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From ‘Overdetermination’ to ‘Structural Causality’

From ‘Overdetermination’ to
‘Structural Causality’: Some
Unresolved Problems in Althursser’s
Treatment of Causality
Sheelagh Strawbridge

.Much of Althusser’s work, in collaboration with Balibar, is
concerned, by means of a ‘symptomatic’ reading of Marx’s
mature work, to draw out the latent, silent, untheorised
concepts present in that work and provide and adequately
describe these missing terms. In this way Althusser seeks to
elaborate the fundamental concepts of a Marxist epistemology; concepts adequate to underpin philosophically Marx’s
scientific achievement. The central texts in this task are
For Marx (1977) and Reading Capital (with Balibar 1977).

In ‘Elements of Self-Criticism’ (1976) Althusser argues
the need of every philosophy to make a detour via other
philosophies in order to define itself and grasp itself in
terms of its difference. Hence, to find his own way, Marx
rediscovered Hegel in order to distinguish himself from
hegel and define himself. To understand this detour and to
clarify the distinctions between Marx and Hegel, Althusser
argues that he too found a detour helpful. In his case the
detour was via Spinoza.

If there are problems presented to our understanding of
Marx due to Hegelian concepts and absent or silent concepts, there are equal problems in the way of our understanding Althusser presented by his Spinozist detour and his
borrowing of concepts from other theorists such as Freud
and Lacan. Althusser does not always clarify his use of
‘imported’ notions sufficiently. So problems arise in understanding to what extent they undergo modifications in
Althusser’s work and to what extent they retain their
original connotations. As such concepts are imported from
elaborated theoretical systems, they carry with them their
own ontological and epistemological assumptions and problems, and a failure to clarify their precise use in the new
context is a failure to define fully and adequately distinguish the new ontological and epistemological framework.

So, if Althusser’s detour, together with his importations, are a response to banging his head for years ‘against
a wall of enigmatic texts’, they in turn present enigmas,
and a probing of those enigmas sometimes reveals unresolved epistemological difficulties.

Althusser identifies in Marx’s Capital an un theorised
but distinctive and centrally significant, notion of cause
which he seeks to elaborate. The following examines the
l’ievelopment of this notion of cause from that of ‘overdetermination’ in For Marx to that of ‘structural causality’

in Reading Capital. It is suggested that there are indeed
unresolved ontological and epistemological problems and’

‘that these stem, at least in part, from the original contexts
of the concepts Althusser uses to define his ‘new’ notion
and a failure to articulate adequately the relationship
between his own ontology and epistemology and those from
which he draws inspiration.

The problem of causality
In his essay ‘Contradiction and Overdetermination’ (1977)
Althusser argues that the meaning of Marx’s reference to
the inversion of Hegel’s dialectic is problematic.

He contends that the common interpretation, which
takes the inversion to refer to the nature of the object, to
which the same dialectical method should be applied, substituting Hegel’s ‘world of the idea’ for the ‘real world’, is
incorrect. Althusser argues that it is the nature of the dialectic itself which is transformed in Marx’s later work. In
so far as Marx takes over certain notions, de terminations
and structures of the Hegelian dialectic these undergo
changes in meaning and force.

Althusser distinguishes Marx’s conception of the social
totality from that of Hegel by pointing to the way in which
”legel, in characterising the essence of any historical
period in terms of one simple internal principle which the
whole concrete life of the people expresses in an external
or alienated form, reduces the contradiction to the single
simple contradiction of that internal principle. Marx, on
the other hand, whilst identifying in Capital a basic general contradiction between the forces and relations of production embodied in the contradiction between two antagonistic classes, between Capital and Labour, does not see
the contradiction as a simple one but one which is ‘ ••• always specified by the historically concrete forms and
circumstances in which it is exercised’ (Althusser, 1977, p.

106). He sees that whilst this general contradiction is

••• to define the situation when revolution is the
‘task of the day’, it cannot of its own simple,
direct power induce a ‘revolutionary situation’,
If this contradiction is to become active in
the strongest sense, to become a ruptural principle, there must be an accumulation of ‘circumstances’ and ‘currents’ so that whatever their
origin and sense … they ‘fuse’ into a ruptural


for Marx then the social totality is a complex formation in
‘which various levels and instances (of the superstructures
as well as the base) are articulated in relations of reciorocal determination.

This conception could not be arrived at on the more
usual interpretation of the ‘inversion’ which leads inevitably to an economistic version of Marxism in which the
superstructures have no effectivity and are reduced to
mere epiphenomena, phenomenal forms, of the base.

In seeing the social totality as structured in this way
Marx posed it as possessing a unity, but a unity quite different in character from the Hegelian spiritual whole, and
in so doing he produced a crucial problem of causality.

In Reading Capital Althusser makes it quite clear that
the problem of defining what he there refers to as ‘structural causality’ is central to the elaboration of a Marxist
epistemology. He argues that neither of the theories of
causality available to Marx were adequate to the task of
thinking the relations of determination in a structured

a Marxist epistemology adequate to the new form of scientificity implicit in Marx’s theory of history and political
economy. It involves forging ‘ ••• a way of thinking the
question that his scientific discovery has posed philosophy’

(Althusser and Balibar, 1977, p. 193) and is tantamount to
the production of ‘a new form of rationality’.

