Interview by Richard Marshall.
'Just being a Marxist in academic philosophy is incredibly difficult, even in France. Althusser, though, was fortunate enough to be his most philosophically active during the two decades where being a Marxist philosopher was not only an institutional possibility but during revolutionary years where such work was of global interest. Althusser’s tide rose with the post-Stalinist communist left and it fell as this movement became fragmented and declined. By 1980, Althusser’s arguments for a scientific Marxism, for the necessity of a dictatorship of the proletariat, and for democratic centralism were seen as hopelessly old-fashioned.'
'That humanist Marxism might now become the party’s official philosophy jolted him into action. As much as anybody, Althusser wanted to repudiate Stalinism. However, he thought that humanism smuggled bourgeois ideology back into Marxist philosophy. Starting in the early 60s, then, his goal was to provide a philosophically sophisticated and defensible alternative to both humanist Marxism and to the discredited official Marxism-Leninism of the Soviet Union.'
'Like Galileo with astronomy and Darwin with biology, Althusser argued that Marx opened up a new “scientific continent.” According to him, what makes Marx’s or Darwin’s or Galileo’s thought scientific is not necessarily their empirical investigations but the fact that each developed new understandings of certain types of objects. These objects and concepts could then be investigated and our understanding of them developed using scientific methods of research. For Darwin, obviously, the chief concept was that of natural selection. However, there are other concepts such as mutation, heredity, and adaptation which comprise evolutionary theory as a whole and that Darwin needed but did not name in his work (it took others like Mendel to do so). Similarly, For Marx, the chief concept in the Marxist science of historical materialism is that of class struggle.'
'But Marx’s voice is not univocal; Althusser reads a tension in his works. The tension is that between a Marx that is the heir to modern political philosophy and to Hegel and to all the other ideologies of his day and a Marx that is struggling to break free of this tradition and to found a materialist science of history.'
'Althusser attributes the development of his method of reading to Freud, to Spinoza, as well as to Marx himself. I know that some people make a big deal about the relation between Althusser and Lacan. However, I don’t think that Lacan is as important to Althusser’s philosophy as are the other three.'
'Philosophy is conceived as class struggle in theory. It is said to operate in the void between ideological and scientific concepts, allowing us to critique them. Acting in this void, philosophy is able to represent scientificity in the field of politics and politics in the field of science.'
'The claim about us being structured by material relations is the core of Althusser’s anti-humanism: our natures are formed, not fixed, and there is no overall plan to this formation. We neither control our own becoming, nor are we fated to become what our nature requires. To the extent that we understand the material relations which form us and to the extent that we can exert the necessary political forces to change them, we may structure these forces and thereby recreate ourselves. That we are eventually going to do so, there is no guarantee.'
William Lewishas interests in social & political philosophy, American Pragmatism, Marxism, ethics, philosophy of the social sciences, philosophy of race and gender and environmental philosophy. Here he discusses Althusser, why his reputation faded, his early thinking on Hegel, Christianity and Marx, his work on Montesquieu, his work in the 1960's, why he returned to the early Marx, why and how he introduced hermeneutics to Marxism, the influence of Spinoza, Freud and Marx, gives a bravura summary of his non-empiricist theory of epistemology and philosophy of science, the role of philosophy in his thinking, whether he was a Marxist structuralist, his anti-humanism, the status of his later writings, and whether he is still of relevance.
3:AM:What made you become a philosopher?
William Lewis:My parents both believed that as long you loved what you were doing and did it well, then you could keep on doing it. Being the fourth kid and the only boy, I was left alone with books a lot. I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, a university town with lots of used bookstores, so secondhand literature was cheap and plentiful. Foreign exchange students were also in ample supply and my parents hosted a different one each year, or so it seemed. When I was in junior high, one of these students was from France. We got along well and, before he left, he told me that I must read Stendhal’s The Red and the Black. I found a used Penguin edition and just devoured it. At 14 years of age and having grown up in a kind of idyllic, left-leaning university town, I had no idea how the world was put together. Stendhal’s protagonist, Julien Sorel slices vertically through the social and political worlds of 19th century France, revealing its power relations and its hypocrisy. Even if this was not my world, the journey was thrilling and it made me want to know how American society hung together, what controlled it, and whether or not it might be changed for the better.
