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La philosophie

Doubly influenced by Althusser’s efforts in Marxism and Lacan’s in psychoanalysis, the philosophy students who comprised the editorial board of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse took a critical distance from philosophy itself. The place and function of philosophy, in its relation to science and ideology, were contested items throughout the journal’s existence.

The Cercle d’Épistémologie behind the Cahiers pour l’Analyse was comprised of former and current philosophy students at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. As such, there is a current of philosophical erudition and enthusiasm that informs the entire project. This is clear from the serious engagement with Platonist ontology in the journal (cf. CpA 3.4, CpA 3.5, CpA 9.4) as well as the repeated references to the giants of a classical philosophical education. Volume 6, entirely devoted to the ‘the politics of the philosophers’ (CpA 6), contains discussions of Machiavelli, Descartes, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, and Fichte. Despite the wide-ranging engagement with philosophers, however, philosophy itself is often called in for critical scrutiny in the pages of the Cahiers, counterpoised to the insights of psychoanalysis or a host of other scientific discourses (chiefly mathematics and logic). Two conditions, then, are essential for understanding the Cahiers’ peculiar relations to philosophy: 1) its debts to the tradition of French epistemology, or ‘philosophy of science’, and 2) its more local, specific debt to the teachings of Louis Althusser.

The distinguishing feature of twentieth-century French philosophy of science, in which figured such luminaries as Gaston Bachelard, Georges Canguilhem, and Jean Cavaillès, was that, rather than viewing philosophy as a practice external to the sciences, legislating their results from without via metaphysical or speculative rumination, philosophy was conceived as an immanent practice that engaged with the sciences themselves. In this respect, this trajectory of French thought was distinct from philosophical existentialism and phenomenology, which, when concerned with science at all, sought to ground it through an extra-scientific interrogation of the rudiments of existence. French epistemology’s relationship to Husserlian phenomenology in particular was complex; it was critical, but not altogether hostile to it. What was generally derided in phenomenology was not the method itself, but the quest for transcendental structures, be they historical or metaphysical, exempt from the transformative mechanisms of scientific practice and the genuine novelty of its results.

It was this element of French epistemology that most appealed to Louis Althusser, who sought to develop this immanent conception of philosophical thought in a mode of ‘theoretical practice’ applicable to the field of Marxism. In his key works of the mid-1960s, For Marx and Reading Capital, Althusser generally castigated ‘philosophy’ as being ideological, divorced from an immanent view of the genuinely transformative nature of scientific or theoretical practice. It was clear, however, that what went by the name ‘philosophy’ in these works was the legacy of German Idealism subtending contemporary phenomenology. In Althusser’s view, Marx had accomplished an epistemological break with the Hegelianism of youth, founding the science of historical materialism and the as-yet not fully articulated philosophy of dialectical materialism. What goes by the name of a ‘Theory of theoretical practice’ in these works will be reconceived as ‘Marxist philosophy’ in Althusser’s works of the later sixties, above all in his ‘Philosophy Course for Scientists’ of 1967-68, in which many of the editors of the Cahiers took part. In this conception, philosophy still does not legislate science’s results, but instead operates in an interventionist manner pointing to the distinction between ideology and science in all relevant instances. The defence of science against the ideological tendencies of a philosophical worldview was a guiding concern of the Cahiers, a concern that was subjected to its own contestation and development over the course of the journal’s existence.

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

In ‘La Suture: Éléments pour une logique du signifiant’, one of the Cahiers’ programmatic articles, Jacques-Alain Miller avers that he is ‘not speaking as a philosopher’, and that in fact a suture is operative in the philosopher’s discourse insofar as it bears on a ‘universal structure [édifice]’ (CpA 1.3:39-40, trans. 26) in which the philosopher aims, in Freud’s formulation, to ‘patch up gaps in the universe’ (CpA 1.3:40/26). Miller suggests that the suture that establishes the universal in this discourse is likewise operative in that of the logician or the linguist. In his response to Miller, ‘L’Analyste à sa place?’, Serge Leclaire departs from Miller’s claim that the suture is in play for ‘anyone who says “I”’, suggesting that the psychoanalyst is precisely the one who does not suture (CpA 1.4:50).

In the first article of Volume 2, devoted to psychology, Georges Canguilhem concludes that it is up to philosophy to mobilize its ‘inherent naiveté’ in questions concerning subjectivity in an effort to criticize the instrumentalist pretensions of psychology (CpA 2.1:91). In the first of his two articles in the Cahiers, which appears in this same volume, Thomas Herbert [Michel Pêcheux] develops further the Althusserian theses concerning philosophy, its distinction from theory, and its relationship to science and ideology, in a critical interrogation of social psychology (CpA 2.6:140; 150-52). In effect, Herbert argues, philosophy (in its Cartesian, Kantian or indeed Husserlian guises) occupies a position of ‘external critique’ with regard to science, performing a legislative function that seeks to determine what science can and cannot do. Opposed to this is an Althusserian model of theory that operates via an ‘internal critique’ of the scientific practice itself. As such ‘theoretical practice’ avoids philosophy’s complicity with the ideology of an era, in which the imaginary relations of a given historical era are reproduced in discourse.

In his ‘Réponses à des étudiants en philosophie sur l’objet de la psychanalyse’, which opens Volume 3, Jacques Lacan offers a compressed and oblique (if not exasperated) distillation of the relations between psychoanalysis and philosophy. He deflects a question concerning Freud’s proposal that philosophy is a kind of paranoia by suggesting, in effect, that inasmuch as contemporary philosophy occupies a religious bearing in its hermeneutics (referencing Paul Ricoeur), then psychoanalysis has a bearing on it, just as it does on the neurosis of religion (CpA 3.1:11-12, trans. 112).

