere necessarily implies an outer space, reality has to be infinite .

For a full account of the atomists, with fragments, doxography and commentaries see Taylor ( 1999 ).

It is important to note that Plato talked about the Demiurge using the explicit language of myth. Since in several Dialogues Plato used other myths as allegorical teachings rather than literalist dogmas, it is also possible that his myth of the Demiurge has a non-literalist anthropomorphic reading. But while in other Platonic myths the allegorical reading is clear, in his myth of the Demiurge it is not. For that reason, it is more than likely that Plato, as Anaxagoras and Socrates before, held a real belief in some kind of personal mind that gave form to the world.

Aristotle also considered the existence of lesser “gods” who, along with the main God, move the planets, but they do so in a completely impersonal and blind way.

Although Epicurus considered Greek mythology’s gods as human fictions, he recommended his disciples to visit Greek temples and contemplate the serenity of the gods’ statues. Such activity could have psychological and ethical benefits.

The case of the relationships between Stoicism and Christianity is very interesting. Several Stoic ideas related to ethics and politics were accepted and transformed by some Christian thinkers, at the same time that they rejected Stoic metaphysics.

This is Docetism’s theological doctrine, according to which the body of Jesus was an illusion. But, despite its partial influence in other Christian communities, Docetism was soon perceived as a dangerous heresy by more powerful and popular forms of Christianity: see Wahlde ( 2015 ), Freeman ( 2011 ), and Papandrea ( 2016 ).

Through these binary oppositions between the sins generated by matter, and the virtues generated by the spirit, St. Paul did not seem no notice the theological contradiction that it was not matter, but the pure spirit of Satan who introduced evil in reality, before the creation of matter.

Even though Plato drew from the Orphic despise of matter, he did not plea for asceticism and mortification of the flesh. On the contrary, Plato encouraged good nutrition, bodily aesthetics, and sports.

Here, we use the concept of “neophobia” in Bunge’s critical sense, i.e as the metaphysical approach that denies ontological novelty in reality: “The most popular idea about novelty is that whatever appears to be new actually existed previously in a latent form: that all things and all facts are ’pregnant’ with whatever may arise from them. An early example of such neophobia is the conception of causes as containing their effects, as expressed by the scholastic formula ’There is nothing in the effect that had not been in the cause’.” (Bunge 2010 , p. 87).

According to which everything is connected with everything else through God (Bueno 1972 ).

Aquinas even defended that matter could be eternal, despite been created by God. Only by Revelation do we know that the material universe had a beginning in time: see Aquinas ( 1948 ) and Gilson ( 1960 ).

Sharing similar theological problems and concerns, these combination between negative and positive theologies also took place in medieval Judaism and Islam: see Kars ( 2019 ) and Fagenblat ( 2017 ), respectively.

The recovery of God’s anthropomorphic attributes was achieved through cataphatic theology, which sought to understand God in positive terms, emphasizing the divine attributes that we can find through the Revelation.

Hume’s (and, later, Stuart Mill’s) psychologism is different in that it can be considered an even softer version of this hypostatization of the psyche. Both authors downplay the organic and operational side of human existence, along with reducing abstract concepts, ideas and relations to psychological processes. But the independence of the mind respect of the nervous system is not held; it just suggested as a possibility.

Kant’s pure categories of the understanding are: unity, plurality, and totality for the concept of quantity; reality, negation, and limitation, for the concept of quality; inherence and subsistence, cause and effect, and community for the concept of relation; and possibility–impossibility, existence–nonexistence, and necessity and contingency, for the concept of mode (see Kant 2008 [1787]; Heidegger 1997 [1929]; and Strawson 2018 ).

It is well-known that Kant ( 2015 [1788]) introduced this God again in the Critique of Practical Reason as a postulate for moral action. But this does not contradict that, from an epistemological point of view, Kant held that the Christian God was just an idea.

Russell ( 1972 [1945]), p. 718.

Russell ( 1972 [1945]), p. 718. Russell also contended that “Modern philosophy begins with Descartes, whose fundamental certainty is the existence of himself and his thoughts, from which the external world is to be inferred. This was only the first stage in a development, through Berkeley and Kant, to Fichte, for whom everything is only an emanation of the ego. This was insanity, and, from this extreme, philosophy has been attempting, ever since, to escape into the world of every-day common sense.” Russell ( 1972 [1945]), p. XXI.

Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre was later reworked by Fichte in various versions. The most well-known version of the work was published in 1804, but other versions appeared posthumously.

That is, for Fichte, absolute reality cannot be (as Schelling will defend later) both subjective and objective.

The concept of Tathandlung reminds of Husserl’s Leistung . But Husserl’s transcendental idealism did not deny the Kantian “thing in it self” as Fichte did; it just placed it between brackets: see Pérez-Jara 2014 .

This book was published thanks to Kant’s support. As such, it was briefly mistaken by the public to be a fourth Kantian Critique. This confusion granted Fichte a considerable philosophical fame.

Important to note is that Schelling’s lectures on positive philosophy were attended by personalities such as Engels, Bakunin, Kierkegaard, and Humboldt.

The World as Will and Representation ’s first edition was published in late 1818, with the date 1819 on the title–page. In 1844, a second edition appeared. This edition was divided into two volumes: the first one was an edited version of the 1818 edition, while the second volume was a collection of commentaries about the ideas expounded in the first volume. In 1859, at the end of Schopenhauer’s life, a third expanded edition was published.

Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of sexuality brilliantly anticipates many hypotheses of evolutionary biology: see Pérez-Jara ( 2011 ).

Schopenhauer agreed with Schulze’s critique of Kant’s contradictory use of causality. For Schopenhauer, the thing in it self (i.e., the Will) is not the cause of our sensations. Rather, our sensations are a (non-causal) manifestation of the Will.

Here, we use the concept of organoleptic in its usual meaning of relative to our sensory experiences, so the “organoleptic world” is the set of phenomena, from the taste of wine to the colors of the sky, filtered through our sense organs.

For a very interesting philosophical analysis on this topic, see: Bueno ( 1972 ), pp. 50, 52, 60, 72, 283, 288.

Jarochewski ( 1975 ), p. 168.

Bunge ( 2010 ), p. 127.

Notable exceptions can be found in the work of J.C.C. Smart, Graham Nerlich, and Hugh Price who worked extensively on the ontology of spacetime and related problems.

On the other hand, Bunge ( 2010 ) opposed both approaches, because for him there cannot be states or events without entities. Romero, however, points out that materialist ontologies based on concrete things or particular events are formally equivalent (Romero 2013 , 2016 ): to consider things or events as basic is rather a matter or taste and not of fact.

Bunge ( 2010 ), p. 148.

It would also be interesting to wonder if these philosophers, in their daily lives (or even in their lectures and conferences) exclusively use complex neuroscientific terminology each time that they want to express that they feel tired, forgot something, feel disappointed, or are hungry.

Also, see in this volume his chapter and his discussion with Javier Pérez-Jara.

While Bueno himself referred to his system as “philosophical materialism” in the 1970s, as he was seeking to differentiate it from historical materialism, that conceptualization is too general and common to other philosophies; in later works, Bueno spoke of “discontinuous materialism”.

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Pérez-Jara, J., Romero, G.E., Camprubí, L. (2022). What is Materialism? History and Concepts. In: Romero, G.E., Pérez-Jara, J., Camprubí, L. (eds) Contemporary Materialism: Its Ontology and Epistemology. Synthese Library, vol 447. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-89488-7_1

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There’s no shame in being materialistic – it could benefit society

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Materialism gets a bad press. There is an assumption that people who prioritise “things” are inherently selfish. The stereotype is that of highly materialistic people, living in a different world, where their priority is cash, possessions and status. But is the stereotype true? Our research reveals there are two sides to this story.

