From the very ancient times philosophy is divided into two main branches- idealism and materialism. The basic question, especially of modern philosophy, is which is primary thinking or being; spirit or nature. Those who assert the primacy of spirit to nature and, therefore, in the last instance, assume world creation in some form or other, comprise the camp of idealism. The others, who regard nature as primary, belong to the various schools of materialism.
Hegel was the most famous philosopher of idealism who developed it to its summit. But with it, he developed the dialectical approach, which was later combined with scientific materialism by Marx and Engels to establish the basic foundations of dialectical materialism.
In true sense, materialism emerged as an irresistible force before idealism only from the 16th century. Early materialism developed in two different streams. One was the rationalist school of continental Europe. Descartes and later Spinoza were the main ideologues of this stream. The other school was that of empiricists of Britain. Bacon, Hobbes and Locke were the main figures of this stream. Both the schools accepted that there is no doubt in the existence of real material world. Rationalists argued that our knowledge of material world is mainly based on our perceptions and the only way of knowing the world beyond the range of this perceptual knowledge is logical reasoning. But according to empiricists logical analysis and simulation by human mind is unnecessary and they claimed that the source of our whole knowledge is only experience. Whatever is known by experience, only that makes the material world. There were also differences between the thoughts of Descartes and Spinoza as the former believed in the duality of spirit and nature, while the latter, in the unity of nature and material world with the God. According to Descartes, relation between spirit and matter exists only externally but in Spinoza's views matter and spirit are only the two aspects of the same object. Thus, the analytical activities of human mind are nothing but the act of logically understanding of nature or God. This argument would be considerable if it was raised from an atheistic viewpoint, but Spinoza gave the agency of ending dualism to God. Yet, at that time it was a great contribution. On the other hand, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke advanced the empirical materialism of Francis Bacon.
In 17th century, Berkely, a Christian Bishop and staunch enemy of materialism, dealt the fatal-blow to empiricism by putting the following question before it—He asked if the source of our whole knowledge is experience, and the source of experience is itself the perceptions reflected in our mind, what do we know except mind? Whatever we know is just because we have consciousness. Where perceptions will reside in the absence of consciousness? Thus, if our whole knowledge is only based on experience, it will be self-destructive for materialism! And from this loophole in empiricism Berkely again showed path to God. And, in fact, if we take the empiricism to its logical destination, matter itself becomes an "abstract idea" as empiricism can produce no evidence for the fact that matter is something more than mere perceived images in mind.
Here the contribution of Isaac Newton arrives on picture. Newton gave a reasonable explanation of nature, but had not refuted the existence of God. Newton represented the whole nature as a system following some fixed laws. In his famous laws of motion, he gave their infallible generalization and also proved them empirically. Nature emerged as a closed system, existing from eternity and will remain forever. Any changes in the system are completely determinable by laws, and these laws are predetermined and immutable in themselves. Newton did not end the reign of God but pushed him out of the boundary of universe. Thus, according to his views, after making the whole world inside the limits of universe, He just pressed the "start button" and the Game is continuing unabated since then! Completely bound by laws!! The system of Newton was so "full proof" that before the discovery of microscopic world no doubts could be raised on its universality. At that time the prevailing common view was that Newton has discovered everything and now the work of Scientists is only to calculate and explain his ideas. But the commencement of Quantum revolution in the early 20th century uncovered a new world where Newtonian laws were not valid and thus, a crisis originated in Newtonian physics.
Newton was a materialist as he believed in the existence of external world, although he was a positivist and objectivist. In his system there was no chance of co-incidence or uncertainty. Everything was determinable. And this is why his materialism was mechanical. The other important weakness of the materialism of this time was that materialists did not raise any serious questions on the existence of God.
