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45 minutes
First broadcast:
Thursday 24 April 2008

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Materialism in Philosophy – the idea that matter and the interactions between matter account for all that exists and all that happens. We trace the descent of materialism from the ancient Greek philosophers Democritus and Epicurus, to its powerful and controversial flowering in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries as an attack on religion. It’s provocative stuff even today and certainly was in 1770 when Baron D’Holbach published his book The System of Nature. He wrote: "If we go back to the beginning we shall find that ignorance and fear created the gods; that fancy, enthusiasm, or deceit adorned or disfigured them; that weakness worships them; that credulity preserves them, and that custom, respect and tyranny support them."Materialism was considered so dangerous that every copy of the Baron’s book was condemned to be burnt. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, materialism dominates much of our understanding of the world today. Associated with science and atheism, Materialism has influenced many forms of contemporary human thought from the process of history to the diagnosis of disease and boasts a cast list of devotees including Pierre Gassandi, Thomas Hobbes, the Marquis de Sade and Karl Marx. But what does materialism really mean, how has it developed over time and can we still have free will if we are living in a materialist world? With Anthony Grayling, Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London; Caroline Warman, Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford; Anthony O’Hear, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Buckingham

  • Further Reading

    Diderot, Rameau’s Nephew, translated by Margaret Mauldon, edited with an introduction by Nicholas Cronk (Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 2006)

    Diderot, Rameau’s Nephew and D’Alembert’s Dream, translated by Leonard Tancock (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976)

    Holbach, Paul Henri Thiry, baron de, The System of Nature (Manchester: Clinamen, 1999)

    Julien Offray de la Mettrie, Machine Man and Other Writings, translated and edited by Ann Thomson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996 [174s])

    Stendhal, Love, trans. Gilbert Sale and Suzanne Sale (Penguin, 1975 [1822])

    Lucretius, De Rerum Natura

    A. C. Grayling, Towards the Light: The Story of the Struggles for Liberty and Rights That Made the Modern West (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2007)

    A. C. Grayling, Berkeley: The Central Arguments (Open Court Publishing, 1986)

  • .

    Olivier Bloch, Le matérialisme (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1995), 2nd edition (in French)

    Margaret C. Jacob, The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons and Republicans (London: Allen & Unwin, 1981)

    Jonathan Israel, Radical Enlightenment (Oxford: OUP, 2001) and Enlightenment Contested (Oxford: OUP, 2006). Third volume forthcoming.

    Ann Thomson, Materialism and Society In The Mid-Eighteenth Century: La Mettrie's Discours Préliminaire (Geneve: Droz, 1981)

    C. Warman, Sade: From Materialism to Pornography (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2002)

    M.R. Bennett and P.M.S. Hacker, Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience (Oxford, Blackwell, 2003)

    Paul M. Churchland, The Engine of Reason, the Seat of the Soul: A Philosophical Journey into the Brain (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1995)

    Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained (Boston, Little Brown and Co., 1991)

    Jaegwon Kim, Physicalism, Or Something Near Enough (Princeton University Press, 2005)

    N. Murphy and W.S. Brown, Did My Neurons Make Me Do It? (Oxford University Press, 2007)

    Anthony O’Hear, Philosophy in the New Century (London, Continuum, 2001, especially Chapter 6)


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