Highly materialistic people believe that owning and buying things are necessary means to achieve important life goals, such as happiness, success and desirability. However, in their quest to own more, they often sideline other important goals. Research shows that highly materialistic people tend to care less about the environment and other people than “non-materialists” do. These findings lead to the assumption that highly materialistic people are largely selfish and prefer to build meaningful relationships with “stuff”, as opposed to people.

But other research shows that materialism is a natural part of being human and that people develop materialistic tendencies as an adaptive response to cope with situations that make them feel anxious and insecure, such as a difficult family relationship or even our natural fear of death .

essay on materialism

Underlying desires

Materialism is not only found in particularly materialistic people. Even referring to people as “consumers” , as opposed to using other generic terms such as citizens, can temporarily activate a materialistic mindset. As materialism researchers James Burroughs and Aric Rindfleisch said:

Telling people to be less materialistic is like telling people that they shouldn’t enjoy sex or eat fatty foods. People can learn to control their impulses, but this does not remove the underlying desires.

As such, efforts directed towards eliminating materialism (taxing or banning advertising activities ) are unlikely to be effective. These anti-materialism views also limit business activities and places considerable tension between business and policy.

The caring materialists

Our research examined how materialism is perceived across cultures and it revealed that there is more to materialism than just self-gratification. In Asia, materialism is an important part of the “collectivistic” culture (where the emphasis is on relationships with others, in particular the groups a person belongs to).

Buying aspirational brands of goods and services is a common approach in the gift-giving traditions in East Asia. Across collectivistic communities, purchasing things that mirror the identity and style of people you regard as important can also help you to conform to social expectations that in turn blanket you with a sense of belonging. These behaviours are not unique to Asian societies. It’s just that the idea of materialism in the West is more often seen in sharp contrast to community values, rather than a part of it.

We also found that materialists in general are “meaning-seekers” rather than status seekers. They believe in the symbolic and signalling powers of products, brands and price tags. Materialists who also believe in community values use these cues to shed positive light onto themselves and others they care about, to meet social expectations, demonstrate belonging and even to fulfil their perceived social responsibilities. For example, people often flaunt their green and eco-friendly purchases of Tom’s shoes and Tesla cars in public to signal desirable qualities of altruism and social concern.

Reconciling material and collective interests

So how do we get an increasingly materialistic society to care more about the greater good (such as buying more ethically-sourced products or making more charity donations) and be less conspicuous and wasteful in its consumption? The answer is to look to our culture and what sort of collectivistic values it tries to teach us.

We found that a simple reminder of the community value that resonates with who we are as a society can help reduce materialistic tendencies. That said, the Asian and Western cultures tend to teach slightly different ideals of community value. Asian communities tend to pass on values that centre around interpersonal relationships (such as family duties). Western societies tend to pass on values that are abstract and spiritual (such as kindness, equality and social justice).

Unsurprisingly, many businesses have been quick to jump onto this bandwagon. Tear-jerking commercials from Thailand reminding people to buy insurance to protect loved ones, Christmas adverts reminding viewers to be kind to one another are just two examples. But nice commercials alone won’t be enough to do the job.

Social marketers and public policymakers should tap into society’s materialistic tendencies to promote well-meaning social programmes, such as refugee settlement, financial literacy programmes and food bank donations. The key is to promote these programmes in ways that materialists can engage with – through a public display of consumption that communicates social identity.

A perfect example is the Choose Love charity pop-up store in central London, where people get to purchase real products (blankets, children’s clothing, sleeping bags, sanitary pads) in a beautifully designed retail space akin to the Apple store, which are then distributed to refugees in Greece, Iraq and Syria.

Materialism undoubtedly has an ugly face but it is here to stay. Rather than focusing efforts to diminish it, individual consumers, businesses and policymakers should focus on using it for promoting collective interests that benefit wider society.

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87 Materialism Essay Topic Ideas & Examples

🏆 best materialism topic ideas & essay examples, 📝 simple & easy materialism essay titles, 👍 good essay topics on materialism, ❓ questions about materialism.

