Montesquieu Seminar 1966

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Second, with the idea that the state produced by political activity is merely one productive process among others, Althusser signals that the primary element in political philosophy is not the state. Though both states and individuals are important elements of the socio-economic whole, nothing philosophical is learned by examining the essence of the individual or the way in which justice is embodied by the state. As Althusser understands them, whatever conceptions we have of the nature of human beings or about the proper function of the state are historically generated and serve to reproduce existing social relations.

In other words, they are ideological. Apart from the necessity of human beings to engage in productive relations with other human beings and with their environment in order to produce their means of subsistence, there is no human nature or essence. Further, though some order must exist in order to allow for the production and reproduction of social life, there is no essential or best form that this order must take. This is not to say that human beings do not conceive of or strive for the best order for social life or that they do not believe that they are essentially free or equal and deserving of rights.

It also does not mean that all of our ideas are homogenous and that heterogeneous ideas about what is best cannot exist side by side in the same system without leading to conflict though they sometimes do. However, the science of Historical Materialism has revealed the desire for such orders to be historically generated along with the ideas about human nature that justify them.

This account of the ideological role of our conceptions of human nature and of the best political arrangement shows Althusser to differ little from interpretations of Marx which hold that political ideologies are the product of and serve existing economic relations.


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However, and as was detailed above, Althusser rejects the simple understanding of causality offered by this model in which economic practices order consciousness and our cultural practices. He also rejects the philosophy of history that often accompanies this model. This philosophy has it that certain economic practices not only generate corresponding cultural practices, but that there is a pattern to economic development in which each economic order inexorably leads to its own demise and replacement by a different economic system.

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In this understanding of history, feudalism must lead to capitalism and capitalism to socialism. Althusser, however, argues against the idea that history has a subject such as the economy or human agency and that history has a goal such as communism or human freedom. History, for Althusser, is a process without a subject. There are patterns and orders to historical life and there is historical change. However, there is no necessity to any of these transformations and history does not necessarily progress. Transformations do occur. However, they do so only when the contradictions and levels of development inherent in a mode of production allow for such change.

Though many of the initial reactions were contradictory and evidenced misunderstandings of what Althusser was up to, compelling criticisms were also offered. One was that Althusser was only able to offer his reading by ignoring much of what Marx actually wrote about his logic and about the concepts important to his analysis. It took a long time before Althusser explicitly addressed the charge that he had ignored much of what Marx had to say about his own logic and concepts.

To some readers, these revisions represented a politically motivated betrayal of his theoretical accomplishments. For others, they simply revealed his project as a whole to be untenable and self-contradictory. This course resulted in a series of papers, gathered together as Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists a , in which Althusser began rethinking the relations among philosophy, science, ideology, and politics. He now maintained that there was no criterion sufficient to demarcate scientific from ideological concepts and that all theoretical concepts are marked by ideology.

This did not mean, however, that any concept was as good as any other.

Louis Althusser

Scientists, through their work on the material real, tended to generate better understandings of things than were available intuitively. Further, he argued that philosophy still had a role to play in the clarification of scientific concepts. This is the case because, no matter how much work scientists do to understand the material real and to generate better concepts, they must always employ ideological concepts to frame their investigations and its results.

Marxist philosophers, he maintained, could be useful to scientists by pointing out, from the standpoint of politics and by the method of historical critique, where and how some of the concepts scientists employed were ideological. Parallel to this move, and motivated by the need to provide the link between philosophical theory and political practice that was largely missing from his classic work, Althusser now argued that philosophy had a useful role to play between politics and science.

Political practice, Althusser maintained, was mostly motivated by ideological understandings of what the good is and how to accomplish it.

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Though he did not argue that there was a way to leave ideology behind and to reveal the good in itself, he did maintain that science could help to correct ideological thinking about political means and ends. Social science in particular could do so by showing how certain goals were impossible or misguided given present socio-economic relations and by suggesting that, at a certain time and in a certain place, other means and other ends might be more fruitfully adopted and pursued.

As scientific knowledge does not speak directly to the public or to politicians, Althusser assigned materialist philosophers the job of communicating scientific knowledge of the material real, its conditions, and its possibilities to politicians and the public. If this communication is successful, Althusser maintained, one should not expect all political activity to be successful.

Instead, one should expect a modest shift from an idealist ideology to one that is materialist and more scientific and which has a better chance of realizing its goals. During the s, Althusser continued the revisions begun in and elaborated other Marxian ideas he believed to be underdeveloped. It includes not only an analysis of the state and its legal and educational systems but also of the psychological relationship which exists between subject and state as ideology. Ideology, or the background ideas that we possess about the way in which the world must function and of how we function within it is, in this account, understood to be always present.

