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the althusser effect Arrow vol 4 no 2 contents
About borderlands volume 4 number 2, 2005


The Althusser Effect: Philosophy, History, and Temporality

Jason Read


The person who is addressing you is, like all the rest of us, merely a particular
structural effect of this conjuncture, and effect that, like each and every one of us
as a proper name. The theoretical conjuncture that dominates us has produced
an Althusser-effect.

—Louis Althusser, 1966 (2003: 17)

1. Philosophy has an ambiguous relation with its history.   On the one hand, in terms of both pedagogy and research, philosophy is defined by its rumination on its history, its canon: the major philosophers running the gambit from Anaximander to Zizek.   Students are required to take courses in Ancient, Modern, and Contemporary Philosophy, at both the undergraduate and graduate level, and proficiency is often measured by one's ability to master a period, or, better yet, to produce a reinterpretation of some canonical figure or to argue for the continued relevance of some long forgotten figure. Every year works are published on the "new" Nietzsche, Bergson, Spinoza, or Sartre.   Thus, philosophy as a discipline in part distinguishes itself from other disciplines, for which historical concerns constitute at best an offshoot of the discipline itself: histories of anthropology, sociology, chemistry, etc. are not to be confused with actual work in those disciplines (Ree 1978: 1). Despite this constant return to the past, to what is called "the history of philosophy," philosophy's relation to its past remains for the most part unhistorical, or at least unhistorical in most senses that would be recognized by historians.   What is called the history of philosophy is usually nothing more than a collection of philosophical works or authors according to a chronological timeline; for example, ancient philosophy from Plato to Aristotle or Modern Philosophy from Descartes to Kant.   In these courses history appears if at all as a few remarks of context, a mention of Galileo, the Thirty-Years War, or the French Revolution.   In the various arguments for the continued or renewed relevance of this or that philosopher there is little, if any discussion, on why the thoughts from several centuries ago might bear reexamination now.   To borrow a phrase from Louis Althusser philosophy has a history, but it has no concept of its history, no understanding of its relation to the passage of time, the "progress" of perspectives, or of the regressions and returns that make old perspectives relevant.

2. In invoking the name of Althusser it would appear that I have already slipped into one of the methods I have disparaged above.  Is it time for a "new Althusser," for a reconsideration of a philosopher who was invoked and debated so much in nineteen-sixties and seventies only to be eclipsed by his own personal crises and the general crisis of Marxism? Perhaps, but that it is not my concern here, rather my intent is to trace together some of Althusser's speculations about the situation of philosophy, its conditions, effects, and history, with all of their concomitant provocations and limitations. These speculations extend beyond Althusser's work, establishing the idea of a philosophy in the conjuncture as a general problem for those who come after (to lapse into chronology again). In doing so I will argue that Althusser's work makes possible a rethinking of the paradox of the history of philosophy as a 'history without history.'

Part One: The (Specific) Temporality of Philosophy

3. The writings of nineteen sixty-five, For Marx and Reading Capital, which made Althusser's reputation, are concerned primarily with the status of Marx's theory and do not have much to say about the history of philosophy. In Reading Capital, where Althusser does address the history of philosophy, it functions primary as an example within the general critique of historicism.   To demonstrate that history must be thought according to the specific and differential temporalities of the various elements of the social structure (legal, ideological, etc., down to the history of technology and the economic base), Althusser takes as his example the history of philosophy, or more specifically, the eclipse and return of the philosophical legacy of Spinoza, to show that history cannot be measured against one standard timeline. As I will argue, however, the appearance of the history of philosophy as merely an example, as if Althusser could have made his point with any other specific history (such as the history of technology or of chemistry), is more than a bit deceiving.   In Althusser's critique of historicism the history of philosophy is more than just an example because philosophy cannot be separated from the history of philosophy, which is to say that thought cannot be separated from the history of thought. More to the point, Althusser must contend with the history of philosophy to address and define the specificity of Marx's thought, as a philosophy that is something other than another ideology of its age.

4. Marx often presents his critique of political economy as a simple historicization of political economy, a simple matter of arguing that the categories of political economy are themselves products of a specific history, that, far from being the timeless condition of the production and accumulation of wealth, capital was a specific moment in the history of the relations of production. As Marx wrote as early as The Poverty of Philosophy: "Economists express the relations of bourgeois production, the division of labor, credit, money, etc. as fixed, immutable, eternal categories" (Marx 1963: 104).   If this is the fault of political economy then the critique must only historicize: that is, it must chart and date the emergence of these concepts tying them to their particular social conditions of emergence and their eventual disappearance.    Criticism, the critique of political economy, becomes synonymous with historicization, it ultimately becomes an act of revealing the transitory, relative, and provisional validity of everything that is thought to be eternal and necessary. This understanding of Marx's critique of political economy leads to a general identification of Marx, and Marxism, with historicism, in which not only the concepts and categories of political economy, but also politics and philosophy are revealed to the specific products of specific periods in history (Althusser 1970: 93).   The eternal truths of philosophy, the timeless works of literature and art, are revealed to be nothing more than products of a particular time, effects (and conditions) of a particular mode of production. The problem with this understanding of Marx, Althusser states, is that history is undefined, or, and this amounts to the same thing, is understood to be completely obvious and self-evident.    History is not conceptualized, it is assumed as a fact, a fact that connects events - political, philosophical, or economic - by the simple coincidence of their date.

