Now a Controversy over Althusser and Marxist Theory of Knowledge

How Ideology Relates to Natural Science,
with Examples from Geology and Cosmogony

David W. Schwartzman & Mohsin Siddique
Response by Lester Talkington

The relation of ideology to the natural sciences is an important issue on which the variety of competing views ranges from claims of their absolute dichotomy to their identity. It is our contention that ideology and natural science are inseparably interpenetrated but irreducible to one another. They are opposites in dialectical unity. We believe that the source of the ideological penetration of the natural sciences is not limited to obvious political influences on scientists such as militarism, racism and sexism [cf. Rose and Rose 1976] and to philosophical interpretation of theory, but is found right in the core of  science in the production of knowledge as an inseparable influence. This latter aspect of ideology has not been generally recognized—it goes beyond the usual Marxist definition of ideology.

It has long been accepted in Marxist analysis that the social sciences are intimately bound to ideologies that represent class interests, and that this crucially affects the theories. With respect to the natural sciences, the relation to ideologies is not as obvious. Some Marxists [e.g. Konstantinov et al., 1974] maintain that ideological factors usually function at the level of philosophical interpretation of theories of the natural sciences but imply that the normal production of knowledge is relatively free of ideological defor mation because ideologies in their view reflect class interests, directly or indirectly, and it is nonsense to talk about "bourgeois and proletarian mathematics or chemistry". We agree with this position with respect to class interests, but we think the view is inadequate for explaining the depth of the ideology/science connection.

Another accepted result of Marxist analysis is that a scientific community can have its own body of ideology. Parekh [1982] points out, based on a close reading of Marx, that every social group, and not merely classes as such, adopt systematically biased ideological concepts reflecting their com plex place in society. Talkington [1981] also emphasizes this point in relation to science (our differences with his approach are pointed out below).

Let us define what we mean by ideology: ideology is a system of views and ideas reflecting the lived relations of people with their world (including, of course, the collective of scientists), and functioning therefore as a material force in society, embodying itself in institutions which tend to reproduce the dominant ideology. Poulantzas [1978] provides a lucid discussion of ideology in this general problematic. In particular, following Althusser, he develops the concept of ideology of the dominant class in capitalist society as functioning to "fix men's real relation to their conditions of existence in the form of an imaginary relation" by "hiding the real contradictions." Ideologies derivative from scientific theory—and all modern ideologies have some influence from science (even Creationism!)—in this context will function as a technology of ideas/concepts, analogous to technology functioning as applied science. Thus, such ideologies as Social Darwinism will be useful in the reproduction of the dominant world view just as technology functions in the production of commodities and reproduction of the means of production.

Marxist ideology, derivative from the scientific theory of historical materialism, is of course the main contender against bourgeois ideology in our day and age. The ideologies of the scientific community in the modem era have reflected directly and indirectly the class struggle and its expression in ideological struggle on a global scale. The generation of scientific theories occurs in the context of the ideological struggles in the scientific community, struggles which are inseparable from controversies arising from the dialectical development of scientific knowledge. We argue here that a neglected aspect of this development, from the point of view of philosophical analysis, is the interpenetration of science and ideology in the core of the "productive process" of science. The finiteness of scientific theory facing the qualitative infinity of nature is an inevitable outcome of this productive process.

It is through the scientists' world view, a finite complex of ideological and scientific concepts, that objective reality is reflected and new theory is generated, elaborated and tested. Since no theory ultimately proves to be complete, in the sense of encompassing all the qualitative infinity of the world, it inevitably reaches an impasse in its self‑reflection. There is always an unknown, a depth to the real outside the comprehension of any theoretical structure; this is an ever‑present boundary condition in the history of a science, shifting with the continual revolutions of its theoretical and experimental apparatuses. This finiteness of theory generates an ideological quality which interpenetrates with the ideological effects of class struggle simultaneously with the interpenetration of ideological and scientific concepts. 'The "internal" generation of an ideological quality to theory, alongside the "external" can be described as the process of "ideologisation" of science, an historical process to be understood in its concrete aspects by the science of the history of the sciences. Although the internal ideological quality is, unlike the external, not a reflection of class interests, we label it ideological because its effects are so similar to the classical Marxist concept of ideology. We will now proceed to discuss the typology of this interpenetration of science and ideology, as well as their irreducibility as dialectical opposites.

