Materialism : Patrice Maniglier

Erin O'Keefe / The Spot, from Natural Disasters (2015)
Erin O’Keefe / The Spot, from Natural Disasters (2015)

Materialism / Patrice Maniglier

The concept I have chosen is not just one political concept among others; it is the concept of the politicality of concepts in general. This concept is materialism. Some might object that it is not a political but rather a metaphysical concept, and even that it is not a concept at all, but rather a doctrine, that is a system of concepts, or maybe just an Idea or an orientation of thought. I would like to argue that materialism is a political concept precisely because it bears on what is political in metaphysics in general, metaphysics being understood here and elsewhere in this paper as the exercise in constructing and exploring conceptual consistencies.

There has been renewed interest lately in the notion of materialism in the wake of what is now called “speculative realism.” Notably, Quentin Meillassoux’s own expression for his philosophical position is not speculative realism but “speculative materialism”; and the recent interest in François Laruelle’s work is due to his attempt to formulate a materialist position.1 That interest flows mainly from Meillassoux’s argument that pure speculation (the mere use of concepts) is, in spite of Kant’s critique, capable of saying something objectively true, and this truth would establish the independent existence of something radically alien to thought (i.e., matter). Some have lamented the apolitical dimension of this new philosophical fashion.2 They might be right, but I think they miss the deeper problem raised by materialism, and which the very notion of ‘speculative materialism’ erases, namely the problem of the role of metaphysics in politics in general. More specifically, that we cannot do away with metaphysics, while metaphysics cannot do away with politics. This is what should be at the heart of any form of speculative materialism properly understood.

The importance of Étienne Balibar’s work in contemporary philosophy is, in my view, to have constantly maintained those two requirements, and the following lines are an attempt not to comment on Balibar’s thought generally but to characterizing the problematic within which his work, precisely, works.

These preliminary remarks also answer, I hope, the worry that materialism might not be a concept. Materialism is the concept of a task. Identifying clearly this task is, I believe, urgent, if we want to know where we are going. Concepts matter for practice, because they help to diagnose our problems.

1. Dogmatic Materialism

The idea that materialism has something to do with politics might seem obvious to many of us, since the notion was used by Marx as well as many others in the history of Marxism and of the communist regimes (in particular through infamous expressions like “dialectical materialism” or “historical materialism”). However, we should refrain from taking this connection for granted. It is far from being universally accepted. For instance, the entry “Materialism” in the Encyclopedia Britannica contains not one mention of the word ‘politics’. The Britannica defines “materialism” as a synonym of physicalism, and does so through the following proposition, which I will from now on call the Materialist Credo: “[A]ll facts (including facts about the human mind and will and the course of human history) are causally dependent upon physical processes, or even reducible to them.”3 Materialism is here opposed to idealism, which would argue, in one way or another, for the autonomy of concepts with regards to non-conceptual or physical processes. This autonomy is both causal and explicative, i.e. ontological and epistemological: idealism states (i) that concepts can be causes, either because they can trigger other concepts or because they can have an impact upon the non-conceptual realm; (ii) that they can account for themselves. Ideas can be self-explanatory; ideas can change the world.

Materialism defined in this way, however, immediately encounters a serious problem, since the definition implies that the very “idea” we are expressing when we utter the Materialist Credo is itself dependent or even reducible to physical processes. The concept of “physical” is itself “physical” or at least the work it does in the world does not originate in the concept but in some physical process behind or under it. But if that is true, it means that the Materialist Credo simply indicates a particular physical situation. To assess it in a materialist way, to judge whether I should hold it or not, I should try to see whether I am in a situation that contains the kind of physical processes that cause the Materialist Credo. However, this is not what materialist philosophers do: they argue in favor of their credo; they produce concepts and try to relate already accepted concepts to the ones they want us to accept. And they are right. Because if they did otherwise, they would be taken in an infinite regress: the perception of that-physical-state-being-the-case is itself a judgment and should itself be assessed on materialist grounds, etc. In other words, materialists are caught in a pragmatic contradiction. They do the contrary of what they argue for.

The argumentative strategy I have just sketched is typical of the entire ‘idealist’ tradition since at least Descartes. It became dominant with Kant and then, later, after Husserl. The success of phenomenology (at least in France) can be largely imputed to the fact that it provided a strong argumentative strategy against materialism, appealing to consciousness as that which must be presupposed even when one tries to get rid of it. One of the clearest versions of the argument, however, might be found in Cassirer’s introduction to the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, which makes Plato a critical philosopher.4 On Cassirer’s account, then, idealism lays claim to the power of critique, whereas materialism would be necessarily dogmatic.