5. For Althusser historicism ultimately rests on a "Hegelian" conception of time, which has two mutually reinforcing defining characteristics:   "the homogeneous continuity of time" and "the contemporaneity of time."   These two ideas find their philosophical expression in Hegel's understanding of history as the self-development of the Idea or Spirit.   Spirit develops along a time line which is both continuous, moving forward without loss and delay, and self-identical, in which each period, each epoch can be grasped as the articulation of one central contradiction.   What matters to Althusser is less the epithet of "Hegelianism" than the manner in which this "Hegelian" understanding of time is present even in the most obvious or empirical understandings of history. As Althusser argues it is this conception of time that underlies any understanding of history as divided into "periods." Periods of history are assumed to be homogenous (making up a single slice of time) and self-identical (in which everything in the period is of the period).   Periods do not get ahead of themselves or lag behind themselves, and this unarticulated understanding of historical time, Althusser contends, is the unstated backdrop of all of the questions of history which seek to draw the lines between this or that period   (medieval, modern or postmodern) or situate each event in its proper epoch (Althusser 1970: 94).   This conception of historical time, as Althusser labels it, transcends the more overt differences of perspective or method that would distinguish materialist (feudalism, capitalism, and communism) or idealist (the ancient world, the Germanic world, enlightenment) periodizations of history.    Since the history of philosophy is almost always presented as a series of periods (e.g., ancient, medieval, or modern) it could be argued that this concept of time underlies the history of philosophy as well.

6. Althusser's goal is less to unmask the Hegelian dimensions of other understandings of history or of empirical work in history (revealing once again the looming figure of Hegel lurking behind every attempt to escape his influence) than to underscore the limitations of this concept of time that Hegel and others have in common, as well as to chart the gulf that separates Marx from it. For Althusser it is less a matter of Hegel's lingering influence on all that comes after him than it is a matter of his implication within an understanding of time that appears to be self-evident.   Althusser somewhat cryptically states that the origins of this conception of time are to be found in "the false obviousness of everyday practice" (Althusser 1970: 96). Hegel is instructive not as the originator of a particular understanding of time and history, but as the one whom perhaps first rendered it explicit. As Althusser reminds us one of the consequences of Hegel's understanding of history is his particular understanding of not only his own philosophical position, but of the history of philosophy in general.   As Hegel writes in Elements of the Philosophy of Right,   " its own time comprehended in thought. It is just as foolish to imagine that any philosophy can transcend its contemporary world as that an individual can overleap his own time..." (Hegel 1991: 21).   Philosophy is entirely a product of its time because nothing in its time is alien to it.    It expresses the central contradictions of its time because all conflicts, all contradictions, are ultimately contradictions of consciousness.   The Hegelian understanding of historical time, a linear progression of periods that are unified and self-contained, is an effect of the Hegelian dialectic, which, Althusser contends, is centered on one central contradiction of recognition and misrecognition, as a dialectic of consciousness (Balibar 1994: 164). Hegel's historicization of philosophy, his assertion that no philosophy can outrun its historical moment, only appears to denigrate philosophy (destroying its pretension to universality and trans-historical validity); philosophy cannot outrun its period because it entirely comprehends it in thought.    For Hegel to understand ancient Athens one only needs to read Plato, who expresses not its basic identity, but its conflict and contradiction (between the unity of the polis and the freedom of the individual) (Hegel 1991: 20).

7. The difference between the Hegelian concept of the social totality (presented figuratively as interconnected spheres) and the Marxist totality (the "topography" of base and superstructure) is a matter not only of different conceptions of historical time, but also of different understandings of thought, and of the history of philosophy.   If the Hegelian understanding of historical time must be extracted from Hegel's understanding of the social totality, as a totality of spheres centered around a central philosophical contradiction, then the Marxist understanding must in a similar fashion be found in Marx's understanding of society.   Marx's understanding of society is founded on a topographical figure; this is, of course, Marx's famous schema of the base and superstructure.   Marx's social totality is not a series of circles centered on one central contradiction, but rather a complex whole of different relations: there are the effects of economic conflicts on the superstructure of law and ideology, but also the effects of ideological struggles on the base.   The "relative autonomy" of these different levels, their independence and effects on each other, is reflected in their history, in a differential history. Such a history is differential because it is not enough to simply state, as many historians have, that law, art, or philosophy each has its own history with its own rate, events, and temporality, but rather that since the independence of these different instances of the social totality is only relative, each instance is only relatively autonomous and its history must be situated against its interrelations with each of the other instances of the social totality. As Althusser writes: "...[ T]he mode and degree of independence of each time and history is therefore necessarily determined by the mode and degree of dependence of each level within the set of articulations of the whole" (Althusser 1970: 100). Relative autonomy means that the history of each aspect of society, each practice, legal, political, scientific or ideological, must be thought as both distinct from and in relation to each of the others. Finally, this history is differential because it is removed from any standard timeline from which the different histories could be identified as more or less advanced. As Althusser argues terms used within Marxist analysis, such as "uneven development," "underdevelopment," "backwardness," and "residual elements," address the complexity of historical time, but do so in such a way that differences are still related to one standard timeline. There is not one timeline, a continuous and homogenous timeline upon which events and practices could be marked as "backwards" or "emergent". The specific temporality of each instance, of each social structure must be constructed.   As Althusser argues, it is necessary to follow Marx in understanding capitalism not just as a specific moment of history, as a specific mode of production, but also as a specific mode of temporality and a particular way of articulating the different rhythms of production, consumption, and circulation.

