Theories of Materialism and Idealism

Materialism and idealism are two theories that greatly differ but are essentially straightforward to grasp in terms of contrasting and comparing the two. Karl Marx, a nineteenth century German philosopher and socialist saw materialism as a theory in regards to all reality being based on matter. Materialism is based on more of a scientific and factual approach. For example, the idea of a table was developed by humans because of their experience with other tables, not from consciousness. Idealism, is a theory that refers to the mind or the spirit of God being the origin of all material things on Earth.

Using the table example, a materialist would argue that social being determines consciousness, whereas an idealist would argue that consciousness determines being. Materialism regards all phenomena even that of the mind, is due to a material agency.

Idealism regards ideas as the only reality. The majority of people do not live a life free of materialism. To do so people must be happy with a life free of indulging their bodies and minds with things that pleasure the senses.

Get quality help now
Bella Hamilton
Verified writer

Proficient in: Capitalism

5 (234)

“ Very organized ,I enjoyed and Loved every bit of our professional interaction ”

+84 relevant experts are online
Hire writer

Very few people are without materialism, which would mean that money and other physical possessions mean very little to them and it is essential that they have to choice to be able to freely choose this without being pushed on by certain societal forces.

The most popular form of idealism is the idea that individuals can do anything that set their minds to. For example, one can overcome poverty if they put their mind to it and try really hard.

Get to Know The Price Estimate For Your Paper
Number of pages
Email Invalid email

By clicking “Check Writers’ Offers”, you agree to our terms of service and privacy policy. We’ll occasionally send you promo and account related email

"You must agree to out terms of services and privacy policy"
Write my paper

You won’t be charged yet!

Poverty is not a social phenomenon caused by societal limitations or illness in the family, rather a personal choice. In this paper I will be discussing Karl Marx’s history materialism theory, Alfred North Whitehead’s scientific materialism theory, and how the two coincide in terms of aspects of human creativity; but also the differences of their notions through an idealistic approach.


Marx’s theory of historical materialism is greatly influenced from Hegel’s viewpoint of history being composed of opposing forces. Hegel believed that the world is merely made up of appearances, and that true reality is an idealistic view of the world. However, although Marx did side with Hegel in terms of his notion of the world consisting of opposing forces – he did not believe that the world hides these “true realities” that Hegel insisted upon (idealistically). The way Marx analyzes history and it’s development over the years, is based upon the means of production and the relationships people enter as they use these means of production (socially). At first, Marx considered the capitalist way of production to be the most revolutionary the world has ever seen due to the fact that the means of production in a capitalistic society change more than the social relationships people enter in this type of society; referred to as relations of production.

In capitalistic societies, people sell their “availability to work” as opposed to the goods they are produce. Essentially, the amount of labour going into the products does not mean much in a capitalistic society. The compensation of what is being produced by the labourers is what is most important as the labourers receive money for their capacity to work, in order to survive; these people are called proletarians. And the ‘opposition’ in this case, are called capitalists; whom are the people that normally own the businesses and own the labour power.

Marx, I guess you could say, had an eye opening experience when he realized that over time capitalistic societies would eventually spend less money on labour and invest more into new technological advancements. Keeping this in mind, the rate of profit will drastically fall even if the economy grew because labour is the source of all profits. If the rate of profits decreases enough, a recession will soon be the outcome. To conclude, in such an economical crisis, the price of labour will also fall, which will lead to more money being invested into new technologies instead of labourers.


When discussing human history, Marx and Whitehead had different takes on what constituted human development and perfection. For Whitehead, the driving force of human history is reached by self-regulation and reason where the habits of mind are close to the habits of body. Through self-regulation one can reach human perfection. On the other hand, Marx argues that history is all habits of the body, and the relations between body to body. It is more of a factual based critique where the “possible” is projected from the actual. To Marx, the mind is a habit of the body created by other bodies relations with other bodies. Marx and Whitehead can be compared by the way they both begin their critiques of human history with experience, and eventually return to it.

