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Le matérialisme

The editors of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse saw their project as a contribution to the theoretical basis of a materialist conception of science, one broad enough to include psychoanalysis, historical materialism, mathematics and logic. As with many other concepts at work in the journal, their understanding of materialism is informed first and foremost by the teachings of Althusser and Lacan.

Standard definitions of materialism emphasise the primacy of matter or ‘material reality’ in relation to thought or ‘mental reality’, such that thought should be understood in terms of the material processes that produce it. Marx developed his materialist conception of history in dialogue with and in opposition to Hegel’s idealism. The canonical outline is sketched in the brief Preface to Marx’s Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859): ‘In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production […]. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political, and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.’1

In many ways, Althusser’s interpretation of Marx’s position is thoroughly orthodox. ‘The basic categories of Marxist philosophy (dialectical materialism)’, as Althusser repeatedly explained in the mid 1960s,

are materialism and the dialectic. Materialism is based, not on the ideological notions of Subject and Object, but on the distinction between matter and thought, the real and knowledge of the real – or, to put it differently and more precisely, the distinction between the real process and the process of knowledge; on the primacy of the real process over the process of knowledge; on the knowledge-effect produced by the process of knowledge in the process of correlating [dans le procès de mise en correspondance] the process of knowledge with the real process. As Lenin said, materialism studies the history of the ‘passage from ignorance’ (or ideology) to ‘knowledge’ (or science), and, to that end, has to produce the theory of the different practices: those that operate in knowledge, those that serve as a basis for theoretical practice, and so on. The dialectic determines the laws which govern these processes (real process and process of knowledge) in their dependence (primacy of the real process) and their relative autonomy, and so forth.2

Materialism is here then a form of realism, a realism that involves both conventional mind-independence and knowledge-dependence. ‘For us’, Althusser wrote in opposition to naïve neo-Feuerbachian and ‘humanist’ appeals to the immediacy of the ‘lived’ or ‘concrete’, ‘the “real” is not a theoretical slogan; the real is the real object that exists independently of its knowledge – but which can only be defined by its knowledge.’3 As real, a material object is assumed to exist independently of thought. A ‘real object’, as Marx put it, is one that ‘survives in its independence, after as before, outside thought.’4 On the other hand, an object can only become the object of a science insofar as such a science can know and grasp it in theory (and thus prepare for its transformation in practice). ‘In this second, theoretical, relation, the real is identical to the means of knowing it, the real is its known or to-be-known structure, it is the very object of Marxist theory, the object marked out by the great theoretical discoveries of Marx and Lenin, the immense, living, constantly developing field, in which the events of human history can from now on be mastered by men’s practice, because they will be within their conceptual grasp, their knowledge.’5

A materialist science is one that explores a new ‘continent’ of material reality via the development of new forms of knowledge: geometric reality with the Greeks, physical reality with Galileo and the Scientific Revolution, social and historical reality with Marx and his followers, unconscious reality with Freud and Lacan. More precisely, ‘the Marxist science of history takes as its theoretical foundation a system of concepts: mode of production, infrastructure (productive forces and relations of production), superstructure (juridico-political and ideological), social class, class struggle, and so forth’, and thereby enables the displacement of ideological (humanist) notions like ‘man, alienation, the disalienation of man, the emancipation of man, man’s reappropriation of his species-being, whole and so on.’6 Historical materialism makes it possible to think history as a complex ‘process without a subject’, i.e. without author or purpose. No less than the unconscious object explored by Lacan, the social objects of historical materialism are intricate and internally differentiated, and their transformations cannot be explained via crude linear or determinist causality, as encouraged by simplistic understandings of Marx’s ‘base/superstructure’ model.

Along with his materialist account of science or theoretical practice, Althusser emphasises the ‘material existence’ of ideological practices as well. An ideology is not primarily determined by representations or ideas in the mind of a subject, so much as by apparatuses or mechanisms that shape what subjects do. As far as a given subject is concerned, ‘the existence of the ideas of his belief is material in that his ideas are his material actions inserted into his material practices governed by material rituals which are themselves defined by the material ideological apparatus from which we derive the ideas of that subject […]. It therefore appears that the subject acts insofar as he is acted by the [ideological] system.’7

In his posthumously published (1993) memoir, Althusser remembers his most evocative metaphor for the distinction between idealism and materialism:

An idealist is a man who knows which station the train leaves from and also its destination. He knows it in advance, and when he gets on a train, he knows where he is going because the train is taking him there. The materialist, on the other hand, is a man who gets on a moving train without knowing either where it is coming from or where it is going. I used to enjoy quoting Dietzgen, who anticipated Heidegger, though unknown to him, in saying that philosophy was der Holzweg der Holzwege, the way of ways which led nowhere – knowing also that Hegel had earlier thought up the remarkable imagine of a ‘path which makes its own way’, opening up and forging a way through woods and fields. For me, all these ideas were or became closely associated with Spinoza’s thought.8

Spinoza’s nominalism anticipates a materialist science of history because it sets out from the fact of scientific adequation, rather than its justification or deduction. Spinoza anticipates what it means to think processes without subject or purpose. ‘Without offering any explanation of the origins of its meaning, Spinoza declared: “We have a true idea”, a “norm of truth” provided by mathematics – yet another fact offered without any explanation of its transcendental origins […]. Nothing could be more materialist than this thought without origin or end. I later took from it my description of history and of truth as a process without a subject (providing the origin and basis of all meaning) and without end (without any pre-established eschatological destination); for by refusing to believe in the end as an original cause (by a mirroring of the origin and the end), I truly came to think as a materialist.’9

In the process, Althusser arrived at his final description of the philosophical orientation he tried to pass on to his students. ‘To be a materialist is to refuse self-deception, to resist kidding yourself. “Not to indulge in storytelling [ne pas se raconter d’histoire]” still remains for me the one and only definition of materialism.’10

Given the object and orientation of his own science, the materialist dimensions of Lacan’s work are less emphatic and more controversial. Needless to say, he rejects any approach which reduces thought, language or the unconscious to the status of a mere ‘epiphenomenon’ of some more fundamental (chemical or neurological) process. Lacan’s reworking of ‘Freudian materialism’ is based on his assumption that language is ‘something material’: ‘the point of view I am trying to maintain before you involves a certain materialism of the elements in question, in the sense that the signifiers are well and truly embodied, and materialized’, materialised in indivisible forms (i.e. letters or marks) that ‘do no withstand partition.’ It is this ‘materialism of the signifier’ that is further explored in the Cahiers, in markedly different ways – e.g. by Miller’s theory of the subject and Badiou’s theory of science.11

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

In the opening article of the Cahiers, ‘La Science et la vérité’, Lacan draws on Aristotle’s familiar distinction of four types of cause,12, and distinguishes between the subjects of magic, religion and science by associating them different types of causality: efficient, final and formal. The distinctive assignment of psychoanalysis is to attend to ‘material’ causality (CpA 1.1:21: E, 871). The ‘originality of psychoanalysis in the field of science’ is this emphasis on the ‘material cause’, beyond the formal causality of science. The signifier makes its impact on the child in the imaginary situation by virtue of its materiality, rather than its meaning.

The signifier is defined by psychoanalysis as acting first of all as if it were separate from its signification. Here we see the literal character trait that specifies the copulatory signifier, the phallus, when – arising outside of the limits of the subject’s biological maturation – it is effectively (im)printed; it is unable, however, to be the sign representing sex, the partner’s sex – that is the partner’s biological sign; recall, in this connection, my formulations differentiating the signifier from the sign (CpA 1.1:26; E, 875).

Psychoanalysis’s recognition of this incursion of the signifier into human life separates it out from other ‘developmental’ models. In this sense, psychoanalysis deals with (repressed) ‘history’ rather than mere (acknowledged) development, and Lacan suggests that his conception of the importance of pure signifiers in the structuring of symbolic space is compatible with the theory of historical materialism (CpA 1.1:26; E, 876). In his second contribution to the Cahiers, Lacan contrasts the subject of dialectical materialism more directly with the subject of psychoanalysis, emphasising the externality and objectality of the cause of the subject’s desire. Lacan insists that, while posing a challenge to dialectical materialism, his theory of language is nonetheless materialist; the signifier, he claims, is ‘matter transcending itself in language’ (CpA 3.1:10).