8. In order to illustrate this differential history Althusser takes as his example not the specific temporality of capitalism, a task whose importance and difficulty is only remarked in passing, but the history of philosophy. Constructing a history of philosophy means first of all dispensing with its immediate and obvious history, a history that is often nothing more than a chronology of major works and figures.   As Althusser writes:

The time of the history of philosophy is not immediately legible either: of course, in historical chronology we do see philosophers following one another, and it would be possible to take this sequence for history itself.   Here, too, we must renounce the ideological pre-judgment of visible succession, and undertake to construct the concept of the time of the history of philosophy, and, in order to understand this concept, it is absolutely essential to define the specific difference of the philosophical as one of the existing cultural formations (the ideological and scientific formations)...(Althusser 1970: 101)

What the chronology of works, the lining up of a different texts in histories and syllabi according to the date of their publication, leaves out of the picture is precisely what is most important to address: the conditions and effects of philosophy.   The questions that such a chronology cannot address are the conditions of philosophy (how and why a given philosophical position emerges at a particular juncture in time) and its effects (how and why it acts on different practices, on political ideologies, on morality etc).   As Althusser briefly illustrates with respect to Spinoza, such a history of conditions and effects deviates greatly from a linear chronology.   "The history of philosophy's repressed Spinozism thus unfolded as a subterranean history acting at other sites (autres lieux), in political and religious and in the sciences, but not on the illuminated stage of visible of philosophy." (Althusser 1970: 102) As Althusser will argue in the closing passages of Reading Capital, Spinoza's effect on philosophy is not to be found in those works and authors that are chronologically closest, who for the most part misread Spinoza or repressed him as scandalous, but only after the works of Hegel and Marx (not to mention Freud and Lacan) make possible a recognition of his revolutionary idea of "structural causality." Structural causality, the idea of a cause that only exists through its effects, which Spinoza used to understand the relation of god to the universe, of creator to created, comes to fruition as a way of understanding capitalism as that which only exists in and through its effects - cultural, legal, and ideological (Althusser 1970: 189).   Spinoza's effects travel through politics and the sciences, existing primarily as point of heresy, in order to emerge by way of the nineteenth-century as part of revolutionary rethinking of the idea of society.

9. Constructing the concept of the history of philosophy is a matter of first dispensing with the linear chronology of philosophical works.   The real transformations and effects of philosophy are not measured by the ordering of copyright dates, but by subterranean histories and unexpected divisions.   Spinoza's belated effect on philosophy and Marx's break with humanism are two examples of the absolute inadequacy of chronology for understanding the history of philosophy.   In the first case effects follow long after the date of publication, passing through science and politics, while in the second the division is not the immediately apparent distinction between different authors, but is internal to the works of one author, even to one text.    Grasping these delayed effects and divisions entails constructing the concept of the specific history of philosophy, a history that can only be grasped "differentially" according to its relations (in terms of both conditions and effects) with other practices, most importantly with other theoretical practices, science and politics.  

Part Two: Between Conditions and Effects

10. Marx, Althusser never tires of reminding us, never wrote his "dialectic," his understanding of his particular way of doing philosophy, his particular "theoretical practice" (Althusser 1969: 174).   From this absence Althusser assumed a particular task and a general problem. The particular task is a matter of understanding how Marx produced a particular revolution in philosophy; that is, how a philosophy emerges from particular historical and ideological conditions, breaking with and ultimately transforming those conditions.   Althusser attempted to understand this "revolution" on rigorously materialist grounds, without recourse to an ideology of genius or divine insight.   Which lead Althusser to a more general problem, a materialist understanding of philosophy, or how theory as a kind of practice emerges from particular conditions only to transform them. The very idea of such a general theory would seem to be at odds with the specific understanding of conditions and effects, the specific differential history of philosophy of conditions and effects sketched out in Reading Capital.   It is perhaps because of this internal tension (as well as the external criticism of such positions as the "epistemological break" brought on by his increased visibility as a Marxist philosopher) that Althusser spent much of the late sixties and early seventies in attempts to revise and rearticulate his understanding of philosophy as a specific kind of practice.   This work took many forms: a proposed but never completed book on the unity of theory and practice, as well as a series of lectures, manuscripts, and collective programs for research.   As some of this material has been published in recent years it is now possible to follow the development of the provocative remarks made in Reading Capital regarding the specific history and situation of philosophy, in terms of its conditions and effects, towards the development of a materialist understanding of philosophy.

