Althusser: ‘What is Philosophy?’

* Source: Louis Althusser, ‘Chapitre I: Qu-est que la philosophie?’ in La reproduction des rapports de production, Jacques Bidet (ed.), Paris: Presse Universitaires France, 1995, pp. 31-40. I’ve added some notes, which are in square brackets. N.B. This is a practice translation, so it isn’t going to be perfect, and is probably a bit clunky. Any corrections or tips on translation technique or style are welcome.

I. Commonsense philosophy and Philosophy

Everyone spontaneously believes that they know what philosophy is, and yet philosophy is said to be a mysterious activity, difficult and inaccessible to ordinary mortals. How can we explain this contradiction?

Let’s examine its terms a little more closely.

If everyone believes that they spontaneously know what philosophy is, it is on the basis of the following conviction: all men are more or less philosophers, even if they don’t know it (like Monsieur Jourdain: writing prose without knowing it).[1]

It is a thesis the great Italian Marxist theorist Gramsci supports: ‘every man is a philosopher’.[2] And Gramsci gives interesting details. He observes that, in popular language, the expression ‘taking things philosophically’ designates an attitude that contains in itself a definite idea of philosophy related to the idea of rational necessity. Whoever, in the face of a painful event, ‘takes things philosophically’ is a man who stands back, restrains his immediate reaction, and conducts himself in a rational manner: he understands and accepts the necessity of the event that affects him.

Of course, says Gramsci, that attitude may involve an element of passivity (‘be philosophical’, meaning ‘tend to your own garden’, ‘mind your own business’, ‘each to his own':[3] in short, it often resigns itself to necessity and with that resignation withdraws to its private life, domesticity, trivial matters, and wait for things to ‘blow over’). Gramsci doesn’t deny this: but he insists on the fact that this passivity paradoxically contains the recognition of a certain order of things, as necessary, as intelligible.

Yet, at the same time, we find in its popular portrayal (as Plato already says) another idea of philosophy, embodied in the figure of the philosopher, who lives with his head in the clouds or in abstractions, and who ‘falls down a well’ (in Greece, wells did not have walls like ours do) because they didn’t have their eyes on the ground, but on the heaven of ideas. That caricature, thanks to which the ‘people’ can laugh at philosophers, is itself ambiguous. On the one hand, it portrays an ironic critique of philosophy: an affectionate or bitter settling of accounts with philosophy. But on the other hand, it involves a de facto recognition: philosophers practice a discipline that is beyond the reach of ordinary people, the simple people,[4] and is at the same time a discipline that entails grave risk.

Gramsci only takes account of the first element of the contradiction, but does not take account of the second.

In the correct method, we cannot break things in two and keep what is convenient to us. We must account for all the elements of the popular portrayal of philosophy.

It appears then that in the popular expression ‘taking things philosophically’, what jumps out, is that before anything else the resignation to necessity must be taken as inevitable (‘we wait for things to blow over’ or until we die: ‘a philosopher learns how to die’ – Plato).[5] The recognition of ‘rational necessity’ moves into the background. It then becomes necessity as such (the reason for it is unknown to us; it therefore isn’t rational), i.e. fate (‘we haven’t the means to do otherwise’). This is generally the case; a crucial observation.

First, because it puts the accent on the idea that philosophy = resignation. It may not be possible to tell [dire] that this identity contains, in fact, and in spite of itself, an idea of philosophy which possesses a critical value. What we we will show is that, effectively, the immense majority of philosophies are forms of resignation, or to be more precise they are a submission to the ‘ideas of the ruling class’ (Marx), thus to class rule.

Next because it contains a distinction between two completely different types of philosophy. On the one hand there is a passive and resigned ‘philosophy’ which ‘takes things philosophically’ by ‘tending to its own garden’ and by ‘waiting for things to blow over’ (we will call that ‘philosophy’ commonsense philosophy). But on the other hand there is an active philosophy which submits itself to the order of the world because it knows it through Reason; it submits itself either to know the world, or to change it (we call that Philosophy as such, and we write its name with a capital letter). For example, a Stoic philosopher: he is a ‘philosopher’ in so far as he actively conforms to the order of the world, and this rational order is so because he knows it through the exercise of Reason. Or, a communist philosopher: he is a ‘philosopher’ in so far as his arguments hasten the coming of socialism, which he knows (from scientific reason) is historically necessary. We claim that all the disciples of Stoicism, and all the communist militants are, in this respect, philosophers in the second sense of the word, the strong sense. They ‘take’ if you like ‘things philosophically': but in their case, this expression relates to knowledge of the rational necessity of the course of the World, or of the development of History. Of course, there is a big difference between the disciple of Stoicism and the communist militant, but this difference does not interest us for the moment. We will talk about it later.

