Collier about Althusser

Justin Schwartz jschwart at
Mon Apr 24 09:05:52 MDT 1995

On Mon, 24 Apr 1995, Allin Cottrell wrote:

> Does anyone have a good word for Althusser?  I must say that
> in context -- that is, 25 years ago and a long time before
> Bhaskar and co. had published anything of note -- I found
> A's writings on philosophy very stimulating and liberating.

A lot of people did, including people I respect--Perry Anderson the NLR
crowd, Steadman-Jones, et al., Wal Suchting (people should check out his
Marx and Philosophy, a really fine little work). So there must be
something there. I just ca't see it myself. But I was bitten early by
Thompson's savage and not entirelt fair-minded polemic in The Poverty of
Philosophy, as well as by having generally analytical philosophical

> This was for one who was 'brought up', so to speak, on the
> British Empiricists, and who was interested in Marx but
> had an impression of Marxist philosophy as either a musty
> Dialectical Materialism redolent of Stalinism, or an
> ultimately unconvincing Hegelian Idealism.  Althusser,
> by contrast, offered an exciting glimpse of a Marxist
> philosophy that was related to, but more sophisticated
> then, the then-current Anglophone philosophy of science
> (Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos).

An Austrian, a Yank, and a Hungarian....however, I do not think that
Althusser was "more sophisticated" than they, especially Kuhn, but even
Popper when was being careful or Lakatos, either. All of these writers
knew (inn K's case, still know), a lot of real science first hand--K is a
PhD in physics and writes technical history of science that is highly
regarded in the field, and their work is very sophisticated if that means
(a) sensitive to the issues the actual practices of the sciences raise,
(b) alert to the range ofd objectionbs their own  theories face, (c)
deeply critical of classical empiricist and logicxal positivist approaches
to science. Of course I have a higher opinion of the LP than most of you,a
s well as first-hand, detailed knowledge of the LP's work.

  And his rehabilitation of
> Materialism and Empirio-Criticism was brilliant, particularly
> since this work was commonly seen as just the polemical
> ravings of an amateur, not fit to be put beside 'real'
> philosophical writing.

Hilary Putnam, in his Marxist days, used to teach M&EC in his graduate
seminar in philoisophy of sciencxe at Harvard--he helped train the crop of
Marxist philosophers of science now in place--Boyd, Devitt, Railton,
formerly Miller, etc. He may have been influenced in this by Althusser--in
the first published version of an important paper in philosophy of
language, the title of which escapes me, "Realiuty and Reference," or
something like that, he cites A and discusses Engels briefly. This
references vanishes from the revised version in his collected papers.

> I'm interested to note that A's conception of philosophy as
> 'lacking an object', and in this respect being fundamentally
> different from science and fundamentally incapable of resolving
> any issue in itself, seems to be recapitulated in Colin
> McGinn's recent work 'Problems of Philosophy'.  I haven't
> read the latter yet -- only heard of its arguments at second
> hand -- so this claim is an hypothesis rather than a
> considered judgment, but I plan to investigate it when I
> get some reading time.

Well, these sorts of ideas are nothing new or specifically Marxist. The LP
regarded philosophy as just a collection of analytical truths without any
special empirical object. The "naturalistic turn" among scientific
realists, following Quine, tends to collapse philosophy's traditional
subjects into cognitive science, sociology of knowledge, and other
empirical investigations. Wittgenstein thought that philosophy was just a
bunch of confusions we got into because language played tricks on us; its
point was theraputic--to see through the tricks and cease being bothered
by pseudoproblems. Neopragmatists like Rorty also deny that philosophy has
any special subject matter or that philosophers have real expertise ina
anything except arguing and some knowledge of certain texts. SAnd of
course Marx himself thought that traditional philosophy was "merely
scholastic," but he didn't, as far as I know, know anything about the

A number of these schools and traditions also deny that philosophical
problems are soluable. The LP thoiught they were only exposable as
pseudoproblems. Wittgenstein thought they were merely dissoluable.
Naturalists like Quine think they're displaced by answers to scientific
questions. Neoprags like Rorty and Goodman hold a mix of these views.
Marx and Engels thought the problems of philosophy needed pratical,
revolutionary solutions. Kant himself thought the traditional problems of
philosophy were unsolvable, lead to antinomies.

--Justin Schwartz

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