Re: (OPE-L) Derrida on Althusser

From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Fri Nov 12 2004 - 16:20:13 EST

At 1:19 PM -0500 11/12/04, Gerald_A_Levy@MSN.COM wrote:
>  > I don't have my own copy of this book. But I think this interview is
>>  in the Althusserian Legacy, ed. Michael Sprinker and E.Ann Kaplan.
>Thanks.  You pointed me in the right direction:
>This review gives the citation and it comes from an article/
>interview called "Politics and Friendship."  Regarding Althusserian
>Marxists, Derrida commented:
>"there was, let's say, a sort of theoretical intimidation: to formulate
>questions in style that appeared, shall we say, phenomenological,
>transcendental or ontological was immediately considered
>suspicious, backward, idealistic, even reactionary."
>McHoul summarizes Derrida as saying "In particular Derrida
>argues that Althusser's critique of historicism moves on too
>quickly, refusing to engage with 'the history of the meaning of
>being of which Heidegger speaks' (193) and this, Derrida goes
>on, is the ultimate reason why Marxism in France was
>washed up by the early 1970s -- too simplistic a theory of being,
>hence too simplistic a conception of science and what would
>constitute 'real' politics.  Particularly shaky was its party
>manifestation -- the PCF.  'The two alternatives were: either it
>hardened and lost out or else it softened and blended with the
>Socialist Party and there would be no more need for it.' (211)".

Excuse the ramble.

In his chapter on Marxism is not a Historicism, Althusser fights
above all else against the subsumption of science to the
superstructure. But I don't think this committed him to a positivist
conception of science; as Lecourt argued, Althusser's original
formulation of dialectical materialism as the meta theory of
theoretical practice was in fact positivist, but Althusser himself
broke with it. I don't see why Althusser could not argue--or in fact
did not argue--that scientific practice has to be specific to its
objects; thus there is historical variability in the standards of
proof, what counts as evidence, in the very objects of science. I
don't think Althusser had a simplistic conception of science which is
exactly why he was overcome with difficulties in formulating the
philosophy of science implicit in Marx's Capital. How could he have
had a simplistic conception of science? He was a careful student of
Bachelard after all; and that is a deep and difficult analysis of the
difficulty of scientific and theoretical production as Mary Tiles
shows in her book on Bachelard (perhaps even more profound and
defensible than Thomas Kuhn's). If Althusser was dismissive of
Heidegger, Husserl and all the attempts to maintain the exalted
status of philosophy in the wake of scientific revolutions, Bachelard
seems to have been his guide, and Derrida's argument should be with
Bachelard and Canguilhem. But it is not. If it had been, where would
that leave us? Right back at the science wars of course!

  Gregory Elliot is very good on the problems that Althusser crashed
on here but it was groundbreaking that Althusser spoke to these
questions and did not escape into simplicity. Perhaps he took for
granted the power of the theoretical mind to grasp and race ahead of
the real; perhaps he took for granted that Marx's Capital was
scientific knowledge.  But I don't see the problem with that because
he raised the problem of bridge laws between the theoretical and the
real. And I don't think the problem was Althusser's attempt to guard
against philosophy dictating to science how it should develop and
then attempting to think about what functions and roles a dethroned
philosophy should have. To be sure, his dethroning of philosophy in
cognitive and epistemological terms was sure to engender a
reaction...from the philosophers.

Althusser also argued against reductionism; he opened the theoretical
mind both to its power and its limits. He took the reading of Marx's
most precious achievements seriously, he attempted to think about how
basic concepts, causality in particular, were revolutionized by
Marx's own theoretical revolution.

Whether Bhaskarian critical realism as developed by Hans E and Andrew
Brown has resolved those difficulties that bedeviled Althusser is
another question.

Also in terms of Heidegger, I think Althusser's critique of the
Cartesian cogito is deeper than what is in Heidegger or Foucault for
that matter; after all, he can ground that critique in the Marxian
theory of transindividual relations of production and thus avoid all
the pitfalls of fundamental ontology.  But it's been over a decade
since I took Hubert Dreyfus' seminar on Heidegger.


>Derrida also commented: "Marxist discourse at the time, including
>its Althusserian branch, was incapable of analysing the socio-political-
>economic reality of that time and regulating its practice based on
>that analysis."  [More can be found at the above site.]
>Are these fair criticisms by Derrida of  Althusser and Althusserians?
>In solidarity, Jerry

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