In contrast to science, ideology does not produce knowledge of the objective world, which of course includes society and its ideological apparatuses (e.g., church). This quality of ideology was emphasized by Althusser [1969,1971]. Implicit in this concept is that ideologies are closed in themselves; unlike the sciences, ideologies are not open ended by their own means of comprehension. This is what we think Althusser means when he says ideologies have no history. llyenkov's [1977] phrase "dogmatised image" is particularly apt as a description of ideological conceptions. Macherey (1978) put it this way: Ideology's essential weakness is that it can never recognize for itself its own real limits". It is in this sense that ideology is an "opposite" to science, more precisely, to that aspect of scientific development which deepens our knowledge.

Yet scientific theories do reach their limits, become ideological (a faith, a dogma) as an inevitable process of scientific development. As Althusser [1970] put it:

. . . ideology not only lies in wait for science at each point where its rigor slackens, but also at the furthest point where an investigation currently reaches its limits.

For example, the continued adherence by sections of the scientific community to the theoretical framework of Newtonian physics during its crisis in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (and even now by a tiny group of dissenters!) has all the characteristics of belief in religious dogma. To be sure, Newtonian physics is certainly still useful in everyday life (except in some of the everyday life of the physicist, e.g., nuclear physics). This usefulness is simply the result of the validity of equations of Einsteinian physics reducing to those of Newtonian physics for velocities much less than the speed of light. The meanings of mass, time and space in the reduced equations are in a theoretical sense still profoundly different, as pointed out by Kuhn [1970].

Thus, the science/ideology connection has both external and internal dimensions. The external relations are more easily seen as contamination of scientific theories by, say, theological conceptions (as in Jastrow's interpretation of big­-bang cosmology as the act of the deity). Indeed, on the level of philosophical interpretation of theories, as well as the institutional materiality of science, we find unmistakable penetration by ideology via religion, bourgeois philosophy and political direction. But it is the internal aspect which is most disturbing for those of us who accept the progressive character of scientific advance, in the sense of a deepening of knowledge. Today's scientific theory, which moves to a fuller and deeper knowledge of the world is tomorrow's ideological dogma. This paradox is closely related to the paradox of relative truth (and its core of absolute truth) recently discussed by Narskii [1979]:

If absolute truth . . . is to be singled out of the composition of some given relative truth as its "core", which will not be canceled by the future development of cognition, and if, further, we take account of the fact that it will never be possible, either today or in the future to establish with absolute accuracy the boundary between this "core" and its "envelope," then one asks what that "envelope" is from the standpoint of exact epistemological identification, i.e., what the remaining part of relative truth is. The answer that it is another relative truth will not work here, because it merely enlarges the "core", shifting its boundary somewhat closer to the periphery, but at the same time facing us with the same question once more. Also unsatisfactory is the answer that, outside the confines of the absolutely true "core", one always finds errors (lies) because this would imply an interpretation of relative truth as the sum of absolute truth and lies. That is not only untrue in application to special cases of truth, as found in court or on the athletic field, but is erroneous in general, for the very relativity of truth would then resolve to falsity, and the process by which absolute knowledge grows, would resolve to simple summation.

