La coupure épistémologique
The concept refers to an event in the history or practice of science involving a radical break or cut (coupure) with previous, ideological conceptions. The term, inspired by Gaston Bachelard, was of fundamental importance to Louis Althusser’s reading of Marx and also resonated with the theses of Alexandre Koyré that informed Jacques Lacan’s considerations of science.
The ‘epistemological break’ was a crucial concept in Louis Althusser’s rethinking of Marxism in the 1960s. In the essays collected in his volume, For Marx (1965), Althusser put forth the thesis that Marx’s theoretical development could be understood in terms of a ‘break’ from the Hegelian and humanist ideology of his youth that allowed him to articulate the science of historical materialism, or at least begin to sketch its lineaments, in mature works such as Capital.1 For Althusser, the break itself was achieved as a result of Marx’s own ‘theoretical practice’, which can be understood as a conceptual working-over of an ideological ‘problematic’ - in Marx’s case, that of bourgeois political economy - in order to convert it into a scientific one, i.e., that of historical materialism. (Althusser’s concept of the ‘problematic’ was taken from his friend Jacques Martin; it is conceptually very similar to Michel Foucault’s concept of discourse, in that it refers to the theoretical framework in which ‘knowledge-production’ takes place).2 In a crucial essay of For Marx, ‘On the Materialist Dialectic’ (1963), Althusser describes the mechanism of ‘theoretical practice’, and attributes the concept of the ‘epistemological break’ to Gaston Bachelard:
The theoretical practice of a science is always completely distinct from the ideological theoretical practice of its prehistory: this distinction takes the form of a ‘qualitative’ theoretical and historical discontinuity which I shall follow Bachelard in calling an ‘epistemological break’. This is not the place to discuss the dialectic in action in the advent of this ‘break’: that is, the labour of specific theoretical transformation which installs it in each case, which establishes a science by detaching it from the ideology of its past and by revealing this past as ideological.3
It is important to remark that two distinct theses are operative in Althusser’s arguments concerning Marxism and the ‘epistemological break’. On the one hand, Althusser wants to claim that Marx personally experienced or ‘lived’ something like an ‘epistemological break’, even if this was unbeknownst to Marx himself. In his introduction to For Marx, Althusser developed a schematic of Marx’s works, categorizing them into ‘Early Works’, ‘Works of the Break’, ‘Transitional Works’, ‘Mature Works’. (Althusser located the ‘break’ somewhere around 1845, with the ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ and The German Ideology). This was a thesis Althusser had trouble defending over time; ultimately he limited the works of Marx’s full maturity to the Critique of the Gotha Programme. But it was also inconsequential to his other main argument concerning the ‘epistemological break’, namely, that the theory of dialectical materialism contained in Marx’s thought itself provides the mechanism by which an ‘epistemological break’, taking one from ideology to science, can be achieved in multiple instances:
I shall call ‘theory’ (in inverted commas) the determinate theoretical system of a real science (its basic concepts in their more or less contradictory unity at a given time). […] I shall call Theory (with a capital T), general theory, that is the Theory of practice in general, itself elaborated on the basis of the Theory of existing theoretical practices (of the sciences), which transforms into ‘knowledges’ (scientific truths) the ideological product of existing ‘empirical’ practices (the concrete activity of men). This Theory is the materialist dialectic which is none other than dialectical materialism.4
It is in this capital T ‘Theory’, christened ‘dialectical materialism’ in Althusser’s work, that we can see most clearly (and perhaps ironically, given the attribution to Marx) the theory of the ‘epistemological break’ inspired by Bachelard’s example. As Althusser himself admitted, the term ‘epistemological break [coupure]’ was not to be found in Bachelard’s oeuvre, where one finds instead references to ‘epistemological ruptures [ruptures]’. The discrete quality of the break, or cut, introduced into the concept by Althusser lessens something of the procedural quality of Bachelard’s concept, even if Althusser’s own descriptions of ‘theoretical practice’ reintroduce this element into the mix.5 In a series of books written in the 1930s, chief among them La Formation de l’esprit scientifique, Bachelard described the rupture that establishes scientific thought as the result of a series of encounters with ‘epistemological obstacles’. Scientific thought always