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Chapter 3 Science, Ideology, and Philosophy
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Chapter 3
Science, Ideology, and Philosophy

The concepts put forward by Althusser's "science of social formations" constitute a formidable theoretical system. But is it a scientific one capable of providing empirically verifiable explanations, as Althusser claims, or is it, as many historian critics contend, an idealist "philosophy of history," a metaphysical labyrinth cut off from the material world and incapable of producing objective knowledge of it? From another direction, contemporary philosophy of science, hermeneutics, and postmodernism have produced a battery of arguments denying the possibility of objective knowledge of the world and the possibility of the type of meaningful distinction between scientific discourse and other discursive practices that Althusser wishes to defend. Ironically, Althusser's own claims regarding the conventionalist nature of science and his insistence on the social and historical nature of scientific practice seem to support rather than refute these criticisms of objective knowledge. That I do not believe this is the case is already obvious from my discussion of structural causality, wherein I have defended the view that Althusser's conventionalism is circumscribed by his realism. In the present chapter, I will defend Althusser's position regarding the scientific nature of historical materialism and the possibility of scientific or objective knowledge. To do so, I must clarify the relationship between ontological realism and epistemological relativism in Althusser's thought and the philosophical consequences Althusser has drawn from this relationship. I will thus be taking the side of a very small number of philoso-


phers—Dominique Lecourt and Roy Bhaskar being perhaps the best-known to English readers—who have recognized the impressive "philosophy of science" embodied in Althusser's work.[1]

The present chapter, then, deals with concepts of scientific, philosophical, and ideological practices elaborated by Althusser in essays written between 1960 and 1975 and the philosophical and scientific implications of these concepts as they are developed in For Marx (French edition, 1965, comprising essays originally published between 1960 and 1964; English translation, 1969); Reading Capital (first French edition, 1965; English translation, 1970), Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists (a 1967 lecture series published in book form in 1974; English translation, 1990), Lenin and Philosophy (a collection of essays in English translation [1971], the most relevant for our present purposes being those originally published in 1968 and 1969), and Essays in Self-Criticism (another collection of essays in English translation [1976], published in French between 1973 and 1975). The dating is important because in Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists , Althusser's thinking about the nature of philosophy underwent a dramatic change. From his initial position (in For Marx and Reading Capital ), which defined philosophy as a science of science, that is, as the arbiter of scientific practice, Althusser shifted to a historical framework that defined philosophy in terms of political and ideological struggles over knowledges produced within the sciences themselves. At the same time, Althusser's interest in ideology shifted from an emphasis on its epistemological status in relation to scientific practice toward an investigation of its material status, its functioning as a socially structured symbolic system constituting or "interpellating" human individuals as social subjects and its social basis in specific institutions or "ideological apparatuses."

These developments have occasioned considerable controversy regarding the compatibility of concepts Althusser introduced in different times and for different purposes, the general significance of Althusser's various revisions with respect to a comprehensive interpretation of his work, and finally, the meaning of the often elusive self-criticisms that Althusser himself has since provided. In short, the confusion over the relationship between concepts of ideology, science, and philosophy in Althusser's "early" (before 1967) and "later" (from 1967) works has resulted in what can only be called "the Althusser problem." Neither Althusser, any of his associates, nor any of the numerous commentators on the Structural Marxist school has produced a satisfying account of


the whole of Althusser's work.[2] Given this state of affairs, it is necessary to provide a synopsis of the trajectory of Althusser's thinking before passing on to an assessment of the final product. In the following section, I will argue for the underlying consistency of Althusser's thought, an argument premised on his unchanging realist and materialist concept of scientific practice. Only Althusser's unwavering defense of scientific knowledge as objectively valid yet historically limited and his ongoing attempt to resolve the tensions between these two positions in a materialist fashion can explain both the rationalist tendencies found in For Marx and Reading Capital as well as the abrupt rejection of "theoreticism" in 1967. Once this underlying continuity is recognized, the seemingly incompatible aspects of Althusser's "early" and "later" works become not only comprehensible but also reconcilable.

The "Althusser Problem":
Theoreticism and Its Consequences

For Althusser, historical materialism is a scientific discourse, and the concepts introduced by Marx must be seen as inaugurating a decisive break with respect to earlier views of human societies. Althusser has never wavered from this position, which he introduced in For Marx and reaffirms in Essays in Self-Criticism : "If I were asked in a few words the essential thesis which I wanted to defend in my philosophical essays, I would say that Marx founded a new science, the science of history. I would add: this scientific discovery is a theoretical and political event unprecedented in human history. And I would specify: the event is irreversible" (Althusser 1976, 151). Nor has Althusser substantially altered his view of what scientific discourse is. The distinctive characteristic of scientific practice is its conceptual nature, Althusser insists in Reading Capital , its capacity to formulate a theoretical object and to provide substantive knowledge of it by means of its own internal criteria: "sciences produce knowledge from their object by constituting it, and they produce knowledges of their object in the specific mode that defines it" (Althusser and Balibar 1971, 46). In Essays in Self-Criticism , Althusser reaffirms the idea that the ??roduction of knowledge takes place in abstraction: "if the process of knowledge does not transform the real object, but only transforms its perception into concepts and then into a thought-concrete . . . this means that, with regard to the real object, in order to know it, 'thought' operates on the transitional forms


which designate the real object in the process of transformation in order finally to produce a concept of it" (Althusser 1976, 192).

At the same time, Althusser has consistently located his conventionalist view of science within a realist and materialist ontology: "The principle of all existence is materiality, and all existence is objective, that is 'prior' to the 'subjectivity' which knows it and independent of that subjectivity" (Althusser 1976, 54). In Reading Capital , Althusser asserts both the distinction between concepts of things and things themselves as well as the logical priority of the latter over the former: "The real is one thing. . . . Thought about the real is another. . . . This principle of distinction implies two essential theses: (1) the materialist thesis of the primacy of the real over thought about the real, since thought about the real presupposes the existence of the real independent of that thought . . . (2) the materialist thesis of the specificity of thought, and of the thought process, with respect to the real and the real process" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 87). In Essays in Self-Criticism , he explicitly reaffirms both "the thesis of the primacy of the real object over the object of knowledge, and . . . the primacy of this first thesis over the second: the distinction between the real object and the object of knowledge" (Althusser 1976, 193). These materialist theses, Althusser goes on to say, "function" as the "minimum generality" required to define science in a manner "precise enough not to fall into idealism" and yet sufficiently "indefinite" to avoid reducing scientific practice to a crude reflectionism, "a dogma in bad sense of the term" (Althusser 1976, 193).

However, there is no point in denying a persistent tension between conventionalist and realist tendencies in Althusser's thought, a tension only summarily resolved by declaring the primacy of the latter over the former. In his early works, Althusser attempted to resolve the tension in a rationalist manner by establishing Marxist philosophy (dialectical materialism) as an independent arbiter of "scientificity" (independent, that is, of the science of history, historical materialism), a "Theory of theory" whose epistemological pronouncements would themselves have the authority of science. "I shall call Theory (with a capital T) general theory, that is the Theory of practice in general, itself elaborated on the basis of the Theory of existing theoretical practices (of the sciences), which transforms into 'knowledges' (scientific truths) the ideological product of existing 'empirical' practices (the concrete activity of men). This Theory is the materialist dialectic which is none other than dialectical materialism" (Althusser 1969, 168). Such a rationalist view of phi-


losophy obviously conflicted with Althusser's conventionalist position that each historically constituted science possesses its own specific and individual criteria of scientific validity. Furthermore, the thinly veiled Spinozist implication that epistemological certainty and complete knowledge are available to dialectical materialism was difficult to reconcile with Althusser's insistence on the partial and differential nature of the discourse of historical materialism itself.

To eliminate the tension between conventionalism and realism, without recourse to the epistemological absolutism of rationalist philosophy, it was necessary for Althusser to act on the primacy of realism over conventionalism and relocate the concepts of science and philosophy within historical materialism rather than outside it, to define science and philosophy "not simply from the standpoint of the existence of Marxist science as science, but from the standpoint of Marxist science as the science of History" (Althusser 1976, 155). For historical materialism, scientific practice is a legitimate object of knowledge, but only insofar as science is a social practice. The science of history circumscribes the history of science , but only because the latter is a science of social phenomena having the form and function of a historical practice. Neither scientific practice nor the history of science, Althusser insists, may be defined by philosophical categories of truth or falsity.[3] While the science of history may speak of any historically known science as (1) containing its own internal criteria of truth and error and (2) possessing the capacity to produce a certain effect (knowledge) by means of these criteria, there can be no question of an epistemological guarantee for scientific knowledge, no independent philosophical certitude of the type implied by a "Theory of theoretical practice." What Marxism has is not an epistemology of historically real sciences but a science of historically real epistemologies—a theory of the materiality of the production of science, not the scientific production of a theory about materiality. Under such conditions the realist claim regarding the validity of knowledge effects cannot be proven (or disproven) apodictically by either philosophy or science. But the claim itself is not abandoned by Althusser; rather, its status is transformed from that of a scientific question (to be decided finally by the queen of the sciences, rationalist philosophy) to a philosophical position (to be defended as a "stake" in a never-ending theoretical-ideological struggle between materialist and idealist principles that constitutes the "history" of philosophy).

In Essays in Self-Criticism , Althusser acknowledges the incompatibility, in his early works, between the epistemological materialism of a


realist history of science and the epistemological absolutism of a rationalist philosophy of science (a "Theory of theoretical practice"):

What did we understand [in For Marx ] by epistemology? Literally the theory of the conditions and forms of scientific practice and of its history in the concrete sciences. But this definition could be understood in two ways. In a materialist way, which could lead us to study the material conditions of the theoretical "modes of production" and the "production processes" of already existing knowledge: but this would properly fall within the domain of historical materialism. Or in a speculative way, according to which epistemology could lead us to form and develop the theory of scientific practice (in the singular) in distinction to other practices: but how did it now differ from philosophy, also defined as the "Theory of theoretical practices"? We were now within the domain of "Dialectical Materialism," since philosophy was and is nothing but epistemology. This was the crossroads. (Althusser 1976, 124 n. 19)

Althusser goes on to criticize what he calls the "theoreticist tendency" of his early works: "the early works gave a rationalist explanation of 'the break' of Marx. Contrasting truth and error in the form of a speculative distinction between science and ideology in the singular and in general . . . from this rationalist-speculative drama the class struggle was practically absent" (Althusser 1976, 106). This explanation is not so much wrong—the rejection of philosophical rationalism does, after all, restore the historical contingency and social determination of philosophical practice—as it is woefully inadequate. Althusser's denunciation of "rationalist/speculative tendencies" begs the crucial philosophical question of a non-rationalist, non-speculative defense of the distinction between science and ideology; it also begs the scientific questions first of non-rationalist, non-speculative concepts of ideology, science, and philosophy and second of the historical relationships of determination that obtain between the production of knowledge and "the class struggle." What is missing from Althusser's elliptic self-criticism, then, is a re-evaluation of his philosophical defense of scientific realism in light of his rejection of theoreticism and, even more important, an elaboration of scientific concepts of ideological, scientific, and philosophical practices as historical-social activities divested of philosophical connotations of truth and adequacy. Without a discussion of these matters, Althusser's contrast between theoreticism and class struggle opens the way for an interpretation of his early and later works in terms of a facile opposition between theory and practice.

