2013-14 | Materialism and New Materialism Across the Disciplines

In recent years, fields as diverse as philosophy, political science, literature, feminist studies, science studies, classical studies, and intellectual history have collectively shown interest in what has been termed a “new materialism.” Defined chiefly in philosophical terms around the primacy of matter and its properties and actions (as opposed to the sense of materialism traditionally identified with Marxist economic determinism), the “new materialism” asks us to rethink certain long-held assumptions about the nature of the stuff of the universe. Across the disciplines within the humanities and beyond the question of materialism reveals an untapped common interest. The 2013-2014 Rice Seminar undertook a year-long inquiry into the “new materialism” in light of the history of science and philosophy. The group considered “new materialism” from the vantage of the longer sweep of discourse about materialism in the Western tradition, examining problems such as: physical mechanism in Descartes and Hobbes; Spinoza’s secular monism; Nietzsche’s naturalism; the physics of motion from classical atomism to quantum mechanics; the concept of self-organization in the biological sciences; feminist notions of embodiment; materialism and the problem of consciousness. 


Rice Faculty Leaders

Sarah Ellenzweig, associate professor of English
Seeing Old Materialism Anew: The Case of Hobbes
Ellenzweig is the author of The Fringes of Belief: English Literature, Ancient Heresy, and the Politics of Freethinking 1660-1760. Her current book project explores the physics and mechanics of motion in the literary culture of the Enlightenment. She has published articles on Restoration libertinism, the varieties of religious freethinking in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and class and sexual difference in Restoration poetry. She teaches courses in the British Enlightenment and Restoration and 18th-century literature and culture.  

Jack Zammito, John Antony Weir Professor of History
Natura Naturans for the 21st Century: Toward a Philosophy of Nature
Zammito's specialization is in European intellectual history of the modern epoch, from the Renaissance to the present, with a special concentration on the era of the Enlightenment. His second research interest is in the history and philosophy of science and the new field of “science studies” and third is a concern with theoretical issues in historical practice, especially in the wake of the postmodern critique of disciplinary history. His current work concerns the “prehistory” of the science of biology in eighteenth-century Germany, bringing together all the scholarly concerns of his career.

Seminar Participants

Keith Ansell-Pearson, professor of philosophy (University of Warwick)
Materialism and Vitalism; Philosophies of Life and Conceptions of Ethics

 Christian J. Emden, professor of German intellectual history and political thought (Rice University)
 Dried Infusoria, Magnified Bacteria and Colorful Brains: Epistemic Images and Philosophical Naturalism

Jess Keiser, visiting assistant professor of English (Baruch College)
Nervous Fictions: Thinking Matter in Literary Form, 1650-1770  

Mark Kulstad, professor of philosophy (Rice University)
Early Modern Views on Matter in Relations to the New Materialism: Descartes, Spinoza, Malebranche and Leibniz

Ian Lowrie, graduate student, department of anthropology
Minds, Machines and Materialism: Artificial Intelligence and its Substrates

 Lenny Moss, associate professor of philosophy (University of Exeter)
 Nature, Normativity and the Metaphysics of Detachment: Groundwork for a New Materialism

 Angie Willey, assistant professor of feminist science studies (University of Massachusetts at Amherst)
 Feminism, Materialism and the Body Which Has Yet to Exist: Critique and Imagination in Studies of Science

 Catherine Wilson, Anniversary Professor of Philosophy (University of York)
 Futility and Transcendence: Kant and the Problem of Materialism in 18th Century Philosophy

Derek Woods, graduate student, department of English
The New Materialist Poetics of Scale