In grappling with this problem of causality in For Marx
(particularly in the essay ‘Contradiction and Overdetermination’), Althusser draws on the Freudian notion of overdetermina tion. In doing so he encounters and reproduces
the difficulties of encompassing the level of symbolic representation within the same set of causal relations as the
base, physiological in the case of Freud and economic in
that of Althusser. In Reading Capital the Freudian notion
is not altogether lost and sits uneasily beside an interpretation of ‘structural causality’ drawn from Spinoza and
embedded in a more generally Spinozistic ontological and
epistemological framework.


Overdetermination in For Marx

What Althusser describes as analytical and transitive
causality and attributes a Cartesian origin, could not be
made to think the effectivity of a whole on its elements.

Seeing causality in terms of a sequential flux of events, it
required, for example, the independent specification of
cause and effect and could nto allow the conception of
causes existing in their effects. On the other hand, the
alternative theory of expressive causality, which Althusser
attributes to Leibniz and considers to dominate Hegel’s
thought, requires that the whole be reducible to an inner
essence of which the elements are no more than phenomenal forms of expression. Thus, expressive causality is
inadequate. when the whole in question is conceived as

Althusser argues that the question:

••• by means of what concept is it possible to
think the new type of determination ••• by means
of what concept or what set of concepts, is it
possible to think the determination of the elements of a structure, and the structural relations
between those elements, and all the effects of
those relations, by the effectivity of that structure? ••• how is it possible to define the concept
of structural causality?

(Althusser and Balibar, 1977, p.186)
is present in an untheorised form, ‘in the practical state’,
in Capital and sums up Marx’s extraordinary scientific

The proposal to think the determination of the
elements of a whole by the structure of the
whole posed an absolutely new problem in the
most theoretically embarrassing circumstances,
for there were no philosophical concepts available for its resolution.

(Althusser and Balibar, 1977, p. 187)
Marx tackled the problem, which ‘he had produced but not
posed as a problem’, practically, with ‘extraordinary
ingenuity’, but he was inevitably hampered by a lack of any
adequate conceptual apparatus. Althusser sees the task of
providing such an apparatus as central to the production of

Althusser introduces the notion of ‘overdetermination’ in
For Marx to express the complexity of determination in the
structured social formation. In discussing the formation of
a ‘ruptural unity’ which precipitates revolution he contends
that a vast accumulation of contradictions comes into play.

These contradictions derive from the relations of production, one of the terms of the general contradiction, but
they are more than its phenomenal forms; they are in turn
its conditions of existence.

The unity they constitute in this ‘fusion’ into a
revolutionary rupture, is constituted by their own
essence and effectivity, by what they are and
according to the specific modalities of their

(Althusser, 1977, p. 100)
Nevertheless, the contradictions are not seen as separate
from, or as in any sense external effectivities upon, the
whole. They have their existence, and can ortly be thought
of as part of an articulated structure in which they are
defined and determined and in turn defining and determining.

••• the ‘contradiction’ is inseparable from the
total structure of the social body in which it is
found, inseparable from its formal conditions of
existence, and even from the instances it governs; it is radically affected by them, determining but also determined in one and the same
moment, and determined by the various levels and
instances of the social formation it animates; it
might be called overdetermined in its principle.

(Althusser, 1977, p. 101)
IFurthermore, whilst the economic is always ‘determinant in
the last instance’, overdetermination constitutes the character of all social formations. It does not just refer to
aberrant historical situations, it is universal:

••• the economic dialectic is never active in the
pure state; in history, these instances, the superstructures, etc. – are never seen to step respectfully aside when their work is done or, when the
Time comes, as his pure phenomena, to scatter
before His Majesty the Economy as he strikes
along the royal road of the Dialectic. From the
first moment to the last, the lonely hour of the
‘last instance’ never comes.

(Althusser, 1977, p. 113)
So a social formation is always a structure constituted of
levels articulated in reciprocally determining relatinships.

The superstructures are what they are because of their
place in the whole. They are determined by the base which
is ‘determinant in the last instance’, but they in turn constitute the conditions of existence of the base and as such
exert their own specific effectivities.

With the notion of ‘overdetermination’ which he draws
from Freud (see Althusser and Balibar, 1977, p. 188),
Althusser is not merely expressing the complexity of causal

relations in the social formation. He is also conveying a
character of internality in those relations. At the same
time, he is holding on to a notion of levels which are
defined in a sufficiently independent way to allow an exchange of transforming energy; a real effectivity, in both
directions. Thus, he wishes to maintain both that cause and
effect relations are internal and that effects are more than
the expressions of causes.

Some of the problems involved in this can perhaps be
clarified by reference to the source of the notion of overdetermination in Freud. However, there are difficulties involved in this. Freud’s own use of the term is in itself
ambiguous and ill-defined and Althusser does not detail the
implications of his usage in relation to, or in contradistinction from, that of Freud.

Freud’s Notion of Overdetermination
Freud and his collaborator Breuer sometimes use ‘overdetermination’ as a way of expressing a fairly simple idea
of multiple causation in which a number of causes converge
to produce a particular effect, whether it be a ‘symptom’

or a ‘dream-image’. Breuer appears to be using it in this
way when he says:

••• there must be a convergence of several factors before a hysterical symptom can be generated in anyone who has hitherto been normal.

Such symptoms are invariably ‘overdet.ermined’,
to use Freud’s expression.

It may be assumed that an overdetermination of
this sort is also present when the same effect
has been called out by a series of several pro’voking causes. The patient and those about him
attribute the hysterical symptom only to the last
cause, though that cause has, as a rule, merely
brought to light something that had already been
almost accomplished by other traumas.