11. Althusser's project during these years is riddled with false starts, self-critiques and dead-ends, culminating in piles of texts "left to the gnawing criticism of the mice" and an increasingly self-destructive process of self-criticism.    It is possible to view the entire project as something of a failure, such an evaluation would not only overlook the insights developed over the course of the project, but its almost insurmountable constitutive difficulties.   These difficulties begin with Marx.   From The German Ideology onwards, with its infamous identification of philosophy as ideology, Marx's corpus has pursued a (sometimes hidden, sometimes open assault) on philosophy's self-understanding as an autonomous search for truth independent of its (material) historical conditions.    As Althusser writes: "Marx's scientific revolution contains an unprecedented philosophical revolution which, by forcing philosophy to think its relationship to history, profoundly alters the economy of philosophy" (Althusser 2003: 230).   This assault is at once polemical and highly uneven, even ambiguous.   Ambiguous because it takes the form of condemnations of philosophy, departures from philosophy (the famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach), and returns to philosophical problems, for example the section on "commodity fetishism," which is nothing less than a rumination on the problem of universals and value. As Balibar identifies the unevenness of this legacy as a "permanent oscillation between 'falling short of' and 'going beyond' philosophy," a combination of a philosophical statements without premises and a socio-historical situating of philosophy itself (Balibar 1995b: 4).   This unevenness has made it possible to purge not only Marx from philosophy, but to dispense with the series of questions that he opens with respect to the relation between philosophy and its historical, social, and political conditions.

12. As we have seen it is Althusser's attempt to complete what Marx began, to read between the lines of his various political interventions, critiques of political economy, and theoretical works, both the philosophy and the critique of philosophy that Marx was not able (nor inclined to) write.   This reconstruction cannot simply be a matter of finding the appropriate quotes from Marx's writings, but takes the form of a demanding theoretical intervention.   Althusser takes his general bearings from Marx's topography, the articulation of society according to base and superstructure. For Althusser the "topography" is less a definite answer, declaring once and for all the role of economics, ideology, and philosophy in history, than a problem: the problem of the relations of force and effectivity which situate the different aspects of social existence.   Philosophy is of course situated in the superstructure, as one of the elements of what Althusser calls "the theoretical," along with science and politics.   Marx's writing does not simply sketch this topography it also intervenes in a particular way: Marxism, Althusser maintains, is itself an uneven combination of a science (historical materialism) and a philosophy (dialectical materialism) (Althusser 1972: 165).   To risk stating the obvious, it should be added that Marxism is a politics as well, a point that Althusser stressed in later works.   The three dimensions, science, politics, and philosophy (perhaps a more generic version of Lenin's three sources) are conditions of a Marx's particular philosophy and, in a different manner, philosophy in general. Althusser's thought continually moves from this particular instance, Marx's transformation of philosophy, to the general problem, the conditions of philosophical change in general, and back again.

13. Philosophy is situated between science and politics, between the breaks of science and the political revolutions and counter-revolutions that provide the content of ideology (Althusser 1995b: 307).    Althusser illustrates this assertion with respect to two examples, which are also two turning points in the history of philosophy, Plato and Descartes.   Plato and Descartes can both be situated after a revolution of science, the opening of a new continent, the mathematics of Thales (Plato) and the physics of Galileo (Descartes) (Althusser 1995b: 307).   The two philosophers can also be situated with respect to a political or social revolution; Althusser cites, in remarks that are really more sketches in a notebook than historical arguments, the democracy of Pericles in the case of Plato and, in the case of Descartes, the emergence of bourgeois right, or a system of standardized law under Absolute Monarchy (Althusser 1995b: 38). All philosophy is determined, doubly determined by its place within "the theoretical" (which could less awkwardly but perhaps also less accurately be characterized as something akin to the ways of knowing and perceiving within a given historical moment), between the transformations of science and the conflicts of politics, conflicts that are ultimately conditioned by the class struggle.   In a word, philosophy is "overdetermined."   Althusser argues that this overdetermination follows a particular law of causality:

This "overdetermination" of philosophy by these two events obeys the following law: the determination in the last instance of philosophical events by ideological events (the ideological revolutions of the class struggle), determination by scientific events (the breaks) only in the second instance (Althusser 1995: 308, translation mine)

All philosophy (Plato, Descartes, Marx, Althusser) is situated with respect to this double determination, a determination by science and by politics. Science, with its transformation of rationalities and abstract objects, determines in part the form philosophy takes, its particular logic, while its content is determined in ideological struggle. These two terms "politics" and "science" gesture towards areas of reality that could be taken as self-evident.   However, Althusser spends much of the period of sixties refining what he means by both of these terms, and defining the relative importance of "politics" and "science" to philosophy. (As Pierre Macherey argues, the political determination of philosophy takes on increasingly importance in the decisive of year of 1968 - see Macherey 1999: 265).

14. Science and politics are not just distinguished by the role they have in philosophy, as form and content, but more importantly by their specific temporality and modality of change. Science transforms itself and develops through a series of breaks, by transformations that are definitive and decisive.   This linear progression of decisive breaks and transformations, of discoveries that are unambiguous and universally acknowledged, is often the envy of philosophers, forming a model of "progress." Althusser argues that even those philosophers who would appear to have nothing to do with science, or are even opposed to it (for example Heidegger), must confront it (Althusser 1995a: 259). Politics is transformed by revolutions, revolutions that are "historical facts" not "theoretical facts" (1995a: 309). It is perhaps because of this that political revolutions have an ambiguous relation to philosophy. Unlike the history of science, a history that confronts philosophy with a model of linear and irreversible progression, political revolutions can be philosophically denied or repressed. In general philosophers believe themselves to be above the fray of such political struggles, expounding universal and timeless truths.   However, as Althusser demonstrates in his interpretations of Montesquieu and Rousseau, philosophy always carries the scars and symptoms of its political conjuncture (1972: 159).

