In Defense of Materialism: Philosophy of Language and Employing Material Things as Symbols

Materialism has been criticized on many grounds that I will not cover here. In fact, I have, in various ways, been strongly opposed to materialism. (Read my essay Materialism; Or, The Human in Decay as a case in point.) That is, until now. In this paper, I will attempt to articulate a sympathetic approach towards materialism. More specifically, I will argue that materialism, when seen through the perspective of the philosophy of language, is actually a type of “language” used to communicate certain things (like wealth, power, prestige, responsibility, success, etc.). In fact, “the pursuit and possession of grand material objects” (my modest, working definition of “materialism” in this paper) is beneficial to a human being attempting to communicate and convey certain values and/or facts. First, I will argue that the philosophy of language sheds light on how we humans employ “communication” (and it is not simply reduced to “language” and “writing”). Second, I will argue that materialism allows humans to communicate certain messages rapidly/promptly (without resorting to “proving yourself”). Third, I will argue that this is actually a good thing, that materialism, as I see it, is beneficial to finite human beings.

Paul Ricoeur, a phenomenologist interested in language, once said, “The word is my work; the word is my kingdom.”[1] That is, within our words, within our language, that is where all life and communicating occurs—it is our “kingdom.” Ricoeur defined language as using “symbols,” symbols that functioned as pointers to objective things in reality, myth, etc. Such symbols had multiple meanings, and, hence, could confuse interpreters. Ultimately, all acts in which the reading and understanding of texts—which used symbols—occurred were inevitably going to end up being interpretations. However, it should be noted that symbols in and of themselves need not be inherently reduced to language/writing. A symbol could be a national flag or, as in my case, a luxury vehicle. All such “symbols” communicate and stand-in-for something else. (A luxury vehicle, for example, may communicate to those around you that you are a successful individual who is responsible, who will provide for a future family, etc., etc.) The point here is the following: as we try to communicate things to those around us, we use symbols all the time. In most cases, symbols are words or phrases. I say, “I love you” and that means that I will take you on dates, buy you dinner, send you flowers on Thursdays, be concerned about your wellbeing, etc., etc. The phrase, “I love you,” is a stand-in-for something else. In and of itself it means…nothing. (Of course, this, too, could be debated.) I employ the phrase in such a way that it points to something outside it; it points to actions I will take on behalf of my beloved. The phrase, in this case, is a “symbol.”

Ricoeur writes: “I define symbol as: any structure of signification in which a direct, primary, literal meaning designates, in addition, another meaning which is indirect, secondary, and figurative and which can be apprehended only through the first.” Moreover, he goes on to define the process of “interpretation.” “Interpretation, we will say, is the work of thought which consists in deciphering the hidden meaning in the apparent meaning, in unfolding the levels of meaning implied in the literal meaning.”[2] Ultimately, he writes, “[T]here is interpretation wherever there is multiple meaning…”[3] Since symbols are almost always open to being interpreted in a plurality of ways—and, thus, of being found guilty of “double meaning”—it is the task of the interpreter to discover what the meaning is.

Going back to our luxury vehicle example, the “symbol” (i.e., the vehicle) may also be interpreted to mean, “I am a thorough-going materialist only interested in material things. I care not for relationships and people. Give me a dollar, and I’ll sell you my soul.” Of course, this is one way of reading materialism. It is one way of interpreting the symbol.

But notice what I am saying here, even as I speak the critique: it is merely one way of interpretation. (“One” way implies there are more ways.) It is possible to behold a symbol (i.e., a luxury vehicle) and to interpret it in a different way, another way. It is possible to see its owner as a good person. It is possible to see its owner as being a thoughtful person who goes to work on time, is punctual, cares about his family and tries to provide for them. Notice, then, that there is nothing in this interpretation of the symbol that is utterly negative and/or derogatory. In fact, I would like to be such a person. And maybe you’d like to meet such a person.