(Freud and Breuer, 1974, pp. 289-90)
In the same work Freud uses the notion similarly:

••• the principal feature in the aetiology of the
neuroses – that their genesis is as a rule overdetermined, that several factors must come
together to produce this result •••
(Freud and Breuer, 1974, p. 346)
However, this convergence of causal factors cannot, at
least not always, be seen as a simple additive process
where, as it were, the last straw breaks the camel’s back.

Freud’s use of ‘overdetermination’ sometimes conveys a
sense of ‘redundancy’ akin to that found in information
theory. In his paper ‘On Aphasia’ he argues:

The safeguards of our speech against breakdown
thus appear overdetermined, and it can easily
stand the loss of one or the other element.

(Freud, 1953b, pp. 436-5)
This sense is also apparent in, for example, ‘The psychotherapy of Hysteria’ (Freud and Breuer, 1974, pp. 373-6),
and in the notion of ‘condensation’ in the ‘dream-work’

(e.g. Freud, 1976, pp. 387-414).

The use of overdetermination in relation to the theory
of condensation reveals yet another connotation of the
concept in which effects are seen as symbolic representations of causes. Here the relation between cause and effect
is an internal one and involves a dimension of meaning as
well as force. As Freud is centrally concerned with meaningful and symbolic material and most of the effects he is
interested in are symbolic in some way, this is a very significant aspect of his use of overdetermination. In particular, he seeks to theorise the way in which meaningful material, which ‘represents’ an instinctual desire, enters into
relations of force involving a discharge of cathected
energy and resulting in its transformation into a more cryptic ‘symbolic’ form. Thus, the causal relations with which
Freud is concerned are intimately bound up with relations
of meaning.

Ricoeur discusses this in an illuminating way and
locates the central difficulty of psychoanalytic epistemology precisely here:

Freud’s writings present themselves as a mixed or
even ambiguous discourse, which at times states
conflicts of force subject to an energetics, at
times relations of meaning subject to a

(Ricoeur, 1978, p. 65)
Ricoeur argues that both dimensions are necessary to
psychoanalytic discourse and seeks to:

••• overcome the gap between the two orders of
discourse and to reach the point where one sees
that the energetics implies a hermeneutics and
the hermeneutics discloses an energetics. That
point is where the positing or emergence of
desire manifests itself in and through the process
of symbolisation.

(Ricoeur, 1978, p. 65)
Ricoeur traces the development of the conceptualisation of
this relationship from ‘The Project’, which he describes as
the non-hermeneutic state of the system, through the comr)lex interrelations of meaning and force in The Interpretation of Dreams, to the ‘Papers on Metapsychology’ (Freud,
1954, 1976 and 1953a), where it is most fully developed. He
concludes this exploration by showing how, in his essay
‘The Unconscious’ Freud relates ‘instinct’ and ‘idea’.

We can only arrive at a knowledge of the unconscious
through a translation or transformation into something conscious, and Freud contends that psychoanalytic work shows
us every day that translation of this kind is possible. This
possibility entails a coincidence of force and meaning
-Jlhere instincts are made manifest in a psychical ‘repres-=entative’ that stands for them. All the derivatives in consciousness are merely transformations of this psychical representative. Instincts are energy, but they are not known in
themselves, even in the unconscious. They are known as
manifest in the ‘idea’, the psychic representative. So everything treated ‘under the heading of “the (energic) vicissitude” of instincts comes to language as tne vicissitude of
their psychical expressions’ (Ricoeur, 1978, p. 142).

However, psychoanalysis is not thus reduced to the
interpretation of relations of meaning, as the instinctual
representative is an idea or group of ideas to which is
cathected a definite quota of psychical energy or libido
and the p~ocess of energy discharge is intimately linked
with that of symbolic representation and transformation.

So, Ricoeur argues, the language of force cannot be overcome by the language of meaning because of the irreducible character of affects from the economic point of view,
i.e., that of the interplay of cathexes. It is nonetheless
impossible to realise this pure economics apart from the
representable and the sayable.

••• affects ‘represent’ instincts and instincts ‘represent’ the body ‘to the mind’. But the mere verbal assonance which so perplexes the translator betrays a profound kinship between ‘Repdisentanz’ and ‘representation’ in the sense of ideas. In
any case, no economics can efface the fact that
affects are the charge of ideas ••••
(Ricoeur, 1978, p. 150)
In developing his theory of ‘Reprasentanz’ Freud is grappling with the problem of combining relations of force with
relations of meaning.

Psychoanalysis never confronts one with bare
forces, but always with forces in search of meaning; this link between force and meaning makes
instinct a psychic reality, or more exactly, the
limit concept at the frontier between the organic
and the psychical.

(Ricoeur, 1978, p. 151)
Thus, the relationship between ideas and instincts is crucial
to the conceptualisation of the relationship between the
mental and the physical, mind and body and in Freud the
relationship is construed as a causal one: instincts cause
the psychic images which represent or express them in a
T.eaningful symbolic form.


Althusser and Freud Compared
Althusser contends that his borrowing of Freud’s concept
of overdetermination reflects a concern for the same theoretical problem; that of the concept with which we are ‘to
think the determination of either an element or a structure
by a structure’ (Althusser and Balibar, 1977, p. 188).

It has been argued (Giddens, 1979, p. 158) that
Althusser uses the notion of overdetermination only in the
sense of a convergence of causes, but there are good reasons for supposing that he also takes over the sense of
‘redundancy’ in his borrowing of the notion of condensation
and, more importantly, that he espouses the implication of
relations of meaning and symbolic transformation in Freud’s
use of the term and with it the epistemological problem
detailed by Ricoeur.

