Louis Althusser – the identity critique



Considerations on the model of dialectical reflection proposed by the French philosopher

After 1960, dialectics, which until then had been glorified by existential Marxism and phenomenology, began to be harshly contested in French intellectual circles, at a time when structuralism became the hegemonic current in the human sciences.

A keen historian of ideas such as Vincent Descombes has noted that the dialectic has come to be seen as “the most insidious form of the 'logic of identity.' (...). What structuralists call the 'logic of identity' is the way of thinking that cannot represent the other without reducing it to the same, that subordinates difference to identity. Opposed to this logic of identity is a “thought of difference” (DESCOMBES: 1998, p. 105).

Althusser, for example, states that “it is not possible for a form of ideological consciousness to contain in itself how to get out of itself through its own internal dialectic, that there is not, in the strict sense, a dialectic of consciousness” (…) consciousness accesses the real not by its internal development, but by the radical discovery of something other than itself” (ALTHUSSER: 1967, p. 126).

Sartre's existential Marxism valued the conscience and choices of individuals – thus, it valued the experience, the “lived”. This close relationship between experience and consciousness will be sharply criticized by all structuralist thought. Separating knowledge from the “experienced”, Althusser will say, for example, that the relationship between men and the lived takes place within ideology – this, therefore, is an imaginary representation of men with their conditions of existence. The foundation of the Marxian legacy should no longer be based on praxis or a philosophy of freedom, but “on an epistemology, whose central thesis will be the opposition between consciousness and the concept” (DESCOMBES: 1998, p. 158).

Marxist philosophy, henceforth, abandoning the concern with being, would need to become a scientific discourse; and the latter dedicates himself to “interrogating the object instead of letting himself be guided by it” (p. 159). Science, thus, distances itself from the sensitive experience, from the lived experience, from conscience, from the closed circle of ideology. Against the “logic of identity”, which according to phenomenology would allow the transition from experience to knowledge. Althusser, returning to Bachelard's concept, proposes the “epistemological cut”. There is no longer a passage between what was experienced and knowledge (“logic of identity”, unity of the diverse), with the establishment of the epistemological rupture. Science, says Althusser, is not a mirror, a reflection of lived reality. It does not reproduce the object: on the contrary, the object is constructed by the researcher. Knowledge must always be understood as production, as work on a raw material.

The critique of identity, at the epistemological level, insists on the split between being and thought, real object and object of thought, history and logic, replicating, in Marxist thought, the binary logic that characterizes structuralism. Antonio Candido, by the way, observed: “A curious feature of Structuralism is what could be called fixation on the number 2. The search for generic models is associated in it with a kind of latent postulate of symmetry, which makes it swing between the raw and the stew, high and low, cold and hot, light and dark, as if the rupture of duality broke self-confidence”. In doing so, structuralism opposes the triadic vision of Hegel's dialectic in its movement of thesis-antithesis-synthesis, a rhythm that “assumes fleeting equilibria; and this allows dealing with irregular sets, maintaining a more faithful reflection of the irregularity of facts, which dyadic schemes tend to simplify, preferring the static contemplation of systems in equilibrium to the dynamic view of the process”. (CANDIDO: 2002, p. 51).

Relating this desire for stability to the metamorphoses of the capitalist mode of production is a topic to be addressed by anyone who ventures into a history of ideas. Here, we are only interested in pointing out that, influenced by binary logic, Althusser brought Marxism closer to what was most advanced in French epistemology at the time: Bachelard, Foucault, Lacan, Canguilhem. Inserting Marxism in this renovating structuralist movement, Althusser intended to give it a status of scientificity after so many years of close relationship with the various philosophies of consciousness.

If Marxism is a scientific discourse, what is its object, what is the raw material on which it works? And yet: once the connection between the real object and knowledge is broken, what is the relationship between these two spheres?