Althusser has, in fact, never responded directly to these issues despite the frequency with which they have been raised by critics and the polit-


ical conclusions that have been drawn from his silence.[4] Some commentators have used the ambiguity of Althusser's self-admitted "theoreticism" to argue that the science/ideology distinction is inherently epistemological and must be discarded as incompatible with the concept of values and beliefs as historical productions institutionalized in social apparatuses employed by Althusser after 1967.[5] Others, agreeing that the science/ideology distinction cannot be upheld but arguing that it continues to be essential even in Althusser's later work, contend that the entire Structural Marxist enterprise has self-destructed.[6] Both these lines of criticism have been used to justify voluntarist political positions that served as theoretical bridges from Marxism to neo-liberalism or postmodernism for many French and British intellectuals. Such interpretations are, it seems to me, at the very least badly posed and even less satisfying than Althusser's own explanation. Indeed, there is justification for claiming that problems of inconsistency within Althusser's work have been created as much by incompetent or self-serving critics as by Althusser himself. Althusser's essays in self-criticism, if they lack the degree of clarity and comprehensiveness one might desire, have at least the merit of providing the components from which a consistent general interpretation of his development might be fashioned.

Althusser: The Concept of Ideology and the Ideology of Concepts

The key to such a general interpretation of Althusser's development turns on the realization that, once purged of its theoreticist elements, there is no theoretical incompatibility between his initial distinction between scientific and ideological discourses (a distinction based primarily on their functional characteristics as social practices and only secondarily and indirectly on the philosophical categories of their truth and adequacy) and his later insistence on the historical specificity and social character of scientific and ideological practices (which is no more than his original position divested of its rationalist attempt to invest the terms with epistemological certainty). In his early works, as Althusser himself points out, ideology "plays two different roles, designating, on the one hand, a philosophical category (illusion, error), and a scientific concept (a social instance) on the other" (Althusser 1976, 119). In Essays in Self-Criticism , Althusser rejects not the science/ideology distinction but rather the rationalist interpretation and defense of that distinction: "The science/ideology distinction must be rejected in its general


rationalist perspective. It must be reworked from another point of view, which must split it up into the elements of the complex process of the production of knowledge" (Althusser 1976, 148). Such a "reworking" must begin with functional concepts of science and ideology and attempt to establish their place in the history, not the philosophy, of science.

The scientific concept of ideology, ideology as a social instance, refers to the Lebenswelt of social subjects, their consciousness or "lived experience" of their relationship to the world, and the material institutions and mental structures that constitute individuals as social subjects. This concept of ideology—defined in For Marx and Reading Capital in terms of its subject-centered nature, the fact that ideology is "governed by interests beyond the necessity of knowledge alone, or, to put the same thing slightly differently, because it reflects many interests other than those of reason" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 141)—is maintained consistently throughout the entire course of Althusser's works. Notice, however, that this concept of ideology is functional, not epistemological; it has no necessary connotation of truth or adequacy but merely defines a symbolic system, a social practice and its effects. It is this historical concept that must be the basis of any scientific reference to ideology, including references to ideology from within the history of science as advocated by Althusser in Essays in Self-Criticism .

Scientific practice is defined in Althusser's early works in terms of the primacy of concept-centered or theoretical interests over subject-centered or practical interests. Theoretical practice is "distinguished from non-theoretical processes by the type of object which it transforms, by the type of means of production it sets to work, and by the type of object it produces (knowledges)" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 59). This concept of scientific practice no more depends on categories of truth or adequacy than does the concept of ideology; in the absence of any explicit rejection of this concept in his later works, I believe it is safe to assume that Althusser means to retain it as well. However, it is nevertheless the case that every science historically constitutes itself by "breaking" with the ideological representations which are both conditions of its existence as well as a system of concepts and beliefs which it rejects, retrospectively, as "erroneous." (Althusser refers to "theoretical" as opposed to "practical" ideologies, but his use of the term theoretical ideology is inappropriate here. As we shall see below, Althusser's term seeks to link theoretical positions, ultimately, to the field of practical ideologies. While this is a legitimate and productive move from the


perspective of Althusser's concept of philosophy and the philosophical category of "the scientific," it is not the same phenomenon which I refer to as ideology/error . Although it is clumsy, I shall use the term ideology/error in order to make it clear, as Althusser unfortunately does not, when I am referring to a judgment of "error" pronounced from within a science on explanations and explanatory principles that have been rejected or superseded.)

When ideology/error exists as the "other" of a science, axiological distinctions (of "true-false" or "adequate-inadequate") are introduced into the history of science. In For Marx and Reading Capital , of course, Althusser attempted to guarantee philosophically the axiological claims of science by transforming the scientific-substantive concepts of science and ideology/error into philosophical-epistemological categories of truth and falsity—which he then proceeded to defend as scientific propositions within a rationalist "science of science," the Theory of theoretical practice. By this unfortunate move Althusser not only confused the concepts of ideology and ideology/error but also subordinated both the historical development of science (science and ideology/error) and the historical struggle between science (knowledge) and ideology (interests) to the ahistorical Neverland of philosophy, pure reason, and epistemological absolutism.

However, by abandoning his initial rationalist or theoreticist interpretation of the distinction between science and ideology/error, Althusser has clearly reasserted the primacy of science over philosophy , historical materialism over dialectical materialism, and by virtue of these moves has redefined philosophy as a Kampfplatz between science and ideology. Divested of its theoreticist connotations, the concept of ideology/error as the "other of science" is a concept essential for any knowledge of the development of science, and in this sense the science/ideology distinction must be retained within the problematic of the history of science. However, from a historical-scientific perspective, the distinction between science and ideology/error can have no recourse to epistemological absolutism and therefore no reference to philosophical categories of truth or adequacy. The distinction, in short, exists as a concept only as a means of constituting a specific theoretical object, scientific practice, and providing historical knowledge of its development. From within the problematic of the history of science, a given science and its ideology/error are both comprehended as theoretical modes of production whose "knowledge effects" purport to explain something about the world. The only difference between them, from


the point of view of the history of science, is that ideology/error exists (and only exists) in a historically specific relation to a science, a relationship that is always that of loser to winner. While the history of science can comprehend both the debate and the outcome in theoretical and historical terms, it cannot sit in judgment regarding the truth of either position. Of course, the struggle for supremacy between a science and its ideology/error is not always confined to the narrow domain of science; often it is or becomes a broader struggle, one that is both theoretical (conducted in terms of existing standards of reason and knowledge) and ideological (conducted in terms of existing social values and interests). This broader struggle, Althusser insists, is philosophical, not scientific.

From the standpoint of the actual production of knowledge, epistemological debates are largely irrelevant. Sciences rarely, if ever, bother with philosophical debates, tending as they do to take their theoretical object and what Lakatos calls the "hard core" of their problematic as axiomatic. Of course, philosophical debates over science do take place, and these debates are often of great historical significance, involving as they do the assimilation or repression of a particular knowledge effect, a particular theoretical practice, and perhaps even the category of scientific practice itself. Althusser's rejection of theoreticism, the idea that epistemological certainty may be achieved by philosophical means, does not imply a weakening of his philosophical commitment to scientific realism or a rejection of his earlier views regarding the theoretical importance of philosophical practice. If anything, his new conception of philosophy intensifies his support for these positions. "Once we have distinguished between the scientific concept of science and the philosophical category," Althusser contends, "we see that the philosophical category is something to be fought for, it is not a given—and the place that it is fought for is philosophy" (Althusser 1976, 116). According to Althusser, what is at stake is knowledge of the world as interpreted by the criteria of contemporary science, and the philosophical basis of the struggle is the acceptance (or rejection) of precisely this world and precisely these criteria.

By characterizing philosophy as "class struggle in theory" in his later works, Althusser seeks to affirm, not deny, the substantive and objective nature of scientific knowledge and to call attention to the material presence of knowledge effects outside the hermetic realm of theoretical production. Knowledges, he argues, have a disruptive, contradictory, and potentially subversive nature because they come into existence in op-


position to ideological levels of understanding, and by virtue of this opposition they necessarily conflict with the material interests invested in a non-scientific explanation of things. Insofar as society is structured by class struggle, knowledge of "how things really work" always has a "stake" that extends beyond science by way of philosophy into ideology and politics. However, it is important to remember that Althusser is not implying that philosophy is just class struggle any more than it is just theory. If philosophy is distinct from science by virtue of the political and ideological stakes invested in its theoretical activity, it is also distinct from ideology in its rational methodology and its dependence on the substantive results of scientific practice. Although philosophy produces no knowledge, it remains a necessary aspect of the knowledge process. In contrast to scientific concepts , which are substantive and which exist in relation to a theoretical object, philosophical categories are formal and have no theoretical object. However, because philosophical practice is contingent on the prior existence of the very knowledge over which it debates, and because the debates themselves must be rational in form, Althusser maintains that the ideological interests animating the positions taken with respect to knowledge must be articulated in terms that favor the victory of science.

Althusser's concepts of science and ideology as social practices imply a practice of philosophy that might be called "limited rationalism" (which assumes only the formal validity of logic, without which the activity of philosophy is incomprehensible) as opposed to the "grand rationalism" of the "Theory of theoretical practice" (which seeks to establish something about reality from the laws of logic). If philosophy must abandon epistemological absolutism, scientific concepts must be defended in terms of their adequacy rather than their truth. From such a limited rationalist position, the axiological superiority of science over ideology/error remains defensible in terms of Althusser's materialist theses of ontological realism and epistemological relativism (without which the existence and intelligibility of science itself are incomprehensible). The assumption that the world postulated by both ideology and science is really there (that thought about the real logically presupposes the existence of reality independent of thought) justifies the claim that the thresholds of formalization that distinguish science from ideology/error provide not absolute truth (the abolition of the distinction between the real and thought about the real, the outcome of all rationalisms in the grand manner) but relative truth (affirmation of the distinction between the real and thought about the real, but also affirmation


of the intelligibility and relative adequacy of thought—the modest but far from insignificant outcome of limited rationalism). Ontological realism and epistemological relativism cannot be proved by Althusser, of course, any more than they can be refuted by his opponents, but this is precisely the reason that Althusser continues to stress the necessity (and importance) of philosophy even after he abandons the claim that it has anything substantive to say about the production of knowledge.

This overview of Althusser's theoretical development anticipates a more detailed discussion of the issues it has raised. However, it should give the reader sufficient grasp of Althusser's general position to enable him or her to avoid the simplistic errors and misleading interpretations that proliferate in the existing secondary literature (which has largely missed the continuity between Althusser's early and later writings and which has frequently, often willfully, misrepresented Althusser's self-criticisms).[7] Having clarified matters somewhat, I will proceed to Althusser's account of Marx's Capital as the originary moment of the science of history and from there to a renewed investigation of the concepts of science, philosophy, and ideology that I have as yet addressed only summarily.

Marx's "Epistemological Break"

Marx not only founded a new science, Althusser insists, but also opened up a third "continent" of human knowledge as well, an achievement comparable to the creation of mathematics by the Greeks and of physics by Galileo. There is no point in debating such an extravagant claim, yet the metaphor is an interesting one, for it provides a graphic example of the relationship between knowledge and power that Althusser put forward several years before Foucault made the idea popular (by eliminating all Marxist connotations from it). "A continent, in the sense of the metaphor, is never empty: it is always already 'occupied' by many and varied more or less ideological disciplines which do not know that they belong to that 'continent.' . . . Before Marx, the History Continent was occupied by the philosophies of history, by political economy, etc. The opening-up of a continent by a continental science not only disputes the rights and claims of the former occupants, it also completely restructures the old configuration of the 'continent'" (Althusser 1972, 166). In opening this new "continent," Marx did two things which, according to Althusser, have general significance for the historical explanation of the constitution of a science. First, Marx


broke radically with existing philosophies of history—the theoretical humanism of Feuerbach and the essentialist and teleological elements of the Hegelian dialectic. Second, as a result of this previous break Marx was able to engage in a "symptomatic" reading of contemporary political economy that yielded, with the publication of the first volume of Capital , the problematic of a new science of history.[8]

Althusser argues that between the 1844 Manuscripts and Capital there exists a radical break in Marx's thought, a break announced in the "Sixth Thesis on Feuerbach" (1845), which identifies human nature with the ensemble of social relations, thereby rejecting Feuerbach's ahistorical, abstract, and passively contemplative concept of "species being." The break is clearly evident, albeit in a partially negative and sharply polemical form, in the German Ideology (1845-46), in which the term productive forces emerges as a new strategic concept within Marx's thinking. This break was itself brought about by a philosophical shift from the radical-democratic political position that Marx held in the early 1840s to his adoption of a proletarian class position after his move to Paris in October 1843, a move that exposed him for the first time to an authentic popular political movement—the socialist movement of French and German artisans.