2. Critical Materialism (Marx & Engels)

I have no doubt that those who subscribe to the Materialist Credo, even in its apparently most vulgar versions, have the means to defend themselves. However, I want to recall another version of materialism that is not only itself critical (in the sense that it performs the same sort of operation as the one we saw at work against the Materialist Credo, which consists in drawing our attention to the unapparent or suppressed conditions of possibility of the very action we are performing), but is actually critical of the very conception of critique we just saw, i.e., the idealist critique. This version is the one Marx and Engels introduced and illustrated in various places. Indeed, their argument in defense of materialism is precisely that its opposite, idealism, is not critical enough, precisely because it presupposes that to be critical is exclusively a matter of speculative or theoretical decisions.5 (For instance, in order to correct the mistakes materialists are supposed to have made, you only need to point at their conceptual inconsistency—and this is critique.) As we all know, Marx famously reminded us that some ideas do not change simply because they are criticized on intellectual grounds. Typically, for instance, religious ideas have roots in the reality of our existence—and the real critique of those ideas would be to actually change the world, i.e. revolution itself. Hence the famous line: “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

What is preserved here of the definition of materialism found in the Britannica is the notion of the heteronomy of concepts. This heteronomy, however, is expressed as it were for itself, instead of being reduced to another plane of already identified entities (say, “physical” objects) which can only be accessed through concepts anyway (thus generating the vicious circle we just saw). Furthermore, this heteronomy is not conceived as a purely speculative observation, but as putting in question the very possibility of such speculative concerns as to the autonomy and the heteronomy of concepts. In other words, the very possibility of having a discussion about materialism relies on non-conceptual presuppositions.

We need to be blunt here, since something unwelcomed necessarily intervenes at this point to interrupt our conversation, and alters it in unpredictable ways. Let’s say, then, that I am merely referring to the fact that if I hadn’t had anything to eat today, if I hadn’t been allowed to sleep in a bedroom protected from the cold, if I hadn’t had a computer to write these lines, etc., I would not be able to have this conversation. We can care for ideas as ideas, because our lives are taken care of by others. The materialist intuition has to do with the old word: Primum vivere, deinde philosophari (before thinking, one has to survive). Philosophers cannot live on concepts, while many entities of the world can live without concepts. This raises not only epistemological and metaphysical issues, but also problems pertaining to the order of justice. As Althusser put it in his letter to Jean Lacroix (his former philosophy professor), philosophers receive their world and their life from some of their fellow human beings, and they give them concepts in return. This is why, Althusser continues, we must “accept sharing their language and their truth as [we] share their bread.”6 But bread is only one of those “materialities,” i.e., those nonconceptual conditions of conceptual activity. Gender, race, class, diets, health, etc., are others. And this is not only true of philosophy; it is true of thought in general. Thought emerges and reemerges constantly out of concerns that are not intellectual concerns. Philosophy consists in testing the conceivability of a thought for itself, but this conceivability does not account for this thought in any sense.

This might sound all too trivial. It is not. It is one of the deepest thought one can have, so deep that it actually challenges the very notion of depth itself. What this version of materialism, i.e. critical materialism, comes down to is this: thought comes second. This is actually the exact summary that none other than Lenin gave of his definition of materialism, using a quotation he takes from Engels: “[W]hile for the materialists nature is primary and spirit secondary, for the idealists the reverse is the case.”7 But specifying what is primary is already to cross the limits allowed by critical materialism. All we can say is that whatever is primary is heterogeneous to thought as well as the cause of thought. Critical materialism only says that spirit (mind, thought, concepts, etc.) comes second. Or, as it could be put in an inverted version of Descartes’ cogito: I come second, Ego secundus, or A me sequitur. This is what I would like to call the Materialist Postulate (not to be conflated with the Materialist Credo).8 The secondariness of what we are doing when we affirm this secondariness is the core of materialism.

A few remarks are necessary to understand the many displacements made by this simple claim.

Firstly, to be a materialist is thus not to say anything about what is to be thought about (Being, Reality, Objectivity, Matter, as you wish to call it), for instance that it can only be accessed through sensations, or that it is made ultimately of non-experiential realities like atoms, space or forces (to mention two interpretations of materialism that have been illustrated in the history of philosophy). It is to say something about the very being of thought itself, i.e., of this element within which any claim whatsoever is made about matter: it is to say that it comes second.

