Preferred Citation: Resch, Robert Paul. Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1992 1992.

Chapter 3 Science, Ideology, and Philosophy

Althusser: The Concept of Ideology and the Ideology of Concepts

The key to such a general interpretation of Althusser's development turns on the realization that, once purged of its theoreticist elements, there is no theoretical incompatibility between his initial distinction between scientific and ideological discourses (a distinction based primarily on their functional characteristics as social practices and only secondarily and indirectly on the philosophical categories of their truth and adequacy) and his later insistence on the historical specificity and social character of scientific and ideological practices (which is no more than his original position divested of its rationalist attempt to invest the terms with epistemological certainty). In his early works, as Althusser himself points out, ideology "plays two different roles, designating, on the one hand, a philosophical category (illusion, error), and a scientific concept (a social instance) on the other" (Althusser 1976, 119). In Essays in Self-Criticism , Althusser rejects not the science/ideology distinction but rather the rationalist interpretation and defense of that distinction: "The science/ideology distinction must be rejected in its general


rationalist perspective. It must be reworked from another point of view, which must split it up into the elements of the complex process of the production of knowledge" (Althusser 1976, 148). Such a "reworking" must begin with functional concepts of science and ideology and attempt to establish their place in the history, not the philosophy, of science.

The scientific concept of ideology, ideology as a social instance, refers to the Lebenswelt of social subjects, their consciousness or "lived experience" of their relationship to the world, and the material institutions and mental structures that constitute individuals as social subjects. This concept of ideology—defined in For Marx and Reading Capital in terms of its subject-centered nature, the fact that ideology is "governed by interests beyond the necessity of knowledge alone, or, to put the same thing slightly differently, because it reflects many interests other than those of reason" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 141)—is maintained consistently throughout the entire course of Althusser's works. Notice, however, that this concept of ideology is functional, not epistemological; it has no necessary connotation of truth or adequacy but merely defines a symbolic system, a social practice and its effects. It is this historical concept that must be the basis of any scientific reference to ideology, including references to ideology from within the history of science as advocated by Althusser in Essays in Self-Criticism .

Scientific practice is defined in Althusser's early works in terms of the primacy of concept-centered or theoretical interests over subject-centered or practical interests. Theoretical practice is "distinguished from non-theoretical processes by the type of object which it transforms, by the type of means of production it sets to work, and by the type of object it produces (knowledges)" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 59). This concept of scientific practice no more depends on categories of truth or adequacy than does the concept of ideology; in the absence of any explicit rejection of this concept in his later works, I believe it is safe to assume that Althusser means to retain it as well. However, it is nevertheless the case that every science historically constitutes itself by "breaking" with the ideological representations which are both conditions of its existence as well as a system of concepts and beliefs which it rejects, retrospectively, as "erroneous." (Althusser refers to "theoretical" as opposed to "practical" ideologies, but his use of the term theoretical ideology is inappropriate here. As we shall see below, Althusser's term seeks to link theoretical positions, ultimately, to the field of practical ideologies. While this is a legitimate and productive move from the


perspective of Althusser's concept of philosophy and the philosophical category of "the scientific," it is not the same phenomenon which I refer to as ideology/error . Although it is clumsy, I shall use the term ideology/error in order to make it clear, as Althusser unfortunately does not, when I am referring to a judgment of "error" pronounced from within a science on explanations and explanatory principles that have been rejected or superseded.)

When ideology/error exists as the "other" of a science, axiological distinctions (of "true-false" or "adequate-inadequate") are introduced into the history of science. In For Marx and Reading Capital , of course, Althusser attempted to guarantee philosophically the axiological claims of science by transforming the scientific-substantive concepts of science and ideology/error into philosophical-epistemological categories of truth and falsity—which he then proceeded to defend as scientific propositions within a rationalist "science of science," the Theory of theoretical practice. By this unfortunate move Althusser not only confused the concepts of ideology and ideology/error but also subordinated both the historical development of science (science and ideology/error) and the historical struggle between science (knowledge) and ideology (interests) to the ahistorical Neverland of philosophy, pure reason, and epistemological absolutism.

However, by abandoning his initial rationalist or theoreticist interpretation of the distinction between science and ideology/error, Althusser has clearly reasserted the primacy of science over philosophy , historical materialism over dialectical materialism, and by virtue of these moves has redefined philosophy as a Kampfplatz between science and ideology. Divested of its theoreticist connotations, the concept of ideology/error as the "other of science" is a concept essential for any knowledge of the development of science, and in this sense the science/ideology distinction must be retained within the problematic of the history of science. However, from a historical-scientific perspective, the distinction between science and ideology/error can have no recourse to epistemological absolutism and therefore no reference to philosophical categories of truth or adequacy. The distinction, in short, exists as a concept only as a means of constituting a specific theoretical object, scientific practice, and providing historical knowledge of its development. From within the problematic of the history of science, a given science and its ideology/error are both comprehended as theoretical modes of production whose "knowledge effects" purport to explain something about the world. The only difference between them, from


the point of view of the history of science, is that ideology/error exists (and only exists) in a historically specific relation to a science, a relationship that is always that of loser to winner. While the history of science can comprehend both the debate and the outcome in theoretical and historical terms, it cannot sit in judgment regarding the truth of either position. Of course, the struggle for supremacy between a science and its ideology/error is not always confined to the narrow domain of science; often it is or becomes a broader struggle, one that is both theoretical (conducted in terms of existing standards of reason and knowledge) and ideological (conducted in terms of existing social values and interests). This broader struggle, Althusser insists, is philosophical, not scientific.

