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La dialectique

A key concept in Hegelian philosophy and in Marxism, the dialectic was decisively reworked by Louis Althusser in his theoretical writings of the 1960s. Althusser’s intervention subtends the effort of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse, where the dialectic plays a key role, notably in François Regnault’s reconsideration of Platonism’s bearing on the relations between science, epistemology, and ideology.

The concept of the dialectic has its origins in Plato’s dialogues, where it describes the process by which an argument emerges through the confrontation of a thesis with its antithesis, resulting in a synthesis of these positions. In modern thought, the dialectic acquired a much wider berth in the idealist philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel. Developing a phenomenological method, along with a philosophy of history, that sought to move past Immanuel Kant’s transcendental idealism, Hegel located in the relations between the Abstract, the Negative, and the Concrete, a dialectical movement that could be correlated to the Platonist model of Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis. An abstract proposition immediately submits to the ’labour of the negative’ when it confronts the material world; in this stage, the abstraction of the initial proposition is negated, and its contents are ultimately sublimated in a new theoretical concrete that synthesizes the preceding confrontation in the Absolute. The key to Hegelian dialectics, the nature of which remains a contentious subject among Hegel scholars, is the notion of mediation. The dialectic mediates the abstract and the concrete, synthesizing knowledge in the Aufhebung (sublimation) of effective thought.

Deeply inspired by Hegelian philosophy, Karl Marx nonetheless sought to develop a materialist dialectics that would be shorn of Hegel’s idealism. The key for Marx was located in the concept of contradiction that was central to the dialectic movement itself. In his afterword to the second German edition of Capital, Marx famously wrote the following:

My dialectical method is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite. To Hegel, the life-process of the human brain, i.e. the process of thinking, which, under the name of ‘the Idea’, he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of ‘the Idea’. With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought.

[…] The mystification which dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands, by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general form of working in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel in the mystical shell.1

Against a vision of history wherein the Idea was primary, Marx’s historical materialism located the dialectic of historical movement within class struggle and the contradiction between the forces and the relations of production. The movement of history, then, was located in this material contradiction, with the ‘forms of thought’ accompanying historical epochs and its constitutive class struggles being the reflection of this movement itself.

For many years, Marx’s ‘inversion’ of the Hegelian dialectic was taken at face value, a reversal that simply made material primary in place of the Idea, but that retained the form of the dialectic itself. The signal innovation of Althusser’s contribution to Marxism in the 1960s was to show that the various humanist readings of Marx, in which historical contradiction was read as a means for man to overcome his self-alienation in the efflorescence of a human ‘essence’ correlative to the Hegelian ‘Idea’, remained mired in the very mystification that Marx himself reprimanded in Hegel. In two key articles, ‘Contradiction and Overdetermination’ (1962) and ‘On the Materialist Dialectic’ (1963), Althusser set his sights on the concept of expressive totality informing this reading. For Althusser, the contradiction between the relations and the forces of production in any given historical epoch did not resolve in a neat logic of synthesis in the manifestation of a new social order. Rather, the contradiction itself was variegated and disjointed; the superstructure was irreducible to a singular, expressive economic contradiction at its ‘core’. Invoking a key term from psychoanalysis, Althusser wrote: ‘This overdetermination [that accounts for historical transformation] is inevitable and thinkable as soon as the real existence of the forms of the superstructure and of the national and international conjuncture has been recognized – an existence largely specific and autonomous, and therefore irreducible to a pure phenomenon.’2

It was this element of structural irreducibility that qualified Marx’s historical materialism as scientific, in Althusser’s view, rather than ‘idealist’ or ‘mystical’. Indeed, Althusser’s key thesis was that the science of Marxism was produced in an epistemological break with Hegelian ideology. What this meant, for Althusser, was not a rejection of the dialectic, but a reconfiguration of the materialist dialectic in which the ‘theoretical concrete’ produced in scientific thought is no longer reducible to an expression of an anterior absolute, but rather constitutes a genuine novelty. The three-fold steps of this process were codified by Althusser in ‘On the Materialist Dialectic’ as three ‘Generalities’. The materialist dialectic, also called the ‘Theory of practice in general’ or the ‘Theory of theoretical practice’ in this essay,3 operated by the application of Generality II (i.e., the ‘theory’ of a science at a given historical moment) on Generality I, the ‘raw material […] constituted either of still ideological concepts, or of scientific ‘facts’’.4 The result of this operation was Generality III, or ‘knowledge’. Crucial to Althusser’s case was his claim for the genuine transformation and ultimate production of knowledge that takes place in this process. This is why French epistemology – chiefly the works of Gaston Bachelard, but also Georges Canguilhem and Jean Cavaillès – was so essential to Althusser’s rethinking of Marxism in terms of a science that breaks with ideology. Calling upon this theoretical lineage, which had been indifferent to Marxism at best, Althusser reconceived the dialectic as above all a question of science’s relation to ideology.