Michel Pêcheux (writing under the name of Thomas Herbert) made two contributions to the Cahiers, both of which develop concepts presented in Althusser’s ‘On the Materialist Dialectic’ (1963). The most fundamental concept is ‘practice’, which Althusser defines as ‘every process of transformation of a determinate given primary material into a determined product, a transformation effected by a determinate human labour, using determinate means of production’.13 In ‘Réflexions sur la situation théorique des sciences sociales’ (CpA 2.6), Herbert distinguishes between two fundamental kinds of practice. A technical practice involves ‘the transformation of primary materials extracted from nature – or products through a prior technique – in technical products, at least of instruments of determinate production’. A political practice involves ‘transformation of the given social relations into new social relations, produced by means of political instruments’ (CpA 2.6:141). What we know as ‘social sciences’ can then be understood as ‘political instruments’ that operate in ways similar to technical instruments. Historically, such ‘sciences’ have been effectively blocked from proceeding scientifically by ideological obstacles and philosophical concerns. Epistemological purification of the social sciences will proceed by adoption of more rigorous methods (signalled by ‘the appearance of experimentation, quantification and models’) which will enable them, like any other science, to produce ‘retroactive determinations’ of their objects, making manipulable what was previously ungraspable. True theoretical practice does not aim to ‘realise the real’, but rather to trace the breaks that constitute new sciences, and show how, once constituted, the objects of these sciences are capable of rigorous reproduction and transformation (CpA 2.6:160). If it is suitably informed by the emerging sciences of linguistics, psychoanalysis and historical materialism, political practice could arrive at a theory of ideology that allows it to understand and transform it (CpA 2.6:164). By treating ideological discourse as analogous to a neurosis, one can envisage how it might be transformed by psychoanalysis (as ‘science of the unconscious’) and history (as the science of social formations).

In his contributions to the Cahiers, Serge Leclaire returns several times to Lacan’s ‘materialist’ conception of the signifier. He refers to the linguistic definition of the signifier as a ‘materiality invested with a certain power of appeal’ (CpA 3.6:93), inscribed in a ‘time of succession’; the subject that appears in relation to this unfolded [déroulé] nature of the signifier presents itself as a ‘scansion’. In discussion with Leclaire, Miller proposes that the materiality of the signifier might be understood as the ‘insignified [insignifié] of the signifier’ – this irreducible non-sense that is the ‘letter’ legitimates the image of the unary trait which is there in order to designate the minimal trait of meaning [sens] (CpA 3.6:93). In a subsequent session of his ‘Compter avec la psychanalyse’ seminar at the Ecole Normale, Leclaire suggests that the voice might be understood to function as an objet a, if it is taken as not just ‘produced by an organ’, but as embodying ‘the phonic materiality of the signifier’ (CpA 8.6:106).

François Regnault’s reading of Machiavelli’s ‘materialist epistemology’ is the most substantial meditation on the question in the Cahiers. In this context, ‘materialism means the abandonment of the subsumption of examples under a rational law and the adoption of the epistemological point of view according to which there is only a theory of objects’ (CpA 6.2:41). Here lies the fundamental distinction between Descartes and Machiavelli. ‘In Descartes, metaphysics makes possible the subsumption by right of cases under the rule that will decide upon the legitimacy of the prince. In Machiavelli, it is materialism which makes impossible the subsumption of examples under any rule; it is this that subverts the notion of the rule and historicises it by exemplifying it’ (CpA 6.2:37). Regnault argues that this difference between the two approaches cannot be ‘structuralised’, and must be understood as a genuine epistemological break. Marx will follow in the breach opened up by Machiavelli, when he frames his critique of political economy not in terms of universal laws (illustrated by examples), but on the basis of ‘the law of the example’, such that ‘there will be laws of the mode of capitalist production’ (37).

Badiou’s ‘Mark and Lack’ builds on the Althusserian conception of dialectical materialism sketched on in his 1967 review, ‘Le (Re)commencement du matérialisme dialectique’ (RMD).14 Science, Badiou argues, is first and foremost an abrupt ‘matter of fact’, a material fact which begins as a contingent historical ‘wound’ or breach in the otherwise continuous ‘fabric of ideology’. Unlike ideology or lived experience, ‘science is precisely the practice that has no systematic sub-structure other than itself, no fundamental “ground” [sol]’ (RMD, 443n.10). Whereas ideologies are concerned with the way objects and conditions are lived, represented and experienced, the specific and ‘proper effect of science – the effect of knowledge – is obtained by the rule-governed production of an object that is essentially distinct from the given object’ (RMD, 449).

