Book Review: Materialism

Both left- and right-wing intellectuals agree that metaphysical convictions (our ideas about the fundamentals of reality) have social and political implications. The former’s reasons for believing this tend to be unintelligible (or at least incommunicable), whereas the latter’s reasons tend to be chauvinistic and/or historically dubious. On the other hand Terry Eagleton’s, in his latest book, Materialism, are clever but intuitive, concise but scrupulous, demotic but learned.

Ostensibly, the aim of Eagleton’s book is to demonstrate the theoretical linkages between three of philosophy’s greatest representatives (Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, and Ludwig Wittgenstein) and to argue that the sources of these linkages can be found in their materialist views of society and language. But like all of Eagleton’s literary affairs, Materialism is much more than its ostensible aim. In it we also have a radical defense of work, tradition, and human nature as well as a radical assault on anti-essentialism and a certain form of snobbish academic exclusivity—not to mention a compelling case for the real-world consequences of head-in-the-clouds metaphysics.

For many historians of the subject, “anti-philosophy” (the view that philosophy is more a therapeutic practice than a theoretical one) began sometime in the nineteenth century, as early as Marx or perhaps as late as Nietzsche. It has, however, in fact been around since the conception of conventional philosophy in Ancient Greece (what is the mawkish cynicism of Diogenes but the glad assumption of the futility of philosophizing?), and in fact has always been an integral part of conventional philosophy’s standard methodologies. As life-long admirers of the classics, it’s little surprise then that both Marx and Nietzsche, whether consciously or not, embraced this polemical suspicion of philosophy as ad hoc explanations masquerading as a priori demonstrations.

Wittgenstien shared the same suspicion, although it’s doubtful his derived from Ancient Greece, as he had a philistine’s disdain for classical texts and thinkers, once remarking, “Reading the Socratic dialogues one has the feeling: what a frightful waste of time!” Nor did it mean for Wittgenstein (as it appears to have meant for Marx and for Nietzsche) that conventional philosophy was a de facto useless activity, only that it could be if taken too seriously; according to his colleague and close friend Norman Malcolm, Wittgenstein once said that a competent philosophical treatise could consist entirely of jokes. Nonetheless, Eagleton finds that for all three philosophers there is a refusal to treat philosophy as “an autonomous sphere of its own and [instead] insisting on its role in a broader material history.”

Eagleton acknowledges that there are differences between, say, Marx’s materialistic conception of society and Nietzsche’s, but what he’s most interested in is what they have in common—specifically, their shared assumptions. For example, while Nietzsche sees the emergence of his Übermensch (“Overman”) as the transcendental outcome of history, and Marx sees communism as our final destiny, both (in Eagleton’s words) dismiss “any abstract conception of equality,” “view knowledge as essentially practical, grounding it in the body,” “see false consciousness as afflicting the great mass of humanity,” and “suspect altruism and humanitarianism of cloaking the harsh realities of exploitation.” What’s more, both foresee the necessity of a dialectical process to bring about their desired ends. Communism overcomes and transcends capitalism by the very tools capitalism has given it. Nietzsche’s Overman comes about after the ruling class’s revulsion to “the Last Man” (a stagnant, mediocre creature content with his lot in life and the superficial harmony of compulsive equality).

Yet, despite these shared assumptions, Marx and Nietzsche reached radically different political conclusions. Marx championed class war and enthusiastically sided with the proletariat. Nietzsche mouthed a fancy for strife and the overcoming of adversities but reacted sheepishly any time the potential for change fomented from below. He loathed socialism because it destroyed the wage-earner’s “satisfaction with his insignificant existence,” and he lauded Napoleon Bonaparte as the embodiment of his warrior-prophet reveries.

Eagleton spends the first half of Materialism convincing us that metaphysical convictions are an important part of social criticism—that they either impact, determine, or are in some manner intertwined with corresponding political outlooks. “There is a link,” he contends, “between radicalism and materialism in some sense of the left-wing thought of the English Civil War, as there is in the work of Baruch Spinoza and the philosophes of the French Enlightenment…a legacy which descends to Marx and Engels.” For these philosophers, matter is “itself alive, and not only alive but self-determining, rather like the populace of a democratic state.” In comparison, the coarse mechanical materialism of Isaac Newton and his followers—which depreciates matter into mere corporeality and thus requires “spiritual forces” as aids against inertia—is like a monarchy or despotism that governs the populace from on high.

It might seem, then, that Eagleton is contradicting himself. After all, on the one hand he’s asserting the importance of metaphysics to the development of political thinking, while on the other he seems to be disproving that very premise. So what gives?

Well, unlike most professional explicators, Eagleton actually applies what he preaches, rightly acknowledging that not even a sound historical-materialist interpretation of life takes place outside of life’s historical and material limitations. Marx spent most of his adulthood in poverty battling various debt collectors. Nietzsche, it’s believed, contracted syphilis at a young age, which eventually drove him mad, but not before muting his voice and freezing his gaze. Wittgenstein gave away the entirety of his dynastic fortune and chose to live a life of austerity, sustaining himself on small daily portions of bread and cheese. It’s no surprise to Eagleton that these biographical facts would play a role in the evolution of one’s philosophical assumptions. None of these philosophers (including Eagleton) treat the “external world” like a ship in a bottle, capable of detached study from a barricaded point of view. As Eagleton puts it, with his typical splicing of flippant vulgarity and scholastic profundity, “Because we are incarnate creatures, we are as much in the world as our sewage systems. The world is not an object set over against us, to be contemplated from some elusive location within our skulls.”

If Materialism lacks anything it’s more pages. One would like Eagleton to have told us approximately where he thinks the intellectual paths of all three philosophers began to diverge and why. Also, if each of them were being led by the same bell tolling them homeward, how did they not (even if circumlocutory) end up at the same place? Or did they reach relatively the same position but were members of different classes and thus had different political allegiances? Or, to return to the analogy, was the sound of the toll not a bell-top but merely the echo of their own footsteps?

Eagleton is at heart an old-fashioned British pamphleteer (nearly all his works are short, polemical, and overwrought with verbal energy), so it isn’t necessarily fair to complain about Materialism cutting itself short and raising more questions than it answers. (In fact, Eagleton would agree with Wittgenstein that these ought to be considered virtues for philosophical writings.) The book will distress the sort of left-wing intellectual who believes the latest political fads are by coincidence the correct ones and irritate the sort of right-wing intellectual who thinks that by simply pointing out that they’re fads is in effect refuting them. It’s also an excellent presentation of the strange feedback loop between ideas and their material surroundings—what Marxists call “the dialectic” and non-Marxists call “the complexities of life.”