Althusser and French Marxism
William S. Lewis, Louis Althusser and the Traditions of French Marxism (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2005).
1. The surge in interest in Louis Althusser subsequent to his death and the publication of many hitherto unknown and unpublished writings has produced a number of important commentaries; in English the most important of these include a special issue of Yale French Studies edited by Jacques Lezra (1995), a special issue of Rethinking Marxism edited by Antonio Callari and David F. Ruccio (1998), and Warren Montag's book length study of Althusser's (and Macherey's) contributions to literary theory, Louis Althusser (2003), together with G.M. Goshgarian's lengthy and substantial introductions to The Humanist Controversy and Other Writings (2003) and Philosophy of the Encounter (2006). Others are forthcoming, such as a book by Caroline Williams on Althusser, Spinoza and politics (2007). However, while Gregory Elliott has produced several essays on Althusser's later works, his book Althusser: The Detour of Theory (1987), long the authoritative account of Althusser's career, has not been reissued, and given the changes in the available archive stands in need of substantial revisions. In this context, the appearance of a new book on the political and theoretical context of Althusser's intervention is most welcome.
2. Bill Lewis is part of this newer generation of Althusserian writers who are attempting to grasp the specificity of his intervention and conceptual apparatus, through using Althusser's understanding of philosophy and reading to read Althusser's works. Whereas many earlier works on Althusser - for example, those of Alex Callinicos (1976, 1993) - have attempted to understand Althusser from a position outside of Althusser's work and in some measure foreign to it, Lewis, like Montag, has attempted to use Althusser's concepts and methods as a means of determining what is 'living' and what is 'dead' in Althusser.
3. In this attempt, and here he is again in line with a pervasive recent current in writings on Althusser, Lewis adopts the position of Althusser's self-criticism. Most important here is Althusser's later understanding of philosophy as the intervention of politics in theory, characteristic not only of texts such as Lénine et la Philosophie (1968, Althusser 1971: 27-68), Réponse à John Lewis (1973, Althusser 1976: 33-99), and Eléments d'Autocritique (1973, Althusser 1976: 101-161) but also seemingly more recent texts such as Machiavelli and Us (1986, but first drafted in 1972, see Althusser 1999). Whereas earlier commentaries, such as that of Elliott, tended to understand Althusser's self-criticism as simply the destruction of all that is distinctive (but seemingly thus fatally flawed) in Althusser's thought, Lewis takes Althusser's self-criticism seriously, and presents Althusser's second definition of philosophy as that which is distinctively Althusserian.
4. In this tendency Lewis follows in the tracks of Montag and Goshgarian. But Lewis has provided us with an extensive account not only of Althusser's philosophical development, but also of the history of Marxist philosophy in France since the Bolshevik Revolution and the formation of the Third International (although Lewis does provide some background on the socialists of the Second International in France - see Lewis 2005: 24-35 - his focus is overwhelmingly on the period since 1920).
5. The book is a revision of his doctoral dissertation and retains something of the typical structure of a dissertation, setting out first his reasons for discussing Marxism, and particularly French Marxism, at all before providing a chronological account of the development of Marxism in France since 1920, tracing that development through various trajectories and contexts before discussing the specific contribution of Althusser. It is perhaps the chapters on the PCF that present the most interesting historical material, and indeed the shifts in policy within the PCF - and the Communist movement as an international force - justify, to a very large extent, the structure of the book. Chapter 2 ('Origins, Events, and Foundations') discusses the formation of the PCF, and its intellectual positions, during the period 1920-1923, that is, before the death of Lenin, the rise of Stalin, and exile of Trotsky. As Lewis's discussion in Chapter 4 demonstrates, 'French Intellectual Marxism' - as Lewis designates the various tendencies within French socialist intellectuals outside the PCF - did not really emerge until after 1924, so Chapter 3 ('Theoretical and Pedagogical Positions on Marx'), which deals with the intellectual history of the PCF from 1924 until 1945, forms a necessary backdrop to Chapter 4, where Lewis provides a lucid discussion of the emergence of a Hegelian Marxism in France, focusing on the early work of Henri Lefebvre. In his discussion of the intellectual history of the PCF, Lewis provides a good discussion of the various shifts in policy, from the 'Front Uni' to the 'Front Populaire' and beyond, showing in each instance how the PCF intervened in philosophy to subjugate (what existed of) the scientific practice of Marxism - 'historical materialism' - to a 'Marxist philosophy' known as 'dialectical materialism'.
