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What is Mechanical Materialism?

      A previous blog post described the important dialectical principle that “internal contradictions are primary.” This means that although external conditions make a difference, what happens to a thing almost always depends mainly on its internal relationships, and how it changes and what it becomes are due primarily to its internal contradictions (see “Internal Contradictions are Primary”). This principle is fundamental to dialectical materialism, and helps to define what dialectical materialism means. Denying the principle, and maintaining that changes in a system or process have mainly external causes is a key idea of the anti-dialectical view called “mechanical materialism.”
      Mechanics is a part of physics that deals with how things change when physical forces push or pull on them. One of the basic principles about forces is that if there is no force at all acting on something, that thing doesn’t change speed or direction. In the simplest cases, mechanics does not ask what happens inside something and ignores internal forces. So, in those cases, an object will only change its speed or direction if there is an external force on it. This is the kind of case that mechanical materialism takes as a model for its philosophy of change, assuming as a basic principle that all change is caused from the outside. For certain objects and certain kinds of change, this principle works. We may be able to explain the path of a bullet fired from a gun, for example, without knowing what happens inside the bullet. If we want to understand the shape of the bullet, however, internal forces play a decisive role, and cannot be ignored. The mechanical materialist strategy for dealing with things whose internal structure can’t be ignored is to imagine them as broken down into the tiniest possible particles, so that inner structure is completely done away with. Physicist Max Planck explained this strategy this way:

      “We can however regard each body as composed of very many material points, and the differences in the mechanical properties of bodies can be reduced to the effects of different forces that individual points exert on each other. Thus the question of the laws of movement of material bodies is reduced to the mechanics of systems of material points.“ [1]

      The price of this reduction of objects and even people to a collection of “material points” is that mechanical materialism must ignore the qualitatively different properties and kinds of causal relationships that occur in the different levels of organization of material reality. This is a hopelessly dead-end approach for most of science, especially the biological and social sciences.
      Beginning in the 1600s, the successful development of mechanics helped make mechanical materialism an influential point of view. Although not a materialist himself, French philosopher Rene Descartes expressed the mechanical materialist position well when he claimed that it is a law of nature that “each particular thing continues to be in the same state as long as it can, and that it only changes by encountering something else.” [2] In the 1700s, French materialist philosophers extended this idea to people and societies. Baron D’Holbach claimed that people’s choices are determined by causes outside them. [3] Montesquieu claimed that climate and soil largely determine the structure of societies, so that slavery, for example, is more likely to occur in very hot climates. [4]
      In the 1800s, after the development of thermodynamics, the science of heat, there were many attempts to use it to prove that change must come from the outside. The argument was that every isolated system tends to equilibrium, a state of internal balance, and in that state there is no tendency to change, so any change that happens must come from the outside. Writers like H. Spencer, who were not materialists at all, also defended this idea. One big flaw in this argument is that most real systems, including people and societies, are not isolated, but must exchange matter and energy with their surroundings in order to survive. [5] Instead of using this bogus argument from physics, others, like economists Pareto and Walras, simply constructed their theories to be as similar as possible to mechanical systems. [6] As they developed the ideas of dialectical materialism, Marx and Engels showed the bigger problem with the equilibrium view, the fact that people and social systems are not in internal balance, but are moved by unresolved internal conflicts that tend to become larger.
      In the 1900s, developments in physics and biology gradually discredited the idea that everything is to be explained by particles exerting forces on each other, so that change would come from the outside. Even so, mechanical materialism continued to be defended by many philosophers and scientists, and by pro-capitalist economists, anthropologists, geographers, etc., who want to try to prove that class struggle does not determine social development.  Typical of a large portion of capitalist economic thought, economist Paul Samuelson claimed Within the framework of any system the relationships between our variables are strictly those of mutual interdependence....  The only sense in which the use of the term causation is admissible is in respect to changes in external data or parameters.” [7] Trying to replace dialectical materialism, anthropologist Marvin Harris’ “cultural materialism” claimed that environmental and biological factors external to human society determine human culture, for example, that the Aztecs practiced human sacrifice because there was a shortage of protein in central Mexico (See the critique of Harris' Cannibals and Kings, by Diener, Moore and Mutagh [8]
      In a similar vein, Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, later a PBS TV series, claimed that the most important features of human societies are determined by their physical and biological environment (See the critique by James Blaut [9]).
      Thus mechanical materialism remains an important trend in capitalist philosophy and pseudo-science.


[1] Max Planck, Einführung in die Allgemeine Mechanik, Leipzig: Verlag von S. Hirzel, 2nd ed., 1920, p. 105.

[2] Principles of Philosophy, Part II, Article 37, in Victor Cousin, ed., Oeuvres de Descartes, Paris: F. G. Levrauld Librarie, 1824, vol. III, p. 152.

[3] “The will of man is secretly moved or determined by some exterior cause that produces change in him.” P. H. Thiry, Baron d’Holbach, System of Nature, London: T. Davison, 1820, vol. 1, p. 18.

[4] "… the excess of heat enervates the body, and … nothing but the fear of chastisement can oblige them to perform any laborious duty: slavery is there more reconcilable to reason.” Quoted in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/montesquieu/#4.3

[5] See C. E. Russett, The Concept of Equilibrium in American Social Thought, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966, chapters 2 and 3.

[6] B. Ingrao and G. Israel, Economic Equilibrium in the History of Science, Cambridge: M. I. T. Press, 1990, chapters 4 – 7.

[7] Foundations of Economic Analysis, enlarged edition, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983, p. 9.

[8] P. Diener, K. Moore and R. Mutagh, “Meat, Markets, And Mechanical Materialism: The Great Protein Fiasco In Anthropology,” Dialectical Anthropology 5 (1980) pp. 171-180.

[9] James M. Blaut,  “Environmentalism and Eurocentrism,” The Geographical Review, July 1999, Vol. 89 (3), pp. 391-408.

June 24, 2012

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