The notion of God faced first grave danger by the thoughts of the French materialists of the period of Enlightenment, among whom Denis Diderot was the greatest. Meanwhile, in England, David Hume gave birth to agnostic materialism by adopting a compromising path in the materialism itself. According to his views, a material world does exist outside us, but on the basis of our experiences or reasoning we cannot know exactly how it looks or how will it become? But for Diderot everything was certain. He (Diderot) believed that organic matter originated from inorganic matter; both are part of material world, which exists undoubtedly, and on the basis of experience and reasoning it can be completely ascertained that how does it look or what will happen to it. Everything is determinable. There is nothing beyond this material world. Consciousness originated only in the most developed form of matter. But for Diderot the material world was as immutable as for Newton. Thus, his materialism was uncritical in which no one has the agency or instrument of change. Human agency was not present in it. This was because materialism has not met with dialectics till this time. Yet, Diderot was the greatest among the materialists of his time. He established the primacy and principality of matter beyond questions. In his views, consciousness is the characteristic property of the most advanced form of organic matter and material world existed before the birth of consciousness.
In the further development of materialism, Immunal Kant played a great role. The contribution of Kant was that he not only lessened the mechanicalness of materialism to a considerable extent but also inflicted on determinism. Kant questioned the validity of closed model of universe and proposed a new model that was later proved correct by Laplace. Kant proposed that Nature is not a static and immutable thing but an ever-changing and evolving process. It is a process in which everything constantly changes its form, constantly coming into being and passing away. He also established the power of reasoning and weakened its dogmatic understanding as well. Kant propounded that some pure and basic analytical concepts are the inherent characteristics of human mind. But in the process of attacking determinism Kant went to the other extreme. He claimed that material world exists, but by any sensible or mental process we cannot know exactly – what or how is it? We can only have perceptual knowledge of the physical world. Material world is unknowable. This was the famous agnosticism of Kant. This great puzzle was later solved by dialectical materialism which showed that process of making unknowable known passes through practice. Thus, till science remains confined to the task of only explaining nature, instead of involving in practice by assuming its transforming ability, world will either remain unknowable or the illusory view of knowing everything will originate.
After Kant, comes the very important contribution of Hegel. Although, he was an idealist, the method he developed proved of great significance for the further development of materialism. In his system the whole world, natural, historical, intellectual is for the first time represented as a process, i.e. as in constant motion, change, transformation, development and the attempt was made to show internal connections in this motion or development. In short, he developed the methodology of dialectics. Although, Hegel grasped some individual interconnections correctly and with genius, yet because of his idealist thinking there is much in his analysis that was artificially labored. Thus his whole system suffered from an internal and incurable contradiction.
And this incurable contradiction of Hegelian system gave birth to a school of philosophers who turned back to materialism. Ludwig Feuerbach was the first one who presented a criticized the Hegelian principles of divinity and eternal idea (Demi Urgos) and firmly established the notion of existence and primacy of material world. He mainly targeted the concept of God and in his book Essence of Christianity presented such a great criticism of theism that made it an imperative book for atheists of whole world. But, like previous materialists, his ideas, too, did not provide any agency or power of change to humans. Like other inorganic and organic matter, humans are also just a part of nature and its extension, society. Humans are different from other inorganic and organic matter only in the sense that it can think over physical world. For this reason, Marx classified his materialist views as contemplative materialism, in spite of learning many things from it. Many few people know that Marx said the following words not for an idealist but for him –
"The philosophers have only interpreted the world differently; the point is to change it."
This short line is an eternal criticism of mechanical and contemplative materialism, empiricism and agnosticism.
Right after this comes the period of Marx and Engels. By critically examining the views of the previous philosophers and also taking into account the recent developments in the field of natural science and social sciences, they created the most advanced world view—dialectical materialism and historical materialism. This explains the world around us most accurately. It neither falls into the pit of determinism nor in the well of agnosticism. It gives a dialectical and materialist explanation of world, according to which, material world is primary and principal; this material world is in the state of continuous motion, and because of this our knowledge of the material world too, is always in the process of constantly developing and always remain far from completion. There will always a horizon that has to be achieved, unfolded and understood, in turn, giving birth to another one. The principality of material world doesn't mean that it becomes predetermined and immutable, rather, its structure and appearance can be changed by human agency; this human agency is itself a part of material world; consciousness is also part of material world and not that of spirit or God.