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Materialism (from Latinmateria "substance", etymologically related to mater "mother" or matrix "womb"; see also → matter) is a basic philosophical direction which - in contrast to idealism - assumes that only matter has reality and that thoughts and ideas are manifestations of matter. Materialism is one of the 12 fundamental worldviews Rudolf Steiner spoke of. In the zodiac he assigns the sign Cancer to materialism.

The epistemological-ontological materialism formed the basis of the dialectical materialism founded by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Colloquially, the term materialism is usually used pejoratively for an ethical attitude to life that is oriented solely towards possessions and prosperity within the framework of a purely consumer society.

Fear of consciousness as the driving force of materialism

For the US-American philosopher John Searle, the "fear of consciousness", the fear of falling into subjectivity, is the real driving force of materialism:

„If one wanted to designate the deepest motive of materialism, one could probably say that it is simply a horror conscientiae[1]. But why? Why should materialists fear consciousness? Why do they not accept consciousness as just another material property among many others? Some of them - Armstrong and Dennett, for example - claim they do just that. But they do so by giving a new definition for "consciousness" that denies the central feature of consciousness: its subjective quality. The deepest reason for the fear of consciousness is that consciousness has the inherently fearsome feature of subjectivity. Materialists are reluctant to accept this feature because they believe that the existence of subjective consciousness is incompatible with the world as it is conceived. Many think that in view of the discoveries of natural science, one can only have a conception of reality in which the existence of subjectivity is denied. As in the case of "consciousness", one can again help oneself by redefining "subjectivity" in such a way that this word no longer means subjectivity, but something objective...“ (Lit.: Searle 1993, p. 72f)

Rudolf Steiner on Materialism

Although Rudolf Steiner resolutely opposed the one-sided and exclusive appeal to materialism, which negates everything spiritual and mental, he in no way failed to recognise its partial justification and significance.

„Materialism is the world view that regards man as having emerged from the substances and forces of this Earth. And even if some people emphasise that man does not consist merely of the substances and forces of this Earth, we still have no science that deals with that in man which does not come from the substances and forces of this Earth. For this reason, the assertion of many today, who from their point of view mean well, that somehow the eternal in man can nevertheless be understood, is not an entirely honest one. This materialism is not merely there to be refuted. Today it is already something quite dilettantish to want only to refute materialism. The theoretical views which refer to materialism, which either doubt or completely deny a spiritual world, or at least doubt or deny knowledge of it, these points of view are not what primarily come into consideration. Rather, what comes into consideration in the first place is the tremendously impressive, the significant aspect of materialism. What is the use, after all, if people, out of some state of mind or religious tradition, say that man's thinking, man's feeling, man's willing must be something independent outside the brain, and the science of the present day then comes and carries off - either by one means or another, mostly by doing brain research on pathological conditions - piece by piece from the brain and thus apparently also carries off piece by piece the soul of man? What use is it if we speak of the immortality of the life of the soul out of some state of mind or religious tradition - and if this life of the soul is diseased, for example, we can think of nothing else at all but first of all of healing the brain or the nervous system? But all this has been brought to us by materialism. And many who today want to refute materialism do not really know what they are doing; for they have no idea of the tremendous importance of the detailed knowledge which materialism has brought. And they do not suspect what a consequence for the whole of human knowledge materialism has brought.“ (Lit.:GA 231, p. 58f)

„Today, when one speaks of materialism, one has the opinion that materialism is a false worldview, that it is to be rejected because it is not correct. The matter is not as simple as that. Man is a soul-spiritual being, he is a bodily-physical being. But the bodily-physical is a faithful reflection of the soul-spiritual, inasmuch as we live between birth and death. And when people are so philistine in materialistic thoughts, as they became in the course of the 19th century and into the present, then the bodily-physical becomes more and more an imprint of this soul-spiritual, which itself lives in the materialistic impulses. Then it is not something wrong to say that the brain thinks, then it becomes right. By being stuck in materialism, not only are people produced who think badly of the physical, the soul and the spiritual, but people are produced who think materially and feel materially. That is to say, materialism causes man to become an automatic thinking machine, to become a being who thinks, feels and wills as a physical being. And it is not merely the task of Anthroposophy to replace a false world-view with a correct one - that is a theoretical demand - the essence of Anthroposophy today consists in striving not only for another idea, but for an act: to tear the spiritual-soul out of the physical-physical again, to lift the human being up into the sphere of the spiritual-soul, so that he is not an automatic thinking, feeling and sensing machine. Humanity today is in danger - and some of this will be indicated in tomorrow's lecture - of losing the soul-spiritual. For that which is bodily-physically an imprint of the spiritual-soul stands today, because many people think so, because the spiritual-soul is asleep, in danger of passing over into the Ahrimanic world, and the spiritual-soul will evaporate in the universe. We are living in a time when people face the danger of losing the soul through the materialistic impulse. This is a serious matter. This fact is faced. This fact should actually become the secret today, the secret that is becoming more and more apparent, out of which we want to work fruitfully at all. You see, out of a realisation of this necessity of a turning of humanity towards a spiritual activity - not merely a change of a theory - out of this realisation such things as the didactics and pedagogy of the Waldorf School have arisen. And it is out of such a spirit that work should be done here.“ (Lit.:GA 300a, p. 163f)

The real tragedy of materialism is that it does not recognise the spiritual working in matter.