Secondly, what comes first is the cause of thought. The problem is not whether it exists prior to and independently from the mind (or concepts in general), but how it causes the mind (or concepts in general). Materialism does not answer the same question as idealism. It doesn’t ask about the object of thought (“what is really the case out there?”). To suppose that thinking is representing an object is an idealist supposition, even if this object is argued to be “matter.” Materialism claims, rather, that thinking is continuous with Being—in a sense, it is a function of something else (what you might call “matter,” if you refrain from qualifying it further than “that which comes first and has some causal power”). Thought is not only about something; it is firstly within something. Or, maybe, more minimally, thought is embraced within something larger than itself, something that it is not the measure of, something that is not “objectlike.” Idealism makes the opposite claim, i.e., the claim that thought embraces everything, since whatever there is, for it to be it has to be the object of thought. Being, whatever that is, is what is expressed through thought as by its effect, that to which thought contributes, and not what needs to be represented by thought.9 Being is not what we think about, but what makes us think.

Thirdly (and consequently), materialism immediately includes a critical element, if critique means playing the suppressed or unapparent conditions of an operation against its purported outcome. Indeed, materialism here is not a philosophical doctrine, but a strong relativization of the very importance of defending such philosophical doctrines in general, since they can only be effects and never causes. Materialism, therefore, is not a philosophical doctrine, but rather a modification in the very practice of philosophy in particular, and of all intellectual disciplines in general.

When we bear these three claims in mind we are immediately faced with this question: what is the rationale for what I am doing here right now, i.e. trying to understand Materialism philosophically or to clarify the concept of Materialism? Shouldn’t we drop philosophy altogether and not even bother approaching materialism as a philosophical position?

The question is twofold. Firstly, is philosophy worth practicing or not, according to the Materialist Postulate? Secondly, what does the Materialist Postulate contain in terms of positive claims about the realm of causes that would help us assess the worth of philosophy (i.e., the mechanisms by which speculation changes the world)? In other words, we need to build a particular concept, the concept of materialism, but it can only be one that at the same time criticizes the very possibility of such an endeavor. Critique and construction here must come hand in hand—and this is specific to materialism.

Since we must not presuppose anything that would be incompatible with the critical power of materialism itself, we can only proceed in the following way: the minimal requirements that make the content of the Materialist Postulate must not contain more than what is necessary to criticize themselves. In other words, we mustn’t say more about the concept of materialism than what is at the same time necessary to criticize the very gesture of explicating a concept in general. Materialism is here nothing more than the power to criticize materialism as a concept.

3. Speculative Materialism (Lenin)

We have to start with the question: why would materialism as a practice, as a way of life, as a ‘material’ reality, need any conceptual clarification or speculative construction? What does the concept of materialism add to materialist practices?

The only way to answer to such a question is actually to look at materialist practices and see when, where, why, and to what effect they have met the necessity or simply the effect of conceptual clarifications. We can think of some cases in which speculative interventions have been made in the name of critical materialism in the sense I have just defended. Just to mention a few: Marx in his Theses on Feuerbach; Engels when he invents “dialectical materialism” at the end of the 19th century; Lenin in Materialism and Empirio-criticism, which is a rectification of certain misunderstandings of “critical materialism;” Gramsci in many places of his intellectual adventure; Althusser throughout his entire work, Balibar more recently; etc.

Let’s start with Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-criticism, since it may be the most unexpected of the works I have mentioned. Here is undoubtedly a very speculative book, dealing with the most metaphysical issue one can think of, the issue of the “thing in itself.” Its entire point is to show that, although the definition of matter can vary along with scientific discoveries, the fact that matter precedes and determines thought can be posited as an “unconditioned” and “absolute truth”10: “The mutability of human conceptions of space and time no more refutes the objective reality of space and time than the mutability of scientific knowledge of the structure and forms of matter in motion refutes the objective reality of the external world.”11 This absolute truth is what we identified as the kernel of materialism, the priority of non-thought over thought. It is the only positive content that can be posited in a speculative way, but it has necessarily to be posited:

[T]he antithesis of matter and mind has absolute significance only within the bounds of a very limited field—in this case exclusively within the bounds of the fundamental epistemological problem of what is to be regarded as primary and what as secondary. Beyond these bounds the relative character of this antithesis is indubitable.12

Materialism thus requires a leap into the speculative, since nothing but an act of thought can posit the existence of something that is absolutely and indeterminately beyond and prior to human experience.

But why does Lenin feel the necessity, in the midst of his numerous political activities during the year 1908, to respond to those philosophers who believe they have found in Mach and Avenarius (that is, in some form of pre-Husserlian phenomenology or what I am tempted to call third wave metaphysics) some good foundational grounds for Marxism? The very first paragraphs of the preface to the first edition made it very clear: because those Marxists were in fact “proceeding fearlessly to downright fideism.” Fideism is a word Lenin used because censorship prevented him from using the word he had chosen: “clericalism.” Clericalism, however, makes clear that the problem here is not one of faith or belief; it is a problem of power: the question is how to get rid of the Church as an instrument of power, an institution that uses the idea that there is another world after death where injustice is abolished to secure obedience and resignation in this world. Materialism has thus to go speculative if it wants to live on, because the question as to whether matter is everything or not is at work in some power relations (we might say in passing that religion construed this way might be defined as that place where speculative issues are directly political).

