‘Materialism’ reviewed by Sergio Valverde


Yale University Press, New Haven CT, 2016. 176pp., $24 hb
ISBN 9780300218800

Reviewed by Sergio Valverde

About the reviewer

Dr. Sergio Valverde teaches philosophy and political science and works in pediatric policy and care …


Greeks gave the body two meanings, soma (σωμα), the living body, and sarx (σαρξ) the flesh. The Gospels speak of Jesus breaking his body for the salvation of the flesh. Spirit (πνεῦμα) on the other hand designates always non-human beings, the “holy spirit” (πνεύματος ἁγίου), “spirit of God” (to πνευμα θεου), or “unclean spirits” (πνευματα ακαθαστον), or simply the spirit (to πνεῦμα). Saint Paul taught soma was the body of resurrection “for the Lord,” and sarx the flesh that sins and dies. Hence sarcophagus as a synonym for coffin, that which eats (φαγεῖν) the corpse or the flesh.

Eagleton’s Materialism begins with soma. He revisits four key Western thinkers (Aquinas, Marx, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein) to “examine modes of human creatureliness true of all human bodies.” All four thought our bodily nature sets how we think. They not only honored the body; they wrote using the body so to speak. Marx makes the blood boil. Nietzsche shocks. Wittgenstein dramatizes. Aquinas was often found in rapture. They attended cadence, rhythm, and rhetoric, experimented with genres, urged to think contrarily. Eagleton discovers their shared aims regardless of time and politics. That they were materialists who appreciated the body did not of course turn them all into Bolsheviks. Nietzsche would’ve loved to crush the plebs but he was always sick with something. Wittgenstein prized tradition and order and called pacifists scum. Aquinas hailed from provincial nobility and thought inequality part of creation.

Eagleton’s method of agreement is formal but effective for the reader and against postmodernists, the “new materialists.” For Eagleton, postmodernists degrade (“dematerialize”) the body. They treat the body as if we were in the second century, as the Gnostic refuse from the latest and superficially radical enlightenment. These theorists are not sensual despite being all chatty about sex and whips. Bodies never become subjects. They stand in for mental constructs, fluidity, energy, difference, multiplicity. The result is asceticism. Only the extraordinary, the exception, the impossible count in tandem with capitalist abstraction. And Eagleton lapidates them fast, “[For them] matter must be rescued from the humiliation of being matter.” Our unremarkable bodies build meaningful lives with other people without the Traumas, the Real, or whatever deity rules this week. Eagleton is not interested in more congenial varieties either. Engels is too ambitious. Spinoza’s too contemplative. A simpler, more modest version will do without the jargon and sales-pitch sought by journals, a materialism of commonplace flesh and blood. Eagleton hopes this “unabashed universalism proves scandalous to the cultural commissars” and their deputies in academia.

Eagleton’s always shown full command of Catholic orthodoxy but he’s not exactly Vatican material. His reading of Aquinas inspires. Eagleton sounds like a Latin American theologian of liberation and their bolshie commitment to values NATO considers depassé like opting for the poor or clothing them. For Eagleton, more than any other Church thinker Aquinas reveals Christianity’s core materialism. The dogmas of incarnation and resurrection are truths of the body. Jesus was no Zoroaster or Plato. Jesus’s parables do not speak of two superpowers – good and evil, body and soul. The good obviously wins with Jesus’s death, the story goes, but his resurrection strikes at the heart of idealism. The soul without body is nothing. “Seek first the kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things [food, drink, clothing] will be given to you.” Like Marx, the recognition of necessity is Jesus’s legislative priority.