involves a break with the obstacle of immediate experience (the ‘empirical’ or ‘concrete’ in Althusser’s rubric).6 For example, the explanation of fire as oxidation rearranges the spontaneously experienced phenomena of fire itself into a rational framework that is not immediately, but only scientifically ‘experienced’. Moreover, the scientific break typically involves a rejection of the general ideas or received wisdom of the time. In this regard, the advent of theory of Relativity brokered an epochal shift in modern science. In La Philosophie du non, Bachelard was categorical: ‘The scientific mind [esprit] can only be constituted by destroying this non-scientific mind. […] All real progress in scientific thought necessitates a conversion. The progress of contemporary scientific thought has determined transformations in the very principles of knowledge’.7 Bachelard described the ruptural quality of this experience of new scientific knowledge in emphatic terms: ‘Above all, we must be cognizant of the fact that the new experience says no to the old experience; without that, by any measure, it is not a question of a new experience’.8
We see, then, that the equivocation present in Althusser’s use of the ‘epistemological break’ is already latent in Bachelard’s as well, where the sense of ‘epistemological rupture’ has a world-historical scope (as in the advent of Relativity), but also refers to the discrete experience of beginning to think scientifically on an individual basis.
The vacillation between the world-historical and the local or specific bearing of the concept is also evident in the influence Alexandre Koyré’s theses regarding Galileo had on the editors of the Cahiers. Though Koyré himself did not use the expression ‘epistemological break’ or ‘rupture’, a similar logic is in play in his volume From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe. There Galileo inaugurates the modern scientific age via a revolution interior to scientific thought itself. No longer does mathematics describe a set of fixed and perfect entities; mathematics is now the science that describes an intrinsically open-ended, and hence imperfect, process. In other words, the ideology of a ‘closed world’ is transformed into the science of an ‘infinite universe’.9
If Bachelard was an essential influence on Althusser, Koyré was a more important figure for Lacan. Indeed, where Bachelard was shaped by the neo-Kantian rationalism of Léon Brunschvicg, with Koyré the influence of Brunschvicg was supplemented by a more sympathetic interest in Hegel, an interest he shared with Lacan. In the convergent influences of Althusser and Lacan on the Cahiers pour l’Analyse we witness something like the convergence of multiple strands in French thought concerned with the same phenomenon, the move from ideology to science. Many of the differences between Althusser and Lacan - e.g., an emphasis on ‘theoretical practice’ in the former instance, versus an emphasis on discrete cuts in the latter - will be in play throughout the Cahiers itself. Moreover, the fundamental conceptual ambiguities of the concept of ‘epistemological break’ - whether it is world-historical, or local and specific; if it can be both, whether it is something that happens ‘once and for all’ or that must be maintained with tenacity - will inform many of the Cahiers’ central arguments. The ambiguity of the concept would also be the crucial concern of Althusser’s ‘Philosophy Course for Scientists’ (1967-68) in which many of the normaliens affiliated with the Cahiers participated.10 The main purpose of this course was to rethink the proper relationship between philosophy and science. Althusser argues that, although philosophers cannot provide a meta-theoretical position or generalised epistemology, a generalised theory of discourse may nevertheless be possible. Regardless, however, philosophy is not to function as a doctrine of science; its task is merely to assist epistemological breaks.
In this course, Althusser specifically addresses how scientists ‘live’ the breaks and crises of their science and exploit these crises for ‘apologetic, ultimately religious ends’ (111). The ideal reaction is to treat ‘the contradiction of a process of the recasting [refonte] and growth of scientific practice and theory … as a philosophical question’:
They are critical not so much of science and its practices as of the naïve philosophical ideas in which they discover they had hitherto lived. They recognize that the ‘crisis’ has awakened them from their ‘dogmatism’: or better, they recognize, after the event, once they are awakened to philosophy, that because they are scientists, a philosopher has always slept within them […] They attempt to give science the philosophy it lacks: the good philosophy of science. For them, the crisis is the effect, within science, of the bad philosophy of scientists which, until then, reigned over science (113).
