Is everything subject? Is materialism the only possible interpretation?

Is everything subject? Is materialism the only possible interpretation?

Author: Santiago Collado
Published in: F.J. Soler Gil - M. Alfonseca (coords.), "60 questions on science and faith answered by 26 university professors". Madrid: Stella maris, pp. 122-7.
Date of publication: 2014

Which subject are we talking about?

If we are asked to explain what the subject is, we will most probably resort to notions such as atom, electron, proton... Perhaps some of us can even cite the ingredients proposed by the current standard particle model . The picture painted by model is not a simple one, but so far it is the one that has been best tested by experiments. Explaining subject in this way seems to get to the heart of the matter, to what is common to all physical realities, and therefore the best way to say what subject is. We thus consider subject as that which the physical sciences make known to us.

This description of subject is pragmatic and useful: we can work with it without dwelling on other problems that would distract us from the exciting task of knowing how to control it and use it to our advantage. But a characterisation of this subject also incurs a circularity that may leave some dissatisfied. On the one hand, we say that subject is the reality made known to us by the physical sciences. But we are also obliged to affirm that the physical sciences are those that study the phenomena Materials.

For many, the knowledge provided by the sciences about physical reality is sufficient, for some it is the only one. For some, it is the only one. These may not even find the above-mentioned circularity relevant. Moreover, if the only truly existing reality were the one that the physical sciences allow us to know, then the question of whether everything is subject would be answered in the affirmative. In this case it would make no sense to speak properly of materialism, which would then not be an interpretation, but a complete description of reality. The subject would be the only possible answer to the questions about the phenomena we experience, even if our conceptions of it were to be refined over time. The questions of this section would then be solved and we would avoid useless discussions and waste of time.

But for other thinkers this approach is clearly insufficient. The aforementioned circularity is insurmountable and poses no problem when we do science, but it tells us that, although scientific methods allow us to know and say a lot about subject, we are left out precisely the subject itself. The physical sciences do not properly ask what subject is. They only do so insofar as they can work experimentally with it: they quantify, calculate, test hypotheses from different models...

In order to question subject itself, which is what we do when we ask ourselves if everything is subject, it is necessary to broaden the framework from which we think about it. Is it possible to do so? Is it possible to try to understand subject from another approach more global than the scientific one? It seems so. It has been done many times in the history of thought. In fact, the term "subject" was not born in the context of the physical sciences, but comes from the Greek Philosophy .

Duality yes, dualist no

The question that heads this text manifests a tension that runs through the whole history of thought since the beginning of the Western Philosophy . I am referring to the tension between monism and pluralism in the explanation of the movement and foundation of reality. This tension is even more intense when it comes to explaining the peculiar way of being human.

The proposals of Parmenides and Heraclitus, who lived in the 6th century BC, are a clear expression of this difficulty. Parmenidean monism, despite the depth of its proposal, and perhaps because of it, left the Philosophy in a very problematic status . The great challenge for Greek thinkers will be, especially since Parmenides, to give a reason for the plurality of experience without having to leave reality without foundation. The proposed solutions seek to find a way out of the apparently dead end in which the great philosopher of Elea left the Philosophy.

The atomism of Democritus and Leucippus, and the mathematicism that began with Pythagoras and culminated with Plato, are two of the most representative attempts to alleviate this tension. Both lines of thought seek, by different paths, to reduce the plurality of sensible experience to the unity proper to that which is considered the foundation: the unity of the atom or the unity of the idea.

Aristotle, well acquainted with the philosophers who preceded him and endowed with a genius that is difficult to match, developed a proposal with which he sought to maintain the profound intuitions of his predecessors, while avoiding the aporias to which they gave rise. Its core revolves around the explanation of movement and foundation from the conjunction of four causes: material, formal, efficient and final. But for him causes are not things, they are not atoms or ideas, they are principles, physical principles. To detail what this implies, which is not trivial, would require more space than available here. What interests us now is to point out that, for Aristotle, the subject is to be understood primarily as a material cause or subject prima, and that explaining the being of things requires the causal concurrence of the subject with the other causes. Aristotle thus affirms that the subject is as physically real as the atomists with their notion of the atom. Moreover, he succeeds in bringing the Platonic ideas down to the physical world, thus granting them the same subject of reality as the subject. Hylemorphism is thus formulated.

The hylemorphic proposal is dual, but it is not properly dualistic. And if we also consider the efficient and final causes, we have a plural, but not a pluralistic, proposal . Attention to what experience presents to us in a global -philosophical- way, reveals to Aristotle that explaining movement requires the concurrence of those four causes among which there is the subject and the finality. Not a few today consider subject and end as mortal enemies.