One factor that renders this interpretation reasonable
is the fact that Althusser -is influenced by Lacan’s reading,
of Freud which emphasises relations of meaning. However,
more important is the character of Althusser’s own problematic. Central to Althusser’s work is his concern to provide an account of the social totality which avoids a crude
economic determinism and allows for the effectivity of the
superstructures whilst at the same time retaining a notion
of determination by the base in the ‘last instance’. He concentrates in particular on accounting for the effectivity of
the ideological instance and he is quite clear that this is a
symbolic level which has a relation of meaning with the
base. It is, moreover, not a relation of simple expression

••• an ideology is a system (with its own logic and
rigour) of representations (images, myths, ideas
or concepts, depending on the case) endowed
with a historical existence and role within a
given society.

(Althusser, 1977, p. 231)
In his later work, and in particular in his essay ‘Ideology
and Ideological State Apparatuses’ (1971), Althusser is concerned to develop his conceptualisation of the way in
which ideology ‘represents’, in a mythical way, the relations of production whilst maintaining a relative autonomy
and an effectivity upon the base. It seems reasonable,
therefore, to suppose that Althusser’s affinity with the
Freudian problematic is close and that he shares the epistemological problem, identified by Ricoeur, of reconciling
relations of force with relations of meaning, which is
reflected in his use of the notion of overdetermination.

Freud’s concern with mental, symbolic representations
of ‘biological’ bodily forces and the energy relations involved is close to Althusser’s concern to theorize the ‘representation’ of the base in the superstructures as a causal
relationship. However, it is not clear to what extent, if
any, Freud intended a reciprocally determining effect of
the dream images and/or symptoms upon the biological
base. Althusser clearly does intend the superstructures to
exert a reciprocal effectivity upon the economic base and
a dimension of difficulty thus enters his problematic which
is perhaps not so marked in that of Freud. The problem of
the meaning of ‘determination in the last instance’ is one
which persists throughout Althusser’s work and he seems
better placed to account for the persistence of a structure
than for transition and change. This problem is further
accentuated in Reading Capital where, in the move to a
more Spinozistic epistemological framework, the internality
of cause/effect relationships is even more strongly

Structural Causality in Reading Capital
In developing the notion of structural causality in Reading
Capital Althusser pays more explicit attention to the representational aspects of the structural relationships than in
his treatment of overdetermination. This is pointed up by
his selection of ‘Darstellurig’ as the most appropriate and

least metaphorical of the concepts which Marx uses to
‘think the effectivity of the structure’. He locates in ‘Darstellung’ the key epistemological concept of the whole of
the Marxist theory of value:

••• the concept whose object is precisely to designate the mode of presence of the structure in
its effects and therefore to designate structural
causality itself.

(AI~husser and Balibar, 1977, p. 188)
,The importance of ‘representation’ is further brought out in
Althusser’s metaphor of the authorless theatre where he
likens ‘Darstellung’ to the mode of existence of a stage
direction (mise en scene) of the theatre which is simultaneously its own stage, its own script, its own actors, etc.

(1977b, p. 193). Similarly, his use of Lacan’s notion of metonymic causality synonymous with ‘structural causality’

emphasises the ‘symbolic’ aspects of the relationships in

‘DarsteJlung’ and ‘overdetermination’ are both attempts
to express the nature of the ‘structure articulated in dominance’. Both notions recognise the signific,ance of ‘representation’ but in each case Althusser takes care to
emphasise that the reduction of ‘representation’ to mere
appearance is not what is intended. He is, for example,
concerned with the temptation so to reduce Marx’s central
notion of fetishism (Althusser and Balibar, 1977, p. 191).

However, it has been argued above that in the case of
overdetermination, whilst such a reduction is avoided, problems of a ‘mixed discourse’ are encountered.

In using the notion of ‘Darstellung’ Althusser stresses
the idea of the ‘absent cause’: the cause internal to its
effects or the existence of a structure in its effects. It has
been argued that in thus holding the view that the structure, whilst specifying its effects, is nothing outside its
effects, Althusser falls into the trap of postulating an
‘essentialist’ and self-sustaining totality or ‘eternity’

(McLennan et aI, 1978, p. 81, and Hindess and Hirst, 1977,
p. 134). The question must now be posed as to what extent
this criticism is justified. To what extent do~s the shift to
‘Darstellung’ or ‘structural causality’ lose some of the more
dynamic connotations of ‘overdetermination’ and the idea
of a ‘structure articulated in dominance’, in stressing’ the
internality and representational character of cause/effect
re la tionships.

The notion of a cause internal to its effects: ‘immanent
in its effects’ is derived from Spinoza’s conception of God
as causa immanens (1955, ‘Ethics’, Part 1, prop. 18), and
for Althusser, as much as Spinoza, the concept is intimately connected with other fundamental notions and cannot be
discussed in isolation from its general epistemological context. Reading Capital is thoroughly influenced by Spinoza’s
epistemology but whilst Althusser acknowledges this, he
does not detail his derivations or the ways in which his
philosophy differs. The issues in question may, therefore,
be illuminated by retracing Althusser’s footsteps and consulting Spinoza directly.

Spinoza’s Metaphysics
Spinoza’s metaphysics is a thoroughgoing monism. At its
heart it is the rejection of the conception of the universe
as a plurality of substances each persisting through time in
possession of certain essential attributes. One of the central difficulties with any ‘plurality’ doctrine is that of
accounting for interactions between substances of essentially different natures and attributes. Thus, for example,
arises the classical mind/body problem which stems from
the Cartesian distinction between thought and extension.

