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Althusser’s epistemology


Ihe limils of Ihe Iheo..y of
Iheo..elical p ..aclice
concepts and theses which would permit the demarcation of science from other kinds of theoretical discourse. Dialectical materialism, then, was thought
to be the philosophical theory Within which the
scientific character of historical materialism could
be demonstrated.

Althusser’s marxist philosophy, however, was no
ordinary epistemology, but an ‘historical epistemoThe settling of accounts with ‘Althusserianism’ has logy’, or ‘theory of science and of the history of
been on the order of the day for some time now.

science’ (RC, p145). The defence of historical
The recent publication of Essays in Self-Criticism,
materialism as a science also rested upon certain
however, makes available for the first time to
historical claims about the beginnings of all sciences,
English readers the author’s own judgements on his and about the epistemological break which marked
earlier work (1). His view has not changed much’

the emergence of historical materialism itself.

since 1969, when the initial rectification was pubConversely, the understanding of the new science
lished as a foreword to the Italian edition of Reading founded by Marx, the science of history, and of the
Capital. What was then an ‘error’ in the conception mechanism of the birth of t~s new SCience, pointed
Of philosophy has now become a ‘deviation’. The
towards ‘the concepts of a general theory of the
change in terms reflects the further development of history of the sciences’ (RC, p153). Hence the
the metaphor (2) of philosophy as a field of battle:

development of this marxist philosophy was thought
to lead towards ‘a revo~ution in the traditional conthe class struggle in theory. It was a deviation,
though, from a line which is never straight; an
cept of the history of the sciences’ (RC, p44); a
‘error’ in a field of theory for which truth is unrevolution embodied in dialectical materialism itself,
defined. Overall, the view with respect to his
and made possible by the existence of historical
earlier texts is that, while their argumentation

may have been deviant, the positions they took up
The origipal Althusserian enterprise thus embodies
were and are correct. The ‘Elements of Selfa dual aim, insofar as it proposes both a theory of
Criticism’, then, contain more than an element of
demarcation of the sciences and a theory of their
self-justification. Nevertheless, they are useful as history. This duality surfaces clearly in the division
of theoretical labour carried out by Althusser’s
a point of departure for reflection on those earlier

rectification, a fact which might lead one to suspect
The fundamental pOSition was that of combatting
that the attempted unification of epistemology arid the
certain theoretically and politically dangerous tend- history of science in a theory of theoretical practice
encies within marxism, with the aim of restoring
represented an impossible task. Mter the new
its political power and status, such that it might
definition of philosophy, first announced in the
regain its political effectiveness. Althusser sums
essays in Lenin and Philosophy, the job of demarcatit up as follows: ‘I wanted to defend Marxism
ing and defending science falls to philosophy itself,
against the real dangers of bourgeois ideology: it
whereas the historical task is to be met by a theory
was necessary to stress its revolutionary new
of the ‘material, social, pOlitical, ideological and
character; it was therefore necessary to ‘prove’

philosophical conditions’ of the process of theoretical
that there is an antagonism between Marxism and
production (ESC, pp124, 156). This latter, however,
bourgeois ideology ••• ‘ (ESC, p105). The grounds
remains in the state of its enunciation in Althusser’s
on which he undertood this defence and this ‘proof’

subsequent work.

were epistemological ones. Althusser sought to
Whereas for Althusser himself, and French readers
establish the novelty of historical materialism by
generally, the emphasis on epistemology was always
defending it -as a science, in the strongest sense of
secondary to the political and philosophical aims (3),
the word. Marx’s achievement was compared to that for English readers the order is often reversed. It
of Galileo, who ‘opened up the continent of physics
is the epistemological project which occupies the
to science’. Insofar as the proof of this radical
centre of interest. Thus, for example, Glucks m ann ,
in her book on Levi-Strauss and Althusser, beginS
novelty was undertaken on the basis of a proposed
theory of the difference between science and ideoher discussion of the latter with the claim that ‘the
logy, Althusser’s marxist philosophy undertook the
project of Althusser and his collaborators in E.2!:.

primary task of an epistemology: the elaboration of
Marx and Reading Capital is to establish a Marxist
I am indebted to member,S of the Radical Philosophy editorial collective, and
epistemology as a basis for a scientific theory of
to Alex Bellamy. for thelr comments on a prevlous draft of this paper.

• t
d’ t
‘ t . I
‘ l’

Whe~ever pOSSible, quotations from French works are taken from the published SOCle y an his ory, or his orlca materla lsm

‘Let us say that public positions must always
be judged against the system of positions
actually held and against the effects they
produce’ – Althusser, Essays in Self-Criticism

I nl..ocluclion

English translations. Otherwise, the translations are my own.

3 See, for example, Pierre Raymond, ‘”, et la theorie dans la lutte des
classes’, Dialectiques.• 15/16, automne 1976, p138: ‘His (Althusser’s)
interest in epistemology was always singularly subordinated to his option
1 That ls, the essays in For Marx, Allen Lane/Penguin, 1969, and reating
apital , NLB, 1970, henceforth referred to as ~ an~ E£ respec lYe y,
of materialist philosopher; in other words, there was never an althusserian
epistemology, since Althusser never preached any specialization in an
ssays in Self~Criticism, NLB, 1976, is referred to as ESC,
2 Metapliors are very important in Althusser’s philosophy:–;::: in philosophy
epistemological neutrality, but a relation, constitutive of philosophy,
between all philosophy and the SCiences, which has nothing to do with
you can only think , ‘. by the use of metaphors’ (ESC, 107, n1, 140), Much
epistemology, ,
of this paper is concerned with the limits of certain of his metaphors, esp.

lmowledge as production.

4 M Glucksmann, Structuralist A.nalY9is in Contemporary Social ThOught,



Not that it is my intention here to decry the episte’:’

sophy includes a certain number of theses on the
mological reading of Althusser’s essays from the
sciences, they are in no way the beginnings of a
standpoint of the ‘real’, political Althusser.

theory, but simply the ‘necessary minimum of
Rather, since it has been one of the unfortunate
generality’ (ESC, pp112 -16) in order to be able to
effects of those essays in English to raise the
grasp a concrete object. Nevertheless, this continspectre of a Marxist Epistemology, it is against
uity, in the context of the failure to examine the
that particular phantom that this paper is directed.

conceptual apparatus with which he formerly sought
Secondly, this difference of effects needs to be
to distinguish science and ideology, might suggest
explained by reference to the different theoreticothat only the terms have been changed, and that the
political conjunctures in which they were written
conception of science which underlay Althusser’s
and then read in English. It may, perhaps, be
original project perSists.

related to the fact that Marxism’s exclusion from
The limitations of Althusser’s self-criticism, in
serious intellectual consideration in English-speak- fact, become most apparent in his treatment of the
central concept of his earlier ~pistemology, theoring academic circles was for so long defended on
, the grounds of its unscientific character. The
etical practice. In FM, he defined the marxist
influence of Popper’s critique in the history of that ‘ philosophy which it was his aim to constitute as ‘the
theory of theoretical practice’ (RM, pp166 -68), and
exclusion is attested to by the number of replies to
it (5). Hence, there was a felt need to respond on
the defence of historical materialism as a science,
the epistemological terrain. Reading Althusser in
we thought” turned around the question of the specific
that light undoubtedly helped to emphasize differcharacter of Marx’s theoretical practice. In ESC, on
ences at the expense of similarities. In particular,
the other hand, he admits that this definition represthe theory of knowledge as production may have
ents the ‘clearest and purest expression’ of his
seemed to radically alter the terms of the debate.