According to Althusser, the seeds of discontent with radical democracy are already present in Marx's "Introduction to the Contribution to a Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right," written in 1843. In this work, Marx questions Hegel's inversion of reality and thought, contending that Hegel did not so much overcome the distinction between the world and the Idea as dissolve the empirical into the asserted, but unprovable, Idea as so many contradictory manifestations of the latter's unified essence. Thus for Marx, Hegel's vision of the political state as the mediating, reconciling agency of society and social conflicts is merely another idealist abstraction masking the real contradictions of society—contradictions between the citizen and the common good on the one hand and competitive, bourgeois individualism on the other. Marx's critique of Hegel locates the source of human "alienation" in society, not in consciousness, but it is still far from constituting a break with the Hegelian dialectic or the anthropological humanism of Feuerbach. However, Althusser contends this philosophical shift did bring about a theoretical crisis in the form of a contradiction between Marx's new political position and the humanist-Hegelian theoretical position to which he still adhered. The 1844 Manuscripts are properly understood, in Althusser's view, as an attempt to resolve this problem, an


effort doomed from the start by the contradiction between Marx's desire to provide a materialist explanation of the present condition of the proletariat and the inadequacy of the anthropological and teleological dialectic with which he attempted to elaborate his explanation.

What Marx achieved in the 1844 Manuscripts was not insignificant. Taking over the Feuerbachian notion of "species being," Marx reformulated it in historical and dynamic terms. For Marx, human nature was defined by human activity—the productive power of labor to transform the given world of nature and thereby the world of society. This view of human nature as a historically determined and variable phenomenon creates a tension within Marx's thought between the still metaphysical notion of alienation, the idea that there is some primal lack behind capitalist social relations, and the newly emerging emphasis on the constitutive role of social relations in defining human nature and society. In The German Ideology , Marx and Engels resolve the tension of the 1844 Manuscripts , albeit in a still tentative and embryonic form. In this massive (more than six hundred pages) and sustained indictment of German "Left Hegelianism," the term productive forces emerges as an explanatory principle within a new social theory. Although there remains some confusion between technical and social (class) relations within production, a confusion clarified in The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), the concept of "man" or "alienation" no longer plays any explanatory role in The German Ideology . Where it continues to be used, it functions as a symptom, a characteristic of capitalist relations of production, and not as a causal explanation of historical development.

The period between 1845 and 1857 was, in Althusser's view, a transitional period in Marx's thinking. During these years the philosophical rejection of the humanist problematic, the emerging conceptualization of the forces and relations of production as class relations and the ultimate explanatory principles of historical development, and the concept of history as a process without a subject were applied to a systematic investigation of political economy. By operating within a problematic other than that of bourgeois economics, namely, the still embryonic historical materialism, Althusser contends that Marx was able to focus on questions and pose problems that Smith and Ricardo were driven toward without being able either to recognize or to resolve—for to do so would have put into question the capitalist system which they were attempting to defend as well as explain. By examining capitalist society in terms of existing notions of surplus labor and the labor theory of value and by seeing these as historical-social rather than natural rela-


tionships, Marx was able to formulate the concept of capitalist exploitation in terms of relationships between wages, labor, and capital. From this reformulation followed the concept of the mode of production and with it the structural contradiction between the forces and relations of production, as well as the topographical metaphor of "superstructure," which defines the ways in which men and women become conscious of this contradiction and fight it out—both clearly expressed in the 1859 "Preface to the Critique of Political Economy."

By the publication of the first volume of Capital in 1867, Marx had, in Althusser's opinion, rounded out his new science of history and formulated the basic concepts of historical materialism. Surplus value rigorously specified the logic of capitalist exploitation and the mechanisms of the capitalist mode of production. The concept of surplus value was in turn essential for the development of a general concept of capitalist relations of production since it laid bare the relationships of class power embedded in the social relations of production. This new concept forced Marx to reverse his earlier tendency (in the 1859 "Preface") to privilege the forces of production at the expense of the relations of production and to recognize the latter as an integral aspect of the dynamics of a capitalist mode of production. According to Althusser, not only does Capital contain the basic concepts of historical materialism, but these concepts are either absolutely new—as are mode of production, social formation, surplus value, infrastructure, and superstructure —or have been given new and different meanings—as have dialectic, class , and class struggle . Significantly, in Capital the concept of "fetishization of commodities," often misrepresented as a survival of the problematic of alienation, is clearly posited by Marx as a product of capitalism and not its source, an unequivocal indication that Marx has rejected the humanist problematic of his early works. Class and class struggle are the new explanatory principles of history, and the struggle revolves around surplus value. While perhaps Hegelian in its mode of presentation, Capital lacks any reconciliation of the contradictions of capitalism, any overarching moral-ethical teleology or imperative.

The concepts of Capital not only have new meanings, but they actually function in a new way, a way that Althusser, looking back on his interpretation of Marx, describes in the following manner:

I showed that in practice Marxist theory functioned quite differently from the old pre-Marxist conceptions. It seemed to me that the system of basic concepts of Marxist theory functioned like the theory of a science: as a basic conceptual apparatus, opened to the infinitude of its object, that is designed


ceaselessly to pose and confront new problems and ceaselessly to produce new pieces of knowledge . . . it functioned as a (provisional) truth, for the (endless) conquest of new knowledge, itself capable (in certain conjunctures) of renewing this first truth. In comparison, it appeared that the basic theory of the old conceptions, far from functioning as a (provisional) truth , for the production of new pieces of knowledge, actually tried in practice to operate as the truth of History, as complete, definitive and absolute knowledge of History. (Althusser 1976, 154)

What Marx accomplished, then, was an "epistemological" break with certain views of history—Feuerbachian humanism, Hegelian dialectics—a break that resulted in a new way of thinking about history. Althusser insists that this new way of thinking is scientific because it provided Marx not only with an alternative explanatory mode or problematic but also with a new and more powerful level of explanation. By means of his epistemological break, Marx created a problematic capable of criticizing bourgeois political economy for its errors, such as its fetishization of the commodity form, but also capable of explaining the fetishization of commodities as a necessary phenomenological form within bourgeois society. Althusser agrees with Marx in labeling these rejected notions ideological, that is, erroneous, but goes on to emphasize a fact whose significance Marx himself seems not to have fully appreciated: such a designation is possible only retrospectively. It is only after the emergence of historical materialism from its ideological environment, that is, only from the point of view of the Marxist problematic, that political economy is erroneous. "Ideology [ideology/error] can only be identified from outside, after the event," Althusser insists, "from the standpoint of a Marxist science of history . . . not simply from the standpoint of the existence of Marxist science as science [a Theory of theoretical practice], but from the standpoint of Marxist science as the science of history " (Althusser 1976, 155).

Despite its significance, both as an example of what Althusser views as a "break" between ideology and science and as a political position within the spirited controversy over Marx's intellectual development, I will not comment further on the debates over Althusser's interpretation of Marx. Suffice it to say that Althusser's views have been defended and developed by certain Marx scholars and bitterly opposed by others. We are already familiar with Althusser's criticisms of humanism, empiricism, historicism, and the Hegelian dialectic; whether or not Marx actually subscribed to them cannot occupy us here, nor is it essential to the present discussion. The basic concepts that Althusser finds in Capi-


tal must ultimately stand or fall independently of their origins. Despite the undeniable political "stakes" in the philosophical debates of "what Marx really meant," here we can do no more than acknowledge the existence of those debates.

Beyond Hermeneutics: A "Symptomatic" Reading of Capital

Of more interest is the peculiar "hermeneutic" method Althusser develops to interrogate Marx's text and the general applicability of this method for the history of symbolic structures and practices. Althusser begins by addressing the question of reading a text. How does one read Marx in order to discover the general structure of the science of history of which Capital is a concrete effect? The question of a "reading" is already a loaded one, of course, because Althusser rejects any theory of reading that requires only a "properly informed gaze" in order to reconcile the intentions of the author, the essence of the text, and the understanding of the reader. In an impeccably Derridean formulation, Althusser refuses a reading that stops at the level of the manifest content of the text, an "idea of reading which makes a written discourse the immediate transparency of the true and the real discourse of a voice" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 16). Althusser's rejection of a manifest reading, however, not only advances beyond theoretical humanism, the subject-subject model of interpretation (communication or empathy) characteristic of hermeneutics, but also expresses Althusser's opposition to the interpretive nihilism characteristic of the bastard children of hermeneutics, poststructuralism and postmodernism. What Althusser proposes is a scientific or "symptomatic" reading of the text, a reading premised first on a dialectic between the problematic whose structural principles govern the reading and the structural principles that constitute the unconscious structure of the text and second on the objective reality of the text as a social-historical production and the objective validity of the problematic for which the text is a theoretical object—conditions that permit Althusser to defend the results of such a reading as something more than an imaginative exercise.

For practitioners of traditional hermeneutic methodology, the social world is not simply produced by social agents but is also explicable only in terms of the meanings attached to their activities by the agents themselves. Accepting essentially the same definition of scientific practice as positivists do, advocates of hermeneutics go on to argue that


given the unique and autonomous nature of human practice, there can be no scientific understanding of society. Because any scientific analysis of social phenomena is itself a social practice, that is, of the same nature as its theoretical object, such analysis can have no objective purchase on social phenomena. Althusser accepts the epistemological relativism implied by the hermeneutic position but rejects the ontological relativism implied by the hermeneutic claim that social reality is nothing more than what agents think it is. Social phenomena, like natural phenomena, are ontologically real for Althusser, and because they are real, they can be the object of scientific knowledge and explanation. Epistemological relativism, in other words, does not imply judgmental relativism, a nihilistic position that Althusser rejects as absurd. For any social practice to occur, there must be reasons by which social agents act (consciously or unconsciously); furthermore, if these reasons (and the structured habitus that produces them) were totally inadequate, totally at variance with objective reality, society could not exist.

For Althusser, there can be no "innocent reading," no reading that does not involve, at least implicitly, a theory that determines the character of the reading, nor can there be a final or definitive reading (corresponding to epistemological absolutism in philosophy). However—and this is what separates Althusser decisively from hermeneutic tradition generally and postmodernism specifically—the range of possible readings is not infinite but is limited by the problematic of the reading (with its relative degree of explanatory power) as well as the structure of the text itself (with its real existence as a product of a specific historical-social conjuncture). As Derrida says, there is no "outside" of the text, because we are always inside a realm of meaning that makes the text accessible to us in some manner or other. However, given Althusser's materialist coupling of epistemological relativism and ontological realism, not all realms of meaning have the same explanatory power. For Althusser, the process of reading necessarily entails a hermeneutic moment, but it is not therefore limited to a hermeneutic level of adequacy. At the most superficial level, we read a text as if it were written by ourselves; at a more sophisticated level, we comprehend it dialogically, learning its language and discovering the indigenous structure of its meanings. This latter reading is no doubt "thicker" than its descriptive predecessor, but, from Althusser's perspective, it is not any "deeper." Reading becomes deeper, what Althusser calls a symptomatic reading, to the extent that it is governed by a problematic grounded not in the experiential world of a subject but in the explana-


tory world of a science. Given the fact that it is a material product of an objectively real historical conjuncture, a text may become the object of a scientific level of understanding that sublates the hermeneutic reading and produces an objective interpretation and a causal explanation of the text. Reading depth is achieved, Althusser insists, only when the text is treated as a product, not a cause.

