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On Materialisms

expected is an analysis of our present situation
with s’ome general guidelines for the transition to
socialism. Dialectical change provides us with
ever new situations which for an understanding
demand that a wide range of experience .be drawn
upon from within and without the revolutionary core.

This in turn requires a respect for the opinions
and efforts of others although of course not necessarily all. To be able to do this necessitates once
more a distinction between real enemies and those
that can be brought into alliance or tolerated as
non-conformists. There is, as we remarked earlier,
a need to distinguish between what could be called
the positively reactionary, those forces directed
against the very heart of socialism, and those
forces which are hindrances of a non-fatal variety.

A socialist ethic depends very heavily on the


Hitherto, Sebastiano Timpanaro’ s work has been
known to English readers only through the occasional
extract from his books published in New Left Review.

Now, with the publication in full of what are perhaps
his most controversial works – On Materialism, and
more recently The Freudian Slip – we are given a
much more substantial basis for assessing his

Timpanaro writes in an aggressive style that
elicits and even invites peremptory and dismiSSive
jUdgements on his work. But it would only be to ape
the cruder aspects of his own polemic to dismiss
him straightforwardly as a ‘vulgar materialist’,
‘Popperian’, ‘crude empiricist’ etc. Even though
such labels may not be wholly inappropriate, they
must fail to do justice to the sensitivity’which informs Timpanaro’s work. His contribution to debate
on the problems relating to the materialismjidealism distinction, the science/ideology couple, the
relations between synchrony/diachrony, theory and
practice etc cannot easily be neglected. Even if·at
times his formulation of these issues is incomplete
and dogmatic, it is nonetheless true that at other
times he reveals an unnerving ability to touch to the
heart of matters that must be the concern of anyone,
whatever his or her particular philosophical alignment, who has not simply opted for a credo, whether
:of empiricist or non-empiricist, humanist or antihumanist form, but is still prepared to admit and
discuss the unresolved nature of the problems
around which the contemporary oPPositional formulae of Marxist studies have been erected. Moreover,
Timpanaro’s no-nonsense approach makes a refreshing change from more soft-pedalling incursions into
these areas and from ultra-sophisticated and jargonised discussions of the issues involved. Timpanaro
may lose some of the trees, but at least we keep the
wood in sight.

On Materialism, which first appeared in Italian in
1970, comprises a collection of essays which were
originally published in the journal Quaderni
Piacentini, and evoked a good deal of response in
Italy (1) – where Timpanaro is widely known and
respected, not only for his contribution to Marxist

success of drawing this distinction and repression
must be directed only to those in the former category. Such an ethic is based on the conception of
human beings as re/producers of their own and not
a class reality and as such is universalistic. But
it is universalism with a difference, being historically specific it recognizes the existence of class
struggle and hence the necessity of excluding some
from the realm of autonomy. Because this exclusion threatens the objective validation by all of
0[:£” S moral ideology – albeit a Marxist one – it
D1 …. t be done with care in some of the ways I have
just mentioned so as not to be forever exclusivist.

That is, the ideal of the classless society must be
maintained and made the place where all can develop
and construct their own reality to a degree hitherto
unattained in any previous historical epoch.

study and his political activity, but also as a philologist, Leopardi scholar and student of nineteenthcentury culture (2). Only the fourth chapter on
‘Structuralism and its Successors’ wa,s written for
the book. Despite its piecemeal formation the book
reads as a coherent whole since its first four chapters represent the development of Timpanaro’s
main theme: the construction of a hedonistpeSSimist-Marxism and the recognition of the relevance of Engels in this respect. Only the last chapter, which is a study of Korsch’s critique of Lenin’s
philosophy, can be said to stand apart from the rest
of the book, though it too continues the idealismmaterialism theme.

On re-thinking Marxism
Timpanaro’s starting point has become something of
a cliche: a need to re-think Marxism in the light of
what has happened in the capitalist West, in RUSSia,
in ,China and in the Third World. More polemically,
he proceeds immediately to reject the respective
contributions of both the two main ‘schools’ of 20th
century Marxism. The Frankfurt school and its
various offspring on the one hand, and Althusserianism, on the other, “allow very little of Marxism to
survive”; moreover, they “represent in many respects a step backwards”. The former is retrogressive because it ignores the need to found a ‘scientific socialism’ and sees in science only bourgeois
false objectivity; the latter because, although it
insists on the scientific character of Marxism, it
adopts from current epistemology what Timpanaro
refers to as a ‘Platonist conception of science’,
which, he claims, makes it impossible to pose
correctly the question of the relations between
theory and practice.

Marxism, he argues, if it is to avoid becoming
merely a ‘revolutionary sociology’, must refer itself again to the fundamental question posed by
Marx and Engels of the ‘real liberation ‘ of mankind.

For Timpanaro, this is a question of re confirming
and developing materialism, through the provision
of a ‘theory of needs’ which is not “as so often,
reduced to a compromise between Marx and Freud,
but which confronts on a wider basis the problem of
.the relation between nature and society”. We must
recognize nature’s continued conditioning of man,
not in a way which reduces the social to the biological, but in a way that asserts the autonomy of the
biological relation to the demand for happiness”.