What is essential, for the time being, is to be clear that commonsense philosophy, which the popular expression is talking about, must not be confused with Philosophy in the strong sense of the term, the philosophy ‘elaborated’ by the philosophers (Plato … the Stoics, &c., Marx, Lenin) which may or may not be spread, or rather disseminated among the popular masses. Today, when we encounter philosophical elements in the popular portrayal of the broad masses, this dissemination must be taken into account, otherwise we can mistake elements which are Philosophical in the strong sense for the spontaneous popular consciousness, when these elements have in fact been ‘inculcated‘ (Lenin, Mao) in the masses by the union of Marxist theory and the Labour Movement.

A- That Philosophy can be something entirely different than the ‘philosophy’ of commonsense is explicitly recognised elsewhere in the popular portrayal of Philosophy,  when it ironically shows us the philosopher with his head ‘in the clouds’. This irony, which is a sympathetic, ironic or severe settling of accounts with a speculative Philosophy, which is incapable of occupying itself with earthly problems, contains at the same time a ‘grain of truth’ (Lenin), namely that true philosophy ‘moves’  in an ‘other world’ than the world of spontaneous popular consciousness (tentatively the world of ‘ideas’). Philosophy ‘knows’ and says things that ordinary men don’t know, it must travel the difficult path of abstraction to attain this higher ‘knowledge’, which is not immediately given to all men. In that sense, we can no longer say that every man is a spontaneous philosopher, unless we play, as Gramsci does, on the meaning of the word ‘philosophy’, unless commonsense philosophy is confused with Philosophy (as such).

So we fall back to our question: what is philosophy.  But at the same time we realise that our first question was pregnant with with a second one: what is commonsense philosophy?

To respond to this double-question, we will develop a number of Theses which will introduce a certain number of realities. It is only when we have put these realities in place, that we can return to our questions, and respond to them.

II. Philosophy has not always existed

We begin with this simple observation: if commonsense philosophy, as it seems, has always existed, Philosophy has not always existed.

We know how Lenin begins his famous work on the State and Revolution. Lenin observes: the State has not always existed. He adds: we observe the existence of the state only in societies which include the existence of social classes.

We will make an observation of the same sort, but it is going to be slightly more complicated.

We will say: Philosophy has not always existed. We observe the existence of Philosophy in societies that include:

  1. The existence of social classes (and thus the State);
  2. The existence of the sciences (or of one science).

To be clear: by science we understand not simply a list of empirical knowledge (which could also be very long: as the Chaldeans and Egyptians knew a considerable number of technical formulae and mathematical results) but an abstract and ideal (or rather ideational) discipline that proceeds by abstraction and demonstrations: like Greek Mathematics, founded by Thales – or whoever that names designates, who is no doubt mythical.

If we return to our observation, it indeed seems that we are justified by the facts. We can observe this in both the past and present.

It is a fact that Philosophy, as far we know, began with Plato in Greece in the fifth century before our era. Now, we note that Greek society included social classes (first condition), and that on the eve of the fifth century the first science known to the world, namely Mathematics, began to exist as science (second condition). These two realities, social classes and (demonstrative) mathematical science, were registered in the Philosophy of Plato – and united in it. Plato wrote on the door of the school where he taught Philosophy: ‘let no-one enter here who is ignorant of geometry’. And made use of the ‘geometric proportion’ (which founded the idea of proportional equality, that is to say inequality) to establish class relations between men suitable to his aristocratic and reactionary convictions (there are men who are made to work and others to command, and finally others to establish, over slaves and artisans, the order of class rule).

But let’s not go too fast.

