The Materialist Philosophers (A Review)

Review by Curtis Cole

Terry Eagleton is best known as a literary and cultural critic; his sharp pen and sharper wit combined with his erudite Marxist theory to take the Anglo-British academic world by storm. With dozens of books under his belt, employment at a prestigious university, and decades’ worth of intellectual engagement, Eagleton has, in recent years, expanded his purview outside of literature and into philosophy.

His recent book Materialism is just such an entry. Concerned with several philosophical titans— Nietzsche, Marx, and Wittgenstein. Eagleton tracks each thinker’s relationship to somatic materialism, or what might be better called epistemological materialism. Eagleton, then, is concerned with how the body—human, animal, otherwise—becomes a focal point for the sociopolitical and all that entails (class, conflict, history, etc.). Tracing each philosopher’s body of thought’s conception from its moment of origination to the present day, Eagleton offers a materialist take on the similarities and differences between each thinker as divided up into distinctive chapters (ranging from language and its usage, the body in relation to its usage, philosophy as a materialist practice, etc.). Readers will note Eagleton’s trademarked density and comedic prose, though note how the humorous aspects come in less intense than in previous projects.

As an undertaking, Eagleton’s book comes at a time when academia is in a love affair with the human body. It does not take a genius to note all the focus; from courses about the “meanings of the body”, to books about the “affectional relationship” of the body to the wider world (i.e., “Affect Theory”), there has been a sustained effort on the part of select academics to make the body the domain of a certain kind of inscription, perhaps, even, at the expense of philosophical materialism (re the privileging of the body as materialism—what one Marxist critic called “Matterism”—while ditching Marxist materialism; an appropriation of terminology to sound radical while de-legitimating the original). So Eagleton’s purpose in this book is very clear—defend philosophical materialism and do so by striking right at the heart of this “matterism” by re-interpreting what it has typically seen as the founders of Matterism in a new light; this is the somatic, bodily materialism, but one reinvented within the Marxian philosophical materialism which Eagleton repute presides.

I feel Eagleton accomplishes this task well, though he only touches upon the biggest issues. If there is any problem with the text, then it is probably this: it is short. With the actual argument coming in at just over 150 pages, Eagleton gives himself little time to expand his thesis. This is to say that Eagleton’s thesis, though well-reasoned and touching upon some key issues, lacks the authoritative “oomph” which could have made this text a classic should the argument had been more detailed, in-depth, and simply longer. As it stands, Eagleton presents a solid introduction to what promises to be a compelling theory… for those who will uptake it after himself.

For a philosophical text, this is not an unsurprising move. Philosophers, as Eagleton notes at one point in the book, have this tendency to present ideas but allow those who come after them to turn those ideas into statements. Eagleton’s brevity here, then, could be a meta-commentary, though that may be giving him too much credit (especially after the mildly edgy introduction which makes me think that Eagleton is trying too hard to remain relevant).

Regardless, I found that I enjoyed Materialism all the same. It has its shortcomings and I hardly agreed with everything Eagleton claimed; but, as with Eagleton, for every statement I spurned, I found at least one which pushed my brain to tick and think. In the very least, lovers of philosophy will want to give this text a read when they have a lazy Sunday afternoon.


Terry Eagleton

192 pages. Published by Yale U.P. $20.94 (Hardcover), $11.99 (Kindle)[1]. 2017.

[1] Pages and prices were taken from and were accurate at the time of writing.


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