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Chapter 3 Science, Ideology, and Philosophy
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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.

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Chapter 3 Science, Ideology, and Philosophy
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