6. This subjugation of historical materialism to the notorious 'Diamat' (as Stalin's version of 'dialectical materialism' came to be known) was, of course, the context in which Althusser's intervention of the early 1960s occurred, and Althusser's initial formulation of philosophy - of dialectical materialism as 'the Theory of theoretical practice' - was but one effect of that subjugation. Indeed the competing 'Marxisms' of that conjuncture seem to share a preoccupation with philosophy, and in particular the dialectic, as a means of articulating historical materialism with particular forms of ideology and politics. Philosophy, or at least idealist philosophy as Althusser came to understand it after 1967, consists in the engagement of competing meta-discourses that attempt to subject other practices - such as scientific or artistic practices - to their laws. Althusser's position in For Marx and Reading Capital, while constituting a decisive shift towards materialism in its account of Marx's development, nevertheless constituted, in a philosophical sense, just one more reformulation of this 'idealism of matter' (Macherey 1983) called 'dialectical materialism'. It depended, in other words, on providing a definitively 'scientific' philosophy, a Marxist philosophy that, being derived from the science of history, would provide a 'Science of sciences' that could guarantee their Truth.
7. In subsequent chapters Lewis, after discussing the PCF theorists and the 'Intellectual Marxists' separately in the two preceding chapters, goes on to discuss how the role of the PCF in the Resistance from 1940 to 1945 not only expanded their membership greatly but also brought many of the 'Intellectual Marxists' into the PCF during the war and after. There he discusses not only the development of the Marxism of the PCF - especially the impact of Lysenko's philosophy of the two sciences - but also continues his discussion of the Hegelian Marxism of Lefebvre and Auguste Cornu, together with a discussion of the emergence of an 'existential Marxism' in the work of Jean-Paul Sartre. This discussion forms the immediate backdrop for Lewis's discussion of Althusser's interventions in the last two chapters. As can be seen from this brief outline of its first five chapters, this book by Bill Lewis is very different in scope and method from that of Gregory Elliott - who attempted to provide a detailed, critical account of the changing positions in Althusser's text over the entire range of Althusser's thought (at least, from what was available in 1987) but did not attempt to provide a substantial account of the theoretical and political terrain from which Althusser emerged and into which he intervened. While Lewis's book does not replace Elliott's its account of the 'traditions of French Marxism' is very valuable, and it is presented in a very readable manner.
8. Whereas Elliott's book is very detailed in its account of Althusser's career from this point on, Lewis provides not so much an alternative critical account of Althusser's work as a an alternative grid of intelligibility with which to understand Althusser's initial interventions of the period 1960-65 and his subsequent reassessment and then self-criticism. Despite the detailed knowledge demonstrated in Elliott's book it has long been criticised for its narrative, which depicts Althusser's interventions of the early 1960s as representing a (nevertheless fatally flawed) 'high Althusserianism' followed by a period when Althusser, under the influence of his Maoist students, engaged in a destructive process of self-criticism. Lewis's discussion of the uneven and contradictory development of French Marxism in his earlier chapters enables him to assess the adequacy of Althusser's initial intervention into French Marxism in Chapter 6 ('The Purification of Theory'), and it is the failure of that intervention by its own criteria - and not against some external measure of what Marxism should be - that provides the basis for considering Althusser's self-criticism in the final chapter ('Theory for Practice'). Here Lewis focuses predominantly on Althusser's interventions against the Marxist-Humanism that became PCF dogma after 1956, as well as the Stalinist theory of the 'two sciences' that preceded it.
