On the Subject of Theoretical Practice
William S. Lewis in dialogue with David McInerney
The following dialogue between David McInerney and William S. Lewis is based on an earlier dialogue concerning drafts of William Lewis's new book, Louis Althusser and the Traditions of French Marxism (Lexington Books, 2005), and his recent article in Rethinking Marxism. In many ways following Althusser's introduction ('Unfinished History') to Dominique Lecourt's book on Trofim D. Lysenko ( Proletarian Science? The Case of Lysenko , NLB, 1977), Bill's forthcoming book is an attempt to think through the relations between theory and politics within the history of the French Communist Party, considering not only the theoreticians of the PCF (from the 1920s onwards) but also their relations to 'academic Marxism' (e.g., Lefebvre) and existentialists such as Sartre.
David McInerney: Your forthcoming book provides a long overdue - at least in English - account of the political and theoretical context in which Althusser's work appeared, namely that of the peculiar development of French Marxism in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution. In your book you discuss the changing 'line' of the PCF, and Althusser's preoccupation - at least from the course on philosophy and science of 1967 onwards - with the importance of 'correction' in philosophy, which Althusser, especially from Lenin and Philosophy (1968) onwards, described in terms of 'pushing' thought to extremes or 'bending' the stick in the opposite direction. Can you say more about this notion of 'correctness' and 'correction' in Althusser's later work on philosophy, and how this might relate to first, Althusser's materialism, and, second, not only his self-criticism (of his early work on 'dialectical materialism' as the 'Theory of theoretical practice') but also his critique of the various strands in French Marxism that you discuss in your book?
William Lewis: Well, in order to better answer this question, I would first like to separate Althusser's "bending the stick in the opposite direction" from his concerns about correctness. Yes, at certain times and in certain texts, the two do seem very closely related. However, the notion of correction" (justesse) and the related notions of "error," "thesis," "line," and "deviation" can and need to be understood on their own. When introduced during his "Cours de philosophie pour scientifiques" (1967), the adoption of these categories marked a major change in his epistemology and in his understanding of the relationship between economic, scientific, philosophical, ideological and political practices. In my book, I spend some time explaining why this shift is both necessary and important. To summarize some of these points here, Althusser makes clear in "Éléments d'auto-critique" (1972) that theses are not to be judged as either erroneous or correct by virtue of whether they correspond to externally existing, real objects (the positivist criterion). Neither, he maintains, are theses to be judged exclusively by virtue of their accordance with techniques and procedures established by a particular science (as was his argument in Reading Capital). Rather, theses are to be evaluated by how - as a group - they function to defend or advance certain class positions. Overcoming error and getting a thesis or a group of theses to be correct is not an easy task. Drawing on some of Althusser's examples from the "Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists," it is apparent that this process of "adjustment" may and should involve extensive dialogue between scientists, the public and materialist philosophers in order to arrive at a correct line. A thesis is not just "counter-spin." For instance, one cannot combat a thesis like "more black people than white people are poor because blacks are congenitally lazy" with the thesis that "black people are poor only because they face structural barriers to economic advancement." If the latter statement claims scientific status, then it must be linked to other scientific theses that support the position that this conclusion is correct and that suggest that the laziness thesis is erroneous. If this is done, then the anti-racist, radical democratic statement has a chance of taking a position stronger than the merely ideological one maintained by the first thesis. Potentially, it then has the possibility of reconfiguring conceptions.