  • “On Functionalism and Materialism” by Paul Churchland That being the case, the concept mainly focuses on the relationships between outputs and the targeted inputs. This knowledge explains why the two aspects of materialism will make it easier for individuals to redefine their […]
  • Faith and Materialism in Matthew 6:24-30 Due to simplicity, readers do not have to refer or infer to the original text in Greek or to the bible dictionary to get the meaning of the complex words in the text. We will write a custom essay specifically for you by our professional experts 808 writers online Learn More
  • Marvin Harris’ Cultural Materialism Concept The connotation of Jesus as the king and messiah of the Jews did not mean that he was to overthrow the Roman Empire ruling at that time to establish his kingdom in Jerusalem.
  • Materialism Concept and Theorists Views The administrations of the government of the United States and the People’s Republic of China are examples of differing views on materialism.
  • Aspects of Materialism and Energy Consumption In my opinion, this led to the formation of the materialism phenomenon and enforced a particular way of thinking centered on meeting one’s demands.”Different economies worldwide use fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and natural […]
  • Materialism: Rorty’s Response to the Antipodean Story This paper examines Rorty’s argument that in accepting the material reality of the universe, we can also accept that the physical universe shapes our beliefs and interpretations, and that our understanding of the universe is […]
  • Materialism and the Theory of Consciousness He said that the fabric of the universe makes us susceptible to producing life, consciousness, and reason. The people who object to Nagel’s arguments claim that the theorist makes a lot of assumptions.
  • Epistemology and Metaphysics in Relation to Skepticism, Rationalism, and Materialism In epistemology, what really counts is the understanding of knowledge about a particular topic of interest. Apparently, skepticism under epistemology is concerned with clearing any doubts that may exist about the existence of knowledge.
  • Materialism and World System Theory Comparison It is the main purpose of international relations theory is to provide a framework to analyze events in history through a narrowed lens in order to make sense of what happened, why it happened, and […]
  • Materialism and Religion: Spread of Global Consumption This essay will be looking at the relationship between the aspects of materialism and religion and the ways they affect the global consumption cultures.
  • Marx and Weber in Relation to History: Materialism and Existential Idealism If modern capitalist societies’ structure can be compared to the diamond, with rich and poor people on its extreme ends and with people representing a middle class in between, Marx’s communism corresponds to the form […]
  • Hobbes Materialist Nature of Philosophical Principles In Leviathan Hobbes has mentioned that how could a soul be a part of a man or a part of any of the man’s bodily features?
  • Idealism and Materialism in Karl Marx’s Writings German ideologists contend that the country has undergone incomparable revolution characterized with the decomposition of Hegelian philosophy, sweeping of the powers of the past, subjection of mighty empires into immediate doom, and hurling of heroes […]
  • Nonmaterialistic Values for Meaningful Life When speaking on the topic of life, and the importance of vital values for oneself, one cannot avoid mentioning the era of enlightenment and the legendary German philosopher, Immanuel Kant.
  • Materialist Theory of Christianity As far as the obvious benefits are concerned, the approach suggested by Orsi and McDannell allows one to avoid interpreting the subject matter from the perspective of the traditional dichotomy of the sacred and the […]
  • Cultural Anthropology and Materialism He uses symbolic language and vivid imagery to draw a picture of the conflict between the laborers and the owners of the means of production.
  • Materialistic Influences on the UAE Culture Through the qualitative design, we will be able to understand materialism and its effects from the perspective of the participants drawn from the UAE population.
  • Materialism and Moral Hazard In, the article Two Cheers for Materialism, from the book Acting out Culture, The author James Twitchel defines materialism early on as the production and consumption of stuff, and defends it with several well thought […]
  • Epistemology and Materialism: History and Application In philosophical terms, the concept of matter advances the fact that all things are made up of matter and all thoughts are created as a result of the interaction of matter.
  • Berkeley’s Argument on Materialism Analysis The arguments were mainly based on the idea that the perception for an object was in the perceiver and not the object.
  • How the American Culture Is Materialistic and How It Is Affecting Kuwait The media can also be used to propagate the materialism through the different programs and ideologies which it tries to instill on the people so as to achieve a specific goal.
  • The Relationships Between Advertising Appeals, Spending Tendency, Perceived Social Status and Materialism on Perfume Purchasing Behaviour In this regard, it is necessary for marketers to understand these factors and their effects on consumers’ decision to purchase perfume products.
  • American Commerce and Materialism in “The Piano Lesson” by August Wilson
  • Analyzing Historical Materialism Using Marxist Approach
  • America’s Preoccupation With Materialism After World War II
  • Exploring the Relationships Between Materialism, Happiness, and Daily Spiritual Experience
  • Linking Anti-consumption, Materialism, and Consumer Well-Being
  • American Dream and Materialism in “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Parallels Between Apple Marketing and American Materialism
  • Aristotle: Valuing Feelings and Materialism Over Politics
  • Asia’s Materialists: Reconciling Collectivism and Materialism
  • Brazilian Conservation Under the Light of Historical Materialism
  • Conflict Between Religion and Anti-materialism
  • Linking Contemporary American Culture and Materialism
  • Coping With Loneliness Through Materialism
  • Connections Between Ethics and Materialism
  • Cultural and Ideological Roots of Materialism in China
  • Darwinism and Materialism: Comparative Analysis
  • Cultural Materialism and the Relationship Between Culture, Trade, and Business
  • Differences Between Eliminative and Reductive and Materialism Forms
  • Correlation Between Eliminative Materialism and the Mind-Body Problem
  • The Theme of Materialism in “The Picture of Dorian Gray”
  • Examining Ethics and Materialism With Purchase of Counterfeits
  • Excessive Greed and Materialism That Resulted in Affluenza
  • Dualism, Materialism, and Idealism: Which Is Preferable and Why
  • The Link Between Functionalism, Materialism, and Mind-Brain Identity Theory
  • George Santayana’s Materialism and Idealism in American Life
  • Gratitude and Late Adolescents’ School Well-Being: The Mediating Role of Materialism
  • Greed and Materialism and Driving Forces in Competitions in the American Society
  • Gratitude and the Reduced Costs of Materialism in Adolescents
  • Happiness, Materialism, and Religious Experience in the US and Singapore
  • The Relations Between Historical Materialism and the Economics of Karl Marx
  • Historical Materialism Outlining the Path to a Communist Revolution
  • Inter-Generational Pendula: Toward a Theory of Immigrant Identity, Materialism, and Religiosity
  • Overview of Karl Marx’s Concept of Materialism
  • Linking Advertising, Materialism, and Life Satisfaction
  • Marketing, Consumerism, Materialism, and Ethics: The Modern Marketing Conundrum
  • Analysis of Marx and Engels’s Historical Materialism
  • Materialism and Flight: Symbols of Restraint and Freedom
  • Migration and Materialism: The Roles of Ethnic Identity, Religiosity, and Generation
  • Problems With Materialism Within the American Society
  • Marriage Importance as a Mediator Between Materialism and Marital Satisfaction
  • Does Advertisement Encourage Materialism in Society?
  • Why Is Materialism a Problem in Society?
  • Does Religion Affect the Materialism of Consumers?
  • What Is Cultural Materialism in Shakespeare?
  • How Does Materialism Affect Environmental Beliefs, Concerns, and Environmentally Responsible Behavior?
  • Whose Theory Is Associated With Dialectical Materialism?
  • How Is Materialism Good for Society?
  • What Is Cultural Materialism Influenced By?
  • Are There the Ways to Break Free From Materialism?
  • Why Is Marx’s Historical Materialism an Accurate Model of History?
  • Does Materialism Hinder Relational Well-Being?
  • What Is the Main Problem With Materialism?
  • Is Materialism a Social Problem?
  • What Is Materialism as a Concept of Having a Good Life?
  • Who Gave the Theory of Materialism?
  • How Is Cultural Materialism Different From Postmodernism?
  • Is Materialism a Result of Capitalism?
  • Who First Introduced Dialectical Materialism?
  • How Does Materialism Relate to Transcendentalism?
  • What Is the Relationship Between Materialism and Well-Being?
  • How Does Materialism Affect Culture?
  • What Effect Does Materialism Have on Human Relationships?
  • How Is Historical Materialism Different From Marxism?
  • What Effect Does Materialism Have on Today’s Generation?
  • Why Does Materialism Impact One’s Happiness and Success?
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The New Politics of Materialism: History, Philosophy, Science

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Sarah Ellenzweig and John H. Zammito (eds.), The New Politics of Materialism: History, Philosophy, Science , Routledge, 2017, 328pp., $140 (hbk), ISBN 9781138240742.

Reviewed by John Protevi, Louisiana State University

Sarah Ellenzweig and John H. Zammito have edited a challenging set of essays that can serve as a critical companion to the “new materialist” (NM) movement, the main exemplars of which here are Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, Karen Barad, Jane Bennett, Elizabeth Grosz, Luciana Parisi, Jussi Parikka, and Rosi Braidotti. Many essays also mention Gilles Deleuze as an influence on NM, and a few concentrate on him as a NM thinker (Ansell-Pearson, Lowrie, Hayles).

The Introduction sets out three critical themes by means of which the essays interrogate NM: history, ontology, and politics. The extension of the term “materialism” is at stake in all these themes: is it purely a metaphysical stance, one opposed to dualism, or does it also cover any concept of matter as active or passive, etc., with no regard to metaphysics? On the former, restrictive sense, we can say that the physicalist Hobbes is a “materialist,” but not the dualist Descartes, no matter what we might say about his view of matter. Ontologically, we might ask if “materialism” points to any notion of matter as input to production process at any scale (e.g., recruits are the matter from which soldiers are produced) or is it only matter as endpoint of reduction (i.e., “small stuff treated by sub-atomic physics”) to which other regimes are reduced? Finally, intersecting these questions are the onto-political senses of “materialism” as the primacy of the economic, the rejection of a spiritualist notion of mind or soul, and a purely instrumental view of the effects of public religion.

The question about history: has NM staked its claim to novelty for its notions of active matter and widespread non-human agency by constructing a straw man out of the “old” materialism of Early Modern Europe, one supposedly dedicated to the thesis of inert, dead, or passive matter to be studied by mechanistic physics? About ontology: are NM thinkers too profligate in their ontology by attributing agency when mere causal efficacy would suffice? Do they properly account for “scale variance” or differences in power at different levels of emergence? And about politics: can the NM thinkers ground a politics in a new materialism of widespread agency, or do they lack the grappling with a naturalized normativity that would be needed for such political interventions?

Accompanying all these questions is another that appears from time to time (in the essays of Jess Keiser, Keith Ansell-Pearson, Angela Willey, and Christian J. Emden), and is the focus of Zammito’s contribution: wouldn’t it be better to analyze concepts of nature and naturalism than those of matter and materialism?

Ellenzweig starts off by claiming that Coole and Frost’s invocation of a “Cartesian-Newtonian” concept of matter as “inert” (in the popular sense of passivity, rather than the scientific sense of persistence in motion or rest without external influence) is not supportable when subjected to a fine-grained historical analysis. For Ellenzweig, such a notion derives more from one-sided readings by anxious theological critics rather than from the eponymous thinkers, whose works were more ambiguous when it came to the active / passive distinction. Descartes’s physics, with its plenum (refusal to separate space from matter), and the way in which matter maintained motion granted it originally by God was read by idealist contemporaries as granting too much activity to matter and hence threatening the spiritual impetus for motion that they believed necessary. For Ellenzweig it was thus critics of Descartes who insisted on the dichotomy between dead matter and activating spirit; Descartes’s own concept of matter was more ambiguous or even paradoxical in combining activity and passivity. Ellenzweig also claims that Newton’s notion in the first edition of the Principia of a vis insita or “innate force” that amounts to a vis inertiae or “force of inactivity,” amounts to a similar paradox or at least ambiguity between matter as active and passive; Newton will switch to a more passive notion of matter in the second edition of the Principia , after the enthusiastic John Toland had taken up the active matter interpretation and run with it. Anxious about a theological reaction similar to the one Descartes got, Newton then took pains to deaden his notion of matter. Ellenzweig then provides a nod to Spinoza’s conatus , which can now be seen as hearkening back to the active interpretation of matter in Descartes and Newton, before ending with a reading of Lucretius as advocating a limited notion of material dynamism, since too much attribution of activity or life to matter tempts one to animism and away from scientific naturalistic explanation.