1 See ‘ll dibattito suI materialismo’ that was conducted in Quaderni
Piacentini nos. 29, 30 and 32. The main bone of contention related to
Timpanaro’s assertion of the need to recognize the paSSive element in
experience, and the dispute was conducted to a large extent from the standpoint of a ‘philosophy of praxis’, of which, to my mind, Timpanaro is right!)
critical. The second chapter of his book is a translation of his reply to these _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ __

2 His major work in this respect is Classicismo e llluminismo nell ‘Ottocento


Sebastiano,Timpanaro: On Materialism, NLB, 1976,
260pp, £5.75

It is his ipsistence on the fundamental interconnexion between the struggle for communism and human
happiness that leads Timpanaro to align himself
with the blend of hedonism and pessimism to be
found in the work of the nineteenth-century Italian
poet Giacomo Leopardi. Leopardi’ s theme is that
the struggle against nature is a struggle for pleasure, for happiness, but it is also continually and
inevitably constrained by the biological frailty of
mankind. Timpanaro argues in turn for a revolutionary socialism that both recognizes the impositions and limits attaching to our biological existence and asserts the intimate connexion between
emancipation and pleasure .

. Timpanaro takes pains to define his particular
type of materialism. He is right to do so, for it
might be argued that the battle waged by contemporary Marxists to correct reductionist tendencies,
whether of economistic or biologistic complexion,
has made such good ground that anyone who ventures,
as Timpanaro does, even to suggest the prior determination of the -biological on the social will automatically be dismissed as ‘vulgar’ materialist. Hence
the care with which he dissociates himself from all
forms of reactionary biologism (see the arguments
in the Preface to the English edition against Baker
and Eysenck, Skinner and certain trends in animal
ethology), and from any attempt either to isolate
the biological from the social, or to conflate these
two. It is rather than his materialism represents a
refusal to make a reduction at the level of the social:

man has a biological specificity vhich must not be
absorbed entirely within the specificity of his social
existence. Hence his quarrel with both Colletti and
Seve (3).

Timpanaro’s point is that Western Marxism, in
its zeal to defend itself against the accusation of
materialism, has cast out, together with mechanism and vulgarity, materialism as such. Moreover,
he argues, much of the debate within the various
Marxist groups revolves on the selection of the best
means of safeguarding against materialism, and the
alternatives chosen are broadly those of a Hegelianized Marxism with strong existentialist undertones,
on the one hand, and a pragmatic scientism, on the
other. Timpanaro recognizes the authenticity of the
polemic against vulgar materialism, but he also
argu~ that the insistence on the polemic has for a
long time now not corresponded to any important
influence or even effective presence in Western
Marxism (4). Rather, he claims, the struggle today
is between two types of idealism – a historicist and
humanist idealism arid an empirio- criticist and
pragmatic idealism. What is at issue, then, is
whether his intervention transcends the stasis of the
present humanist/anti-humanist confrontation in a
way that does not involve regreSSion to the old battle
ground of ‘vulgar’ versus ‘Marxist’ materialism.

I shall argue that Timpanaro does not get us beyond
the circle of contemporary dispute since he opts for
a brand of Marxism that ultimately reproduces the
3 Against Colletti (who has accused Timpanaro of an ingenuolfB type of naturalism) Timpanaro argues that “to reduce man to what is specific about him
with respect to other animals is just as one sided as to reduce him (as vulgar
materialists do) to what he has in common with them. ” He discusses L.

Seve’s work (Marxisme et theorie de la personnalite) at some length and
accuses him of an excessive anti-!::iological phobia whose ultimate effect is
that the specificity of the biological is wholly absorbed within the social thus compromising his materialism. At the same time, Timpanaro endorses
many of Seve’s criticisms of Althusser and psychoanalytic theory.

4 This statement shOuld perhaps be qualified ~·.for while it may be true that
the charge of vulgar materialism no longer has any real target ‘!Yill!!n. the
discourse of Marxists themselves, it is not so obvious that Marxism taken
as a whole has definitively convinced its opponents of the inappropriateness
of such an accusation. One can become so engrossed in the rarified atmosphere of Marxology, and its internal disputes, that one loses a sense of
perspective on the wider issue of the relations of Marxism to bourgeois
sociology and philosophy.

central deficiencies of the traditional ,humanist position. I shall discuss firstly Timpanarci’s formulation
of the biological-social relationship, and secondly
the epistemology of his approach to the materialismidealism distinction.

The social-biological relationship
Timpanaro’s formulation of the relationship has the
merit of insisting on the specificity of the biological
dimension rather than reducing it, as for example
L. Seve tends to, wholly to social relations – even if
the biological aspect of our existence is always a
.socialized biology, there is nonetheless something
specific to this aspect which allows us to relate to it
precisely as the biological (and not, for example,
the economic, or the artistic) component of existence. But it has the de-merit of being un-dialectical:

on the one hand he places social production with its
particular evolutionary’ pace.- and on the other hand,
nature, including man as biological entity, which
‘also changes as evolutionism has taught us, but at
an immensely slower tempo’. We are then told,
rather baldly, that the latter has its particular
effects on human progress and that account must be
taken of these. But this schematic statement of the
separate and autonomous progress of the social and
biological ‘modes’ of existence does not, in fact,
enlighten us on the crucial problem of their relationship. Our concern is not with charting separate progresses but with the process of interaction of the
two historicities, and the problem should be formulated in a way that allows us to concentrate on the
specificity of the relations between determinants
deriving from the biological and natural order at any
given time, and socio-economic factors.