Of course, the meaning in the text adds its own specific effectivity to the reading of the text. Even a symptomatic reading may be affected, sometimes dramatically, by its hermeneutical moment, particularly when the problematic in the text possesses greater explanatory power (with respect to the same theoretical object) than does the problematic of the reading. The reading of Capital that resulted in For Marx and Reading Capital is of this latter type. It is a reading governed by a theoretical framework that is, Althusser acknowledges, still relatively underdeveloped—theoretically informed by Marxism but also, as we have seen, by the rationalist philosophy of Spinoza and the historical epistemology of Gaston Bachelard and Georges Canguilhem, to which we will return momentarily. While the ideological effects of this theoretical framework are manifested in certain strongly held philosophical positions (the objectivity and intelligibility of scientific knowledge, the scientific nature of Marxism, and so on), the problematic itself lacks a firm structure and internal consistency. As a result, the hermeneutic moment predominates, a moment described in the rationalist terminology of Althusser's early works as "philosophical": "We read Capital as philosophers. . . . We posed it the question of its relation to its object , hence both the question of the specificity of its object , and the question of the specificity of its relation to that object, i.e., the question of the nature of the type of discourse set to work to handle this object, the question of scientific discourse. And since there can never be a definition without a difference, we posed Capital the question of the specific difference both of its object and of its discourse" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 14).

The fact that Althusser's "philosophical" reading is couched in psychoanalytic terminology need not concern us greatly: Althusser seeks to emulate Freud's capacity to explain phenomena and events in terms of the structural mechanisms that generate them, a characteristic of any science and not particular to psychoanalysis. The important point is that the object of reading is knowledge of the structural mechanisms that make the text possible. Althusser's reading is "symptomatic" in the sense that "it divulges the undivulged event in the text it reads, and in the same moment relates it to a different text, present as the necessary


absence in the first" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 28). The identity of the "latent" structure of the text, its problematic, is not constituted by its "manifest" content, the specific propositions that the text asserts, or even by the intentions of its author; it is constituted, Althusser argues, by the principles of meaning that condition the production of text and the problems that it is the function of the text to resolve. What a problematic makes visible, however, it also makes invisible by a system of exclusions perpetuated and sanctioned by the existence and peculiar structure of the latent structure itself. Thus a symptomatic reading reveals the unconscious infrastructure of a text by investigating what it does not, or rather cannot, say as well as what it actually does say. Both presence and absence are interpreted by Althusser as overdetermined and unevenly developed effects of contradictions articulated on each other within the infrastructure of the text.

Although a symptomatic reading is neither innocent nor definitive, Althusser rejects pedestrian forms of deconstruction that find in the nature of writing only the differential, and ultimately equal, nature of all structures of meaning. If no reading is correct in an absolute sense, it does not follow that one reading is as good as another or that any reading will do. The symptomatic reading of British political economy conducted by Marx and the symptomatic reading of Capital conducted by Althusser himself are grounded in a body of concepts that is historical but not arbitrary. Furthermore, this body of concepts emerges with Marx, but often not explicitly and certainly not in any final form. As a result, Althusser's symptomatic reading of Marx is both interpretive and productive, seeking not only to reveal but also to develop the problematic of Marx's text. The open-ended, unfinished character of both Marx's work and Althusser's reading of Marx explains the apparent paradox behind Althusser's insistence "that the precondition of a reading of Marx is a Marxist theory of the differential nature of theoretical formations and their history . . . an indispensable circle in which the application of Marxist theory to Marx himself appears to be the absolute precondition of an understanding of Marx" (Althusser 1969, 38).

The paradox is only apparent because it is never a matter of a single reading of Capital but of successive readings involving considerable theoretical labor and the application of concepts explicitly given by Marx (as well as those that can be disengaged from his works). "This critical reading seems to constitute a circle, since we appear to be expecting to obtain Marxist philosophy from its own application. . . . This apparent circle should not surprise us: all 'production' of knowledge implies it in its process. . . . [W]e expect, from the theoretical work


of these principles applied to Capital , their development and enrichment as well as refinements in their rigor" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 74). However, unlike the hermeneutic circle that it otherwise resembles, the scientific circle described by Althusser is open at any moment to a critical evaluation of its results, an evaluation whose possibility is conditional on the objective existence of the text as a social product and historical materialism as a scientific problematic. Althusser's symptomatic reading is circular but not vicious: "the circle implied by this operation . . . is the dialectical circle of the question asked of an object as to its nature, on the basis of a theoretical problematic which in putting its object to the test puts itself to the test of the object" (Althusser 1969, 38).

The Historical Epistemology of Bachelard and Canguilhem

Althusser's notion of a symptomatic reading, divested of theoreticist implications, initiates a return to the problem of the production of knowledge from a historical perspective pioneered by French philosopher of science Gaston Bachelard and continued by his successor as the head of the Institut d'Histoire des Sciences at the University of Paris, Georges Canguilhem. There is no need to repeat here the excellent introduction to Bachelard and Canguilhem provided by Dominique Lecourt's Marxism and Epistemology (1975), but we might take a moment to summarize those aspects of their work to which Althusser is most indebted and to make clear the limits of that indebtedness as well, limits that are rather more sharply defined than is generally recognized by those unfamiliar with Lecourt's fine study.[9]

In a series of books including Le nouvel esprit scientifique (1934; English translation, 1984) and La philosophie du non (1940; English translation, 1964), Bachelard established himself as the first to recognize the importance of historicity to the philosophy of science. Bachelard recognized the theoretical object of the history and philosophy of sciences as a set of historically determinate relations of production of concepts and took the unusual step, for a philosopher, of respecting the autonomy of scientific practice. Thirty years before Kuhn rediscovered certain of his insights, Bachelard put forward the proposition that every particular science produces its own norms of truth at each moment of its history, thereby dissolving the rationalist chains that bound the philosophy of science to what he called the "philosophy of philosophers."


By invalidating the absolute category of Truth, Bachelard denied philosophy the right to tell the truth of the sciences and proposed instead to tell the truth about the Truth of the philosophers. This smaller truth was the fact that the central determination of all philosophy, insofar as it contains a theory of knowledge, is the specific relation of dependency of philosophy on the actual production of science.

Bachelard insisted on the internal autonomy of scientific discourse, the interdependence of the concepts that make up its theoretical structure or problematic, and also the necessity of a history of science in terms of its own internal structures of theoretical production. Innovations and progress in the sciences are neither the result of linear evolution nor the historical accumulation of factual information. Rather, they are achieved by sweeping transformations of existing conceptual frameworks, revolutionary transformations whereby earlier conceptualizations are rejected, replaced, or reformulated by new theoretical constructs. Bachelard rejected philosophies of knowledge and epistemology in favor of a historical epistemology and the concept of scientific practice as a production. Philosophy of science must be separated from the philosophy of philosophers, he maintained, because the latter constitutes a repository of non-scientific images and notions, ranging from idealism to empiricism, which invade scientific discourse and become "epistemological obstacles" to scientific thinking. The only appropriate philosophy of science, Bachelard concludes, is a philosophy of negation, a rejection of the philosophy of philosophers that attempts to construct absolutes from the historical constructs of science.

As Bachelard's epistemology is historical, so the history of science practiced by Canguilhem is epistemological. In works such as The Normal and the Pathological (1943; English translation, 1978) and La formation du concept de réflexe aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles (1955), Canguilhem grasped the fact that historical epistemology imposes a new unity on the scientific study of historically specific scientific practices. For Canguilhem, epistemology is no longer understood as a philosophical search for formal guarantees of certainty; rather, it consists in disengaging—discovering and analyzing—the problems posed or evaded, resolved or dissolved by the actual practice of scientists. For Canguilhem, the actual practice of scientists, while relatively autonomous, exists in no reified intellectual sphere; instead, it is firmly inscribed within a historically specific "cultural frame." Therefore, while the progress of knowledge is discontinuous, it is never accidental.

Canguilhem's work in the history of the biological sciences is a


succession of unmaskings (of historical "accidents") and revelations (of historical necessity). To accomplish this task, it is necessary to bring out the specificity of the theoretical object of the sciences and to formulate the historical concept of scientific problems. For example, the history of the concept of reflex motion is obtained by asking what a theory of muscular motion and the action of the nerves must contain for a notion such as that of reflex motion to find in it a sense of truth. Posing the question of the concept in this way enables Canguilhem to discount the traditional paternity attributed to the concept, namely, the mechanistic physiology of Descartes, by demonstrating that reflex motion is unthinkable within the structure of a Cartesian problematic (wherein the motion of the "spirits" from the brain toward the muscle is strictly a one-way movement). The concept becomes conceivable, Canguilhem demonstrates, only with the vitalist theory of Thomas Willis, who by thinking the specificity of life in an integral manner and by assimilating life to light made it possible to think the movement of nerve and muscle as the reflection (analogous to optical laws) of an impulse from the periphery toward the center then back toward its starting point. By this example Canguilhem establishes two methodological principles: first, the history of concepts must be examined in terms of historical problematics and the problems posed and resolved by them; second, the theoretical and practical motives informing the way a science has gone about posing and resolving problems must be demonstrated as part of an adequate historical explanation of scientific practice. For Canguilhem, science takes the form of a struggle or a dispute and the function of the historian is to analyze its phases—not simply to draw up a balance sheet measured by the Truth of the present, but to provide a rational account of the sudden changes of terrain, the historical conjunctures that constitute that history.

Even these brief remarks are sufficient to demonstrate what Lecourt calls the "truly inestimable theoretical debt" that Althusser's reading of Capital owes to the historical epistemology of Bachelard and Canguilhem, a debt Althusser himself refers to as "incalculable" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 323). However, Althusser also quietly insists that he has "gone beyond" the work of Bachelard and Canguilhem in "certain ways." Although he does not elaborate, it is clear enough that the "certain ways" to which Althusser refers pertain to the historical materialist framework within which he grounds scientific practice. For Althusser, it is not simply a matter of Marxism returning to epistemology from


the standpoint of the history of science in order to enrich its own self-understanding and rectify certain of its own concepts; it is also, and even more important, a matter of establishing historical epistemology and the history of science as a regional field within the general science of history. Because of his historical materialist problematic, Althusser's debt to Bachelard and Canguilhem is critical in nature, in this respect analogous to Marx's dependence on Smith and Ricardo. As Marx was able to interrogate British political economy as to the questions the latter could not answer or even ask, so Althusser forces French historical epistemology beyond the limits of its own self-understanding. Lacking a science of history, in particular a concept of ideology as a social instance, neither Bachelard nor Canguilhem is able to produce an adequate concept of the social nature of scientific practice.

Bachelard attempts to ground science in psychology, referring to his own philosophical practice as a "psychoanalysis of objective knowledge" and defining the scientific imagination as one of the "natural inclinations" of the human soul—inclinations that also include poetic reverie and the "common sense" of immediate experience. Canguilhem uses his brilliant historical investigations of vitalism as a philosophical position pertinent to the development of biology to ground the history of the life sciences in a "philosophy of life," an essentialist and teleological "unity" of the "concept of life" and "life itself" as manifested in the scientific discovery of DNA. In rejecting such psychological and biological explanations of scientific practice in favor of the determination of social structures, Althusser demonstrates convincingly that his concepts of science and philosophy are not reducible to those of Bachelard or Canguilhem, that they do not refer to precisely the same theoretical objects or function in precisely the same way. Althusser's concept of ideology, as Ben Brewster (1971) quite correctly points out, is as invisible to Bachelard's philosophy of science as the concept of surplus value is to Ricardo's political economy. It is worth noting that shortly after Althusser's reformulation of the concept of philosophy in 1967, Canguilhem himself introduced the concept of ideology into his own lectures (see Canguilhem 1988). Althusser neither rejects Bachelard and Canguilhem as "bourgeois" philosophers nor substitutes their problematic for that of Marx; rather, he reads their works in a realist and a materialist manner, accepting and applying those concepts that increase the amplitude of historical materialism while rejecting and replacing those that do not.