‘theoreticist deviation’ (ESC, pp68, 124). However,
In some respects it does. Their criteria of demarc- while he relentlessly denounces the ‘idealism or
ation are’ not the same, and Althusser’ s anti idealist connotations of all epistemoloty’ (ESC, p124,
empiricism, for example, is more thoroughgoing
n19), ‘theoretical practice’ itself is criticised only
than Popper’s. In other respects, however, as I
to the extent that ‘in the existing context, it tended
shall attempt to Show, their differences are less
to reduce philosophical practice to scientific pracimportant than their similarities.

tice’ (ESC, pp124,147). Elsewhere, he suggests
e e
that the conception of theory as a practice produced
e e positive effects, firstly, in justifying the political
autonomy of theory, in opposition to all forms of
eoret Ica prac Ice
pragmatism, and secondly, in recalling the material
In his ‘Elements of Self …Criticism’, Althusser him- character of theoretical ‘production’, in opposition
self has taken to task the epistemological aspect of
to the idealism of pure theory (ESC, pp147,169).

his earlier works. He singles out, in order to
Without wishing to dispute those claims, it should be
denounce, the project of developing a theory of
clear nevertheless that one effect of the fact that
scientific practice in its distinction from other prac· Althusser’s rectification of his former positions
tices (ESC, pp123 -4). This project was central to
has taken principally the form of the elaboration of
what he now calls an ‘erroneous tendency’ or ‘theor- a new conception of philosophy is that his former
eticist deviation’ (ESC, p105), which consisted of
texts are only criticised from the standpoint of this
reducing the historical process of Marxism’s
new conception of philosophy, and not from the point
emergence from its pre -history to a simple
of view of anything which might replace the ‘theory
theoretical fact, the ‘epistemological break’, and of of science’ and of .the history of science. The notion
interpreting Marxism’s opposition to bourgeois
of ‘theoretical practice’ is not criticised in terms of
ideology as a form of the rationalist opposition bet- its function in his former theory of science, nor is
ween truth and error (ESC, p106). However, he has its role in producing the ‘theoreticism’ of that
theory explained.

not explained how that ‘reduction’ was possible
within the terms ,of his former theoretical apparatus, The notion of science developed in B£ is announced
a reduction which is all the more surpriSing when
in the following thesis: ‘ ••• we must completely reone remembers that the elaboration of a marxist
organize the idea we have of knowledge, we must •••
theory of the history of science was part of the
conceive knowledge as a production’ (RC, p24).

original project. Secondly, whereas he has explained Given the earlier definition of ‘practice’, which was
based on Marx’s notion of production-in-general,
the role played by his ambiguous use of the term
‘ideology’ in making the opposition of marxist theory this thesis serves to make explicit what was implied
to bourgeois ideology appear to be merely a form of in the claim that theory is a specific form of social
the distinction between science and non-scien’ce, he practice, theoretical practice. As it stands, howhas never questioned the notion of science at work
ever, the thesis is ambiguous, as a result of the
in his early texts. Indeed, despite the reservations
familiar process/product’ambiguity to which such
expressed as to the modality under which Marxism
words as ‘production’ and ‘statement’ are subject.

was presented as a science in ~, the notions of
A ‘production’ may be either a product, something
‘science’ and ‘ideology’ still figure in Althusser’s
which is the result of a prodUction process, or it
philosophic discourse, as do familiar themes such
may be the process itself by which one creates
as the objectivity of scientific knowledge. The forsomething, in the sense, for example, in which one
mer, Althusser now says, function as philosophical talks of a theatrical production. In the last essay in
categories, not as conceEt~, and if marxist philo~, Althusser recognizes this ambiguity, and the
London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974. Cf. also, for example,
fact that he played on it to give a double sense to the
T Counihan, ‘Epist. and Science – Feyerabend and Lecourt’, Econom; and
Society 5, no.1, 1976, pa6: ‘Althusser’s project developed in RC and M

d h h

Th S If C rlllClSm an let eory
f Ih

was concerned with the production of an indigenous .lV.larxist epistemology’,
and A Callinicos’ boo.k, Althusser’s Marxism, where this tendency is also
evident, the question of Marxism’s scientificity becoming a central problem
of the Marxist philosophical tradition (London, Pluto Press, 1976).

5 eg M Cornforth, The Open Philosophy and Open Society, London, 1968.

W A Suchting, ‘lV1arx, Popper and “Historicism”’, IIiquiry 15, 1972.

Karel Wllliams, ‘Facing Reality – A Critique of Karl Popper’s
Empiricism’, Economy and Society 4, no. 3. 1975

I was directly and literally inspired by Marx, who
several times uses the concept of the ‘production’

of knowledge, to argue my central thesis: the idea
of knowledge as a production. I obviously also had
in mind an echo of Spino~ist ‘production’, and I

drew on the double sense of a word which beckoned
both to labour, practice, and to the display of
truth. (ESC, p189) (6)


Re does not, however, elaborate on the effects of
this play on the two senses of ‘production’ in his
earlier texts. To anticipate briefly what I shall
attempt to establish in what follows: the process of
which one can say that knowledge is a product is
different in kind from the process of the ‘display of
truth’, which Althusser also assimilates to a process of production. On the basis of this conceptual
confusion, he was able to have two quite distinct
notions of ‘theoretical practice’ function in his early
texts, one ‘Marxist’ and one ‘Spinozist’ notion, all
the while covering the second notion by the first.

Since, as I shall argue, these two notions are not
only distinct but incompatible, unravelling this
particular ploy goes a long way towards explaining
both the internal incoherencies of the theory of
theoretical practice, and its failure to fulfil the
historical and epistemological tasks it set itself.

Secondly, it enables us to recognize the mis-reading
that is involved in taking Althusser to be operating
with only one of these notions of theoretical practice.

In general, English language critics and commentators on Althusser have seen only the ‘Marxist’ notion,
and hence taken him to be proposing only a theory of
what I shall call ‘historical’ theoretical practice.

Finally, it enables us to uncover the concept of
science effectively at work in the text of RC, and to
criticize it as a conception of science.

Historical theoretical practice
We are thereby obliged to renounce every. teleology
of reason, and to conceive the historical relation
between a result and its conditions of existence
as a relation of production, and not of expression.

(RC, p45)
If one takes the knowledge-as-production theSis to
involve the ‘product’ sense of ‘production’, then its
force is to emphasize that knowledge is a matter of
systems of concepts which are never simply given,
either by experience or by God, but which are always
the result of working on other coneepts, intuitions or
sense-impressions. In this sense, ‘knowlE~dges’, or
systems of concepts, will be the results of a process
of production in the same way as any use-value, and
what Althusser calls the ‘process of knowledge’ will
be this process of elaborating and systematising
new concepts.

One of the many passages in RC which support the
idea that the object of dialecticalmaterialism, or
the theory of theoretical practice, is in fact the
historical process by which one obtains new concepts
and theories, occurs in the section in which he discusses Marx’s theoretical revolution and Engels’

account of it in the preface to Capital Vol. I I.

Althusser claims, for example, that ‘the process of
production of a knowledge necessarily proceeds by
the constant transformation of its (conceptual) object’

(RC, p156), and that this incessant transformation of
the object of knowledge, which is a precondition for
the deepening of the knowledge of the real object,
involves ‘a labour of theoretical transformation’

(ibid). To illustrate, using Engels’ example;
Lavoisier would have revolutionized chemical theory
in this matter: taking Priestley and Scheele’s dis6 ::iee also the fol1owin~ remark, f:::iC, 137: ‘once he has set aside the
(idealist) temptations of a theory of knowledge, Spinoza then says that
“what is true” “identifies itself”, not as a Presence but as a Product, in
the double sense of the term “product” (result of the work of a process
which “discovers” it), as it emerges in its own production. ‘


covery of ‘de-phlogisticated air’ as the point of
departure, he re-examined the entire system of
concepts of phlogistic chemistry and transformed
them, thus formulating the theoretical discovery of
a new element, oxygen, and a new theory of chemical composition. Lavoisier, then, ‘produced’ a new
theoretical object for che’mistry, in Althusser’s
term in ology. In the same way, to c mtinue Engels’

analogy, Marx’s theoretical practice in respect to
Capital would have been the process of his critical
working over of the system of classical political
economy on the basis of the latter’s internal contradictions, and his transformation of that system into
the new concepts articulated into a new theory which
we find in Capital. A little further on in the same
passage, Althusser insists that the study of this
mutation in both problematic and theoretical object,
which together constitute Marx’s theoretical revolution, belongs to ‘the discipline which relects on
the history of the forms of knowledge and on the
mechanism of their production: philosophy’ (RC, 157).

On this account, then, ‘theoretical, practice’ is an
essentially historical process. It concerns the
genesis of theories, the process whereby new objects of discourse are created. Because of this, and
because it is a process of real transformation of
conceptual or perceptual raw material into a theoretical product, it can readily be assimilated to a
process of production in Marx’s sense of the term.

