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Chapter 3 Science, Ideology, and Philosophy
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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.

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