Materialism

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The thread linking Thomas Aquinas, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Friedrich Nietzsche to Karl Marx may seem tenuous to many, but with typical verve and bravura and not a little waspish humour Eagleton has made these connections in his defence of materialism and critique of the metaphysical. In the preface he nails his colours to the mast of “unabashed universalism” which he hopes will scandalise “only those postmodern dogmatists for whom all universal claims are oppressive”.

In his discussion of different forms of materialism he provides one of the clearest definitions of the Marxist philosophy of dialectical materialism: “The world is a dynamic complex of interlocking forces in which all phenomena are interrelated, nothing stays still, quantity converts into quality, no absolutes are available, everything is perpetually turning into its opposite and reality evolves through the unity of conflicting powers.”

This dynamic of interrelationships stands in sharp contrast to the metaphysical notions of the separation of the body and “spirit”, which find their modern equivalents in postmodernism with its elevation of “difference” and the endless relativity of meaning. It also gives humanity creative agency in its relationship to nature. As Marx put it, “Human beings are part of nature, which is to think of the two as inseparable; but we can also speak of them as being ‘linked’ which is to point up their difference.”

The capacity for creativity is central to this difference and enables humans to act on nature.

Eagleton employs Wittgenstein’s assertion that if you want an image of the soul you should look at the human body, and he amplifies it by arguing that “the human body is a project, a medium of signification, a point from which the world is organised. It is a mode of agency, a form of communion and interaction with others.”

If that is the case it is obvious that this body must be alive. Eagleton uses a semantic detour to explore this truism: “Imagine someone ringing you up and asking ‘Is George there?’ It would make sense to say in reply ‘Yes, but he’s asleep’, but not ‘Yes, but he is dead’.”

He notes that Aquinas, for example, would not describe a corpse as a body, but the “remains of a body”. He goes on to argue that Aquinas finds an echo in Marx: “the whole character of a species…resides in the nature of its life activity, and free conscious activity constitutes the species-character of man.”

It could be argued that Eagleton stretches the comparison to the point at which it breaks when he says that Aquinas “turns out to be in some respects a full-blooded materialist” and cites the doctrine of incarnation to support the idea of Christianity being a “materialist creed”. Aquinas did, after all, believe in God as a supernatural deity, whatever his genuflection towards human agency and his recognition of the role of reason in engaging with the problems of the world.

Eagleton can be said to be too generous to the arguments of religious theologians, but he has traditionally sought to counteract the militant atheism of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens with a more nuanced acknowledgment of the Marxist view of religion, which described it as “the sigh of the oppressed” as well as “the opium of the people”. It is no coincidence that in his formative years he was influenced by the Catholic-Marxist dialogue and the phenomenon of liberation theology, and he is seeking to draw parallels between the universality and human agency of both.

There will be those who will no doubt argue that drawing parallel arguments or strands from different philosophical or religious traditions are superfluous in any attempt to consolidate and confirm our materialist view of the world. Marx and Engels can stand on their own and don’t need embellishment from Wittgenstein, Nietzsche or Aquinas. But I would argue that, where insights from these traditions can confirm or strengthen our tradition, we should utilise them.

Timpanaro, for example, is cited as someone who has extended our concept of materialism by drawing attention, among other insights, to the fragility of human existence as well as its powers of agency. Eagleton has the breadth of reference and erudition to be able to engage in such an exploration as this with confidence and wit, and these characteristics have been the hallmark of his writing.

He ends the book by making a comparison between Wittgenstein and Gramsci, a political comrade of the former’s friend Piero Sraffa. Where Gramsci seeks to replace “common sense” or the received wisdom of society with “good sense” which focuses on a sense of agency and transformative possibility, Wittgenstein argues “that ordinary men and women must be torn from their attachment to self-serving fantasies”.

This book is not an easy read and presupposes an ability to keep a number of philosophical balls up in the air at the same time, but it makes a considerable contribution to an understanding of our tradition of materialism and is well worth engaging with.