Narskii holds that this paradox is entirely soluble by a deeper understanding of the status of relative truths (through the dialectical relation of relative and absolute truth). The growth of absolute truth in scientific knowledge consists of its deepening as a whole, of the ascension from the abstract to the concrete, in the constant transformation of its conceptual object. As Ilyenkov [1982] put it:

The specific and characteristic feature of theoretical assimilation (as distinct from mere empirical familiarity with facts) is that each separate abstraction is formed within the general movement of research towards a fuller and more comprehensive, that is concrete, conception of the object. Each separate generalisation (according to the formula "from the concrete to the abstract") has a meaning only on condition that it is a step on the way to concrete comprehension of reality, along the way of ascending from an abstract reflection of the object in thought to its increasingly concrete expression in the concept..

Talkington [1981] maintains that scientific theories consist of an “operative" part which is objective and an "interpretive" part which is ideological. The latter roughly corresponds to the "external" aspect referred to above, while the "operative" part corresponds to the "internal" aspect of theories. This argument reduces the objective side of the theory to empirical observations and mathematical operations, approximately the Smirnov [1970] "empirical stage of knowledge" as distinguished from the theoretical which is explanatory of the empirical connections. This view appears to us as empiricist, reducing the core of theory to an operationalist mechanism. A mathematical formulation of theory is just as ideological as some popular interpretation, particularly when the theory reaches its limits. Moreover, even the "empirical" is profoundly informed by theory as argued in many recent critiques of operationalism and empiricism (Hawkins, Feyerabend, Bunge). We do agree with Talkington that the interpretative side of theory is more transparently ideological, but the relative opacity of the operative part presents the real challenge to scientists and philosophers to understand its interpenetration with ideology.

An aspect of the contradictory character of the science/ideology relation is the shifting positive/negative influence of ideologies on the development of scientific theory. Just as these theories in their limits become ideological, ideological concepts can anticipate, in embryonic form, scientific theory and can provide critical stimulus or ammunition to scientific development even at times far removed from the ideology's birth (e.g., ancient Greek materialist atomic theory) [1]. Yet in itself the system of particular ideological conceptions is utterly empty of knowledge production. We maintain therefore that, though in science's ascent to deeper knowledge it is irreducible to ideology, it is impossible to guarantee the definitive isolation of scientific truth from ideological conceptions at any historical moment, including the case of natural sciences far removed from their pre‑scientific past (e.g., modem physics) but in science's ascent to deeper knowledge it is irreducible to ideology. The absence of this guarantee leads some authors who sympathize with Marxism to identify science as an ideology (e.g., the praxis school; and see Dickson (1979) for a stimulating essay). The extreme of the relativist position is found in Feyerabend's anarchistic philosophy of science (Against Method). On the other hand, errors arise from the absolutist position as well. Althusser in his strong defense of the autonomy of scientific practice has tended to see it threatened from without by ideologies but has failed to treat the interpenetration in any depth or to recognize the necessary inseparability at every stage of development [2]. Further, he retreated from his characterization of materialist dialectics as the theory of the sciences to a position that Marxist philosophy is a practice of political‑theoretical intervention, without its own object or possibility of development as a metascience [see Althusser 1976, Schwartzman 1975]. Glucksmann [19741 has pointed out the weakness in this position of absolute externality of theoretical and ideological practice [3]. Ironically, Althusser in his absolutist position finds himself in the company of the neopositivist A. J. Ayer and the neo‑Thomists in their insistence on the need for the de‑ideologisation of natural science.

Ideologies vary greatly, of course, in their relations to science at any given time; this is determined most directly in the case of the social sciences by the class interests informing the ideology; working class (Marxist) ideology as a revolutionary material force in society is guided by the science of society, historical materialism, but as an ideology itself does not produce owledge of the social formation. Yet, on the terrain of political struggle, this ideology has an increasingly vital role in forcing the direction of research programs of science (e.g., cancer research, environmental crisis).