Thus the crisis acts as a ‘developer’ that shows what has remained hidden: what Althusser calls the ‘spontaneous philosophy of the scientists’ (115).
Finally, it is worth observing that, although the major concern of this ‘Course’ was established in his previous studies, one proximate stimulus for the arguments made therein was an essay published by Althusser’s erstwhile professor, Jean-Toussaint Desanti, titled, ‘Qu’est-ce qu’un problème épistémologique?’ (1965). In addition to many of Althusser’s positions being rebuttals of Desanti’s, much of the frame of Althusser’s approach - including the tripartite process described above - was first set out as such in Desanti’s article. Indeed, the published version of Althusser’s course (in French and English) omits two of his own lectures, one reprinted in a recent French edition as ‘Du côté de la philosophie’ (Ecrits philosophiques et politiques II, Paris: Stock/IMEC, 1995) and another that remains unpublished, titled, ‘Sur Desanti et les pseudo-problèmes de troisième espèce’, and which is only accessible in Althusser’s personal archive at IMEC in Caen, France. In addition to the text of this lecture, Althusser’s archive also contains a dossier containing his original, severely marked up copy of Desanti’s article and his correspondence with colleagues concerning its claims.
In order to explain the concept of ‘epistemological break’ in his 1968 overview of Structuralism in Philosophy, François Wahl built on Badiou’s Althusserian formulation of the term (in his 1966 article on the ‘(Re)commencement of Dialectical Materialism’):
The epistemological break separates an ideology from the science which proceeds in its place, which necessarily proceeds at its expense. We already know that it concerns a struggle that never ends: if the work of the break is fully accomplished once and for all, at a precise point in the history of knowledge, nevertheless theoretical practice can never have done with the effort of transforming the ideology that haunts it, and whose specular images re-establish themselves, ineluctably, in the shadow of each of our activities; a science ‘in its naked state’ does not exist. Structurally, the best definition of the break would no doubt be that it substitutes for figures of repetition (combined with any number of displacements) of ideology, an authentic procedure of transformation-exposition, through rearticulation.11
In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse
In ‘La Science et la vérité’ (CpA 1.1), Lacan directly cites Alexandre Koyré as his ‘guide’ for thinking the relationship between subject and science in the modern age (CpA 1.1:7; E, 856).Though he does not directly use the expression ‘epistemological break’, Lacan nonetheless addresses the ‘cut’ that establishes a science. Moreover, he does so with explicit reference to the case of Marx. Lacan cautions that the ‘revolution’ that establishes a new science does not necessarily lead to a revolution in practice:
An economic science inspired by Capital does not necessarily lead to its utilization as a revolutionary power, and history seems to require help from something other than predicative dialectic. Aside from this singular point, which I shall not elaborate on here, the fact is that science, if one looks at it closely, has no memory. Once constituted, it forgets the circuitous path by which it came into being; otherwise stated, it forgets a dimension of truth that psychoanalysis seriously puts to work (CpA 1.1:20 E, 869).
Lacan also mentions the ‘subjective toll’ of living through scientific crises, citing Georg Cantor as a ‘first-rate tragedy’ led to the ‘point of madness’.