Given the sometimes close proximity of Althusser's development of the categories of correctness and error to his comments about trying to "bend the stick back" (especially those made during his doctoral defense at Amiens), it does seem that Althusser was suggesting that this work be taken as an instance of such bending or correction. To me, this example is simultaneously instructive and unfortunate. Instructively, the philosophical theses that Althusser advanced in the early 1960s about the prerogative of scientists to determine truth and about the ability of Theory to clarify this truth do appear as a group of radical claims that, directly opposing Stalinist theses, work to combat them. In a theoretical "tug-of-war" with Stalinist propositions, these claims might have had the result of encouraging the party to take a more moderate, more "truly" Marxist position. One problem with this example though is that, despite the fact that he was able to convince some intellectuals and students to abandon Stalinist claims, Althusser's theses by and large did not enable theoretical reform within the Party. Thus it is difficult to see this "combat" as a strong example of what correct theses can accomplish. A second problem is that, as Althusser admits, the theses that he advanced were not correct, or materialist, or scientific, but were "theoreticist." Therefore, they could not have worked in the same way nor generated the same kind of reaction as more tenable claims. The third problem with this account is its revisionism: nowhere in his published or unpublished writings have I found a place where Althusser suggests that he understood his arguments to be merely strategic. Quite the contrary, most of the evidence suggests that Althusser was in the early 1960s sincerely trying to be a good philosopher and to work out a tenable Marxist ontology and conceptual schema. Between 1960 and 1965, Althusser simply did not see theory as principally strategic. In 1966 though, he changed his views. After this change, he no longer argued that Theory guarantees truth but that philosophy functions strategically to undermine, or reinforce certain class positions. As I suggest in my book and as I am trying to state more clearly now in a series of articles that develop an Althusserian critical social theory, I think his later position to be the more tenable one. That the theses he advanced in the early 1960s did not bring the Party back to a correct line is not, I believe, a reason to reject Althusser's meta-thesis that philosophical and scientific theses combat other theses and that victories in the battle between groups of contested claims change political and ideological relations. To better prove his point though, Althusser perhaps should have made a less theoreticist argument and picked as a test case an organization with less entrenched lines than those of the PCF!
DM: On the subject of Althusser's materialism and his early (i.e., pre- 1967 and especially 1962-65) work on philosophy, can you elaborate on the discussion of the concept of 'theoretical practice' in your book? It seems that you, along with Jason Read (in a forthcoming paper on this issue submitted to Rethinking Marxism) have focused on the materialist content of that concept - namely, its insistence on the fact that theory is always a practice, embodied in texts, institutions, and bodily gestures (in short, in its effects) - whereas commentators (both sympathetic and hostile) in the 1970s tended to take it as an elevation of the 'immaterial' , the 'ideal', to an equal footing with the 'material' (understood, in this crude typology, as 'the economic') and thus evidence not of materialism but rather of idealism. The difference between Althusser's work on philosophy before and after 1967 would seem, therefore, to relate to the difference in the relation of philosophy to the sciences. The category of 'Science' disappears and it is always 'the sciences' and 'the scientific' that are under discussion from 1967 onwards, and philosophy is no longer in a legislative role relative to the sciences but rather represents a terrain of struggle within theory and the intervention of the political within the theoretical. At this point the concept of 'theoretical practice' seems to disappear within Althusser's work, together with a related concept of 'theoretical mode of production', despite the fact that Althusser develops the thesis of the materiality of ideology - and, presumably, by extension the thesis of the materiality of discourse, which Warren Montag has attributed to Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish - after that point, in the 'ISAs essay' of 1969-70. Can you elaborate here on how you understand the continuities in Althusser's work regarding the materiality of theory, and what (in your view) might have been some of the conjunctural reasons for the disappearance of the category of 'theoretical practice' from Althusser's writings in the period of self-criticism?