The only practices that might qualify as unequivocally scientific in this sense are those conventionally considered ‘ideal’, i.e. mathematical practices, and more precisely mathematical in an axiomatic-formalist sense (as developed, for instance, in David Hilbert’s account of The Foundations of Geometry [1899]). A suitably formal mathematical logic, Badiou explains, manipulates nothing other than the ‘marks’, letters or symbols that it prescribes for itself, in the absence of any external relation to existing objects or things (CpA 10.8:156). As Badiou was soon to explain in his contribution to the 1968 ‘Philosophy Course for Scientists’ that Althusser organised at the Ecole Normale, ‘mathematical experimentation has no material place other than where difference between marks is manifested.’15 The ‘science of psychoanalysis’, by contrast, can have ‘nothing to say about science’ per se, precisely because it serves to analyse the ‘functioning’ and ‘efficacy’ of ideologies. Psychoanalysis helps to establish ‘the laws of input and connection through which the places allocated by ideology are ultimately occupied.’ It is on this basis that psychoanalysis and historical materialism might be articulated together, as a double ‘determination of the signifiers’ at work in lived or ideological discourse, thereby ‘producing the structural configuration wherein ideological agency takes place’ (CpA 10.8:162).

Select bibliography

  • Althusser, Louis. Pour Marx. Paris: Maspero, 1965. For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster. London: New Left Books, 1969.
  • ---. Lire le Capital, Tome 1 & 2, with Étienne Balibar, Roger Establet, Pierre Macherey, and Jacques Rancière. Paris: Maspero, 1965. Reading Capital, trans. Ben Brewster (contributions of Establet, Macherey, and Rancière omitted). London: New Left Books, 1970.
  • ---. Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Sciences, ed. Gregory Elliott. London: Verso, 1990.
  • ---. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. New York: Monthly Review, 2002.
  • ---. The Humanist Controversy and Other Writings, ed. François Matheron, trans. G.M. Goshgarian. London: Verso 2003.
  • ---. L’Avenir sure longtemps, ed. Oliver Corpet and Yann Moulier Boutang. Paris: Stock & IMEC, 1993. The Future Lasts Forever: A Memoir, trans. Richard Veasey. New York: New Press, 1994.
  • Badiou, Alain. ‘Le (Re)commencement du matérialisme dialectique’ [review of Louis Althusser, Pour Marx and Althusser et al., Lire le Capital]. Critique 240 (May 1967): 438-467.
  • ---. Le Concept de modèle. Introduction à une épistémologie matérialiste des mathématiques. Paris: Maspero, 1969. The Concept of Model: An Introduction to the Materialist Epistemology of Mathematics, trans. and ed. Zachary Luke Fraser and Tzuchien Tho. Melbourne:, 2007. Online at
  • Chateigner, Frédéric. ‘D’Althusser à Mao: Les Cahiers Marxistes-Léninistes (1964-1968)’. Paris: École Normale Supérieure – École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, October 2004. 72 pages.
  • Elliott, Gregory. Althusser: The Detour of Theory. London: Verso, 1987.
  • Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink, in collaboration with Héloïse Fink and Russell Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.


1. Karl Marx, Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy [1859],

2. Althusser, ‘The Humanist Controversy’, The Humanist Controversy, 265-266. And again: ‘Materialism expresses the effective conditions of the practice that produces knowledge – specifically: (1) the distinction between the real and its knowledge (distinction of reality), correlative of a correspondence (adequacy) between knowledge and its object (correspondence of knowledge); and (2) the primacy of the real over its knowledge, or the primacy of being over thought. Nonetheless, these principles themselves are not "eternal" principles, but the principles of the historical nature of the process in which knowledge is produced. That is why materialism is called dialectical: dialectics, which expresses the relation that theory maintains with its object, expresses this relation not as a relation of two simply distinct terms but as a relation within a process of transformation, thus of real production’ (Althusser, ‘Theory, Theoretical Practice and Theoretical Formation’, Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Sciences, 9).

3. Althusser, A Complementary Note on ‘Real Humanism’ [1965], For Marx, 246.

4. Marx, quoted in Althusser, ‘On the Materialist Dialectic’, For Marx, 186 and in Reading Capital, 87.

5. Althusser, A Complementary Note on ‘Real Humanism’ [1965], For Marx, 246.

6. Althusser, ‘The Historical Task of Marxist Philosophy’, The Humanist Controversy, 186.

7. Althusser, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’, Lenin and Philosophy and other Essays, 158-159.

8. The Future Lasts Forever, 217-218.

9. The Future Lasts Forever, 217-218.

10. The Future Lasts Forever, 221.

11. Lacan, S2, 82; S3, 289; E, 24; cited in Dylan Evans, ‘Materialism’, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 1996), 109-110; online at

12. Aristotle Physics, Book II, 3, ‘The Four Types of Cause’, 38-42.

13. Louis Althusser, ‘On the Materialist Dialectic’, 166.

14. Badiou, ‘Le (Re)commencement du matérialisme dialectique’, 438-467.

15. Badiou, Concept of Model, 30.