Continuing the historical theme, Charles Wolfe explores the 18 th century tradition of vital materialism, focusing on La Mettrie and Diderot. He avoids a universal dynamic matter however, which he sees as the mere counterpart of Engels’s concept of “mechanistic materialism,” a concept he finds echoed in NM. For Wolfe, most 17 th century mechanists were substance dualists or agnostics rather than materialists. Wolfe will instead draw our attention to the 18 th century vital materialists’ concern with embodiment; what La Mettrie attempts is a soul-to-living-body reduction, not a mind-to-matter reduction. For Wolfe, this avoids a notion of body as dead matter animated by a vital principle, and a notion of living or vital matter below the organizational level of bodies. In other words, for his vital materialists, it’s organisms that are alive, and not simply “matter” as the “stuff of the universe.” Wolfe finds a fine statement of organic living emergence in one of his vital materialists: “For Venel, organic molecules and organized bodies are subject to laws that are different from that of matter in motion” (46). After his sketch of vital materialism, Wolfe turns to a criticism of the focus on subjectivity in the enactivist school exemplified by Evan Thompson, which strikes him as dualistic. He concludes with a look at Barad, whom he absolves of a subjectivity focus, but whose notion of materiality doesn’t connect with the biomedical analyses and reductionism of the vital materialists, hence preserving them as resources to be recommended to the current scene.

Wilson and Zammito, however, think Ellenzweig goes too far in purging Descartes of a concept of inert matter (Ellenzweig does admit it’s ambiguous). They emphasize that Hobbes at least was a straightforward mechanistic physicalist, as admitted by both Ellenzweig and Wolfe, so that for Wilson and Zammito “new materialism” is not forging its “old materialist” opponent out of whole cloth. Hence for Zammito, the 18 th Century vital materialists were reacting against 17 th century mechanists, which include Descartes and Newton. Also, he reminds us, let’s not forget late 18 th century Laplacean eliminativist, physicalist, determinism.

While allowing NM some historical accuracy with regard to its relation to “old” materialism (qua concept of matter, rather than metaphysical position), Wilson goes on to criticize the NM writers for a tendency to “declare, rather than to argue for, an intrinsic connection between the metaphysics of self-organization, indeterminate spontaneity, and progressive moral thinking on animal welfare, global inequality, gender, and climate change” (114). If we are to argue politics, Wilson says, we should recognize that Early Modern European materialists were seen as “the party of humanity,” and had the kind of theocratic enemies of which progressive thinkers should be proud. More mildly put, the is-ought distinction and its accompanying human exceptionalism has been the defensive position of contemporary critics of materialism; to illustrate this, Wilson examines the 1998 dialogue of Jean-Pierre Changeux and Paul Ricouer. Wilson admits that full-blown normativity, truth, and so on, are resistant to full naturalization, but she approves nonetheless of Changeux’s claim that the sciences can help us with new understandings of human nature. Consider, for example, Wilson asks us, psychological findings that “reveal an underlying disposition to sympathetic identification with others as a powerful human trait” (122). This enables us to question the Kantian move to a noumenal source of the moral will:

Rather than interpreting these conflicting results regarding altruism and selfishness in Kantian terms as the operations, now of a supernatural, now of a natural, element within us respectively, the scientific approach asks us to investigate the co-existence of these two sets of ‘natural’ motivation, as elicited by different cues in the context in which they are experienced (122).

Wilson then poses a very nice question: might it be that the counterpart to NM is not “old materialism” but science-resistant humanities (125)? But not just any science: at the end of the day, Wilson implies, it’s not in the vast sweep of materialist ontology that one should look for help in the battleground of politics, but in the materialist aspect of the biological and human sciences (which themselves are sites of contestation between, for instance, many Evolutionary Psychologists and many feminists).

In an essay with historical, ontological, and normative implications, Jess Keiser proposes a plastic conception of matter as escaping the binary of dead, passive matter and lively, active matter and allowing us to instead investigate the relation of " ‘first nature’ (understood as biophysical matter) and ‘second nature’ (understood as the ‘normative’ realm of discursive practices, social codes, and cultural rituals)" (68). Focusing on the neurophysiological, Keiser seeks to establish two early modern thinkers, Descartes and David Hartley, as possessing a plastic conception of brain matter, and thus resonating with William James and Donald Hebb’s theories. Shifting then to a contemporary, Keiser presents a brisk overview of the work of Adrian Johnston on first and second nature, that is, the way in which nature produces that which ruptures it, exceeds it, and conflicts with it. Johnston’s complex and challenging work resists short summary, but suffice it to say that for Keiser, Johnston enables us to grapple with the problem of how to “somehow reconcile a seeming dualism (between matter and mind, nature and culture) with the demands of monism” (70).

Keith Ansell-Pearson tackles the ontological and the normative aspects of NM in his Deleuze-centered essay. He begins by distinguishing naturalism (as denying human exceptionalism) and materialism (for him, physicalism). He insists that a strong strand of the early Deleuze is that of a “ethically minded naturalist” (92) echoing Lucretius, Spinoza, and Nietzsche in the fight against superstition and the search for human action as norm-generating. A turn to the work of Elizabeth Grosz allows Ansell-Pearson to distinguish a politics of subjective recognition and a politics grappling with the natural and social forces generating subjects with the power to affect and be affected. After a further treatment in detail of the Deleuze-Spinoza-Lucretius nexus, Ansell-Pearson concludes that Deleuze’s naturalism does not “deprive the human animal of its ethico-normative distinctiveness” (106). Hence for Ansell-Pearson, we should read Deleuze as a naturalist, and hence against human exceptionalism, but not as “anti-humanist” if that means denying the distinctiveness of the human; humans are part of nature, but an odd part, if you will.

Lenny Moss’s essay engages both the ontological and the normative. Against what he sees as a too loose notion of agency in new materialism, Moss distinguishes agency from activity by mobilizing a Hegelian insight: naturalized agency appears with taking a position in a normative field, one with values relative to and important for an agent. Moss brings together Aristotle’s flourishing and the Kantian/Hegelian notion of autonomy in his theory of natural “detachment”: “Detachment theory holds that ‘nature explores greater levels of detachment’ and that at increasingly higher levels of detachment this increasingly amounts to moving toward the capacity for normative self-determination” (237). Moss digs deeper than the usual attribution of value to single-celled organisms (“sense-making” in the enactive school) to discuss water, proteins, and enzymes; he finds there a “leap into a new space of self-organizing possibilities and thus a gateway into the possibility of normative causation” (239). Dipping below the biological like this is a bold move by Moss, especially in an essay that goes on to criticize Deleuze for “blurring life/non-life distinctions” (242) and Barad for a scale-free move of seeing quantum effects in the human register, but his insistence on a definite theory of normative agency arguably licenses his gesture.