Beyond Historicism: The Relative Autonomy of Scientific Practice

Although Althusser's epistemological relativism insists on the transitive nature of scientific knowledge, it is not a form of historicism. It does not imply the reduction of scientific practice to nothing more than a reflection of its social and economic context, a "superstructure" whose theoretical object is merely a historical illusion and whose knowledges have validity only for the specific historical conjuncture that produced them. One of the dominant themes of For Marx and Reading Capital is the specific effectivity of scientific practice, which gives its effects a certain autonomy relative to the conditions of its existence:

Science can no more be ranged within the category "superstructures" than can language. . . . To make of science a superstructure is to think of it as one of those "organic" ideologies which form such a close "bloc" with the structure that they have the same "history" as it does! . . . As for science, it may well arise from an ideology, detach itself from its field in order to constitute itself as a science, but precisely this detachment, this "break," inaugurates a new form of historical existence and temporality which together save science (at least in certain historical conditions that insure the real continuity of its own history—conditions that have not always existed) from the common fate of a single history: that of the "historical bloc" unifying structure and superstructure. (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 133)

The problem in these early works, of course, is Althusser's failure to recognize consistently the irreducible gap that separates the philosophical defense of the category of science from the concept of science as a social practice, a failure that results in the rationalist notion of a "Theory of theoretical practice" and the ghost of epistemological absolutism that haunts the pages of For Marx and Reading Capital . However, as I have already indicated, the most striking thing about rereading Althusser's early works in light of his rejection of theoreticism is how much of his original position remains intact. Although defined historically rather than philosophically, scientific practice remains a legitimate theoretical object for history, that is, "a minimum of generality necessary to be able to grasp a concrete object" (Althusser 1976, 112). Althusser's proposition that science is constituted by the transformation of ideology into knowledge by means of theory holds up even after the difference between science and ideology is reformulated in functional rather than rationalist terms. Ideology remains, as Althusser initially introduced it in For Marx , a matter of the "lived" relation between individuals and their world (or rather a reflected form of this uncon-


scious relation) even after it is made clear that this relation functions as a habitus, not as a science. Ideology is both a specific form of consciousness and a consciousness of a specific form: "This relation appears as 'conscious ' on the condition that it is unconscious . . . a relation between relations, a second-degree relation. In ideology people do indeed express, not the relation between them and their conditions of existence, but the way they live the relation between them and their conditions of existence" (Althusser 1969, 233).

The concept of ideology "presupposes both a real relation and an 'imaginary,' 'lived' relation ," according to Althusser, "the expression of the relation between social subjects and their 'world,' that is, the (overdetermined) unity of the real relation and the imaginary relation between them and their real conditions of existence" (Althusser 1969, 233-34). Science distinguishes itself from its ideological origins by crossing certain thresholds of formalization that distance scientific discourse from subject-centered experience and interests. For Althusser, the essential difference between ideological practice and scientific practice is that the latter is accomplished under the control of explicit rules or rules capable of being made explicit and therefore susceptible to revision. Once it is made clear that these propositions pertain to social facts and assert nothing with respect to the absolute truth value of a particular science, there is no reason to reject the following claim, made by Althusser in Reading Capital , regarding the mode of production of scientific concepts and its relative autonomy:

[Scientific practice] is its own criterion and contains in itself definite protocols with which to validate the quality of its product, i.e., the criteria of the scientificity of the products of scientific practice. This is exactly what happens in the real practice of the sciences: once they are truly constituted and developed they have no need for verification from external practices to declare the knowledges they produce to be "true," i.e., to be knowledges. At least for the knowledges they have sufficiently mastered, they themselves provide the criterion of validity of their knowledges—this criterion coinciding perfectly with the strict forms of the exercise of the scientific practice considered. (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 59)

From the standpoint of the science of history, scientific discourse is a relatively autonomous social practice whose mental and material dimensions may be understood and explained without recourse to the philosophical category of truth. However, a firm, non-philosophical distinction between science and ideology remains absolutely essential for such a thing as a history of science to exist. Such a distinction is


expressed by Althusser by means of the concept of a knowledge effect , the "peculiarity of those special productions which are knowledges" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 62). Although no science emerges ex nihilo, and despite the retrospective and differential nature of the science/ideology distinction, Althusser insists there can be no confusion between the scientific and ideological functions at work within a given discursive practice and no mistake with regard to which function is predominant. Ideological discourse is, above all else, a subject-centered discourse that expresses and communicates the way human beings identify with or internalize the existing world in order to exist as social agents. Ideology is a field in which personal and group interests predominate. Scientific discourse, by contrast, may have ideological effects, but its primary characteristic is its relative indifference to personal and group interests. Unlike ideology, science is a relatively object-centered field whose goal is primarily knowledge of the structural mechanisms that constitute the natural and social worlds.

Science is a higher-order discourse, a metalanguage whose discontinuity with respect to ideology Althusser expresses by means of Bachelard's concept of an epistemological break. An epistemological break involves simultaneously a rejection of the whole pattern and frame of reference of "pre-scientific" notions and the construction of a new "scientific" problematic. The negative moment in the emergence of a new science consists of the retroactive "creation" of a discourse designated as "erroneous" [ideology/error] whose cognitive pretensions must be discredited. In other words, it is only from the standpoint of a science that ideology/error becomes visible: "Ideology [ideology/error] never says, 'I am ideological.' It is necessary to be outside ideology, i.e., in scientific knowledge, to be able to say, 'I am in ideology.' . . . Ideology has no outside (for itself), but at the same time it is nothing but outside (for science)" (Althusser 1971, 175). Thus the positive moment of the emergence of a new science, Althusser insists, is always the "discovery" of a new causal mechanism and a new "theoretical object" constituted or "brought into view" by a new conceptual framework or problematic.

The specific effectivity of a science is determined by the nature of its problematic, which also constitutes the relative autonomy of a science in relation to the field of ideology from which it sprang. Because scientific practice is historically specific, Althusser insists that the problematic of a science constitutes an irreducible limit to its vision: "[A science] can only pose problems on the terrain and within the horizon of a definite theoretical structure, its problematic, which constitutes its


absolute and definite condition of possibility, and hence the absolute determination of the forms in which all problems must be posed, at any given moment in the science" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 25). However, it is the essential, constitutive characteristic of science that, unlike ideology, it is capable of posing problems within a definite context, pertaining to a specific object, and resolvable by theoretical means. Ideological practice, Althusser maintains, poses not problems but solutions; rather, it poses problems on the basis of a solution known in advance, pseudo-problems that are never more than a reflection of their answer. According to Althusser, ideological practice reduces knowledge to a phenomenon of recognition: "the [ideological] formulation of a problem is merely the theoretical expression of conditions which allow a solution already produced outside the process of knowledge because imposed by extra-theoretical instances and exigencies (by religious, ethical, political or other 'interests') to recognize itself in an artificial problem manufactured to serve it both as a theoretical mirror and as a practical justification" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 52).

For Althusser, sciences produce knowledges, but the latter do not simply offer themselves up innocently; this process or mode of theoretical production is the object of the history of science. The general concept of scientific practice was initially defined by Althusser in For Marx in terms of three thresholds of formalization or "generality," schematically designated as Generalities I, II, and III (Althusser 1969, 182-93). By Generalities I , Althusser understands those concepts, facts, observations, or whatever that constitute the "raw material" for a theoretical practice. Generalities II designates the problematic by which theoretical operations are performed on this raw material to produce Generalities III , which are new knowledges. Generalities II and III should be clear enough by now; in any case, their value as concepts is unaffected by Althusser's subsequent repudiation of theoreticist tendencies in his early works. For Generalities I, however, the implications of Althusser's self-criticism are not so straightforward. While Althusser has remained vague regarding this "raw material," he is at least firm on two fundamental points: first, Generalities I are objective, existentially real social phenomena; second, they are "always already worked up" material: that is, they are always, to a certain degree, the product of previous theoretical practice. While it is always the case that the raw material of scientific practice is real, it is never the case that scientific practice operates directly on the real to which its raw material refers. For Althusser, there is no pure experience of reality.

After the break that constitutes a scientific practice, knowledge de-


velops by an internal process that Althusser characterizes in terms of discontinuous shifts and leaps. We have already seen, for example, how the differential nature of Structural Marxist discourse operates to deepen knowledge within each level of its problematic and to broaden knowledge by constituting new and distinct levels. Knowledge at any given level may correct knowledge at another but not necessarily all other levels. By positing scientific discourse in this way, Althusser is capable of explaining the otherwise vexing fact that knowledge progresses (continuity) while at the same time changes (discontinuity). The process of knowledge production, in other words, is no more immune to the contradictions of uneven development than is any other social practice. First, given its differential nature, no science can ever eliminate completely the tensions that emerge between levels of explanation that are irreducibly distinct. Second, as it develops, a science accumulates anomalies and contradictions as well as knowledges. While these anomalies and contradictions may be resolved internally, this is not necessarily the case; where it is not the case—that is, where the anomalies and contradictions become too disruptive—the result may be a new epistemological break.

Despite its simplicity, or perhaps because of it, Althusser's concept of a mode of theoretical production is capable of explaining both the historical basis and the relative autonomy of science independently of the claims to epistemological absolutism with which it was invested in For Marx and Reading Capital . Ideology is not simply a theoretical input or raw material for a science; it is also a necessary condition of the existence for scientific practice. The relative autonomy of a science is relative precisely to the ideology within which it swims, inseparable from ideology insofar as science exists always and only in continual opposition to its ideological environs. The objectivity of science is constituted by its problematic, but a problematic always operates in an ideological and political conjuncture that it can never completely or finally transcend. Science is somehow always behind or at a distance from the limits of its problematic, and it can never know these limits in any sense other than that defined by its own practice. As a result of this ambiguity, a science must perpetually reject its prehistory. "Every recognized science," Althusser insists, "not only has emerged from ideology but continues endlessly to do so (its prehistory remaining always contemporary, something like its alter-ego) by rejecting what it considers to be error" (Althusser 1976, 113). Because science exists only in and through ideology, a science never breaks cleanly and irreversibly


with "ideology in general"; rather, every science breaks incompletely and continuously with a specific ideology or ideology/error. The history of science is ultimately no more than the history of those theoretical and material struggles manifested as epistemological breaks and ongoing struggles between science and ideology.

If his early works seem overly optimistic in stressing the effectivity of science in relation to ideology, Althusser's emphasis on the effectivity of ideology in relation to science after 1967 strikes a much more pessimistic note. The intrusion of ideology into scientific practice is inevitable, Althusser argues, because, even though a science is constituted by its theoretical problematic, the scientific practice is performed by human beings constituted as social agents and operating within a socially determinate apparatus of institutions and relations. In Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists , Althusser contends that ideology invades theoretical practice through the agent of scientific practice, the scientist, and that the Trojan horse of this invasion is philosophy, specifically what Althusser calls the "spontaneous philosophy" of scientists themselves.