Aquinas in the same way discerns two human substances (the psychic and the physic) but to better define each in their mutual unity and to provide a theory of virtue as material obligation and mastery. All things are perfect according to their specific nature. Human perfection lies in the unity of body and soul, but the body, “this stuff that speaks and feels” individuates all living things, giving them the final touch. For Aquinas, “a soul, i.e., a first principle of life, is the act of a body and not itself a body.” Therefore, if to be embodied is more perfect than being disembodied, it follows that material praxis is higher than belief. If souls were all that mattered, sex trade would be just trade, child labor a petty misdemeanor like peeing in public. Yet Christian reactionaries from Saint Paul to Augustine to Joel Osteen believe that body without spirit is dead so faith alone saves and good deeds are extracurricular. Aquinas like James, brother of Jesus, replies that faith and no works is useless. If faith were sufficient, even demons, said James, would be saved because they also believe. For completely opposite reasons, Eagleton and the Opus Dei consider Aquinas the greatest theologian of Christianity.

Marx for Eagleton was also a formidable theorist of the body. Marx’s very early work on Epicurus, his dissertation, argued that freedom and consciousness were bodily affairs. Senses were the “immediate theoreticians of the world.” The body mediates nature and history and the goal of a truly human society is “to return to the body its plundered [natural] powers so that the senses may be allowed to come to their own.” We enter proper history when our body is again our own.

Eagleton’s split here is clear again against culturalism for which nature or emancipation are not topics of cocktail chat. I’m extending his critique also to some Marxist theory. If deconstruction proclaimed, “There is nothing outside the text,” some neo-Marxists especially from the value-theory school asserted, “there is nothing outside capital” to keep up with the Joneses. Capital engulfs the laboring body. Exploitation dematerializes the body, bares it to the basic functions of toiling and shopping and to make more money so the infernal cycle starts all over. All true. But that alienation constitutes an order of such magnitude that to imagine otherwise, that there is concrete labor, is transhistorical. For value theorists like Moshe Postone or Robert Kurz, bêtes-noires like Engels and Lukács assumed naively that labor was a natural power enslaved by capitalism and that after the revolution the proletariat emancipates it and everything is golly. All starts and ends with abstract labor. We’re stuck in total historical structures that curiously don’t distinguish between slave and free labor, therefore, we must aim to the total and complete abolition of labor. I think this critique is circular, ahistorical, and appallingly backward, not to mention opportunist and post-hoc because it was based ultimately on the failure of the Soviets. Imagine saying on the eve of the American Civil War that labor overall and not slavery was the problem.

Marx obviously sees in Capital labor as “a process in which both man and nature participate.… He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, to appropriate nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature.” Yes, Marx is candid on both the natural and social character of labor. “The body belongs to both spheres simultaneously,” says Eagleton. Marx manages a dialectics of history and nature without Adorno’s jeremiads of nature and history producing either ideology or catastrophe. More to the point, for Marx, nature is more fundamental than history because our “species-being” is what allows us history in the first place. “It is the body that lies at the root of human history”, writes Eagleton, “because being historical is not itself historically relative.” Nature is there as death, evidence of “how our species being bears in upon the individual,” a dialectical reality if there ever was one as the absolute natural negation of all culturalist difference, “The fact that bleeding to death,” Eagleton jokes, “may be differently construed by different cultures does not mean that one is not bleeding to death.”

Nietzsche is another radical of the body, but of the brutal type. If Marx wished to emancipate the body through politics, Nietzsche discovers the body’s power and truth through war, torture, and desolation. All ‘fixed’ concepts and moral maxims emerge from a body whose universal history in the Genealogy of Morals is of “impaling it, stoning it, breaking it at the wheel, trampling it to death, cutting its flesh from the breast and boiling it.” Nothing helps the intellect better than the rack. Ideas get their staying power from fetid dungeons, not Harvard. The soul, that nature gives us right without a fight is invented to weaken the body along other canards of equality and meekness. Nietzsche’s hyper-naturalism obviously makes the postmodern uncomfortable. Better to see him as a soul before his time who spoke in riddles like Yoda. A hagiographer like Deleuze never takes Nietzsche at its word. Violence sometimes means “irony”, other times “culture”, or “a mental process that seizes thought to make it something affirmative and active,” like jumpstarting your car in a blizzard. The body in turn is a “multiplicity”, “the arbitrary outcome of active and reactive forces.” It’s a vegan word salad. Not one atom of flesh enters. Yet Nietzsche’s brutalism has some plusses in no need to disinfect. The body is heroic. It starts at the lowest and through unrestrained violence and forgetting it transfigures into Superman -like Jesus resurrected with an early onset of Alzheimer. Any worker who can feed her family and send her kids to school with a misery wage is proof of “overmanship” but Nietzsche obviously didn’t have her in mind.