The argument to this point is not satisfactory, however, since Lenin has not explained why fighting ideas might help in fighting powers. He seems to take it simply for granted. This blind spot is one where idealism can easily reconstruct itself: if we hold that ideas matter simply because, as it is well known and easy to experience in our everyday life, the way we think has an impact on what we do, then we have an idealist understanding of why materialism matters!

One might object: Maybe we don’t need such a clarification! After all, since there is no reason for conceptual clarification in general, since the will to knowledge is no longer justified in principle, the question whether this blind spot in Lenin’s speculative materialism matters at all is an open question. It is not enough for a doctrine to be incomplete or incoherent to be wrong: that it is wrong has to matter for its main purpose, or not at all.

But it should matter to Lenin at least—and for the very same reason that fighting empirio-criticism matters. Indeed, if fighting the wrong ideas helps in fighting the powers that use them, then we must not accept an understanding of this relation between speculative ideas and life-changing activities that might be based on those wrong ideas. We need to undermine them everywhere, including in the way they account for our very effort to fight those ideas in view of fighting those powers. It is true, however, that Lenin does not content himself with saying that fighting clericalism requires chasing idealist notions away even from our most metaphysical intuitions. Clericalism is not only, for Lenin, a matter of ideas; it is also a way of approaching problems in general, including the problem of clericalism. It is, in fact, a style of intellectual intervention.

The third wave materialists, tempted by Mach and Avenarius, are not only wrong about materialism because they introduce false ideas, but also because they approach problems as pure intellects, as professors, as if the problems were interesting in themselves. On the contrary, the true materialist should approach them as a revolutionary, with one question in mind: how does this help building a powerful working class organization? This difference transpires in the very way professors write about those problems, as opposed to the way Lenin does: while they try to make a problem subtle and are attracted by conceptual complexity for its own sake, as an object of contemplation and aesthetic pleasure (which it is, undoubtedly), the revolutionary looks for clear directions, does not hesitate to trivialize the arguments when necessary, tries to assess the difference in terms of consequences, etc. While professors claim to only assess ideas and confront propositions, Lenin is not afraid of ad hominem arguments: indeed, the question asked here is not only whether what is said is true or false, but rather what sort of life is promoted through this or that expression.

Materialism, in other words, is for Lenin not only a question of content, it is also a question of style, of writing style and of life style. By life we must understand all those networks that sustain the existence of the one who speaks. The way professors live makes it impossible for them to convey materialism in fact: they can mean it, but not contribute to it as a mode of life. Indeed, they are paid to think: their identity as intellectual workers implies that intellectual work is separated from non-intellectual life, as if they didn’t have to take part in other aspects of life in order to think properly. They contribute to clericalism not because of the indirect implications of what they say, but because of the very way they live: they live as clerics, and clericalism is neither a doctrine nor an institutional structure, it is the name of this state of separation between thought and life where the division of labor makes of intellectuals specialized workers. Materialism would thus require much more than possessing or producing the right ideas; it would require a different connection of intellectual activity and other activities, a connection where the former is not separated from the latter, and it would require a different practice of theory, both in the sense of the way theory is inserted in the web of life connections and in the sense of the style in which it is delivered.

Are we supposed to discard any contribution made by professors? This would disqualify immediately almost all of us here, starting with myself. Besides, is it not imprudent to dismiss the separation, or the autonomy, of thought, in general, and reduce the interest of an idea to its function in some political struggle? The disastrous episode of Lysenko’s “proletarian science” is here to remind us of the ravages this idea might cause in our intellectual and political lives alike. We could push the point a little further and argue that stressing the gratuitousness of some parts of human labor in general and of intellectual labor in particular is actually a political point, and one that might not be so incompatible with communist values, in particular with the notion of free work or emancipation. Pointless expenditure (in the sense of Bataille, if you wish) might be considered a communist value, and speculation might be precisely the best example of gratuitousness.

However, to attribute to Lenin a position similar to Lysenko’s would be a straightforward misreading. Indeed, it is not all intellectual activity that has to be uncovered as serving this or that political party; it is only philosophy. Scientific practices are relatively independent from this fate. Lenin makes it very clear in a short but very significant passage of Materialism and Empirio-criticism:

Not a single one of these professors, who are capable of making very valuable contributions in the special fields of chemistry, history, or physics, can be trusted one iota when it comes to philosophy. Why? For the same reason that not a single professor of political economy, who may be capable of very valuable contributions in the field of factual and specialised investigations, can be trusted one iota when it comes to the general theory of political economy. For in modern society the latter is as much a partisan science as is epistemology. Taken as a whole, the professors of economics are nothing but learned salesmen of the capitalist class, while the professors of philosophy are learned salesmen of the theologians.13

How are we to understand this statement? Why are sciences relatively immune to political struggle? Why is philosophy, on the contrary, necessarily a “partisan science”? Lenin does not give us much of a hint here. He suggests that it is the difference between a “special” and “general” science that is at stake here. But how does this help us understand the issue? Why are specialized claims more independent from material conflicts than general ones?

