Dualism categorizes all things into two orders of reality: the material and the ideal.
The material contains physical nature, our bodies, the social reproduction of our bodies including material production, sex, childcare, housework, and so on. The ideal contains all thoughts, dreams, and other mental phenomena, as well as all symbolic communication such as speech, writing, and the ideas expressed in speech or writing.
Assuming dualism, then, idealism is the view that the ideal determines the material, that the realm of ideas determines what happens in the realm of bodies and physical objects.
And assuming dualism, materialism is the view that the material determines the ideal, that what happens in the realm of bodies and physical objects determines what we think and say and write.
So dualism provides one way of reading Marxian theory and his ‘materialist method of history’ in particular: as the claim that relations of production are the fundamentally determining force in society because it is through relations of production that all forms of human activity gain their material basis.
However, dualism implies that the material and the ideal belong to different types of reality, and therefore that there is, in the end, something distinctly non-material about ideas and, by extension, about texts, discourse, etc. I find this a highly problematic view.
For one thing, it leaves intact the problems of skeptical philosophy which materialists find so exasperating.
Monism, on the other hand, treats all things as belonging to a single type of reality.
Monist idealism asserts that all reality is actually mental, or spiritual, and that what we experience as a material world all around us is actually the projection of some mind or minds, such as the mind of God, or human minds collectively or even individual human minds.
Monist materialism treats all things as material, including mental and symbolic phenomena. Thoughts are physical events happening in the body. Ideas have a physical existence in some medium, as spoken utterance or written inscriptions or data stored in computer memory. The process of a human being encountering a spoken or written idea and converting it into some meaning is the process of a physical body encountering an object and having a physiological reaction to it. The process of interpreting ideas is more complex than, e.g., bumping your knee on a rock and feeling pain, but this complexity does not mean we are dealing with a fundamentally different reality.
In other words, monist materialism treats ideas are as physical things or physical processes.
Once we adopt this attitude, we can perceive immediately how ideas result from human activity, how they are the products of human labour. Words, concepts, associations, images, representations, logical relationships, and so on — all of these things are technological artifacts. They are physical tools, built by human activity, reproduced, transmitted, and put to practical use by human activity.
This view suggests two implications for praxis that I find important:
- It implies that we treat texts, narratives, discourses, and so on as material in exactly the same sense that we consider steam engines or fields of corn as material. We would make practical distinctions among these types of objects, but not ontological distinctions.
- A sub-implication of this is that, as materialists, we can choose to read everything written by post-structuralists, postmodernists, communicative theorists, and other idealists as if all of their claims were claims about the interplay of material forces — even if this reading violates the intentions of the authors in question.
- Cherished philosophical ideas like “reality”, “being”, “truth”, and “reason” are technological products of human labour in exactly the same sense that a hammer is, or the design of a hammer.
Thus, when I write words like “reality” or “ontology”, I understand myself as using tools that have a certain efficacy.
What would happen if we put down these tools and used other tools instead?