To be told that there are general aspects of the
‘human condition’ which persist beyond changes in
the mode of prOduction is not, in fact, to be told
very much. Nor is it clear quite what Timpanaro’s
purpose is in reminding us of our biological frailty.

I would have preferred a clear statement of the
necessary connexion which he obviously sees between the abandonment of the natural and biological
basis of Marxism and the fall into the twin idealisrds
of a humanist disregard for science, on the one:r ‘ld
and a ‘Platonist’ conception of science on the oU Jr.

Or rather, while in the one instance it is’ clear tha.t
a flight from the advances made in the human
sciences (and not just in biology, but also in psychology – an area which Timpanaro, as we shall see,
fails to deal with adequately, and for Significant
reasons) goes along with the retention of a merely
speculative anthropolqgy that characterizes much
humanist Marxism, and is responsible for its
utopian deviations, it is not so clear what the necessary connexion is between the lapse into Platunism
that Timpanaro insists characterizes Althusserian
Marxism and the failure, as he sees it, to come to
terms with the biological and natural dimension.

It is not enough merely to reiterate dismissive
phrases regarding Althusser’s epistemology (and
structuralism, which he more or less identifies
with the former): Timpanaro must submit it to a
much more detailed examination m r .~t expose its
‘idealism’ and relate this to hi8)Wnr~laterialism’

-in a more forthright \va.y, rath~’ th’p .merely re’stating the juxtaposition and (‘Vposi’ “,<1 of the two.

Otherwise, one suspects that .vhat
within the attack on the str”.’turaH – concept of
:;erialism with
knowledge is an identificat,n uf

What is lacking in Timp ‘-aro” Nork is a clear
recognition of the theoret~ ~ pr :hem that lies at the
heart of the humanist/anti ~!!la.”’~st debate, and a


cl~ar statement of his alignment within the terms of
that debate. Though he might want to reject the
terminology, I believe that his emphasis on the
biological dimension is an attempt to supply Marxism
with the ontology and ethics that are the necessary
accompaniment of any non-positivistic social theory.

I do not believe that this problem can in any sense be
directly resolved, but I do believe that there are cere
taiI1′ essential components in any Marxist ‘theory of
needs’: (a) articulation of the general philosophical
issue it raises- which is not specific to Marxism but
emerges constantly as the axis around which any
‘fact’/’value’ debate rotates; (b) a self-critical attitude towards essentialist accounts of needs; and (c),
the rejection of descriptive and·psychological concepts (such as ‘alienation’, ‘fulfilment’, ‘happiness’

etc. ) if the aim is to provide a science of human
development – the phenomenology of needs thus becomes a study in its own right, but it is separate
from an analysis of their production.

Timpanaro clearly recognizes that you abandon all
the gains and insights of historical materialism if
you simply resort to an essentialist account of
human nature in order to combat any positivistic
tendencies. His ‘theory of needs’ is certainly not
directly essentialist in this sense since he allows for
the historicity even of the biological (despite its
much slower evolutionary pace) and would concede
the extent to which even our biological existence is
a product as much of social relations as of any features inherent in the ‘human condition’ as such. But
he does ultimately opt for an essentialist account in
that the entire rationale of his emphasiS on the biological is the promotion of what is in fact a quite ahistorical conception of ‘human happiness’. He
remains remarkably blind to the function that this
concept of happiness plays in his philosophy, and to
his failure to explain its content. If we spell out the
hedonist-pessimist theme, what it amounts to is
this: the search for happiness is innate in all human
beings and provides the dynamic of all social development (even if this development is actually marred
.and hindered by all sorts of regressive tendencies);
but we can never achieve full happiness because the
human condition as such (biological frailty, old age,
death) is incompatible with perfect happiness; so we
,should not have any utopian and unrealistic conceptions as to the ability of science, even under communism, to overcome this incompatibility. But at the
very point where he would appear to be warning
against any metaphYSical delusions regarding the
realm of freedom, and to be arguing a more healthily pragmatic relationship to existence, Timpanaro
himself must surely be said to have opted for an ahistorical metaphysic of happiness. For what sense
can we make of a concept of human happiness which
implies the deficiency of all actual happiness?

There is more than a hint in Timpanaro’ s exposition
that we would be ‘happier’ if we were immortal and
perpetually youthful; such a transcendal concept of
happiness is scarcely consistent with the profession
of realistic materialism. It has more affinity with
existentialist themes of necessary loss and angst in
face of the bitter reality of the world – themes which
Timpanaro himself would of course regard as characterising the most decadent forms of mysticoreligious idealism. But the lapse into essentialism
.is inevitable so long as Timpanaro underpins his
Marxism with an unexamined, a-historical conception of happiness, and refuses to explore the extent
to which (a) we must relativise the concept of happiness and relate it to the production of “different types
of individual under the impact of changes in so.cial
relations, and to which,(b) if the concept is not


totally relative, but has a more universal application to human society, it must in turn be related not
just to biological but also to psychological factors.