15. These two different timelines, of necessary breaks and ambiguous revolutions, must intersect and affect each other; if not, then Althusser's differential history would give way to a purely pluralist and autonomous history of different times, one for science and one for politics.   The question is how to posit both the distinction and connection of science and politics, a question that is crucial for defining philosophy. What defines science is less its specific content than its practice, the production of new objects of knowledge.   While politics is defined primarily by ideology, what Althusser calls the various practical ideologies, such as law, morality, and ethics, which "shape notions-representations-images into behavior-conduct-attitude-gestures," are determined in the last instance by class struggle (Althusser 1990b: 83).   Science produces knowledge, what Althusser calls "knowledge effects", while ideology makes behaviors, actions, and ultimately history.   This division between knowledge and action, between the "is" and the "ought" is always unstable, with the one blurring into the other.   The "knowledge-effect" produced by science becomes part of the general social knowledge of a given society, informing its ideologies, while, at the same time, the practical ideologies of day-to-day contact have their effects on scientific practice as well (Althusser 1995: 314). This blurring of the "ought" into the "is" (and vice versa is) in some respects the condition of philosophy.

16. Within this over, or double, determination the case of Marx is unique.   First, because the scientific event, what Althusser calls the "discovery of the continent of history," is not an event situated in the general milieu of Marx's writing, as Galileo was for Descartes, but is a product of Marx's own thought. Which does not mean that Marxists, or even Marx himself, grasps what this "event" in the science of history means for philosophy.   This is ultimately the significance of the division into historical materialism   (science) and dialectical materialism (philosophy), terms that Althusser borrows from Engels (and Stalin) to express the lag that separates philosophy from science (Althusser 1972: 167).   For Althusser these terms indicate the unevenness of Marx's theoretical development: philosophically Marx did not write anything that would compare with his development of the science of history, Capital. That Marxist philosophy lags behind science is for Althusser ultimately a specific case of a general rule.   "Philosophy only exists by virtue of the distance it lags behind its scientific inducement" (Althusser 1971: 42). Second, the object of Marx's science is concerned with nothing other the general transformation of the society, a transformation which includes the effects of social transformations on the instances of science and philosophy.   Marx's "topography" is nothing other than attempt to think the "place" of philosophy, the conditions of its enunciation, and the limitation of its effects (Althusser 1976: 220).

17. The "double determination" of philosophy between the "breaks" and discoveries of science and the "revolutions" of ideology provides a way of rethinking the conditions of philosophy, of understanding the causal conditions which situate a particular philosophy, but it says little about the effects of philosophy, of what it does with these conditions. It only allows us to grasp the history that is made in philosophy, a history that is the effect of exterior events, such as the transformations of science and ideology, not the history that philosophy makes.   This is in part because for Althusser it is not clear that philosophy has a history.   Much of Althusser's reflection on the history of philosophy in the late nineteen-sixties takes the form of a reflection of Marx's basic idea that "morality, religion, metaphysics ... have no history" (Marx 1970: 47).   As Althusser interprets Marx's formula, "philosophy has no real history" (Althusser 1971: 55). For Althusser this idea is not simply the grounds for a dismissal of philosophy, but a paradoxical reconsideration of its history (Macherey 1999: 283).   In a negative sense this idea designates that in philosophy, unlike science (and perhaps even politics), there are no irreversible events, no discoveries or transformations that do not need to be repeated, there are no "breaks" in philosophy.   The institutionalized practices of philosophy testify to this fact, despite the pages and pages of criticism there is no philosopher who is ever finally dead and buried, there is always room for a "return" to Hegel, Sartre, Spinoza, even Althusser.    Althusser also wants to maintain a positive sense of this absence, in which the absence of history designates something like an omni-historical reality. Althusser's assertion that philosophy does not have a history would seem to be a repetition of his infamous assertion that ideology does not have a history (1971: 161).   While in the former the phrase indicated the permanence of a structure, ideology as a necessary dimension to the functioning of any society, in the latter it designates the permanence of a site. Philosophy has no history, because its site, the theoretical, the point where science, ideology, religion, and the various practical ideologies (of politics and morality) effect and transform each other, is a permanent site of contestation and demarcation.   The absence of history does not mean that philosophy has always existed, as an eternal dimension of thought, it can only exist in the presence of its conditions, in societies that meet the two conditions of science, an abstract and necessary form of knowledge, and the class struggle (Althusser 1995b: 35).

18. It is from this absence of history that it is possible, paradoxically, to understand the particular effect that philosophy has on history. Philosophy, even those philosophers that claim to be interested in a universal, impersonal, and indifferent truth, acts by making an intervention. In the first instance this intervention is only an action that philosophy performs on itself, on its concepts and modes of articulation.   "Philosophy intervenes in reality only by producing results within itself. It acts outside of itself through the result that it produces within itself" (Althusser 1990b: 107). Every philosophy "takes a position" within a field that is already saturated, which is to say that every act of taking a position must involve a seemingly infinite process of differentiation whereby every new position must defend itself against the positions of other philosophers. It is this simultaneous condition of emptiness (the absence of "real" history) and fullness (the saturation of the field of positions) that defines every philosophy as an intervention within a struggle.   Philosophy acts on other philosophies, and in doing so it acts on the practical philosophies that make up religion and ideology. As much as philosophy, philosophical practice, only acts on itself, producing effects in the world only insofar as it acts on itself, it does so in such a way that it acts on its own conditions, its own over-determination. As Althusser argued in the lecture, "Lenin and Philosophy," referring to the two conditions of philosophy outlined above, "Philosophy represents politics in the domain of theory, or to be more precise: with the sciences - and, vice versa, philosophy represents scientificity in politics, with the classes engaged in the class struggle" (Althusser 1971: 65).   Philosophy intervenes in the very site where it is born, at the point of articulation and disarticulation of knowledge and action.

