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Chapter 1 Structural Causality, Contradiction, and Social Formations
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The Materialist Rationalism of Spinoza

Althusser's concept of structural causality has its roots in the philosophy of Spinoza, who in Althusser's opinion should be credited with an "unprecedented theoretical revolution in philosophy," a revolution that makes him, rather than Hegel, "Marx's only direct ancestor" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 102). Althusser's enthusiasm for Spinoza, perhaps the most determined defender of metaphysical rationalism in the history of philosophy, has occasioned a great deal of confusion in Althusserian criticism. Althusser is often condemned out of hand by those who do not understand or do not bother to understand either Spinoza's philosophical position or what Althusser accepts and rejects in it.[3] We must keep in mind that Spinoza wrote at a time when the distinction between philosophy and science was not yet clear, when science was still known as "natural philosophy," and when the struggle between science and religion was still political and violent. What strikes Althusser so forcefully about Spinoza's philosophy is the rigorous and original materialist and realist positions that it defends and the superiority of Spinoza's concepts of causality and knowledge over those of Descartes and Leibniz, against whom Spinoza's achievement must be measured. Althusser is not a Spinozist who reads Marx, however; he is a Marxist who reads Spinoza. This means, above all, that Althusser is not (as Spinoza most certainly is) a philosophical rationalist: that is, he does not operate on the basis of indubitable, because logically necessary, propositions from which further knowledge, equally certain, can be deduced by the proper exercise of reason.

What is so revolutionary about Spinoza's philosophy, for Althusser, is the fact that it provides a concept of causality that explains the infinite phenomenal universe in terms of a single substance, God or Na-


ture, without recourse to a transcendent being, origin, or goal required to render the order of things intelligible. For Spinoza, God is infinite, but immanent in the infinity of Nature (substance under the attribute of extension) and its eternal laws, outside or beyond which there can be nothing. God or Nature is causa sui or self-determined, Spinoza contends, but only in the sense of being subject to the immutable laws of its own essence. There is nothing arbitrary in Nature, no moment of creation and no external intervention, for there is nothing conceivable outside Nature. Nature, then, is nothing but its effects (the attributes and modes or states of substance). The finite mode of phenomenal elements and the infinite flux of their causal interaction are not reflections or expressions of Nature; rather, they are Nature—elements structured by the natural law of the whole but at the same time constituting the whole by their reciprocal activity. Nature actively creating itself in its attributes and their various modes (Natura Naturans ) is only the obverse of Nature as the existing, established structure or system of the universe (Natura Naturata ). Both the elements and the whole are necessary and complementary aspects of causality.

Spinoza also defends a materialist position with regard to human nature, rejecting the Cartesian dualism of mind and body in favor of monism, a single substance with attributes of thought and extension. The human mind, in other words, is inseparable from the human body; human intelligence is nothing more than the mental correlate of the physical complexity of the body. This means that human beings are to be understood as natural bodies and therefore by means of the same natural laws that apply to all other phenomena. Spinoza's displacement of the human subject from the center of the universe, and his recognition of the distorting effect of taking human nature as an explanatory principle, is viewed very sympathetically by Althusser. Finally, although it does not concern us directly at this point, it is significant for Althusser that Spinoza defends a realist as well as a rationalist position with regard to knowledge. Spinoza, like Althusser, holds that ideas and their objects correspond—that is, that valid knowledge is possible. The difference between them, the irreducible and irrevocable effect of Althusser's Marxism, is that while Spinoza offers a rationalist proof of this correspondence—since ideas and objects are attributes of a single substance, they not only correspond but are identical—Althusser rejects the rationalist enterprise as "speculative" and denies the claim that human reason is able to achieve certainty with regard to metaphysical puzzles such as the nature of being. Denying the possibility of a ration-


alist proof of a realist epistemology does not, as we shall see, entail abandoning a rational defense of scientific realism. It does, however, mark an absolute distinction between Spinoza's rationalist certainty and Althusser's materialist thesis regarding the primacy of the real over thought about the real.