Specific socio-economic structures, however, require particular ideologies.

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As the effect of these recognitions is to continue existing social relations, Althusser argued that a Dictatorship of the Proletariat is necessary so that Ideological State Apparatuses productive of the bourgeois subject can be replaced with those productive of proletarian or communist subjects.

In his classic work, Althusser had tried to accomplish this goal by separating out ideological concepts and by bringing forth the scientific ones. Althusser does not give up on the task of articulating a better Marxist philosophy, however. When we have affected this inventory and grouped together the successful concepts, what we are left with is a materialist Marxism, a Marxism which endorses the scientific method as the best way for understanding ourselves and our potential but that also understands that this method is fallible.

Remaining also is a Marxism which does not subscribe to any philosophy of history and which certainly does not maintain that capitalism will inevitably lead to communism. This Marxism has no system of interrelated concepts that guarantee a scientific analysis. Further, it possesses no worked out theory of the relations between economic structures and cultural structures but for that limited knowledge which scientific practice provides.

Finally, this Marxism has given up the dream of analyzing the whole of culture and its movement from the outside; it realizes that one thinks inside and about the culture one inhabits in order to possibly effect and change that culture. Freed by his ignoble status from the task of influencing the direction of the Communist movement, the texts associated with this project and gathered together in the book Philosophy of the Encounter differ tremendously in subject matter, style, and method from his other writings.


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  6. Whether these texts represent a continuation of, or even the key to his philosophy or whether they are an aberration is presently being debated in the secondary literature. However, as there is strong textural and archival evidence that many of the ideas explicitly expressed in these works had been gestating for a long time, the contention that these writings are of a piece with his earlier work seems to be gaining ground.

    In addition to Marx, the philosophers that he cites as being part of this underground tradition include Democritus, Epicurus, Lucretius, Machiavelli, Spinoza, Hobbes, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein. From these readings in the history of philosophy, Althusser aims to suggest that this tradition exists and that it is both philosophically fecund and viable. He also wishes to return to and bolster the thesis he first ventured in the late s that there are really only two positions in philosophy: materialism and idealism.

    As he understood it, the two tendencies are always in a war of opposition with the one functioning to reinforce the status quo and the other to possibly overcome it. Perhaps because it functions in opposition to the idealist tendency in philosophy, aleatory materialism is marked almost as much by its rejections as it is by the positive claims it contains about the world and about history.

    With this prohibition, Althusser means to exclude from this tradition not only the usual suspects in the rationalist tradition, but also mechanical and dialectical materialisms with their logics of determination. Also dismissed, he maintains, is the myth that somehow philosophy and philosophers are autonomous, that they see the world from outside and objectively.

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    Though there is an objective world, philosophy does not have knowledge of this world as its object for there is no way for it to ground itself and the material it thinks with and through arises historically. Philosophy is therefore not a science or the Science of sciences and it produces no universal Truth.

    Rather, the truths it produces are contingent and are offered in opposition to other competing truths. If philosophy does have an object, it is the void, or that which is not yet but which could be. That the philosophy of the encounter lacks an object does not mean that it lacks positive propositions.

    First among them, following Democritus, is the thesis that matter is all that exists. Second is the thesis that chance or the aleatory is at the origin of all worlds.

    That the patterns which constitute and define these worlds can be known, described, and predicted according to certain laws or reasons is also true. However, the fact that these worlds ever came to be organized in these patterns is aleatory and the patterns themselves can only ever be known immanently.

    Third, new worlds and new orders themselves arise out of chance encounters between pre-existing material elements. Whether or not such orders emerge is contingent: they do not have to occur. To Althusser, the propositions which have explanatory value at the level of ontology and cosmology also have value at the level of political philosophy.

    After first citing Rousseau and Hobbes as example of philosophers who recognized that the origin and continued existence of political orders is contingent, Althusser turns to Machiavelli and Marx for his principle examples of how aleatory materialism functions in the political realm. The anti-teleological, scientistic, and anti-humanist, Marxist philosophy developed by Althusser over the course of his career works well with the materialist metaphysics recounted above. In this understanding of Marxist philosophy, societies and subjects are seen as patterns of activity that behave in predictable ways.

    Though scientists may study and describe these orders in their specificity, it does not at first appear that philosophy can do much except to categorize these interactions at the most general level.