„It is the tragedy of materialism that it knows nothing of matter as it actually works in the various fields of existence. That is precisely the strange thing, that materialism is so ignorant of matter. It knows nothing at all about the effect of matter, because one only learns something about it when one can envisage the spirituality which is active in matter and which the forces represent.“ (Lit.:GA 234, p. 85)

Church and Materialism

„Yes, gentlemen, all the old people who in ancient human times still had certain dreamlike cognitions which we can no longer have, knew that man is there before he is on Earth. But throughout the Middle Ages it was forbidden by the Church to think of so-called pre-existence, that is, of pre-earthly existence. That was forbidden by the Church. And when today the materialistic agitator stands at the lectern, the lectern is only the continuation of the medieval pulpit, for he speaks only that - even if he no longer speaks in the pulpit-preacher tone, but in the agitator tone - he speaks only that which the medieval pulpit speeches already brought. Materialism has also only adopted the medieval pulpit speeches. And today's materialists, who actually know nothing, but only repeat what was already taught in the Middle Ages through church precepts, are basically not those who build on any science, but who build precisely on what the church teaches. Materialism basically comes from the Church in the Middle Ages. In the Middle Ages, no soul was allowed to exist before its earthly existence, because people wanted to be taught that any god would create the soul when fertilisation occurred. In the meantime, people have had the whim to let a fertilisation occur - we know that in many cases this can be a whim - and the Lord God must quickly go and create a soul for it! - That is already what was basically required, that one believed it to be right.

Yes, gentlemen, it is not a sensible view to make the Lord God merely the servant of man's whim, that he must quickly create a soul when one has had the whim of fertilisation here on earth! When one thinks about things, one finds out what actually lies in the materialistic view, what an undermining of the whole dignity of man. On the other hand, a real, true knowledge of the human being leads us to say: the soul is already there, has always lived, and simply descends to what is offered to it through the human germ and its fertilisation“ (Lit.:GA 348, p. 192f)

Epistemological-ontological materialism

Epistemological materialism explains the world that surrounds us and the processes that take place in it without spiritual or mystical elements that elude reproducible scientific knowledge (for example, a creator God).

„There may be people who are once so predisposed that it is impossible for them to find the way to the spirit. It will be difficult to ever prove the spiritual to such people. They remain with what they know something about, what they are predisposed to know something about. They stop, let us say, at that which makes the grossest impression on them, at the material. Such a person is a materialist, and his world-view is materialism. It is not necessary to think that what the materialists have brought up in defence, in proof of materialism, is always foolish, for a tremendous amount of sagacity has been written in this field. What has been written applies first to the material field of life, applies to the world of the material and its laws.“ (Lit.:GA 151, p. 35)

In the not too distant future, Steiner already thought in his time, one will virtually develop "vaccines against the spirit" which will force a purely materialistic way of thinking on man:

„The time will come, perhaps not so far in the future, ... when people will say: It is already morbid in man if he even thinks of spirit and soul. Only those people are healthy who speak only of the body. - It will be regarded as a symptom of illness if man develops in such a way that he can come to the concept: There is a spirit or a soul. - These will be sick people. And one will find - you can be quite sure of that - the corresponding medicine through which one will work. At that time one abolished the spirit. The soul will be abolished by a medicine. Out of a "healthy view" a vaccine will be found by which the organism will be so worked upon in its earliest possible youth, if possible at birth, that this human body will not come to the thought: there is a soul and a spirit. - This is how sharply the two world-views will confront each other. The one will have to think about how concepts and ideas are to be formed so that they can cope with the real reality, the reality of the spirit and the soul. The other, the successors of today's materialists, will seek the vaccine that will make the body "healthy", that is, make it so that this body, through its constitution, no longer speaks of such silly things as soul and spirit, but speaks "healthy" of the forces that live in machines and chemistry, that constitute planets and suns in the nebula of the world. This will be brought about by physical procedures. The materialistic physicians will be given the task of expelling the souls from humanity.“ (Lit.:GA 177, p. 97f)


References to the work of Rudolf Steiner follow Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works (CW or GA), Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach/Switzerland, unless otherwise stated.
Email: URL:
Index to the Complete Works of Rudolf Steiner - Aelzina Books
A complete list by Volume Number and a full list of known English translations you may also find at Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works
Rudolf Steiner Archive - The largest online collection of Rudolf Steiner's books, lectures and articles in English.
Rudolf Steiner Audio - Recorded and Read by Dale Brunsvold - Anthroposophic Press Inc. (USA)
Rudolf Steiner Handbook - Christian Karl's proven standard work for orientation in Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works for free download as PDF.


  1. Latinhorror conscientiae „Fear of consciousness“