The histories of geology and cosmogony (origin of the solar system) are particularly rich in the interplay of science and ideology. Geology can be said to have emerged as a science in the Huttonian‑Lyellian revolution. Hutton used the ideological conception of an endlessly cyclical, balanced Earth without a beginning as a weapon against creationism and its attendant catastrophism. This notion is in part derived from analogies to agricultural practice and the physiology of humans (Hutton's M.D. Thesis at Leyden was entitled "The Blood and Circulation in the Microcosm"). He later wrote:

We are . . . thus led to see a circulation in the matter of the globe, and a system of beautiful economy in the works of nature. This earth, like the body of an animal, is wasted at the same time that it is repaired. It has a state of growth and augmentation; it has another state which is that of diminution and decay. This world is thus destroyed in one part, but it is renewed in another . . . . . we have the the satisfaction to find that in nature there is wisdom, system, and consistency . . . . . The result therefore of our present enquiry is that we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end [quoted, McIntyre, 1963]

This was a retreat in one sense from the conception of the world with a natural beginning (e.g., Kant's cosmogony, which broke with Newtonian ahistoricism) but contributed to the emergence of the crucial concept of the knowability of the past from a knowledge of present processes operating (e.g., erosion, volcanism) and its translation into the scientific methodology of modern geology (uniformitarianism or, better, "actualism"). Hutton's retreat was carried further by Lyell, whose systematic formulation of the doctrine of uniformitarianism had a critical influence in Darwin's concept of evolution by natural selection on an Earth with a sensuously inconceivable age. Lyell made a double retreat; he acknowledged Darwinian evolution only in the last editions of his Principles of Geology.

Indeed, the battle of the Uniformitarianists and the Catastrophists, detached from Biblical chronology [4], was complex and uneven in its development, as Stephen Gould [1977] has lucidly described. Modern geology has tended towards a synthesis of uniformity and catastrophe and the issue is not settled, as Gould [1979] argued concerning the episodic nature of biologic change, relating gradualism to the conservative side of bourgeois ideology of the 19th century. Thus, we can recognize the rough outlines of the process by which the ideological sources available to Hutton, a Scottish farmer/doctor/geologist, were raw materials that entered into the theoretical foundation of geology, a theory that bears its ideological birthmarks two centuries later. The argument over the relative weight of uniformity and catastrophe in global geological theory still reflects the old controversies, but in its critical self­consciousness modern geology has moved far from ideological determination, at least from this source. Some geologists today fear, however, that plate tectonics, the most recent revolution in geology (and enormously fruitful), is now reaching its limits (becoming ideological!) as a conceptual framework.

Cosmogony has its own curious and uneven history. It emerged just before the French Revolution, with Count Buffon's catastrophic theory of the solar system's origin by impact of a comet with the sun and the decisive rejection of Biblical chronology. The Kant‑Laplace nebular hypothesis [5] depicted the solar system's origin in a strikingly modern form, though of course in a highly speculative model. Its great flaw, the concentration of angular momentum in the sun (instead of the planets) set the stage for the revival of collision theories in the late 19th and 20th centuries. James Jeans' theory of tidal disruption of the sun by a passing star, successfully explained, on the face of it, the distribution of angular momentum, and thus dominated cosmogony this century up until recently, though his physics was woefully inadequate in accounting for planet formation. Its great popularity is probably due to its effective revival of anthropocentrism. Academician Schmidt [1958], also founder of a school of cosmogony, put it this way:

The Jeans hypothesis lasted longer than any of the other 20th century hypotheses. The reason for its popularity was not its scientific value (it had none) but because it was the most acceptable to the idealist, religious philosophy predominating in bourgeois society.

This view is supported by the following extracts from the highly influential work by Eddington [1929]:

The solar system is not the typical product of development of a star; it is not even a common variety of development; it is a freak . . . . By elimination of alternatives it appears that a configuration resembling the solar system would only be formed if at a certain stage of condensation an unusual accident had occurred. According to Jeans the accident was the close approach of another star casually pursuing its way through space . . . . Even in the long life of a star encounters of this kind must be extremely rare . . . . I should judge that perhaps not one in a hundred millions of stars can have undergone this experience in the right stage and conditions to result in the formation of a system of planets . . . . I do not think that the whole purpose of the Creation has been staked on the one planet where we live; and in the long run we cannot deem ourselves the only race that has been or will be gifted with the mystery of consciousness. But I feel inclined to claim that at the present time our race is supreme; and not one of the profusion of stars in their myriad clusters looks down on scenes comparable to those which are passing beneath the rays of the sun.