The last materialist in Eagleton’s series is the Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations. The traditional view of Wittgenstein’s philosophy is that language is a social construct. It mirrors itself in the prison house of structuralism, an idealism that substitutes Plato for “intersubjectity.” But for Eagleton, Wittgenstein conceived language quite differently. Language itself is one with material reality and it changes with reality when we discover new facts. It is corporeal. It involves tongue, sometimes the brain, vocal chords. Language expresses physical activity; it’s more theater than philosophy. Wittgenstein’s style is peppered with characters and props.

Concepts become dramatis personae in different stages, or language-games that are situated and enacted in space and time. And most importantly signs don’t float around freely like gas, waiting to be filled with meaning devoid of any logic and necessity. Signs do not acquire meaning by accident or in the void. One finds this formalism in Saussure or Derrida because these two can make their case with ease when we only deal with nouns as meanings for “static” signifiers like chairs and trees but that’s not the case with active verbs and prepositions or words like “non-descript,” “sneakily,” and “Oh Christ” (p.123). For Wittgenstein, meaning is immediately action, it is the way and manners a word works in a specific form of life. To know, for him, is to know how. Words like “perhaps” or “in” and “out” are corporeal and refer to our spatial and contingent placement in the world, that “we are subject to time, space, chance, error… the plurality and instability of the material world” (p.121).

Language discloses a material world, not sever us from it into a lonely solipsism. Language structures worlds with rules before truths and falsehoods enter. Wittgenstein here is close to Voloshinov, the Soviet linguist who published his Marxism and the Philosophy of Language in 1929 before Wittgenstein started to radically change his early ideas (that this may bear with Wittgenstein being known as a closet communist and admirer of the Soviet Union is an “extreme hypothesis” for his American epigones). The parallelisms in both thinkers are arresting. For Voloshinov, meanings lie in utterances which only make sense in a concrete historical condition. The same for Wittgenstein. Although Voloshinov did follow Marxism in conceiving language through ideology critique, Wittgenstein, much less inclined to revolution, considered many of our social ills rooted in wrong forms of thinking and practice, like treating mere concepts as ciphers of secret truths and, like the Zen fable, to go looking for a bull already riding one. The concepts we use will do just fine; they just need more explaining and practice. Eagleton thinks Wittgenstein’s attachment to rules, his conservatism, is unique. It’s not Tory slavishness to custom and habit though, but a critique of the “callow intellectualism” that a new word order can produce a new world order.

In conclusion, Eagleton’s Materialism is mainly a book of ethics with valuable political and epistemological dimensions. Although all these thinkers were political in their own ways, Eagleton emphasizes ethics. If capitalist materialism colonizes the body through consumption and fetishism; it also takes over the mind through intellectual rent-seeking and self-promotion. Really, the life of the mind, especially in academia, is no different now than selling dishwashers, even if revolution and radicalism are the talking points. But for Eagleton, a materialist good life has a renunciant quality, monkish almost, for the sake of a truly sensuous life. Ethical materialism orients us to practice the time-honored works of mercy, to engage mindfully with others here and now, to attend others in need, and to keep your old frypan for countless measures have been taken to be there in your kitchen.

8 March 2018


  1. I have not read the book but wonder how useful it is to discuss the four diverse thinkers under the rubric of materialism (soma). It is like detaching ideas from incompatible problematics in which they are embedded and forming an ersatz collage. The approach required a comment from the reviewer,

