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Synopsis of Thomas Herbert [Michel Pêcheux], ‘Réflexions sur la situation théorique des sciences sociales, et, spécialement, de la psychologie sociale’

[‘Reflections on the Theoretical Situation of the Social Sciences, with Special Reference to Social Psychology’]

CpA 2.6:139–165

This article is by Michel Pêcheux, writing under the pseudonym of ‘Thomas Herbert’. The sequel to the article, ‘Remarques pour une théorie générale des idéologies’ [‘Remarks for a general theory of ideologies’] is published as CpA 9.5. In his retrospective critique of these two articles in Les Vérités de la Palice (1975, translated into English as Language, Semantics and Ideology, 1982), Pêcheux continues to refer to the author of the papers in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse as ‘Herbert’, and this convention will be followed here.1 The two articles were conceived as contributions to Althusserian Marxist theory, clarifying the distinction between theory and philosophy, and speculating about the potential role theory might play in political practice. The articles were also starting-points for Pêcheux’s later contributions to the theory of ideology and to the study of study of semantics, syntax and discourse from a Marxist perspective.

The piece begins with a direct confrontation between the Althusserian and Kantian approaches to epistemology. ‘The actual conditions of the division of intellectual labour lead to two types of critical reflection, wherever an evaluation to decide the licit or illicit character of a practice that claims the status of science is found’ (CpA 2.6:139). On the one hand, there is the ‘internal critique’ made by the practitioners of the ‘science’ in question; on the other hand, there is the ‘external critique’ made from a philosophical standpoint.

The first critique is made by the practitioners of the ‘science’ itself, who are necessarily led to explore their own scientific field in order to test what is apt and inapt, to destroy what is badly constructed and to reconstruct it better. This internal inquisition is the permanent work of all practices reputed to be scientific, both for those ‘in the process of development’, such as the social sciences, and for those ‘already-developed’, such as physics or mathematics (139).

In order to proceed, internal critique has to ‘refuse’ to pose the question of its own place. It must refuse the kind of questions that characterise Kantian critical philosophy, which is the embodiment of external critique. The tradition of external critique began when Descartes attempted to come to the aid of the sciences ‘by grounding them, with his method’. Then ‘Kant imposed upon them an internal and external jurisdiction’; in his train ‘Bergson, Husserl and Sartre, each make enormous effort, in their own way, to “put [the sciences] in their place”’.

This gaze, heavy with control, with which philosophy does not stop bearing upon the sciences - or, to speak en philosophe, on Science [la science] considered as a global region to survey - this gaze, that Bachelard recently sought to assess, needs to be understood: all the manoeuvres of coercion that philosophy directs towards science appear on closer examination as new symptoms of a knot of ‘reactive’ forces, in the Nietzschean sense, which has taken possession of philosophy (140).

Faced with an emerging science, philosophy’s first response is typically purely negative, to say ‘You cannot do that’, that the methods of the science in question are absurd, or that the ‘object’ is not really grasped. Then, when the candidate science starts to manipulate its object successfully, philosophy changes tactics, saying ‘You can, but you should not’: ‘It then invokes the spectre of a malevolent omnipotence, declaring that the supposed science is nothing but an irresponsible technique that will produce terrible catastrophes if left to its own devices’ (140). The same situation is repeating itself today across the numerous emerging ‘social sciences’, where philosophy is once again barring the way to the autonomous development of scientific knowledge. Herbert notes that a ‘disequilibrium’ in the division of intellectual labour is becoming clear today, and that only ‘a new form of labour or work - what Althusser calls the work of Theory’ - can help us discern where we are, and reconquer the field of the social sciences for those sciences themselves. Althusser’s concept of Theory allows one to abandon philosophy’s illusion of neutrality, revealing it as ideological. Herbert proposes to devote his work to the analysis of the ‘complexes’ and conflicts revealed in the ideologies that surround the work of the practical sciences.

Herbert starts by setting out what he takes to be the essential concepts developed in Althusser’s ‘On the Materialist Dialectic’ (1963). He privileges the term ‘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’2 He then defines the two fundamental kinds of practice with which he will be concerned in this essay:

Technical practice: ‘the transformation of primary materials extracted from nature - or products through a prior technique - in technical products, at least of instruments of determinate production’

Political practice: ‘Transformation of the given social relations into new social relations, produced by means of political instruments’ (141).

Following Althusser, Herbert describes ‘social practice’ as the complex organisation of the forces of production (instruments of production and productive forces of labour) and the relations of production (forms of social relations between producers). Technical practice is the primary task of the sciences, but political practice works on the transformation of the social relations of production.