A second chance encounter occurred when I was almost 16, at a driver’s education class. I was already pretty into hardcore music–mainly for the visceral thrill and for the opportunity to bump into other sweaty guys–and there was another punk in the course. He was more of the Crass, Discharge, Rudimentary Peni variety though. I think I made fun of the anarchy symbol on his leather jacket or something and the next session he brought me a much re-copied pamphlet titled “Arguments for Anarchism.” It quoted Kropotkin, Bakunin, and Goldman and voiced what I am now sure were embarrassingly simple critiques of each and every from of political rule. Needless to say, I was hooked. Once again, used bookstores came to the rescue and I grabbed whatever I could by the anarchist’s quoted in the pamphlet as well as relatively contemporary books with anarchism in the title like Robert Paul Wolff’s. Unlike Julien Sorel, who had to memorize the Bible and to seduce a representative of each social order in order to understand society, I discovered that there existed a class of people who apparently made a living studying the socio-economic and political world and by critiquing it. From these experiences, I knew before college that something like this was what I’d like to do. I did not know that political philosophy was the best venue for this kind of thing (and I am still not certain that it is). However, I found my way into an American Philosophy class the second semester of undergraduate and annoyed the professor, Darnell Rucker, enough with my naive arguments for anarcho-communism that he handed me John Dewey’s “Liberalism and Social Action” at the end of the term. This book pushed me in the direction of political philosophy and compelled me to take the liberal tradition seriously. Did these incidents make me become a professional philosopher? No, that I became one can much more be attributed to accidents of birth and privilege. However, without these encounters, I may not have known that researching and teaching philosophy was an option and, more importantly, that puzzling out questions like “who should have power over others” gave me pleasure and that I had some facility in answering them.
3:AM:You’re an expert in the Marxist theoretician Louis Althusser. His reputation is low at the moment but perhaps rising? Up to the 1970’s he was taken to be a serious Marxist thinker. So perhaps before we look in detail at his thinking can you say a little about what happened to reverse his fortunes and leave him in the lurch? I guess murdering his wife didn’t help?
WL:Murdering his wife in 1980 didn’t help at all. But his stature would have been diminished during the 80s and 90s even if he didn’t commit such a horrible crime. Why? Because Althusser never stopped being a Marxist-Leninist. Now just being a Marxist in academic philosophy is incredibly difficult, even in France. Althusser, though, was fortunate enough to be his most philosophically active during the two decades where being a Marxist philosopher was not only an institutional possibility but during revolutionary years where such work was of global interest. Althusser’s tide rose with the post-Stalinist communist left and it fell as this movement became fragmented and declined. By 1980, Althusser’s arguments for a scientific Marxism, for the necessity of a dictatorship of the proletariat, and for democratic centralism were seen as hopelessly old-fashioned. The divisions between social classes had become obscure, revolutions were failing or were degenerating everywhere, and radical theory and philosophy had moved on to novel theories of bio-power, post-Marxism, and neo-liberalism. Even before 1980, Althusser had become a marginal voice struggling to be heard and fighting to make the same kind of philosophical and political impact that he had made internationally during the 1960s and early 1970s.
After strangling his wife and after he was let off for it (in the same way that John Hinckley was “let off” for shooting Reagan), his thought not only seemed passé but its thinker was infamous. Consequently, even though his students had made their way into the most prestigious institutions in France and even though his work had been translated into dozens of languages and was discussed by activists and theorists worldwide, the development of Althusser’s philosophical concepts and methods by others went into deep remission. This is not to say that there were no research programs inspired by Althusser’s work: analytic Marxism, critical realism and various post-Marxisms departed from Althusserian insights and continued apace. However, many of his most provocative theses, concepts, and arguments were assimilated without reference. One place where he did retain a foothold was in literary and cultural studies. There, his account of ideology from the essay is still widely anthologized and widely cited. Another place where he retained more than a foothold is in Latin America. The Zapatista revolution in Mexico followed Althusserian strategies and his influence in political theory there remains outsized.
3:AM:Up to about 1950 was Althusser trying to reconcile Christian and Marxist thinking in some respects? He also seemed to want to turn Marx back towards Hegel in some ways too during this early period, or at least you contend that Marx is guilty of the same mistake as Hegel in, as you put it, ‘… mistaking historical content for the fulfillment of the dialectic.’ Can you say something about this early period?
WL:After WWI, Hegel’s influence in French philosophy was unavoidable. Kantianism and Bergsonism mostly did not survive the Great War and it was Hegel (and somewhat Nietzsche and, of course, the perennial Descartes) who filled the vacuum. The effects of Hegel’s philosophy were felt in logic, theology, historiography, ethics, epistemology and phenomenology. Marx was different. Unlike Hegel, he was not philosophically respectable. Bourgeois presses typically did not publish Marxist philosophy and French universities did not employ Marxists. After World War II, the reputation of communists as resistance fighters and as martyrs lent communism and thereby Marxism a certain moral and political authority. This authority transferred to the philosophical sphere and almost every post-war French philosopher you can name who worked in value theory reflected on the truth of Marxism. Books on Marxist philosophy like Henri Lefebvre’s Dialectical Materialismeven became best sellers. That said, Marx’s thought was regarded neither as philosophically sophisticated nor as complete and not that much of Marx’s early work was readily available until the early 1960s. Therefore, it way by emphasizing his connections to Hegel that post-war French philosophers filled-in the gaps Marx supposedly left in the theorization of individual agency, consciousness, science, history, ethics, and anthropology.