  2. It’s a fair review. As a fan of many of Eagleton’s writings, I acquired a copy of the book in a sale. But I concluded that this must be one of the least successful of his books. A careful scholarly examination of the intellectual history of philosophical materialism, in the light of what we know now, would certainly have merit. But this book doesn’t achieve that, it is more in the nature of a postmodernist pastiche which runs together a whole lot of diferent ideas from thinkers with quite different and incompatible beliefs and orientations. What motivated this effort is rather puzzling, since it hardly does any proper justice to what Aquinas, Marx, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein actually stood for. Out of the four thinkers, only Marx can justifiably claim to have been a true materialist, and his materialism had a specific meaning. But that meaning is hardly truthfully conveyed. Notwithstanding Eagleton’s sometimes witty, insightful and erudite musings, it was to me a disappointing read. To discredit metaphysics is hardly ingenious, given that materialism is itself a metaphysical perspective, a metaphysical choice. You cannot “prove” that materialism is true. Actually, as some neurologists will nowadays admit, metaphysics is hardwired in the human brain, simply because we have to do many things in life on the strength of a belief or faith, in advance of any proofs, tests or verification possibilities. And maybe such proofs, tests or verification wil never arrive. Similarly Imre Lakatos’s methodology of scientific research programmes points to the “hard core” beliefs of a research programme which is stubbornly maintained (as a “dogma”, even) when confronted with anomalous evidence. The “spiritual core” of human beings themselves (which involves a set of personal metaphysical frameworks of reference) is a vital instrument to orient and guide people in dealing with life, particularly when life contains all kinds of contradictory juxtapositions have have to be navigated and negotiated through. The proper question to ask then is, what the merits or demerits of the choice for a materialist metaphysic actually are – for gnosis, for learning, for understanding the world in which we live, for the success of our actions. That is, we all have to believe some things for which we have no evidence, but we have a choice in what we decide to believe, all the same. Can we say that some metaphysical beliefs are in some sense better or preferable than others, and why is that, exactly? A systematic philosopher would want to investigate that, and find some rational answers. But Eagleton’s charming intellectual frolic, romping around a smorgasbord of concepts, regrettably neither attempts nor achieves this. Worse, instead of providing intellectual leadership, it adds to the confusion in this field. I cannot be in favour of that.

  3. Firstly, Jurriaan Bendien says:
    >Actually, as some neurologists will nowadays admit, >metaphysics is hardwired in the human brain…
    ‘Some’ people also think that Vlad-the Impaler single-handedly overthrew the North American Empire.
    The statement by Jurrriaan is factually wrong. The human brain has a capacity to think abstract thoughts. That is, having learned several millenia ago, to think about material objects, like stones, water, grass or lions, the human brain evolved further and developed the ability to imagine material objects that were not present at that moment. Then, they evolved the ability to imagine combinations of parts of material objects put together in ways that never actually occurs in the real world. Philosophical metaphysics is not hard-wired in human brains. To think abstractly, to be able to imagine the existence of objects or events that do not exist, in no way precludes a complete materialist view of reality.
    Secondly, IMHO, one can indeed ‘prove’ materialism. Have you ever traveled in an aeroplane, boat, car or taken an elevator to the 10th or 20th floor. If materialism were in any way not true, such excursions would have killed you.
    Thirdly and finally, the introduction of the notion of faith as an important element of human judgement is, as the computer people say, a back-door access to philosophical idealism.

  4. Syd, you are blind. I never said that “philosophical materialism” is hardwired in the human brain, I said that metaphysical presuppositions are hardwired in the human brain, because we have to do many things, way in advance of relevant sensory evidence or proof. In addition, we make some personal assumptions the validity of which can *never* be proved, it is part of our spirit, it is part of who we are.

    The problem, Syd, is that your “complete materialist view of reality” is also metaphysical. It is a brainless totalitarian metaphysics though, a sort of violent atheism where Syd knows the truth, Syd is always right, and other people who disagree are wrong. Why? Because Syd is a materialist! Sydney wants to kill off the human spirit with his “complete materialism”, which erases and deletes the spiritual side of human beings altogether. Well then, before he erases it, he had better understand what he is erasing! Syd, you sound very much like a recycler of unreconstructed Marxist-Leninism from the 1930s, such as you can find in the SWP or CPGB. This was in the days when Joe Stalin ordered the execution of the deputy director of the Marx-Engels Institute, who had been teaching him dialectical philosophy, and proceeded to write his pamphlet about historical and dialectical materialism.