Unless we identify happiness simply with physical
comfort, lack of pain etc, then we must recognise
that it is a psychological concept referring us to
more than our neuro-physiological make-up; and it
should also be acknowledged that unless we are in a
position to provide an account on the basis of scientific knowledge in biology, psychology etc of human
needs, desires, pleasures, pains, that underly our
use of the term ‘happiness’ then the latter must remain an ideological term (i. e. one whi”ch is vacuous
und-er the guise of plenitude: it covers only an absence of knowledge of the area of which it purports
to supply knowledge). My own pOSition is that the
work of the Althusserians, however unsatisfactory
it is in some respects, has laid the correct foundation for the provision of this kind of knowledge – for
supplementing Marxism with an account of man
derived from biology, psychoanalysis, linguistics,
and the other human sciences, and that such knowledge cannot be provided so long as we remain at
the level of concepts such as ‘happiness’.

It was s~ggested above that Timpanaro’s silence
on psychology was significant. Why isolate the biological facts of death, old age, illness as exemplifying that primary and more univer~allevel of conditioning, and not raise’ the issue of equally longlasting
psychological determinants? I suggest the issue is
not raised because once Timpanaro has rejected any
psychoanalytic account of human psychology (5), he
must have recourse to an empirical psychology
whose implications are much more obviously suspect from a political point of view. As a Marxist,
Timpanaro cannot afford to extend what he has to
say about universal and relatively innate features of
our biological existence (a relatively ‘neutral’

affair! ) to psychological features, for this would
lead to speculations about innate tendencies to
aggression or apathy and so on. There is one point
when Timpanaro does venture into this delicate area,
though he does not explore its implications. This is
when he refers to a comment by Luciano Della Mea,
who questions why Tim,Panaro has ·al ways stressed
man’s physical frailty rather than his not so obvious·
ly biological features such as his lack of political
educability” Having remarked that the question of
the Marxist, and specifically Engelsian association
of communism with the complete mastery of nature
remains unsettled, Timpanaro goes on to say “also
unsettled is the question of the extent to which certain ‘apolilt ical’ (as opposed to generically ‘egotistical ‘) tendencies on the part of the great majority
of men are themselves a part of ‘human nature’

which is not readily altered – leavlp.g aside those
moments of exceptional social tension when the majority becomes politicized – and therefore represent
an obstacle to the realisation and maintenance of a
communist society which is ‘classless’ in the broadest sense of the term”. But once you have speculated on the more or less inherent nature of political
apathy, you might as well speculate on the innateness of aggression, of chauvinist and racist attitudes, of intellectual ability etc – in fact all those
factors which Marxism relates to as the effect of
the development of social relations on the terrain of
cl~ss division. I am not suggesting that one is implicated in making such speculations simply by opening the door to them, but only pointing to the unresolved,nature of the middle ground that Timpanaro
would want to tread between rejection of any reactionary vulgar materialism a la Eysenck and Skinner,
5 See The Fre.udian Slip (NLB 1976)

on the pne hand, and allowing a relative unalterability to c’ertain psychological characteristics, on the
,other, and deriving this not from human institutions
and social relations, but from ‘human nature’.

The basic flaws, then, of Timpanaro’s position
are (a) an a-historical concept of human happiness
which it is difficult to relate to what is in other respects a recognition of the essentially historical nature of human development, both biological and
social, and which becomes metaphysical in the
sense that it is unattainable given the limitations of
human capacities; and (b) a tendency to separate the
biological and natural from the social and ‘unnatural
and to relate to them as two autonomous lines of
development. This fails to recognize that the whole
point of identifying the specificity of these two
dimensions is to analyse what then becomes a
further specificity: the ongoing process of interaction of these two types and different rates of evolution. The corollary of this tendency is that we are
left uncertain as to how much autonomy Timpanaro
is ceding to either dimension, and not provided with
any clear theoretical definition of the ‘alterability’

of this or that aspect of human existence. The
vagueness of the concept of ‘relative alterability’

leaves the way open for virtually all aspects to be
merged within an essentialism of the ‘human
condition’ .

Materialism and empiricism
The issue of the ‘vulgarity’ of the materialism
which Timpanaro insists upon relates not so much
to historicity or reductionism, as to empiricism.

That is to say, Timpanaro is not a crass materialist in the sense that he either denies the historical
nature of biological and social development or wants
to reduce the former to the latter. What really
matters is whether he is saying that from a methodological point of view one can only count as material
ist if one is also empiricist.

