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

Beyond Rationalism: Philosophy as Class Struggle in Theory

If Althusser was guilty of theoretically overestimating philosophy in his early works, he underestimated it politically. As he himself points out in the 1967 preface to the Italian translation of For Marx , "I left vague [in For Marx ] the difference distinguishing philosophy from science that constitutes philosophy proper: the organic relation between every philosophy as a theoretical discipline even within its theoretical forms of existence and exigencies, and politics " (Althusser 1969, 15). In proposing a new concept of philosophy as "class struggle in theory," Althusser not only abandons his earlier project of a general and independent philosophy but also defends a "new practice" of philosophy, a practice located on a specific terrain between ideological and scientific practice. In Essays in Self-Criticism , Althusser explains the change in his concept of philosophy:

(1) Philosophy is not Absolute Knowledge; it is neither the Science of Sciences nor the Science of Practices. . . . [I]t does not possess Absolute Truth, either about any science or about any practice. In particular, it does not possess the Absolute Truth about, nor power over political practice. On the contrary, Marxism affirms the primacy of politics over philosophy. (2) But philosophy is nevertheless not "the servant of politics," as philosophy was once "the servant of theology": because of its position in theory and of its "relative autonomy ." (3) What is at stake in philosophy is the real problems of the social practices. As philosophy is not (a) science, its relation to these problems is not a technical relation of application . Philosophy does not provide formulae to be "applied." Philosophy cannot be applied. Philosophy works in quite a different way: by modifying the position of the problems, by modifying the relation between the practices and their object. (Althusser 1976, 58, n. 18)

For Althusser, science and politics together define the conditions of existence as well as the criteria of intelligibility of all philosophical practice. However, philosophy cannot be reduced to either the one or the other; in fact, it exerts an influence of its own on politics and theory. Philosophy, "because of its abstraction, rationality and system . . . is 'in' the field of theory," Althusser explains, "but it is not (a) science" (Althusser 1976, 37). Philosophy has no part in the production of knowledges, yet "outside of its relationship to the sciences, philosophy


would not exist" (Althusser 1990, 109). Borrowing a phrase from Lenin, Althusser describes the function of philosophy as "drawing a dividing line" between science and ideology, producing, in Althusser's words, "critical distinctions: that is . . . 'sorting out' or separating ideas from each other, and even . . . forging the appropriate ideas for making their separation and its necessity visible" (Althusser 1990, 75). Philosophy intervenes in the field of science and "theoretical ideologies"—for Althusser, theoretical ideologies are "in the last instance . . . forms of practical ideology transformed within theory" (Althusser 1990, 106)—to create something new: a categorical distinction between "the scientific" and "the ideological," a philosophical-epistemological distinction couched in theoretical-scientific language but permeated throughout by political-ideological values.

Philosophy intervenes in the indistinct reality in which the sciences, theoretical ideologies and philosophy itself figure. . . . The result of philosophical intervention . . . is to draw, in this indistinct reality, a line of demarcation that separates, in each case, the scientific from the ideological. This line of demarcation may be completely covered over, denied or effaced in most philosophies: it is essential to their existence, despite the denegation. Its denegation is simply the common form of its existence. . . . [T]he enigma of philosophy is contained in the difference between the reality in which it intervenes (the domain of the sciences + theoretical ideologies + philosophy) and the result that its intervention produces (the distinction between the scientific and the ideological ). This difference appears in the form of a difference between words . . . on the one hand nouns; on the other, their adjectival forms. . . . Is this not simply a nominal distinction, a terminological difference and therefore merely apparent? . . . [D]oes not the whole of philosophy consist simply in repeating . . . what is already inscribed in reality? Hence in modifying words without producing anything new? Yes, philosophy acts by modifying words and their order. But they are theoretical words, and it is difference between words that allows something new in reality, something that was hidden and covered, to be seen . The expression the scientific is not identical to the expression the sciences ; the expression the ideological is not identical to the expression theoretical ideologies . . . . 'The scientific' and 'the ideological' are philosophical categories and the contradictory couple they form is brought to light by philosophy. . . . [T]he result of the philosophical intervention, the line that reveals the scientific and the ideological by separating them, is entirely philosophical . (Althusser 1990, 106-7)

Philosophy is a discursive domain in which science is assimilated by society, a necessary but not necessarily a smooth process. Often philosophy "draws a dividing line" between conflicting positions represented within the political and ideological spheres by practical and theoretical


ideologies on the one hand and scientific knowledges on the other. The result may be spectacular and bitterly contested confrontations, which are ultimately, in Althusser's view, struggles for power. This should not really surprise us, Althusser explains, for while science is objective (relatively less subject-centered and more formally rigorous than ideology), it is never neutral: science is always against ideology/error, and the latter always reflects material conditions and practical interests. While knowledge defines the nature of scientific practice, power defines the "stakes" resulting from the production of new knowledge effects, and for Althusser, the two cannot be adequately thought in isolation from each other. Philosophy is always an intervention in this power struggle. The process of drawing a dividing line between science and ideology, Althusser reminds us, "irresistibly recalls a seizure of power or an installation in power . . . . A seizure of power is political, it does not have an object, it has a stake, precisely the power, and an aim, the effect of that power" (Althusser 1971, 58). The dividing line, in other words, is drawn within the realm of theory but not in the realm of science. It is drawn precisely at the intersection of science and ideology, a state of affairs that leads Althusser to envisage philosophy as a political intervention carried out in theoretical form. The tension between its political-ideological and its theoretical-scientific aspects constitute the specific effectivity of what Althusser calls the "philosophy effect."