    Certainly, when I lived in New Zealand, I went bungy jumping and skydiving. Did I know for sure that the jump rope would hold? Nope. Did I know beforehand that I would land safely? No I didn’t. Did I have “scientific evidence” that my descent would succeed? I had no proof at all. Then why jump? Well, my belief was, that it would be okay to jump, and I did the things and checks necessary for it. I am still there, to tell you the story. When e.g. I travel here in Holland from one location to another, I believe that I will get to my destination, but I have in advance no proof for that whatever, because at any time, some yobbo could drive into me, or whatever.

    Normal people (unlike Syd) have to do a lot of things each day on the strength of hope, trust and belief. It’s part of life. They have absolutely no “scientific” or “materialist” ground for taking a risk, but having a belief, hope or trust is nevertheless essential to get things done. This has nothing necessarily to do with religion, but with the difference between scientific knowledge and metaphysical belief. When Terry Eagleton is talking about materialism, he is talking mainly about rejection of the belief in God (for example, Nietzsche announced the “death of God”) but that is a very impoverished understanding of materialism.

    A metaphysical statement is conventionally defined as an assumption or presupposition which cannot be tested or verified even in principle. In this sense, scientists work with some metaphysical beliefs all the time, and they are quite happy to admit it, too. That’s on record. If you were familiar with the history and philosophy of science, you would know that. Actually, some scientists believe in God, others don’t, but whatever their belief might be, it does not prevent them from doing scientific work… and from making some everyday metaphysical assumptions. In fact their beliefs help them to do their work. You can also ask people in the armed forces about it, soldiers who have been on combat missions, and they will tell you the same thing. They did not know whether they would live or die, but they did what they did “on faith” or “with hope”, and it helped them to survive. If they had not had the hope, they would have given in. Was there a rational ground, for their hope or faith? Not really, they did not know, if they would live or die. It was a sort of gamble. But their belief carried them through.

    All that simply disappears in the brainless, trite intellectual sophistry about “materialism”.

  5. I’ll make a few points but not in the spirit of polemics.

    Eagleton takes up, perhaps deliberately, four divergent thinkers with the aim of examining how they regard nature and body. It may be an interesting exercise but, by its very nature, it cannot be very fruitful.

    Of the four thinkers, Marx alone subscribed to the ‘materialist conception of history’ against Hegel’s idealism but without rejecting the latter’s dialectical method. Others were not committed to ‘materialism’ of any kind. For Marx, the goal of history is ‘the realm of freedom’ where all the potentialities of human body, mind and spirit can blossom to the full. Hitherto, within the ‘realm of necessity’, these potentialities have been repressed and suppressed. The post-capitalist society will pave the way for the new world of freedom.

    It follows that the philosophical dualisms of spirit vs body or spirit vs matter etc., are aporetic and sterile in a sense. The point is to change the world.

    I leave the question of faith or belief in relation to science raised by J. Bendien to Sydney. Science proceeds with certain presuppositions, the way logic proceeds with primitive notions, but the assumptions get tested during the course of empirical observation and experimentation. I’d add that we tend to identify science with modern western science and assume it to be the final arbiter of truth. Have a look at Bortoft’s ‘The wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way of Science or the highly sophisticated and effective Indian Science of medicine — the Ayurveda — to know that the assumption is wrong. There are other scientific epistemologies too.

  6. Yes, Terry Eagleton’s book is indeed about “the body”, I was aware of that. In the preface of his book, he explained, that it is a critical intervention in contemporary cultural studies, and that the book “profited greatly” from the suggestion by one of his editors to cut away the first 40 pages of the manuscript! But why call the book “materialism” at all? Why not call it “shake that booty” or something like that?

    One reason is, I assume, because Eagleton wants to counterpose the body as a raw “physical and material reality”, against the body as a deep and meaningful “cultural construct” in cultural studies. Another reason is, that he wants to attack the obscurantism of postmodernist cultural studies from a perspective of a socially informed and politically aware materialism. He intends to do this against the background of the evolution and degeneration of an academic discourse. Perhaps he might save some souls, and inspire them to better things.

