Materialism (2017) by Terry Eagleton

Materialism (2016) is definitely not Terry Eagleton at his best. Ostensibly the book’s purpose is to explain materialism, the philosophical-cum-political theory in which all phenomena derives from and/or is reducible to physical matter. However, the first half is a polemic directed against an ill-defined opponent. Eagleton lambasts the “commissars of contemporary cultural discourse”, but is often unclear who they are exactly. Constructivists? Post-modernists? Idealists? All of the above? I am not quite sure.

I first discovered Eagleton in his short, succinct and beautifully written book Marx and Freedom (1997). So it was no surprise that Materialism’s best moments were when Eagleton laid out Marxist theory in his characteristically precise prose. Eagleton’s sentences can be like punches slipping through your guard – his sudden ability to distil complex ideas into simple yet telling analogies are the blows you don’t see coming. These moments are sparse, but when they do appear, they make the read worthwhile.

I am remarkably unqualified to comment on his discussion of Nietzsche, having never read any of the great man’s work. That being said, Eagleton does a good job showing the similarities between the contemporaneous Marx and Nietzsche. Both are historicists of morality and materialists of a certain kind. Eagleton characterises Nietzsche as a thinker of the political right, a claim which I am agnostic about. Nonetheless, his point that socialists and traditionalists have a lot in common is well made. Even today we see a certain commonality in critique (though not of remedy) between a resurgent socialism and right-wing populism. Both are sceptical of liberalism’s false promises.

The third ‘materialist’ thinker that Eagleton discusses is Wittgenstein. At first this seems like an odd addition, but Eagleton makes his case well. For Wittgenstein, language is grounded in our everyday forms of life. Words do not reflect reality, they are reality. Words derive their meaning from their physical, i.e. material, context. Practice underpins everything. A sentiment familiar to readers of Marx. Ideas reflect their enabling material conditions.

This goes to the heart of what Eagleton means by “materialism”. Eagleton defends what he terms “somatic materialism”. Basically, humans are physically embodied creatures. Our logic, culture, ideas, everything springs from our necessary physicality. There is no mind-body distinction, it is body all the way down. All of this is true, and a necessary safeguard against idealist theorising – but is it materialism, per se? Earlier on, Eagleton claims that materialism need not be an ontological claim. How can this be so? An idealist may accept that we are embodied creatures. The difference lies in what these bodies are made of – physical matter, or something else? That is the point, and I fear Eagleton misses it.

Overall, Materialism suffers from an ill-defined purpose. Is it trying to dispel social constructivism? To defend a particular theory of materialism? To explore the similarities between Marx, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein? All of the above, probably. Even so, Eagleton is remarkably readable. His ability to take philosophy and weave it into accessible anecdotes is impressive. Does this accessibility come at the expense of nuance? Possibly. As long as one bears that in mind, Materialism is worth reading.

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