But even this assessment does Spinoza a great injustice from the Althusserian point of view. Descartes and Leibniz were also rationalists, yet Althusser finds their positions worse than useless to a science of history, leading as they do to epistemological subjectivism and empiricism (in the case of Descartes) and essentialist idealism (in the case of Leibniz). By contrast, Spinoza's rationalist materialism leads to Marx's historical materialism—albeit indirectly, through Hegel's idealist and teleological reworking of Spinoza's system and Marx's subsequent critique of the Hegelian dialectic, which resulted in the independent recovery of certain of Spinoza's insights. For Althusser, Spinoza's rationalist view of knowledge, unlike that of Descartes or Leibniz, cannot be simply dismissed; instead, its realist kernel must be extracted from its rationalist shell. Spinoza distinguishes between different levels of mental activity, imagination (ideas tied closely to the body and the individual experience) and reason (ideas of ideas, ideas based on objective general concepts and logical principles of coherence). Spinoza bases this distinction not on the epistemological distinction between truth and error but on differences in degrees of "adequacy," that is, objectivity, logical coherence, and breadth of explanatory power. Thus, for Spinoza there is no such thing as absolute error; because every idea has a material cause, it expresses, however inadequately, a certain degree of understanding of the real world. Nor can there be total or absolute adequacy for any human intelligence, but only for God, who is infinite and therefore circumscribes all thought and extension as perfectly adequate knowledge.

As we shall see, Althusser accepts the realist implication of Spinoza's conception of differing degrees of adequate knowledge and incorporates them into his own distinction between science and ideology, but he nonetheless rejects the corresponding rationalist proof by which Spinoza renders adequate ideas necessarily and absolutely true. Spinoza is not simply arguing that both imagination and reason correspond, with different degrees of adequacy, to reality. He is also asserting, by virtue of the logical consequences of his proposition that Nature is a single substance with attributes of thought and extension, that objects and ideas must have perfectly corresponding structures. Furthermore, Spi-


noza insists that we, as rational beings, have some intuitions (he calls them "common notions") about which we are absolutely certain and from which additional truths can be established without the possibility of error. It is this rationalist certainty that Althusser rejects. Even in his early works Althusser denies the possibility of any philosophical (or scientific) guarantee of truth or certainty. The materialist thesis, that thought about the real presupposes the primacy of the real over thought, is accompanied by an insistence that "the elements of thought . . . not be confused with the order of the real," a completely different thing from Spinoza's rationalist proof of the identity of idea and ideatum: "No doubt there is a relation between thought about the real and this real , but it is a relation of knowledge , a relation of adequacy or inadequacy of knowledge, not a real relation, meaning by this a relation inscribed in that real of which thought is the (adequate or inadequate) knowledge" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 87).

Althusser defends the position that there is a correlation, not an identity, between thought and reality, but he cannot prove it, and he rejects Spinoza's rationalist claim that it can ever be proven. Therefore, the frequently encountered idea that Althusser's general concept of "practice" was meant to serve as a transcendental, pseudo-Spinozist copula linking ideas and reality is simply untenable.[4] However, Althusser's early formulation of philosophy as the "Theory of theoretical practice" faintly echoes Spinoza's notion of a second order of thought, cognitio reflexiva or "ideas of ideas," at which level it is possible to distinguish, with complete certainty, "vague experience" from rational understanding. By positing Marxist philosophy, or dialectical materialism, as a "Theory of theoretical practice" in For Marx and Reading Capital , Althusser does not fully distinguish himself from the rationalist tradition that claims that philosophy, not science, decides what is scientific knowledge and what isn't. Given Althusser's general opposition to rationalism, however, his eventual rejection of the idea of a philosophical "Theory of theoretical practice" was a foregone conclusion. Spinoza's formulation does, in fact, correspond to Althusser's description of an "epistemological break" between a science and what that science retrospectively labels "ideology," but it is also radically distinct from Althusser's concept by virtue of the latter's historical , not rationalist, materialism. Althusser never abandons the concept of an epistemological break, but he progressively empties it of its rationalist significations of absolute truth and error. Scientific realism thus becomes a position to be defended in philosophy, not an apodictic proposition demon-


strable by philosophy (philosophy being neither a science nor the arbiter of science).

Spinoza's idea of causality, to return again to our central theme, accounts for the relationship of phenomena, including human beings, in terms of the structure of nature without recourse to any external agency such as an interventionist God. This is an astounding achievement for the seventeenth century, an age in which religion was still the dominant ideological force and in which the awakening opposition to superstition came as much from Renaissance humanism as it did from natural science. Spinoza's "rejection of all philosophies of the Subject—either God or Man" accounts, in Althusser's opinion, both for the magnitude of his achievement and "massive repression" of his thought "at the end of the age of God . . . and the beginning of the age of Man" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 102). For the last four hundred years, the discourse of reason has been dominated not by the impersonal materialism of Spinoza but by the philosophies of his rivals Descartes (through Locke, Hume, and Mill) and Leibniz (through Wolff, Kant, and Hegel). For Althusser, as for anyone who will concede even the slightest influence of social and political struggles on the "life of the mind," such an outcome is hardly surprising. Yet Althusser presses further, much further, the negative consequences of these developments both for philosophy and for the science of history.

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