    In the early 1980s, leftist academic fashions changed. I remember it well, because I was a student in those days. Nicos Poulantzas jumped out of a window to his death. John Lennon was assassinated. Louis Althusser, the “pope” of Western Marxism-Leninism, strangled his wife to death, and then pleaded temporary insanity. There was a “crisis of Marxism”. Workers’ struggles against incomes policies and austerity were defeated.

    The socialist Left and the women’s liberation movement fragmented and gradually disintegrated. The neo-liberal New Right and the yuppies rose to prominence, and the new academic idol became Michel Foucault. The focus shifted from a scelerotic, disembodied Althusserian historical materialism to a liberal cultural philosophy about “the subject”, and from the criticism of capitalism to “corporeality” and sexuality. Michel Foucault himself claimed (The history of sexuality, Vol. 1, Vintage, p. 70) that in the West, “the project of the science of the subject has gravitated, in ever-narrowing circles, around the question of sex”. He died of AIDS, probably after infecting others.

    The new cultural discourse evolved and degenerated into increasingly convoluted, abstract literary pastiches and decorative postmodern concoctions, which could explain, illuminate or predict very little. In places like the USA and India, cultural studies kind of fused with theology and religious studies. This is the intellectual climate that Terry Eagleton is speaking to, just like Slavoj Zizek does.

    Eagleton now wants to throw a radicalized Aquinas, Nietzsche, Marx and Wittgenstein at the students and academics. But it has very little to do with materialism at all. Apart from the lack of an exposition of materialism, the real point is, that Eagleton does not provide any materialist explanation at all, for why our history – the history of our lifetime, of society and the history of academic discourse from the 1960s until the present – developed as it did. Perhaps that explanation was in the first 40 pages of the manuscript, providing more context, I don’t know, but in any case, the book has very little to do with materialism anyway. And Eagleton does not do justice to his gang of four. It is more confusing than enlightening.

    I have a lot of respect and appreciation for Terry Eagleton, but I do not idolize him like a Hindu deity. He can get it wrong. He can write books that don’t really hit the spot. I think this is one of them. How can the new generation hope to “make history”, if the *previous* generation cannot even explain properly what happened in their own lifetime, and why?

    The real truth is, that the academic historical materialism of today has almost nothing to do anymore with Marx and Engels stood for. It has become a nonsense discipline. Marx and Engels sought to explain the reality of what was happening in society, and they carefully researched the empiria and interpretations of reality. But today’s historical materialism is mainly an ultra-abstract philosophical and literary exercise, where a “holy family” of academics aim to quickly capture the moral and intellectual high ground with Theory, and posture with it, as if theory is a fishing net which you can throw out to quickly catch all the experiences and knowledges that you never made an effort to obtain yourself.

  7. A passage in the Materialism book that struck a chord with me, was the following:

    “It is a striking feature of modernity that we find ourselves unable to agree even on fundamentals. Almost everyone takes the view that attempting to asphyxiate the various small children we encounter on the street is not a course of action to be commended, but we cannot agree on why we agree on this, and perhaps never will. Liberal pluralism may involve striking a pact with those whose views we utterly repudiate. One of the prices we pay for liberty is having to put up with a lot of ideological garbage.” (pp. 138-139).

    What would be a materialist explanation for that predicament? Is there really “a clear parallel between Wittgenstein’s style of philosophizing and the Marxist critique of ideology”? It certainly stretches the imagination. It is certainly true that both Wittgenstein and Marx were concerned with the clarification of ideas, but from very different perspectives. The young Marx wrote in 1843:

    “(…) The reform of consciousness consists entirely in making the world aware of its own consciousness, in arousing it from its dream of itself, in explaining its own actions to it. Like Feuerbach’s critique of religion, our whole aim can only be to translate religious and political problems into their self-conscious human form. Our programme must be: the reform of consciousness not through dogmas but by analyzing mystical consciousness obscure to itself, whether it appear in religious or political form. (…)” (Marx to Ruge, September 1843).

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