Lenin leaves us with a certain number of questions. We will focus on two:

(1) Do we have a good materialist concept of the relative autonomy of science with respect to political struggle, by comparison with philosophy?

(2) Why is it philosophy that bears the weight of class struggle in theory? And do we have a good materialist account of the way conceptual thought contributes to class struggle?

The importance of Althusser’s intervention in the history of materialism is to have faced those issues. We will now turn to his contribution.

4. Structural Materialism (Althusser)

The question of the role and position of philosophy in and for materialism is the running worry of Althusser’s entire body of work. It would be easy to show that Althusser’s adhesion to the French Communist Party in 1947 is a consequence of his most consistent decision: that philosophy must become the world, which is, as Sartre argue, what happened with Marxism. For the sake of our purposes, we will summarize Althusser’s contribution in two theses:

(1) Sciences are relatively autonomous (as all structures are), but they are characterized by the way they internalize their own structural finitude in their very mode of production.

(2) Philosophy is precisely the point where scientific activity meets political issues, for reasons that have to do with the very nature of politics, i.e. with its materiality.

As we will see, the answers to these two questions all have to do with the notion of structure, true materialism being thus ultimately revealed as structural materialism.

(1) Let’s start with the first point. Sciences cannot escape from the general law of human practices: they are just one of them. If they can be relatively autonomous, it is not thanks to some kind of miraculous property of theirs, but because practices in general leave room for autonomy. The general reason for this autonomy holds to the fact that practices are structured. The concept of structure comes into play here for the first time to account for the autonomy of what Althusser calls “levels.” Structure refers here to the fact that a certain number of aspects of some human practices can only be explained by other aspects of the same practice. Language is a good example. The very existence of a phoneme depends on the existence of other phonemes. The difficulty we have not just in first understanding, but in first perceiving, for instance, a name in a foreign language (say, Japanese), is due to the fact that this perception is differential. Linguistic sounds don’t simply exist as isolated physical signals; they perceptively emerge on the background of the play of differences that we call our language. Let’s emphasize the fact that we are here talking of the very existence of a linguistic entity: structures are not principles of organization of already given entities, but principles of constitution for entities that only exist in relation to one another. Let’s note also before moving forward that this does not mean that languages are immune either to all non-linguistic influences or to history. It means that whatever forces are exerted in language will have to go through the filters of systems. For instance, factors of social distinction might explain why, at a certain point in its history, speakers of French muted the final “e,” but didn’t anticipate and could not escape the systemic consequences of this “choice,” which is that the entire conjugation system had to change.14

To construct this concept of autonomy, Althusser introduces a certain number of theses that give his “structuralism” its distinctive flavor.15

First, structures must be defined in such a way that they can be reduced neither to some general human Praxis (as in the humanist version of Marxism which, for Althusser, was embodied primarily by Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason), nor to any specific structure, in particular not to economic processes (as in economism, which goes hand in hand with humanism). That implies that structures must each have their own logic (i.e., their way of being systematic), which cannot be superimposed on the logic of other ones in any isomorphic way, hence the importance of the concept décalage.

Secondly (and for the same reason), the existence and nature of those structures are not transhistorical facts, since that would imply the possibility of identifying one general entity unfolding itself in history under its variations. In other words, not all societies have been layered in language, economy, kinship, religion, politics, etc., as ours seems to be. History is not only about what happens on those different layers, but also about their very existence. Religion, politics, ideas, etc., are necessarily equivocal notions that need to be redefined in the context of their structural relations, i.e., in a critical way.

Thirdly, this autonomy is only relative. Not because its scope would extend only to certain number of actions and stop at a certain point, but because it is itself contingent on one particular “layer,” the layer of production, where the very variation of structural layering (stratification) is governed. In fact, truly speaking, it is not a layer, since it does not exist separately, but only as the principle of layering in each case. The difference between structural materialism and dogmatic materialism is precisely that the former avoids reductionism, because it does not identify the primary cause, i.e., matter, to any particular substantial plane of reference, as if we knew already where to look for the heteronomy of our practices and by what means this heteronomy operates; it rather makes of it the very reason why we always need to investigate afresh. It is critical, in the sense that it must relativize the supposedly universal categories used to study history (including the very notion of history itself).