Philosophy fulfills its function by means of a discourse distinct from

Philosophy fulfills its function by means of a discourse distinct from both ideological and scientific discourse. In contrast to ideology, philosophy is not necessarily restricted to subject-centered discourse, which is to say that it may be theoretical. However, unlike science, the discourse of philosophy lacks both a theoretical object as well as substantive concepts that may be developed or corrected to provide a growing body of knowledge. Philosophy, Althusser insists, makes no advances or breaks. New philosophical categories emerge, to be sure, but for Althusser these are simply new ways of elaborating a never-ending opposition between idealism and materialism.

The history of philosophy [is] . . . the history of an age-old struggle between two tendencies: idealism and materialism. . . . [However,] it is impossible to prove [the ultimate principles of materialism or idealism] because they cannot be the object of a knowledge . . . comparable with that of science which does prove the properties of its objects. So philosophy has no object . . . If nothing happens in philosophy it is precisely because it has no object. If something actually does happen in the sciences, it is because they do have


an object, knowledge of which they can increase, which gives them a history . As philosophy has no object, nothing can happen in it. The nothing of its history simply repeats the nothing of its object. (Althusser 1971, 54-57)

What philosophy has for its "object," according to Althusser, is in fact not an object at all but a position, the demarcation that it traces between science and ideology. For Althusser, philosophical practice is rational but dogmatic. Philosophy is rational by virtue of the laws of formal logic that it deploys, but insofar as it has a substantive position, it is "parasitic" on the knowledge effects that it defends or rejects (for reasons that are ultimately ideological). Althusser maintains that all philosophical practice, including his own, operates by means of a transformation of substantive concepts, expressed in the form of a scientific problematic, into dogmatic categories, expressed in the form of theses. Both philosophical theses and categories are dogmatic, Althusser explains, in the sense that, unlike the substantive propositions of a scientific discourse, they are susceptible to neither formal demonstration nor empirical proof: "they are not susceptible to demonstration in the strictly scientific sense (in the sense that we speak of demonstration in mathematics or in logic), nor to proof in the strictly scientific sense (in the sense that we speak of proof in the experimental sciences)" (Althusser 1990, 74). For Althusser, philosophical propositions are, in Timothy O'Hagan's words, "both unprovable and lacking in truth value insofar as they are (a) particular , having a function and meaning only in relation to the political and scientific conjuncture in which they are made and (b) practical , enjoining us to adopt certain conceptualizations, analogies, models and in particular, lines of distinction and demarcation, which foster or hinder the emergence and development of particular phases of scientific knowledge, but do not themselves constitute such knowledge" (O'Hagan 1981, 244).

Because philosophical discourse is contingent on the substantive effects of science and ideology, Althusser insists that it is never true/false or adequate/inadequate, in a scientific sense, but merely "correct or incorrect" in a pragmatic sense. "What might 'correct' [juste ] signify?" he asks rhetorically. "To give an initial idea: the attribute 'true' implies, above all, a relation to theory; the attribute 'correct' above all a relation to practice (Thus: a correct decision, a just [juste ] war, a correct line)" (Althusser 1990, 75). For Althusser, philosophy always addresses practical questions: How do we orient ourselves in thought and in politics? What is to be done? However, philosophy is neither a gratuitous operation nor a speculative activity. "One cannot understand the task, de-


terminant in the last instance, of philosophy except in relation to the exigencies of the class struggle in ideology—in other words, the central question of hegemony, of the constitution of the dominant ideology" (Althusser 1990, 258). Philosophy "decomposes and recomposes science and other discourses in order to place them under its hegemony—an operation which endows the whole operation of philosophy with significance. In order to distribute its objects in this order philosophy has to dominate them, this necessity compels philosophy to take power over them" (Althusser 1990, 252). Philosophy reorganizes scientific practice within the "systematic unity" of its Truth in order to facilitate the unification of the dominant ideology and to guarantee this dominant ideology as Truth.

