The term materialism, derived from the Latin word materia (timber, matter), was coined about 1670 by the British physicist Robert Boyle (1627–1691). Its French equivalent, materialisme, was used probably for the first time by Pierre Bayle (1647–1706), although it was not yet listed in his famous Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697). The German term Materialismus seems to have been introduced around 1700 by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716). Since then it has been employed to denote any theory that considers all events in the universe to be sufficiently accounted for by the existence and nature of matter.
Historians of philosophy often distinguish between different ...view middle of the document...
They claim that his well-known statement "all things are water" implies that water is the only and universal substratum of which all other bodies are merely modifications. Although Thales's specific choice of water as the fundamental matter did not satisfy his successors, his distinction between appearance and a reality that becomes comprehensible through the unifying function of reason was of lasting consequence for philosophical thought. His disciple, Anaximander of Miletus, replaced water by the more abstract apeiron, some kind of infinite and indistinct eternal matter to which everything that exists owes its being. Anaximander's disciple, Anaximenes, in turn called the fundamental cosmic matter "air" or "breath" claiming that air, when cooled, becomes vapor or mist, when rarified fire, and when condensed wind, cloud, water, earth, or stone. It should be noted, however, that at those early times matter and mind, or body and soul, were not sharply distinguished from one another so that the apparently purely material substratum included a spiritual ingredient. Some historians of philosophy prefer therefore to call these Ionian philosophers not materialists but hylozoist. The term hylozoism, derived from the Greek words for wood and life, means that there exists only matter, but this matter is animated, matter and life being inseparable.
A more authentic materialism is the atomism developed by Leucippus and elaborated by his disciple Democritus of Abdera who flourished about 400 b.c.e. They taught that there exist only empty space and atoms, which are indivisible, indestructible, and imperceptibly small particles of matter, differing in size and shape and moving in space. About a century later, Epicurus (341–270 b.c.e.) adopted the Democritian theory of atoms as a mechanistic explanation of all phenomena and used it as the basis of his philosophical system, which became known as Epicureanism. The most influential expositor of Democritian materialism and Epicurianism was the Roman philosopher and poet Lucretius of the first century b.c.e. In the six books of his poem De Rerum Natura (On the nature of things), he presented a materialistic explanation of mind, of soul, and of sensation, as well as of the phenomena of life, and thus taught the groundlessness of the fear of death and divine punishment since the event of death is merely the dispersion of the atoms.
Due to the facts that the Christian Fathers, like Tertullian (c. 160–c. 240 c.e.), Arnobius (253–c. 327 c.e.), or Lactantius (c. 250–c. 325 c.e.), rejected philosophy as a heathen product, and that since the thirteenth century Aristotelianism, which rejected atomism, dominated Western thought until the age of the Renaissance, materialistic theories were virtually anathematized prior to the seventeenth century. Their revival is attributed mainly to the empiricist Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655), a Catholic priest with orthodox views in theology, but nevertheless a...