Volume 2 of the Cahiers was devoted to the question ‘Qu’est-ce que la psychologie?’ and contained several pieces in which the relationship between science and ideology was in play (CpA 2.1; CpA 2.3). The final piece of the issue, Thomas Herbert’s ‘Réflexions sur la situation théorique des sciences sociales, et, spécialement, de la psychologie sociale’ (CpA 2.6) explicitly develops Althusser’s theses in ‘On the Materialist Dialectic’ in a critique of the ideological character of ‘social psychology’. Herbert (the pseudonym for Michel Pêcheux) begins by distinguishing Bachelardian epistemology from Kantian epistemology, the latter of which is an external reflection on the sciences rather than an assessment of its internal development (CpA 2.6:139-40). Herbert identifies an ‘epistemological break rupture’ that separates ‘ideological practice’ from ‘theoretical practice’ internal to the sciences themselves (CpA 2.6:142). But in each instance, an external work of ‘theoretical practice’ can be done to make these ideological elements clear thus making an ‘epistemological break rupture’ possible (CpA 2.6:160). Such is the task Herbert says must be undertaken with social psychology. Herbert invokes Galileo to make his point. Prior to the advent of Galilean science, astronomy was a mere assemblage of technical practices beholden to the dominant ideology of the epoch. The ‘rupture’ that establishes science makes the ‘vagabondage’ of these ideological elements retrospectively clear (CpA 2.6:161).
In his unpublished contribution to Althusser’s ‘Philosophy Course for Scientists’, François Regnault argued that epistemological breaks [coupures] must be distinguished from the infra-ideological and infra-scientific ruptures that precede and follow them.12
In his ‘La Pensée du Prince’ (CpA 6.2), Regnault discusses how Machiavelli stood on the cusp of making an epistemological break in the ‘science of politics’. Machiavelli’s value lies in his having created a ‘place’ for a future science, rather than that science itself. ‘Nobody is capable of inhabiting [nicher] a break, not Descartes, not Machiavelli, not us, not I - one must be either before or after it’. Thus ‘in order to assign such a break to Machiavelli, one could also take up the formula M. Canguilhem applies to Galileo: he was in the true, he did not say the true’ (CpA 6.2:37).13 Machiavelli’s materialist politics, as it stands, remains ‘an epistemological break project, the faithful philosophy of a science yet to come, the owl risen too soon, a monster’.
In his reply, Foucault implicitly abandons the term ‘episteme’ found in Les Mots et les choses [The Order of Things] (CpA 9.2). He argues that investigations into epistemology should be supplemented with a theory of discursive formations. In The Archaeology of Knowledge, a volume largely inspired by his exchanges with the Cercle and other critics, Foucault discusses ‘epistemological break thresholds’, but again situates these within a wider field of discursive statements. In a 1967 interview with Raymond Bellour, Foucault had said, ‘There remains […] between Althusser and myself, an obvious difference: he employs the term “epistemological break” in relation to Marx, while I affirm that Marx does not represent such a break.’14
In her piece, ‘Métaphysique de la physique de Galilée’ (CpA 9.9), Judith Miller reads Galileo with regard to the concept of the ‘epistemological break’. Like Regnault in his discussion of Machiavelli (CpA 6.2), Miller is concerned to understand the coupure as something that cannot be experienced in itself, but that divides experience into a before and an after.
Volume 9 also contains Jacques-Alain Miller’s ‘Action de la structure’ (CpA 9.6), a crucial text at the source of many of the debates within the Cahiers. In this text, Miller presents the epistemological break that establishes a scientific discourse that is supposedly immune to ideology in terms of the relation between suture and foreclosure:
[H]ow, then, is such a discourse possible, a discourse which only takes orders from itself, a flat discourse, without unconscious, adequate to its object? […] This closing of scientific discourse should not be confused with the suture of non-scientific discourse, because it actually expels lack [elle met le manque à la porte], reduces its central exteriority, disconnects it from every other Scene. Thought from within the field it circumscribes, this closing [fermeture] will be given the name: closure [clôture]. But the limit of this circumscription has a density, it has an exterior; in other words, scientific discourse is not marked [frappé] by a simple lack - rather the lack of a lack is also a lack (CpA 9.6:102).