By the term spontaneous philosophy Althusser understands something more precise than the "worldview" of scientists; he refers specifically to their philosophy of science. According to Althusser, the spontaneous philosophy of scientists has two elements: the first, which Althusser calls "intra-scientific," is based on the experience that scientists have of their own scientific practice; the second, "extra-scientific" element is derived from "convictions" and "beliefs" that come from outside scientific practice, from philosophy, religion, politics, and so on. Althusser contends that the first element is always materialist (science always affirms the realism of its knowledge), while the latter may be either materialist or idealist depending on the extent to which it defends or attacks a given science's knowledge effects. Significantly, in The Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists , Althusser stresses the dominance of the "extra-scientific" over the "intra-scientific" element, sharply qualifying the internal purity of the knowledge process that he accentuated in For Marx and Reading Capital . By asserting the primacy of the social over the theoretical within the ideological make-up of scientists themselves, Althusser acknowledges the power of ideology and philosophy to impede, distort, or even subvert the production (and reception) of knowledge effects. Far from being the impersonal and objective "Theory of theoretical practice" it was thought to be in For Marx and Reading Capital , philosophy emerges in Althusser's later


works as a theoretical and ideological battleground where, among other things, the category of science itself is at stake.

Beyond Rationalism: Philosophy as Class Struggle in Theory

If Althusser was guilty of theoretically overestimating philosophy in his early works, he underestimated it politically. As he himself points out in the 1967 preface to the Italian translation of For Marx , "I left vague [in For Marx ] the difference distinguishing philosophy from science that constitutes philosophy proper: the organic relation between every philosophy as a theoretical discipline even within its theoretical forms of existence and exigencies, and politics " (Althusser 1969, 15). In proposing a new concept of philosophy as "class struggle in theory," Althusser not only abandons his earlier project of a general and independent philosophy but also defends a "new practice" of philosophy, a practice located on a specific terrain between ideological and scientific practice. In Essays in Self-Criticism , Althusser explains the change in his concept of philosophy:

(1) Philosophy is not Absolute Knowledge; it is neither the Science of Sciences nor the Science of Practices. . . . [I]t does not possess Absolute Truth, either about any science or about any practice. In particular, it does not possess the Absolute Truth about, nor power over political practice. On the contrary, Marxism affirms the primacy of politics over philosophy. (2) But philosophy is nevertheless not "the servant of politics," as philosophy was once "the servant of theology": because of its position in theory and of its "relative autonomy ." (3) What is at stake in philosophy is the real problems of the social practices. As philosophy is not (a) science, its relation to these problems is not a technical relation of application . Philosophy does not provide formulae to be "applied." Philosophy cannot be applied. Philosophy works in quite a different way: by modifying the position of the problems, by modifying the relation between the practices and their object. (Althusser 1976, 58, n. 18)

For Althusser, science and politics together define the conditions of existence as well as the criteria of intelligibility of all philosophical practice. However, philosophy cannot be reduced to either the one or the other; in fact, it exerts an influence of its own on politics and theory. Philosophy, "because of its abstraction, rationality and system . . . is 'in' the field of theory," Althusser explains, "but it is not (a) science" (Althusser 1976, 37). Philosophy has no part in the production of knowledges, yet "outside of its relationship to the sciences, philosophy


would not exist" (Althusser 1990, 109). Borrowing a phrase from Lenin, Althusser describes the function of philosophy as "drawing a dividing line" between science and ideology, producing, in Althusser's words, "critical distinctions: that is . . . 'sorting out' or separating ideas from each other, and even . . . forging the appropriate ideas for making their separation and its necessity visible" (Althusser 1990, 75). Philosophy intervenes in the field of science and "theoretical ideologies"—for Althusser, theoretical ideologies are "in the last instance . . . forms of practical ideology transformed within theory" (Althusser 1990, 106)—to create something new: a categorical distinction between "the scientific" and "the ideological," a philosophical-epistemological distinction couched in theoretical-scientific language but permeated throughout by political-ideological values.

Philosophy intervenes in the indistinct reality in which the sciences, theoretical ideologies and philosophy itself figure. . . . The result of philosophical intervention . . . is to draw, in this indistinct reality, a line of demarcation that separates, in each case, the scientific from the ideological. This line of demarcation may be completely covered over, denied or effaced in most philosophies: it is essential to their existence, despite the denegation. Its denegation is simply the common form of its existence. . . . [T]he enigma of philosophy is contained in the difference between the reality in which it intervenes (the domain of the sciences + theoretical ideologies + philosophy) and the result that its intervention produces (the distinction between the scientific and the ideological ). This difference appears in the form of a difference between words . . . on the one hand nouns; on the other, their adjectival forms. . . . Is this not simply a nominal distinction, a terminological difference and therefore merely apparent? . . . [D]oes not the whole of philosophy consist simply in repeating . . . what is already inscribed in reality? Hence in modifying words without producing anything new? Yes, philosophy acts by modifying words and their order. But they are theoretical words, and it is difference between words that allows something new in reality, something that was hidden and covered, to be seen . The expression the scientific is not identical to the expression the sciences ; the expression the ideological is not identical to the expression theoretical ideologies . . . . 'The scientific' and 'the ideological' are philosophical categories and the contradictory couple they form is brought to light by philosophy. . . . [T]he result of the philosophical intervention, the line that reveals the scientific and the ideological by separating them, is entirely philosophical . (Althusser 1990, 106-7)

Philosophy is a discursive domain in which science is assimilated by society, a necessary but not necessarily a smooth process. Often philosophy "draws a dividing line" between conflicting positions represented within the political and ideological spheres by practical and theoretical


ideologies on the one hand and scientific knowledges on the other. The result may be spectacular and bitterly contested confrontations, which are ultimately, in Althusser's view, struggles for power. This should not really surprise us, Althusser explains, for while science is objective (relatively less subject-centered and more formally rigorous than ideology), it is never neutral: science is always against ideology/error, and the latter always reflects material conditions and practical interests. While knowledge defines the nature of scientific practice, power defines the "stakes" resulting from the production of new knowledge effects, and for Althusser, the two cannot be adequately thought in isolation from each other. Philosophy is always an intervention in this power struggle. The process of drawing a dividing line between science and ideology, Althusser reminds us, "irresistibly recalls a seizure of power or an installation in power . . . . A seizure of power is political, it does not have an object, it has a stake, precisely the power, and an aim, the effect of that power" (Althusser 1971, 58). The dividing line, in other words, is drawn within the realm of theory but not in the realm of science. It is drawn precisely at the intersection of science and ideology, a state of affairs that leads Althusser to envisage philosophy as a political intervention carried out in theoretical form. The tension between its political-ideological and its theoretical-scientific aspects constitute the specific effectivity of what Althusser calls the "philosophy effect."

Philosophy fulfills its function by means of a discourse distinct from

Philosophy fulfills its function by means of a discourse distinct from both ideological and scientific discourse. In contrast to ideology, philosophy is not necessarily restricted to subject-centered discourse, which is to say that it may be theoretical. However, unlike science, the discourse of philosophy lacks both a theoretical object as well as substantive concepts that may be developed or corrected to provide a growing body of knowledge. Philosophy, Althusser insists, makes no advances or breaks. New philosophical categories emerge, to be sure, but for Althusser these are simply new ways of elaborating a never-ending opposition between idealism and materialism.

The history of philosophy [is] . . . the history of an age-old struggle between two tendencies: idealism and materialism. . . . [However,] it is impossible to prove [the ultimate principles of materialism or idealism] because they cannot be the object of a knowledge . . . comparable with that of science which does prove the properties of its objects. So philosophy has no object . . . If nothing happens in philosophy it is precisely because it has no object. If something actually does happen in the sciences, it is because they do have


an object, knowledge of which they can increase, which gives them a history . As philosophy has no object, nothing can happen in it. The nothing of its history simply repeats the nothing of its object. (Althusser 1971, 54-57)

What philosophy has for its "object," according to Althusser, is in fact not an object at all but a position, the demarcation that it traces between science and ideology. For Althusser, philosophical practice is rational but dogmatic. Philosophy is rational by virtue of the laws of formal logic that it deploys, but insofar as it has a substantive position, it is "parasitic" on the knowledge effects that it defends or rejects (for reasons that are ultimately ideological). Althusser maintains that all philosophical practice, including his own, operates by means of a transformation of substantive concepts, expressed in the form of a scientific problematic, into dogmatic categories, expressed in the form of theses. Both philosophical theses and categories are dogmatic, Althusser explains, in the sense that, unlike the substantive propositions of a scientific discourse, they are susceptible to neither formal demonstration nor empirical proof: "they are not susceptible to demonstration in the strictly scientific sense (in the sense that we speak of demonstration in mathematics or in logic), nor to proof in the strictly scientific sense (in the sense that we speak of proof in the experimental sciences)" (Althusser 1990, 74). For Althusser, philosophical propositions are, in Timothy O'Hagan's words, "both unprovable and lacking in truth value insofar as they are (a) particular , having a function and meaning only in relation to the political and scientific conjuncture in which they are made and (b) practical , enjoining us to adopt certain conceptualizations, analogies, models and in particular, lines of distinction and demarcation, which foster or hinder the emergence and development of particular phases of scientific knowledge, but do not themselves constitute such knowledge" (O'Hagan 1981, 244).

Because philosophical discourse is contingent on the substantive effects of science and ideology, Althusser insists that it is never true/false or adequate/inadequate, in a scientific sense, but merely "correct or incorrect" in a pragmatic sense. "What might 'correct' [juste ] signify?" he asks rhetorically. "To give an initial idea: the attribute 'true' implies, above all, a relation to theory; the attribute 'correct' above all a relation to practice (Thus: a correct decision, a just [juste ] war, a correct line)" (Althusser 1990, 75). For Althusser, philosophy always addresses practical questions: How do we orient ourselves in thought and in politics? What is to be done? However, philosophy is neither a gratuitous operation nor a speculative activity. "One cannot understand the task, de-


terminant in the last instance, of philosophy except in relation to the exigencies of the class struggle in ideology—in other words, the central question of hegemony, of the constitution of the dominant ideology" (Althusser 1990, 258). Philosophy "decomposes and recomposes science and other discourses in order to place them under its hegemony—an operation which endows the whole operation of philosophy with significance. In order to distribute its objects in this order philosophy has to dominate them, this necessity compels philosophy to take power over them" (Althusser 1990, 252). Philosophy reorganizes scientific practice within the "systematic unity" of its Truth in order to facilitate the unification of the dominant ideology and to guarantee this dominant ideology as Truth.

As a Kampfplatz where the distinction between "the scientific" and "the ideological" is defined, the political significance of philosophy is, for Althusser, nothing but the obverse of its theoretical necessity. While there can be, strictly speaking, no history of philosophy according to Althusser, there is most certainly a history in philosophy. Philosophy, Althusser explains, characteristically intervenes in scientific practice at points of "crisis," those periods when "a science confronts scientific problems which cannot be resolved by the existing theoretical means or (and) that call into question the coherence of the earlier theory . . . either . . . a contradiction between a new problem and the existing theoretical means, or (and) . . . a disturbance of the entire theoretical edifice" (Althusser 1990, 109-10). Althusser alludes to several such moments of "crisis"—the crisis of irrational numbers in Greek mathematics, the crisis of modern physics at the end of the nineteenth century, the crisis of modern mathematics triggered by set theory in the early twentieth century—but he is more concerned with the spontaneous philosophical reactions to these crises on the part of scientists than with the content of the crises themselves. "In a 'crisis,' Althusser notes wryly, "we discover that savants themselves can begin to 'manufacture' philosophy. Inside every savant, there sleeps a philosopher " (Althusser 1990, 111). The spontaneous philosophy of scientists, having both idealist and materialist elements, may provoke a variety of responses to a given theoretical crisis, up to and including what Althusser calls a "reaction of capitulation" where scientists "go outside" science altogether in order to evaluate scientific practice from some extra-scientific, moralistic standpoint.