As a Kampfplatz where the distinction between "the scientific" and "the ideological" is defined, the political significance of philosophy is, for Althusser, nothing but the obverse of its theoretical necessity. While there can be, strictly speaking, no history of philosophy according to Althusser, there is most certainly a history in philosophy. Philosophy, Althusser explains, characteristically intervenes in scientific practice at points of "crisis," those periods when "a science confronts scientific problems which cannot be resolved by the existing theoretical means or (and) that call into question the coherence of the earlier theory . . . either . . . a contradiction between a new problem and the existing theoretical means, or (and) . . . a disturbance of the entire theoretical edifice" (Althusser 1990, 109-10). Althusser alludes to several such moments of "crisis"—the crisis of irrational numbers in Greek mathematics, the crisis of modern physics at the end of the nineteenth century, the crisis of modern mathematics triggered by set theory in the early twentieth century—but he is more concerned with the spontaneous philosophical reactions to these crises on the part of scientists than with the content of the crises themselves. "In a 'crisis,' Althusser notes wryly, "we discover that savants themselves can begin to 'manufacture' philosophy. Inside every savant, there sleeps a philosopher " (Althusser 1990, 111). The spontaneous philosophy of scientists, having both idealist and materialist elements, may provoke a variety of responses to a given theoretical crisis, up to and including what Althusser calls a "reaction of capitulation" where scientists "go outside" science altogether in order to evaluate scientific practice from some extra-scientific, moralistic standpoint.

In the case of the crisis of physics, for example, many scientists abandoned belief both in the validity of scientific knowledge and in the ex-


istence of matter. Althusser condemns such an idealist response as regressive, yet he sees it as symptomatic of the way in which philosophy "exploits" science in the interests of some practical purpose or ideology.

The vast majority of philosophies, be they religious, spiritualist or idealist, maintain a relation of exploitation with the sciences. Which means: the sciences are never seen for what they really are; their existence, their limits, their growing pains (baptized "crises"), or their mechanisms, as interpreted by idealist categories of the most well-informed philosophies, are used from outside; they may be used crudely or subtly, but they are used to furnish arguments or guarantees for extra-scientific values that the philosophies in question objectively serve through their own practice, their "questions" and their "theories." These "values" pertain to practical ideologies , which play their own role in the social cohesion and social conflicts of class societies. (Althusser 1990, 129)

The materialist philosophical intervention, by contrast, resists this explicit or immanent move to idealism and combats all anti-scientific positions. The materialist philosophical intervention does not produce the distinction between science and ideology—that distinction exists as soon as scientific practice exists—but it does apply the philosophical (and thus categorical) distinction between the scientific and the ideological to a particular area, allowing us to see where the distinction lies by revealing the materialist and idealist components within a particular discourse. For Althusser, a materialist position in philosophy consists of a unity of three terms: object/theory/method. By object , Althusser understands an external object with a material existence; by theory , an objective scientific knowledge or theory; by method , scientific method (Althusser 1990, 135). Materialism must defend itself against an idealist tendency to privilege the subjectivity of experience over the objectivity of reality. The threat of idealism—latent in philosophical modernism from Kant to empirio-criticism—is finally realized in a postmodern move that releases subjective experience from its subordination to the materialist principle of ontological realism. The result is ontological relativism: the materialist unity, object/theory/method, is replaced by an idealist unity, experiment/models/techniques. "When experience (which is, note well, something very different from experimentation) is promoted to the highest position, and when one speaks of models instead of theory, we are not simply changing two words: a slippage of meaning is provoked, or better, one meaning is obscured by another, and the first, materialist, meaning disappears under the second, idealist, meaning" (Althusser 1990, 135).


According to Althusser, a materialist position in philosophy always facilitates the progress of science. A materialist position in philosophy, as we have seen in the case of Marx, constitutes, for Althusser, a precondition for the birth of a new science—an epistemological break that in its turn initiates a new crisis, not in science, but rather in ideology and philosophy. Althusser disparages the theoretical significance of many of the so-called crises of science. To the "crisis" of physics, the "disappearance" of matter, for example, Althusser responds by insisting that physics is not in crisis but in growth. "Matter has not 'disappeared,' the scientific concept of matter alone has changed in content, and it will go on changing in the future for the process of knowledge is infinite in its object" (Althusser 1971, 49-50). The problem, Althusser insists, is not in physics (the concept of matter) but in philosophy (the category of matter): "it is absolutely necessary to distinguish between the philosophical category of matter and its scientific concept. . . . Those materialists who apply philosophical categories to the objects of the sciences as if they were concepts of them are involved in a case of mistaken identity" (Althusser 1971, 50).

According to Althusser, Marxist philosophy does not exploit science; instead, it serves science by defending the materialist position in philosophy. Marxist philosophy does not attempt to transform philosophy into a science. It is still philosophy, but the scientific knowledge of ideology provided by the science of history makes Marxist philosophy a "correct" philosophy. "In the absence of an absolute guarantee (something that does not exist except in idealist philosophy, and we know what to think of that), there are arguments we can present [in defense of materialism]. They are both practical (they can be judged by comparing the services which we can render the sciences) and theoretical (the critical check on the inevitable effects of ideology on philosophy through a knowledge of the mechanisms of ideology and ideological struggle, by a knowledge of their action on philosophy)" (Althusser 1990, 131).

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.