9. Althusser's intervention of the early 1960s, as noted by others, has a double character: it constitutes a left-wing critique of both Stalin and Khrushchev. This intervention entailed a rethinking of 'Marxist philosophy', developing a non-Hegelian dialectical materialism with the help of a 'detour' through the works of a number of non-Marxist philosophers, to produce Marxism's 'Theory of theoretical practice.' However, as Lewis suggests, this attempt to 'purify' Marxist philosophy failed, leading to a radical shift in how Althusser understood philosophy as a practice. As Lewis notes in his sixth chapter, in the course of his self-criticism Althusser first reformulated what he meant by philosophy in general, and subsequently what he meant by dialectical materialism, before eventually abandoning the 'dialectic' altogether:
If there is one thing that unites each of Althusser's critiques of humanism and "subjectivisms," it is that they all emphasise the fact that formulas and laws cannot substitute for analysis and theory in Marxism. The materialist dialectic is not just Hegelian categories turned on their head: it is no essence that is the truth of history and that motivates its progress. Rather, the dialectic is nothing but the actual appearance of differentiated social structures in history, the sum of contradictions that constitute an epoch. In some of his writings from the late 1970s, Althusser even goes so far as to abandon the notion of the materialist dialectic completely. He prefers instead the descriptive title "Marx's materialist philosophy," a notion purged of any eschatological baggage. In an unpublished work from the mid-1970s titled Textes sur la philosophie marxiste, one can actually see direct evidence of this shift. While the original typescript has Althusser using the term "Dialectical Materialism," in subsequent revisions he has crossed-out the term and replaced it with the phrase "the philosophy of Marx." The tendency exemplified here to abandon idealist notions in all of their guises represents a decisive advance for Marxism over the "pre-scientific" theories that Althusser wished to critique and which were driven more by the imaginary demands of the dialectic than by the exigencies of the real world. (Lewis 2005a: 180-181)
Rather than attempting to reformulate 'dialectical materialism', and thus to provide a new guarantee of Marxism's truth, Althusser in the end left the holy water of the dialectic to his Hegelian-Marxist opponents.
10. While I am generally in agreement with Lewis's argument, and I would certainly recommend his book to all interested in Althusser, there is one specific point where I found his argument deficient: his discussion of Althusser's supposed 'epistemological conventionalism', an argument which he has elaborated at greater length elsewhere (Lewis 2005b). I would like to spend the rest of this review suggesting where exactly the problem arises and what might be an alternative way of understanding Althusser's epistemology.
11. This difficulty revolves around Lewis's appropriation and deployment of a thesis taken from an earlier book on Althusser by Robert Paul Resch, Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory (1992). Lewis himself notes that in many of the points he makes regarding Althusser's epistemology he is "indebted to Resch's work" (Lewis 2005a: 209). Resch's reading of Althusser, like that of several others, attempts to open up the possibility of correcting Althusser's philosophy through importing certain concepts from the 'critical realism' of Roy Bhaskar. The difficulties here are not grave, but they provide an opening for the subjugation of certain of Althusser's materialist theses to an ideological discourse, namely that of the 'problem of knowledge'. The opposition realism/conventionalism is internal to that ideological discourse and does not have meaning outside of it; most problematically, it serves to reintroduce the imaginary entity the Subject, as the problem of knowledge entails the Subject-Real relation. While this problem is present in Althusser's work, specifically in his account of dialectical materialism in his introduction to Reading Capital (Althusser 1970), I would suggest that it is a problem to the extent to which he implicitly accepts the problem of knowledge as a valid problem for materialism, rather than considering any change in his position towards what might be read as 'epistemological realism' as an index a materialist position.