Both of them rely on internal relations as they analyze. Internal relations sees activities always bearing qualities if they, themselves, are qualities. Through internal relations they are adjectives of their social context. Marx and Whitehead both see eye to eye as modern physics sees everything as a developmental process and ongoing activity. Everything is connected to everything through an environment. Marx’s views on production in the economical world can be directly compared to Whitehead’s mode of thought. The driving force behind the world process (Whitehead’s “creativity”) is the production ability (Marx’s view). To understand what is wrong with wage labour is to understand the process of production. Wage cannot and should not measure living labour. Marx see’s capitalism as a violation of person and things, as it treats them as objects.

Whitehead and Marx see capitalism as metaphysically deficient. The world is a process that sees every individual as unique, but capitalism sees every individual’s creativity as the same, which leaves no room for development. For Marx and the capitalistic notion, human labour is treated as an object when the surplus value separates people’s activity as being truly human. The push labour upon people, it slowly takes away from the individual’s creative nature. Capitalism does not allow for new possibilities of creative to arise.

This quote from Marx’s book _Das Kapital_, explains Marx’s view of how capitalism may expropriate human creativity has to do with the enslavement of other’s in order to bring present creativity through the past labour of individuals. “Present creativity sparked by future envisionment has been reduced to the abstract monetary expression of the generalized past labour of my brothers and sisters. Their creative lives have paid my wage and mine has paid theirs. We are the price of….one another’s enslavememnt” (_Das Kapital,_ Marx Pg.124). Human beings are not free and creative under capitalism, as it does not acknowledge human beings this way. In a capitalistic society, people are only seen in the light of production – what they produce.

Whitehead goes into detail about capitalism simply just pushes the world to a stop, and the process of development and creativity eventually seizes to exist. Whitehead’s thought tends to find similarities and truths through examination of things that may oppose each other but tend to find a way of belonging together. Marx tends to separate any method from the material, however both Whitehead and Marx’s thought graduate to legitimate concepts.


Scientific Materialism is a notion that twentieth century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead defined as the belief that physical reality is all that exists. In this philosophical concept, there is not much room for religion as it is solely based on faith in the unseen. Many scientists are opposed to religious faith, and end up ridiculing such beliefs. However, Whitehead stated that “modern science, as it developed in the West, was based on a faith in the existence of rational, discoverable laws” (Whitehead, Pg. 17-19, 27). The opposition between the actual and religion is a topic that is always looked at when these two “philosophies” are talked about. What Whitehead tries to repair is the gap made by materialism which splits the concepts of value and purpose from scientific explanation. Whitehead believed that religion was a cultural phenomenon, and that materialism has gotten out of control in modernity. For Whitehead, everything is essentially everywhere at all times.

Every location involves an aspect of life in every other location, which is basically a series of events that are connected and essentially form a timeline, or a constructed series of processes. This concept is what distinguishes the metaphysical component of the world. The process, and series of events are what constitute the world, rather than the substance. Process and reality is a concept that makes the world what it is according to Whitehead. “Actual Occasion” is a concept in which Whitehead believes is not an long-term substance, but a process in which everything eventually becomes. This concept can be contrasted with Kant’s philosophy on how the world emerges from the subject. With this in mind, Whitehead’s notion is one that is the complete opposite of Kant’s, where the subject emerges from the world. Scientific materialism consists of interaction between things is spatial and not developmental, where the identity of something does not depend on other things for its existence.

Many questions are brought up when dealing with scientific materialism, and even the comparisons between materialism and idealism in the light of how change comes about, and how form gets into the world to begin with? These questions are crucial when dealing with materialism, which needs to explain the emergence of the formation of matter, and idealism which explains how ideas (substances) even get into the world. For whitehead, the characteristics of life are absolute self-enjoyment. The ideal community is having relations with others, which is something both Whitehead and Marx believe. No one will willingly do something that is bad, if what is good is true. The creative activity that Whitehead speaks of, is similar to Marx’s view of human perfection and activity as well.