Angela Willey is another of the contributors who foregrounds “nature” rather than simply “matter.” Feminist theories of the relation of nature and culture posed by Donna Haraway, Karen Barad, Sherry Ortner, Gayle Rubin, Catherine MacKinnon, and Judith Butler can help us escape a stale notion of NM as humanist appropriation of already-formed scientific findings about “vital matter.” Instead, we should be focusing on the way NM “insists upon the inseparability of ontology and epistemology, being and knowing, nature and culture” (149). By doing so we open ourselves to a “capacious call for creative and reflexive reimaging of the meaning of meaning making” so that we can “reconsider the stakes of knowledge politics to include the very materialization of bodies and worlds” (149). In this way, Willey sees one of the strongest potentials of NM to be its capacity to challenge disciplinary boundaries and allow us to marshal “proliferating narrative resources for knowing our worlds, and, in turn, making them anew” (150).

The questions of reduction and emergence come most clearly into focus in Derek Woods’ essay on “scale variance.” For Woods, this notion calls into question Barad’s position that quantum effects ramify in the macrophysical register. Referring to Mariam Thalos (2013), Woods calls into question the unity of science model of reductionism to physics. Alongside his critical remarks on Barad, Woods tackles DeLanda’s reading of Deleuze in Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy (DeLanda 2002). I think there are some problems with his presentation of DeLanda, in which Woods assimilates the fully differentiated virtual to relatively undifferentiated pre-individual ontogenetic fields of individuation such as the egg. Nonetheless, once we leave ontogenesis, Woods poses important questions to DeLanda about the flat ontology of formed individuals and their part-whole relations at different scales.

N. Katherine Hayles picks up on the scale theme in her essay on the “cognitive nonconscious,” which she defines in terms of sub-personal neural processes of synthesizing, filtering, inferring, and anticipating which underlie conscious experience. The “cognitive nonconscious” differentiates levels of natural agency and thus “bridge[s] the gap between quantum effects and cultural dynamics,” a bridge whose mechanisms Barad and other NM thinkers assume must exist but do not explicitly discuss (185). Hayles attributes some of the level-skipping to a Deleuzean influence on NM. However, while it may be true that some NM thinkers (Hayles discusses Parisi, Parikka, Grosz, and Braidotti) emphasize the decentering and centrifugal terms of Deleuze (“deterritorialization” and “destratification”), Hayles neglects the way in which, in A Thousand Plateaus at least, Deleuze and Guattari insist upon the way in which centripetal forces of organismic organization (aka, “reterritorialization” or “stratification”) are both necessary and in many cases salutary. “Staying stratified . . . is not the worst thing that can happen” they say (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 161). Despite these quibbles, Hayles’s essay is a formidable challenge to her post-humanist NM interlocutors to fill in some of the mechanisms subtending the forms of cognition displayed in the natural continuum in which humans fit.

A third essay discussing scale is that of Christian J. Emden, who claims that NM is “self-defeating” (271) if it thinks it can forego an account of naturalizing normativity that, instead, can be found at the intersection of philosophical naturalism and political theory. For Emden, ethical and epistemic norms are not different in kind, but both inhere in the way in which humans cannot easily escape causal networks. Furthermore, Emden adds, we are owed an account of the emergence of normativity in material conditions, and because we “already live in a normative world,” that account should show how the political and ethical worlds engage with the material (273). Emden’s positive move is to naturalize humans by an account of the “emergence of normativity, linked to an uneven ontology of different scales of what we regard as reality” (273). After a treatment of Bennett, Braidotti, and Barad that accuses them of the naturalistic fallacy in one form or another, Emden shows that too oftrn philosophical naturalism and mainstream political theory avoid the naturalistic fallacy at the cost of an unacceptable divorce of the normative and the natural. Including nonhuman actants in the context of politics is acceptable to Emden, but only on the condition that we have an “uneven ontological field” with “complex forms of differentiation” (287). Emden thus closes with a sketch of three “scales of normativity” that impose constraints on different sets of agents: the biological and physical scale shared by all organisms; the affective scale relevant for “higher order animals, including humans”; and  “moral and epistemic norms” and their social institutions, which govern “responsibilities, duties, and obligations” which are “qualitatively unique to human animals” (288-289).

Ian Lowrie will try to make consistent three tenets of his theory of social reality: Durkheim’s notion that social phenomena are objective; Deleuze and Guattari’s notion that the systematic nature of social phenomena are amenable to “a logic of tracing and coding”; and the notion that social phenomena are ordered by the historical and material conditions of their development (155). Objecting to the tendency in some NM thinkers to treat society as yet another assemblage aside others, Lowrie pivots to a discussion of Durkheim’s realist ontology of social systems impinging on the psychic systems of individual inhabitants. Lowrie’s take on Durkheim however insists on keeping contact with a historical materialist perspective linking the social to material practices. This brings him to Deleuze and Guattari, whose thought on the socius or organizing system of material and semiotic “flows” is summarized quite nicely as well as usefully put into relation with contemporary anthropological studies of non-state societies. Lowrie finishes with a challenging reading of contemporary financial capital against that of Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus , whom he thinks neglect the still operative coding operations of capital in favor of its schizophrenizing powers, such that desiring machines break free of the socius qua inert recording surface. While that’s plausible as a critique of Anti-Oedipus , I’m not convinced of Lowrie’s charge that A Thousand Plateaus falls prey to “nostalgia of the pure, for unorganized desire” (172). Despite my demurral here, Lowrie’s essay provides the framework of a re-reading of Deleuze and Guattari that will ultimately be fruitful in confirming or nuancing their work.

Mogens Lærke combines historical and political foci. Joining NM in not being satisfied with social constructivism, Lærke warns that materialism may not be the best way to avoid it, insofar as Hobbes, in his radical arbitrariness of signs and contractualist politics, is something of a social constructivist. Earlier in the volume, Wilson had shown that one can’t necessarily pin a regressive politics on “old” materialism, as it was seen at the time as the “party of humanity” against theocrats. Lærke, however, will claim that no politics can be grounded in materialism, though a Spinozist naturalization of politics, grounding it in the power relations of people and sovereign, can provide some hope, as long as we recognize the need to read Spinoza as “a genuine middle ground between materialism and idealism” (262).

We’ve treated some of Zammito’s historical interventions above; let me conclude by turning to his “Concluding (Irenic) Postscript,” where he asks for shift from the “new materialism” framework to that of “complex naturalism” allowing for the emergence of human subjectivity (308-309). Zammito’s call for attention to emergent order in nature brings to mind self-organizing systems (organismic, ecological, social) as the unit of study more than entities emerging from material configurations. The recommended shift from matter to nature works, I think, because we have such an atomic (in the literal and figurative senses) view of “matter” that reductionism and individualism go together. In this picture, the aggregation of individual capacities is always a threat to reduce emergence (that is, seeing emergence as merely epistemological and hence able to be reduced in a future with more exact measurement capacities). Of course, it’s in the question of measurement where quantum uncertainty comes in and why Barad is such an important figure in this collection. Beyond that, the move to a nature in which one can discern complex systems promises to be one that would allow the full fruit of Deleuze and Guattari’s work to be appreciated, as both a member of, and an inspiration to, the new materialist movement.

DeLanda, Manuel, 2002. Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy . Continuum.

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari, 1987. A Thousand Plateaus . Translated by Brian Massumi. University of Minnesota Press.

Thalos, Mariam, 2013. Without Hierarchy: The Scale Freedom of the Universe . Oxford University Press.

Department of Philosophy

The waning of materialism: new essays on the mind-body problem.

essay on materialism

Twenty-three philosophers examine the doctrine of materialism find it wanting. The case against materialism comprises arguments from conscious experience, from the unity and identity of the person, from intentionality, mental causation, and knowledge. The contributors include leaders in the fields of philosophy of mind, metaphysics, ontology, and epistemology, who respond ably to the most recent versions and defenses of materialism. The modal arguments of Kripke and Chalmers, Jackson's knowledge argument, Kim's exclusion problem, and Burge's anti-individualism all play a part in the building of a powerful cumulative case against the materialist research program. Several papers address the implications of contemporary brain and cognitive research (the psychophysics of color perception, blindsight, and the effects of commissurotomies), adding a posteriori arguments to the classical a priori critique of reductionism. All of the current versions of materialism--reductive and non-reductive, functionalist, eliminativist, and new wave materialism--come under sustained and trenchant attack. In addition, a wide variety of alternatives to the materialist conception of the person receive new and illuminating attention, including anti-materialist versions of naturalism, property dualism, Aristotelian and Thomistic hylomorphism, and non-Cartesian accounts of substance dualism.


