previous sub-section
Chapter 1 Structural Causality, Contradiction, and Social Formations
next sub-section

The Critique of Transitive and Expressive Causalities

Althusser contrasts Spinoza's philosophy with the traditions of Descartes and Leibniz in two respects: first with regard to their respective capacities to deal with the problem of causality and second with regard to their respective capacities to explain social as opposed to natural phenomena. Althusser characterizes the Cartesian view of causality by the term transitive causality , by which he means an "analytic effectivity which reduces the whole to the result or sum of its parts," and the tradition of Leibniz by the term expressive causality , denoting an emphasis on the "primacy of the whole as an essence of which the parts are no more than the phenomenal expressions" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 186-87). Defining these terms in this way, Althusser feels justified in expanding their reference, applying the term transitive causality broadly to include the tradition of British empiricism and, in an even more sweeping generalization, employing the term expressive causality


to characterize Hegelian dialectics, economism of the "vulgar" Marxist variety, and the "absolute historicism" of Gramsci, Lukács, and Korsch (which posits the incommensurability of historical epochs).

Along a distinct but not unrelated axis, Althusser finds the traditions of Descartes and Leibniz equally predicated on the category of a subject—the subject of knowledge, history, and so on. It matters little, for Althusser's purposes, whether the subject is Leibniz's omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent Creator of this the best of all possible worlds or Descartes's free and rational human being inaugurating (albeit still with God's blessing) the heroic struggle of Man to realize reason in history. In either case, Althusser argues, the reliance on the category of the subject, whether God (idealism) or Man (humanism), necessarily introduces a teleological distortion into the scientific understanding of history. In emphasizing the connections between empiricism, historicism, idealism, economism, and humanism, Althusser necessarily ignores the many things that distinguish them. Critics have feasted on this fact, without, it must be added, being able to deny (when they bother to acknowledge it at all) the general thrust of his argument—that such connections exist and that they are significant.

Transitive or linear causality is criticized by Althusser for being simply a "history of elements" lacking any concept of either the structured interrelationship between elements or the radical differences between elements in different structural contexts. This type of causality, usually associated with the empiricist tradition of Locke and Hume, treats causality like a game of billiards in which homogeneous but atomized elements bounce off each other in a linear and unique sequence lacking any general structure beyond the cumulative effects of the series of individual collisions. Not only does linear causality ignore such crucial factors as the historical specificity and transformation of elements, but it also cannot grasp the unity of different social formations that accounts for the historical individuality of the elements. Linear causality, in fact, dissolves a particular structure into its elements in order to construct from them a "history" that can be no more than an ahistorical genealogy of contemporary categories transposed onto past events. Taking the "history of ideas" as his example, Althusser argues that transitive causality is based on three theoretical presuppositions that are always active within it:

The first presupposition is analytic; it holds that any theoretical system and any constituted thought is reducible to its elements: a precondition that enables one to think any element of the system on its own, and to compare it


with another similar element from another system. The second presupposition is teleological: it institutes a secret tribunal of history which judges the ideas submitted to it, or rather, which permits the dissolution of (different) systems into their elements, institutes these elements as elements in order to proceed to their measurement according to its own norms as if to their truth. Finally, these two presuppositions depend on a third, which regards the history of ideas as its own element, and maintains that nothing happens there which is not a product of the history of ideas itself. (Althusser 1969, 56-57)

Expressive causality is the converse of transitive causality. Within the problematic of expressive causality, all the phenomena of any one period—its economy, polity, law, philosophy, and so on—are viewed as externalizations of one internal principle that is the essence of those phenomena, manifesting itself in each and expressed by every one of them. Such thinking may take either a materialist form, for example, "economism" (Althusser's pejorative term for economic reflectionism) and "mechanism" (various forms of positivist materialism—for example, social Darwinism—which reduce social processes to natural ones), or an idealist form, such as the spiritual unity of Leibniz's "pre-established harmony" expressed in each material monad and in each mind that "concentrates the whole into itself" as if into a "total part," or finally, the "identity of opposites" of the Hegelian dialectic (including by extension all forms of Hegelian Marxism). In all its forms, expressive causality presupposes an immanent cause, an inner essence, applicable everywhere and at every moment to each of the phenomena within the totality in question.

Expressive causality is usually determinist, but one variant, "historicism," assumes a radically aleatory posture. Taking Antonio Gramsci's conception of Marxism as an "organic ideology" as his point of departure, Althusser defines historicism as a peculiar blend of transitive and expressive causalities (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 126-36). For historicism, all social phenomena, including knowledge itself, are reduced to organic expressions of a totality (for Gramsci, a "historical bloc"), while totalities succeed each other in a contingent, transitive fashion explained in terms of human freedom (for Gramsci, the activity and experience of the masses). Historicism, Althusser contends, privileges social action over the structural conditions of its existence and epistemological relativism over scientific realism. The historicist assimilates all social practices into a single practice, an undifferentiated historical praxis , which is then hypostatized as the autonomous driving force of history. By grounding knowledge in the expressive unity of a "concrete"


totality, the historicist further privileges subjectivism and voluntarism by relativizing the production of knowledge itself. In Gramsci's case this voluntarism took the form of a Marxist "inversion" of the liberal historicism of Benedetto Croce, the Italian neo-Hegelian philosopher of "liberty," but the result is the same for all historicisms, Marxist or otherwise—an awkward combination of expressive causality with respect to the present (a problematic of totality), transitive causality with respect to the past (a problematic of elements and origins), and "experimental" freedom with respect to the future (a problematic of pragmatism: whatever works is true). While Althusser evinces great respect for the "enormous historical and political genius" of Gramsci, especially for his concept of hegemony, he rejects Gramsci's "absolute" historicism in favor of a position that defends the primacy of realism over relativism in philosophy and the explanatory priority of social structures over human practice in history.

Expressive causality presents itself as a complex totality—the infinite interrelationships between Leibniz's monads, the infinite mediations of the Hegelian totality—but in Althusser's view, the apparent complexity of the product of expressive causality conceals an even more basic simplicity. Expressive causality reduces a complex of diverse phenomena to a single, undifferentiated essence such as Geist , pre-established harmony, genetic endowment, and so on. From the perspective of expressive causality, as with transitive causality, the historical process is viewed as a linear continuum within which a single internal principle unfolds its successive moments and the several totalities that follow one another become merely the successive expressions of these successive moments. A cross-section at any point through the historical continuum, as it is conceived under the aegis of expressive causality, will always reveal such a simple essence, what Althusser calls an "essential section": "A vertical break made at any moment in historical time will reveal a totality all of whose parts are so many 'total parts' each expressing the others, and each expressing the social totality that contains them, because each in itself contains the immediate form of its expressions the essence of the totality itself" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 94).

previous sub-section
Chapter 1 Structural Causality, Contradiction, and Social Formations
next sub-section