Now Althusser was raised in an observant family and became a Catholic militant before the war. He remained a believer and activist of a sort until about 1949. Some of the most progressive Catholic theologians were Hegelians and they definitely influenced him. Further, Althusser’s teachers and colleagues Georges Canguilhem and Jean Hyppolite at the École normale supérieure were Hegelians. Althusser entered the ENS in 1945 with clear Marxist sympathies, if not exactly knowledge of Marxist philosophy. Given his biography and given the zeitgeist, reconciling Catholicism, Marxism, and Hegel made a lot of sense as the subject of his 1947 thesis. As the quote you mention above and the larger passage from which it is taken suggests, although Althusser embraced Hegel’s logic and Marx’s materialism, sophisticated Catholic theology won the day. In the thesis, Althusser appealed to a broader space, something beyond Hegel’s or Marx’s dialectic, to the infinite postponement of all historical realization such that no concrete historical situation could be taken with certainty as the dialectic’s fulfillment. This denial of conceptual or historic closure made Marxism into the philosophy that supports an ongoing communist political project rather than a telic philosophical anthropology, such a move was to be a feature of his later thinking.
3:AM:Was his interest in Montesquieu about resisting idealism and looking at history as science – was this where he turns his back on Hegel and becomes a fully-fledged Marxist?
WL:If by “fully-fledged Marxist” one means a rejection of theism and a full embrace of dialectical and historical materialism, then this happened between 1948 and 1949. We are lucky to have a long letter to one of his high school mentors, Jean Lacroix, where Althusser announces this rejection and gives his reasons for it. That said, it was not a sophisticated Marxism that Althusser embraced and his former strong belief in salvation only by god’s grace was immediately transferred to a robust faith in humanity’s salvation by the proletariat. The Montesquieu book appeared ten years after this renunciation and he had a decade of party membership and activism behind him at this point. In fact, despite announcing some concepts that would be associated with his mature thought, the book on Montesquieu is not really a Marxist text and it was not conceived as such. Rather, it was intended as the first part of a planned doctoral dissertation on “18th Century French Politics and Philosophy,” which was never completed. That said, the essays that began appearing in 1960 and that revolutionized Marxian thought like “On the Young Marx,” “Contradiction and Overdetermination,” and “On the Materialist Dialectic” would have been inconceivable without conceptual advances attributable to the Montesquieu book.
3:AM:You argue that his mature works were produced in the early years of the 1960s. He was trying to rethink how to read and understand Marx at that time wasn’t he? Was it because discrediting Stalinism was seen at the time as an urgent matter for Marxists?
WL:Prior to 1960, what little Althusser wrote on Marx was mostly derivative. As we just discussed, the stuff from the late 1940s was barely distinguishable from that of other post-war radical Christian-Marxist thinkers. The few things that he wrote on Marxism from the 1950s were from the standpoint of a PCF militant and echoed the Stalinist party line. By the late 1950s, Stalinism was discredited everywhere, except maybe in the French communist party. However, following Koestler’s roman à clefand Khrushchev's secret speech, some within the party’s rank-and-file and parts of the directorate actively sought alternatives. The theoretical alternative, which made the most headway, was that of “humanist Marxism,” a direct successor to post-war Hegelian Marxism. Unlike Marxism-Leninism, this was a “big tent” political philosophy: atheists and Christians, proletarians and petit bourgeois, scientists and artists, second and third internationalists could all find a place within it. Humanist Marxism emphasized individual agency, freedom of choice, cultural and artistic progress and, at its center, it emphasized a set of core human values as principles that occasion and underwrite communist revolution. As I remarked, Althusser once flirted with this species of Marxism but then abandoned it for Marxism-Leninism. That humanist Marxism might now become the party’s official philosophy jolted him into action. As much as anybody, Althusser wanted to repudiate Stalinism. However, he thought that humanism smuggled bourgeois ideology back into Marxist philosophy. Starting in the early 60s, then, his goal was to provide a philosophically sophisticated and defensible alternative to both humanist Marxism and to the discredited official Marxism-Leninism of the Soviet Union.
3:AM:Why did he return to the early works of Marx? Was it to find the scientific spirit in the works, and was he later to change his mind about whether you could actually sort out the idealist from the materialist thinking in Marx?
