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Materialism typically contrasts with dualism, phenomenalism, idealism, vitalism and dual-aspect monism. Its materiality can, in some ways, be linked to the concept of determinism. All philosophies are said to fall into one of two primary categories, which are defined in contrast to each other, which are idealism and materialism. New materialism has now become its own specialized subfield of knowledge, and courses are being offered on the topic at major universities. The primary distinction between idealism and materialism is the way they answer two fundamental questions: "what does reality consist of?" and "how does it originate?"

Some of the ancient Hindu traditions like Charvaka have a rich tradition of materialism. Charvaka, also known as Lokāyata, is an ancient school of Indian materialism. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels extended the concept of materialism to elaborate a materialist conception of history centered on the roughly empirical world of human activity, and the institutions created, reproduced or destroyed by that activity. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels also developed dialectical materialism, through taking Hegelian dialectics, stripping them of their idealist aspects and fusing them with materialism.

Materialism developed around 600 BC with the works of Ajita Kesakambali, Payasi, Kanada and the proponents of the Charvaka school of philosophy. The materialistic Cārvāka philosophy appears to have died out some time after 1400; when Madhavacharya compiled Sarva-darśana-samgraha in the 14th century, he had no Charvaka/Lokayata text to quote from or refer to. - History of Indian Materialism, Ramakrishna Bhattacharya.

To the idealists, spirit or mind or the objects of mind are primary, and matter secondary. To the materialists, matter is primary, and mind or spirit or ideas are secondary, matter acting upon matter. - Novack, George (1979), The Origins of Materialism, New York: Pathfinder Press.

In an interview for the magazine California, which is published by the University of California, Berkeley, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen noted: In some ways people had got used to the idea that India was spiritual and religion-oriented. That gave a leg up to the religious interpretation of India, despite the fact that Sanskrit had a larger atheistic literature than exists in any other classical language.

According to philosophical materialism, mind and consciousness are by-products or epiphenomena of material processes, without which they cannot exist. This concept directly contrasts with idealism. Philosophical physicalism has evolved from materialism with the theories of the physical sciences to incorporate more sophisticated notions of physicality than mere ordinary matter. Thus the term physicalism is preferred over materialism by some, while others use the terms as if they were synonymous.

A more naturalist-oriented materialist school of thought that developed in the middle of the 19th century was German materialism, whose members included Ludwig Büchner, Jacob Moleschott and Carl Vogt: "the Continental materialism of Moleschott and Buchner". German atheist anthropologist Ludwig Feuerbach signalled a new turn in materialism through his book The Essence of Christianity (1841), which presented a humanist account of religion as the outward projection of man's inward nature. Feuerbach's anthropological materialism.