Spinoza accepts the view that substances are essentially things which originate and change in accordance with
the laws of their own natures. However, if substances do
interact, the succession of their states cannot be wholly
explained in terms of their own essential natures. Some of
their states or modifications in their natures will be the
effect of the action of external substances upon them.


Hence, a distinction must be drawn between the accidental
or contingent attributes and modifications and those which
can be deduced from their essential natures. As substances
are, by definition, such that their attributes and modifications can be explained in terms of their own natures, then
for them to have such contingent properties, the effects of
causes other than themselves, would involve a contradiction.

So, interactions can only take place between the
}iortial furl-lis .;)f ~ sin61e substance. Acceptino the existence of interactions, and rejecting the Leibnizian alternative of a system of self-determining, non-interacting substances, monads, Spinoza concludes that there can be only
one substance, all of whose attributes are derived from its
essential nature and are therefore necessary and not
contingent., This substance is thus ‘causa sui’; cause of
itself, and is identified with the universe as a whole; the
unique and all-inclusive totality which Spinoza calls God or

On Spinoza’s account, nothing within Nature is contingent and nothing is outside Nature. The postulation of God
as a first and, therefore, transient cause, with all the difficulties attendant upon that doctrine, is thus rejected.

God or Nature is both Creator and Creation and the immanent, ‘eternal’ cause of all things. It is self-creating and
self-created, possesses infinite attributes and is free in the
sense that it acts merely according to the necessary laws
of its own nature. Nature is a unity of substance, an infinite whole, which generates its own partial forms from itself. Thus, every particular thing which exists is conceived
as a ‘modification’ or particular differentiation of the
unique all-inclusive substance.

To explain the existence and activity of any ‘thing’

(modus or partial form of substance) we must be able to
deduce its existence and activity from the essential attributes and modes of Nature as a whole. All partial forms
fall within a single causal system ultimately intelligible to
human reason within a single deductive system which
necessarily reflects the whole order of Nature.

Substance is revealed to us solely under the two infinite and eternal attributes by which we conceive it: thought
and extension. The ‘modes’ or states of substance can be
graded in an order of logical dependence beginning with
the immediate, infinite and eternal modes {necessary and
universal features of the universe immediately deducible
from the infinite attributes} and descending to the finite
modes (limited and transient differentiations of substance).

These finite modes can only be understood, and their essences deduced, as effects of the infinite and eternal modes.

The infinite and eternal mode under the attribute of
extension is called ‘motion-and-rest’, which can perhaps be
translated into the more familiar term ‘energy’. Everything
within the extended or spatial world is constituted of particular proportions of motion-and-rest. Whilst the proportions in the system as a whole remain constant, since there
ccih be no external cause to explain any overall change,
within the subordinate parts of the system the proportions
of motion-and-rest are constantly changing as interactions
take place. In more modern terms, Spinoza seems, in effect,
to be saying that the extended world is to be conceived as
a self-contained and all-inclusive system of interactions in
which the total amount of energy is constant, and that the
Ichanging configurations of extended bodies can be ade-quately represented as transmissions or exchanges of
energy within the system.

What we normally single out as particular physical
bodies or things owe their identity and their distinguishing
characteristics to the particular proportion of motion-andrest among the ultimate or elementary particles, ‘corpora
simplicissima’ of which they are composed. So, particular
things or physical bodies can be analysed into configurations of ultimate particles, the qualitative exchanges of
which produce the changes in quality of the gross composite bodies.

All physical bodies including the human body are complex bodies, though of differing orders of complexi ty. They

may not be first order configurations of elementary particles but configurations of configurations and so on up to
any order of complexity. A physical body will retain its
identity no matter how much the distribution of motionand-rest between different parts of the configuration
changes, so long as the total amount in the configuration
remains roughly constant. Thus, any more or less stable
configuration, although internally complex, may be regarded
as a single individual, internal changes in the distribution
of its motion-and-rest accounting for changes in its

However, particular things or bodies can be no more
than finite modes. They are sub-systems within the total
system and are bounded by other objects within the system.

They are not e.ternal, but come into being and pass away as
the distribution of motion-and-rest within the universe as a
whole changes. Any finite thing within Nature is constantly
being effected by other finite causes in its environment.

The history of any particular thing or finite mode is the
history of its constant interaction with its environment and
the more complex a particular mode the greater the variety
of ways in which it can affect and be affected by its

Nevertheless, each particular thing exhibits a characteristic tendency to cohesion and the preservation of its
identity – a striving, ‘conatus’ to persist in its own being.

This ‘conatus’ constitutes the only sense in which parti:

cular things, which are not substances, can be said to have
‘essences’. Particular things are constantly undergoing


changes of state as the effects of causes other than themselves, but it is only in so far as they are themselves originating causes that they can be said to have determinate
natures of their own. The character and individuality of a
particular thing depends on this, necessarily limited (no
dependent mode can be an originating cause entirely) power
of self-maintenance.

A notion of ‘conatus’ or something similar has often
been demanded by biologists as necessary to the understanding of living systems. No such notion was included in
the Cartesian ‘mechanistic’ cosmology, but in Spinoza’s system all bodies or objects from the simplest mechanical systems to the most complex organic and living systems
exhibit conatus. Spinoza can allow that in higher order systems, which consist of configurations within configurations
through many levels, the relative tendency to self-maintenance, in spite of internal changes, is more noticeable precisely because of the greater possible variety of internal
changes. Thus, the distinctions between living and nonliving and between conscious and non-consciouis things are
represented as differences of degree of structural
complexi ty.