WL:He turned to the early works of Marx to combat the humanist Marxists. Truth be told, he never read them very well or certainly not comprehensively. Instead, he read them with a methodological sieve, sorting materialist from idealist elements. It was explicitly a counter-reading. Instead of seeing Marx as indebted to Hegel for his method and as always concerned with ending alienation, as the humanists tended to, Althusser read Marx as someone striving to develop an original materialist political philosophy in a philosophical climate whose concepts and methods were set by left Hegelians, by utopian socialists, and by liberal political economists. Certainly, the claim that Marxist Philosophy included a science was part and parcel of this counter-reading and Althusser wanted to justify the Marxist science of historical materialism. Althusser was not a guy who would ever use the word “scientific spirit” though. Rather, he argued that there are ways of demarcating scientific thought and methods from non-scientific modes of thinking and practice. Like Galileo with astronomy and Darwin with biology, Althusser argued that Marx opened up a new “scientific continent.” According to him, what makes Marx’s or Darwin’s or Galileo’s thought scientific is not necessarily their empirical investigations but the fact that each developed new understandings of certain types of objects. These objects and concepts could then be investigated and our understanding of them developed using scientific methods of research. For Darwin, obviously, the chief concept was that of natural selection. However, there are other concepts such as mutation, heredity, and adaptation which comprise evolutionary theory as a whole and that Darwin needed but did not name in his work (it took others like Mendel to do so). Similarly, For Marx, the chief concept in the Marxist science of historical materialism is that of class struggle. However, there are other concepts such as structural causality, uneven development, and conjuncture, which are immanent and necessary to Marx’s thought and that, though employed by Marx, were not named or defined. Althusser believed that a big part of his philosophical task in rereading Marx symptomatically (that is for what he wanted to say but was unable to given the available philosophical resources) was to make these concepts explicit.
As you mentioned, in the early 1960s, Althusser made extravagant claims about there being two Marxes: one, an idealist, humanist young Marx; and, two, a materialist, anti-humanist mature Marx. The latter, he maintained, only came into being in 1845 with Marx’s rejection of Feuerbach’s philosophical anthropology. By the mid 1970s, Althusser had recanted this strong claim about a break in Marx’s work, stating that he only emphasized it for strategic, political reasons and in order to counter the humanist readings of Marx. By the late 1970s, he admitted that Marx’s philosophy never stopped being a mixture of idealist and materialist tendencies and he doubted that Marxism, or indeed any philosophy, could free itself from idealism entirely. His development of the philosophy of the encounter or aleatory materialism was another attempt to construct a Marxism purged of idealism and appropriate for the political conjuncture of the 1980s.
3:AM:How did he introduce hermeneutics to the scientific spirit of Historical Materialism at this time? Was it to refute the empiricist understandings of Marx?
WL:“Empiricism” is given a heterodox definition by Althusser so maybe it is best to start with an explanation of this term before trying to answer the rest of your question. Most philosophers think of empiricism as a position in epistemology which holds that experience is the best or the only way of coming to knowledge about the world. Althusser regarded empiricism as the tendency of modern philosophy par excellence. Whether German rationalist or British empiricist, according to Althusser, all believed that the essence of an object can come to be known as it is by a subject. Obviously, this process is not the same for Descartes or Locke as it is for Hegel, but the epistemology of each roughly fits this description. For Descartes and Locke, the knower is an individual subject. For Hegel, the knower is a universal subject. Under this definition, both Humanist Marxism and Marxism-Leninism are empiricist: the former posits that humans will end their alienation and come to know (and to be) essentially who they are under communism. The latter recognizes that the successive modes of production in history will produce a historical subject, the proletariat, who know how the socio-economic world really works and who can therefore make it work for them. According to Althusser, one problem with Marx is that he makes both claims. Insofar as he does so, Marx is himself doubly guilty of empiricism. But Marx’s voice is not univocal; Althusser reads a tension in his works. The tension is that between a Marx that is the heir to modern political philosophy and to Hegel and to all the other ideologies of his day and a Marx that is struggling to break free of this tradition and to found a materialist science of history. An attentive reader of Marx’s texts looks for the contradictions and tensions between these two tendencies. For instance, what does it mean for Marx to claim in The German Ideology that the materialist method starts with observation of the actual history of human beings in their productive relations and then to claim a few pages later that “individuals must appropriate the existing totality of productive forces.” Where does the “must” come from? From the Hegelian dialectic. Simply put, Althusser’s hermeneutic method asks that the reader look for these symptoms, for these holes and contradictions, that the reader try to critique and complete them and, thereby, develop the materialist philosophy that Marx was trying to articulate but was unable to give the ideological conjuncture in which he developed his thought.
3:AM: How did Spinoza, Freud, Lacan and Marxbecome incorporated into his interpretative method of ‘symptomatic reading’? And was it also a response to his belief that Marx actually offered no consistent philosophical exposition of epistemology, social structure, history, human nature and politics?