With regard to the conceptual structure of technical and political practice, there are two further kinds of practice that can be distinguished: ideological practice: the ‘transformation of a given “consciousness” into a new consciousness produced by means of a reflection of consciousness upon itself’ (142); and theoretical practice: the ‘transformation of an ideological product into a theoretical knowledge [connaissance], by means of a determinate conceptual work’. All practices begin submerged in ideological conceptions about their objects. Theoretical practice is the activity of internal critique that identifies residual ideological conceptions about the objects of a science persisting after the break [coupure] of that science with its past.

If technical and political practice are treated as separate levels of social practice, then one arrives at the following configuration (where the red line indicates the break of a science with its prescientific ideologies).

Empirical practice Ideological practice Theoretical practice
Technical practice (Instruments of production) Prescientific ideologies Scientific knowledge (Connaissance)
Political practice (Social relations of production Ideology, Juridical, Moral, Religious, Artistic ?

[Adaptation from Tables I and II, CpA 2.6:142-43].

In the case of the theoretical practice of scientific knowledge, the task is relatively straightforward: for theorists to analyse the breaks in the history of science, to show the difference in kind between the pre-scientific practices of particular sciences and those sciences as they are pursued after the break, and to attempt to eliminate pre-scientific ideological practices. But the question that will preoccupy Herbert is: what exists beyond the ‘line of epistemological rupture’ in the case of political practice (143)? What is the equivalent of scientific knowledge in the field of political practice? If there are ‘political instruments’ that are analogous to technical instruments, what are they? Herbert suggests that what occupies the empty place has to be the social sciences, and that the line of rupture will be localised at the moment the social sciences have ceased being hampered by philosophical questions and reflection. The epistemological purification of the social sciences is already under way: ‘the appearance of experimentation, quantification and models are enough to signal this rupture, and to open up the scientific era of the social object’ (144). Herbert contends that this conception does not involve the reappearance of Kantian juridical questions, ‘since the sciences exist’. The social sciences in their current formation ‘exist because the whole complex of social practice has a horror of the void’. But the science of historical materialism exists, as do the sciences of linguistics and psychoanalysis, and if this were acknowledged, then the empty place in the schema could be occupied. Once constituted, sciences produce ‘retroactive determinations’ of their objects, making manipulable what was previously ungraspable. Together, these three sciences could thus determine a concerted theoretical practice capable of taking on and modifying the entire set of ideologies in the social field.

Technical practice always responds to a ‘social demand’. The historical development of metallurgy, for example, can be charted by referring to changes in social or economic demand.3 Technical practices ‘fill a demand, a lack, a demand defined as outside of the realm of technique itself. The place in which the lack is defined which assigns its function to a particular technique is not that technique itself, but the organised whole of social practice itself, that is to say, the mode of production’ (145). The instruments of a technical practice tell us nothing by themselves, and if we are to examine the history of these practices, we must start at the end, approaching them by their results. The Egyptian and Mesopotamian astronomers did not produce scientific knowledge, even in embryonic form. Before the epistemological rupture produced by Galileo, there was no such scientific knowledge. Instead, there were technical practices, defined by the conditions of production.

Herbert cites a passage from René Taton’s Histoire générale des sciences that helps him clarify the status of pre-scientific technical practice. According to Taton, ‘the Babylonian did not envisage a geometrical explanation of the apparent movements of the celestial bodies, he searched for a key that would permit him to rediscover, almost mechanically, the position of a constellation at a given instant’ (146). Egyptian and Mesopotamian astronomical calculating machines could produce results, but not in the way that a science produces results. Pre-scientific technical practice involves an implicit appeal to what Herbert will call an ‘instrument-model’: ‘a technical apparatus the function of which is to produce the real [le réel] by itself under a form pertinent to the technique considered’. If ‘every technique is realist, insofar as it provokes a response of the “real” to its questions’, then pre-scientific technical practice relates to the ‘real’ in a specific way that should be distinguished from science. Herbert suggests that ‘the function y = f(x)’ is the ‘archetypal form of the technical operation of the realisation of the real’ (147). Making y a function of x allows one to set out two axes of variables and to gauge the results of altering the variables. When pre-scientific practice makes instruments of calculation, it gauges their success by whether they accurately fulfil their designated social purpose. The ‘realisation of the real’ may function under entirely ideological conditions.

Herbert takes the alchemist as his central example of this kind of technical practice (148). The alchemist uses technology to effect a ‘realisation of the real’. He distils perfumes and alcohols, thus obtaining real responses from the world and procuring real effects. But his approach is entirely unscientific, and this is expressed in the repeated presentation of alchemy as a ‘secret science’, communicable only in cryptographic symbols. Even when he claims to act, he always approaches reality from an interpretative point of view, acting as if the truth were ‘already there’, waiting for him. Could the alchemist as he appears in the pre-scientific field of technical practice have some analogue in the field of pre-scientific political practice?