19. The first half of this formulation, politics in the sciences, is developed at length in Althusser's lecture course "Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists."   In this course Althusser argues that philosophy's role with respect to science is not to define its object or conditions of possibility, in the sense of a philosophy of science, but to drawn a line of demarcation between the discoveries of scientists and the spontaneous philosophy of scientists (that is, the way in which scientists, as subjects to a given society and its ruling ideology, reinterpret their practice according to the dominant ideology - although Althusser gives only a few examples of this, it is possible to find examples in much science criticism, which repeatedly points out how scientists find the social order, the "selfish gene" the investment of genetic material, in the natural world).   Here philosophy intervenes not in philosophy proper, not in the arguments and counter positions that make up the history of philosophy, but in a "philosophy" which is embodied in the practical ideologies of behavior.

20. What Althusser identifies as a spontaneous philosophy is very close to Gramsci's famous statement that "everyone is a philosopher," his assertion that there is a philosophy, an interpretation of the world, at work in language, common sense, and culture (Gramsci 1957: 58).   The idea of a "spontaneous philosophy" thus expands greatly the definition of philosophy, removing it from the ivory tower of intellectuals, and bringing it into contact with reality (Balibar 1994: 173). As Gramsci writes:

The philosophy of an age is not the philosophy of this or that philosopher, of this or that group of intellectuals, of this or that broad section of the popular masses.   It is a process of combination of all of these elements, which culminates in an overall trend, in which the culmination becomes a norm of collective action and becomes concrete and complete (integral) "history" (Gramsci 1971: 345).

Gramsci's attentiveness to philosophy as it exists in religion, common sense, and quotidian practices, underlies Althusser's examination into the "spontaneous" philosophy of the scientists as well as the spontaneous ideologies of law and morality.   However, as Gramsci's reference to "the philosophy of an age" makes clear, it carries with it an avowed historicism, which Althusser was quick to criticize in Reading Capital.   

But even in Marxist theory we read that ideologies may survive the structure that gave them birth (this is true for the majority of them: e.g., religion, ethics or ideological philosophy), as may certain elements of the politico-legal superstructure in the same way (Roman law!).   As for science, it may well arise from an ideology, detach itself from its field in order to constitute itself as science, but precisely this detachment, this 'break', inaugurates a new form of historical existence and temporality which together save science (at least in certain historical conditions that ensure the real continuity of its own history—conditions that have not always existed) from the common fate of a single history; that of the historical bloc unifying structure and superstructure (Althusser 1970: 133).

What Gramsci's "philosophy of the age" effaces is the differential temporality of philosophy, its manner of conserving the ideologies of the past, as well as its contact with scientific discoveries that make the future.   It overlooks the fundamental difference between "breaks" and "revolutions," a difference which is integral to philosophy.

21. Althusser's second half of the formulation, "philosophy represents science in politics," can be in part be understood as an assertion of this temporal heterogeneity. "Science" in this formulation refers first of all to Marx, to historical materialism, which brings knowledge of history, of the mode of production and its topography, to the ideological conflicts of politics.   This is at least the initial meaning, and as such it would tie the formulation to Althusser's early argument regarding the scientific status of Marx's thought.   In later years, however, Althusser develops a different interpretation of science, one that is tied less to Marx, to include specific discoveries of physics and mathematics.   As Althusser responds to Fernanda Navarro's question regarding the importance he gives to the triad philosophy-politics-ideology:

We are able to say that historically philosophy is born from religion, from which it inherits specific questions, which it then converts to the grand themes of philosophy, with all of their different responses: for example the origin or the end of man, of history, and of the world.   Nevertheless, I maintain that philosophy constitutes itself as such, in a rigorous sense, when it encounters the first science: mathematics ... From this has to begin to reason in a different manner and on different objects: abstract objects (Althusser 1994b: 49).

Althusser's response bears a striking resemblance to Spinoza's formulation in the appendix of the Ethics where he reflects on the powerful influence that superstition has on the thought of mankind.

This alone, of course, would have caused the truth to be hidden from the human race to eternity, if mathematics, which is concerned not with ends, but only with the essences and properties of figures, had not shown men another standard of truth.   And besides mathematics, we can assign other causes also (which it is unnecessary to enumerate here), which were able to bring it about that men would notice these common prejudices and be led to the true knowledge of things (EIApp).

What remains constant throughout Althusser's reflection on science is the fundamental difference between ideology, which is ultimately concerned with the origin and end of things, and science, which posits not only abstract objects, but a causal order which is indifferent to meaning and ends.   It is this difference in logic, between causes and ends, rather than an assumed epistemological hierarchy that distinguishes science from ideology (Badiou 1993: 33).   The difference between science and ideology is thus more of a matter of practice, of a manner of producing objects for investigation and concepts, than specific content or authority. Science is thus radically distinct from the various practical ideologies, and day-to-day common sense, which we use to make sense of the world.   Thus, science is always out of sync with ideology (and philosophy), disturbing the unity of any "age."

