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New Left Review I/109, May-June 1978

Raymond Williams

Problems of Materialism

There are inevitable difficulties in any serious materialism. In its earliest phases it has a comparative simplicity of definition, since it rests on a rejection of presumptive hypotheses of non-material or metaphysical prime causes, and defines its own categories in terms of demonstrable physical investigations. Yet such definitions are subject to two inherent difficulties: first, that in the continuing process of investigation, the initial and all successive categories are inherently subject to radical revision, and in this are unlike the relatively protected categories of presumed or revealed truths; second, that in the very course of opposing systematic universal explanations of many of the common-ground processes, provisional and secular procedures and findings tend to be grouped into what appear to but never can be systematic, universal and categorical explanations of the same general kind. Thus material investigation, grounded in the rejection of categorical hypotheses of an unverifiable kind, and basing its own confidence in a set of provisional working procedures and demonstrations, finds itself pulled nevertheless towards closed generalizing systems: finds itself materialism or a materialism. There is thus a tendency for any materialism, at any point in its history, to find itself stuck with its own recent generalizations, and in defence of these to mistake its own character: to suppose that it is a system like others, of a presumptive explanatory kind, or that it is reasonable to set up contrasts with other (categorical) systems, at the level not of procedures but of its own past ‘findings’ or ‘laws’. What then happens is obvious. The results of new material investigations are interpreted as having outdated ‘materialism’. Or, conversely, defence of ‘the materialist world-view’, specified in certain positions now frozen in time, involves contempt for or rejection of apparently incompatible evidence and procedures, and their categorical assignment to systems taken to be alternative and of the same kind: in the ordinary rhetoric, ‘idealism’. Intellectual confusion is then severe enough, but it is made worse by the fact, on the one hand, that much of the new ‘evidence’ and ‘procedures’, especially in its interpreted and theoretically presumed forms, is indeed incompatible, not only (which is not important) with the frozen ‘world-view’ but with the significant criteria of the materialist enterprise; and by the fact, on the other hand, that within the world-view, however frozen, there is still hard, often very hard evidence of a kind that is indeed likely to be smothered in the difficult process of the search for genuine compatibilities and necessary reformulations.

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