Maslow and Materialism

As the third part of an examination of materialism in Western Culture, we move to the realm of psychology. If Marx’s influence is still felt in the world of rhetoric, then we only need to take a look at Abraham Maslow for materialist influence in psychology and on identity. Although a psychologist himself, one of his mentors was the anthropologist Ruth Benedict — famous for her psychological anthropology research as part of the Word War 2 war effort.

Maslow’s Contributions

Abraham Maslow
Abraham Maslow (1908 – 1970)

An American psychologist, Abraham Maslow proposed a now-famous analytical tool that is commonly referred to as “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” (1942, “A Theory of Human Motivation”). That wasn’t his only contribution — he is attached to other common concepts that worked their way into the popular consciousness, such as “self-actualization” (originated by Kurt Goldstein, but developed by Maslow) and “peak experiences.”

Peak experiences are moments when people, as individuals, act harmoniously with both themselves and their environment. Self-actualized people are described as those who have more frequent peak experiences than others.

Maslow’s work is a conscious response to Sigmund Freud and Freudian theory. He felt that Freud looked at the etiology of “sick” people, and so Maslow determined to look at the features of those who are “healthy.”

Another part of Maslow’s approach was that there was a place for spirituality in the healthy person. If that’s the case, then why even look at his work when discussing materialism? Because by bringing spirituality into the mix, Maslow managed to flip the Great Chain of Being on its head!

Mazlow's Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow argues that material factors are a necessary condition for self-development and personal growth.

“Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” as an Explanatory Model

You might be familiar with  Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This model of human needs is culturally bound for sure, but at the same time it can help us make sense of our own lives. The Hierarchy of Needs is a useful tool, especially when it comes to imposing order on the mental landscape.

Maslow might not have offered the “be all and end all” of human understanding, but his approach does offer some helpful insight. One aspect of his hierarchy is that it actually tells us what needs to be accomplished before we move on to the next stage — if we accept his underlying assumptions about the nature of people.

Maslow’s hierarchy says that we must handle physiological concerns before we handle issues of safety, and safety before we handle love and belonging, etc. on up the hierarchy. But system has an underlying materialist assumption to it.

By placing human needs in a hierarchy of discrete categories, the hierarchy avoids the ways that these needs interrelate with one another. It says, “material needs are more important to humans than emotional ones, and emotional needs must be met before one can move on to such aspects as “morality.” It implies that “a hungry person is an immoral one.”


The Hierarchy of Needs, by its very assumptions, says that the material world is more fundamental than the emotional or spiritual. That is arguably the case in some situations, but at the same time, it probably an oversimplification of humans as a whole.

Following on the theme of Does It All Really Come Down to Economics? and Materialism and Science, I think it is worth pointing out that the underlying metaphor of Maslow’s hierarchy is materialist itself. Where it escapes from Marxist materialism is that it actually looks at the development of the self beyond just the material.

The Hierarchy of Needs admits that humans “do not live on bread and water alone.” Despite this admission, the hierarchy posits that such material needs are

  • a) more fundamental to human existence than others, and that they are
  • b) separable from these other needs.

By its very presentation, the Maslow’s hierarchy argues that basic needs are not tied to work, belonging, self-awareness, and awareness of a greater good.

On the one hand, Maslow’s materialism does provide a more comprehensive model of human experience than the Marxist analysis. On the other hand, it uses materialism as an analytical tool to simplify humans.

If I stretch the assumptions of his stages to representative categories of being, his model says that humans are first biological organisms (needing physical sustenance), then animals (with emotional needs), and then social beings who need companionship (like primates), and finally true humans (who try to accomplish great things).

Maslow and the Great Chain of Being

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, in metaphor, turns the assumptions of the Great Chain of Being on end but keeps them all in place. It says that the most fundamental aspects of the person are the biological, and works its way up from there to spirituality at the top. His model does not, however, disrupt the Great Chain otherwise.

Where the original Great Chain of Being (with its Neoplatonist origins) assumed that the spiritual/mental was the most fundamental part of human nature, and that the physical world was the least important, the hierarchy simply changes the assumptions to materialist ones and says that the physical is more fundamental.

If Marxist analysis argued for positivist materialism, then Maslow moved away from that perspective to one where materialism was not the only worldview of worth — just the most important one. Materialist needs (such as food and shelter) are given a position of importance fully in line with a materialist interpretation of Western Culture.


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