Academic journal article World Review of Political Economy

On Althusser's Philosophy of the Encounter

Academic journal article World Review of Political Economy

On Althusser's Philosophy of the Encounter

Article excerpt

Abstract: The article reviews Althusser's Philosophy of the Encounter, examining in turn the problem of the Epistemological Break and the idea of matérialisme aléatoire. It looks at Althusser's critique of the concept of commodity fetishism and suggests a possible response. It goes on to situate the matérialisme aléatoire in the context of the history of atomism with particular reference to the work of Boltzmann. It provides a possible technique of both rejecting teleology whilst retaining the arrow of time.

Keywords: Althusser; commodity fetishism; randomness


I read with growing enthusiasm Althusser's Philosophy of the Encounter with the introduction by Goshgarian (Althusser Matheron and O. Corpet 2006). I could not recommend the book more strongly than I do. It is the work of a Marxist philosopher of tremendous intellectual rigor and insight. It really makes you think carefully about tilings that you may have taken for granted before. The long introduction situates the new book with respect to Althusser's earlier work going back to Iiis book on Montesquieu in the late 1950s. The book is collected from notes and unpublished letters that were put together after the death of the noted political philosopher. If a book like this can be said to have an underlying theme it is about what the translator has termed aleatory materialism.

For my part I hate Goshgarian's translation of aléatoire as aleatory which is not a normal English usage. Anyone with a scientific background would translate it as something like random or stochastic, since that is the terminology that the English speaking scientific community uses for the philosophical concept Althusser is discussing. Quibbles about translation aside, and translation of this work was no mean feat since the French philosopher's notes contain numerous quotations from other languages with Althusser's own translations of these into French, the book is absolutely fascinating. It struck me that it would be of great interest to compare Althusser's matérialisme aléatoire to the work of 20th century scientists who grappled in their own fields with some of the issues that Althusser concerns himself: the stochastic concept in the work of Heisenberg, the problem of the origins of structure in Kauffman's writings, the implicit critique of the Hegelian method provided by the failure of Hilbert and Russell's formalist project.

Goshgarian's introduction lias a very provocative analysis of Althusser's theory of the nature of the state and its role in Iiis critique of Euro-communism. It may provide a critique of the approach of the modern Communist Party of Great Britain which, from this theoretical framework, can be seen as a continuation of the theoretical assumptions of Euro-communism. The political conclusions of Althusser's book are of the utmost importance to the current European conjuncture.

More generally in these, Iiis last writings, Althusser was concerned to point out the limits of Marx's thought. Limits that he believed had to be crossed if Marxism was to escape from the crisis that he saw engulfing it. These limits of Marxist thought were particularly at the level of the theorization of the state and of ideology, inadequate theories of which were being used to justify the reformist course of the Communist Parties. In "Marx and His Limits" Althusser touches on the limitations of the theory of commodity fetishism but the philosopher is more generally concerned with how to construct a theory of ideology as it relates to the class struggle. He says that it is easy to see that there is a relation here, but how does it operate, how are class-specific ideologies produced, and how do these ideologies control people? In particular he is very critical of attempts to see these ideologies as operating just in the domain of ideas, emphasizing the existence of state ideological machinery that ideologizes people.

Althusser asks how to theorize the nature of the state machine and its role in the reproduction of bourgeois domination. …

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