In order to arrive at a position from which this question can be answered, Herbert goes on to make some comments about the interdetermination of the levels of social practice. Political practice does not ‘come after’ technical practice. The representation of the immanent causality of the mode of production obliges us to think the forces of production and the relations of production in their conflictual structure (149). Technical practice is determined insofar as its demands are always set from outside, by economic conditions, but determining insofar as it determines the range of possibilities for the fulfilment of the demand. But the situation is different with political practice, which seeks to change not the forces, but the relations of production. What, then, are the instruments of political practice, what is the primary matter that is transformed, and what is the product that emerges from it?

The instrument of transformation in political practice is discourse, as ‘an articulated system referring back to the complex of social practice’ (150). Every move, every decision takes its place in political practice just like a sentence takes its place in a discourse. Discourse is conditioned not only by social demands, but also by ‘social commands’ that ideologically position the subject but which are forgotten as commands. Here again Herbert attacks philosophy for internalising social command.4 ‘The function of political practice is to transform social relations by reformulating social demand (demand as well as command […]) by means of discourse’.

What are the necessary ideological conditions for the emergence of the social sciences as they are currently constituted? Herbert claims that psychology and social psychology, especially when they have resort to ‘models’ and practical instruments, remain caught in the ideological schema of the ‘realisation of the real’ (155). They remain governed by economic conditions, reflecting the social relations characteristic of capitalism and the ideology of adaptation (157). This ideology, nevertheless, is different in kind to the inessential ideologies of alchemy or ancient astronomy. Developing Althusser’s account of the three ‘generalities’ involved in the process of theoretical practice5, Herbert suggests that the ideology of the social sciences can be taken precisely as the first set of ‘generalities’ upon which theoretical practice sets to work. 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 methodical reproduction (160). By inhabiting the emerging sciences of linguistics, psychoanalysis and historical materialism, political practice can arrive at a theory of ideology that allows it to understand and intervene in its object (164). At present, the field of discourse is fragmented and riddled with gaps. But by treating it 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). Herbert anticipates the future re-appropriation of scientific instruments for ends other than those demonstrated by social psychology and psycholinguistics. The social theorist, he argues, can develop a theory of ‘social listening’ [écoute sociale], derived from Freud’s analytic therapy, but extrapolated to cover the whole social field.

References to this text in other articles in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse:

  • Thomas Herbert, ‘Remarques pour une théorie générale des idéologies’, CpA 9.5:74.

English translation:


Primary bibliography:

  • 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
  • Althusser, Louis. ‘Marxisme et humanisme’. Cahiers de l’ISEA, June 1964. Reprinted in Pour Marx [For Marx.
  • Herbert, Thomas, ‘Remarques pour une théorie générale des idéologies’ CpA 9.5)
  • Marx, Karl. Capital, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin, 1990.
  • Taton, René. Histoire générale des sciences, 3 vols. Paris: PUF, 1957-64. A General History of the Sciences, trans. A.J. Pomerans, 3 vols. London: Thames and Hudson, 1963-1966.

Selected secondary sources:

  • Macherey, Pierre. ‘Langue, Discours, Idéologie, Sujet, Sens: de Thomas Herbert à Michel Pêcheux’. Idéologie: le mot, l’idée, la chose, cours de Pierre Macherey, (17 January 2007). Online at:
  • Maldidier, Denise, ed. L’Inquiétude du discours: textes de Michel Pêcheux. Paris: Éditions des Cendres, 1990.
  • Montgomery, Martin and Stuart Allen. ‘Ideology, Discourse, and Cultural Studies: the Contribution of Michel Pêcheux’. Canadian Journal of Communication 17:2 (1992). Online at:
  • Pêcheux, Michel. Les Vérités de la Palice: linguistique, sémantique, philosophie. Paris: Maspero, 1975. Language, Semantics, and Ideology, trans. Harbans Nagpal. London: Macmillan, 1982.
  • ---.Automatic Discourse Analysis, trans. David Macey, ed. Tony Hak and Niels Helsloot. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1995.
  • ---.. ‘Discourse: Structure or Event?’, trans. Warren Montag, with Marie-Germane Pêcheux and Denise Guback. In Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, ed., Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988.
  • Pêcheux, Michel and Michel Fichant. Sur l’histoire des sciences. Paris: Maspero, 1969. (Fascicule III in the Cours de Philosophie pour Scientifiques, 1967-68).


1. Michel Pêcheux, Language, Semantics, and Ideology, 90-92.

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

3. Cf. Marx ‘The necessity for predicting the rise and fall of the Nile created Egyptian astronomy’ (Capital, vol. I, 649).

4. ‘All the philosophies of consciousness and the subject (that is almost to say, all of philosophy, except certain dissidents like Spinoza, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud) find here their ideological function, which is to repress in the subject the unrealisable-realisation of social command’ (152).

5. Althusser, ‘On the Materialist Dialectic’, 182-93.