More must be said of Spinoza’s conceptualisation of the
relationship between thought and extension in examining
further the representational aspects of Althusser’s notion
of structural causality. However, it will perhaps first be
useful to consider Althusser’s notion of a structured totality in relation to Spinoza’s system.

The Notion of a Structured Totality in Althusser
Althusser is, then, correct in taking from Spinoza a conception of a complexly structured totality as opposed to a
totality which is expressive of a single internal principle or
idea. Complete knowledge of the cause of anything in
nature ultimately involves a complete knowledge of the
deductive system which maps the whole order of Nature,
but this whole is a complex system of varyingly complex
structures and substructures which are the modes or states
of substance interacting in energy exchanges in which they
are formed, changed and destroyed.

In view of the fundamental monism of the metaphysics,
there would appear to be no problem in accounting for
causal interactions between the elements and levels of the
social formation, if these could be construed as yet more
complexly structured modes of the substance than the physical bodies we normally identify as objects. However, the
ideological cannot simply be construed as such a level.

Complications arise in view of the relationship between
thought and extension, as will be discussed below.

For the moment, we must examine the notion of the
structured totality further.

Structural causality, for
Althusser, refers to the presence of a structure in its
effects. He argues that this is essential to avoid the classical conception of the economic object and thus to avoid
seeing the Marxist conception of the economic object as
determined ‘from outside’ by a non-economic structure. He
contends that:

••• the structure is immanent in its effects, a
cause immanent in its effects in the SpinozisL
sense of the term, that the whole existence of
the structure consists of its effects, in short,
that the structure, which is merely a specific
combination of peculiar elements, is nothing outside its effects.

(Althusser and Balibar, 1977, p. 189)
He had previously argued, a propos the notion of ‘synchrony’, that the synchrony concerns the knowledge of the
complex articulation that makes the whole a whole:

The synchronic is then nothing but the conception of the specific relations that exist between
the different elements and the different structures of the structure of the whole, it is the
knowledge of the relations of dependence and

articulation which make it an organic whole; a
system. The synchronic is eternity in Spinoza’s
sense, or the adequate knowledge of a complex
object by the adequate knowledge of its
complexi ty.

(Althusser and Balibar, 1977, p. 107)
It seems, then, that Althusser is admitting no external
causes to be effective in relation to the social totality,
which is presumably co-extensive with the capitalist social
formation, as the object of knowledge of Capital is the set
of concepts which would constitute an adequate knowledge
of its complexity. This social totality is to be comprehended in terms of its internal relations only, presumably
deduced as dependent modes in relation to the dominant/determining in the last instance/infinite and eternal mode the economic. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that
Althusser is assimilating the social totality to Spinoza’s
God or Nature as a whole, as this is the only structure in
Spinoza’s system which is ‘causa sui’ and the only structure
which can be (ultimately) adequately known, in terms of its
own internal complexity, without reference to ‘anything
other than itself. Anything less than the–{jnique self-creating substance is subject to external causes and equally subject to deformation and change.

If Althusser does intend the social formation to be thus
taken as a self-sustaining totality in the Spinozistic sense,
an ‘eternity’ to which no temporal predicates are applicable and which can be known entirely in terms of its own
complexity, then, as only internal structures and substructures would be subject to change, he does appear to be
open to the criticisms of McLennan et al and Hindess and
Hirst. Within such a framework it would indeed be difficult
to envisage a theory of transition; as the very notion of
transition contradicts that of the social formation so conceived.

It seems then that, as Althusser presumably does not
intend to espouse a doctrine of plurality more akin to that
of Leibniz than that of Descartes, he is guilty of an ‘error’

in Spinoza’s sense of that term, in taking the part for the
whole. Spinoza’s monism perhaps leads more” directly to the
classical dialectical materialism of Engels’Dialectics of
Nature in which the whole universe comprises the totality
of interacting elements and structures.

Thought, Extension and Reality
Before returning, in conclusion, to the problem of the representational character of the effects of the ‘absent
cause’, it will be useful first to compare Althusser’s conception of the relationship between ‘thought’ and ‘reality’

with Spinoza’s view of that between ‘thought’ and ‘extension’.

It has already been noted that Spinoza’s metaphysics is
a thoroughgoing monism. He thus challenges the division of
reality into thought and extension, irreducible one to the
other but causally related. In his system, thought and
extension are still irreducible but, as attributes under
which a single substance is conceived, the connection
between them is more intimate than any causal connection.

Thought, like extension, is a universal attribute of substance. Beings which we know as thinking beings, and in
particular human beings, are distinguished from other modes
of substance merely in terms of the complexity of their
configurations. In a sense, thinking can be said to be a property of structure, the way of functioning of a thinking
body due to its structural configuration. The structure is
the condition of existence of the thinking activity, but
thinking is the mode ot activity, the functioning of the
structure so, as functioning cannot be reduced to structure,
thinking cannot be reduced, as it is in a mechanistic materialism, to some underlying physical process of which it is
a mere epiphenomenon.

