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March 06, 2022 2 min read


This dichotomy is probably as old as philosophy itself. In the Western tradition, it can be traced most clearly to Democritus and Plato, but it is understandable that lesser-known thinkers (Leucippus) had also formulated this opposition before. Democritus was a materialist and the main exponent of ancient atomism. His atom theory states that the whole nature is composed of smallest invisible, indivisible units (elementary particles), the atoms.

Aristotle's theorem of supersummativity (the whole is more than the sum of its parts) points out, for example in biology, that life phenomena cannot be reduced to physical and chemical processes, i.e. cannot be decomposed in the sense of atomism. This shows vividly that a mere reductionism to the smallest particles cannot do justice to a complex system of constant interaction.

Idealism and materialism are thus rather groupings of theories used to describe social events. Materialism, as the name implies, is about the importance of materials or matter, while idealism assigns the central importance in life to reality.

But what is the difference between hard and soft materialism, as described in the meme? Soft materialism agrees with hard materialism that the only substances are material objects, but claims that some of these objects (e.g., persons) have mental properties that are different from physical properties. Brain events certainly often cause mental events and vice versa.

This dualism has unfolded in modern times, and not only theoretically. For Marx and Engels, materialism meant that the material world, perceptible by the senses, has an objective reality that is independent of spirit or mind. They did not deny the reality of mental or spiritual processes, but maintained that ideas can therefore arise only as products and reflections of material conditions. They are thus representatives of a soft materialism.

The latter-day antagonist to this theory has been Hegel's idealism, though Hegel's philosophy preceded Marxism in time, and Marx and Engels were strongly influenced by Hegel's theorizations. Marx, however, literally turned Hegel upside down by transforming the idealist dialectic into a materialist one, that is, by proposing that material circumstances shape ideas and not vice versa. This is to be related primarily to the philosophy of history, or the general socio-cultural effect on what we call progress.

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