Document Type


Publication Date


Published In



Joseph Needham offered a vision of history that united his understanding of the physical world with his interpretation of social process, in which the material, social, and ideal realms were reciprocally constituted. This essay explores Needham’s ideas about matter and form to show how he developed a systematic theory of materialism in his early writings on science and social change. Shifting the ground of discourse in Needham’s project from “science” to “materialism,” the essay brings him into conversation with new materialists to reflect on the ongoing challenges in theorizing the relationship between social and material phenomena. Calling into question an all-encompassing materiality that sacrifices the role of determinate structures and histories in the production of the world, the essay asks: How can we formulate a framework of material/-ity/-ism that does not dispense with or occlude the already embedded politics of culture, social relations of production, and historical contingency?


This work is freely available courtesy of the University of Chicago Press.

Included in

History Commons