Terry EAGLETON. Materialism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016. Pp. x+176. ISBN 9780300218800. Reviewed by Craig A. Ford, Jr., Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467.
Terry Eagleton’s Materialism is at once masterfully written, incredibly entertaining, and tremendously insightful. And the reader gets this argument in more or less 160 small pages—something that is no small miracle when one is writing simultaneously in the history of philosophy, cultural studies, and epistemology. To hear Eagleton tell it, though, his book constitutes primarily a polemical intervention into how these three fields have coalesced in our current post-modern and post-structural moment. Nevertheless, for all its polemic, the book can ultimately be conceived as a friendly intervention. For while Eagleton shares the belief that philosophical idealism should be rejected, he nevertheless chides contemporary developments in materialist thought that end up either dissolving matter into a conglomeration of mystical forces (vital materialism or new materialism) or reducing all reality merely to brute pieces of matter (mechanical materialism). The solution, according to Eagleton, is to understand that matter itself exudes different properties as it coalesces into different forms. The form that matter realizes in human beings—and yes, the Aristotelian overtones are intentional—is the case in point. Our matter simply is the sort that exhibits certain properties like autonomy, like creativity, like communication and signification—and, crucially, like self-transcendence. None of this necessarily entails dualism if one is willing to abandon the Enlightenment assumption that matter must be inert stuff in order properly to be called matter.
The book’s chapters build an argument that would defend a materialism of just this sort, and Eagleton recruits Marx, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein in order to tell the story. From Wittgenstein, Eagleton shows that we can provide a sturdy—even if only ultimately provisional—foundation for language and meaning that also allows us to reject post-structualism’s eternal play of signifiers. It is to observe that language and meaning are at once elastic but are nevertheless moored in the restrictive boundaries of social practices and the limits of our common existence as humans. So while it may be true that each culture makes sense of death, violence, and sexuality differently, it nevertheless can be maintained that everyone is talking about death, violence, and sexuality. What philosophy does, from Wittgenstein’s vantage point, is show us that these ‘forms of life’ that we have constituted for ourselves through our ‘language games’ are ultimately alterable, which is to say that, within that elasticity connected to certain constants of human experience, there is room for new arrangements of meanings. Philosophy, in other words, inserts variability into discourses that would otherwise like to ossify themselves as “natural” and, therefore, unchanging.
Nietzsche and Marx stand in as two different directions by which one can generate a politics after idealism. As many of us who have read Nietzsche know, Nietzsche’s politics does not end well for the vast majority of human beings. Whereas Marx’s political vision involves an account of human flourishing inclusive of all persons realizing each other’s abilities as human beings reciprocally, Nietzsche provides no account of such flourishing besides the realization of the acquisitive and destructive excellences of the übermench who ushers the bodies of the weak out of human history. There is a cautionary tale here. For it would be a mistake to see this latter vision as simply the horizon extolled by Nazis when there are so many resonances between Nietzsche’s politics and the neoliberal form of capitalism that is in still in the process of global conquest. Indeed, Eagleton observes that, if Marx had had the opportunity, he probably would have dismissed Nietzsche’s politics as a form of cosmic capitalism in philosophically sophisticated garb.
Marx’s political vision instead is one based in cooperative human activity that avoids the pitfalls both of exploitation (where the profit from labor does not go to the laborer) and of alienation (where the laborer no longer recognizes herself in the products of her work). As we all know, Marx believed that these were the building blocks of capitalism. But Eagleton invokes Marx not so much as the enemy of capitalism but rather as the exponent of an anthropology that, contrary to the tendencies of many of his postmodern followers, affirms a concept of human nature (species-being) and of nature itself that is dynamic enough to affirm the historical complexities of human existence while also including a vehement denial of idealism.
This observation has special significance for theologians, because, recruited into this materialist genealogy is the 13th century angelic doctor, Thomas Aquinas. The reason why Aquinas is recruited is because both Aquinas and Marx were close readers of Aristotle when it came to formulating their anthropologies. This leads Eagleton, when considering Aquinas, to make the argument that Aquinas is both a somatic and epistemological materialist. The former term, which he recognizes as ultimately a bit infelicitous, specifies that when Aquinas views the human body, he evaluates it as the dynamic entity it is without needing to resort to spiritualizing or to a Platonizing dualism in order to make sense of it. “As a way of seeing,” Eagleton writes, “it takes seriously what is most palpable about men and women—their animality, their practical activity, and corporeal constitution” (35). The latter term specifies that, whatever we know as human creatures, we know ultimately by way of our senses. This is something that Aquinas states relentlessly throughout his treatise on man in the Summa (see, especially, I.88). From my vantage point, this is an interpretation worth considering.
The plausibility of this genealogy that connects Aquinas through Wittgenstein into our current postmodern time gives this book an urgency in our theological moment, especially for ethicists who are looking for a way to talk about universalism while avoiding the objection that they are performing a new form of ideological colonialization. It is, in other words, not simply a conversation about what sort of materialism to adopt if we are convinced that idealism is a dead end. Much more than that, it is a genealogy about how to talk about truth—the scary capital “T” kind—based in an appreciation for the complex creatures that we are.