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Sat / act prep online guides and tips, best analysis: money and materialism in the great gatsby.

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Book Guides


In The Great Gatsby , money is a huge motivator in the characters' relationships, motivations, and outcomes. Most of the characters reveal themselves to be highly materialistic, their motivations driven by their desire for money and things: Daisy marries and stays with Tom because of the lifestyle he can provide her, Myrtle has her affair with Tom due to the privileged world it grants her access to, and Gatsby even lusts after Daisy as if she is a prize to be won. After all, her voice is "full of money—that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals' song of it. . . . High in a white palace the king's daughter, the golden girl. . . ." (7.106).

So how exactly does materialism reveal itself as a theme, how can it help us analyze the characters, and what are some common assignments surrounding this theme? We will dig into all things money here in this guide.

Money and materialism in the plot Key quotes about money/materialism Analyzing characters via money/materialism Common assignments and analysis of money/materialism in Gatsby

Quick Note on Our Citations

Our citation format in this guide is (chapter.paragraph). We're using this system since there are many editions of Gatsby , so using page numbers would only work for students with our copy of the book.

To find a quotation we cite via chapter and paragraph in your book, you can either eyeball it (Paragraph 1-50: beginning of chapter; 50-100: middle of chapter; 100-on: end of chapter), or use the search function if you're using an online or eReader version of the text.

Money and Materialism in The Great Gatsby

In the opening pages, Nick establishes himself as someone who has had many advantages in life —a wealthy family and an Ivy League education to name just two. Despite not being as wealthy as Tom and Daisy, his second cousin, they see him as enough of a peer to invite him to their home in Chapter 1 . Nick's connection to Daisy in turn makes him attractive to Gatsby. If Nick were just a middle-class everyman, the story could not play out in the same way.

Tom and Daisy 's movements are also supported by their money. At the beginning of the novel they move to fashionable East Egg, after moving around between "wherever people played polo and were rich together," and are able to very quickly pick up and leave at the end of the book after the murders, thanks to the protection their money provides (1.17). Daisy, for her part, only begins her affair with Gatsby after a very detailed display of his wealth (via the mansion tour). She even breaks down in tears after Gatsby shows off his ridiculously expensive set of colored shirts, crying that she's "never seen such beautiful shirts" before (5.118).

Gatsby 's notoriety comes from, first and foremost, his enormous wealth , wealth he has gathered to win over Daisy. Gatsby was born to poor farmer parents in North Dakota, but at 17, determined to become rich, struck out with the wealthy Dan Cody and never looked back (6.5-15). Even though he wasn't able to inherit any part of Cody's fortune, he used what he learned of wealthy society to first charm Daisy before shipping out to WWI. (In a uniform she had no idea he was poor, especially given his sophisticated manners). Then, after returning home and realizing Daisy was married and gone, he set out to earn enough money to win Daisy over, turning to crime via a partnership with Meyer Wolfshiem to quickly amass wealth (9.83-7).

Meanwhile, Tom's mistress Myrtle , a car mechanic's wife, puts on airs and tries to pass as rich through her affair with Tom, but her involvement with the Buchanans gets her killed. George Wilson , in contrast, is constrained by his lack of wealth. He tells Tom Buchanan after finding out about Myrtle's affair that he plans to move her West, but he "[needs] money pretty bad" in order to make the move (7.146). Tragically, Myrtle is hit and killed that evening by Daisy. If George Wilson had had the means, he likely would have already left New York with Myrtle in tow, saving both of their lives.

Hardly anyone shows up to Gatsby's funeral since they were only attracted by his wealth and the parties, not the man himself. This is encapsulated in a phone call Nick describes, to a man who used to come to Gatsby's parties: "one gentleman to whom I telephoned implied that he had got what he deserved. However, that was my fault, for he was one of those who used to sneer most bitterly at Gatsby on the courage of Gatsby's liquor and I should have known better than to call him" (9.69).

In short, money both drives the plot and explains many of the characters' motivations and limitations.

Key Quotes About Money

Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her; If you can bounce high, bounce for her too, Till she cry "Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover, I must have you!"


The epigraph of the novel immediately marks money and materialism as a key theme of the book—the listener is implored to "wear the gold hat" as a way to impress his lover. In other words, wealth is presented as the key to love—such an important key that the word "gold" is repeated twice. It's not enough to "bounce high" for someone, to win them over with your charm. You need wealth, the more the better, to win over the object of your desire.

"They had spent a year in France, for no particular reason, and then drifted here and there unrestfully wherever people played polo and were rich together." (1.17)

Our introduction to Tom and Daisy immediately describes them as rich, bored, and privileged. Tom's restlessness is likely one motivator for his affairs, while Daisy is weighed down by the knowledge of those affairs. This combination of restlessness and resentment puts them on the path to the tragedy at the end of the book.

"There was music from my neighbor's house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. At high tide in the afternoon I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach while his two motor-boats slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam. On week-ends his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city, between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains. And on Mondays eight servants including an extra gardener toiled all day with mops and scrubbing-brushes and hammers and garden-shears, repairing the ravages of the night before…." (3.1-3.6)

The description of Gatsby's parties at the beginning of Chapter 3 is long and incredibly detailed, and thus it highlights the extraordinary extent of Gatsby's wealth and materialism. In contrast to Tom and Daisy's expensive but not overly gaudy mansion , and the small dinner party Nick attends there in Chapter 1 , everything about Gatsby's new wealth is over-the-top and showy, from the crates of oranges brought in and juiced one-by-one by a butler to the full orchestra.

Everyone who comes to the parties is attracted by Gatsby's money and wealth, making the culture of money-worship a society-wide trend in the novel, not just something our main characters fall victim to. After all, "People were not invited—they went there" (3.7). No one comes due to close personal friendship with Jay. Everyone is there for the spectacle alone.

He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher—shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange with monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.

"They're such beautiful shirts," she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. "It makes me sad because I've never seen such—such beautiful shirts before." (5.117-118)

Gatsby, like a peacock showing off its many-colored tail, flaunts his wealth to Daisy by showing off his many-colored shirts. And, fascinatingly, this is the first moment of the day Daisy fully breaks down emotionally—not when she first sees Gatsby, not after their first long conversation, not even at the initial sight of the mansion—but at this extremely conspicuous display of wealth. This speaks to her materialism and how, in her world, a certain amount of wealth is a barrier to entry for a relationship (friendship or more).

"She's got an indiscreet voice," I remarked. "It's full of——"

I hesitated.

"Her voice is full of money," he said suddenly.

That was it. I'd never understood before. It was full of money—that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals' song of it. . . . High in a white palace the king's daughter, the golden girl. . . . (7.103-106)

Daisy herself is explicitly connected with money here, which allows the reader to see Gatsby's desire for her as desire for wealth, money, and status more generally. So while Daisy is materialistic and is drawn to Gatsby again due to his newly-acquired wealth, we see Gatsby is drawn to her as well due to the money and status she represents.

I couldn't forgive him or like him but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made. . . . (9.146)

Here, in the aftermath of the novel's carnage, Nick observes that while Myrtle, George, and Gatsby have all died, Tom and Daisy are not punished at all for their recklessness, they can simply retreat "back into their money or their vast carelessness… and let other people clean up the mess." So money here is more than just status—it's a shield against responsibility, which allows Tom and Daisy to behave recklessly while other characters suffer and die in pursuit of their dreams.