Neither can the relationship between the idea which is
the human mind and the human body which constitutes its
ideatum be construed as a causal relationship. Bodily

changes do not cause mental changes: they are mental
changes and vice-versa. There is one connection of causes
of natural events which is conceived under the two attributes. Thus: ‘The order and connection of ideas is the same
as the order and connection of things’ (Spinoza, 1955,
Ethics, Part 2, Prop. 7). However, my mind as the idea of
my body reflects the order of causes, not in Nature as a
whole but, in one particular fragment of Nature. The particular finite mode of extension which is my body interacts,
or exchanges energy, with its environment and every such
interaction is reflected in an idea. Changes of state, which
are the effects of the impinging of external bodies (configurations of substance) on the particular finite mode which
is my body, are reflected in ideas which are the ideas of
imagination or of ‘experientia vagal which is the lowest
level of human knowledge. This knowledge is passive in the
sense that the idea is produced by external causes acting
on my body and not by a sequence of previous ideas in my

‘Experientia vagal roughly corresponds to sense perception. In perception a modification of my body occurs which
is caused by the interaction between the state of my body
and the perceived object. This modification is reflected in
an idea. Thus, the idea so produced represents neither the
true nature and essence of my body nor the tru’e nature of
the external object. It simply represents a particular modification of extension without reflecting in itself the true
causes of this modification.

Such ideas or perceptual judgements are not in themselves false, if considered one by one; each has its ideatum. However, as they simply reflect successive modifications of my body in its interaction with other bodies, they
are logically unrelated to each other. In Spinoza, to say of
an idea that it is true or adequate is to state its relation
with other ideas in the system of ideas which ultimately
constitutes God’s thinking or the system of ideas as a
whole, which reflects extension as a whole.

When an idea of the imagination or a perceptual judgement is rejected as false, this implies that it does not fit
into a system or cohere with other ideas or judgements,
i.e., it is false in relation to a more coherent system of
,ideas which more adequately represents the order of things;’

‘An idea may be adequate at one level, say that of common
sense, but inadequate in a larger context such as that of a
particular science which in turn can only be adequate up to
a point.

The production of more adequate knowledge, therefore,
involves a logical analysis of the relationship between ideas
.’lld the striving for a coherent deductive system of interconnected ideas which reflects the interconnections of the
modes of extension and thus, adequately representing the
order of causes in Nature as a whole, is equivalent to the
thinking of God or Nature itself. Error, then, is not an absolute but consists in attributing too great a generality to a
partial form or limited truth.

Althusser argues that empiricism and Hegelian idealism
both reduce the ‘object of knowledge’ to the ‘real object’.

The fail to distinguish the real object existing outside the
subject and independent of the process of producing knowledge from the subject that produces it. Marx, on the other
hand, in common with Spinoza, distinguishes between the
real object and the object of knowledge. Althusser refers
to Spinoza’s example in distinguishing the idea of a circle
from its ideatum the circle itself. He argues that for
Spinoza the idea of a circle is the object of knowledge
whereas .the circle is the real object. The process of the
production of knowledge works on the object of knowledge
and takes place entirely within thought.

However, Althussercontends that the trap of idealism
is avoided as the thought in question
••• is not a faculty of a transcendental subject or
absolute consciousness confronted by the real
world as matter; nor is thought a faculty of a
psychological subject, although human individuals
are its agents. This thought is the historically
constituted system of an apparatus of thought,
founded on and articulated to natural and social


(Althusser and Balibar, 1977, p. 41)
This apparatus of thought is constituted by a structure
which combines its raw material (the object on which it
labours), its means of production (theory, method and technique) and the historical relations in which it produces. It
is thus a determinate reality which defines the roles and
functions of the thought of particular thinking subjects who
‘can only “think” the problems already actually or potentially posed’ (Althusser and Balibar, 1977, p. 42). In producing knowledge, thought as it were reworks its previous productions which constitute its raw material which is, therefore, an hi~torically given:

••• an ever-already complex raw material which
combines together in a particular ‘Verbindung’

sensuous, technical and ideological elements, •••
(Althusser and Balibar, 1977, p. 43)
Althusser denies that in the production of knowledge the
logical order of the deduction of the categories or concepts, in terms of which the contemporary ‘society effect’

is to be thought, follows the order in which they have been
historically determinant. No ‘genetic’ argument is resorted
to as a criterion of adequacy of a system of concepts that
constitutes knowledge. This is given by their interrelationships in an articulated system, a ‘thought-totality’ and the
order of the development of the forms or categories is
given by their systematic dependence in terms of the
production of the ‘discourse of the proof’.

Althusser, then, follows Spinoza in arguing that recourse to sense perception is no criterion of the truth or
adequacy of a system of concepts. This is given in terms of
their coherence as a system which can only be established
in thought by logical analysis. A true system or theory will,
of course, work in respect of our observations and experiments, but no amount of observation and experiment can
confirm a system’s adequacy. Thus Althusser states: ‘It has
been possible to apply Marx’s theory with success because
it is “true”; it is not true because it has been applied with
success’ (Althusser and Balibar, 1977, p. 59) •.

However, Althusser appears crucially to misinterpret
Spinoza on precisely the point which establishes the connection between thought and extension. In Spinoza, each
idea is intimately connected with its counterpart in extension; its ideatum. They cannot fall apart. Greater adequacy
is achieved as ideas are selected, in the process of thinking, in terms of their relationships with other ideas to produce a more coherent system, and thinking thus. frees us
from isolated ‘experientia vagal. So, we can begin to build
increasingly coherent systems of concepts. However, as
thought and extension are attributes of the one substance,
only one totally coherent deductive system of concepts is
possible and this necessarily reflects adequately the interconnected system of extended modes and thus represents
the order of causes in Nature as a whole.