Fourthly, this relative autonomy means that those layers are not simply independent from one another; they exist differentially, in the system of their contrasts (“décalages”). Religion exists through the set of the differences by which it distinguishes itself in one particular society from politics and family, etc. The structural cause is not any particular substantial level of reality but the system of intervals, disparities, differences, which keep one structured layer at a remove from another. In other words, Althusser uses the Saussurian concept of structure to think not only of the systematic organization of each layer, but also of the relation between structures—and this is why he can avoid both reductionism and idealism. The concept of structure provides the notion of cause that the materialist tradition needed: the cause can be said to be “absent” simply because it cannot be identified to any particular substantial being; but it is nonetheless a cause.

For all those reasons we can say that the notion of structure, far from being deterministic, is the concept of the deeper contingency of the very layers of practice. This finitude is itself marked within each structured system, in the blanks it is surrounded by, i.e. in that for which it cannot account. Events that have no room in the systematic space opened by a structure can indeed occur, but they will go unremarked: they will act as elusive and vanishing events. Althusser gives many examples of this sort of situation in Marx’s own corpus, but it is a general property of structures. It is through those elusive points that alternative structures communicate with one another.

As impressive and convincing as all this might be, however, it has not allowed us to start answering our question: if all structures are relatively autonomous, what is specific to scientific practices? Why would they be more “immune” to class struggle than philosophy or religion, which after all are also structured practices? It is here that the (in)famous “epistemological cut” makes its appearance. Although Althusser will vary in the precise construction of this concept, he will never abandon it (as he makes it clear in his “Autocritique”16). To summarize brutally what would require a very complex development, we can say that the difference between ideology and science for Althusser is that the first one is aimed at locking or foreclosing artificially the space of its problematic (the space of possibilities it constitutes, which, as we have seen, necessarily includes marks of its own finitude), while the other not only acknowledges its finitude (which is, at the same time, its openness), but strives to do something with it. Science is a practice that constantly tries to let itself altered by its own structural finitude. Science is thus defined not by the fact that it represents anything adequately, but by the mode of production that characterizes it, a mode of production that constantly relativizes its own working system within itself. It is in this sense that it is materialist, and not in the sense that it would hope to reduce everything eventually to one substantial plane of reference.

(2) Now, what about philosophy? Here Althusser’s position varied significantly. At first, he basically argued that philosophy was a way to accompany radical changes, either in politics or in science. He implied that philosophy could not take any initiative. However, in the last period of his work, he revised this doctrine and redefined philosophy as “class struggle in theory.”17

A large part of Althusser’s work is of course devoted to correcting the mistaken philosophical views that Marxist materialism had of itself, through producing a materialist concept of contradiction (which appeals to structuralism), thus completing the task of articulating a coherent speculative materialism. But we might accept that the Hegelian concept of contradiction is indeed incompatible with materialist premises (contradiction being a logical concept, to claim that something is self-contradictory is to claim that it can be resolved in logical relations—and thus to be arguing in favor of idealism). We may even recognize that Althusser’s conceptual system is the ontology that the idea of materialism required. We will still ask, why does it matter? How do concepts have an impact on how we do things (including how we try to produce a science of history)? On this, Althusser hesitates. It can even be argued that this question is the central impetus and the running thread of his entire work, that which makes it stall and start again. The suspicion that the philosopher’s life is lived for nothing (the life of a parasite, a life in debt and even a risible life), as well, however, as the determination to do justice to the importance of speculation for revolution itself, is the constant worry of Althusser’s philosophical and personal adventure. Consequently, it is possible to find traces of this effort in Althusser’s entire corpus.

I think the last word of this untiring effort is to be found in a posthumous text only recently published, Philosophy for Non-Philosophers.18 Nowhere else, perhaps, do we find so complete and detailed an account of Althusser’s entire philosophical system taken as a response to the question: why does speculation matter? The gist of his position in Philosophy for Non-Philosophers can be summarized as follows: (i) philosophy is speculative in the sense that it is the bricolage of totalizing views, discourses on everything that include both existent and inexistent objects, itself accomplished by totalizing means, that is by means of conceptual systems—or rather, Althusser says, structures; (ii) philosophy matters because practices, although diverse, need to be unified, since each practice comes with its own ideological apparatus, thus making it difficult to insure the hegemonic function of ideology, i.e., its capacity to secure the domination of one class over the other ones by way of including the latter ones within the worldview of the former one. The important category is thus the category of totality. Philosophy is identified by Althusser with a certain idea of metaphysics, or, at least, with speculative thought.