WL:Good question. Althusser attributes the development of his method of reading to Freud, to Spinoza, as well as to Marxhimself. I know that some people make a big deal about the relation between Althusser and Lacan. However, I don’t think that Lacan is as important to Althusser’s philosophy as are the other three. What all have in common is that each emphasizes the difference between what is expressed or consciously known by the subject and that which is not directly expressed or cognized by a speaker but which gives signs of itself and thereby reveals the very structure of that speaker’s or knower’s relationship to the world. The method of psychoanalysis, where the unconscious can be made to speak if one is only attentive to the signs or “symptoms” that indicate where something known or desired has been denied and repressed is critical here and Althusser generalizes it to come up with his idea of a symptomatic reading. This is probably his clearest debt to Lacan, who similarly generalizes Freud. By drawing attention to the similarities between the theory of ideology and that of the unconscious, Althusser connects Marx to this analytic tradition as well. Specifically, he says that he is inspired by Marx’s symptomatic reading of the British political economists, a reading where the source of surplus value is shown by Marx to be omitted or “repressed” for ideological reasons that can be critiqued and understood.
Spinozais pulled into this hermeneutic tradition as methodological predecessor to Freud’s and Marx’s materialism. Spinoza, I think, is key to understanding Althusser’s epistemology as well as his conceptions of the social structure, of history, human nature and of politics. I don’t mean by this that one can just read Spinoza and understand Althusser. In fact, having had the opportunity to discuss Spinoza and Althusser with Yitzhak Melamed, Daniel Selcer, and Hasana Sharp, I see that Althusser’s interpretation of Spinozais idiosyncratic and not particularly well informed. However, without Spinoza’s distinction between three types of knowledge, Althusser would not have developed the distinction that he did between ideological and scientific knowledge. Althusser’s historiography and theory of structural causality were likewise informed by Spinoza’s metaphysics. Even his anti-humanism has Spinozist roots. That said, Althusser loved Spinoza so much that he also brought in some bad stuff. I’m thinking specifically here about the model of the social structure developed in Reading Capital. In this theory, he claimed that economic, ideological, scientific, and political practices are not only analytically separable but that they actually are separate and that they do not affect one another, just like Spinoza’s modes (or at least like Leibniz’s understanding of Spinoza’s modes).
As you mention, Althusser argued that Marx’s philosophy lacked much of what it needed and that much of it was ideological. Marx’s epistemology and theory of the superstructure went into the former category of “lacking”. Into the latter category of “ideological” went Marx’s ideas about human nature and of history as teleological. With the publication of Marx’s collected works in the 20th century and now with the MEGA in the 21st, we know that some of the apparent lacks were actually filled-in by Marx himself. However, I don’t think that Althusser would be too concerned with these details. Despite the avowed intention of his project as a return to Marx and to what Marx actually wrote, Althusser’s aim was not intellectual historical. He was a philosopher and he always aimed develop a tenable Marxian political philosophy and philosophy of science mostly purged of ideology and which could serve the communist movement.
3:AM:Can you sketch for us Althusser’s alternative non-empiricist theory of epistemology and philosophy of science for us?
WL:In an interview? That is a tough assignment but I’ll give it a try. I alluded to some of the key ideas above when I mentioned Darwin and Galileo. Althusser is clearly an heir to the tradition of French epistemology that began with Koyré and that flourished under Cavaillés, Canguilhem, and Bachelard at mid-century. This is a thoroughly historicist tradition; its main insight is that scientific knowledge is always limited by the ideas which we have available to help us understand scientific objects. This does not mean that we cannot develop new concepts, but that these “new” concepts are never pure. The concept of “race” in the human sciences is a good example. It began as a folk concept that natural philosophers adopted in order to make sense of certain interspecies divisions in terms of natural kinds. Claims were made about what race was and scientists used other concepts (from biology, anthropology, craniometry, etc.) to determine whether these claims were true. Facts played a role in this of course, but they too were understood as shaped by concepts (thus his anti-empiricism). Now the 19th century concept of race as the phenotypical similarity of a group that is caused by shared genetic inheritance does not jibe with a lot of other claims and concepts, such as the idea that phenotypical variation is larger within populations than between them. So then, the idea that race is a natural kind is something that has been found to be untrue. In cosmology, we could tell a similar story about steady state theory that would run in the same direction and about the big bang that would run in the opposite.