Althusser does this in two ways: Firstly, by referring to Marx’s 1857 Introduction in talking about it
(e. g. in the passage referred to above, RC, p156),
thereby suggesting that it is this process lVlarx has
in mind when he talks about the ‘assimilation and
transformation (verarbeitung) of perceptions and
images into concepts’ (7). Secondly, by making
suggestions towards a theory of this practice modelled OIl his anti-humanist reading· of Marx’s theory
of economic production. So, just as the labour of
individuals in the latter is assigned by the structure
of relations of production of which they are bearers,
theoretical practice too will be conceived as an objective practice which proceeds according to rule
and conditions independent of the individual ‘theoretical labourers’. Theoretical practice will thus be
conceived as a process without a subject, and
Althusser distinguishes it from the ‘personal theoretical practice’ of the scientist in a way which
closely parallels Popper’s distinction between the
‘second world’ of individual beliefs and experiences
and the ‘third world’ of problem-situations,
theories and arguments (8). The theoretical practice of which Capital is the product, then, will not be
a matter of Marx’s personal mode of investigation,
but of the ‘objective’ process which resulted from
putting to work a certain apparatus of criticism,
using concepts drawn from Regel’s philosophy and
the socialist movement, on the theory of classical
pOlitical economy.

Continuing the analogy with economic production,
Althusser suggests that the key concept in regard
to the theory of this practice will be that of a theoretical mode of production. That is, an ‘historically
constituted apparatus of thought t which is composed
of ‘a structure which combines (verbindung) the type
of object (raw material) on which it labours, the
7 This is the N I Stone translation of Marx’s phrase. It has been more
recently translated by T Carver (Karl Marx’ Texts on Method; Oxford,
Blackwell, 1975) as ‘the working up of perception and conception into
concepts’. The phrase is variously translated in Althusser’s text as the
‘labour of transformation of intuition and representation into concepts’

(B£., 42), or ‘the work of elaboration by which thought transforms its
initial intuitions and representatioos into knowledges or thought-concretes I
(RC, 86). The nuances in the translatioos seem to correspond to the
different notions of ‘theoretical practice’.

8 K R Popper, Objective Knowledge, Oxford UP, 1972, Ch.3

theoretical means of production available (its theory,
its method and its teclmique, experimental or otherwise) and the historical relations (both theoretical,
ideological and social) in which it produces.’ (RC,
p41). Theoretical practice, then, will be determined
as to its form and direction by a theoretical mode of
production, and will proceed by the constant interrogation and resultant transformation of its conceptual
object. Within a given discipline, this process may
be continuous and gradual, when theoretical production is merely bringing to light new aspects of a preexisting theoretical object, or it may be discontinuous and revolutionary, as in those moments of its
history when a radically new theoretical object is
produced. It will be necessary, therefore, to make
a distinction between theoretical practice of the
former kind, which proceeds on the basiS of an
already constituted and more or less coherent set
of objects and means of theoretical prodUction, and
theoretical practice of the revolutionary kind, where
it is a question of the combination of disparate theoretical elements in the production of a new theoretical
.mode of production. Within an already constituted
science, the determining elen’lent of the process of
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theoretical production is the problematic, or system
of fundamental concepts of the science. It is this
which constitutes the theoretical matrix of both the
questions posed to the theoretical object, and of the
conceptual and methodological means by which
answers may be produced.

The reason for spelling out at length this reading
of the theory of theoretical practice as a theory of
the historical process by which theories are ‘produced’ is twofold: Firstly, in order to be able to
contrast it with Althusser’s ‘Spinozist’ notion of
theoretical practice, and secondly, because it is in
this sense that it has been interpreted by most
English comme~tators on Althusser. This reading
is evident in the early, influential article by Geras
(9), which, after an exposition which simply r~pro­
duces Althusser’s ambiguities with respect” to the
notion of theoretical practice, takes up the important question of the relation of Marxist theory to the
interests and struggles of the working class in
terms of ‘the theoretical practice by which Marxist
theory, as such, was founded and developed’ (ibid
p84). It continues to dominate Callinicos’ recent
book on Althusser, wherein ‘we are told that, for
Althusser, ‘Marxist philosopliy, the theory of theoretical practice,. concerns itself with the question of
the mechanisms that result in the emergence of
theoretical formations that are scientific .•• ‘ (10).

Undoubtedly, the assimilation of Althusser’s epistemology to certain themes in recent Anglo-Americ9 N Geras, ‘Althusser’s Marxism: An ACCOWlt and an Assessment’, ~
Left Review 71, Jan~Feb 1972, reprinted in Western M.. rxism, A Critical
Reader. NLB, 1977
10 Call1nicos, Althusser’s Marxism, pp58-9. Cf. also p33

an philosophy of science playect a role in imposing
this reading. This certainly seems to be the case
with Callinicos, for example, in whose text there is
more than a trace of the work of I Lakatos (11).

Leaving aside the prescriptive aspect of Lakatos’

theory, that is, its claim to provide methodological
rules for the appraisal of competing theories, his
‘methodology of scientific research programmes’

involves claims about the theoretical conditions of
theory change in the history of the sciences. The
site of the proposed demarcation of science is the
historical process of the modification and replacement of theories. Hence Althusser’s notion of a
theoretical mode of production may be assimilated
more or less closely to Lakatos’ ‘research programme’, and the notion of a tproblematic’ to
Lakatos’ ‘theoretical hard-core’ of a research programme. Both of these latter notions may be taken
to refer to the conceptual means by which new
theories are generated from old ones. Alternatively,
and with due regard to important differences,
Althusser’s notion of a ‘problematic’ may be
assimVated to Kulm’s ‘conceptual scheme’ or
‘theoretical framework’, which also refers to the
system of concepts and teclmiques forming the
basiS of a period of theoretical elaboration in the
history of a science, and which is one of the ways in
which he initially used the term ‘paradigm’.

Whatever the details of tre connections made, one
ends up with a variant of the view that the ‘theory of
theoretical practice’ is a theory of the historical
process of the production and elaboration of theories.

However, to interpret the theoretical practice of
which Althusser proposes to give us the theory
solely in this way would be to overlook the pOints in
the text where he is careful to distinguish questions
about the historical process of theory production
from questions about ‘theoretical practice’. While
it is true that he proposes to consider this historical
process as a process of production (witness the
quotation at the beginning of this section), it is also
true that on occasions he seeks to differentiate the
theory of this process by describing it as the theory
of the ‘conditions of production of theoretical practice’ (RC, p43), or the ‘theory of the history of
theoretical practice’ (RC, p61), phrases which would
seem redundant were it not for the fact that it is a
quite different conception of ‘theoretical practice r
which dominates the text. Read in the light of this
conception, the ‘theory of theoretical practice’ is not
concerned with the phenomenon of theory-change, it
is rather an attempt to theorise discourse as a
‘production’ in order to pose the question of the
differential nature of scientific discourse (RC, p69).

It is not, therefore, a question of the succession of
organized structures of concepts in the history of
knowledge, but of the succession of statements
within a text.

Spinozisttheorelical practice
‘When .•• I “defined” knowledge as “production”
and affirmed the interiority of the forms of
scientificity to “theoretical practice”, I based
myself on Spinoza ••• ‘ (ESC, p138)
Reading Capital begins with the question: what is it
to read? The answers to this question de pend on the
conception of the object of the operation, written
discourse. Althusser argues that Spinoza and Marx,
in providing us with a new conception of history,
II Imre Lakatos, Popper’s successor as Professor of Logic at LSE. See esp.

his ‘Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes’

in Criticism and. the Growth of Knowledge, ed. I Lakatos and A,
Cambridge, i 970


provide us also with the possibility of a new concep- I
tion of discourse (RC, p17). For Marx, the rejection
of the ‘religious myth’ of the transparency of history
t?ok the form of a rupture with the Hegelian concep:”
hon of the real as an expressive totality whose
essence may be ‘read’ in its surface manifestations.

For Althusser, the rejection of the ‘religious myth
of reading’ takes the form of a rupture with the
conception of discourse which sees it as the transparent expression of the truth. The new conception
of discourse is advanced in the form of the thesis
that knowledge is a production (RC, p24). ‘Knowledge’

here is equated with theoretical discourse, and the
sense in which it is a production is the second of the
two.. senses mentioned above. That is, knowledge, or
discourse, is to be considered as a process of
production (12).