Speculation does not appear as any specialized and optional activity that would come on the top of other ones, but as something that is already distributed in the masses and that belongs to the very existence of all practice as one of its conditions. Althusser thus does justice to the fact that everybody thinks: speculation is not an arbitrary whim but an activity deeply rooted in the necessities of our life. However, unlike the entire idealist tradition, he does not ground speculation in some metaphysical need, but in the logic of class struggle, itself rooted in the necessity of practical life (firstly because production requires exploitation, hence conflict, and secondly because exploitation requires ultimately a form of hegemony in the Gramscian sense). But philosophy is not speculation in general: religion is another sort of speculation—it could even be shown that myth in the Levi-Straussian sense has the same unifying function!

Philosophical speculation has, argues Althusser, two specific features: (1) it is professionalized to a certain extent, since it is entrusted to a group of experts to forge conceptual propositions that, in one way or the other, contribute to the unification of practices—which means that it is a form of conscious and reflective speculation; and (2) it responds to the appearance of scientific practices that challenge the established order, says Althusser, “because [they] gave human beings the evidence that some absolute knowledge of things could come from their own scientific practice and not from divine revelation.”19 Speculation thus tries to repair the breaks made by scientific practices in the fabric of our ideological life.

A materialist account of the necessity of speculation thus appeals to the fact that practices are diverse (relatively autonomous) but need to communicate, not because of any natural need for unification in the human mind, but rather as a consequence of the hegemonic nature of class struggle, which requires that the dominant class rule over all the aspects on the human life in order to secure its domination in the productive process. All philosophy has thus a comparative dimension, since it tries to negotiate the heterogeneity of ideologies due to the heterogeneity of the practices they contribute to.20

This, then, is materialism: here, the concept of the cause of conceptual thinking in general (i.e., speculation) is exactly coextensive with the relativization of philosophy. Class struggle is both that which is repressed from the dominant philosophical tradition (idealism) and that which causes speculation in general (the reason why it does have an impact in the world). Materialism, however, cannot be any particular theory of speculation; it is the practice of philosophy that lets itself be altered by the realization of both its necessity and its heteronomy. To be a materialist in philosophy, for Althusser (as for Lenin and, later, for Balibar), is not (only) to articulate a materialist worldview (including a materialist theory of the role of philosophy), but rather to practice philosophy in a specific way. Which way, exactly? Firstly, it is a way of practicing philosophy that accepts its conflicting nature as well its partisan logic, which means that philosophical ideas do not matter only because some individual consciousness can consider them true or false, but by the way they contribute to some collective body of power (as organic intellectuals in Gramsci’s sense).

Secondly, it does not try to provide ultimate justifications for practices, but instead tries to liberate new inchoate practices from the ideological (i.e., political) obstacles that impede them. Thirdly, and correlatively, although involved in the exercise of totalization that defines speculation in general, materialism uses it to expose that which needs to be repressed for the dominant totalizing view of a time to constitute itself. Althusser mentions as examples: matter, work, body, gender, age, prisoners, savages, madmen and women, power relations, etc.21 These are the materialities. They are not mere objects that would wait out there to be accurately represented by us; they are critical elements that cannot be taken on board without changing the very way we represent things in general and altering the very position of the activity of representing things in the balance of our practices. They can be said to exist in the exact measure as they change us, i.e., as they operate a structural variation within our speculative systems. Which is not to say that they exist only for us, since it is not we who are the measure of their existence, but precisely our own finitude, or, more precisely, the fact that changes can make us vanish. They are outside of us, although it would make no sense to posit them as objects of representation. This position is the only one that avoids both idealism and dogmatism.

Eventually, a materialist practice of philosophy constantly articulates the professional and technical aspect of philosophy (philosophers are professors that study already existent philosophical systems) and the savage speculation that it is distributed in the masses (“every human being is virtually a philosopher”22), which implies (as Lenin already argued ) a particular style of writing (and Althusser does illustrate this style in particular in this late work). In other words, materialist philosophy requires much more than a modification either of the contents or of the styles of philosophers; it requires a new alliance between academics and activists, or, more precisely, between academics and those who fight at the heart of the productive process (“workers”).

Materialism thus appears to be critical, speculative, and structural. Of course, much more would have to be said in order to articulate fully this concept of materialism. But enough, I hope, has been offered to make clear why a concept of materialism matters: it matters because it tells us why speculation, in general, matters. Indeed, we need both to acknowledge the necessity of speculation in our life in general, and to resist the very unrealistic account of speculation generally given by philosophers (including the “speculative materialists” of our time).23 We need to do with regard to philosophy what Bruno Latour has argued was the aim of anthropology in general, that is, send back to those who are involved in a particular practice (say, the sciences) an image of their practice that corrects the fantastic story they tell themselves about it, while doing justice to its power and significance.24 In our time, one work has continued this secular endeavor to contribute to materialism understood not as a philosophical doctrine but as a transformation of the very practice of philosophy—that of Étienne Balibar. The preceding lines have no other purpose than to introduce his work and suggest the reader approach it while keeping in mind the problem of materialism as I have defined it here—in other words, they are meant to argue why and where Balibar’s work matters.