I used race as an example of a scientific concept because most people recognize it as ideological. That is, the concept of race was not only erroneously said to mark out a natural kind but the effect of our belief in such a concept served to legitimate the unequal treatment of those who were said to belong to certain racial groups. In fact, this “scientific” concept underwrote all kinds of horrific abuses and policies and perpetuated particular capitalist social relations of production. As I just said, most of us see this clearly now. The question is why did late 19th and early 20th century meaning scientists not see this? And why do some still not see it? Althusser’s answer to this question is that scientists think with the same ideological concepts as the rest of us, concepts whose predominate effect is to perpetuate existing social relations. Working with the material real, with facts, as scientists do, has the tendency to reduce ideological knowledge and to replace it with scientific knowledge, but there is no clear demarcation principle known in advance. Rather, Althu sser argues that the employment of scientific methods tends to dissipate ideology on its own and that scientists can be helped by philosophical criticism to recognize when their work employs ideological concepts. I think a good example of this type of reform has occurred over the last 30 years in economics where models of humans as free and reasonable utility maximizers have given way to more sophisticated conceptions of humans as beings whose rationality and freedom to choose is often compromised by instinct, altruism, ignorance, and other social forces.
3:AM:What’s the role of philosophy in Althusser, and Marxist philosophy in particular? Is philosophy for him a form of ideological production?
WL:This is a good follow-up. The year 1966 is a kind of turning point for Althusser in terms of his thinking about the relationship between philosophy, science, and ideology. In what I have called “classic” or “mature” Althusser –that of For Marxand Reading Capital–there is a clear demarcation between these three types of knowledge producing practices. The dominant theoretical practice is that of ideology. Ideology is defined by Althusser as the stock of concepts that structure our lived experience and which allow us to make our way in the world. Ideologies may change and there may be conflicts between them, but ideology is a permanent feature of our existence. The main effect of ideological beliefs is the reproduction of existing socio-economic structures. Unlike ideology, science produces new knowledge about the world. It does so by taking pre-existing concepts and then refining and reorganizing them into an internally consistent set of material and theoretical practices. At this period in his thought, Althusser limits philosophy’s practical roles to three. One is philosophy of science; it explains how sciences constitute themselves. The second role is that of demarcating science from ideology. The third is to help science sort out and render consistent scientific concepts logically coherent (a type of neo-positivism without belief in the independent existence of positive facts, if you will).
Post-1966, this all gets muddy. As we just discussed in response to the last question, Althusser argues in his later thought that philosophy can still help science by helping it sort ideological ideas from scientific ones. However, there are no theoretical criteria or operation guaranteeing this separation and philosophy retains no special privilege unavailable to scientists in terms of rendering theories internally consistent. Instead, for the rest of his career, philosophy is conceived as class struggle in theory. It is said to operate in the void between ideological and scientific concepts, allowing us to critique them. Acting in this void, philosophy is able to represent scientificity in the field of politics and politics in the field of science. Althusser doesn’t really spell out all the implications of this claim, but I have tried to do so in a few papers, most importantly in “Concrete Analysis and Pragmatic Social Theory.” Basically, I argue that he replaces the conventionalist truth criterion of internal consistency with a pragmatic criterion of success in practice. In this sense, philosophy helps science by pointing out where and how the concepts it makes use of serve to reproduce existing socio-economic structures and impede it from developing a more useful understanding of its object. Similarly, philosophy helps politics by correcting for ideology by insisting that political decision be made on the basis of scientific knowledge rather than on folk notions about socio-economic relations and about the public good.
3:AM:What does it mean when people claim he was a kind of Marxist structuralist ?
WL:I think that it refers to two things, each of which is about half true. At least until the 1970s, French academia was small enough that, at least among the human sciences and belles lettres, there could be overall trends which dominated diverse research programs. Pre and immediate Post-war, this trend was existentialism. During the 1950s, structuralism became dominant. What each disciplinary variant of structuralism had in common was a rejection of existentialism’s individual ontology of radical freedom, choice, and creative self-building. Instead, they emphasized and investigated the deep, universal, and permanent systems that structure our psychic and social relations (despite these systems’ apparent heterogeneity, complexity, and change). Structuralism had representatives from linguistics, anthropology, psychology, literature, literary theory, history, philosophy, and sociology. Because Althusser rejected the Marxist humanist idea of the self as creative agent–an individual ontology compatible with existentialism–it was easy to link him to structuralism and to dub him its Marxist representative. In the early 1960s, Althusser also appealed to the arguments of well-known structuralists and he invited Jacques Lacan, the leading structuralist psychiatrist, to give seminars at the ENS. Further linking himself with the movement, he proclaimed that he and Lacan were involved in parallel projects: the scientific rethinking of Marx and Freud. These two things were enough to mark Althusser contemporaneously and in most intellectual histories as a structuralist. That said, by 1966, Althusser vehemently rejected this label. He did so for at least two reasons: one, as the Marxist representative of structuralism, the deep, universal, and permanent system that Althusser was often taken to be identifying and that structured all social relations was the economy. This, however, was contrary to his thoroughgoing critique of economism and to what he had been trying to argue in Reading Capital. There, he emphasized that different structures or “practices” dominate social relations in different eras and that the causality of this dominance is not linear. In fact, he went back through Reading Capitaland scrubbed anything that he thought smacked of structuralism before allowing the second edition to be published in order to avoid this interpretation. Further, he did not that think human nature or our social relations were fixed by eternal structures. Rather, Althusser was a historicist and believed that our natures, as well as the forces which structure our natures, change and develop over time. Finally, the alliance with Lacan was short-lived. Not long after inviting him to the ENS and announcing their alliance, Althusser rejected much the latter’s theory of the unconscious for one based on historical materialist rather than psychoanalytic explanation.