What was central to this reconsideration, however, was that the dialectic was no longer conceived as a synthetic reconciliation of opposites, but rather was deemed the transformative production of scientific knowledge itself out of a domain riven by constitutive fracture and contradiction. It is this sense of fracture, or indeed lack and non-relation, at the heart of Althusser’s peculiar concept of the ‘materialist dialectic’ that accounted for its resonance with Jacques Lacan’s rethinking of psychoanalysis at this time. Just as for Lacan the ‘ego’ is not a happy reconciliation of conflicting desires and morality, but rather an imaginary screen obscuring unconscious determination, for Althusser the subject of history is an ideological panacea that obscures the real movement of history as a disjointed structure of relations among relatively autonomous levels of the historical ‘totality’. The discrepant rather than conciliatory nature of the dialectic is to be found as well in Lacan’s classic essay ‘The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious’ (1960). The productivity of discrepancy – in Lacanian desire and Althusserian history – is also operative within scientific thought. This nexus of science, desire, and history, coalescing in the concept of the dialectic, was a vital influence on the Cahiers pour l’Analyse.

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

In his comparison of the political thought of Descartes and Machiavelli in ‘La Pensée du Prince’, François Regnault describes the fault of Descartes’ conception of history and politics in terms of its not being a ‘dialectic’ (CpA 6.2:41). By excluding ‘fortune’ from the field of extension, due to its status as a place of equivocity, Descartes produces a theory of history in which there can be new true events or ‘instaurations’ on a Machievellian model. Descartes’ own theory of clear and distinct ideas denies their applicability to politics. Regnault writes: ‘The Cogito is not the refusal of politics as science, but the means to do without it. There can thus be no Cartesian politics there. Or rather: Cartesian politics is like any other, i.e. not a science, but a strategy’ (CpA 6.2:40).

It is with Regnault again that the concept of the dialectic is most extensively put to work in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse. His contribution to Volume 9, titled ‘Dialectique d’épistémologies’, is an ambitious reading of Plato’s Parmenides wherein the dialectic between being and non-being, and the One and the multiple, is correlated to an investigation of the relationship between science and epistemology, with the latter understood as the discourse of science (CpA 9.4). Regnault contends that if the concept of science is substituted for Plato’s ‘One’, every possible epistemological position regarding science can be correlated with a Hypothesis from the Parmenides. A ‘circular’ dialectic then comes to light that expresses all the possibilities with regard to the basic status of science - its existence or non-existence, and its unity or multiplicity - permitting an association with the various epistemological positions of absolute idealism, dogmatism, relative scepticism and absolute scepticism. By identifying the positions at issue in this dialectic, the epistemologist can help to clarify the relations at work between science and ideology, and the consequences of epistemological breaks in science.

After moving through all of the possible relations, dialectically deducing each from the previous one, Regnault appeals to Hegel’s s dialectic of Being and Nothingness at the outset of the Science of Logic. Regnault claims that at the end of the dialectic, Hypothesis IX - the Hypothesis of what follows for the Others in the case of the absolute non-existence of science - leads full circle back to Hypothesis I (the indeterminate One). The One is reduced to nothing, reflecting the conversion of the One into indeterminacy at the outset of the dialectic. Hypothesis I and IX are dialectically identical with each other. In Hegel’s dialectic of Being and Nothingness,

[being] is pure indeterminateness and emptiness. There is nothing to be intuited in it, if one can speak here of intuiting; or, it is only this pure intuiting itself. Just as little is anything to be thought in it, or it is equally only this empty thinking. Being, the indeterminate immediate, is in fact nothing, and neither more nor less than nothing. […] Pure being and pure nothing are, therefore, the same. What is the truth is neither being nor nothing, but that being - does not pass over but has passed over - into nothing, and nothing into being (cited in CpA 9.4:71).

In Regnault’s dialectic, the identity is between the indeterminacy of the absolute One and that of the absolute non-existence of the One.

The point, in the last instance, of Regnault’s article – and the article itself is in its totality an exercise in dialectical thinking – is to enumerate all the possible positions for anyone who wants to either do science or produce an epistemological discourse on science. In this regard, Regnault’s task here is consistent with his presentation for Althusser’s ‘Philosophy Course for Scientists’ seminar in 1967-68 concerning the epistemological break. By taking into account the cycle of different epistemological positions, we stand to gain some protection against ideological distortions of scientific claims, as well as an understanding of the mechanisms of foreclosure and suture at work in the course of the history of science.

Select bibliography

  • Althusser, Louis. Pour Marx. Paris: Maspero, 1965. For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster. London: New Left Books, 1969. See ‘Contradiction and Overdetermination’ and ‘On the Materialist Dialectic’, each available at the Marxists Internet Archive at:
  • Hegel, G.W.F. Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller. Oxford: Clarendon, 1977.
  • Hegel, G.W.F. The Science of Logic, trans. A.V. Miller. New York: Humanities Press, 1979.
  • Jay, Martin. Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukàcs to Habermas. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
  • Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink, in collaboration with Héloïse Fink and Russell Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.
  • Tucker, Robert C., ed. The Marx-Engels Reader, second edition. New York: W.W. Norton, 1978


1. Robert C. Tucker, ed. The Marx-Engels Reader, second edition. New York: W.W. Norton, 1978, 301-2.

2. Louis Althusser, For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster. London: New Left Books, 1969, 113.

3. Ibid., 169, 171.

4. Ibid., 184.