Althusser's rejection of Dialectics via Spinoza

by Mustafa Cemal

Althusser, in Reading Capital differentiates between two types of causality; one is between separated elements, the other is the effect of the whole on the parts. He then defines his position proposing a new of concept of the "effect of the structure on the parts" where totality is the cause of parts, which is not present at the moment. In other words, there is no inner essence that explains any social entity whether, in his words, political, ideological, economic or individual. The cause is immanent in its effects. Every social entity as effect has present-absent cause. Causes of any event infinitely spread over the structural totality.

"It is impossible to think the existence of this totality in the Hegelian category of the contemporaneity of the present. ... of the economic infrastucture, of the legal and political superstructure, of ideologies and theoretical formations (philosophy, sciences) can no longer be thought in the co-existence of the Hegelian present, of the ideological present in which temporal presence coincides with the presence of the essence with its phenomena." 99 (*)

He thinks this is at the same time Marx's resolution to the inner essence - outer phenomena paradox after Spinoza, even though he had not much knowledge of him. He writes;

"the structure is immanent in its effects, a cause immanent in its effects in the Spinozist sense of the term, that the whole existence of the structure consists of its effects, in short that the structure, which is merely a specific combination of its peculiar elements, is nothing outside its effects." 189

Here, structure, alluding to Durkheim who said "Society is God," corresponds to the substance of Spinoza:

"Prop. VI. BY GOD, I mean a being absolutely infinite -- that is, a substance consisting in infinite attributes, of which each expresses eternal and infinite essentiality."

For Spinoza, substance has no external cause, that is, it has the cause of itself within itself. Reality is single substance and this substance is infinite. While there is only one substance, the "nature" is divided into two: attributes of substance (natura naturans) and modes of attributes (natura naturata). Spinoza says, an attribute is "that which an intellect perceives as constituting the essence of substance." On the other hand individual "things" are modifications of the attributes of substance. The world consists of the modes of substance's attributes. The things have both essence and existence. But the essence produced by God does not involve existence. God is the efficient cause not only of existence of things, but also of their essence. There is not particular essence of totality, but God's power is identical with essence. God by the necessity of his nature is the efficient cause. It is this, called "overdetermination."

I think I have sufficiently shown Althusser's borrowing from Spinoza, which he never denied. He attributes these ideas to Marx only by a single quotation from Poverty of Philosophy, over all of his works:

"In all forms of society, it is a determinate production and its relations which assign every other production and its relations their rank and influence. It is a general illumination (Beleuchtung) in which all the other colours are plunged and which modifies their special tonalities. It is a special ether which defines the specific weight of every existence arising in it."

By that way, he tries to demonstrate that Marx in fact has this idea without the word of it. But because of obvious incongruity, at least with the infrastructure-superstructure metaphor, he ineluctably makes an ad hoc. He bestows determinacy for economics "in the last instance." It is another matter from what he understands by the term "economics" to which I pass now.

Exteriority/interiority, inside/outside, essence/phenomena, intimate relation/external relation, reality in itself/surface etc., all of these plenitude of terms that Althusser randomly writes indicates only his confusion about dialectics. I leave for another discussion to explore Marx's position, Hegel's concept of Essence and Althusser's other Spinozist idea, concerned with how Hegel criticized Spinoza:

"He merely assumes individual determinations, and does not deduce them from substance. In the other hand, the negation is present only as Nothing, for in the absolute there is no mode; the negative is not there, but only its dissolution, its return: we do not find its movement, its Becoming and Being." (Lectures on the History of Philosophy)

As in Durkheim, Althusser too does not deduce individuals from the structural totality. Individuals for him are only carrier (träger) of relations of productions.

*All quotations are from, "Althusser, L. & Balibar, E. 1977 [1968]. Reading Capital. London: The Gresham Press."