3:AM: What’s distinctive about his approach to Marxist Philosophy, in particular his ‘anti-humanism?
WL:I just mentioned his anti-humanism and it is indeed an important feature of his Marxism. Though this is controversial, I think that its most important feature is a rejection of dialectical materialism. In Marxist thought, dialectical materialism has long underwritten metaphysics, epistemology, historiography, phenomenology, and social and political philosophy. In fact, most disputes among Marxists are about the extent of the applicability of dialectical laws and processes to the different philosophical objects I just mentioned. Some Marxists contend that the dialectic merely pertains to the ways in which humans come to know and change the world through their material interaction with it. Others claim that all nature, all scientific thought, all societies, and all history follow dialectical laws. Although Althusser long paid lip service to the tradition of identifying Marx’s philosophy with dialectical materialism, in truth, his major innovation was to reject this identification and its application in diverse domains and to develop a new philosophy for Marxism. Because of its rejection of idealist elements associated with the dialectic, he even took to calling this new philosophy an “anti-philosophy”. In terms of philosophy of science, his conventionalism and, later, his instrumentalism supported argument against Marxists who believed that all of nature developed according to dialectical laws. This conviction was strengthened by the historical experience of the Soviet Union under Stalin and Lysenko.
Further, and this is the connection with his anti-humanism, Althusser had absolutely no faith that economics or the expansion of historical consciousness would create a universal agent destined to overthrow bourgeois rule and to realize conditions of full human freedom. With Marx, he claimed that social and economic forces structure us and our relations and that, through the application of scientific methods, we can study these forces and understand how they work. The claim about us being structured by material relations is the core of Althusser’s anti-humanism: our natures are formed, not fixed, and there is no overall plan to this formation. We neither control our own becoming, nor are we fated to become what our nature requires. To the extent that we understand the material relations which form us and to the extent that we can exert the necessary political forces to change them, we may structure these forces and thereby recreate ourselves. That we are eventually going to do so, there is no guarantee. This conclusion and his rejection of Hegel’s dialectic of becoming is why he loved and often cited de Gaulle’s phrase: “The Future Lasts a Long Time.” For Althusser, communism is not dialectically fated. It may or may not be achieved.
3:AM:What’s your take on his late writings? Are they aberrations or continuations of his previous work?
WL:I’ve changed my opinion on this over the last decade. When I first read the published texts on aleatory materialism, what first struck me were their sloppiness, their hyperbole, their mistaken readings of canonical philosophers, and their misplaced optimism. So, yes, I took the texts written after 1982 as aberrations and I told anyone who would listen not to bother and to read the really great stuff Althusser wrote on Machiavelli, Gramsci, the state, and on Marxist philosophy in the mid to late 70s. My opinion has since changed. The flaws I just mentioned are present and his late meditations on the philosophy of the encounter are undoubtedly the product of an intellect reduced by trauma, guilt, medication, and solitude. That said, after spending a lot of time in his archives and after having had some dots connected by G. M. Goshgarian’s invaluable introductions to his Althusser translations, I have a much higher opinion of these writings. One should not get bogged down by some of the ridiculous things he says about Wittgenstein or by the intimations of communism glimpsed in the shared affects of World Cup fans and Rock Festival crowds. When you separate the wheat from the chaff, what he does in these late works is develop a non-dialectical Marxian philosophy that, unlike Marxism-Leninism and humanist Marxism, is capable of analyzing the present political and socio-economic conjuncture such that revolutionary activity can be successful. It is, at heart, a Machiavellian rethinking of Marxism where the dialectic is denied and social science, still in the form of a historical materialism that acknowledges the existence and importance of class struggle, is embraced. This budding philosophy also recognizes how difficult it is to change socio-economic tendencies and the luck involved in achieving a successful revolution. Again, seen in isolation, this work is suggestive more than argumentative. Thanks to some editorial choices before its publication, which make certain aspects of it look like a break from his 1970s work, it is also poorly understood. However, I think the philosophy of the encounter has much to offer those still thinking about how to achieve a post-liberal and post-capitalist world, one that better manifests democratic ideals. Fortunately, there seems to be more and more of us thinking about how to achieve this world.
3:AM:Would you argue that there is still much of interest and relevance in his thinking, or is his fallen reputation justified? What are the strongest theoretical reasons you can think of for defending his importance?