Althusser faces these questions by turning his batteries against empiricism and, mainly, against Hegel. Empiricism, according to Althusser, identifies knowledge with abstraction. To know is to abstract the essence of the real object that becomes the subject's possession. This is a true extraction, like the gold that is “extracted (or abstracted, therefore, separated) from the soil and sand in which it is taken and contained”. Knowledge, in empiricism, is, therefore, contained in the real as one of its parts, having the function of “separating in the object, the two parts existing in it: the essential from the inessential”, considering that “the inessential part occupies the entire exterior of the object”. object, its visible surface; on the other hand, the essential part occupies the inner part of the real object, its invisible core”. Knowledge, in this perspective, can be translated by the word discovery in its real sense: “remove what covers, as one removes the shell that surrounds the almond, the shell that surrounds the fruit, the veil that surrounds the girl” (ALTHUSSER: 1979, p. 36 and p. 37).

This empiricist conception that understands knowledge as a part of the real object (“logic of identity”), says Althusser, is “at the heart of the problematic of classical philosophy” and, “as paradoxical as this may seem, in Hegelian philosophy”. And, through it – to Althusser's chagrin – in the thought of Marx who, in the absence of new concepts, appropriated the Hegelian vocabulary: appearance and essence, exterior and interior, apparent movement and real movement, etc.

The absurdity of including Hegel in empiricism is striking. The philosopher, as is known, did not shy away from praising empiricism which, unlike metaphysics, which sought truth in thought itself, will find it in experience. This “tenderness for facts”, expressed by empiricism and embraced by Hegel, however, is just a moment that must be overcome by dialectical reason that breaks the isolation of facts, their finitude, by considering them as moments of a process. In logic, empiricism appears in the section dedicated to the “second position of thought in relation to reality”. Going beyond this second position, Hegel states: “thinking the empirical world means (…) essentially, transforming its empirical form and making it something universal: thought exerts a negative activity on that foundation; perceived matter, when it is determined through universality, does not subsist in its first empirical form” (HEGEL: 1968, p. 57).

The Althusserian critique of empiricism and Hegel also extends to existential Marxism: “It is no coincidence that Sartre, and all those who, without possessing his talent, needing to fill a void between “abstract” categories and the “ concrete”, make the mistake of talking about origin, genesis and mediations. (...). The concept of mediation is invested with a final function: to magically secure, in an empty space, the no-man's-land between theoretical principles and the "concrete", as bricklayers make a chain to pass bricks to each other" ( ALTHUSSER: 1979, p. 67).

Based on this generalized criticism, Althusser reaffirms the distinction between the real object (for example, the circle) and the object of knowledge (the idea of ​​a circle, which is not circular), in the same way that “knowledge of history is not historical, both how unsweetened is the knowledge of sugar” (ALTHUSSER: 1980, p. 46). The distinction real object/object of thought is one of the most complex in Althusser's work, appearing indicated in essays by Pour Marx, gaining a theoretical density in read capital, in which the theme appears at different times, but always with the caveat that the indications are still preliminary, and finally gain a rectification in the Elements of self-criticism.

For the purposes of our research, the slippery conceptualization presented in Read The Capital in its insistence on criticizing the “logic of identity” and keeping thought away from empirical reality. “Never”, says Althusser, “knowledge finds itself, as empiricism would desperately want, in front of a pure object that would then be identical to the real object from which knowledge precisely aims to produce… knowledge. Working on its “object”, knowledge does not do so with the real object, but with its own raw material, which constitutes, in the strict sense of the term, its “object” (of knowledge) which is, from the more rudimentary forms of knowledge, distinct from the real object” (p. 44).

Althusser, in his insistence on separating thought from reality, ends up in a circular reasoning in which knowledge seems to focus on itself: “it is perfectly licit to say that the production of knowledge, which is the peculiarity of theoretical practice, constitutes a process that takes place entirely in thought” (ALTHUSSER: 1979, p. 42). Without the referent, what would validate the truth? It is not the adequacy between thought and reality, as traditionally postulated by the theory of knowledge: “theoretical practice is in itself its own criterion, it contains precisely in itself certain protocols for validating the quality of its product, that is, the criteria of scientificity of the products of theoretical practice” (p. 62).