The next point I want to make has to do with prompt communication. If I am attempting to—let us theorize here—meet a girl, in what ways should I go about doing it? First, I am a finite human being, bound to space-time. I cannot be everywhere at once, meeting millions of girls in the span of one minute. Being thus bound, I have to make the most of my time. Second, and by implication, if I want to make the most of my time, I have to communicate things clearly and promptly. I could, in theory, be an “anti-materialist,” and resort to explaining to each and every girl I meet that I am successful, that I will take care of her, that I am a responsible human being, etc., etc. That’s one way of doing. It’s a very time-consuming way, but it is certainly an option. (If you have the time for it, go ahead and do it, I say!) In this case, you would essentially have to “prove” to every girl you meet all of the above. Or, you could do things differently.

It is possible to use symbols that communicate more rather than less. A picture says a thousand words. Driving up on a luxury vehicle conveys more than several hours of conversation over coffee. (And what makes you think she’ll believe you when all you’re doing is feeding her “words”?) That is, the symbol (i.e., the vehicle) conveys more than a million words spoken in defense of your alleged success.

Finally, as I’ve already hinted, materialism—as I have defined it here—seems to be something that is possibly beneficial to human beings. It allows us to communicate things to those around us. It allows us to do more with less. It also allows us to spend our coffee dates talking about things like love and romance, loves and hates, rather than trying to prove to the Other that we are responsible, successful, wealthy, etc., etc. In other words, I stand by my word: buy yourself that Lamborghini and enjoy your finite life!

 

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

 

Dedicated to: Petr Bulkhak—for being a good conversationalist regarding this particular subject.

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Paul Ricoeur, “La Parole est mon royaume,” Espirit, XXIII (February, 1995), p. 192.

[2] Paul Ricoeur, “Existence and Hermeneutics,” in The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: An Anthology of His Work, eds. Charles E. Reagan and David Stewart (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978), 98. Italics original for both citations.

[3] Ibid.

6 thoughts on “In Defense of Materialism: Philosophy of Language and Employing Material Things as Symbols

  1. A young woman who would instinctively prefer, as a potential life partner, a guy who drives up in an expensive car to pick her up on a first date, would be the last young woman I would want to so partner with. I speak retrospectively as one happily married, for close to 40 years, to a woman who becomes more beautiful with each aging day, in large part because she values material things only to the extent necessary to provide a moderate degree of security, stability, and comfort to a couple and the children they may bring into the world.

    As a result of the recent painful experience you’ve had the courage to share with your readers, Moses, are you now overthinking this romantic relationship issue, which you have probed and pondered so effectively in your poetry? Or am I missing something in sensing the out-of-sync nature of this post with the deeper stream of existential consciousness I am accustomed to encountering in your stimulating and substantive blog?

  2. I was hoping someone would call me out on my bullshit! But, to be perfectly honest, this piece was mostly a thought-experiment; I wasn’t writing out of any sort of existential angst. A friend and I were merely attempting to defend materialism recently, and this was the result of our conversation. As you know, I’m interested in entertaining different (often times “contradictory”) positions. But on a serious note, I think a mild form of materialism is okay (as you’ve mentioned). Also, I do think that material things can (and are) used as pointers to other things (like responsibility, wealth, etc.). So the entire project in this blog post wasn’t an entire waste of time, in my opinion!

    And, no, I won’t be a boring materialist at the end of the day.

    As for women: I am happy to hear that you have been happily married for 40 years. Any recommendations for us young men?
    Take your time to articulate a thoughtful response. I’d appreciate it!

  3. I’m not much of an advice giver. But before I met my wife, I had a deep college romance that survived into my second year of seminary. The poem I wrote, as a young man, about the rupture of that relationship still contains all the wisdom I have about the nature of a happy marriage. I’m not sure about how the formatting will come out, but here goes:

    To Ellen

    You always wanted a poem, I know.
    But comfort and security,
    And the edginess of poetry
    Just didn’t fit, like you and me.
    And so, now that you’re free,
    I leave you this small verse–
    A hope that five long years of loving me
    Have left you none the worse.
    And that, forgiving and forgetting,
    You can learn to know I loved you
    More than some,
    But less than he who is to come
    And let you, in one motion,
    Love and be.

  4. The key, for me, is in the last line…finding someone with whom loving and being are effortlessly one, in perfect sync, neither partner trying to change the other, or wanting the other or expecting the other to become, in even the smallest way, a different person.

Choose to create a comment on this existential blog...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s