The concept of uneven development of the sciences and their ideological interpenetration is essential to an understanding of the formation of scientific theories such as cosmogony, which can be seen as a "premature" theory in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries (i.e. dominantly ideological). It could not advance beyond a series of ad hoc hypotheses for lack of knowledge concerning stellar processes and evolution. Laplace was the Greek materialist philosopher and Jeans the idealist, basing their theories on Newtonian physics to be sure. Modern cosmogony has emerged as a systematic global theory drawing on astrophysics, geochemistry, planetology, etc., and significantly incorporating a synthesis of Laplacian historical uniformity with catastrophism (recent evidence for a supernova trigger in the collapse of an interstellar dust cloud [6]). But cosmogony will only advance from its ideological geocentrism, tending to stress uniqueness of our planetary system rather than some probable lawful regularities governing planetary system formation, with the discovery of extrasolar planets in the coming decades.

The interpenetration and irreducibility of ideology and the sciences, we maintain, can best be approached through the categories of materialist dialectics and historical materialism. Yet dialectical materialism, as the theory of the sciences with its own relatively autonomous mode of production, has its own history of ideological penetration. The classical tradition reiterated today with citation of text and repetition of metaphorical formulations has reached its ideological limits, while the attacks from bourgeois ideologies continue in different forms of penetration (no dialectics of nature, only human practice, e.g., praxis school; mechanistic materialist reductionism). This requires giving priority to the development of materialist dialectics as a living combative theory of the sciences, as a metascience uniquely rooted in all the sciences.


[1]  Cf. Thomson [19551. Also, see A. Clegg [1979] on the complex of technology/ideology of craftsmen as the basis for experimental science, Althusser [1969] on ideology as the raw material for birth of science.

[2]  Lecourt [1975] of the Althusserian school approaches this position in his essay on Foucault's The Archeology of Knowledge: "No longer to stress unilaterally the autonomy of the history of the sciences, but to mark out at the same time the relativity of that autonomy" (p. 205).

[3]  Glucksmann's position is shared by Larrain (1980).

[4]  In 1664, with literal interpretation of the Bible, Archbishop Usher "computed" the time of Earth's creation as 9:00 AM, Oct. 26, 4004 B.C.

[5]  Note that "a detailed comparison with Kant's  theory should be made: it would show that theological reasoning has still a great place in Kant's work, whereas it has none in Laplace's" [Merleau‑Ponty 1977].

[6]  Studies of meteorites have revealed anomalies in isotopes of several elements suggestive of additions to the primitive solar nebula shortly before the formation of the planets.


Althusser L. 1969 For Marx. Vintage 272 pp.

_________ 1971 Lenin and Philosophy. Monthly Review 253 pp.

_________ 1976 Essays in Self‑Criticism. New Left Books 224 pp.

Althusser L. and E. Balibar 1970 Reading Capital. Pantheon, p. 90.

Clegg A 1979 Science & Society 43: 186‑201.

Dickson D 1979 Radical Science Journal No.8, 7‑37.

Eddington A. S. 1929 The Nature of the Physical World. Cambridge Univ Press p.176‑177.

Glucksmann M. 1974 Structuralist Analysis in Contemporary Social Thought. Routledge & Kegan Paul. p.94­-138.

Gould, S. J., 1977, Ever Since Darwin. W.W. Norton, Ch. 18.

_________ 1979 Science and Nature. No.2, 5‑12.

Ilyenkov E.V. 1977 Dialectical Logic. Moscow: Progress p. 282.

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Macherey P 1978 A Theory of Literary Production. Routledge & Kegan Paul p. 131.