In the case of the crisis of physics, for example, many scientists abandoned belief both in the validity of scientific knowledge and in the ex-


istence of matter. Althusser condemns such an idealist response as regressive, yet he sees it as symptomatic of the way in which philosophy "exploits" science in the interests of some practical purpose or ideology.

The vast majority of philosophies, be they religious, spiritualist or idealist, maintain a relation of exploitation with the sciences. Which means: the sciences are never seen for what they really are; their existence, their limits, their growing pains (baptized "crises"), or their mechanisms, as interpreted by idealist categories of the most well-informed philosophies, are used from outside; they may be used crudely or subtly, but they are used to furnish arguments or guarantees for extra-scientific values that the philosophies in question objectively serve through their own practice, their "questions" and their "theories." These "values" pertain to practical ideologies , which play their own role in the social cohesion and social conflicts of class societies. (Althusser 1990, 129)

The materialist philosophical intervention, by contrast, resists this explicit or immanent move to idealism and combats all anti-scientific positions. The materialist philosophical intervention does not produce the distinction between science and ideology—that distinction exists as soon as scientific practice exists—but it does apply the philosophical (and thus categorical) distinction between the scientific and the ideological to a particular area, allowing us to see where the distinction lies by revealing the materialist and idealist components within a particular discourse. For Althusser, a materialist position in philosophy consists of a unity of three terms: object/theory/method. By object , Althusser understands an external object with a material existence; by theory , an objective scientific knowledge or theory; by method , scientific method (Althusser 1990, 135). Materialism must defend itself against an idealist tendency to privilege the subjectivity of experience over the objectivity of reality. The threat of idealism—latent in philosophical modernism from Kant to empirio-criticism—is finally realized in a postmodern move that releases subjective experience from its subordination to the materialist principle of ontological realism. The result is ontological relativism: the materialist unity, object/theory/method, is replaced by an idealist unity, experiment/models/techniques. "When experience (which is, note well, something very different from experimentation) is promoted to the highest position, and when one speaks of models instead of theory, we are not simply changing two words: a slippage of meaning is provoked, or better, one meaning is obscured by another, and the first, materialist, meaning disappears under the second, idealist, meaning" (Althusser 1990, 135).


According to Althusser, a materialist position in philosophy always facilitates the progress of science. A materialist position in philosophy, as we have seen in the case of Marx, constitutes, for Althusser, a precondition for the birth of a new science—an epistemological break that in its turn initiates a new crisis, not in science, but rather in ideology and philosophy. Althusser disparages the theoretical significance of many of the so-called crises of science. To the "crisis" of physics, the "disappearance" of matter, for example, Althusser responds by insisting that physics is not in crisis but in growth. "Matter has not 'disappeared,' the scientific concept of matter alone has changed in content, and it will go on changing in the future for the process of knowledge is infinite in its object" (Althusser 1971, 49-50). The problem, Althusser insists, is not in physics (the concept of matter) but in philosophy (the category of matter): "it is absolutely necessary to distinguish between the philosophical category of matter and its scientific concept. . . . Those materialists who apply philosophical categories to the objects of the sciences as if they were concepts of them are involved in a case of mistaken identity" (Althusser 1971, 50).

According to Althusser, Marxist philosophy does not exploit science; instead, it serves science by defending the materialist position in philosophy. Marxist philosophy does not attempt to transform philosophy into a science. It is still philosophy, but the scientific knowledge of ideology provided by the science of history makes Marxist philosophy a "correct" philosophy. "In the absence of an absolute guarantee (something that does not exist except in idealist philosophy, and we know what to think of that), there are arguments we can present [in defense of materialism]. They are both practical (they can be judged by comparing the services which we can render the sciences) and theoretical (the critical check on the inevitable effects of ideology on philosophy through a knowledge of the mechanisms of ideology and ideological struggle, by a knowledge of their action on philosophy)" (Althusser 1990, 131).

Beyond Empiricism: Knowledge as a Practice Without a Subject

Timothy O'Hagan, one of the most perceptive commentators on Althusser's concept of philosophy, maintains that Althusser conducts, in For Marx and Reading Capital , a double intervention in philosophy. According to O'Hagan, Althusser attempts "(1) to combine a realist


thesis of the priority of the material world with respect to any knowledge of it, with the recognition that scientific breakthroughs inaugurate radical discontinuities of conceptualization, which repeatedly call that realism into question; and (2) to establish an absolute difference between the 'real object' and the 'object of knowledge' and to combine that thesis with a non-normative account of the mechanism of knowledge production" (O'Hagan 1981, 249).

In rejecting the theoreticism of his early works, Althusser has sharpened, not blunted, the cutting edge of his original argument, which defends the category of the scientific on the basis of the existence of science rather than its truth, or rather its truth on the basis of its existence. Althusser's controversial epigram "The knowledge of history is no more historical than the knowledge of sugar is sweet" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 106) is not simply a mundane affirmation of a central axiom of conventionalism (the distinction between, for example, our knowledge of the French Revolution and the actual events themselves); it is also, and more interestingly, an affirmation of scientific realism (the principle first that the historical existence of the revolution is independent of and prior to our knowledge of it and second that despite its determinate historical nature, our knowledge of the revolution is, in fact, really objectively valid and not simply a subjective delusion).

The philosophical defense of science, consistently maintained throughout the course of Althusser's development, turns not on the rationalist question of guarantees: Is science able to know the real? It turns instead on the historical question of production: What are the mechanisms by which the real is known? "Knowledge is concerned with the real world through its specific mode of appropriation of the real world: this poses precisely the problem of the way this function works, and therefore of the mechanism that ensures it: this function of the appropriation of the real world by knowledge, i.e., by the process of production of knowledges which, despite , or rather because of the fact that it takes place entirely in thought . . . nevertheless provides that grasp . . . on the real world called its appropriation" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 54). Philosophy, we have seen, is unable to prove (or disprove) the validity of scientific knowledge; rather, it takes a position with respect to it. Philosophically defending historical materialism as a science, as well as the category of the scientific itself, forces Althusser to take a position combining ontological realism and epistemological relativism. From this position he critiques those theoretical ideologies and ideology/errors aspiring to displace or to discredit historical mate-


rialism and defends the explanatory power of the latter. Because he asserts the ontological reality of a world (indirectly and incompletely) appropriated by a process of knowledge (historically relative but nevertheless objectively valid), Althusser is able to defend rationally the adequacy of knowledge effects without recourse to epistemological absolutism.

By posing the issue in materialist terms—that is, by starting from the proposition that knowledge exists —Althusser is able to reject the whole issue of "guarantees" as a false problem that emerges only outside the discourse of any genuine knowledge in order to further extra-theoretical or ideological interests. For Althusser, the question of the production of knowledge is historically open (open to the different questions that may be asked), but it is not therefore problematic (subject to different answers to the same questions). What renders knowledge problematic is not its production but its reception, which is always social and ideological as well as theoretical. The quest for guarantees for knowledge is always an ideological quest, a search for a "mythical Subject and Object, required to take in charge , if need be by falsifying them, the real conditions, i.e., the real mechanism of the history of the production of knowledges, in order to subject them to religious, ethical and political ends (the preservation of 'faith,' of 'morality' or of 'freedom,' i.e., social values" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 55). The quest for guarantees is an ongoing ideological drama involving a small philosophical cast of characters: on the one hand, "the philosophical Subject (the philosophizing consciousness), the scientific Subject (the knowing consciousness), and the empirical Subject (the perceiving consciousness); and on the other, the Object which confronts these three Subjects, the transcendental or absolute Object, the pure principles of science, and the pure forms of perception" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 55). The function of this drama is not to produce knowledge of scientific practice (which becomes less rather than more comprehensible with each performance) but rather to maintain an ideological closure around the production of knowledge. Such a closure, Althusser insists, is centered on the category of "Man," the original source of all the different Subjects and Objects, and the philosophical expression of individualism, the dominant ideology of European capitalism. The latent theoretical humanism of the empiricist tradition—from Descartes (the subject-object problem) through Hume (the problem of causality) to modern analytical philosophy—explains why this tradition is necessarily the negative reference point for Althusser's philosophical defense of science.


For Althusser, the empiricist tradition, which is organized around a relatively small number of central categories (those of subject and object, abstract and concrete, and the givenness of reality to observation), is responsible for the collapse of the process of knowledge into an ontology of experience and consequently for the creation of the insoluble "problem of knowledge." Empiricism, which operates with a concept of knowledge as the "vision" of an individual, makes it impossible not only to see scientific practice as a social production but also, Althusser argues, to define scientific practice at all. The starting point of the process of knowledge for empiricism, Althusser explains, is a "purely objective given," something immediately accessible to direct observation, and since what is so given is supposed to be the real itself, the concrete, the starting point of knowledge is held to be concrete reality. To obtain a clear and distinct idea of the real object, the subject of knowledge need only perform an operation of "extraction" on this reality, disengaging its essence by eliminating everything inessential or incidental that obscures that essence. For the empiricist-individualist, Althusser concludes, the sight and possession by the subject of the essence of the object is what constitutes knowledge: the "whole of knowledge is thus invested in the real . . . as a relation inside its real object between the really distinct parts of that real object" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 31).

Althusser criticizes the empiricist view on two grounds: first, it takes the initial object or raw material of theoretical practice to be reality itself; second, it takes the product of theoretical practice, knowledges, to be a real part of the real object to be known. The first move results in an untenable concept of transitive causality, the identification of physical laws as constant conjunctions of physical events (rather than the structural mechanisms that generate such events); the second move results in the intractable philosophical problem of the correspondence between the real, the object of knowledge, and knowledge of the real, the experience of the subject (rather than the tractable problem of the mechanisms by which knowledge is produced).[10]

We have already discussed Althusser's criticism of transitive causality and the concept of structural causality he puts forward as an alternative to it. Here we need only recall the fact that, by conceptualizing the social world in terms of distinct structural relationships (ontologically real if only empirically observable in their effects) that are articulated and overdetermined yet possess distinct and hierarchically stratified effectivities, Althusser is able to explain social phenomena causally (in terms of intransitive mechanisms and powers) not simply descriptively


(in terms of transitive patterns of events). Althusser's concept of causality thus escapes the well-known antinomies created by the empiricist attempt to define causality in terms of empirical invariances, that is, in terms of constant conjunctions of physical events experienced under closed, experimentally controlled conditions. Roy Bhaskar, whose Althusserian critique of empiricism (Bhaskar 1979, 5-17) I am following here, has demonstrated how the empiricist position amounts to an absurd claim that human beings create natural law: if the laws of nature are simply constant conjunctions of events, and if constant conjunctions occur only under closed conditions, and if, finally, scientists alone can create such conditions, then scientists create the laws of nature! Furthermore, with respect to open systems—systems in which experimental controls are impossible and constant conjunctions do not obtain—Bhaskar maintains that the empiricist position implies either causal indeterminacy (there are no laws of nature) or an absurd claim that science has not yet discovered any laws applicable to open systems (there is as yet no applied science).

The correct interpretation of experimental activity, Bhaskar points out, recognizes that the object of scientific practice is knowledge of causal mechanisms, not patterns of events. To conceive of the laws of nature in terms of generative structures, tendencies, and powers is to admit that while such structures may be isolated in closed conditions, they are also operative in open, uncontrolled systems as well. Althusser's notion of structural causality, the articulation of structural tendencies and powers, expresses rather well the operation of causal laws in open systems. In social systems, a structural mechanism exists as a power or tendency whether or not it is empirically realized, an outcome that depends on the effectivities of other structures as well as its own. Furthermore, if the object of science is knowledge of causal structures and not constant patterns of events, then there is no reason why the term science should be restricted to those practices capable of creating controlled experimental environments. Finally, the open nature of social formations explains why historical materialism is necessarily explanatory and not predictive and why this fact in no way disqualifies the claim that its explanations are scientific.