WL: Well, first off, I'm not sure that the notion of theoretical practice disappeared. It is certainly the case though that the practice the term designated did change. Before I address how it changed as well as its continuities, I would like to say something about the materiality of practices that you begin your question with. I quite agree with your characterization that many commentators labeled Althusser an idealist because he put ideological and political practices on the same ontological level as economic practices. Labeling Althusser an idealist may be better than the alternative critical position (which was to label him a determinist and apologist for Stalin), but I'm not sure. In the preface to For Marx, Althusser states that he offered the essays contained in the book as an alternative to two traditions in French Marxism: dogmatic Marxism-Leninism and Humanist or Western Marxism. In addition to attributing a spirit to history and to seeing the concept of alienation as foundational to any Marxian analysis, philosophers in the latter tradition had a tendency to collapse diverse social and economic processes into one reciprocal dialectical process of transformation. Our conceptions of the world, they argued, were not only caused and changed by economic processes, but our conceptions of the world also had the power to cause changes to economic processes. Given this relationship, these philosophers argued that advances in art and culture will lead to revolutionary transformations and to total human liberation. I don't think it would be an overstatement to say that Althusser hated this idea. For him, the mechanics of revolutionary transformation were much more complex. Something like Brecht's "Epic" theater, for instance, would never be sufficient to occasion revolutionary change. One only has to look at "On the Materialist Dialectic" (1963) and his reconstruction of the notion of uneven development in this essay in order to get an idea of how many practices he thought needed to change, and in precise and related ways, for a revolution to occur. Certainly, Althusser did not believe that we could imagine and communicate our way to revolution (or to "socio-economic change," if one wants to down-grade his rhetoric). Though he later changed his ideas about the relations between economic, political, ideological, and philosophical practices, I don't think that he ever began to argue that any one of them was primary and that the others were merely epiphenomenal. Neither did he argue that changing one necessarily changed the others. Rather, he insisted that each practice had its own "logic" or mode of being and that all were equally real. This last claim is difficult to grasp and the failure to grasp it was probably what lead to the two types of criticism made of Althusser noted above. Given the history of modern philosophy, which has alternated between arguments maintaining that thought produces (or is) the real and arguments maintaining that the material is the real that gives rise to thought, this is an easy mistake to make. Althusser's insistence that arguments are built with materials that are just as real as the materials houses are built with seems counter-intuitive. It is not, however, an unprecedented position. C. S. Peirce, for instance, championed this kind of realism. Further, this robust realism has the unique advantage of demanding that every practice be dealt with in its autonomy and in its relations to other practices. If it is the case that cultural practices cannot be reduced to economic practices, then we have to pay attention to both of them both in our critical/theoretical work and in our practical work intended to change interrelated practices. Though I have not seen Jason Read's new essay, I do think that, in his recent book, he does a good job with such analyses, particularly in his chapter on "primitive accumulation."
As you mentioned near the end of your question, it is the case that Althusser's ontology or schematization of real practices does change over the course of his career. It is also true that his understanding of the relationships between these practices change and that "theoretical practice" as he originally advanced it seems to drop out. I mentioned the changes to his understanding of philosophy in my response to the last question when I suggested that philosophy becomes a merely critical practice, but I did not talk much about the switch from talking about "science" to "the sciences" or about the apparent abandonment of the notion of theoretical practice. Very briefly then, in Althusser's earlier work, idealism of the sort that wants to know totalities and truth is everywhere evident. To say that there is something called Science over and above specific scientific practices reflects such an idealist tendency, one that is somewhat at odds with what Althusser defines practices to be: namely, things done by humans to produce some product. In his first and classical formulation, philosophy was that theoretical practice that guaranteed this knowledge. In his second formulation, it was only understood to critique it. Theoretical practice, as I understand it, still went on in Althusser's work and it is still what philosophy does. However, post-1967, its purpose was understood to be analytic and critical rather than synthetic and verificatory.
