The past few days have witnessed a flurry of comments on the use and misuse of “materialism” in philosophy, starting with Gratton and continuing with Harman (1, 2) and Bryant.

Gratton hits the nail on the head when he asks, “What kind of material would we even be talking about?” Indeed, it’s become increasingly difficult to understand from what material materialism is made.

Levi tosses some Marx into the salad:

Marx is somewhat off the hook here because he does speak of humans working with nonhuman matter in processes of production. The problem is that the role played by nonhuman and natural things really gets short shrift in Marx. The focus is on how humans transform these matters into something else, not the role these matters themselves play in transforming humans and each other.

The Marx problem is a big one. By and large, isn’t it really Marxist thought that’s absconded with the term materialism? If what “materialism” means to most is social relations in general and class relations in particular, then the deed is done: materialism is made of people!


Maybe part of the problem is the singularness of materialism. Gratton cites Harman on materialism being reductionist, and this is what I’m getting at too. Rather than seeking to define definitively the nature of matter (a task that inevitably leads to scientific reductionism), or taking material to mean that which mediates or regulates human interactions (which leads to inevitable correlationism), instead we should desire a multitude of materials. True materialism is an aggregate. Or, put differently, “materialism” doesn’t exist, but “materialisms” do.

I get the sense that many people misconstrue object-oriented ontology as a singular material affair, as a reductionism: “everything’s an object.” But instead, proponents of OOO hold that all things equally exist, yet they do not exist equally. The funeral pyre is not the same as the aardvark; the porcelatta is not equivalent to the rubgy ball. Not only are neither pair reducible to human encounter, but also neither are reducible to one another. In this respect, McLuhan is a better place to look for materialism than is Marx.

Harman reprises (and Bryant cites) the following quip, with which I agree: if you only ever find yourself talking about the human-world relation then you’re a correlationist. We might add, if you only ever find yourself talking about one kind of stuff, then you’re also not a materialist.

published February 21, 2010


  1. Mark Nelson

    The last sentence seems pretty controversial! I’m not sure I disagree, but it seems like it could lead to (even more) terminological confusion. Isn’t materialist monism—everything is Small Bits of Matter and aggregations thereof—sort of the canonical version of materialism? And isn’t ontological pluralism often seen as an alternative to materialism? Yet here you’re saying that pluralism is the only materialism, and no monisms are materialist! There’s some sense in which I get what you’re saying, but it seems confusing to use a definition of materialism that would exclude, say, Lucretius.

  2. Ian Bogost

    Mark, it’s a left turn for sure. I’m coming at it from the perspective that the Lucretian version of materialism (a) risks a descent into scientific naturalism but moreso (b) lost the battle of usage to the Marxist social materialist notion. In other words, I’m not sure the canonical version of materialism remained so canonical, so as long as it’s changed, we might as well steer it elsewhere.

  3. Levi

    Just a general disclaimer here, but I don’t count myself as a materialist. Nor does Graham. Both of us situate ourselves as realists, where realism allows for both material objects and all sorts of other objects that aren’t material. Graham often chides materialism for, at base, being an idealism. At any rate, for me it is realism that allows for ontological pluralism, in part because it is so vehemently anti-reductivist. My post on materialism was just expressing perplexity at how many use the term today.

  4. Ian Bogost

    There are a lot of good reasons to eschew the label “materialism,” but I don’t think that “realist” and “materialist” need to exclude one another. Put differently, I’m not sure what good realism does us without the mustering of materialisms to service it. But there’s no question that “materialist” is a scary and historically charged term that may invoke dangerous associations.

  5. Robert Jackson

    I’d argue that one of the biggest factors which separates OOO from other modes of ontology, is the concentration on the interior of objects rather than their holistic outward effect. This is (at least how I understand Graham) what characterises OOO realism in contrast to convoluted materialism. These different materialism(s) which are elaborated here, evoke not necessarily tiny bits of matter aggregated into specific things, but a “brute causation” network of outer effects, whether locked into the pitiful limits of human access or otherwise.

    Of course relation and causation must be explained, but studying the interior ‘phenomena’ of objects is, I think, the key idea in which we can understand how objects only approach each other as metaphor (Graham) or translation. (Levi)

    Also to bolster Ian’s point with a Latourian quip; Most certainly, all objects are equal, but not all objects are equally strong. There are objects we silently rely on everyday, objects we pledge our lives to over the course of a lifetime, and objects we ridicule often.

  6. anxiousmodernman

    I like this this tactic of the “mustering of materialisms.”

  7. Ida

    I comment here with some reluctance as I am not well versed in philosophy, but maybe some of you can clarify this for me.

    My understanding of materialism comes from Margaret C. Jacob’s history of the Enlightenment. Rational science required thinkers to understand things as governed by the laws of matter, rather than animated by spiritual or divine forces.

    This definition doesn’t help me understand the current debate though. Is this understanding of materialism what Marx obscured?