Althusser also rejects the empiricist identification of the real and knowledge of the real; he insists on the relative autonomy of scientific practice, the fact that it takes place "in thought" and is irreducibly distinct from the real itself. For Althusser, the process of knowledge "never, as empiricism desperately demands it should, confronts a pure


object which is identical to the real object" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 43).

Knowledge working on its "object" . . . does not work on the real object but on the peculiar raw material which constitutes, in the strict sense of the term, its "object" (of knowledge) and which, even in the most rudimentary forms of knowledge is distinct from the real object . For that raw material is ever already . . . elaborated and transformed, precisely by the imposition of the complex structure, however crude, which constitutes it as an object of knowledge , which constitutes it as an object it will transform, whose forms it will change in the course of its development process in order to produce knowledges which are constantly transformed but always apply to its object , in the sense of object of knowledge . (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 43)

In suggesting that the raw material of theoretical practice, Generalities I, is never simply given to experience but rather consists of ideas and concepts "already worked up" within a theoretical framework, Althusser is asserting the social-historical nature of knowledge (and the fact of science as a structured mode of production) against the ahistorical and empiricist assertion of the immediacy of "the facts." Of course, empiricism has its own definition of what is or is not a fact; it simply masks its theory of the fact behind the "givenness" of experience to the knowing subject. If facts were immediately given to experience, there would be nothing for science to do ("all science would be superfluous if the outward appearances and the essences of things directly coincided" as Marx points out in Capital ). In reality, the very existence of science is predicted on an epistemological break with the subject-centered experience of things, the very ideology and ideology/error of individualism that empiricism seeks to identify as the essence of scientific method. For Althusser, Generalities II, the problematic of a science, is not a tool at the disposal of an autonomous subject but a historical structure of meaning operating within and through the consciousness of a social subject. Thus the insight of a science should not be confused with the vision of an individual. "The sighting is thus no longer the act of an individual subject, endowed with the faculty of 'vision' which he exercises either attentively or distractedly; the sighting is the act of its structural conditions, it is the relation of the immanent reflection between the field of the problematic and its objects and its problems. . . . It is literally no longer the eye (the mind's eye) of the subject which sees what exists in the field defined by a theoretical problematic; it is this field itself which sees itself in the objects or problems it defines" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 25-26).


Extending Althusser's line of argument, Bhaskar (1979, 22-28) argues that the category of the subject of knowledge is the umbilical cord joining empiricism and hermeneutics in a relation of theoretical symbiosis that functions to resist any scientific explanation of human subjectivity. By collapsing science into experience (causal laws equal empirical regularities equal patterns of events equal experiences), empiricism calls into existence a subject-centered world of meaning that it cannot itself explain. Insofar as it even bothers to try, Bhaskar points out, empiricism is able to deal with social symbolic structures only by reducing them to empirically verifiable patterns of behavior explicable by stimulus-response mechanisms (behaviorism) or means-ends calculation (utilitarianism). This manifestly impoverished framework, the outcome of empiricism's flawed concept of scientific practice, opens the way for a hermeneutic reaction against the very possibility of social science. Hermeneutics, accepting precisely the definition of science postulated by empiricism, employs the absence of empirical regularities in "society" to justify a radical separation of the human world, the world of interpretive understanding, from the natural world, the world of causal explanation.

For Althusser, the fact that social agents are subjects in history, and not subjects of history, erases the ideological category of the subject by which empiricism and hermeneutics, each in its own way, render knowledge of concrete social subjects problematical. Against empiricism, Althusser refuses to collapse the complexity of human consciousness into a single aspect of behavior (or even into the single dimension of behavior) or to reduce it to a crude reflection of the various structural relations that constitute its conditions of existence. Instead, Althusser posits the relative autonomy of ideological practice and a complex and overdetermined field of meanings where agents, constituted as social subjects, act and react to their environment in an open-ended manner. However, against hermeneutics, Althusser rejects the self-serving antithesis of interpretation versus causal explanation. Althusser, of course, recognizes that social structures are not permanent, that human agents transform as well as reproduce them, and that knowledge, by the fact of its existence, exerts its own effectivity on the social structures that constitute its object. However, he insists on the existential independence of these moments and rejects the false simultaneity, the plenary time, into which hermeneutics collapses the intransitive existence of causal structures (and the beliefs and meanings that they produce) into the transitive dimension of practice (and knowledge). By denying the


intransitive nature of beliefs and meanings, hermeneutics forecloses the production of knowledges of them just as surely as the hopelessly restrictive concept of their intransitivity generated by empiricism.

Empiricism, far from defining (much less explaining) scientific practice, renders scientific knowledge problematic and clears the way for its philosophical negation by hermeneutics (the theological origin of hermeneutics is no doubt significant in this regard). The distinction between the real object and the object of knowledge is a philosophical paradox that cannot be resolved in philosophy (where nothing is resolved). The root of the problem, Althusser insists, is a theoretical humanist position in philosophy that creates the categories of the subject and object. Marxist philosophy does not resolve the problem; instead, it takes a position with respect to it, a position that rejects the problem by rejecting the theoretical humanist framework that creates it. Althusser's materialist theses regarding the primacy of the real object over the object of knowledge and the primacy of this thesis over a second, the distinction between the real object and the object of knowledge, combine an anti-empiricist ontological realism and an anti-hermeneutic epistemological relativism. In speaking of the process of knowledge as the "cognitive appropriation of the real," Althusser denies that the real exists as a function of the thought, experience, or observation of any subject: one can only appropriate that which exists independently of the action of appropriation. In denying that knowledge is hidden in the real or identical to it, Althusser makes it possible to comprehend scientific practice as a historical and social mode of production: there is no appropriation without an appropriating structure.

Marxism and the "Crisis of Marxism"

Althusser's philosophical position is obviously out of step with current postmodern (post-Marxist, neo-pragmatist, neo-liberal, poststructuralist) tendencies wherein individualism, pluralism, and relativism have congealed into an anti-scientific, anti-Marxist, and anti-modernist orthodoxy. I will not repeat the criticisms of postmodernist tendencies already advanced in my introductory remarks, but it is worthwhile to recall, in light of the concept of philosophy as class struggle in theory, the dividing line that separates postmodernism in all its variations from Structural Marxism. Postmodern philosophy combines epistemological and ontological relativism in order to mount a relativist attack on scientific realism. From relativism, which constitutes its axiomatic core,


postmodernism fashions a voluntaristic political individualism (either neo-liberal conformity or neo-anarchist dissidence) and a descriptive theoretical pluralism. Postmodern philosophy accepts—implicitly or explicitly, with regret or with enthusiasm—the rapid and brutal restructuring of global capitalism, and it masks its intellectual complicity in this process by exploiting the so-called crises of Marxism, modernism, and history to discredit the very project of a realist, complex, and scientific explanation of the current conjuncture. Althusser's philosophical position, which subsumes epistemological relativism by the principle of ontological realism, defends both the category of the scientific and the scientificity of historical materialism. By explicitly rejecting the problematization of knowledge, Althusser disrupts the modus vivendi currently (and cautiously) being negotiated between the old New Left and the new New Right under the auspices of postmodernism.

In a lecture delivered in 1977, Althusser addressed the "crisis of Marxism" in the context of Eurocommunist debates over a variety of issues including party democracy, national versus international paths to socialism, and parliamentary reformism versus proletarian dictatorship. Althusser told his audience that Marxism's major difficulties—the explanation of Stalinism, the absence of an adequate theory of the liberal democratic state or class struggle under contemporary capitalism, and so on—should be viewed as a challenge, indeed an important opportunity, not as a refutation or a defeat. Rather than relying on a vaguely defined faith in the future to justify ignoring the crisis or simply enduring it passively, Althusser advocated an active, analytical response. It is "much better," he concluded, to "view the matter with sufficient historical, theoretical, and political perspective . . . to discover—even if the task is not easy—the character, meaning and implications of the crisis" (Althusser 1978, 217). Althusser's message is even more relevant now, as socialists confront the simultaneous collapse of Stalinism and Fordism.

Hard questions must be asked of Marxism in light of contemporary events, particularly with regard to the political strategies socialists have hitherto pursued. The contemporary crisis has set two tasks for historical materialism: first, a scientific task, producing new knowledge of the way things really work in order to permit the emergence of a new political vision of how they might possibly work; second, a corresponding philosophical task facilitating the scientific task by defending the categories of realism and materialism and especially the category of science itself. Althusser forcibly impresses on us the fact that making a


distinction between the concept of science and the category of the scientific increases rather than decreases the importance of philosophy. The philosophical category of science must be fought for—it is not a given—and the place that it is fought for is philosophy. In For Marx and Reading Capital , Althusser stoutly defended the category of science against irrationalist and voluntarist tendencies on the Left in order to "resist the bourgeois subjective idealist and the petty-bourgeois Marxists who, all of them, shout 'positivism' as soon as they hear the term [science] . . . who refuse the very idea of a scientific theory, even the word 'science,' even the word 'theory,' on the pretext that every science or even every theory is essentially 'reifying,' alienating and therefore bourgeois" (Althusser 1976, 116-18). Aside from changing "Marxists" to "postmodernists"—acknowledging the conservative sea change that has taken place in philosophy since the global restructuring began in the late seventies—the philosophical struggle against irrationalism and voluntarism on (what is left of) the Left remains precisely as Althusser described it in the seventies.

We have already alluded to the fact that scientific practice is always critical since it necessarily intervenes in the ideological field of a social formation by attacking ideology/error and thereby provoking ideological and theoretical struggles that reverberate through philosophy onto the field of politics. The social sciences are particularly volatile in this regard because they lay bare the actual mechanisms at work in society and thus open up the possibility of changing things. Historical materialism, the science of social formations, continues to be the object and stake of a fierce and implacable class struggle because it continues to expose the exploitation and domination inherent in the capitalist mode of production. The very existence of historical materialism makes it difficult for philosophy to exercise its traditional function of reconciling the category of the scientific with the status quo. Marxism, Althusser explains, causes "a complete upset in philosophy: not only by forcing philosophy to revise its categories in order to bring them into line with the new science and its effects, but also, and above all, by giving philosophy the means, in terms of an understanding of its real relation to class struggle, of taking responsibility for and transforming its own practice" (Althusser 1976, 174).

To repress this understanding and evade this responsibility, Althusser insists, post-Marxist philosophy must attack not only Marxism but the category of science itself. The novelty of Marxist philosophy with respect to all previous philosophy is that the latter, in keeping with its


ideological role, denies its political nature, denies that it has any connection with politics, while continuing nonetheless to practice politics in its theoretical interventions. Marxist philosophy, by contrast, openly admits its dependence on science and its relationship to politics and openly takes both a realist and a proletarian position in philosophy. Historical materialism is both a scientific and a critical theory, its critical function following from its scientific nature. Althusser's concepts of ideology, science, and philosophy deny the obfuscatory and domesticating distinction, beloved of professional middle-class academics, between "two Marxisms," one scientific (totally unacceptable) and one critical (acceptable, but only if used with extreme caution). Instead, Althusser insists that Marxism is a revolutionary unity: the necessary, and necessarily explosive, interrelationship between the production of knowledge about how things happen in history and an uncompromising defense of that knowledge. In this sense Saül Karsz is correct to maintain that Althusser's definition of philosophy in terms of "a double articulation—theoretical and political within politics and theory"—is nothing less than "an attempt to realize Marx's famous thesis that philosophy must no longer interpret the world but must change it" (Karsz 1974, 305).


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