In his essay on ‘Structuralism and its Successors’

he places his review of nineteenth-century linguistics in the context of the evolving historicization of
the social and natural sciences. From 1850 to 1880,
when the historical sciences of nature (geology,
biology) were the avant-garde sciences of European
culture, what was scientific came to be recognized
as what was historical. However, with the emergence towards the end of the century of the physicomathematical sciences, a split once again arises
between historicists and the new epistemology deriving from those sciences: “Both were in agreement
in declaring ‘Down with materialism’. But the for’mer said ‘Down with science, which is materialistic’, the latter ‘Long live science, which is the
best refutation of materialism’.” Similarly, these
orientations developed opposing viewpoints with
regard to history, even though they had a common
starting ground in their anti-materialism. Hence (in
linguistics and elsewhere) individualising historic ism~ on the one hand, and abandonment of any
attempt to incorporate the diachronic dimension into
science on the other – this abandonment being
regarded by Timpanaro as Platonist-idealist in
tendency (i. e. as a dissociation of theory from

Despite his claim that the ‘right to abstraction is
not at issue’ there is a constant tendency (which
begins with this sort of ‘privileging’ of the epistemology associated with the human sciences, and continues throughout the chapter) to identify the ‘natural’,
the ‘accidental’ and the ’empirical’ with the ‘material’, and to relate to’ the ‘ideational’ systems studied
by linguists or structuralists or semiologists con-

carned with other objects, as obviously non-materialist – because ‘abstract’ and non-empirical.

Clearly we are at the heart of a most vexed problem,
namely what is meant by ‘material’. Somewhere, it
would seem, one must put the knife in, and given
this, perhaps Timpanaro’s identification of materialism with the ‘natural’ (by which he seems to mean
physiological ‘matter’) is as good as any. But this is
only to grant that it would be fruitful to clarify our
terminology; it does not imply that all study of
ideational systems in themselves is ‘idealistic’ in
the perjorative sense, nor that .a non-empirical and
theoretical study employing different levels of abstraction is automatically deprived of the ability to
provide scientific knowledge of its objects (whether
material 0 rideational). It must be granted that ideas
are as much components of reality as any other features (I use tpe word ‘components’ not to prejudice
the issue by referring to their ‘materiality’). Is
Timpanaro wanting to argue that abstract concepts
and theory ar’e necessarily· bedevilled by ‘idealism’

(in the sense of leading to inaccurate knowledge of
the concrete and ~Q retrograd.e political positions)
simply because they dea] in ideas and relate to nonempirically observable entities? To suggest this
would be to place such differing types of abstract
concept as ‘maSs’, ‘energy’, the Hegelian ‘Universal
Fruit’, the Platonic ‘Form of the table’, the Marxist
concept ‘of ‘abstract labour’ and the concepts employed in a sociology of ‘types’ all in the same basket.

I doubt if Timpanaro would want to do this, nor am I
suggesting that there is a ready solution to the problem of the differentiation of the status of abstract
categories – but it must be confronted in any discussion of what constitutes materialist science.

It is consistent with Timpanaro’s dismissal of both

contemporary schools of Marxism that he should
recall us to the work of Engels, who by virtue of the
very contradictoriness of’ his thought, has become a
target of both humanist and anti-humanist Marxists.

In a very interesting and wide-ranging essay on
‘Engels and Free Will’, Timpanaro takes issue with
the ‘anti-Engelsism’ which has characterised so
much of recent Marxist writings, and attempts to
show that despite the archaic-Hegelianism on the one
hand, and the vulgar materialism, on the other, that
can at times be “detected in Engels’s work, the latter
cannot be regarded simply as a compound of crude
determinism and uncritical Hegelianism, nor can
Engels be dismissed as a banalizer and distorter of
Marx’s work.

Timpanaro develops his defence of Engels by
arguing that a Marxism deprived of the cosmological
perspective and emphasis on the weight of nature on
history that Engels brings to it, is a Marxism come
adrift from its’materialist moorings. Without the
Engelsian dimension, Marxism risks becoming
either a mere methodology or falls into agnosticism
and idealism. Polemicalty, and in full awareness of
the heresy of his position from the standpoint of
contemporary Marxism, Timpanaro goes on to
acknowledge, and to justify, the presence of a
Weltanschauul1g in Engels’s conception. Those who
would argue tnat Marx’s great achievement was precisely to have exposed the illegitimacy of any philosophy of ‘nature in itself’ and that hence Engels’s
~ttempt to patch up a ‘philosophic odyssey of matter’

was in its very essence misconceived, are mistaken
both theoretically and historically. They fail to take
~ccount of the changed philosophic-seientific setting
ip post-1850 Germany and Europe in comparison
with the era in which the young Marx formulated his

crititisms of Feuerbach. The materialism of
Moleschott or BUchner, though philosophically inferior to that of Feuerbach, was actually closer to
the natural sciences for they were concerned not
only with stating the primacy of the sensuous over
the conceptual and with turning theology into anthropology, but also with explaining the material nature
of sensuousness. In this perspective, Marx’s insistence against Feuerbach on the ‘active side’ of
human history, though valid, remains too vague and
generic. The specific quest to which it was to lead
was the discovery of what, in scientific terms, constituted this active side. Even if the result was a
crude and over-mechanistic reduction of man’s
cultural, moral and pOlitical behaviour to biological
activities, the reply to such distortions should, says
Timpanaro, “have been given within the framework
of materialism, and not with a mere revindication of
the subjective element, still conceived in spiritualistic terms as an unconditioned praxis that finds its
limit only in the ‘objective (external) conditions’ and
not also in man’s own physical and biological nature”.

