Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings

By Charles Lemert | Go to book overview

Why Theory?

Louis Althusser ( 1963)

The problem posed by my last study--what constitutes Marx's 'inversion' of the Hegelian dialectic, what is the specific difference that distinguishes the Marxist dialectic from the Hegelian dialectic?--is a theoretical problem.

To say that it is a theoretical problem implies that its theoretical solution should give us a new knowledge, organically linked to the other knowledges of Marxist theory. To say that it is a theoretical problem implies that we are not dealing merely with an imaginary difficulty, but with a really existing difficulty posed us in the form of a problem, that is, in a form governed by imperative conditions: definition of the field of (theoretical) knowledges in which the problem is posed (situated), of the exact location of its posing, and of the concepts required to pose it.

Only the position, examination and resolution of the problem, that is, the theoretical practice we are about to embark on, can provide the proof that these conditions have been respected.

Now, in this particular case, what has to be expressed in the form of a theoretical problem and its solution already exists in Marxist practice. Not only has Marxist practice come up against this 'difficulty' confirmed that it was indeed real rather than imaginary, but what is more, it has, within its own limits, 'settled' it and surmounted it in fact. In the practical state, the solution to our theoretical problem has already existed for a long time in Marxist practice. So to pose and resolve our theoretical problem ultimately means to express theoretically the 'solution' existing in the practical state, that Marxist practice has found for a real difficulty it has encountered in its development, whose existence it has noted, and, according to its own submission, settled.

So we are merely concerned with filling in a 'gap' between theory and practice on a particular point. We are not setting Marxism any imaginary or subjective problem, asking it to 'resolve' the 'problems' of 'hyperempiricism', nor even what Marx called the difficulties a philosopher has in his personal relations with a concept. No. The problem posed exists (and has existed) in the form of a difficulty signalled by Marxist practice. Its solution exists in Marxist practice. So we only have to express it theoretically. But this simple theoretical expression of a solution that exists in the practical state cannot be taken for granted: it requires a real theoretical labour, not only to work out the specific concept or knowledge of this practical resolution--but also for the real destruction of the ideological confusions, illusions or inaccuracies that may exist, by a radical critique (a critique which takes them by the root). So this simple theoretical 'expression' implies both the production of a knowledge and the critique of an illusion, in one movement.

And if I am asked: but why take all this trouble to express a 'truth' 'known' for such a long time?--my answer is that, if we are still using the term in its strictest sense, the existence of this truth has been signalled, recognized for a long time, but it has not been known. For the (practical) recognition of an existence cannot pass for a knowledge (that is, for theory) except in the imprecision of a confused thought. And if I am then asked: but what use is there in posing this problem in theory if its solution has already existed for a long time in the practical state? why give a theoretical expression to this practical

____________________
Excerpt from "On the Materialist Dialectic", Ben Brewster, trans., For Marx ( Penguin Press, London), pp. 164-169.

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