22. Althusser's writing on the history of philosophy, on the conditions and effects of theoretical practice, is as uneven as it is promising. Much of this unevenness reflects a tension between thinking through the specific effects of the theoretical practice of Marx and a general theory of theoretical practice. This tension can be seen in the manner in which Althusser's general rule, the rule that philosophy lags behind science, a rule drawn from the specific experience of Marxism, itself "lags behind" the provocations outlined in Reading Capital.   Althusser's differential history outlined in that text does not have a general rule for the chronological relation between philosophy and science; philosophy may lag behind science or jump ahead. In a similar manner Althusser later argues that philosophy may "fall behind" or "leap ahead" of ideological transformations (Althusser 1995a: 307).   To which we could add that a philosophy too can fall behind itself, a fact that Althusser's thought demonstrates. Althusser's own self-criticism, his reconsideration of his thesis regarding a radical break in Marx's thought, forces him to rethink philosophical progress in general.   It is no longer a matter of finding some break that transforms a philosopher's thought once and for all, but understanding how every rupture with existing ideologies, every break with existing knowledges, is unstable leading to regressions and lags (Althusser 1994a: 363).   Philosophy does not just lag behind science, but also behind itself. As Balibar argues, in this latter period Althusser is less interested in identifying definitive "breaks" (or ruptures) in philosophy than in recognizing the relation between transformations (of knowledge and ideologies) and practice.   "Every break is at the same time irreversible and precarious, threatened with an impossible return to its ideological prehistory, without which it would not last, it would not progress" (Balibar 1994: 172).

23. In the work of the nineteen-sixties Althusser's thought specifically lags behind itself as it tries to make Marx's thought a general model of the relation between philosophy, politics, and science.   When Althusser imposes a kind of symmetry on Marx's thought, making it another example of the effects of scientific breaks and ideological revolution alongside Plato and Descartes, he loses not only the specificity of the conjuctural dimension of philosophy, but returns to concepts specifically criticized in early texts.   In "Marx's Relation to Hegel" Althusser even goes so far as to argue that the three great revolutions in scientific knowledge, mathematics, physics, and history, constitute the major dates in the periodization of philosophy, the ancient period (Plato), the modern period (Descartes) and period of Marxist philosophy (1972: 167).    This dividing up of philosophy into periods, which Althusser had criticized as an effect of the Hegelian conception of historical time, ironically returns to crown Marx's achievement in philosophy.   Marx's differential history, a history that argued against the very idea of a single and irreversible timeline upon which all events could be measured, is effaced in favor of a new period, "the age of Marxism." Moreover, such periods of philosophy, tied to particular scientific events, blur the distinction between scientific breaks, political and ideological revolutions, and philosophical struggle. Thus eclipsing the fundamental difference of temporality that not only defines these events, but is also the condition for an articulation of a differential history of the relations between science, politics, and ideology. This is not to suggest that Althusser's thought on the history of philosophy is burdened by his allegiance to Marx, as if it was possible to imagine something like a "de-Marxified" Althusser who can take his place within the history of philosophy, but that it falls behind itself as it loses track of the singularity of Marx's thought. This singularity is perhaps restored in Althusser's last published works in which Marx is no longer the proper name of the general rules of philosophical production, of the relation of philosophy to science, but the material condition of an understanding of the situation of philosophy, its place in the superstructure, alongside science, religion, and morality.   As Althusser states in 'Marxism Today', in substantial revision of Marx's materialism:

The measure of Marx's materialism is less the materialist content of his theory than the acute, practical consciousness of the conditions, forms and limits within which these ideas can become active.   Hence their double inscription in the topography. (Althusser 1990a: 275)

What Althusser earlier perceived as a lack becomes instead a kind of surplus; it is because Marx did not produce a philosophy, a system, a discourse of the ultimate origin and ends of knowledge, but instead sought to situate philosophy, to see its effects and limitations, that his thought makes possible an understanding of the specific practice of philosophy. The philosophical problem that Marx left in his wake is not a reconstruction of the dialectic method he never had time to write, but how to think the specific site of philosophy.

Conclusion: Thought of/in the Conjuncture

24. It is impossible, or at least irrelevant, to have any kind of last word on Althusser's particular intervention in the history of philosophy.   As Althusser's history of Spinoza's thought claims, and the later history of Spinoza scholarship testifies (a history which includes Etienne Balibar, Pierre Macherey, and others influenced by Althusser himself), last words on any philosophy are always premature, the eternal history without history that is the history of philosophy provokes new readings, new interpretations, which are provoked as much by ongoing political and ideological struggles as they are by the supposed inexhaustible "richness" of any philosophical text.   However, it is possible to at least trace some of the effects that Althusser's thought has had on thought about the history of philosophy.