It is worth remarking in passing on one of the ways
in which Althusser’s play on the two senses of ‘producti on ‘ produces confusion in his language, in this
case the ambiguity of his use of ‘knowledge’. For
while it is here used as a synonym for theoretical
discourse, following the ‘product’ sense of the
knowledge-as-production thesis it refers rather to
the static body of concepts ‘expressed’ in discourse.

Hence the possibility of his use of it as a count-noun,.

in the plural, ‘knowledges’, or with the indefinite
article, ‘a knowledge’. This difference in use
corresponds in fact to the earlier distinction he
tried to make between ‘theory’, scientific theoretica! practice, and “‘theory”’, the theoretical
system of concepts of a particular science at a
given time, except that in RC, ‘knowledge’ is not
restricted to only scientific theories or discourse
(FM, p168).

In order to see what kind of ‘production’ .is involved in the thesis that discourse may be regarded
as a process of production, it is useful to take a
detour through Spinoza. Althusser’s debt to Spinoza
was rarely commented on by critics of his early
essays. ‘Structuralism’ or ‘ne o-Kantianis m ‘ were
much more common charges, and Bachelard was
thought to be his master in epistemology (13).

Perry Anderson seems to have been almost alone
in recognizing the extent of Althusser’s transposition of Spinoza’s system and categories into Marx.

Even so, with regard to ‘theoretical production’,
Anderson simply comments that Althusser’s
‘general essence of production’, common to both
thought and reality, was his translation of Spinoza’s
thesis that the order and connection of ideas is the
same as the, order and connection of things. He
does not comment on the precise nature of this

Spinoza’s model of true theoretical discourse was,
that of classical geometry. It was the geometrical
method which provided men with a ‘rule of truth’·
other than that which consisted of projecting their
own relation to the world onto the world itself, and
thus conceiving it as ordered by a divine will in
ways designed to satisfy His ends (14). Hence,
Spinoza’s analysis in the ~ proceeds according
to this geometrical method. He begins with the
12 Cf. P Macherey, Lire le Capital. IV, PariS, ~.LaSpero, 1973, p12:

‘Science is as such a process of thought. It defines therefore a form of
exposition which is not to be coofuaed with the real process, nor with the
process ~ investlgatioo of which it is the result. r
13 See, for example, M Glucksmann, ibid, p99: ‘Althusser’s epistemology
was very largely based 00 the ideas 01. Bachelard. I The charge of Kantian!.Bm seems to have originated. with A Glucksmann’s article ‘Un Structuralisme Ventriloque’, Les Temps Modernes. no. 250, 1967, reprinted inli!£
lYlarch-April 11n2,
in we.tern MiU’ilsm. A Critical Reader, ibid.

For remarks on Althuaser’s spiJiozlsm, see the intrOduction to
Gluckamann’s article therein, and Perry Anderson, Considerations on
Western Mama!! NLB, 1976, pp64f. Although written in 1974, this book
was OO1y pubilstl last year.

14 Sp~oza, Ethics. Book I, appendix



nature of God and shows his His properties follow
from His nature with the same necessary connection
by which the properties of a triangle follow from its
nature. The model of explanation in fact, takes on
an ontological significance, since, according to
proposition 16, Book 1, the principal characteristic
of God is to be productive: From the necessity of
the divine nature, infinite numbers of things in
infinite ways must follow. Furthermore, since this
characteristic applies equally to the attributes of
thought and extenSion, the order and connection of
ideas being the same as the order and connection of
things, ideas too are governed by this same rule of
necessary productivity. Ideas are thus themselves
effects, and produce as their effects other ideas.

Since God is the supremely powerful being, from
whose power all else follows, so nature may be
regarded as the ‘production’ of God. In the same
way, the idea of God will be the supremely powerful
idea, and the adequate knowledge of God or nature
will consist of its ‘production’ of the system of ideas
which are the concepts of His necessary prQperties.

‘Production’, that is, in the sense in which”he proof
of a theorem might be said to be the ‘production’ of
that theorem according to the formal and semantic
rules required by the theory. It is a production
‘which seems to signify making manifest what is
latent, but which really means transforming (in
order to give a pre-existing raw material the form
of an object adapted to an end), something which in
a sense already exists •.. ‘ (RC, p34). In this sense,
then, the ordered exposition (following the necessary
connections) of the entire system of adequate ideas”
will be the process of ‘production’ of the complete
and adequate knowledge of God or nature.

So it is with Altl1usser and Marx’s theoretical
‘production’ of the knowledge of the capitalist mode
of production and exchange. In this sense, Marx’s
theoretical practice with respect to Capital is not a
matter of the historical emergence of the theory, but
of its exposition in a theoretical discourse which is
at once both the ‘proof’ and realisation of the theory,
the ‘display of truth’. Hence, for example, Althusser
talks of the ‘production’ of the theoretical object of
Capital by Marx’s analySiS: ‘The order in which the
thought-totality (Gliederung) is produced is a specific
order, precisely the order of the theoretical analysis
Marx performed in Capital,” the order of the liaison
and ‘syntheSiS’ of the concepts necessary for the
production of a thought-whole, a thought-concrete,
the theory of Capital’ (RC, p48 – my emphasis). The
process of theoretical production with which
Althusser is here concerned is nothing other than
this analysis itself, as it is practised in the discourse of Capital, the ‘working’ of the coocepts in
Marx’s exposition. That being so, Chapter 3 of
Marx’s 1857 Introduction, where it is precisely a
question of the mode of exposition, may be taken for
the Discourse on Method of the theory of theoretical
practice: ‘ .•• it is the only systematic text by Marx
which contains, in the form of an analysis of the
categories and method of political economy, the
means with which to establish a theory of scientific
practice, i. e. a theory of the conditions of the process of knowledge, which is the object of Marxist
philosophy’ (RC, p86). It is worth noting, however,
that if this use of Marx’s text is undoubtedly based
on a correct interpretation of its object, it is nevertheless inconsistent with the use of the same text in
support of theses about the historical process of
‘production’ of theories, as Althusser does in the
passage· referred to above (RC, p156).

Obviously this ‘Spinozist’ theoretical practice is

of a q~ite different nature to ‘historical’ theoretical
practice. Not only are they distinct practices – the
existence of the theoretical object as a result of the
historical process is both a logical and historical
pre -supposition of the analysis practised in Capital
– but the ‘dialectic’ of the two processes is not the
same. The discov~ries of surplus-value and the
distinction between labour and labour -power are not
reproduced in the course of the exposition, and it
is at best a metaphor to suggest that the exposition
involves a process of real transformation of con~
cepts in the sense required by Marx’s notion of
production. The status of Althusser’s central theSiS,
then, is rather like that of claiming that grammar
is a production, where this is intended to mean
both that grammars are historical products, and
that grammars function in prodUCing, or generati~g,
sentences. Problems would only arise if one tended
to confuse the production of grammar with grammatical production. Precisely such problems do arise
in Althusser’s text, since, while he claims that
knowledge is a production in both senses, he never
draws attention to the fact that it is not the same
‘production’ in each case. Worse, he attempts to
minimise the differences in theoriSing both of these
‘productions’ in the terms of Marx’s analysis of
economic production.

Firstly, he attempts to attribute to both the form
of a process of production in Marx’s sense. In For
Marx, Althusser elaborates a general schema or-theoretical practice, modeled on Marx’s analysis of
production-in-general: this involves the operation
of what he calls Generalities I I (theoretical and
methodological concepts) on Generalities I (intuitions and representations) to produce Generalities
I I I or ‘knowledges’ (FM, pp183 -4). This schema,
however, remains indeterminate with respect to the
difference between ‘historical’ and ‘Spinozist’

theoretical practice. Thus, on the one hand, in his
essay ‘Marx’s Relation to Hegel’, Althusser
applies this schema to the historical process of
Marx’s discovery. He suggests that Capital may be
regarded as the result of Hegel (GII) being put to
work on English political economy and French
socialism (GI’s) (15). On the other hand, however,
he also suggests that it may be applied to the
‘process of theoretical practice’ which is Marx’s
exposition in Caffiital (RC, p90). This suggestion is
tak-en up in Mac erey’s contribution to Reading
Capital, where the metaphor involved in assimilating the process of exposition to a process of production in Marx’s sense is extended to its utmost
limit (16).

