Front Page Titles (by Subject) Materialism, Determinism, and Progress - Literature of Liberty, January/March 1979, vol. 2, No. 1
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
Materialism, Determinism, and Progress - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, January/March 1979, vol. 2, No. 1 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
This work is copyrighted by the Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, and is put online with their permission.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Materialism, Determinism, and Progress
“Scientific versus Dialectical Materialism: A Clash of Ideologies in Nineteenth-Century German Radicalism.” Isis 68 (1977): 206–223.
In the nineteenth century “scientific materialism” denoted mechanistic materialism, not a scientific but rather a metaphysical position that claimed to be derived from natural science. Its major tenets were that (1) there is an independently existing world; (2) all objects, including human beings, are material entities; (3) the human mind does not exist as an entity distinct from the body; and (4) no nonhuman being could exist with a nonmaterial mode of existence. Its popular proponents were Karl Vogt, Jacob Moleschott, and Ludwig Büchner—all singled out for criticism by Marx and Engels, later themselves to be characterized as “dialectical materialists.”
Both scientific materialism and Marxian dialectical materialism shared conceptual debts to Ludwig Feuerbach, but differed on three key issues: religion, political activity, and philosophical materialism.
The scientific materialists used Feuerbach's arguments in their anticlerical polemics to replace traditional religion (and its alleged alienation) with a humanitarian, progressive religion based on love. But Marx and Engels wished to banish religion and not simply expose religion's anthropomorphic foundations or merely secularize it.
Feuerbach and the scientific materialists believed political activity and political emancipation would solve man's lack of freedom, by rooting political action in the values of German liberalism. For Marx, political action was a means to achieve progress and human emancipation, even from the political state—and man could break out of the political assumptions of his own society. The important thing was a social revolution, and as Marx and Engels came to see this as an inevitable development, political activity became even less important.
As reductionists, Vogt, Moleschott, and Büchner explained all forms of matter by the same deterministic general laws of physics. But neither they nor Feuerbach ever resolved the contradiction between their determinism and their call for human responsibility and political action. Although Marx opposed mechanistic determinism, his and Engel's materialist conception of history holds that man is determined by his surroundings. But Marx resolved the scientific materialists' contradiction by returning to Hegel's dialectic: the world of objects (mechanistic determinism) does not exist independently of the world of subjects (human responsibility). To be “scientific,” an explanation of reality must involve the acting subject as its core.
Marx and Engels were close to Feuerbach in that all three held that attention to empirical facts is necessary, but not sufficient, to philosophy, whereas the scientific materialists regarded it as sufficient.