[Marxism] The Eagle and the Bustard: Louis Althusser and EP Thompson

Haines Brown brownh at hartford-hwp.com
Sun Jul 9 09:28:56 MDT 2006

> http://readingthemaps.blogspot.com/2006/07/eagle-and-bustard.html
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Is this citation from Scott Hamilton a piece written by him? The
author's name does not appear on it.

Although the author is modest in his introduction, I find his piece to
be very worth reading. He offers a valuable historical context for the
sharp debate between E.P. Thompson's Marxist empiricism and Louis
Althusser's Marxist theoreticism. However, as I try to illustrate
here, it would be even more valuable to broaden that context to
include both the Enlightenment heritage and the development of science
since Althusser and Thompson were at their peak.

The issue simply put is to what extent we must "impose" mental
constructs on the empirical data of observation. I believe there are
three ways such an imposition is unavoidable, and they are not
specific to Marxism.

First, as neo-positivists insist, there are no pure data of
experience. All observations entail observational hypotheses; our
preconceptions, our axioms, our ontological categories (what we think
of as "entities"), our social location and our ideological framework
all necessarily tincture what we observe. Therefore the task is to
increase the ability of this mental equipment to grasp reality so that
it yields the greatest truth value, not to find ways to discount it or
limit its effect, such as by treating observational data naively or by
artificially isolating an object of study (such as a political history
that ignores economics).

Second, as scientific realism insists, unobservables, such as the
causal relation of objects, such as processes, such as contradictions,
and such as events, must to be treated (ontologically) the same as
observables, for the actual outcome of processes we know in fact
depend on them. In the real world, all things actually do have a
causal relation with their environment and ultimately the dynamic
universe as a whole. Consequently, all things are processes having a
probabilistic distribution of possible outcomes. This probabilistic
distribution is real; it is an objective fact, not merely an artifact
of our ignorance. It is a legitimate object of study that can yield
truthful information about the world.

Third, for most humanities and for many sciences, the object of study
is an emergent process (one that moves toward a less probable
outcome). In such cases. the hypothetical-deductive method is
inappropriate, and it is in fact not actually employed by
scientists. Rather, the method is one of abduction - explaining an
initial state though knowledge of its outcome, the opposit of
deduction. If the outcomes are unknown and lie in the future (as in
meteorology), you can only assign a probability distribution to the
various possible outcomes implied by the initial state. If the
outcomes are known, because the initial state lies in the past (as in
historiography), the known outcome tells us about real potentials
present in the initial state, where they cannot be observed.

In each case, theory makes real unobservables an object of
study. Theory is not a self-contained reality independent of the
world, but the real effects of our real mind's interaction with the
real world. In the first, we evaluate the mental equipment we bring to
our research in order to estimate its relative capacity for truth
value based on what we know of the world. In the second, we understand
all things as subsystems, where outcomes are not only determined by
their own particular character, but also by their relation to a
greater whole. Third, knowledge of an outcome informs us of real
unobservable potentials (and contradictions) latent in some prior

I believe it is a presumed disconnect between theory and empiria
inherited from late 19th-century positivism and ultimately the
Enlightenment that led E.P. Thompson to cling to empiricism and Louis
Althusser to be trapped in the world of theory. This, in my mind,
makes them late manifestations of a contradiction in positivism rather
than a movement of Marxism beyond it. There is a broad scientific
consensus today that theory, in reference to unobservables, is as real
as empiria. Empiria without theory is a bustard which cannot fly;
theory disconnected from empiria is an eagle which cannot return to
its nest. Humanism is no longer at war with science, and the result is
a space in which Marxism can again take flight.

       Haines Brown
         ET1(SS) U.S.S. Irex SS-482       

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