What is the Epistemological Break, and What Does It Mean?June 27, 2021
It is Althusser’s that Marx’s thought has been completely misunderstood and underestimated. He ruthlessly criticized the various interpretations of his work – historicism, idealism, economism, their history, historical materialism and failing to recognize that Marx was making a revolutionary account of social change.
In his understanding, these errors were due to the fact that all of Marx’s work was thought to be intelligible if taken as a coherent whole. Instead, Althusser saw them as a radical ‘epistemological break’. While his early work was concerned with the categories of German philosophy and classical political economy, there was a sudden and unique break with the German Ideology (1845) that led to Marx’s later work.
Complicating the issue is the fact that even Marx himself did not fully realize the importance of this work, only being able to talk about it transversely and tentatively. The change can only be revealed by careful and sensitive “symptomatic reading”. Thus, it has been Althusser’s project to ensure that we fully grasp the originality and power of Marx’s extraordinary theory, paying as much attention as possible to what has been said that has not been revealed. He judged that Marx discovered a “continent of knowledge”, history, in the structure of his theory unlike anything put forward by his predecessors, similar to Thales’ contribution to mathematics, Galileo’s to physics, or better to Freud’s psychoanalysis.
Althusser believed that underscoring Marx’s discovery was a ground-shaking epistemology based on the rejection of the dichotomy between subject and object that made his work incompatible with previous ones. At the root of this shock is the rejection by classical economists of the notion that the needs of individuals can be considered as material elements or as independent “given” independent elements of economic organization, and thus can serve as an independent starting point for a theory about society and a precursor to a theory that explains the peculiarity of the mode of production.
For Althusser, Marx is not simply arguing that people’s needs are shaped by their social environment, because this can change with time and place; Rather, he made meaningless the idea that there could be a theory that explains how people come from before any theory that explains how people come from.
However, Marx’s theory is based on content that has no equivalent in classical political economy – such as productive forces and relations of production. Even when existing terms are adapted—such as David Ricardo’s combination of notions of rent, profit, and interest in terms of the theory of surplus value—the meaning and relevance to other contents in the theory are significantly different. Further, apart from its unique structure, the explanatory power of historical materialism differs from classical political economy in that political economy explains economic systems as a response to the needs of individuals, while Marx’s analysis includes a wider range of social phenomena in terms of parts contained within a structural totality. In conclusion, Marx’s Capital provides both a model of the economy and a description of the structure and development of an entire society.
Since traces of humanism, historicism, and Hegelianism have been shown to be found in Capital, Althusser maintained that the transformation existed, but later insisted that the genesis of the turning point in 1845 was not very clearly articulated. He went so far as to say that only Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program and some of his notes on a book by Adolph Wagner were completely free from the ideology of humanitarianism.
Indeed, Althusser conceived of the epistemological break as an operation rather than a clearly defined plot. He defined Marxism and psychoanalysis as “scissors” sciences that have always had to fight against ideology because it explains the ruptures and divisions that have occurred. These are “scissors” sciences because their objects (“class struggles” or subconscious) are spontaneously divided and separated.