Althusser, on the other hand, identifies ‘ideatum’ with
‘reality’. He appears to miss the point of the ‘two attributes’ doctrine and re-introduces a thought reality dualism
and the question of their possible causal interaction. In
order to avoid the traps of ‘idealism’ and ‘subjectivism’ he
argues that ‘reality’ exists independently of thought. He
consequently disconnects the order of ‘thought’ from that
of ‘reality’. In parting company with Spinoza’s rigorous
monism, he loses the guarantee that one and only one
coherent system of concepts is possible and that it will fit
‘reality’ •

In Conclusion
We must finally return to the question of representation in
relation to ttle notion of structural causality and it can
now be seen that the different terms Althusser uses to
denote his concept of causality reveal ambiguities and
problems that result from an oscillation between a monistic
Spinozistic metaphysics and the dualistic metaphysics that
underlies the Freudian problematic.



On the one hand, Althusser espouses Spinoza’s notion
of truth as adequacy and with it that of error as the attribution of too great a generality to a partial form or lim-‘

ited truth. As has been seen this theory of truth, though
somewhat misinterpreted by Althus~er, demands that
thought and extension be conceived as two attributes of
one substance. On this view, ideology should be construed
as partial truth, i.e., true at a particular level, in that it
represents real relations and conditions, but inadequate as
a systematic understanding of those relations and conditions in terms of their real causes and effects.

Althusser seems to be viewing ideology in this way
when he refers to it as a knowledge effect:

This expression knowledge effect constitutes a
generic object which includes at least two subobjects: the ideological knowledge effect and the
scientific knowledge effect.

The ideological
knowledge effect is distinguished by its properties (it is an effect of recognition – mis-J”ecognition in a mirror connection) from the scientific
knowledge effect: •••
(Althusser and BaJibar, 1977, p. 67)
As such, ideology belongs to the order of thought and cannot, to be consistent with the requirements of the theory
of truth, be ascribed an independent existence as a causaJJy effective instance in the social totality.

On the other hand, much of Althusser’s work is concerned precisely to establish the independent (relatively
autonomous) existence of ideology as a system of representations which have a causal effectivity. In taking ‘Dar-


Stresses in all quotations are from the original.

Althusser, Louis, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’, 1969, Lenin
and Philosophy and Other Essays, London, New Left Books, 1971.-Althusser, Louis, ‘Elements of Self Criticism’, 1974, Essay in SelfCriticism, London, New Left Books, 1976.

Althusser, Louis, For Marx, London, New Left Books, 1977 (contains
essays dating from 1960 to 1965).

Althusser, Louis and Balibar, Etienne, Reading Capital, London, New Left
Books, 1977 (second edition dates from 1968).

Freud, Sigmund and Breuer, Joseph, Studies on Hysteria, London, Penguin,
1974 (work dating from 1983/4).

Freud, Sigmund, ‘Papers on Metapsychology’, comprises five papers written in 1915: ‘Instincts and their Vicissitudes’; ‘Repression’; ‘The Unconscious’; ‘A Metapsychological Supplement to the Theory of
Dreams’; and ‘Mourning and Melancholia’; in Standard Edition, Vol. 14,
London, 195 3a.

Freud, Sigmund, ‘On Aphasia’, 1891, in Standard Edition, Vol. 16, London,

Freud, Sigmund, ‘Project for a Scientific Psychology’, 1895, in The Origins of Psychoanalysis, New York, Basic Books, 1954, pp. 355-445.

Freud, Sigmund, The Interpretation of Dreams, London, Penguin, 1976
(work dates from 1900).

Giddens, Anthony, Central Problems in Social Theory, London, Macmillan,

Hindess, Barry and Hirst, Paul Q., Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production,
London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977.

McLennan, Gregor, Molina, Victor and Peters, Roy, ‘Althusser’s Theory of
Ideology’ in Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies’ On Ideology,
London, Hutchinson, 1978.

Ricoeur, Paul, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay in Interpretation, New
Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1978.

Spinoza, Benedict de, Works of Spinoza, New York, Dover, 1955, Vol. 2
containing ‘The Ethics’ and ‘On the Improvement of the Understanding’.


stellung’ and ‘metonymic causality’ as synonymous with
‘structural causality’, Althusser emphasises the representational character of the relationships in question as weJJ as
their internality. At the same time, he asserts their causal
nature in relation to a structure composed of levels articulated in dominance. He thus encounters the problems of
mixing the discourse of meaning and energy relationships
which have already been noted and which relate to a persistent dualism of thought and ‘reality’ that requires their
interaction to be thought in causal terms.

It would seem, then, that there remain significant ontological and epistemological problems in Althusser’s treatment of the cruciaJJy important question of causality.

If he were to take a more consistently Spinozistic line,
then relationships of representation would need to be seen
as having a more intimate nature than that of causality. A
difficulty would thus arise a propos the effectivity of the
system of representations which constitutes ideology. On
the other hand, maintaining commi tment to the causal
effectivity of representations involves the problems of the
dualistic metaphysics.

Althusser’s sensitivity to the problems presented by
dualism is perhaps indicated by his explicit articulation of
a ‘materialist’ theory of ideology in his essay ‘Ideology and
Ideological State Apparatuses’. Whilst beyond the scope of
this discussion, it would be interesting to explore the
extent to which, in locating ideology in material practices
and in developing a theory of subjectivity which sites the
effectivity of ideology in the conscious subject, a possible
solution to some of the problems posed here is indicated.

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