12. In chapter 6, Lewis discusses this "problem" with respect to Althusser's 'Theory of theoretical practices' but does not, in my view, correctly delineate the relation between this "problem" and Althusser's early theoreticism:
Althusser argues that external verification is not where truth is found. Rather, proof and demonstration are said to be "the product of definite and specific material and theoretical apparatuses and procedures internal to each science." It is thus the internal production of new theory that allows questions to be posed which, in turn, allow for the further definition and development of a science. .... But is internal verification sufficient guarantee of the veracity of these scientific knowledges? An oft-repeated critique of Althusser's philosophy of science is that, because science is defined only by criteria internal to itself and consists only of concepts, the knowledge that it produces has no external check. A science is what the scientists who practice it say it is. That which it calls "true" is merely that which meets the criteria for truth established by that science's problematic. This seems to be both an extremely rationalist and an extremely conventionalist view of science. Althusser adds fuel to this argument when he makes statements like "the production of knowledge which is peculiar to theoretical [scientific] practice constitutes a process that takes place entirely in thought, just as we say mutatis mutandis that the process of economic production takes place entirely in the economy." When a production takes place entirely in thought and the objects that it works with are exclusively concepts, it is had to see how such a practice can be externally verified. Consequently, Althusser's materialism, in this sense, drifts dangerously close to an idealism of the type he wished to criticize." (Lewis 2005a: 170, internal quote from Althusser 1970: 42)
While a conception of the sciences that claims that 'a science is what the scientists who practice it say it is' might be considered 'conventionalist' within the terms of the problem of knowledge, it is not clear that the absence of an 'external verification' necessarily entails acceptance of that 'problem' or taking up a conventionalist position within it.
13. In his 1973 'Introduction to the English Edition' included in his Marxism and Epistemology (1975) Dominique Lecourt drew a line of demarcation between Althusser's 'epistemological break' and Thomas Kuhn's 'paradigm shift', arguing that only the latter concept is 'conventionalist', and that it is 'conventionalist' precisely because it assumes that truth is a 'convention' between scientist-subjects (Lecourt 1975: 7-19). Lecourt's account of Althusser's epistemological position acknowledges, and indeed emphasises, its continuities with those of Bachelard, Canguilhem, and Foucault, and demarcates that 'tradition' from the one following Kuhn:
Bachelard is stating [here] ... the philosophical thesis that underpins all his epistemological work: that the truth of a scientific truth 'imposes itself' by itself. In Spinozist terms: 'veritas norma sui ' (the truth is its own measure). In Leninist terminology: Bachelard is posing the thesis of the objectivity of scientific knowledges. He is posing it, not discussing it. He does not seek to found, to guarantee this objectivity. He is not concerned to pose to scientific knowledge the traditional question of its claims to validity. This point is crucial, for we maintain that this position is a materialist position. A position which enables Bachelard to take a step outside the theoretical space of what idealist philosophy in its classical period called the "problem of knowledge". (Lecourt 1975: 12)
For Lecourt this position entails that reorganizations and mutations of scientific practice occur "at the conjunction of two distinct processes" (Lecourt 1975: 13), the first being an increasingly complex technical and social division of labour within the practices the sciences, the second being the insertion of scientific practices within social practice as a whole (and the effects of that insertion within scientific practice) (Lecourt 1975: 13-14).
14. With respect to the first process, it is a process of theoretical production:
The forms of this internal process are, according to [Bachelard], determined by the norm constituted by the truth of scientific knowledges: insofar as it is a process of production of knowledges, this process, which, like every process of production, is carried out in (or rather beneath) historically determined relations (of production), is indeed subject to the norm of the true: its norm is the true." (Lecourt 1975: 13-14)
This process approximates what Wal Suchting developed, following Althusser, into a theory of theoretical modes of production (Suchting 1986: 19-28). However, it is on the basis of this theory that Lecourt then provides a reading of Bachelard that suggests the proximity of Bachelard's position not only to Althusser's concepts of problematic and epistemological break, but also provides, with respect to the second process, a rationale for Althusser's later conception of philosophy:
[The insertion of] this internal practice ... in the overall process of social practice ... has its effects even inside the internal process. Hence Bachelard's constant concern for the intervention of non-scientific determinations in scientific practice; hence also the analyses outlined on a number of occasions of the material instances which govern these interventions: an analysis of the pedagogy of the sciences, of the constitution of scientific libraries and of the status of scientific books. Hence also the famous theory of scientific instruments. What is important in these pages, which are often disappointingly brief, is that they strikingly reveal a principle of analysis which in solidarity with Bachelard's materialist philosophical position. This principle can be stated as follows: the effects of external determinations ('social', 'economic', 'ideological' and 'political' determinations) are subject to the internal conditions (the norm of the true) of scientific practice. Here is a principle which rules out from the start all epistemological economism, sociologism and psychologism: it is indeed impossible to achieve a genesis of scientific concepts on the basis of what are known as the social, economic, or psychological (even biological) 'conditions' of scientific practice. It is this which is very clear in the difficult question of the intervention of the subjects (of the scientists, of their individual psychological reality) in scientific practice. Once he has repudiated the idealist philosophical question of the guarantee of the objectivity of scientific knowledges and thereby given up looking for the 'cause' of scientific production in a subject, individual or collective, Bachelard establishes without ambiguity the terms in which the real problem of the psychology of the man of science must be posed. It is necessary, he proves, to start from the internal process, for which the scientists are only the agents: as such they have to submit to the norms of the process; if they refuse, they immediately set themselves outside science. But to get there, being also 'subjects' of ideology (having a consciousness, wishes, ambitions, political, religious and ethical ideas, etc.), they have to make an effort - Bachelard says: a rationalist effort - and this effort is the whole process of the formation of the scientific mind. An effort which splits the scientific subject, which demands of him, often to the point of being existentially torn, that he make a break with the 'spontaneous' interests of life. (Lecourt 1975: 14-15)
One can see here that, from the standpoint of Althusser's later position on philosophy - first elaborated in his 'Philosophy Course for Scientists' of 1967 (first published as Philosophie et philosophie spontanée des savants in 1974 - translated into English as Althusser 1990: 69-165) - and ideology (Althusser 1971: 121-173) that philosophy, as the intervention of politics into theory (and the specifically theoretical mode by which the relation between ideology and the sciences is determined) that Bachelard's theory is, at least in Lecourt's account, compatible with Althusser's account of historical materialism as a science (although some of Bachelard's concepts - such as "the scientific mind" - cannot survive the encounter with Althusser's concept of theoretical practice and his thesis of the materiality of ideology).
15. Interestingly Althusser's borrowings from Bachelard, which Elliott discussed at great length, are not mentioned in Lewis's book, and neither book discusses Lecourt's discussion of Bachelard. But this passage seems to me to be crucial in raising the issue of the constitution of the scientists as subjects and the effects of that within the sciences, and, even more importantly, the role of philosophy not only in intervening to produce specific changes in the relations between ideologies and the sciences (understood as material practices) but also in the process of the (re)production of the subjects of scientific discourse.
16. Here we can see proximities between Althusser and Michel Foucault - not just with respect to Foucault's analysis in The Archaeology of Knowledge , as noted by Lecourt (1975: 199-213), but also with respect to Foucault's later work, up to and including his late work on technologies of the self. Althusser's work enables us to pose the problem of the relations between theoretical practice and subject formation, and the role of philosophy in the (re)production of that relation. The scientist as a subject can never be outside ideology, and "never succeeds in being a 'pure' agent of scientific practice" (Lecourt 1975: 15). Scientists constantly encounter epistemological obstacles that are formed within the spontaneous philosophy of their practice. For Bachelard, Lecourt argues, the 'normality' of science "designate[s] the specific character of ... the production of scientific truths, and ... suggest[s] the impact of this character on the agents of that production" (Lecourt 1975: 15).