But what would be the raw material of knowledge after all, since it is not the real object? Althusser responds that scientific practice “is founded and articulated in existing economic, political and ideological practices, which directly or indirectly provide it with the essentials of its “raw material” (p. 43). This is how one must understand Marx's reading of political economy, transforming its ideological products, which served him as raw material, into knowledge (which was evidently only possible after the theoretical revolution undertaken by Marx: the “epistemological rupture ” with classical economics, the adoption of a scientific epistemology, and the establishment of a scientific discourse). Marx is not, therefore, a “continuer” of classical economics that added new knowledge and rectified errors: his work breaks with ideology, introduces a new problem and proposes a new object.

The opening pages of the first volume of the book read capital are devoted to the theme of reading: Marx's reading of classical economics and Althusser's reading of Marx. In the first case, Marx would have made two readings. In the first, he accompanied Adam Smith's speech, showing his successes and failures and pointing out his gaps and failures. It is only in the second reading that Marx points out the combination of Smith's results, his flaws and gaps, since the first reading “does not see this problem, precisely because this problem is only visible as invisible, because this problem concerns something entirely different. of given objects, which it would suffice to have a clear eye to see; a necessary invisible relationship between the field of the visible and the field of the invisible, as a necessary effect of the structure of the visible field” (p. 18). It is, therefore, the identity of non-seeing and seeing in seeing itself. This reading, which Althusser designates as “symptomal”, refers to Freud who, in the interpretation of dreams, discerned between the “manifest content” and the “latent content”, but also refers to the preface of the history of madness of Michel Foucault and the idea that the invisible, a product of the visible, is its prohibition that represses reflection.

Marx, thus, would be an epistemologist who kept himself distant from the empirical world. Its relationship with classical economics, according to Althusser, boils down to denouncing ideology and making the repressed speak. But Marx, in addition to appropriating scientific concepts and showing the limits that ideology imposed on his predecessors, was also attentive to the referent – ​​the reality of capitalist society expressed also in empirical data. It is enough to remember the attention given to the reports made by government inspectors in the English factories, the statistical data collected, the journalistic information to which he resorted, not to mention the survey ouvriere of 1880 (the questionnaire he created for workers to talk about the working conditions experienced inside the factories). His work is not an exercise in epistemological exegesis, restricted to abstraction – the thought that challenges previous thought, denouncing its ideological bias and, through an epistemological cut, establishing scientific discourse.

But, in doing so, Althusser represses the distinction made by Marx in the preface to Capital between the mode of exposition-presentation (presentation) and search mode. Only in this way does it become possible to abstract the historical foundation based on real data and transform Marx into an epistemologist dealing with the autonomized scientific discourse.

Althusser, in his horror of the empirical, clings to the symptomatic reading, applying it to the texts of Marx, an author who, as he states, “did not have, at the time he lived, and did not have it while he lived, the concept suitable for thinking about what it produced: the concept of effectiveness of a structure over its elements” (p. 29).

It is, as stated in the second volume of read capital, of proposing to Marx “the question of its object”. In this way, Althusser detects Marx's silences in order to force these silences to speak. The full understanding of Marx's scientific theory thus had to wait many decades before it could finally be understood thanks to the French epistemology of the 1960s...

*Celso Frederico is a retired senior professor at ECA-USP. Author, among other books, of Essays on Marxism and Culture (Morula).



ALTHUSSER, Louis. Critical analysis of Marxist theory (Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 1967).

ALTHUSSER, Louis. Read The Capital, 2 volumes. (Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 1979, 1980).

CANDID, Antonio. “The passage from two to three (Contribution to the study of mediations in literary analysis)”, in Intervention Texts (São Paulo: Duas Cidades/Editora 34, 2002).

COUTINHO, Carlos Nelson. Structuralism and the misery of reason (São Paulo: Expressão Poular, 2010).

DESCOMBES, Vincent, The same and the other. Forty and five years of French philosophy (1933-1978), (Madrid: Cathedral, 1998).

DOSSE, François. history of structuralism, 2 vol. (São Paulo: Essay, 1993).

GIANOTTI, Jose Arthur. “Against Althusser”, in Philosophy exercises (São Paulo: Brasiliense/Cebrap, 1977).


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