WL:Well, the global economic and political situation has changed greatly since the 1980s and so has the political philosophical situation. Given capitalism’s continued growth and this growth’s pernicious socio-economic effects, the postmodern and neoliberal theories which marked the 1980s and 1990s and that equally tended to divorce economy from politics both seem exhausted and misguided. Also, Anglophone political philosophy itself seems to be changing. Right now, tons of great work on social epistemology, on ideology, on structural inequality, and on propaganda is being done. These are all areas where Althusser had much to say and where he offered some brilliant insights and arguments. A few years ago, Anglophone social and political philosophers just didn’t read or reference Althusser. Now we have scholars like Jason Stanleyand Rebecca Kuklaexplicitly critiquing and developing his ideas.
These changes somewhat explains why Althusser’s reputation has been rising steadily for the last ten years. Another thing that explains this ascent is a raft of posthumous publications which challenge the received view of Althusser as a structural Marxist and as a die-hard communist party member. The most important of these in terms of its effect was undoubtedly the volume from 2006, which contained his writings on The Philosophy of the Encounterwe just discussed. However, the decade there has seen five volumes of unpublished work released, each of which challenges the conventional take. One more thing that explains this comeback is a raft of new scholarship on Althusser by scholars such as Warren Montag, Banu Barga, Panagiotis Sotiris, and Asad Haider. This work deepens our understanding of his thought and links it to contemporary concerns.
There are at least three areas where I think Althusser’s thought has contemporary relevance. One, while avoiding the idealist pitfalls of methodological holism, his work demands that we take the role of social, economic, and political structures seriously when we think about how freedom is or is not realized in a given conjuncture. He also acknowledges and marks out the limits of such research. Two, in its emphasis on the usefulness of social scientific knowledge for political decision-making, his work is compatible with contemporary analytic political philosophy. That said, it does not share this tradition’s weaknesses of assuming a liberal framework for all politics and for beginning from intuitions about the nature of political subjects. Emphasizing subjectification, his thought encourages us to look at the social forces that create us as liberal subjects as well as the way in which these forces might be transformed. Three, his work does much more than point the way to a different politics: it provides a critical method by which one regime can be practically transformed into another. This makes his philosophy far superior to competing Marxist research programs that rely on spontaneity, the event, or ideological shifts to effect this transformation or, worse, have given up revolutionary hope. Needless to say, it also marks his work as superior to much liberal political philosophy whose political horizons only stretch to include formal freedom and equality and which can’t explain why the expansion of individual right and of capital has not slowed the expansion of oppressions and inequalities.
3:AM:And for the readers here at 3:AM, are there five books that you can recommend to take us further into your philosophical world?
WL:Teaching at a liberal arts college and working at the intersections of philosophy of social science, political philosophy, and history of political philosophy, my philosophical world is pretty varied and might even appear as capricious or dilettantish. At this point in my career, I’m okay with that.
If somebody wants to read a bit of Althusser and to get a sense of how his project developed after For Marxand Reading Capital, I would recommend the recent translation of On the Reproduction of Capitalby G. M. Goshgarian. This is the book from which his Ideological State Apparatuses essay was taken and it includes Althussser’s critique of the liberal state as well as his argument for the necessity of a dictatorship of the proletariat.
In terms of my own methodology, I have been inspired by folks like Elizabeth Anderson, Phillip Kitcher, J.M. Berstein and James Bohman, each of whom has worked hard to overcome the artificial boundaries in contemporary Anglophone philosophy by incorporating elements from critical theory and pragmatism into a generally analytic methodology. Kitcher’s Science Truth and Democracywas very important to me in this regard.
I recently reviewed Philosophy of Social Science: A New Introduction, a volume edited by Nancy Cartwright and Eleonara Montuschi, which is both a great introduction to the discipline and provides sophisticated arguments for the necessary value-ladenness of social science research, for methodological pluralism, and for pragmatic forms of verification, all positions which I support.
Another recent book that impressed me–and that students in my Marxism seminar loved–is Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. Is it philosophy? Well it is certainly a detailed and impassioned exercise into the recovery and reconstruction of a popular tradition of Marxist thought. As a pragmatist and Marxist always concerned with the effect of ideas, I can fully endorse it as great political philosophy!
To go back a ways; John Dewey’s Freedom and Culturehas probably influenced me more than any other book. Written in 1937, when fascism was on the rise and actually existing communism was well established, Dewey critiques American democracy with the same energy he applies to its global competitors. In the book, he calls us on the public to use philosophy, deliberation, and the social sciences to analyze the particular, existing economic, political, social, artistic, and scientific relations for how they do and do not promote democratic freedom and equality. I have followed in this pragmatic tradition and this is pretty much the call that I have been trying to answer with my own work.
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Richard Marshallis still biding his time.