17. What Lewis considers Althusser's 'epistemological conventionalism' is, however, more problematic than Lecourt's account of Bachelard suggests. Althusser's first definition of philosophy is merely a reworking of the existing Marxist tradition of 'dialectical materialism' with the help of a concepts of a 'Marxist problematic' and an 'epistemological break' derived from Bachelard. It is, however, the Marxist tradition, and not the Bachelardian one, that is the root cause of the difficulty, as Lecourt's account of Bachelard's theory suggests, and this fact can only be grasped from the standpoint of Althusser's second definition of philosophy and the Spinozist theory of the materiality of ideology (developed in Althusser's essay on the Ideological State Apparatuses and Macherey's book on literary production - see the discussion in Montag 2003). In the self-criticism, and especially after 1970 the thesis of philosophy representing the intervention of politics into theory and the thesis of the materiality of discourse work against the theoreticist tendency of the early writings, and, to the extent that they are successful, foreclose a 'conventionalist' understanding of the relationship between the object of knowledge and the real object. Given that the object of knowledge exists only in the material practices that are its embodiment, the relations between the real object and the object of knowledge, while not intelligible to us outside of the discourse, exists in its material effects within that discourse. The relationship is not between the 'real world' (matter) and the 'subject of knowledge' (ideas) but between material forces. Suchting gives an example in the beam balance, where a whole theoretical discourse is embodied in the materiality of the apparatus, and the effects of the real object are grasped entirely within that discourse, and yet the relationship between the real object and the apparatus (and the theoretical discourse embodied in it) is entirely real and material (Suchting 1986: 31-32).
18. Conventionalism - at least as embodied in the theses of Kuhn - is very different from the epistemological position of Bachelard or Althusser. Kuhn's 'paradigm' is understood not in terms of practices and subjectivization but rather in terms of rules and standards of scientific practice agreed upon and followed by scientists considered as subjects of knowledge. Whereas for Althusser scientists are constituted as such within ideology - within the 'spontaneous philosophy' of scientific practice - for Kuhn scientists exist as subjects that are both prior to and constitutive of scientific practice. Conventionalism is opposed to realism because whereas the latter takes the standard of scientificity as being somehow given 'outside' of scientific discourse, in the properties of a real world exterior to it, conventionalism claims that such an external guarantee is impossible, and finds 'scientificity' in conformity to the current 'scientific paradigm'. The normativity to which "normal science" conforms is, as Lecourt notes, the paradigm itself, and "the basis for the normativity of the paradigm ... is the decision of the group which chooses to hold such and such a scientific theory or discovery to be paradigmatic" (Lecourt 1975: 16). Compelled to answer the question of the objectivity of scientific knowledges by the very terms in which it is framed, conventionalism cannot adequately distinguish scientists from criminals or science from theology (Lecourt 1975: 16-17, c.f., Feyerabend 1970, Watkins 1970). As Lecourt notes, conventionalism can fall back on apriorism: "Scratch a conventionalist and you will find an apriorist." There is no doubt that Althusser's writings of 1965 - and, indeed, Foucault's writings of 1966 - contain an apriorist aspect, and this perhaps underlies the inadequacy of the epistemological formulations in that early work, but the implied 'solution' to the problems suggested by Resch (e.g., Resch 1989: 529-533) - the shift towards a realist, or perhaps even 'critical realist' solution to the problem of knowledge - is an imaginary 'solution' to a question that a consistent materialism must refuse to ask, a question "inscribed in the orb of idealist philosophies" (Lecourt 1975: 19).
19. It is perhaps the case that this question was posed to Lewis within the program in which his thesis was written; indeed, given the dominance of idealism within philosophy, and even more so within the universities, a doctoral thesis in philosophy would be forced to produce an answer that question. That question does not structure this book in its entirety: much more important within it is Althusser's understanding of philosophy as the struggle between idealist and materialist tendencies, of philosophy as representing the intervention of politics in the realm of theory, of philosophy as, in the last instance, the class struggle in theory. In contrast to those accounts - both sympathetic and hostile - that have attempted to construct a philosophical system out of Althusser's work (a 'Marxist philosophy') and then measure the adequacy of that philosophy against some imaginary standard of 'true Marxism' this book by William Lewis has worked within Althusser's philosophy, reading its historical and theoretical conditions of existence in a manner that Althusser himself would have recognised as materialist. As such it represents a significant contribution to the existing literature on Althusser and, perhaps just as importantly, on French Marxism.
David McInerney is Tutor in Education at the University of Adelaide. He has published an essay on Benedict Anderson's 'print-capitalism' thesis (in Masses, Classes and the Public Sphere, ed. Mike Hill and Warren Montag) and is currently writing several essays and a book proposal on James Mill's philosophical practice in The History of British India. He is the editor of this special borderlands issue.
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