25. These effects are most noticeable in the works of Pierre Macherey and Etienne Balibar.   Macherey states that it is necessary to remove Althusser's problem, the historical condition and effect of philosophy, from the specific situation of its articulation, the contested terrain of Marxism as a science, the split between Marxist and Maoist parties, and his own ambiguous fame and infamy (Macherey 1999: 279).   This is not an attempt to water Althusser down, or steer clear of controversy, but to draw out a thread of research out that is often overlooked in the attention to the major controversies.   At the same time that Althusser was developing, defending, and rethinking his argument regarding Marx's "epistemological break" he was researching the specific philosophical conjuncture in France, a conjuncture shaped by the history of spiritualism (de Tracy, Cousin, Bergson) and rationalism   (the legacy of Descartes) in French philosophy (Althusser 2003: 4).   Macherey continues this work, developing a historical perspective on French philosophy that addresses the institutional and cultural conditions of its transmission.   Philosophy does not exist independently of its pedagogical conditions, its situation within a university, conditions which are often determined by questions of the status of a discipline and national politics, politics concerned with the identity of the nation (Macherey 1998: 20).   Macherey's reflection on this history does not take the form of a sociology of knowledge; that is, it does not simply chart this history from the outside without also reflecting on the nature of philosophy itself.   More precisely, it is precisely this opposition between 'outside' (institutional context and constraint) and 'inside' (concepts, ideas, and arguments) that Macherey's work on the history of philosophy contests. As Macherey argues, philosophy must be thought as an operation that works within the determinate conditions and constraints of its historical and political conjuncture, rather than as an action that starts out from its own free possibility and dictates to the world what principles it should follow. Macherey takes the term "operation" from a distinction that Spinoza makes in the Ethics, a distinction that is lost in most English translations:

That thing is called free which exists from the necessity of its nature alone and is determined to act by itself alone. But a thing is called necessary, or rather compelled, which is determined by another to exist and to operate in a certain and determinate manner. (EID7 and Macherey 1992: 72)

To define philosophy as an operation is to accept that all philosophy is impure, burdened by concepts and content whose conditions and causality it cannot choose. This constraint is the condition for a production of effects.

26. In a similar manner, Etienne Balibar argues that all philosophy can be viewed as a particular intervention in a conjuncture, an intervention in a conjuncture by writing, by connecting the immediacy of the overdetermined now with the historicity of traditions.  

We must therefore think through together both determinations of philosophical practice: its necessary relation to conjunctures (which leads philosophical texts to organize themselves into sets that are themselves dependent on a conjuncture) and its relation to writing as permanent short-circuit or short-cut between the immediacy of thinking and its longer history. (Balibar 1995a: 148)

For Balibar philosophy's relation to the conjuncture not only makes possible new interpretations of its past (readings of Spinoza, Locke, Fichte, etc), but also a new practice in the present. Balibar's writing on the political questions of violence, citizenship, and the border works from the premise that these concepts are not just ideas for political philosophers, but concepts which are transformed by the vicissitudes of history, by singular events and material transformations (Balibar 2003: viii).   The conjuncture becomes the condition for the renewal of philosophical practice.

27. Traces of this "Althusser effect" can also be found in the works of philosophers who do not consciously affirm their connection with Althusser.   Alain Badiou's writing on the non-philosophical "conditions" of philosophy, mathematics, poetics, political invention, and love also seeks to grasp philosophy as an activity which is situated by the "truth procedures" which are its conditions (Badiou 1999: 38).   Badiou, like Althusser, situates Plato with respect to the conditions of mathematics and politics.   As Badiou writes in a formulation that echoes his early work with Althusser on the history of philosophy:

How are mathematics and political ontology compossible? Such was the Platonic question to which the operator of the form came to provide the main fulcrum of a resolution" (Badiou 1999: 38).

Plato's position in philosophy has less to do with his particular genius, or with the metaphysical destiny of the West, than with the way in which his philosophy operates on its existing political and scientific conditions, what Badiou refers to as the "truth" of science and politics. Badiou's thought is in part founded on an attempt to go beyond Althusser, in thinking both the plurality of the conditions of philosophy, adding aesthetics and love to science and mathematics, and the specific autonomy of philosophy to its conditions, its ability to produce the new, to name the event (Badiou 1993: 42).

28. What matters here is less a full account of all of the traces of Althusser's rethinking the history of philosophy - as I have noted above, such a procedure is impossible, the last word is always yet to be written - than the affirmation of a singular idea.   This idea is quite simply that philosophy as a discipline, but more importantly as an activity, can be renewed and reinvigorated, not by prostrating itself before its "metaphysical excesses" (as in the "end of philosophy") nor by purging itself from its connection to existing reality (ethics and the "pure ought" of normativity as the last refuge of philosophy), but by thinking itself as profoundly conditioned by other transformations of the "theoretical" (science, politics, and ideology).   It is only by thinking itself as conditioned, and by attempting to understand how, that philosophy can have any effect any relevance.   Althusser's researches into the history of philosophy and the place of theoretical practice are far from being the last words on this subject; they are in some sense only an initial condition, the effects of which it still remains to trace and develop.   After a long history of its effects (and their erasure) in politics, literature, and cultural studies it is perhaps time to bring Althusser's thought back to the site of its enunciation, the history of philosophy, in order to grasp the extent, and the unrealized possibility, of the "Althusser effect."


Jason Read is Assistant Professor in Philosophy at the University of Southern Maine, Portland (ME), U.S.A.   Jason's book The Micro-Politics of Capital: Marx and the Prehistory of the Present appeared in 2003, and he has published articles in Rethinking Marxism, Pli, Crossings, and Borderlands.


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