We will indeed record this further fact. There existed other class societies well before fifth century Greece, but they did not possess the idea of a demonstrative science, and, effectively, they did not have the idea of Philosophy. Examples: Greece itself before the fifth century, the great kingdoms of the Middle East, Egypt, &c. It seems clear that, for Philosophy to exist, the two conditions that we have cited are required: the necessary condition (the existence of classes) and the sufficient condition (the existence of science).

It may be objected: but men who are call ‘philosophers’ existed before Plato, for example the Seven Sages, the ‘Ionian Philosophers’, &c. We will respond to that objection a little later.

Let us return to the conditions we have defined and continue our observations.

This discipline without precedent, Philosophy, was founded by Plato, but it did not stop with Plato’s death. It survived him as a discipline, and has always found men to practice it, as if there was a need for the existence of Philosophy: not only to exist, but to perpetuate itself in a unique way, almost as if it repeated something important in its own transformations.

But, why has it kept going and transformed?

We observe that that this continuation and development has taken place in what we call the ‘Western World’ (relatively isolated from other parts of the world until the rise of capitalism): a world where classes and the State have continued to exist, and where the sciences have known great developments, but where the class struggle has also known great transformations.

And Philosophy, what happened to it?

Well, we will establish that.

III. Politico-scientific conjunctions and Philosophy

We will observe that Philosophy has known, as well, important transformations. Aristotle is not same as Plato, Stoicism is not same as Aristotle, Descartes is not same as Saint Thomas, Kant is not same as Descartes, &c. Did these transformations take place for no reason, with no other reason than the inspiration of great authors? Or if we want to formulate the question differently: why have these authors become great authors, while a mass of other philosophers, who have written a lot of books, have remained – so to speak – in the shadow, without playing a historical role?

Once again, we will make some observations.

We will observe, maybe to our surprise, that all the great transformations in philosophy intervene in history, either when notable changes occur in class relations or in the state, or when great events in the history of science occur: but with this qualification, that notable changes in the class struggle and great events in the history of science seem for the most part to be intensified by their encounter and produce striking effects in Philosophy.

We will give some examples, that we are obliged, given the rudimentary details that we have advanced so far, to present in an extremely schematic form. We will ultimately modify these examples, when we are in possession of further analytic principles.

Regarding the majority of the grand ‘authors’ of Philosophy, we can indeed observe in the conjuncture they thought and wrote under the conjunction of political and scientific events, which represent important changes to the prior conjuncture.

Political events

Scientific events

Authors

Constitution of the Macedonian Empire (end of The City)

Idea of biological science.[6]

Aristotle

Constitution of the Roman Empire

Slavery

Roman Law

Idea of a new physics

The Stoics

Feudalism + the first signs of the return of Roman Law

Disclosure of the scientific discoveries of the Arabs

Saint Thomas

Development of commercial law under Absolute Monarchy

Foundation of mathematical physics by Galileo

Descartes

Rise of the bourgeoisie

French Revolution

Refoundation of phyiscs by Newton

Kant

Contradictions of the French Revolution

(threat to the ‘Fourth Estate’ dismissed during Thermidor and Napoleon: the Civil Code)

First gestations of a theory of history

Hegel

Birth, Growth and first struggles, failures and victories of the Labour Movement

Science of history founded by Marx

Marx-Lenin

(Dialectical Materialism)

Imperialism (rise of the ‘petty bourgeoisie’)

Axiomatisation of mathemaics.

Mathematical logic

Husserl

Crisis of Imperialism

Technological Developments

Heidegger

We will leave the task of making “sense” of the elements of this schematique table to the reader. We will be content to give some simple remarks, that are again extremely schematic, toward one example, Descartes.

We must read carefully: Descartes’s Philosophy, which marks a crucial moment in the history of Philosophy, as it inaugurates what we call ‘modern Philosophy’, emerges within the conjunction of important changes in class relations and the state, on the one hand, and in the history of the sciences on the other.

In class relations: we can draw attention to the development of bourgeois right, itself sanctioned by the development of commodity relations in the period of manufacture under Absolute Monarchy, a new form of the state, representing the form of the state in the transition between the feudal state and the capitalist state.

In the history of science: The foundation of scientific physics by Galileo, representing the great scientific event of Modern Times, comparable only in its importance with two other great discoveries that we know: the foundation of mathematics in the fifth century, and when Marx laid the basis for the Science of History in the middle of the nineteenth century.

