In the introduction to the collection the Philosophy of the Encounter, the translator G. Goshgarian stresses the continuity between the late work included in that collection and the earlier works. Goshgarian makes a rather compelling case and the stakes are worthy – earlier Althusser should not be thought of as having be aufhebung-ed (aufgehoben?) in the late work such that he can be treated like dead dog. On the other hand, there continuities aren’t always obvious, and what type of reading is that which reads continuity rather than break? The easy and rather cheap shot response is to compare Althusser’s periodization of Marx with Goshgarian’s periodization of Althusser. For Althusser at one point there is a clear division in Marx: early works, works of the break, works of transition, and mature works. Althusser at that time dismissed the notion of reading philosophy in the future anterior, arguing that we should not read a work of the past from the present but rather read it in its own context. This is not Goshgarian’s reading of Althusser as presented in the introduction to the collection.

Later (mature!) Althusser, the Althusser of aleatory materialism, argued instead that there were two Marx’s, a materialist one and an idealist one, embodying the two tendencies in philosophy. He also argued that every philosophy is a sort of alloy of the two, and that this resulted from the polemical nature of philosophy. Every philosophical position is related in hostile fashion to another. To defeat this other or others, a position must outflank another, it must gain the other’s position. This means taking on elements of the defeated opponent. The defeated and canceled positions are preserved in a victorious position. Althusser’s approach to philosophy as polemic is in line with his remark in ‘On the Young Marx’ that “any discussion of Marx’s Early Works is a political discussion” (For Marx, 51). This approach is in many respects an extension of that sensibility to any discussion of and/or in any philosophy whatsoever. This would suggest that insofar as Althusser work was philosophy – and, on his reading of his project, self-consciously polemical – then the same dynamic should also hold for late Althusser. This is also not Goshgarian’s reading, as far as I can tell. If Althusser’s characterization of philosophy as polemic is right, then presumably Goshgarian’s interpretation has a polemical aim or effect. I’m not sure what that is, though. I’m not ultimately fussed over that, just curious.

What I’m more curious about is how the mature Althusser’s conception of Marx sits in relation to this passage from the early Althusser:

to stick to spontaneous or even enlightened association of theoretical elements is to run the risk of remaining the prisoner of an implicit conception only too close to the current academic conception of the comparison, opposition and approximation of elements that culminates in a theory of sources — or, what comes to the same thing, in a theory of anticipation. A sophisticated reading of Hegel ‘thinks of Hegel’ when it reads the 1841 Dissertation or even the 1844 Manuscripts. A sophisticated reading of Marx ‘thinks of Marx’ when it reads the Critique of the Philosophy of Right.

Perhaps it is not realized often enough that whether this conception is a theory of sources or a theory of anticipation, it is, in its naïve immediacy, based on three theoretical presuppositions which are always tacitly active in it. The first presupposition is analytic : it holds that any theoretical system and any constituted thought is reducible to its elements : a precondition that enables one to think any element of this system on its own, and to compare it with another similar element from another system. The second presupposition is teleological : it institutes a secret tribunal of history which judges the ideas submitted to it, or rather, which permits the dissolution of (different) systems into their elements, institutes these elements as elements in order to proceed to their measurement according to its own norms as if to their truth. Finally, these two presuppositions depend on a third, which regards the history of ideas as its own element, maintains that nothing happens there which is not a product of the history of ideas itself and that the world of ideology is its own principle of intelligibility.

(…) When reading some of the articles in this collection, one cannot help feeling that even in their efforts to free themselves from this conception, they still remain contaminated by its implicit logic. Indeed it seems as if writing the history of Marx’s early theoretical development entailed the reduction of his thought into its ‘elements ‘, grouped in general under two rubrics: the materialist elements and the idealist elements; as if a comparison of these elements, a confrontation of the weight of each, could determine the meaning of the text under examination. Thus, in the articles from the Rheinische Zeitung the external form of a thought which is still Hegelian can be shown to conceal the presence of materialist elements such as the political nature of censorship, the social (class) nature of the laws on the theft of wood, etc.; in the 1843 Manuscript (The Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right), the exposition and formulation, though still inspired by Feuerbach or still Hegelian, conceal the presence of materialist elements such as the reality of social classes, of private property and its relation to the State, and even of dialectical materialism itself, etc. It is clear that this discrimination between elements detached from the internal context of the thought expressed and conceived in isolation, is only possible on condition, that the reading of these texts is slanted, that is, teleological. (…) [D]ecomposition of a text into what is already materialist and what is still idealist does not preserve its unity, and (…) this decomposition is induced precisely by reading the early texts through the content of the mature texts.

These passages are from ‘On the Young Marx’, an essay written in response to a collection on the subject. (The essay is in For Marx, the quotes are from pages 56-58.)

What’s striking is that the position being attacked here seems precisely to be the position that the later Althusser (polemically?) occupies. Althusser’s work on ancient atomists and on Machiavelli and Spinoza could be read as a theory of sources, if one ignored or downplayed his remarks against the importance of origins, and certainly as a – or as relying upon an implied – theory of sources. It’s hard to see how the good, non-idealist, aleatory materialism that mature Althusser posits, and which he reads in the history of philosophy as a preliminary and supplement to a reading of Marx, could avoid being a tribunal of history, of the history of philosophy. And the mature Althusser’s reading of Marx seems to acts exactly “as if writing the history of Marx’s early theoretical development entailed the reduction of his thought into its ‘elements ‘, grouped in general under two rubrics: the materialist elements and the idealist elements”. The account of philosophy as the polemical taking of positions and counter-positions is a theory of why this is so in relation to Marx and to other philosophical work, including the forms of idealism which have been so frequently called materialism.

All of this implies that, by the lights of early Althusser, the mature Althusser’s aleatory materialism “is slanted, that is, teleological.” The next question is if there are different varieties of teloi, or if it’s simply that telos is telos is telos. I’m inclined toward answering the former in the affirmative, and I’m interested in Kant as a resource for that (purposiveness, the power to posit a telos, the acting as-if, etc). I can’t yet set much more on this, unfortunately.