The process of self-creation is the transformation of the potential into the actual, and the satisfaction of such a transformation includes self-enjoyment, which is what humans strive for. Self-enjoyment is a certain immediate individuality where each and every experience is unique, and done for its own sake (no end in itself). When Whitehead talks about the human experience and how to conceive things that are real, he means that all of our experiences are completely subjective and that our bodies are associated with the presence of our minds, which is where Whitehead and Marx bump heads, if you will (Whitehead, Nature Alive). As I mentioned, Whitehead believes the habits of mind are close to the habits of body, whereas Marx believes everything is made up of the habits of bodies, and relations between bodies.

To further understand Whitehead’s theory of scientific materialism, one must fully understand self-enjoyment and what is ideal. Purpose, also referred to as the AIM, limits the field of potential and is present throughout the past, present, and future experiences – they are present but not always achieved. In terms of the idealistic approach of Whitehead’s scientific materialism notion, there are two kinds of observations he goes over; which are traditional empiricism (sense perception), and direct aspect of our experience (Whitehead, “Nature Alive 1”, Lect).

The evidence for AIM or purpose, comes from bodily feelings. Human beings are natural, as the know and actualize the good (Whitehead, “Nature Alive 1”, Lect). This can be directly related to Marx and his economic interpretation of history which actualizes the good. (Whitehead “Nature Alive 2”). Whitehead and Marx share their views of nature as a set of internal processes, rather than an externally set of substances, which is the most common theme shared between the two and their outlook of nature.


Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy can be very complicated at times, but he presents a system that explains how tangible aspects of human experience can provide an explanation as to how we understand reality. Process and reality can be looked at as a way of becoming. There are many phases in this philosophy that attempt to formulate Whitehead’s notion. However, Whitehead’s speculative philosophy is known as the philosophy of organism in which Whitehead views reality as unified parts that play important roles in sustaining certain processes. Actual entities or occasions are what Whitehead describes as the realities of the world. Actual occasions are solid facts in which our emotions and thoughts are based upon, hence the name “Actual”.

The other elements of human experience are called “prehensions” (mental understanding) of actual entities – a system of relationships that connects all actual entities. Prehensions are ways of understanding and analyzing the world. Prehension is not a way of thinking, but to prehend something is to have a idea or a concept of a particular thing. This is a process of an actual entity becoming itself by appropriating elements from other existing entities. This can be referred back to the process of becoming, which in the case, the becoming of an actual entity is because of the process of prehensions that take place.

In conclusion, although idealism and materialism differ greatly from a philosophical and religious standpoint, Marx’s and Whitehead’s materialism theories overlap in aspects that have to do with human creativity and how relations with others and one’s self helps transform the potential into the actual. Although Marx’s notion of human creativity and perfection is mainly covered in respect to his economic view of societies and capitalism, both notions tend to share similarities and differences when looking at the world and what it has to offer.

Going back to Whitehead’s view of the driving force of human ideals and perfection that is reached by self-regulation where the habits of one’s mind tend to have a sturdy grip to the habits of the body. Whereas, Marx did believe that human history and the actualization of perfection are all habits of the body and the relations from body to body, which goes back to the possibilities of people being in direction relation with other people. Both philosophers have unique ways of looking at human history and creativity, which was inspired by others as well, but in the end still have the potential of attempting to discover how things connect, develop, and progress in the world.


Schilpp, Paul Arthur, editor: _The Philosophy of Alfred North White,_ “The Library of Living Philosophers,” (LaSalle: Open Court Publishing Company, 1951)

_Process and Reality_ (New York: The Macmillan Company 1929. New York: The Free Press, 1978.)

Marx, Karl: _Das Kapital_. (Capital Volume III, 1894)

Whitehead, Alfred North: _Nature Alive_ (Lecture 1 & 2)

Whitehead, Alfred North, _Modes of Thought,_ (Lectures VII and VIII)

Whitehead, Alfred North, _Adventurs of Ideas._ (Chap. II)

A.H. Johnson, _Whitehead’s Theory of Reality,_ Boston: The Beacon Press, 1952, p.116

Cite this page

Theories of Materialism and Idealism. (2016, Aug 14). Retrieved from

Theories of Materialism and Idealism

👋 Hi! I’m your smart assistant Amy!

Don’t know where to start? Type your requirements and I’ll connect you to an academic expert within 3 minutes.

get help with your assignment