Secondly, just as the historical process of theoretical production was conceived as having a structure
analogous to that of economic production, so
Althusser attempts to do the same for the discursive process. To return to the connection between
the theory of history and the theory of reading:

Althusser argues that Marx, in rejecting the notion
of the transparency of the real, proposes a theory
of history as determined by a ‘structure of structures’ (RC, pI 7). His own position, then, is to argue
for the extension of this principle of the opacity of
the immediate (which exists also in Spinoza) to
discourse. The invisible structure which governs at
once the reading and writing of a text is precisely

its problematic (17). Thus understood, the notion of
a ‘problematic’ is the system of fundamental concepts of a theory which coostitutes the basis for the
‘labour’ of concepts in its exposition. It is that
which underlies and allows the ‘production’ of the
theoretical object in and by a theoretical discourse.

We can see, then, how the play on the two senses
of production also induces a parallel ambiguity in
the notion of a ‘problematic’. This is equivalent, in
fact, to the ambiguity in the expression ‘conditions
of possibility’ of a science, described by Foucault
(18): In one sense, this may refer to the conditions
which define the science as such, that is, which
define the formal and semantic rules the observation
of which is required in order that a statement belong
to the science, and which govern the intelligibility
of its discourse. These cooditions are internal to
the discourse of the science itself. To illustrate,
USing Althusser’s principal conclusion with regard
to the epist~mological novelty of Marx’s theory:

the theoretical obj~ct of Capital, he suggests, is
structured in such a way that its exposition requires
a concept of the effectivity of a structure on its
elements (RC, Ch. 9). This exigency makes itself
felt, for example, in Marx’s discussion of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, where both the
tendency itself and its counter-acting influences are
presented as the effects of the mode of production.

Althusser’s claim, then, is a claim about the conceptual conditions of the specific form of intelligibility of Marx’s discourse. That is, a claim about
the nature of its ‘problematic’ in this sense. On the

15 Althusser, Politics and History. NLB, 1972, p170
16 Macherey. ibid, esp. 1)44, where in describing the ‘reciprocal labour and
mutual transformatic:n of the ccmcepts in the opening sections of lapital.

Ch.I, Macherey says: ‘This labour must make them (the concepts pass
from their primitive state of ideological concepts, borrowed from more
or less scientific theories (Generalities I) to the state of scientifiC
concepts (Generalities Ill).

17 This sense of ‘problematic’ Is clearly defined by S Karsz, Th’orie et
Polltique: Louis Althusser, PariS, Fayard, 1974, pp34-5: ‘To mow a
prOblematIc Is to mow the mechanism of functioning of a set of texts.

We call “problematic” the ccmditlOlls cl. theoretical :>roductiOll, and we
understand by “text” a certain kind of productlm.’

18 M Foucault, ‘Reponse au Cercle d’epistemologie’, Cahiers pour l’Anal;Se
9, et~ 1968, translated in Theoretical Practice 3/4, 1971, see 8Sp ph

other hand, ‘problematic’ may refer to the conditions of historical existence of a science, which are
external to it and which cannot be assimilated to the
former conditions. Those criteria of the science itself cannot account for its historical appearance.

Thus, for example, while it is true as Althusser
claims that Marx’s conception of the capitalist mode
of production and exchange implies a non-Hegelian
conception of the form of the social totality and its
parts (i. e. Marx’s ‘topographical’ conception), it is
also true that Hegel’s conception represented an
essential, historical condition of the possibility of
lV1arx’s critique of political economy. It was this
which provided him with a point from which to
criticize the empiricism of Ricardo, for example,
Who, while he begins correctly from the thesis that
it is labour that determines value, proceeds to
attempt the immediate reconciliation of the economic phenomena with this law. Or, to take an example
of a quite different kind of ‘condition of possibility’


of a ~cience, consider the role of the so-called
‘Ricardian socialists’ in the history of marxism:

While their theoretical criticism of classical political economy is vastly inferior to Marx’s, they did
nevertheless open up the possibility of a new modality of discourse, one which does not simply conSider
the fWlctioning of capital in its various forms from
the standpOint of the capitalist, but which considers
it from the standpoint of those whom it exploits.

Insofar as Althusser’s notion of ‘problematic’

refers both to the conditions of intelligibility of texts
and to ~he conceptual conditions of the production of
new concepts and theories, it straddles these two
heteromorphous systems. Up to a point, the notion
can bear this ambiguity, thus being able to serve as
the conceptual hinge between the two notions of
theoretical practice. Within an already constituted
SCience, for example, the elements picked out by
the term can serve both as the condition of intelligibility of the discourse(s} of the science, and as the
positive heuristic for its elaboration and development. The point at which this dual fWlction breaks
down, however, is in precisely the situation with
which Althusser is concerned: the ‘production’ of a
radically new theory. The ‘problematic’ which
enabled the historical production of Marx’s theory
is not the same as the ‘problematic’ which governs
the intelligibility of the text of Capital. This point
is important for Wlderstanding Althusser’s ‘reduction’, of. the epistemological break which marked the
emergence of marxism to a purely theoretical event.

Briefly, it is because the discussion remains at the
level of analysing the difference between Marx’s
‘problematic’ in the textual sense, and that of
classical political economy, that the question of this
rupture as a historical event is passed over.

exactly how the science -ideology distinction is
drawn, however, we need to consider the question
of the mechanism of what Althusser calls the ‘knowledge-effect’. The point of this latter notion is to
circumvent the empiricist problem of knowledge,
which, he suggests, rests on the idea that the specific character of knowledge, its fWlctioo as knowledge, depends on its relation to the real, its correspondance to the real, for example. Instead, he proposes that this specific character of knowledge
depends on its creation of an effect of intelligibility
of the real, by virtue of a mechanism interior to
theoretical discourse itself. In order to explain this
mechanism for a given discourse, Althusser suggests, we need to take into accoWlt the operation in
it of the ‘forms of proof’ of the theory. It is the
operation of these ‘forms of proof’, in imposing a
certain logical order in the succession of concepts
in the discourse which give the discourse its apodictic character. Althusser’s model here is
Spinoza’s system of adequate ideas, which, as we
have seen, is itself modeled on the form of classical mathematical discourse. Hence, just as the
mere statement of a theorem of geometry does not
give it the status of a theorem, that requiring a
proof according to the existing forms of mathematical scientificity, so the mere statement of Marx’s
theory of the capitalist mode of production and exchange cannot provide the knowledge of that real
object. In order to provide an ‘effect of intelligibility of the real’, the thought-object must be ‘produced’ in an exposition governed by the ‘forms of
proof’ internal to historical materialism. These
forms, Althusser insists, are distinct from the
‘forms in which the knowledge was produced, as a
result, by the pro,cess of the history of knowledge’

(RC, p67). Thus, in affirmIng the interiority of the
forms of scientificity to theoretical practice, it is,
as Aithusser states in the passage from ESC quoted
The interference between the two notions of theoret- above, the Spinozist notion of theoretical practice
ical practice which results from Althusser’s play on that he had in mind. Furthermore, it follows that
his overall pOSition is one which sharply distinguish.

terminology also provides the basis for a certain
amoWlt of confusion about the science -ideology dis- es the context of discovery from the context of
justification, or proof, another point which his
tinction. On the historical interpretation of the
theory of science shares with that of Popper.

notion of a ‘theoretical mode of production’, his
However, the outline of the mechanism of the
claim that there is a difference between the mode of
‘knowledge-effect’ does not, by itself, allow us to
production of science and the mode of production of
distinguish science and ideology. It is a question
ideology (RC, p43) might be taken to situate this
distinction at the level of historical theoretical prac- only of ·the status of theoretical discourse as such,
since Althusser treats the ‘knowledge-effect’ as a
tice. Capital would then be a scientific work in
generic object which includes both the ideological
virtue of the process by which it was produced, as
knowledge-effect and the scientific knowledge-effect
a result, in the history of knowledge. Callinicos
(RC, p66). The question of demarcation is posed,
seems to take just this view of the matter: ‘Rather
then, in supposing that the mechanism of this effect
than from propositions like the Newtonian laws of
is different in each case, that is, at the level of the
motion, scientificity derives from what Lakatos
differential nature of ‘Spinozist’ scientific theoreticcalled heuristic, the theoretical structures that
al practice. Nor does the distinction rest there.

made their discovery possible’ (Callinicos, p54).