Double negation confers positivity to its field, but at the periphery of this field one must acknowledge the structure that makes it possible, and from which its development is nevertheless not independent. The lack of the lack leaves in every scientific discourse the place of the miscognition, of the ideology that accompanies it, without being intrinsic to it: a scientific discourse as such includes no utopic element. We need to envisage [figurer] two superposed spaces, without quilting point [point de capiton], without slippage (lapsus) from the one to the other. The enclosure proper to science therefore operates a redistribution [répartition] between a closed field, on the one hand, of which one perceives no limit if one considers it from the inside, and a foreclosed space. Foreclosure is the other side of closure. This term will suffice to indicate that every science is structured like a psychosis: the foreclosed returns under the form of the impossible (CpA 9.6:103).
It is in fact the epistemological break that we rediscover [here], but by approaching it from its exterior side we must recognise the privilege and the novel scientific status of a discourse of overdetermination which constitutes its field at the exterior limit of all science in general, and of which the theoretical as well as practical (therapeutic or political) injunction is given by the Freudian ‘Wo es war, soll ich werden’, which for us summons the scientific subject to pull itself together [qui convoque à notre sens le sujet scientifique à se ressaisir] (CpA 9.6/103).
In his ‘Marque et manque: À propos de zero’ (CpA 10.8), Alain Badiou will criticise the intrication that Miller establishes between suture and foreclosure in this instance, arguing instead that science ‘excludes the institutional operator of [ideological] recapture - the notion of Truth; proceeding instead according to the concept of a mechanism of production’ (CpA 10.8:150).
- Althusser, Louis. ‘Sur la dialectique matérialiste’. La Pensée, August 1963. Reprinted in Pour Marx, Paris: Maspero, 1965. ‘On the Materialist Dialectic’, in For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster. London: New Left Books, 1969. Online at http://www.marx2mao.com/Other/FM65NB.html.
- ---. ‘Philosophy Course for Scientists’ (1967), in Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists, ed. Gregory Elliott. London: Verso, 1990.
- ---. Essays in Self-Criticism, trans. Grahame Lock. London: NLB, 1976.
- Bachelard, Gaston. Le Nouvel Esprit scientifique. Paris: Alcan, 1934. The New Scientific Spirit, trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Boston: Beacon, 1985.
- ---. La Formation de l’esprit scientifique: Contribution à une psychanalyse de la connaissance objective. Paris: Vrin, 1938. The Formation of the Scientific Mind: A Contribution to a Psychoanalysis of Objective Knowledge, trans. Mary McAllester Jones. Manchester: Clinamen, 2002.
- ---. La Philosophie du non: Essai d’une philosophie du nouvel esprit scientifique. Paris: Corti, 1940. The Philosophy of No: A Philosophy of the New Scientific Mind, trans. G.C. Waterston. New York: Orion, 1968.
- Balibar, Etienne ‘From Bachelard to Althusser: The Concept of the Epistemological Break’. Economy and Society 7:3 (1978).
- Canguilhem, Georges. ‘Dialectique et philosophie du non chez Gaston Bachelard’. Revue Internationale de Philosophie 66 (1963): 441-452.
- ---. ‘La Signification de l’œuvre de Galilée et la leçon de l’homme’. Archives Internationales d’Histoire des Sciences 17: 68-69 (July-December 1964). Reprinted in his Études d’histoire et de philosophie des sciences. Paris: Vrin, 1968.
- Canguilhem, Georges. Review of Foucault, Les Mots et les choses. Critique 242 (1967). ‘The Death of Man, or the Exhaustion of the Cogito’, trans. C. Porter. In The Cambridge Companion to Foucault, ed. Gary Gutting. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
- Canguilhem, Georges. Idéologie et rationalité dans l’histoire des sciences de la vie: Nouvelles études d’histoire et de philosophie des sciences. Paris: Vrin, 1977. Ideology and Rationality in the History of the Life Sciences, trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988.
- Desanti, Jean-Toussaint. La philosophie silencieuse, ou critique des philosophies de la science. Paris: Seuil, 1975.
- Dews, Peter. ‘Althusser, Structuralism, and the French epistemological break Tradition’. In Althusser: A Critical Reader, ed. Gregory Elliott. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.