This became all the more necessary with the second
wave of materialism that followed on Darwin: granted
again the risk of reducing human to natural history,
it yet remained a danger to which one had to reply in
materialistic terms. Thus, Engels’s intervention
must be placed in the context of a complex of reactions to Darwinian evolutionism – reactions which
tended towards the extremes of crude materialism,
on the one hand, and a degenerate empiricism of
agnostic and religious hue on the other. Engels’s
cosmological development of Marxism was not ‘an
impulsive direction’ but an ‘objective necessity’ the one which fell to him given the division of labour
established between Marx and Engels.

Timpanaro therefore sees the fundamental value
of Engels’s writing as contained in its polemic
against the negative sides of positivism. He was not
simply rejecting modern science in the name of the
Hegelian dialectic, but attempting to expose the
dangers inherent in that science’s rejection of philOsophy. Timpanaro would thus seem to regard Engels
as a defender of a conception of philosophy whereby
the latter takes on the role of ‘reminder’ to science
of its epistemological and social responsibilities.

‘This is a conception that one not infrequently hears
voiced today – philosophy as the exposure of ideology
within ‘scientific’ activity itself. In Engels’s day,
the particular object for exposure was social
Darwinism, and Timpanaro would argue that the
importance of Engels’s philosophy must be related
to his sustained critique of this – which, he claims,
was, if anything, more sophisticated than that of
Marx himself. For whereas the latter only argued
against the movement from the biological world to
human society in general, while accepting – if only
because the irony pleased him – the analogy between
the war ot all against all of Darwinian theory and
the feral state of bourgeois society, Engels warns
against the dangers of such an analogy, however
appealing it might be: in the Dialectics of Nature he
argues that once Darwinian theory has achieved the
transference of Hobbesian theory from the social to
the organic world, it is all too easy to transfer the
theory back again from natural to social history,
and to see it proved in the latter as the eternal
natural laws of society. Although Marx recognized
the illegitimacy of confUSing the struggle for life in
capitalist society with the struggle for life in the
natural world, it was left to Engels to develop the

This is a point which Timpanaro clearly thinks
can be given more general application: it could be

argued that Marx without Engels goes no further
than to state the specificity of human as opposed to
animal institutions, of the animal as opposed to
human world; but having made the point he does not
pursue the subject of the’ relationship between the
two. Engels, on the other hand, ‘was not satisfied
with a mere recognition of the difference between
the animal world and the human world. The problem which he regarded as uniquely his own – and
which places him in the position at once of ally and
critic of contemporary scientific culture – concerns
the fusion of the two worlds and two diff erent kinds
of historicity’. Moreover, Timpanaro would argue
that Engels posed the problem of the fusion between
the two historicities in the correct terms, neither
superimposing extraneous evolutionary models on
either natural or human history, nor neglecting the
persistence of the ‘natural’ within the ‘human’.

But this is a very large claim to make on the
basis of what are only rather generalised and still
embryonic statements in Engels’s work. It is a big
leap from recognising the natural and biological
context of all social production and of its specific
determinants upon human history – from allOwing
that the world may well come to an end and that
‘for the history of mankind, too, there is not only
an ascending but also a descending branch (6) – to
giving a precise theoretical formulation of the two
‘histories’, their particular rates of progress and
the effects of their conjunction in giving us that”
object whose study would provide the desired
account of human development. It is not a leap
that Engels can be said to have fully made, and if
at times Timpanaro is ready to admit the confusions, contradictions and incompleteness of
Engels’s formulations in this respect (7), at other
times he would seem implicitly to find in Engels
all the alleged correctness of vision of the
hedonist-pessimist-materialist Marxism that he
n!mself embraces.

Despite these critiCisms, I find the essay on
Engels possibly the most illuminating and interesting section of the book. From the specific discussion of Engels’ s work it develops into an intricate
and wide-ranging assessment of the various currents of reaction to science that have perm’eated
20th century thought and find their reflection in the
theoretical alignment and politics adopted within
Marxism. The chapter also includes a useful discussion of the ambiguity of the concept of ‘dialectic’, and, to my mind, a not so useful discussion of
the old chestnut, ‘The role of the individual in history’. Indeed, it is an essay which at least touches
on almost all of the traditional (and hitherto unresolved) problems of Marxist studies, and it, together with the chapter on materialism, provide an
excellent example of the range of Timpanaro’s interests and scholarship, of his remarkable dexterity
in deploying these and of his ability to make his
arguments directly accessible to the reader.

It will be felt by many, I think, that Timpanaro

fails to display the same scrupulousness and fairness in his exposition of the various currents of
20th century structuralism and structuralist oriented thought (the two should be distinguished – it has
6 See Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy
in Marx·Engels, Selected ~,Vorks. pp588.9
7 He acknowledges, for example, that Engels is torn between a tendency to
develop physical-biological materialism and a tendency to oppose the last
great ‘classical’ philosophy of Hegelianism to the eclectic soup of pOSitivist
professors; that opposed to the ‘realism’ of Engels’ cosmological perspective,
there is a continued celebration of socialism as the passage from necessity
to freedom, and an insistence that human unhappiness derives from
economic and social causes.

been ajalmed with as much truth as irony that there
are as many structuralisms as there are structural;ists) as he brings to his decipherment of the involutions of 19th century science and philosophy. It is
difficult, for example, to accept his immediate
:’ identification of Althusserianism and/or psycho’analysis with structuralism, and his direct associa:tion of these three bodies of thought as if there was
some school of Marxism within whose problematic
they had been harmoniously amalgamated. And is it
. mere pedantry to want to quarrel with his constant
references to Levi-Strauss, Foucault and Lacan as
to an indissociable trinity of thought representative
of everything most unwholesome in 20th century
, epistemology? They are repeatedly lumped together
and tarred with the brush of ‘charlatanism’, but
only in the case of Levi-Strauss does Timpanaro
attempt to justify his polemic; Foucault is dismissed
in a few phrases, and the only separate treatment
accorded Lacan is in a fodtnote deploring his ignorance of linguistics.

