As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, James Santucci looks at François George’s “Reading Althusser,” from Telos 7 (Spring 1971).
François George believes that Louis Althusser does not deserve his reputation, and he wants to prove it to you. He writes:
Since the mainstay of [Althusser’s] thought is its “rigor,” we will demonstrate that it is the least rigorous of all, taking as the principal example his recent work, Lenine et la Philosophic. The occasion for the following discussion is a conference in an extremely academic context: the French Society of Philosophy. Naturally, Althusser feels uneasy in this situation. Marxists, for whom thought should be practical, must seek to transform society rather than to exert themselves in these closed contexts. Was he forced to attend? Althusser accepts his role only by dismissing it. . . . Why has he come, if he rejects this degraded form of philosophy and human relations? He is interested only in the justification of this rejection or, in his own words, this denial: “the only possible communications and discussions are scientific ones.” Under the pretext of attacking the meaninglessness of the philosophical gatherings in which he participates, Althusser rejects all non-scientific human communications as a scientist addressing a “scientific society.” Evidently, then, Althusser attends the French Society of Philosophy conference because he lacks the qualifications required by the international congress on astrophysics. All would go well, said Proudhon, when the government’s power was replaced by that of the Academy of Sciences—which should not be confused with the workers’ councils. (73–74)
Which is to say, Althusser probably shouldn’t have consented to give the speech. Having consented, he shouldn’t have dismissed his communication as unscientific. Having dismissed it so—as George will show—Althusser shouldn’t then go on to say empty things about scientific versus philosophical thinking, undermining whatever point he thought he was making when he said “the only possible communications and discussions are scientific ones.” To buy George’s argument is thus to buy that Althusser’s rigor consists primarily of his ardor for digging in the wrong place.
Althusser’s starting point for the speech in question was a statement purportedly made by Lenin to a Marxist group in Capri in 1908. The group had taken up the mantle of empirio-criticism, and proposed that Marxism “had to rid itself of that pre-critical metaphysics, ‘dialectical materialism’, and . . . to furnish itself with the philosophy it had always lacked, precisely this vaguely neo-Kantian idealist philosophy . . . : empirio-criticism.” Lenin wrote that he “refuse[d] to engage in any philosophical discussion.” The project to which Althusser set himself in “Lenin and Philosophy” was to explain this remark, and the project George sets himself in “Reading Althusser” was to explain how Althusser did a poor job.
The answer, for Althusser, lies in interpreting Marx’s philosophical silence after his Theses on Feuerbach. He writes that “that which was announced in the Theses on Feuerbach, in the necessarily philosophical language of a declaration of rupture with all ‘interpretative’ philosophy . . . was a new science of history. . . . The theoretical revolution which Thesis XI announces is in reality the foundation of a new science” (76). Following Marx’s big foundation of a new science, he is, as a result, silent philosophically for decades, not because he is not thinking, but because he is thinking scientifically. With Thesis XI, he has opened up a whole new realm—history—for science to explore, and he means to explore it.
George, of course, is unsatisfied with this reading, and claims that Thesis XI rather announces a theoretical revolution. The problem with Althusser’s scientistic interpretation is its reliance on that which Althusser thinks he’s escaped: interpretations of the world. Even reading Thesis XI as an announcement of a new science, George’s question and answer—”How is the world to be transformed? It is on the basis of a good interpretation”– show that instead of having escaped the burden of purely interpretative philosophy, we’re instead trapped in a given interpretation, one provided by the world for the transformation of the world, which alienates whatever revolutionary potential the masses have and leaves the project of revolution to the process of history (77).
Althusser’s error may have its roots in a mistaken reading of the history of science that he shares with Engels. For Althusser the error manifests itself as “Of course, like all science, the new science is materialistic,” while for Engels it manifests itself in the idea of “nature without any foreign addition” (George 80). The error in the first is ignorance. Koyré points out Galileo’s alignment with Platonism when Galileo claimed that “the book of nature is written in mathematical symbols” (80), which might have been easy to dismiss had Galileo been anyone else. If a figure as important to the idea of science as Galileo could be an idealist rather than a materialist, materialism cannot be necessary to science. The error in the second is conceptual. Inasmuch as science must first define its subject—”nature”—before science can interrogate it, “nature” takes on a whole set of characteristics it may not have had before science added them. This mistaken reading allows Althusser to empty out any content the history of science actually contains and fill it with whatever is convenient for his own case. As George writes, Althusser’s thought proceeds thusly:
1. The eleventh thesis on Feuerbach announces a new science.
2. Since the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach announces a new science, the philosophical silence which has ensued is thereby explained. Althusser decrees that since the eleventh thesis announces a science, Marx wrote no philosophy afterwards. The fact is there.
3. “We will penetrate further into the causes of this philosophical silence.” First, the facts are constructed, then they are observed and it is noticed that they agree with the constructions.” (81)
And so, “rigor.”
While George may be occasionally dramatic—”there is not a single line in Althusser which is not a gross error” (90)—his essay is still a trenchant reminder that lionizing “important” figures is a mistake and that independent thought means turning criticism on the ideas of both enemies and allies. Certainly it would have been difficult for Althusser to attain the standing he did without having penned a single line which is not a gross error, but George’s rigorous refutation more than excuses the occasional hyperbole.
1. Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), p. 26
2. “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”
Read the full version of François George’s “Reading Althusser” at the Telos Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at a per-article rate. Follow the article link for more details.