Analyzing Characters Through Materialism

We touched on this a bit with the quotes, but all of the characters can be analyzed from the point of view of their wealth and/or how materialistic they are. This analysis can enrich an essay about old money versus new money, the American dream , or even a more straightforward character analysis , or a comparison of two different characters . Mining the text for a character's attitude toward money can be a very helpful way to understand their motivations in the world of 1920s New York.

If you analyze a character through this theme, make sure to explain:

#1 : Their attitude towards money.

#2 : How money/materialism drives their choices in the novel.

#3 : How their final outcome is shaped by their wealth status and what that says about their place in the world.

Character Analysis Example

As an example, let's look briefly at Myrtle . We get our best look at Myrtle in Chapter 2 , when Tom takes Nick to see her in Queens and they end up going to the New York City apartment Tom keeps for Myrtle and hosting a small gathering (after Tom and Myrtle hook up, with Nick in the next room!).

Myrtle is obsessed with shows of wealth , from her outfits, to insisting on a specific cab, to her apartment's decoration, complete with scenes of Versailles on the overly-large furniture: "The living room was crowded to the doors with a set of tapestried furniture entirely too large for it so that to move about was to stumble continually over scenes of ladies swinging in the gardens of Versailles" (2.51). She even adopts a different persona among her guests : "The intense vitality that had been so remarkable in the garage was converted into impressive hauteur. Her laughter, her gestures, her assertions became more violently affected moment by moment and as she expanded the room grew smaller around her until she seemed to be revolving on a noisy, creaking pivot through the smoky air" (2.56).

In Myrtle's eyes, money is an escape from life with her husband in the valley of ashes , something that brings status, and something that buys class. After all, Tom's money secures her fancy apartment and allows her to lord it over her guests and play at sophistication, even while Nick looks down his nose at her.

Obviously there is physical chemistry driving her affair with Tom, but she seems to get as much (if not more) pleasure from the materials that come with the affair—the apartment, the clothes, the dog, the parties. So she keeps up this affair, despite how morally questionable it is and the risk it opens up for her—her materialism, in other words, is her primary motivator.

However, despite her airs, she matters very little to the "old money" crowd, as cruelly evidenced first when Tom breaks her nose with a "short deft movement" (2.126), and later, when Daisy chooses to run her over rather than get into a car accident. Myrtle's character reveals how precarious social climbing is, how materialism is not actually a path to happiness/virtue.


Common Assignments and Discussion Topics About Money and Materialism in The Great Gatsby

Here are ways to think about frequently assigned topics on this the theme of money and materialism.

Discuss Tom & Daisy as people who "smash things and retreat into their money"

As discussed above, money—and specifically having inherited money—not only guarantees a certain social class, it guarantees safety and privilege : Tom and Daisy can literally live by different rules than other, less-wealthy people. While Gatsby, Myrtle, and George all end up dead, Tom and Daisy get to skip town and avoid any consequences, despite their direct involvement.

For this prompt, you can explore earlier examples of Tom's carelessness (breaking Myrtle's nose, his behavior in the hotel scene, letting Daisy and Gatsby drive back to Long Island after the fight in the hotel) as well as Daisy's (throwing a fit just before her wedding but going through with it, kissing Gatsby with her husband in the next room). Show how each instance reveals Tom or Daisy's carelessness, and how those instances thus foreshadow the bigger tragedy—Myrtle's death at Daisy's hands, followed by Tom's manipulation of George to kill Gatsby.

You can also compare Tom and Daisy's actions and outcomes to other characters to help make your point—Myrtle and Gatsby both contribute to the conflict by participating in affairs with Tom and Daisy, but obviously, Myrtle and Gatsby don't get to "retreat into their money," they both end up dead. Clearly, having old money sets you far apart from everyone else in the world of the novel.

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What do Nick's comments about money reveal about his attitude towards wealth?

This is an interesting prompt, since you have to comb through passages of Nick's narration to find his comments about money, and then consider what they could mean, given that he comes from money himself.

To get you started, here is a sample of some of Nick's comments on money and the wealthy, though there are certainly more to be found:

"Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction—Gatsby who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn." (1.4)

"My own house was an eye-sore, but it was a small eye-sore, and it had been overlooked, so I had a view of the water, a partial view of my neighbor's lawn, and the consoling proximity of millionaires—all for eighty dollars a month. (1.14)

Nick's comments about money, especially in the first chapter, are mostly critical and cynical. First of all, he makes it clear that he has "an unaffected scorn" for the ultra-rich, and eyes both new money and old money critically. He sarcastically describes the "consoling proximity of millionaires" on West Egg and wryly observes Tom and Daisy's restless entitlement on East Egg.

These comments might seem a bit odd, given that Nick admits to coming from money himself: "My family have been prominent, well-to-do people in this middle-western city for three generations" (1.5). However, while Nick is wealthy, he is nowhere near as wealthy as the Buchanans or Gatsby—he expresses surprise both that Tom is able to afford bringing ponies from Lake Forest ("It was hard to realize that a man in my own generation was wealthy enough to do that" (1.16), and that Gatsby was able to buy his own mansion ("But young men didn't—at least in my provincial inexperience I believed they didn't—drift coolly out of nowhere and buy a palace on Long Island Sound" (3.88)), despite the fact they are all about 30 years old.

In other words, while he opens the book with his father's advice to remember "all the advantages [he's] had," Nick seems to have a chip on his shoulder about still not being in the highest tier of the wealthy class . While he can observe the social movements of the wealthy with razor precision, he always comes off as wry, detached, and perhaps even bitter. Perhaps this attitude was tempered at Yale, where he would have been surrounded by other ultra-wealthy peers, but in any case, Nick's cynical, sarcastic attitude seems to be a cover for jealousy and resentment for those even more wealthy than him.

Why does Gatsby say Daisy's voice is "full of money"? What does it reveal about the characters' values?

Gatsby's comment about Daisy's voice explicitly connects Daisy the character to the promise of wealth, old money, and even the American Dream . Furthermore, the rest of that quote explicitly describes Daisy as "High in a white palace, the King's daughter, the golden girl…" (7.106). This makes Daisy sound like the princess that the hero gets to marry at the end of a fairy tale—in other words, she's a high-value prize .

Daisy representing money also suggests money is as alluring and desirable—or even more so—than Daisy herself. In fact, during Chapter 8 when we finally get a fuller recap of Daisy and Gatsby's early relationship, Nick notes that "It excited [Gatsby] too that many men had already loved Daisy—it increased her value in his eyes" (8.10). In other words, Gatsby loves Daisy's "value" as an in-demand product .

But since Daisy is flighty and inconsistent, Gatsby's comment also suggests that wealth is similarly unstable. But that knowledge doesn't dampen his pursuit of wealth—if anything, it makes it even more desirable. And since Gatsby doesn't give up his dream, even into death, we can see how fervently he desires money and status.

Connecting new/old money and materialism to the American dream

In the world of The Great Gatsby , the American Dream is synonymous with money and status —not so much success, career (does anyone but Nick and George even have a real job?), happiness, or family. But even Gatsby, who makes an incredible amount of money in a short time, is not allowed access into the upper echelon of society, and loses everything in trying to climb that final, precarious rung of the ladder, as represented by Daisy.

So the American Dream, which in the first half of the book seems attainable based on Gatsby's wealth and success, reveals itself to be a hollow goal. After all, if even wealth on the scale of Gatsby's can't buy you entry into America's highest social class, what can? What's the point of striving so hard if only heartbreak and death are waiting at the end of the road?

This pessimism is also reflected in the fates of Myrtle and George, who are both trying to increase their wealth and status in America, but end up dead by the end of the novel. You can read more about the American Dream for details on The Great Gatsby 's ultimately skeptical, cynical attitude towards this classic American ideal.

Connecting money to the status of women

Daisy and Jordan are both old money socialites, while Myrtle is a working class woman married to a mechanic. You can thus compare three very different women's experiences to explore how money—or a lack thereof—seems to change the possibilities in a woman's life in early 1920s America.