DM: In your book you discuss an important aspect of Althusser's writing of the mid to late 1970s - namely his abandonment of the language of the dialectic. To me this has always seemed like one of the most interesting periods of Althusser's work, and I have always been somewhat dismayed by the way that commentators - at least in the 1970s and 1980s - were so wedded to the works of the early 1960s precisely because their formalism (of which Althusser was so critical) allowed the construction of an 'Althusserian philosophy' (as opposed to an Althusserian practice in philosophy) that could be construed as a 'structuralist Marxism' (so that later self-criticisms or developments - such as 'aleatory materialism' - could be interpreted as a 'post-structuralist' abandonment of that 'structuralist Marxism'). While this change seems 'symptomatic' of a shift in Althusser's politics in the opinion of certain commentators, recent investigations have suggested that interpretations of this shift in Althusser's terminology in terms of a shift towards a 'Eurocommunist' position (like that of Poulantzas) are mistaken, and your use of 'language of the dialectic' suggests that you see a continuity within Althusser's work such that this 'abandonment' did represent only an abandonment of the language of dialectics, rather than a fundamental shift in Althusser's thinking. Indeed, I would suggest that, just as Althusser (in his preface to Capital) suggests that the epistemological break in Marx was not 'achieved' in 1845 but rather represents the leading edge of a rupture that opens up within Marx's work and produces more and more effects within Marx's work throughout his life, so that only one or two late works seem to be entirely free of the Hegelian problematic something similar can be said with regard to Althusser's work, so that the break that Gregory Elliott (in his essay 'Fateful rendezvous: The young Althusser') identifies as occurring in Althusser's work in the early 1950s (c.f. The Spectre of Hegel) was only the leading edge of something that worked itself out in terms of continuing and unanticipated effects within Althusser's work throughout his life and even now, in the 'literary reproduction' (Macherey 1999) represented by our readings of his work. Can you elaborate for our readers how you understand the shifts and continuities in Althusser's work with regard to this language of dialectics, and how this might be related to the emergence of the concept of 'aleatory materialism' in texts such as Machiavelli and Us?
WL: I agree with your general characterization that the importance of the dialectic is progressively diminished in Althusser's thought. This is not to say that you cannot find late texts where he makes use of dialectical logic. For instance in his 1978 "Cours sur le mode d'exposition chez Marx," Althusser uses dialectics to argue that, for Marx, all explanation departs from determinate abstractions in order to end with critical knowledge of reality. In general, however, the dialectic is, over time, progressively downplayed. Of course, this diminution starts much earlier than the 1970s with the denials in his "classic" texts that history has a necessary logic and that natural phenomena transform themselves according to dialectical laws. However, it takes Althusser longer to dethrone the dialectic from its privileged place in epistemology and logic than it does for him to remove it from its place in historical and natural explanation. Even in his late work on aleatory materialism, it is not totally weeded out. For me, and perhaps also for Althusser (and this may account for why he never totally abandons dialectic), it is not apparent that dialectic need be totally excised. There are some situations where dialectical logic and dialectical description seem totally appropriate. For instance, in the description of phenomena like biological supervenience or in the explanation of how personal and public knowledge changes, dialectical accounts seem to work fairly well (at least as preliminary formulations before science has thoroughly investigated these phenomena). However, to identify Marxism exclusively with the dialectic limits our ability to know and to work in a rich reality that we experience in a plurality of ways. Limiting ourselves to dialectical explanations precludes or distorts the knowledge of what may be non-dialectical processes and too hastily proscribes the application of non-dialectical logics. These logics may prove quite useful. Though he ends up championing dialectical logic, Henri Lefebvre is quite good in his Logique formelle, logique dialectique (1947) at showing where and how formal logic is rightly used in scientific inquiry. To me, this point would seem to hold for value theory as well. One does not always have to resort to genealogy or to historical materialist analysis to show that certain positions held by dominant groups in society are wrong. Sometimes, one only needs to show that they are contradictory or inconsistent in order to enable change to occur.