In more contemporary terms we could say that the Aristotelian proposal does not suggest an explanation of phenomena following exclusively a bottom-up outline , as in atomism; nor only with a top-down outline , as in the case of platonism. What he achieves is a description of reality in which he harmonises both perspectives. This is perhaps only possible because it succeeds in formulating a plural proposal , as plural is our experience of reality, but it is free of pluralisms and monisms.

Pluralisms, and dualisms in particular, are closer to monism than it might first appear: we observe that there are phenomena that cannot be explained by a single written request, which is usually thought of in a "monistic" way. Then another written request is sought, which is conceived in isolation from the previous one, i.e. "monistically". Finally, in order to explain reality, they are put together a posteriori: they are superimposed in a way in which both are mutually alien, they do not need each other, but we are the ones who need them.

In reality, the monism-dualism tension (pluralism in general) is a consequence of a tension between the uniqueness of our knowledge and the plurality of the physical. The physical also possesses its own unity, but it is not equivalent to the uniqueness of the objects with which we know reality. Thomas Aquinas grasped and expressed this problem when he wrote: "By means of notions considered without subject particular and without movement, we know, in physics, the mobile entities and Materials with existence extra-mental".1. In my opinion, this is the same problem that Professor Arana describes in detail when he speaks of the difficulty of attaining movement from the logic of unity: "Is reason capable of assuming the duality of being-becoming? The answer to this question is categorical: no".2.

The subject of the subject

From the above precisions, we can characterise materialism on two different levels.

  • The former remains within the physical world and is therefore formulated in relation to causal plurality. In this context, materialism would be incurred when the subject imposes itself as the priority or sole causal sense in the explanation of movement. In order to achieve this dominance, the subject has to claim to be the cause of effects that do not correspond to its own character as a principle. This happens, for example, when it is reified and ceases to be understood as a causal principle. In atomism this is precisely what happens: the subject is understood as an atom and, therefore, as a thing. A "thing" that hides other causal senses and offloads all responsibility for movement onto the atom, i.e. onto the subject. The latter then assumes a passive and active role that does not correspond to it. The subject is no longer "only subject" in the Aristotelian sense and, consequently, there is reality which is reduced to subject without being it: materialism.
  • The second characterisation is the one that takes into account the existence of realities other than Materials, i.e. those in which their activity is not entirely subject to the effects of the material cause. They can also be said to be realities that transcend the physical world. This is what is considered to be the case with the human soul, as will be seen in the next question. The intellectual operations exercised by man place him in a peculiar position in relation to all other living beings. The difficulty in understanding the human being is that he possesses a material body, but he also possesses Schools whose operations cannot be explained by physical causes. The origin of this intellectual activity is what we call the spirit. The spirit has a principal (principled) character insofar as it does not proceed, in what is specific to it, from physical principles, but at the same time, in human acts it also concurs with these principles, including the material cause. In this context, materialism would consist in denying the reality of the spirit, affirming that the spiritual Schools do not have an origin different from that of the strictly physical causes, called Materials because they con-cur with the material cause.

At final, materialism de-emphasises the coexistence of the plurality of experience with the uniqueness of our knowledge. This is a false solution in which reason is comfortable: it reduces plurality to uniqueness, embracing a monism in which physical reality is given what belongs exclusively to reason.

Dualism, pluralism in general, also fails to truly make peace between reason and reality: what it does is to multiply the problems. With regard to dualism, for example, one could say that it is nothing more than a duplicated monism. It falsely solves the problem of plurality, because it pluralises it by atomising it. It succeeds in making reason uncomfortable by pretending to make it abandon its uniqueness, although in reality it does not succeed in doing so. It also leaves as an additional problem the task of uniting the fragments into which the unity of reality itself has been broken.

If the subject appropriates what does not belong to it and, not content with being a cause (a co-principle), becomes a "thing", we end up not knowing what the subject is. If it is affirmed that everything is subject, as it has to answer to reason for that of which it is not manager, it becomes one more option among others that, from the confusion of monisms or pluralisms (vitalisms, spiritualisms, etc.), are presented as candidates to explain reality to us. Either everything "emerges" as an epiphenomenon of the subject, or the subject is a phase of the spirit, that is, spirit. These proposals are presented as possible alternative interpretations only when one does not know what subject is. Materialism as an alternative, rather than a possible interpretation, is a poor understanding of reality, especially material reality.


  • Arana, J., subject, Universo, vida, Tecnos, Madrid 2001.
  • Giberson, K., and Artigas, M., Oracles of Science. Científicos famosos contra Dios y la religión, meeting, Madrid 2012.
  • Polo, L. El knowledge del universo físico, Eunsa, Pamplona 2008.
  • Soler, F. J., Materialist Mythology of Science, meeting, Madrid 2013


(1) In Boetium De Trinitate, q. 5, a. 2, co 3.

(2) Arana, J., subject, Universo, vida, Tecnos, Madrid 2001, p. 24.