For if the effect of intelligibility of the real is proIn fact it is on the basis of the Spinozist notion of
duced in the course of the exposition of the theory,
theoretical practice that Althusser draws the
the condition which Wlderlies it is the hierarchised
science-ideology distinction in RC. He outlines at
system of basic concepts of the theory, i. e. its
the beginning the aim of their philosophical reading
problematic in the first sense of that term menof Capital: to determine its epistemological status,
tioned above. It is, in fact, the form of systematicithe place it occupies in the history of thought, and
in particular, to determine whether it is a scientific ty of the concepts constituting the problematic of
or ideological work (RC, pp14-15). From the begin- the theory that Althusser isolates as the condition
of specifically scientific discourse (RC, pp68, 84-5).

ning, this epistemological question is posed in
Hence, in order that there can be a scientific disterms of the specific character of the discourse of
course, there must be a system of concepts such
Capital, and of its theoretical object, and the relation between the two: ‘ ••• we posed Capital the ques- that the appropriate kind of apodictic discourse is
pOSSible, a system which in fact provides ‘the adetioo of the specific dUference both of its object and
quate knowledge of a complex object by the adequate
of its discourse ••• ‘ (RC, p14) (19). In order to see
19 See also Macherey, ibid, p7, where in expl~ the import of his
knowledge of its cOlllplexity’ (RC,pl07). Once again,

Science and ideology

eptstemoloc1cal read1nc c1 Capital, Ch.1, sectiCll 1, he says: ‘the questiCll
posed in this reaclinc c1 a parqraph is very simple: ‘1n virtue of what is


Man’s discourse a scientifll! discourse? tt,

it seems, Althusser’s model is Spinoza’s system of
adequate ideas, with the important difference that
whereas Spinoza’s metaphysics at least offers an
accoWlt of what it is for a concept to be the adequate
concept of its object, Althusser offers no such
accoWlt. It should be clear, in any case, that the
concept of science Wlderlying Althusser’s project
involves no reference to the historical process of
theory ‘production’. Its real site is rather the form
of systematicity of the problematic, where this is
considered solely Wlder its aspect of condition of
intelligibility cl. texts. The scientificity of Capital,
therefore, resides neither in the historical proc~ss
by which it was produced, nor immediately in its
exposition, but in the Wlderlying system of concepts
which make that exposition possible. Before going on
to discuss the consequences of this conception of
science, however, it is as well to complete the discussion of the internal problems created in
Althusser’s text by his failure to distinguish the two
theoretical practices.

·The autonomy of science
Althusser has been accused of contradiction, by
Geras, for example, in maintaining both that science
is relatively independent of other social practices,
its development nevertheless being dependent in
some degree on its relations with other levels of the
social formation, and that science is totally autonomous and therefore devoid of dependence on its
social and historical conditions of production (20).

This ‘contradiction’, however, may be explained by
the fact that it is not the same science, or theoretical practice, in each case. It is only with respect to
science considered as ‘spinozist’ theoretical practice that Althusser wants to claim complete autonomy
and independence from other practices. This is
implied in his claims about the radical interiority of
the forms of this practice so far as the sciences are
concerned, as well as his claims about the sociopolitical limitations on ideological theoretical practice. He nowhere claims this sort of radical independence for the ‘historical’ theoretical practice of the
sciences (which is not to say that this might not still
be an autonomous practice, with its own means, raw
materials and specific mechanism, not reducible to
other practices).

It is not only the failure to distinguish the two
notions of theoretical practice, however, which
gives this ‘contradiction’ argument a foundation in
Althusser’s text. ‘ This confusion is also encouraged
by the problems created by the definition of the object of dialectical materialism. This is supposed
both to be simply ‘theoretical practice’, and to be an
object distinct from the object of historical materialism. Thus, M. Glucksmann, for example, concludes on the basis of this that for Althusser, ‘the
history of science is independent from the history
of society’ (Glucksmann, p122).

The status of Marxist philosophy
If marxist philosophy, or dialectical materialism,

is presented as a discipline quite distinct from
historical materialism, its existence is nevertheless supposed to depend on the existence of the
latter. Althusser’s fOWlding thesis in this respect
is that Marx, in founding the science of history,
also fOWlded a new philosophy, the prinCiples of
20 Geras, ibid, pp80-84. See also lVl Glucksmann, ibid, pl25,and A Cutler,
‘The Concept of an Epistemological Break’, Theoretical Practice 3/4, p78,
for the view that ‘science is absolutely autonomous, it is not part of the
social formation, it is not in the superstructure.’ On the ‘contradiction’,
see also R D’Amico, ‘The Contour and Coupures of Structuralist Theory’,
~17, 1973, pp86-7

which exist in the ‘practical state’ in his ‘theoretical practice’: ‘We will say that marxist philosophy
exists ”’in the practical state” inCa~ital, that it is
present in the theoretical practice. Capital. ‘(21)
Clearly, the principles of a theory of theoretical
practice could only exist ‘in the practical state’ in
Capital to the extent that this work itself constitutes
a process of production. Hence, just as it is the
Spinozist notion of theoretical practice which operates in the science-ideology distinction, so it is
‘Spinozist’ theoretical practice which embodies the
prinCiple of marxist philosophy, and so Wlderpins
the project of disengagmg the latter from Marx’s
text. This assumption is also necessary in order
to explain the ‘circle’ implied by this project: the
necessary application of that philosophy, which involves a theory of discourse and of reading, in the
reading of Marx in order to constitute and develop
that philosophy itself (RC, p34).

There waf?, however, another argument put forward to establish the de facto dependence of dialectical materialism on the existence of historical
materialism: Insofar as the former was a theory of
the history of science, it was only possible after
the opening up of the continent of history by historic.

al materialism (22). This argument, however,
points to the instability of dialectical materialism’s
claimed status as a discipline radically distinct
from historical materialism, an instability for
which we can now see the reason. This independent
status was fOWlded on the supposed difference of its
object from that of historical materialism, and the
object of dialectical materialism was ‘theoretical
practice’. This distinction of objects poses no
problems so long as one considers only ‘Spinozist’

theoretical practice. However, insofar as dialectical materialism was also thought to be the theory of
‘historical’ theoretical practice, it becomes difficult to distinguish its object from that of historical
materialism. Indeed, considered Wlder that aspect,
one cannot see why the theory of theoretical practice should not just be a ‘regional theory’ of historical materialism (23).

That this play on the two notions of theoretical
practice should have threatened the status of dialect.

ical materialism should come as no surprise. It is
on just this point that, for the most part, the rectifications of the theory have been carried out. We
can now see, however, that this instability is only
the symptom of a more profound heterogeneity
embedded in the very project of a theory of theoretical practice. In order to do so, we need to recall
the twofold orientation of this theory as it was
originally proposed: it was directed both towards a
theory of the history of the sciences, the process of
their creation and development, and towards an
epistemological task, the demarcation of sciences
from other kinds of theoretical formation. We know
that the project of a Wlified theory of the history and
epistemology of the sciences was part of the
Althusserian problem-situation at the time: in a
presentation to Macherey’s article on Canguilhem’s
philos ophy of science, written in 1964, Althusser
wrote that marxist philosophy demands such a Wlified theory and, further, that ‘It is precisely this
Wlity which is today a problem and a difficulty ‘(24).

21 Althusser, ‘Sur le Travail Theorig,ue’, La Pende 132, Avrill967, pIS
22 This argument was most clearly stated in AIthusser’s ‘Mat’rlalisme
Historique et Mat~rialisme Dialectique’, Cahiers Marxist-Leninistes 1l,
1966, ppl12f. It is also present in !!£., however: ‘Alid U this new science
is the theory of history will it not make ·possible in return a Imowledge 01.

its own pre-history?’ (RC, 15)
23 As Geras suggests, ibid, p82. This Is in fact how Althusser now proposes
to conceive of the theory of the ‘material, social, poUtical, ideological
and philosophical conclitloos’ of the productioo of knowledge. eg ESC 124
24 Althusser, presentatioo to Macherey’s article, ‘La Philosophie ~


The theory of theoretical practice, we may suppose,
was thought to be that unified theory of the history
of the sciences and their epistemology.