In ‘La Pensée du Prince’ in Volume 6, François Regnault makes a case for Machiavelli’s nascent science of history against Descartes’ philosophical grasp of politics (CpA 6.2). In Descartes, there is only ‘one point of view’, namely that of philosophy or metaphysics, to which all others should be subordinated. In Machiavelli (as in Archimedes), by contrast, the point is material and gives the political theorist leverage on what happens in history. Regnault insists that, ‘beyond the points designated here, there are no other points, and more particularly, there is no tertium punctum, no Sirius from which to consider Descartes and Machiavelli’ (CpA 6.2:40).

In his reading of Rousseau that opens Volume 8, Louis Althusser puts his method of theoretical practice to work in a reading of the Social Contract (CpA 8.1). Althusser begins his article by restating one of his guiding methodological principles, one shared by many of his students and other contributors to the Cahiers: since the objects of any great philosophical doctrine (e.g. Plato’s Idea, Descartes’ cogito, Kant’s transcendental subject, etc.) ‘have no theoretical existence outside the domain of philosophy proper’, Althusser proposes to read Rousseau’s main ‘philosophical object’, the social contract, in terms of the intra-philosophical problems that its formulation evokes and eludes. The philosophical argument developed in the Social Contract, Althusser argues, can only proceed on the basis of ‘discrepancies’ [décalages] it must both assume and mask. Althusser structures his reading, then, as a ‘chain of theoretical discrepancies’, where ‘each new discrepancy serves to make the corresponding solution, itself an effect of an earlier solution, “function”’ (CpA 8.1:6). Althusser’s overall goal is to render Rousseau’s (untenable) problematic ‘intelligible’, along with the possibility of multiple legitimate but competing ‘readings’ (Kantian, Hegelian, Husserlian) of this problematic.

Volume 8 also includes a ‘letter to the editors’ of the Cahiers from Claude Lévi-Strauss, responding to the critique of his work by Jacques Derrida in Volume 4 (CpA 4.1). Lévi-Strauss’s bridles at the attempt to apply rigorous philosophical formulations to his quasi-autobiographical travelogue Tristes Tropiques. He writes: ‘I have no particular respect for philosophy, and I reserve the right, from one book to the next […] to borrow from it in different ways.’ The goal is not to elaborate a system but to use any and all available ‘schemas’ to help explain the various social practices, representations, and beliefs of interest to the ethnographer - ‘philosophical considerations are only the improvised pedestals upon which I display these precious objects’ (CpA 8.5:90).

In the powerful concluding segment of his article ‘Marque et manque: à propos du zéro’, titled ‘The Torment of Philosophy’ (CpA 10.8:161-164), Alain Badiou develops the Althusserian valorization of science to its maximal degree in a critique of Jacques-Alain Miller’s omnipresent conception of ideological suture. Whereas science ‘relates only to itself’, such that ‘no signifying order can envelop the strata of its discourse’, Badiou (again following Althusser) defines ‘philosophy’ as ‘the ideological region specializing in science, the one charged with effacing the break by displaying the scientific signifier as a regional paradigm of the signifier-in-itself. This is Plato’s relation to Eudoxus, Leibniz’s relation to Leibniz, Kant’s relation to Newton, Husserl’s relation to Bolzano and Frege, and perhaps Lacan’s relation to Mathematical Logic’ (CpA 10.8:163). Philosophy is thus constitutively committed to an impossible task. It seeks ‘to mark, within its own order, the scientific signifier as a total space. But science, indefinitely stratified, multiple foreclosure, difference of differences, cannot receive this mark. The multiplicity of its orders is irreducible: that which, in philosophy, declares itself science, is invariably the lack of science. That which philosophy lacks, and that to which it is sutured, is its very object (science), which is nevertheless marked within the former by the place it will never come to occupy’.

In the final article of the journal, Jacques Bouveresse presents Ludwig Wittgenstein’s conception of the relation between mathematics and philosophy. By insisting on the disjunction between the two, there is some common cause with Badiou’s case in the preceding article; the implications of Wittgenstein’s position are nevertheless vastly different. Wittgenstein responded to the crisis in mathematics’ foundations (surrounding the works of Kurt Gödel) by arguing that not only does mathematics not need a foundation, but that mathematics and philosophy have nothing to say to each other. All a philosophy of mathematics can offer is a ‘clarification of the grammar of mathematical statements, just as they are’ (CpA 10.9:177). This ‘clarification’ shows that mathematics is not a preexisting field of universals that is unveiled by the discoveries of mathematicians, but that mathematics is a loose set of techniques—what Wittgenstein calls ‘the motley of mathematics’ - that share a ‘family resemblance’. Each of these ‘mathematical games’ constructs, rather than reveals, a mathematical terrain. Through an analysis of the grammar of these mathematical games the supposed crisis in mathematical thought loses its urgency.

Select bibliography

  • Althusser, Louis. Pour Marx. Paris: Maspero, 1965. For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster. London: New Left Books, 1969.
  • Althusser, Louis, et al. Lire le Capital. Paris: Maspero, 1968. Reading Capital, trans. Ben Brewster. London: New Left Books, 1970.
  • Althusser, Louis. Philosophie et la philosophie spontanée des savants. Paris: Maspero, 1974. Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists and other essays, ed. Gregory Elliott, trans. Warren Montag. London: Verso, 1990.
  • Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink, in collaboration with Héloïse Fink and Russell Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.