Still, it might be argued that such wholesale
assimilations of thinkers ID 0 do share much in
philosophical perspective and in style is not really
the pOint at issue: we can intuit well enqugh why anyone who regards Levi-Strauss as a poseur, will feel
.the same about Foucault, Lacan and all the other
currently modish figures of contemporary French
·culture. Moreover, in that Timpanaro’s attack is
directed not just at structuralism but at all structuralist tainted thinking, quibbles as to whether it is
.fair to regard Althusser and Freud as structuralists
might be said to be irrelevant. So let us accept
Timpanaro’s categorisation of the situation at face
value and confront it as such. The main point, after
all, is to assess Timpanaro’s overall relationship
to structuralism and the adequacy of his resolution.

of the problems to which he finds the structuralist
solution so deficient.

‘Structuralism and its Successors’ is an attempt
to clarify’in what sense and what limits’ his earlier
remarks to the effect that structuralism ‘represents
a relatively unitary movement’ and ‘relates to its
systems as to Cuvierian closed systems’ still seem
to him to be valid. It is a wide-ranging and at times
extremely penetrating and witty exposure of what he
regards as the basic tendential flaw of structuralist
thinking: its anti-materialism. He traces the genesis
of this tendency, which he considers reaches its
apotheosis in the ‘platonic-idealism’ of Althusser,
Levi-Strauss, Foucault et alii, to Saussure’s intervention in the crisis of late 19th- century linguistiCS.

Saussure’s resolution of the conflicting claims to
attention of the individual, innovatory, ‘creative’

aspect of language (and, relatedly, its diachronic
study) on the one hand, and of its collective, universal-necessary character (and synchronic study) on
the other, was an uncompromising separation of the
two and a privileging of the latter (the study of
langue as synchronic system) as the only proper
object of science over the study of parole (the diachronic, empirical fortuitous element), which he
refused to acknowledge was amenable to scientific

In Saussure, the Platonism Temains embryonic,
since it is counterposed to a realist insistence on
the’ concreteness’ of langue, a refusal to grant any
spiritual status to its psychological character, and a
recognition of the communicative function of language and its distinctness from other human institutions and activities. Thus, Timpanaro would regard
Saussure as remaining at least alive to the dangers
of the lapse into formalistic study of closed systems:

and of maintaining a self-critical stance in this

respect. In other words, better to retain the relations between synchrony and diachrony, between abstract and concrete in precarious equilibrium than
to magic the problem of their connexion out of existence with a straightforward rejection of the diachronic and concrete aspect – which is what has
happened with much of post-Saussurian linguistics,
in semiological studies and most of all with the
ultra-formalistic applications of structuralism to
Marxism, psychoanalysis, anthropology, literature
etc. Best of all, however, according to Timpanaro,
is to realise that the problem resolves itself if we
are only prepared to recognize the materialist/naturalist basis to all science and its essentially historical nature – for then we shall give up the futile and
misguided search for a-temporal systems and our
excavations of ‘Other Realities’ concealed beneath
empirical data.


Now I would not dispute Timpanaro’s claims that
there have been ‘structuralist parodies of Marxism
that approach the grotesque’, that too little caution
has been exercised in the extension of structuralist
methodology to all possible objects and that many
stF~cturalist studies involve a non-materialist isolation of systems from their socio-economic context.

His indictment of the more bizarre excesses of
structuralist zeal to be found, for example, in the
work of Levi-Strauss, is also compelling – even if
the self-.indulgence of the Ciceronian invective is at
times offensive and the compliments on the serious
and genial aspects of Levi-Strauss’s work are delivered too backhandedly for one to regard them as
‘honest acknowledgements of worth rather than as
placatory gestures. But for all that, Timpaaaro’s
critique of structuralist idealism is well-founded.

More problematic is the epistemology and attitude
to science from which it is conducted – particularly
where it is a question of his treatment of Marxism
and assessment of Althusser.

It is, in fact, extremely difficult to pinpoint what
exactly is Timpanaro’s stance in this respect. This
stems from his implicit tendency (discussed above)
to identify science with empirical study, the latter
with materialism, and this last with natural, physiological ‘matter’. Or, more pre’cisely, it stems from
his refusal to submit this tendency to examination in
the light of his endorsement of certain epistemological prtnciples which would appear to conflict with it.