We are be no means suggesting that we can deduce the Philosophy of Descartes from the conjunction of these two decisive economico-political and scientific events. We are only saying that the conjuncture, within which Descartes thought, is dominated by their conjunction, which radically distinguishes it from the prior conjunction, for example the conjuncture the Italian Renaissance Philosophers thought within.

We are content for the moment to put the Philosophy of Descartes in relation with that conjuncture (and that conjunction). What interests us in that conjuncture, is this conjunction, which verifies, it seems, the double condition that we earlier put forward to take account of what may count as Philosophy. For the moment, we will say no more about this.[7]

If we want to carefully read the other examples in our table, we will clearly observe that Philosophical transformations are, it seems, related to a complex game, which it cannot contest, between the transformations in class relations and their effects on the one hand, and the great events of the history of science on the other. We will ask no more of this, what it gives us is the plausibility of the condition of existence of Philosophy that we have defined. So much for the past.

But the present?

We will appeal to it to again make our definition more plausible. But we cannot draw attention only to societies where Philosophy exists in the present, but also societies without Philosophy.

There exist in our world societies or human groupings within which Philosophy, such as we known it, has never reached its birth. For example, the societies called ‘primitive’, traces of which still survive. Or, the great societies in which we can still isolate what has been brought in from the outside, considering them – so to speak – in the state they were in before this importation (the importation of the sciences and of philosophy). We can think of examples like India, and China in the nineteenth century, and ask ourselves if these societies which contain social classes (even if they have been hidden within the caste form, as in India), but  (to our knowledge, subject to error on our part) not science, have experienced what we call philosophies in the strict sense.

Hindu Philosophy and Chinese Philosophy are often brought up at this point. It may be that this objection involves theoretical disciplines which have the appearance of Philosophy, but that would no doubt be better called something else. After all, even in the West, we possess a theoretical discipline, Theology, which while being theoretical is not in principle a Philosophy. We can provisionally suggest that this question of so-called Hindu or Chinese Philosophy is of the same order as the question of Greek philosophies before Plato. We will ultimately try to give a response.

To sum up, here is what we have ‘found’ in this investigation, that philosophy has not always existed: we have found (empirically) that the existence of philosophy and its transformations seem closely related to the conjunction of important events in class relations and the state on the one hand, and in the history of science on the other.

This does not mean that we have said something we haven’t. At the point we have reached, we have only established the existence of a relation between these conditions and philosophy. But as yet we know nothing of the nature of this relation. To see this relation clearly, we will be forced to advance some new theses, and make a very long detour. This detour passes, as I have previously announced,[8]through the exposition of the scientific results of historical materialism which we need to produce a scientific definition of philosophy. And to begin with through the question: what is a ‘society’?


[1] [A reference to the second act of Moliere’s play Le bourgeois gentilhomme. The main character, Monsieur Jourdain, discovers from his philosophy teacher that all language is either prose or verse, and so that he has been speaking prose his entire life: ‘These forty years now I’ve been speaking prose without knowing it.’]

[2] [Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York: International Publishers, 1971) pp. 323f., 447.]

[3] [Althusser uses a series of idiomatic expressions here: cultiver son jardin, s’occuper de ses oignons, voir midi à sa port. The first is the final line from Voltaire’s Candide and I have translated it directly. I’ve attempted to give the meaning of the latter two expressions.]

[4] [‘des simples des gens du peuple‘. This is a reference to a division, from in Catholicism, during the middle ages, between those who read Latin, and thus the Bible, and the ‘simple’ people who are presented a ‘pulp’ version. Cf. Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, p. 328-9.

[5] [See: Plato, ‘Phaedo’ in Complete Works (Indianapolis: Hacketss, 1997): ‘those who practice philosophy in the right way are in training for dying’.]

[6] From the moment when one science exists (mathematics) we can consider that the idea of science, when borrowed, can serve as the title of theoretical constructions which are not as such scientific, but are simply applied to empirical facts. Hence the idea of biological science used in the Philosophy of Aristotle.

[7] We will go much further, when the time comes, at the end of our study.

[8] [In his introduction to the manuscript.]