Daisy maintains her "old money" status by marrying a very rich man, Tom Buchanan, and ultimately sticks with him despite her feelings for Gatsby. Daisy's decision illustrates how few choices many women had during that time—specifically, that marrying and having children was seen as the main role any woman, but especially a wealthy woman, should fulfill. And furthermore, Daisy's willingness to stay with Tom despite his affairs underscores another aspect of women's roles during the 1920s: that divorce was still very uncommon and controversial.

Jordan temporarily flouts expectations by ""[running] around the country," (1.134) playing golf, and not being in a hurry to marry—a freedom that she is allowed because of her money, not in spite of it. Furthermore, she banks on her place as a wealthy woman to avoid any major scrutiny, despite her "incurable dishonesty": "Jordan Baker instinctively avoided clever shrewd men and now I saw that this was because she felt safer on a plane where any divergence from a code would be thought impossible. She was incurably dishonest. She wasn't able to endure being at a disadvantage, and given this unwillingness I suppose she had begun dealing in subterfuges when she was very young" (3.160). Furthermore, by the end of the novel she claims to be engaged, meaning that like Daisy, she's ultimately chosen to live within the lines society has given her. (Even if she's not actually engaged, the fact she chooses to tell Nick that suggests she does see engagement as her end goal in life.)

Myrtle feels trapped in her marriage, which pushes her into her affair with Tom Buchanan, an affair which grants her access to a world—New York City, wealth, parties—she might not otherwise have access to. However, jumping up beyond her roots, using Tom's money, is ultimately unsustainable—her husband finds out and threatens to move out west, and then of course she is killed by Daisy before they can make that move. Myrtle—both working class and a woman—is thus trapped between a rock (her gender) and a hard place (her lack of money), and perhaps for this reason receives the cruelest treatment of all.

So all three women push the boundaries of their expected societal roles—Daisy's affair with Gatsby, Jordan's independent lifestyle, and Myrtle's affair with Tom—but ultimately either fall in line (Daisy, Jordan) or are killed for reaching too far (Myrtle). So Gatsby ultimately provides a pretty harsh, pessimistic view of women's roles in 1920s America.

What's Next?

In The Great Gatsby, money is central to the idea of the American Dream. Read more about how the American Dream is treated in The Great Gatsby and whether the novel is ultimately optimistic or pessimistic about the dream.

Money (or the lack of it!) is also why the novel's symbols of the green light and the valley of ashes are so memorable and charged. Read more about those symbols for a fuller understanding of how money affects The Great Gatsby.

Want the complete lowdown on Jay Gatsby's rags-to-riches story? Check out our guide to Jay Gatsby for the complete story.

Thinking about indulging in a little materialism yourself alà Gatsby? We've compiled a list of 15 must-have items for fans of The Great Gatbsy book and movie adaptations .

Looking for other literary guides? Learn more about The Crucible , The Cask of Amontillado , and " Do not go gentle into that good night " with our expert analyses.

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MIA   >  Archive   >  Plekhanov

Georgi Plekhanov

Essays on the history of materialism.

From Georgi Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works , Vol.II, Moscow 1976, pp.31-182. Written during 1892/93. First published in German as Beiträge zur Geschichte des Materialismus , Stuttgart 1896. Scan & OCR by @At Leninist.Biz . Proofreading & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan .

Preface I. Holbach II. Helvetius III. Marx

Plekhanov envisaged his Essays as a series of articles for Neue Zeit , theoretical organ of the German Social-Democrats, already in 1892. The writing took him eighteen months, the work being completed towards the end of 1893.

In May 1893 Karl Kautsky, the editor of Neue Zeit , thanked Plekhanov for his article on Holbach; but two months later, on July 19, 1893, on receiving the article on Helvetius and expecting an article on Marx, Kautsky wrote a letter to Plekhanov in which he expressed his doubt as to the possibility of publishing these essays in Neue Zeit because they were too long; he suggested that they should be published as a separate book. Kautsky’s letter of January 27, 1894 testifies to his having received Plekhanov’s last essay on Marx. The Essays were published then neither in Neue Zeit nor separately. Only in 1896 did they appear in book form in Stuttgart, under the title Beiträge zur Geschichte des Materialismus. I. Holbach. II. Helvetius. III. Marx. The Preface , written by Plekhanov especially for their publication, was signed: “New Year’s Day, 1896.” In 1903, a second German edition was put out by the same publishers. The book did not appear in Russian in Plekhanov’s lifetime.

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Last updated on 3.8.2008

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View of coast of Achill island

Literary love affair: why Germany fell for a windswept corner of Ireland

Tourists have been descending on Achill ever since Heinrich Böll wrote effusively about its inhabitants’ customs and idiosyncrasies

I n 1954, the German writer Heinrich Böll landed in Ireland for the first time, headed west and kept going till he reached the Atlantic Ocean. He was seeking a refuge from the brash materialism of postwar Germany, and found it on Achill Island, where waves crashed against cliffs, sheep foraged in fields and villagers went about their business of fishing, farming and storytelling.

The following year he returned with his family and began to observe and chronicle the customs, idiosyncrasies, sorrows and joys of its inhabitants. So began a literary love affair between Germany and a windswept corner of County Mayo that endures 70 years after the Nobel laureate’s first visit.

Even today Germans comprise a significant proportion of visitors from continental Europe and several live on the island, drawn by a landscape evoked by Böll. Schoolchildren write essays about his account, which island bookshops stock in English and German. Ryanair connects Cologne, Böll’s home city , to Ireland West airport, also known as Knock, a 90-minute drive from Achill.

“The perception of Ireland in Germany and many other countries is still very much influenced by my father’s Irish diary,” said René Böll, the late writer’s son, who as a boy spent summers on Achill. The book’s loving descriptions of the people and landscape blend personal experiences with poetic exaggeration, creating something timeless, he said.

Böll’s 1957 book Irisches Tagebuch, or Irish Journal, was a publishing phenomenon that still captivates German readers and connects Achill to contemporary artists and writers. Diplomats, poets and film-makers will gather on the island from 3-5 May for an annual festival held in memory of Böll, who died in 1985 aged 67. The Böll family’s former cottage near the village of Dugort has become a retreat for artists , who rotate in and out every two weeks.

Fishing and farming have dwindled and wealth and holiday homes have replaced poverty and traditional cottages, but Achill remains Achill, said René, a photographer, artist and writer. “The warm hospitality is unchanged since the 1950s.”

Heinrich Böll wearing a beret in a field of cows

Chris McCarthy, the manager of Achill Tourism, which partners with Mayo county council, said the landscape of Irish Journal was still the draw for German visitors. “We have walks and beaches and cliffs and mountains. That is what the German packages want; they want to see wilderness and sheep. Achill hasn’t developed in ways that other destinations have. We have managed to maintain our heritage and culture.”

Böll’s affection for the island seeped through the book but he did not conceal the grind of poverty or the heartache of emigration – nor the stubbornness of a local person who insisted that Adolf Hitler, as Britain’s enemy, did some good things, an encounter that the anti-Nazi writer likened to pulling teeth.

René has also explored a heartbreaking side of Achill – its cillíní, unconsecrated burial grounds of unbaptised and illegitimate children. He has found 25 on Achill and Currane peninsula, discoveries that he has channelled into his poetry and paintings. “The reactions were very moving in Ireland and in Germany,” he said. “Many were unaware of their existence.”

John McHugh

Some Dublin critics accused Böll Sr of conjuring a folksy vision of Ireland, but the depiction of island life was largely accurate, said John McHugh, a member of the Achill Heinrich Böll Association.

He said the impact of Böll’s book in Germany should not be exaggerated. “Irish people think Germans love Ireland, but most don’t know where it is. The minority that do are really interested – they love the Dubliners, the Pogues and Böll’s book.”

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