Getting back to Althusser's attempt to abandon or downplay the "dialectic" part of dialectical materialism, it should be noted that, all too often, this abandonment was rhetorically rather than philosophically justified. As Lucien Sève pointed out in a 1995 essay on Althusser and the dialectic, Althusser often misquoted Marx to justify his own abandonment of dialectic and he dismissed or (even worse) did not read what Marx had written on the dialectic. Sève points this out so that he can dismiss Althusser's understanding of the dialectic as naïve or contradictory. At times, I am sympathetic to this dismissal. Really, I wish that Althusser had done more work explaining exactly why Marxist philosophy need not rely upon the dialectic and on developing an alternative materialist method of inquiry. I also wish that he had been more consistent in rejecting the dialectic on philosophical or practical grounds rather than relying on the rhetorical argument that, because Marx rid himself of it, we should as well. As you also indicate with your comment about The Spectre of Hegel, I recognize that getting over the dialectic is a hard thing to do. This is true even if we realize that there is a need for this abandonment. When one first reads The Science of Logic or The Phenomenology of Spirit, everything seems to fall into place and logics based upon identity and non-contradiction appear totally inadequate. When one then starts using dialectics to explain the world and they seem to work very well (at least in thought), this tendency is cemented. Like Althusser, there is a long line of thinkers who came up against the obstacles of historical events or of new experiences that served to debunk or contradict dialectical claims. For Althusser, Marx is certainly the most important person in this line.
Nonetheless, I think that one can also look instructively at someone like John Dewey. Profoundly influenced by Hegel early in his career, he tried throughout his life to arrive at better methods of inquiry than positivist and dialectical approaches provided. Though he does a great job overcoming positivism's dichotomies, his idea of inquiry and his explanations of natural and social change always have a dialectical ring to them. With Althusser, I believe that we see much the same thing: once he has internalized the pattern, dialectic thinking sits deep and is difficult to overcome. This is true despite his increasing realization that it is not the best the model for explaining natural phenomena, for thinking, or for all inquiry. In regard to the question of his abandonment of the dialectic in his late work on aleatory materialism, I seem to be in the minority of people in that I regard these texts as unnecessary and as less than enlightening. Yes, I can see how one could see them as being the philosophical work that Althusser needed to do in order to free Marxism from its reliance upon the dialectic and thus as the logical end to this process of purgation. And, yes, a universe of chance and necessity sure sounds like a better starting point for Althusser's materialism than a deterministic one. However, this work's status in relation to the rest of his oeuvre stands to me like Nietzsche's idea of eternal recurrence stands to his naturalism and to his moral philosophy: the metaphysical idea that appears to justify certain positions in fact only provides a mythic background for positions that have already been justified by experience and argument. The "just so" story is nice, but not necessary.
DM: Considering the recent postmodern critiques of 'Science', it seems to me that the philosophical categories of 'the scientific' and 'the ideological' have been abandoned prematurely, when it was really the ideological notion of 'Science' - which Althusser himself abandoned after 1965 - that needed to be abandoned. Instead, postmodern critics of epistemology have attempted to retain this concept of 'Science' and to weld Marx and Althusser to it in an attempt to abandon the central categories of historical materialism, such as the social relations of production and surplus-labour. This has not been the case with respect to the work of the 'postmodern Marxists' Stephen Resnick and Richard D. Wolff, who have put forward an 'anti-essentialist' and 'postmodern' Marxism that presumably can exist alongside competing views, generating alternative readings of socio-economic life that are correct in terms of their own 'entry-point' and theoretical norms, producing a form of relativist Marxism philosophically opposed to epistemological realism and politically opposed to capitalism and pro-capitalist economics. Any sort of philosophical opposition would seem, however, to imply some demaraction of correct and incorrect, of truth and opinion - for example, conventionalist epistemology would seem to imply that realist epistemology is incorrect, or, indeed, ideological. Althusser's retention of the demarcation between the ideological and the scientific (while rejecting the concept of 'Science' as ideological) together with his thesis that subjects (including scientists) are constituted in ideology (that is, in specific, material ideological practices that constitute the imaginary relation of individuals to their real conditions of existence), and that ideology in general in eternal and unavoidable, so that we only know the 'real object' in its effects within discourse - would seem to both constitute a rejection of the Kantian 'problem of knowledge' (to which realism and conventionalism are the two possible opposed answers) and yet we struggle to understand Althusser's intervention outside of the terms of this opposition, and seem compelled to take up sides within this Kantian discourse. It seems that it is by no means simple to be an Althusserian in philosophy! You have touched upon this issue both in your forthcoming book and in a recent article on 'ideological knowledges' in Rethinking Marxism , and I wonder if you can clarify here how you understand Althusser's discussion of the ideological constitution of scientists, and how this might relate to his claims that the 'Marxist problematic' (or 'historical materialism') constitutes a scientific discourse?