- Foucault, Michel. L’Archéologie du savoir. Paris: Gallimard, 1969. The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Pantheon, 1982.
- Foucault, Michel. Foucault Live (Interviews, 1961-1984), ed. Sylvain Lotringer. New York: Semiotext(e), 1996.
- Lecourt, Dominique. Marxism and epistemology: Bachelard, Canguilhem and Foucault, trans. Ben Brewster. London: NLB, 1975.
- Milner, Jean-Claude. L’Oeuvre claire: Lacan, la science, la philosophie. Paris: Seuil 1995.
- Pêcheux, Michel and Michel Fichant. Sur l’histoire des sciences. Paris: Maspero, 1969.
- Wahl, François. La Philosophie entre l’avant et l’après du structuralisme, in Wahl ed., Qu’est-ce que le structuralisme? Paris: Seuil, 1968.
1. ‘Marx’s theoretical revolution was precisely to base his theory on a new element after liberating it from its old element: the element of Hegelian and Feuerbachian philosophy’, in ‘Feuerbach’s “Philosophical Manifestoes”’ (1960) in For Marx, 47. ↵
2. Ibid., 32, 253-4. ↵
3. Ibid., 167-8. ↵
4. Ibid., 168. ↵
5. Cf. Etienne Balibar, ‘On the Concept of the Epistemological Break’ (1977). Balibar notes that Bachelard’s term was rupture, and not coupure. Balibar also makes this case in this essay that Althusser’s retractions of his erstwhile ‘theoreticism’ concerning the ‘epistemological break’ (cf. Elements of Self-Criticism) were predicated on Althusser’s misunderstanding his own project. Rather than having attempted a general theory of science grounded in the philosophy of dialectical materialism, Althusser had articulated and defended the ‘being in the true’ of historical materialism as a science. Moreover, he did so in such a way as to understand the essential role that ideology plays in social formations, including the social formations that gave rise to Marxism itself. ↵
6. Though Bachelard is Althusser’s chief reference for the ‘epistemological break’, the epistemology that he develops ‘for Marx’ in ‘On the Materialist Dialectic’ is equally if not more indebted to Spinoza. Cf. Althusser’s comment in Reading Capital where he describes Spinoza’s thought as a ‘philosophy of the opacity of the immediate’, 16. This theoretical consonance between Spinozism and Bachelardian epistemology is historically grounded in the fact that Spinozism was itself a crucial element of French epistemology, from Brunschvicg to Bachelard. ↵
7. Gaston Bachelard, La Philosophie due non, 8-9. ↵
8. Ibid., 9. Note that, in French, l’expérience is the word for ‘experience’ in the Anglophone sense of the term, but also for ‘experiment’ as in ‘scientific experiment’. Bachelard’s writings on the philosophy of science make the most of this dual sense in the French context. ↵
9. Cf. Jean-Claude Milner, L’Oeuvre claire, where the difference between Bachelard and Koyré precisely on this question of the discreteness or singularity of the rupture is emphasized. In his work, Bachelard elaborates myriad examples, and consequently various forms, of ‘epistemological break’ or ‘rupture’; whereas in Koyré there is only one division, or ‘cut’, that between science. ↵
10. Louis Althusser, Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists. ↵
11. Wahl, La Philosophie entre l’avant et l’après du structuralisme, 381-382. Wahl refers here to Badiou’s ‘Le (Re)commencement du matérialisme dialectique’, Critique 240 (May 1967), 450-51. ↵
12. See the introduction to Michel Fichant and Michel Pêcheux, Sur l’histoire des sciences. ↵
13. Georges Canguilhem, ‘La signification de l’œuvre de Galilée et la leçon de l’homme’ (1946), in Idem., Études d’histoire et de la philosophie de la science, Paris: Vrin, 46. Canguilhem cites Koyré for this assessment of Galileo. ↵
14. Foucault, ‘The Discourse of History’, Foucault Live, 21. ↵