The internal problems of the theory of theoretical
practice, however, derive from the fact that the
notion of science required to fulfil the historical
task, and that proposed to serve as the basis for the
de mar cati 00 , were quite incompatible. At one point
in the text of RC, where he is attempting to specify
the question of the mechanism of the ‘knowledgeeffect’, Althusser sharply distinguishes the theory
of this mechanism from the theory of the process
by which the knowledge was produced, as a result,
by the history of theoretical practice (RC, p6I).

Here, the fundamental heterogeneity of the project
emerges clearly: we see that if the theory of theoretical practice proposes to answer both historical
and epistemological questions about the sciences, it
does so only to the extent that it is the theory of a
different ‘theoretical practice’ in each case. The
epistemological task of demarcating science from
ideology is answered in terms of ‘Spinozist’

theoretical practice, that is, at the level of the
conditions and processes which give the discourse
its apodictic character. Ultimately, this’ is a
matter of· the system of basic concepts and forms of
proof considered ‘synchronically’, in their static
internal organization. It leads, therefore, to a
fundamentally a-historical conception of science.

The historical task, on the other hand, is to be met
by a theory of the history of the forms of theoretical
practice in the former sense. That is, by a theory
of the conditions and processes of the ‘production’

in the historical sense of a given theory or theoretic·
al result. The latter process is external and prior
to the discourse of the science. The logic of the two
processes is not the same. The apparent combination of the two in the theory of theoretical practice
is only possible on the basis of a conceptual sleight
of hand, that of defining both the historical process
of the emergence of new theory, and the process of
its functioning in discourse to produce an effect of
intelligibility of the real, as processes of theoretical production, and attempting to subsume them both
under a general notion of ‘production’ derived fr,om

Failure of the historical project
Having specified above the conception of science in
terms of which Althusser proposes to distinguish it
from ldeology, we are now in a position to see
more clearly why he should have found himself
‘unable to grasp’ the emergence of historical materialism as other than a theoretical event, and why
the epistemological break should have been treated
in terms of the rationalist opposition between truth
and error. Both derive from the fact that it was the
epistemological task, and the conception of science
underlying it, which governed his treatment of the

On the indications given as to the theory of the
history of theoretical practice, the historical account of that ‘mutation by which a new science is
established in a new problematic’ (RC, p153) would
have been an account of the historical ‘production’

of a new theoretical mode of prodUction. Nor would
this accoUnt have been restricted to the ‘theoretical
Science de G Cangullhem’, La Pens6e 113, 1964, p51. See also 0 Lecourt’s
remark in his Marxism and Epistemology, NLB 1975, p127: ‘By making
this philosophy-making theory – the ”theory of theoretical practice” and by
making the scientific character of this diSCipline, already announed by
Man, depend an the factual existence of “historical materialism ft, of the
science of history, Althusser was able to think that he could found the
unity of the Epistemology and the History of the sciences, hitherto only
practised and postulated. ‘


elements of the historical conditions of possibility
of the new theoretical formation. Considered as a
product, a new science would be, in part at least,
the result of extra-theoretical forces and movements, political, economic or institutional. The
notion of science in terms of which Althusser proposes to distinguish marxism from ideological
theoretical discourse, however, is an entirely
theoreticist one. Insofar as it is specified, this
concept involves no reference to anything beyond
the internal, conceptual structure of a given discursive formation. It does not refer either to other
discursive elements (shifts in the ‘modality’ of
discourse, for example) or to non-discursive practices or institutions. This conception, in fact, reproduces in the domain of the history of science the
distinction between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ history.

Since sciences are defined at the level of their
‘spinozistt.theoretical practice, it follows that the
history of a science is in the first instance a history
of changes in the structure of that practice. That is
why, for example, Althusser was able to formulate
the question of the relation between ‘science’ and
other social practices in terms of their ‘articulation’ of the one upon the other, that is, in terms of
a relation of exteriority.

It should come as no surprise, then, that on the
basis of such a concept of SCience, Althusser should
have reduced the historical event of the emergence
of historical materialism to a purely theoretical
one. In fact, his discussions of the epistemological
break are confined to showing the existence in
Marx’s workS, from The German Ideology onwards,
of a new theoretical apparatus: that is, new concepts systematically organized in a way different
from both Marx’s own prior works and those of his
predecessors in philosophy and political economy.

Thus, in RC, where the discussion of Marx’s
theoretical revolution never goes beyond the question
of the difference between his theoretical object and
that of classical political economy, Althusser’s
approach fs limited to pointing up Marx’s conceptual
innovations, and the new mode of functioning of his
concepts in comparison to those of classical politica]
economy. It was never a question of putting the
emergence of this new theoretical object into its
political and social context, or even in the context
of a broader range of discursive events. It was not,
therefore, as Balibar puts it, a question of seeing
how ‘the class struggle, which is by no means a
theoretical process, produced effects on the
theoretical terrain’. (25)
Even on the purely conceptual level, however, the
break was not dealt with as a process of conceptual
change in nee~ of ~explanation. The object of politica1
economy, for example, is only described from the
standp6int of Marx’s theory. The fact that there is
shown to be a discontinuity at the level of concepts
arld structure does not change the direction of the
description, nor the fact that it amounted only to
the iteration of differences between Marx and
political economy, from the standpoint of the
former. Whereas this procedure was essential for
the ‘proof’ of the radical difference between Capital
and bourgeois political economy, and hence for the
defence of the former as SCientifiC, it in no way
amounted to dealing with the historical process of
the rupture. It was not a question of treating classical political economy in its positivity; of posing, for
example, the question of developments within it
which made possible the theoretical and discursive
25 E Balibar, Cing Etudes du Materialisme Historigue, Parts, Maspero,
1974, p268

positions of the subsequent critique of capital· and
its political economy. In short, the exigency ‘to
treat the ideology which constitutes the pre -history
of a science, for example, as a real history with
its own laws’ (RC,p45) ,was not respected.

Althusser’s ‘Spinozism’ was not unrelated to this
manner of dealing with the break: he mentions that
the thesis that ‘the true is the Sign both of itself
and of what is false’ seemed to him to authorize the
retrospective treatment of classical political economy (ESC, p137). It was only from the standpoint of
the true (Mar x) that error and partial truth (political
economy), and their difference, could be described.

Such a ‘recurrential’ history, it seems, is necessar·
ily teleological. The only kind of question it can
pose, in this case to political economy, is the
question of the limits of its ‘vision’, why it was
unable to see what Marx was able to see. In other
words, in taking Nlarx’s theory to be the truth at
which classical political economy was aiming, such
a history necessarily poses the question why political economy could not progress further than it did.

It should be clear, in any case, that the predominance of the epistemological aspect of the theory of
theoretical practice, and the conception of science
on which that rested, gave rise to an internalist and
teleological account of Marx’s difference from
classical political economy. Althusser’s approach
was not, finally, one which made it possible to
determine the place occupied by Capital, or any
other theoretical work, in the history of knowledge.

Spinozist epistemology
Althusser’s rationalist interpretation of the rupture
between Marxist science and bourgeois ideology may
be explained by the extent to which his characterization of that opposition takes over the terms of
Spinoza’s distinction between adequate and inadequate ideas. Althusser himself has explained the
role played by his use of the term ‘ideology’ in this
‘rationalist interpretation’: While on the one hand
he used it as a term for an element of the superstructure, characterized by its practical social and
political function, he also, on the other hand, used
it as a term for error and illusion in the realm of
theory, in short, the ‘other’ of science (ESC, pp11920). This latter usage, he admits, was not unrelated to Spinoza’s ‘first kind’ of knowledge (ESC,
pp135-6,141). In Spinoza’s terms, this is composed
of inadequate ideas, which merely deSignate our
relation to external bodies, without providing knowledge of them. T~1US, in FM. Althusser talks of
ideological ‘concepts’ as merely designating aspects
of the real without giving us the knowledge of it (eg
FM, p223). Similarly, in his initial presentation of
the relation of Marx’s object to that of classical
political economy, Althusser takes over the terms
of Spinoza’s characterization of inadequate ideas as
‘conclusions without premises’: political economy,
he says,’ is like a science of conclusions insofar as
it takes as its pbject the domain of immediately
given economic facts (Ethics,II, prop.28, dem.;
RC, p159).