WL: For Althusser, I don't think that the ideological constitution of scientists differs significantly from that of the ideological constitution of any other subject. Scientists differ from most other subjects in their normative commitments and their unique practices. As with bankers, members of parliament, Chicano rights activists, and child-care providers, scientists are constituted as subjects in and through ideology. Framing experiences and guiding actions, ideological or imaginary beliefs allow the socio-economic structure to reproduce itself and for individuals to get along in the world. Ideology is not sutured, however, and struggles between ideologies often result in changes. These struggles take place every day and in various arenas (educational, political, domestic, etc.). As a result of these struggles, beliefs that once guided an individual's actions may be abandoned and replaced with new ideological beliefs that then have different effects. This is true for all subjects. The difference between scientists and, say, members of parliament is that scientists participate in a practice that has the chance of reconfiguring beliefs in accord with real rather than imaginary relations. In his "Cours de philosophie pour scientifiques" Althusser says something like "it is scientists' work with the material real that allows them to overcome ideology." What he means by this is that scientists test ideological beliefs against experience. Because the results of this experiment directly challenged a widely shared intuitive belief, in my classes, I often use the example of Galileo's ball drop to illustrate this point. Such examples get muddier and more difficult to defend in the social sciences where ideology plays a causal role in the actions of the objects a science studies and in the selection of these objects. Right now, I'm trying to develop a criterion for what constitutes a "correct" social scientific theory. Even in the hard sciences where one does not have to deal with this problem, Althusser is quick to mention that ideology plays a significant role in their practice, allowing certain hypotheses to be made and influencing the interpretation of an investigation's results. This is why Althusser argues in "Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists" that the sciences need be subject to critique. I think that Althusser is correct about the need for philosophers to act as critical theorists and to point out where and why ideological notions masquerade as correct scientific ones. Nevertheless, in this call for critical analysis, he does not emphasize enough the fact that scientific culture has its own norms that tend to correct ideological notions. Undoubtedly, these norms have arisen historically and have tended to reinforce and be reinforced by the capitalist mode of production. However, this does not change their effects. One of these norms has already been mentioned: it is the reflexive appeal by scientists to experience rather than to intuition or to authority. The second norm is that science is understood as a practice that is performed by a community. An example of how this norm functions: though it may be the case that social scientists as a group tend to emphasize the social construction of values, if they are indeed scientists and not ideologues, then they also must be open to and examine evidence from cognitive science which suggests that some values are hard-wired. Though such knowledge may result in changes to political programs that are justified by constructivist theories of value, I (and I think Althusser) would argue that - in the long run - such adjustment results in better political programs. This is because the resultant political programs are realistic rather than utopian or ideological.
