6 February 2012

Althusser: Philosophy of Science

Althusser does have something meaningful to say; it is just buried in mumbo-jumbo.

According to Goran Therborn, “Science, Class and Society” (1976) we can identify at least four elements in Althusser’s philosophy of science. I have simplified and reworded Therborn as follows:

The MATERIALIST POSTULATE: there is an independent material world out there, and we subjects try to comprehend it.

The ANTI-EMPIRICAL POSTULATE. Science investigates its object; however the object does not present itself to us directly, but has to be theoretically constructed. What does this mean? Let’s take an analogy. Well imagine you were teaching someone politics and your student asked you define politics. You couldn’t do it without supposing he or she knew what politics was. You would have to construct the object of your investigation.

The DISCONTINUITY POSTULATE. Every science has its own system of concepts. For example terms like ‘base’ and ‘surplus value’ acquire their meaning in a terminology tied to historical materialism and cannot be used with the same meaning outside it. This way of thinking shares much with the theory of scientific paradigms developed by Thomas Kuhn.

The ANTI-PRAGMATISM POSTULATE. Science is distinct from ideology in that it is poses questions which cannot be answered by reference to the object alone (Questions within ideology presuppose their own answers). At this point there is even some affinity with Popper! Yet, according to Althusser there is no possibility of external verification because the methodology of science is determined by its object.

Althusser was indeed a Stalinist in his politics, but that is about as relevant to the value of his philosophy as Aristotelian logic is to slave owning. The great shame of Althusser – apart from the fact that he was mad and strangled his wife – is his obscurantism, so what he did say that was meaningful is buried in mumbo-jumbo and tangled prose overflowing with pretentious and muddled metaphor.


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