Patrice Maniglier is Senior Lecturer in philosophy and performing arts at the Université Paris Nanterre.


Published on May 29, 2018

1. See Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency trans. Ray Brassier (London: Continuum, 2008); François Laruelle’s contribution, “The Generic as Predicate and Constant: Non-Philosophy and Materialism” (trans. Taylor Adkins), to The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, ed. Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman (Melbourne: Re.Press, 2011), pp. 237–260; and Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

2. See, for example, Catherine Malabou, “Le vide politique du réalisme contemporain, ou pourquoi je suis matérialiste,” lecture at Choses en soi, Paris, November 19, 2016, (

3. Smart, Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v. “Materialism,” (Accessed Jan. 14, 2018).

4. Ernst Cassirer, Language, vol. 1 of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, trans. Ralph Manheim (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965), p. 73.

5. On this, see Étienne Balibar, The Philosophy of Marx, trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso, 1995); and Pierre Machery, Marx 1845: Les “Thèses” sur Feuerbach (Paris: Èditions Amsterdam, 2008).

6. Louis Althusser, Ecrits philosophiques et politiques [Paris: Le Livre de Poche], 1999, p. 313; my translation. The French reads “accepter de partager leur langage et leur vérité comme vous partagez leur pain.”

7. V.I. Lenin, introduction to Materialism and Empirio-criticism, trans. Abraham Fineberg, vol. 14 of Lenin: Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1972); available online at The original quote is from Friedrich Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach, in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1958,), vol. 2 pp. 369-70.

8. Althusser speaks of the “opacity of the immediate” as the core intuition of materialism, which he sees first represented in Spinoza (“From Capital” to Marx’s Philosophy, in Louis Althusser, Étienne Balibar, Roger Establet, Pierre Macherey, and Jacques Rancière, Reading Capital: The Complete Edition, trans. Ben Brewster and David Fernbach [London: Verso, 2015], p. 8).

9. One might recognize in the opposition between representation and expression formulations very close to those used by Deleuze throughout his entire work, starting with the very first published text he acknowledged. (Gilles Deleuze,“Review of Jean Hyppolite’s Logique et Existence,” in Desert Islands and Other Texts (1953–1974), trans. Mike Taormina, ed. David Lapoujade [Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2004]). Althusser will prefer the word ‘production’ to the word ‘expression’, but the general move in the same.

10. See Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism, ch. II, §5 and ch. III, §1.

11. Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism, ch. III, §5.

12. Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism, ch. III, §1.

13. Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism, ch. 6, §4.

14. For all this, see my book on Saussure, ,La Vie Énigmatique des Signes, Saussure et la Naissance du structuralisme (Paris: Léo Scheer, 2006); for a summary in English, see my essay “Signs and Customs: Lévi-Strauss, Practical Philosopher,” Common Knowledge 22:3 (September, 2016), pp. 415–30.

15. I draw here freely from Althusser’s For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster (London: Verso, 2005) and Reading Capital.

16. Louis Althusser, Éléments d’Autocritique (Paris: Hachette, 1974), p. 17; Essays in Self-Criticism, trans. Grahame Locke (London: Humanities Press, 1978).

17. For this last definition see Louis Althusser, “Réponse à John Lewis,” (Paris: Maspéro, 1973); “Response to John Lewis,” in Essays in Self-Criticism.

18. Louis Althusser, Initiation à la philosophie pour les non-philosophes (Paris : Presses Universitaires de France, 2014) ; Philosophy for Non-Philosophers, trans. G.M. Goshgarian (London : Bloomsbury, 2017).

19. Althusser, Initiation à la philosophie, p. 341.

20. It is worth noting that this conception of philosophy is remarkably similar to the one recently defended by Bruno Latour in his last masterpiece An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (trans. Catherine Porter, Cambridge : Harvard University Press, 2013), i.e. philosophy as diplomacy. On the notion of philosophy as a form of radical comparatism, see Patrice Maniglier, “Manifeste pour un comparatisme supérieur,” Temps Modernes, n°682 (Juillet 2015).

21. Althusser, Initiation à la philosophie, p. 100–102.

22. Althusser, Initiation à la philosophie, p. 385.

23. I have exposed the reasons why I believe the notion of “speculation” found in Meillassoux, for instance, is unrealistic in Patrice Maniglier, “Post-Metaphysical Meditations: Reflections on ‘Speculative Realism,’” in New Existentialism ed. Time Griffin (Dijon: Presses du Réel, 2017).”

24. Bruno Latour, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge : Harvard University Press, 2013).