There is one further effect of Spinoza, the real
author of this ‘rationalist -speculative drama’, which
Althusser does not mention. This is his identification of science with the true, in Spinoza’s sense of
that tertn. This follows from the fact that the conception of science which underlies the treatment of
the break is modeled on Spinoza’s system of adequate ideas, and it is the other side of the assimilation of ideology to Spinoza’s inadequate ideas. For
Spinoza, what is true is necessarily so, and true

knowledge, or the system of adequate ideas, is
unique. This is the system of ideas which are the
concepts of their objects, and it reproduces in the
order of thought the order and connection of things.

Spinoza’s general epistemological parallelism of
idea-ideatum, of which the parallelism of thought
and the real is the primary instance, is taken over
in Althusser’s remarks on the relation between
concept and theoretical object. He talks, for example, of the ‘adequate’ concept of a given theoretical object. The overall effect of this assimilation
of science to Spinoza’s system of adequate ideas is
to reproduce, in the theory of science, the notion
of the uniqueness of the true. For Althusser, it
seems, there is only one possible scientific theory
of a given empirical domain. Indeed, the assumption that this is so would seem to be necessary to
make sense of his proposal that the sCientificity of
historical materialism be sought in the peculiar
systematicity of its basic concepts. It is the only
assumption which saves this proposal from the
‘charge of formalism, in the sense that it would be
consistent with there being many different systematic, and therefore SCientifiC, theories of the same
domain. Thus, the defence of Marxism as a science
founded as it is on the assumed adequacy of Marx’s
theoretical object,· takes the form of supposing that
the object of Caetal is. the object of political economy. Marx’s crltique IS supposed to have been also
the ‘construction of the true concept of the object,
at which classical Political Economy is aiming in
the Imaginary of its pretensions'(RC,p159), or, in
another phrase, the definition of the economic
instance by the construction of its concept. It is
this same idea, that there is buTOne theory possible
which could provide the scientific knowledge of a
given empirical domain, which underlies the metaphor of ‘theoretical continents’, and the claim,
which perSists in Althusser’s texts, that Marx
opened up to science the continent of history (eg
ESC, pp56, 107).

Now, quite apart from the evident circularity in
Althusser’s defence of Marxism as a science, this
doctrine also has certain effects in the theory of the
history of the sciences: it reinforces the tendency to
give a teleological account, by making the prehistory of a given science the history of the attainment of the true theory. Secondly, it introduces a
certain necessity into the history of knowledge. At
the limit, this conception implies that, once a
‘scientific’ theory of a given domain is established,
any other ‘scientific’ theory of that domain is unthinkable. Conversely, no other theory could have
crossed the threshold of scientificity and ‘opened
up’ that domain to science,’ This is perhaps the
strangest consequence of the conception of science
at work in Althusser’s text, and the least consistent
with a non-teleological view of history. Since we do
not accept the idea of such a necessity in the
history of economic systems, capitalism was not,
after all, inevitable, it is difficult to see why we
should accept it with regard to the history of the

Concluding remarks
If Althusser’s theoreticisjand absolutist conception
of science is the price to b~ paid for the defence of

Marxism as a SCience, then clearly the price is too
high. However, the important conclusion to be
drawn from all this is not merely that Althusser
has failed to provide any real theoretical justification for the claim that historical materialism is a
science, rather, it is the theoretical tactic itself

that needs to be put into question. For Althusser
only repeats in Spinozist form the operation which
is common to all epistemological theories of demarcation of science from other kinds of theoretical
discourse. That is, to attempt to provide a philosophical justification for a particular social selection and hierarchical distribution of theoretical discourses, a certain ‘regime of truth’ in Foucault’s
,phrase (26). This real, institutional demarcation
among discourses organized into disciplines is
certainly historically contingent and probably
epistemologically arbitrary to the extent that, for
example, a different conceptual system could have
served as the basis for the phySiCS which capitalism required in order to develop its mastery over
the forces and means of production. It is also conditioned from end to end by the operations of
political power. Althusser’s conception of SCience,
it seems, denies that contingency, that arbitrariness, and, insofar as he insists on the ‘objectivity’

of scientific knowledge, denies that it has any but
external relations to political power.

Fundamentally the same operation is carried out
by the empiriCist alternative to Althusser’s
Spinozist absolutism, recommended by such
diverse figures as Karsz and Lakatos (27). The
proposed demarcation between science and ideology,
or non-SCience, remains theoreticist, to the extent
that it looks for differentiating features within the
discourses themselves, their method or their
conceptual structure. On this view, however, the
difference is an empirical matter which must be
formulated theoretically through the analysis of

particular sciences and particular ideologies. One
is thus faced with the problem of how to conduct
such an enquiry without having already a concept
of the difference, and, more importantly, the question of where this prior concept comes from, . if not
from the existing social institutionalization, hierarchization and valuation of certain kinds of theory.

This seems to have been- the case with Popper, for
example, who began his search for a demarcation
criterion from the conviction that Marxism and
Psychoanalysis were unscientific in a way that the
physics of Newton or Einstein were not (28). Thus,
from the standpoint of this broader perspective,
Althusser’s theoretical tactic of defending Marxism
as a science occupies the same theoretical space as
Popper’s denunciation of it as a non-science some
30 years ago. The project of a theoreticist demarcation of science being common to both, Popper
uses it as a weapon against Marxism, whereas
Althusser simply takes up the opposing position.

That is hardly a position likely to encourage reflection on the ideological role of the demarcation
itself, or on that of the epistemological values
claimed for those discursive formations accepted
as SCientific, their progressivity, rationality or
obje,ctivity. Such reflection is one of the essential
tasks facing a historical” materialist theory of the


.LVl Foucault, ‘The Political Function of the Intellectual’, Radical Philosophy
17, summer 1977, p13
27 S Karsz, ibid, p64, Lakatos, ‘History of Science and its Rational
Reconstruction,’ in Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science. Vol. VIII,
ed. R C Buck and R S Cohen, D Reidel Publ. Co, 1971
28 K R Popper, Con ectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific
Knowl_~~g~. N.

arper ore 00 S.

Unlike other old folk who reach such an advanced
age, compulsory universal education in England has
not celebrated its centenary with a telegram of
congratulations from the Queen. On the contrary,
the Prime Minister, to say nothing of a range of
lesser luminaries from the Secretary for Education
down, has suggested that the quality of our education
leaves a lot to be desired. Having examined and
found wanting so many of its pupils in the past, the
education system is now getting a dose of its own
nasty medicine: it is widely said to be failing too
many in a different sense, and itself needs to be
taught a lesson. Who will educate the educators?

Chiefly, it seems, industry. By the standards set
by industry, the quality of our education is inadequate’ and only by aspiring to them will it reach the
required heights.

These doubts about the quality of education have
been of two general kinds, both springing from the
conviction that between education and industry there
is a ‘gap’ where there should be ‘links’. On the one
hand, it’s said that students are not reaching high
enough levels in the subjects they study, and in
particular that they are falling short in both literacy
and numeracy. On the other hand, the subjects they
study, espeCially at the more advanced stages, are
in many cases of the wrong sort: too much of the
arts and humanities, too little science, mathematic~, and technology. I shall be concerned chiefly
with the former.

One fairly predictable response to this opening of
‘the great debate’ has been horror at the conception

of education involved in the criticism, though the
reaction has for some been tempered by acknowledgement of our dire economic crisis and of
society’s right, as paying the piper, at least to
some extent to call the tune. We should not, it
seems to have been felt, dig in our heels too
stubbornly against the proposed changes, provideq
they are recognised as a temporary and partial
adjustment to meet an emergency, neither permanently nor wholly diverting education from its real
ideal: knowledge and learning for their own sake,
or cultivation for leisure, or the initiation of the
young into our cultural heritage, or the conversion
of barbarians into rational autonomous beings fit
for our liberal democratic civilisation. On this view,
quality in education is defined in terms of standards
set not by industry, nor by any other part of the
vulgar economic bUSiness of producing material
goods, but by high culture, that is by pure science
and mathematics, philosophy and history, literature
and the arts. The standard curriculum signifies the
continuing influence of the Aristotelian ideal of
liberal education, the education of a gentleman, its
vocational content both incidental and restricted to
‘the professions’, law, medicine, civil service,
church, and teaching itself.

I will return to that. First, let us look more
closely at the contrary claim, that an essential
measure of quality in education is its success or
failure in turning out people with the abilities and
skills required by industry. The view I want to focus
on is not directly that, but an underlying assump-

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