Thursday, March 26, 2009
Louis Althusser: Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists
This relatively obscure collection of Althusser's essays is one of his most difficult as well as one of his most important works. The title essay is Althusser's contribution to the lecture series "Philosophy Course for Scientists" held at the ENS in 1968. This is the same series in which Badiou's presentation of The Concept of Model was, as Althusser put it, "happily interrupted" by the events of May '68. Althusser's lectures present many of the theses found in his more well-known essay "Lenin and Philosophy" (also included in this collection). Yet these lectures, addressed to scientists (though the series was attended by a large and varied group of intellectuals) and using scientific examples, are singular in style and form in his work (let's be honest, Althusser's work taken as a whole is very repetitive - the other essays included here demonstrate important shifts in his ideas, but these shifts tend to get lost in long retreads of Althusser's earlier arguments about Marx's epistemological break, theoretical anti-humanism, and the materialist dialectic). As a philosopher speaking to scientists, Althusser reflexively begins by analyzing the ideology of interdisciplinarity and asking whether philosophy might be capable of a non-exploitative relation to science. The first lecture investigates the relations between different disciplines, including the sciences, human sciences, and literary disciplines. Philosophy might be seen as the ideal facilitator of such interdisciplinary relations, but Althusser flatly rejects such a notion. The problem of interdisciplinarity will not be an excuse to extend the domain of philosophy but rather evidence of the need to narrowly delimit philosophy's terrain. In the sciences, prior to any explicit interdisciplinary effort there are relations of application (largely inorganic, technical applications of one science to another) and relations of constitution (organic, reciprocal interventions of each science in the other). However, when the human sciences "apply" a science (say, sociology and mathematics), the relation is blatantly one of exteriority. The human sciences therefore call upon philosophy to provide the "theoretical base they lack," though this merely hides their lack of scientificity. Turning to the literary disciplines, Althusser aggressively labels them "ideological techniques of social adaptation and readaptation." The literary disciplines teach "know-how" more than knowledge: they train students in the rules and practices needed to display the appropriate relation to cultural objects (I must presume Bourdieu closely studied this text). Yet Althusser admits all of the disciplines teach ideological "know-how" along with their specific disciplinary knowledge. Though literary disciplines have recently attempted to become human sciences and advertise their scientific credentials, Althusser claims this is mere "wish-fulfillment." Their apparent scientificity merely makes them more serviceable as instruments for human relations management and the mass media. Althusser's survey of the different disciplinary relations covered by the generic notion of interdisciplinarity demonstrates the notion is "massively ideological in character": "Very concretely, interdisciplinarity is usually the slogan and the practice of the spontaneous ideology of specialists: oscillating between a vague spiritualism and technocratic positivism." (This was shown long ago in Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities). Althusser moves on to articulate a new definition of philosophy, one that constitutes philosophy in relation to other disciplines without making philosophy a servant of the ideology of interdisciplinarity. Althusser argues "philosophy has no object." Indeed, "Philosophy consists [only] of words organized into dogmatic propositions called Theses." As a result, "there is no possibility of achieving a science of philosophy or a 'meta-philosophy.'" Philosophy has the sole function of "drawing a line of demarcation" between the ideological and the scientific (previously demonstrated in Althusser's analysis of interdisciplinarity). Philosophy is practical without being pragmatic or speculative: it is neither direct action on reality nor detached contemplation. Althusser compares philosophy to Lenin's idea of political practice, which does not formulate plans prior to political action but inflects a struggle it is caught within. "Philosophy functions by intervening not in matter . . . or on a living body . . . or in the class struggle . . . but in theory. . . . This intervention in theory provokes theoretical effects: the positions of new philosophical inventions, etc., and practical effects on the balance of power between the 'ideas' in question" (in later pieces with a more explicitly Marxist framework than these lectures this will be: "philosophy is class-struggle at the level of theory"). By producing the distinction between the ideological and the scientific, philosophy "acts outside of itself through the result that it produces within itself." Althusser reductively divides all philosophy into materialist and idealist camps, and argues that philosophy (unlike sciences) has no history because it is the endless struggle between idealism and materialism for domination, with neither one ever being able to completely win and eliminate the other. According to Althusser, all scientific practice automatically produces a kind of philosophy, what he calls the "spontaneous philosophy of the scientists" (SPS). The SPS is not a general world-view but "the ideas (conscious or unconscious) that scientists have of the scientific practice of the sciences and of 'Science.'" The SPS is contradictory and composed of two different elements. The first element is a materialism generated from within scientific practice, a belief in the real existence of scientific objects, the objectivity of scientific knowledge, and the correctness of scientific method. The second element is an externally generated idealism that draws from religious, spiritual, and critical traditions. Both elements co-exist, with the idealist element tending to dominate the materialist one. For example, Enlightenment scientists, "however materialist they may have been in their struggle against religion, were no less idealist in their conception of history. And their idealist conception of the omnipotence of scientific truth derives, in the last instance, from their historical (juridical, moral, political) idealism." In order to reverse this idealist domination of materialism (which served a purpose in its time but today is a problem), science needs philosophers to bring "counterforces" that will reinforce their materialist elements (internal criticism is rarely sufficient, especially since science remains caught up in a powerful idealist ideology of progress). In this alliance, philosophy should not subject or enslave science (the point is not to make philosophy the spokesman of scientific truth or make science evidence of philosophy's superior wisdom) but assist it in a historically-specific context. Yet philosophy intervenes "in the SPS and only in the SPS," it is not authorized to intervene in scientific practice itself. Again, taking the SPS as its target, there is only "an intervention by philosophy in philosophy." Althusser concludes his lectures by pointing towards the political focus of "Lenin and Philosophy," noting that philosophy treats itself as it treats science, seeking out "positions that enable us to combat idealism" (and especially those forms of idealism that are positioned against Marxist materialism).