DM: Althusser argues that ideological discourses are structured by a 'speculary relation' of Subject-subject, with the Subject as the centre that guarantees the untestable (because guaranteed) result. Scientific discourses, by contrast, are for Althusser without this speculary relation, and do not constitute subjects, although one must immediately recognise that - as Althusser suggests in his analysis of the scientist Jacques Monod - the sciences exist only in institutions, in practices, and in texts, and as such are always put in motion by subjects, who are constituted within ideology. Indeed, scientists are constituted as such in an imaginary relation to their real conditions of existence, which include the practices that constitute the sciences. It would seem that any science - including a science of politics - would involve ideology, and that a science of politics (of which Marx's discourse might be considered an example) would entail both the constitution of its 'scientists' by an ideology (e.g., socialism, liberation theology, feminism) and the intervention of philosophy into its practice - either to subordinate it to an ideology or to clear away an 'epistemological obstacle' that is the effect of an ideology. Althusser's theory would not seem to involve a position above ideology - at least not in the works of his 'self-criticism' - but rather an almost paranoid awareness of one's own ideological existence. If, as Foucault's later work suggests, philosophy is a spiritual exercise of work upon the self, and any self is constituted socially, that is, within transindividual relations (as the earlier work of Foucault, as well as that of Althusser, Balibar, and others claims), can Althusser's claim that philosophy draws lines of demarcation within theoretical discourse also be taken to imply that philosophy entails drawing such lines of demarcation within the self, of not only 'pushing thought to extremes' but also pushing the self to extremes, opening up difference within the self, in a way that discourses on philosophy that do not recognise the necessary unevenness of our shared theoretical terrain - through the elimination of the differences between ideological, scientific and philosophical discourses/practices - cannot?
WL: With this question, you've provided a smooth transition from the last one. You've also given me the opportunity to think about something I have not reflected upon very much: namely, the constitution of the self. Given that I have reflected on this topic so little, I would appreciate your taking my response as provisional and your forgiving me for its coarseness. At the end of your question you ask something like: "In that it is the locus of interrelated and often contradictory practices or beliefs, does the self share similar structures to society and does this suggest that we, as individuals, must be attentive to self-change in ways similar to how we, as materialist philosophers, are attentive to social-change?" My short answer to this question is "yes," and "yes." Yes, the structures of the socio-economic whole and of the self are similar and, yes, we should be self-critical. Due to ideology, however, self-criticism cannot be a solitary practice. This is because ideology allows an individual to simultaneously maintain contradictory positions. For instance, to the neo-liberal subject, economic freedom necessarily guarantees or allows other freedoms. If ideology prohibits awareness of the limitations that economic freedom in fact tends to place on other freedoms, then I do not know of a practice that an individual can perform on her own that can overcome this prejudice. If there is a self-critical practice that allows one to recognize, reorder, and possibly overcome contradictions within the self, then this must be a social practice. Prejudices or imagined relations to the real can only be overcome through a subject's communication with other individuals or other groups that do not share his or her belief. If you permit me the narcissistic move of appealing to my own experience as an example of such self-critical practices, I would point out that it was only through my reading recent work in sociobiology (a type of communication, to be sure) that I was able to question and to somewhat overcome the reflexive belief of the progressive that making the right changes to social institutions and to economic practices will lead to a just, egalitarian, and free society. Though this belief was in contradiction with another belief I hold - specifically, that evolution selects for certain behavioral traits, I did not recognize the two as contradictory. It was only the social practice of communicating with others who maintain different beliefs from me that allowed me to recognize this contradiction in myself and to work to overcome it. To be a good materialist philosopher (if this is how I think of myself), I now realize that I must pay attention not only to the reconfiguration of economic and social practices, but also to the limits that biology places on the possibilities for this reconfiguration. To generalize this example and to return to an earlier point, I think that, if we are to speak of an Althusserian understanding of the self, then we must understand the self as being the locus of diverse and often contradictory material practices. In aggregate and combined with the practices of other individuals, these practices allow for the reproduction of socio-economic life. That these practices are or become contradictory and that these contradictions reveal themselves in our social relations allows for the critique not only of socio-economic life but, I would venture, for self-critique as well.
Interview completed: 12 October 2005
William S. Lewis is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Skidmore College. He has recently published his book Louis Althusser and the Traditions of French Marxism and an essay on Althusser in Rethinking Marxism.
David McInerney is Tutor in Education at the University of Adelaide. He has published an essay on Benedict Anderson's 'print-capitalism' thesis (in Masses, Classes and the Public Sphere, ed. Mike Hill and Warren Montag) and is currently writing several essays and a book proposal on James Mill's philosophical practice in The History of British India. He is the editor of this special borderlands issue.
© borderlands ejournal 2005