He acknowledges, for example, that although language e-volves diachronically it functions synchronically, that scientific study cannot consist in a wholly
individualising study of discrete, particular and
‘accidental’ elements, but must address itself to

syste.maticity, universality and regularity. He is
prepared to cede, too, that science depends on abstraction and that Marxism is directed against the
empiricism which stops at the level of appearances.

Thus, when he is not offering us a straightforward
genetic, evolutionary account of science whose task
would be to unpeel the layers of accreted ,sOdalization and historicization in order to reveal the naturalistic kernel of any object it studies (matter at last
– and our guarantee of sCientificity! – separated
from its mediations), he is offering us a compromise: some abstraction, but don’t overdo it, some
delving beneath the surface, but not too far, synchronic study, yes, provided we recognize that the
systems studied are themselves transient even if
very long-lasting.

The compromise solution is certainly an improvement on the genetic version but in that it is allowed
to co-exist with the materialism-empiricism identification it begs the issue of what criteria are being
us~d to delimit the degree to which we can abstract.

the degree to which we eschew appearances, the
degree to which we can isolate specific objects,
levels and ideational systems (eg the psyche, myth,
the socio-economic etc) and relate to their study as
scientific precisely because conducted with a regard
for that specificity – to which the issue of the ultimate neuro-physiological anchorage or explanation
of the data studied is’ wholly irrelevant. What this
means, in effect, is that if we spell out the tensions
and ambivalences of the ‘compromise solution” we ,
are referred again to the’ classic aporia of the abstract-concrete, synchrony-diachrony, genesisstructure antitheses which it was designed to overcome.

The unsatisfactory nature of the pOSition adopted
by Timpanaro to the question of abstraction etc
relates in part to the fact that he regards the problems as dissolving provided we historicize science,
but never questions the concept of history itself. As
far as his approach to Marx’s epistemology is concerned, this failure must be related to his summary
treatment of the 1857 Introduction and of the methodology of Capital. It also relates to his failure to
come to terms with Althusser’s ‘pseudo-structuralism’ (8) and the latter’s attempt to elaborate upon
the epistemological principles formulated in. the
1857 Introduction and applied in Capital and to
elicit their implications for the concept of historical
time and for historiography.

This is not the place to expound on these themes
in any detail, but it must be recognized that Marx
explicitly stated (a) that the order of the exposition
of knowledge (eg the ‘logic’ of Capital) is not the
order of its real historical development – the categories of thought in scientuic analysis do not exist
in the SaPlS ‘time’ as the r.hronology of the events
9 See Reading Capital (NLB 1970) ppB-9

they ‘appropriate’; and (b) that the object of thought
is not the real object: HThe method of rising from
the abstract to the concrete is the only way in which
thought appropriates the concrete, reproduces it as
,the concrete in the mind. But this is by no means
the process by which the concrete itself comes into
being.” Such a statement immediately forbids any
identification of Marx’s method either with an
fdealist-Heg’elian resolution of the relation between
real object and thought object within thought, or an
empiricist approach to the relationship as inhering
in the real itself. It also makes it clear that scientific knowledge, as far as Marx is concerned, is non
evolutionary – its categories have a mobility and
temporality quite other than that of the historical
sequence of events that they analyse.

It is true that the problem of the relationship between the real object and the thought object remains.

I do not believe this is solved simply by stating the
radical separation of the two. Nor am I ready to
accept that those passages (eg in the 1857 Introduction) where Marx suggests that there is a correlation between the development of the concrete and the
elaboration of categories to their full complexity such as the connexion between the category of labour
in general and the dissolution in fact of particular
labours – can be dismissed as ‘historicist’ deviations in the way that Althusser suggests. Nor do I
think it possible to dissociate completely the study
of the historical evolution of modes of production
,from their study as a ‘system of “synchronic” connexions obtained by variation’, to use Balibar’s
phrase, even if it is stressed that this is not a
‘combinatory’, in which only the places oftlle factors and their relationships change and not their
?ature – at least not if one is interested in politics,
In the effectivity of class struggle, in ideology, in
the fact that it is not irrelevant to the forms of the
structure that it concerns the social relations of
human beings and not relations of some other entities. The level of abstraction employed by the
structuralist reading of Marx is clearly inadequate
to deal with the study of the social formation as a
whole, but it is nonetheless, within its limits, a
justifiable attempt t6 redress the balance against
evolutionist and historicist interpretations of Marx.

Though the main burden of this review has been
critical, I hope I have also said enough to indicate
the importance of Timpanaro’s work. I regard it as
one of the most interesting, . articulate and readable
books about Marxism of recent years, and I hope
that it is widely read and discussed. As I have said,
it is extremely wide-ranging and raises almost
every vexed issue in Marxist philosophy and political theory. There is scarcely a topic discussed in
the book on \h ich I do not find myself in some agree
ment or at least further enlightened as to the nature
of my disagreement.

Contents of no. 6 include:

‘The Relation between Archaeology and Anthropology’

by M. Rowlands and J. Gledhill
‘Dialectical Critique of the Nature of Human Nature’ by L. Krader
‘Anthropology, History and Ideology’

– a discussion between C. Levi-Strauss, M. Godelier and M. Auge
Part 2 of J. Taylor’s revi~w of Precapitalist Modes of Production
Subscription for nos. 6-8 inclusive
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