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Chapter 3 Science, Ideology, and Philosophy
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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.

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