From the standpoint of the actual production of knowledge, epistemological debates are largely irrelevant. Sciences rarely, if ever, bother with philosophical debates, tending as they do to take their theoretical object and what Lakatos calls the "hard core" of their problematic as axiomatic. Of course, philosophical debates over science do take place, and these debates are often of great historical significance, involving as they do the assimilation or repression of a particular knowledge effect, a particular theoretical practice, and perhaps even the category of scientific practice itself. Althusser's rejection of theoreticism, the idea that epistemological certainty may be achieved by philosophical means, does not imply a weakening of his philosophical commitment to scientific realism or a rejection of his earlier views regarding the theoretical importance of philosophical practice. If anything, his new conception of philosophy intensifies his support for these positions. "Once we have distinguished between the scientific concept of science and the philosophical category," Althusser contends, "we see that the philosophical category is something to be fought for, it is not a given—and the place that it is fought for is philosophy" (Althusser 1976, 116). According to Althusser, what is at stake is knowledge of the world as interpreted by the criteria of contemporary science, and the philosophical basis of the struggle is the acceptance (or rejection) of precisely this world and precisely these criteria.

By characterizing philosophy as "class struggle in theory" in his later works, Althusser seeks to affirm, not deny, the substantive and objective nature of scientific knowledge and to call attention to the material presence of knowledge effects outside the hermetic realm of theoretical production. Knowledges, he argues, have a disruptive, contradictory, and potentially subversive nature because they come into existence in op-


position to ideological levels of understanding, and by virtue of this opposition they necessarily conflict with the material interests invested in a non-scientific explanation of things. Insofar as society is structured by class struggle, knowledge of "how things really work" always has a "stake" that extends beyond science by way of philosophy into ideology and politics. However, it is important to remember that Althusser is not implying that philosophy is just class struggle any more than it is just theory. If philosophy is distinct from science by virtue of the political and ideological stakes invested in its theoretical activity, it is also distinct from ideology in its rational methodology and its dependence on the substantive results of scientific practice. Although philosophy produces no knowledge, it remains a necessary aspect of the knowledge process. In contrast to scientific concepts , which are substantive and which exist in relation to a theoretical object, philosophical categories are formal and have no theoretical object. However, because philosophical practice is contingent on the prior existence of the very knowledge over which it debates, and because the debates themselves must be rational in form, Althusser maintains that the ideological interests animating the positions taken with respect to knowledge must be articulated in terms that favor the victory of science.

Althusser's concepts of science and ideology as social practices imply a practice of philosophy that might be called "limited rationalism" (which assumes only the formal validity of logic, without which the activity of philosophy is incomprehensible) as opposed to the "grand rationalism" of the "Theory of theoretical practice" (which seeks to establish something about reality from the laws of logic). If philosophy must abandon epistemological absolutism, scientific concepts must be defended in terms of their adequacy rather than their truth. From such a limited rationalist position, the axiological superiority of science over ideology/error remains defensible in terms of Althusser's materialist theses of ontological realism and epistemological relativism (without which the existence and intelligibility of science itself are incomprehensible). The assumption that the world postulated by both ideology and science is really there (that thought about the real logically presupposes the existence of reality independent of thought) justifies the claim that the thresholds of formalization that distinguish science from ideology/error provide not absolute truth (the abolition of the distinction between the real and thought about the real, the outcome of all rationalisms in the grand manner) but relative truth (affirmation of the distinction between the real and thought about the real, but also affirmation


of the intelligibility and relative adequacy of thought—the modest but far from insignificant outcome of limited rationalism). Ontological realism and epistemological relativism cannot be proved by Althusser, of course, any more than they can be refuted by his opponents, but this is precisely the reason that Althusser continues to stress the necessity (and importance) of philosophy even after he abandons the claim that it has anything substantive to say about the production of knowledge.

This overview of Althusser's theoretical development anticipates a more detailed discussion of the issues it has raised. However, it should give the reader sufficient grasp of Althusser's general position to enable him or her to avoid the simplistic errors and misleading interpretations that proliferate in the existing secondary literature (which has largely missed the continuity between Althusser's early and later writings and which has frequently, often willfully, misrepresented Althusser's self-criticisms).[7] Having clarified matters somewhat, I will proceed to Althusser's account of Marx's Capital as the originary moment of the science of history and from there to a renewed investigation of the concepts of science, philosophy, and ideology that I have as yet addressed only summarily.

Chapter 3 Science, Ideology, and Philosophy

Preferred Citation: Resch, Robert Paul. Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1992 1992.