The Merits Of Materialism

Julie Beck parses them:

There are two kinds of materialism, according to Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a distinguished professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University. Terminal materialism is the kind typically derided as shallow and empty – wanting things for their own sake, or to impress others. What inspires someone to save something from a burning house is more likely instrumental materialism, when “the object is simply a bridge to another person or to another feeling,” Csikszentmihalyi says.

While things are, on the one hand, just things, they are also repositories for the meaning people project on them. Religious objects are obvious examples of things that transcend their thing-ness: A cross is just two pieces of wood but for what it represents to Christians; a menorah is just a candelabra, except that it’s not. Similarly do people build meaning around their possessions – a gift from someone’s mother might represent her love; souvenirs could be reminders of places close to heart but far from hand. “Things embody goals, make skills manifest, and shape the identities of their users,” write Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton in their 1981 book The Meaning of Things. “Man is not only homo sapiens … he is also homo faber, the maker and user of objects, his self to a large extent a reflection of things with which he interacts.”