McIntyre 1963 "James Hutton and Philosophy of Geology." In The Fabric of Geology, C.C. Albritton, ed. Addison‑Wesley p.9.

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Talkington L. 1981 "On the role of ideology in the natural sciences." Science and Nature No. 4. 84‑88.

Thomson G. 1955 The First Philosophers. London: Lawrence & Wishart reprint 1977 p. 312.

David W. Schwartzman
Geology and Geography
Howard University

Mohsin Siddique
1634 Montague St. N.W.
Washington DC 20011

Critical Comment by Lester Talkington

A problem of "commensurability" arises in formulating a response to the Schwartzman/Siddique critique of my model for ideology in natural science. They state the issues in terms of Althusser's "structuralist" viewpoint, which has a conceptual basis that is truly worlds apart from my Marxist‑Leninist viewpoint. In the first place, they portray science and ideology as "inseparably interpenetrated . . . opposites in dialectical unity," and thus make ideology a form of anti‑science. This Althusserian concept of ideology, as the absolute opposite of science, is usually justified by quoting Marx and Engels who, in their struggle against bourgeois and petty bourgeois ideology, emphasized its negative aspects. It was Lenin [1902] who redefined the term and gave us its present more generalized usage in which the character of an ideology depends on its content‑­revolutionary, reactionary or whatever. To adopt this Leninist usage is much more than a simple matter of individual preference since, for example, it involves the question of whether or not Marxist ideology is scientific.

The Althusserian orientation of Schwartzmann/Siddique leads to basic divergences between us on other crucial questions concerning the nature of scientific knowledge. For one, they follow Althusser in the tendency to depersonalize science, i.e., to treat the production of scientific knowledge as if it were something coming off an assembly line rather than being the result of an intensely personal/social process carried on by highly conscious subjects (human beings!). In this respect, Althusser's ideas resemble neopositivism, which also seeks to eliminate the subjective from the scientific process. Though these authors criticize Althusser for his positivist tendency to "absolutism," they follow him in the positivist denial of the subject/object dialectic. This tendency shows up in their phrases such as "the productive process of science" and "a technology of ideas/concepts." Even when they acknowledge the presence of scientists in the process, they put this only in collective terms of "the scientific community," never in terms of the individual scientist and his/her subjective thought processes. Note the use of the plural here: "It is through scientists' world view . . . that objective reality is reflected and new theory is generated, elaborated and tested."

How much more realistic is the many‑sided Marxist‑Leninist formulation: "One could say that [ideology] is a unity of individual and social consciousness . . . . the individual's consciousness, while retaining its characteristics, links up with social consciousness and in a sense expresses it" [Fedoseyev 1978].

The other side of their coin, so to speak, is the Schwartzman‑Siddique tendency to personify ideology (as anti‑science), endowing it with relative autonomy and independence so that scientists seem like marionettes manipulated by an ill‑defined but potent thing (ideology), "functioning . . . as a material force in society . . . to fix men's real relation to their conditions of existence." This transformation of ideology into an actor is the logical outcome of the Althusserian fiat that puts ideology on a par with science, as its "dialectical opposite." Only in such an artificial context can any sense be made of their statement that "ideology does not produce knowledge of the objective world." In the Leninist context, science is only one of several processes by which people gain knowledge of the objective world. Ideology may influence such processes but in itself never "produces" anything:

Ideology expresses and orients human consciousness within the. system of relations and natural interconnections, and provides a set of initial values and tenets which influence the behavior and way of life of social classes, groups and individuals. The concepts and ideas which make up an ideology become a man's convictions and take an active part in shaping his attitude to to all vital phenomena and events in the world. [Fedoseyev 1978].

Taking the view that scientists are the actors, I proposed a base‑and‑superstructure model for the scientific process [Talkington 1981], where the base consists of the objective or operational components while the superstructure comprises the ideational or ideological elements of a theoretical structure.

Here, operational base refers to the objective, empirical components of a theory‑‑for example, the elements which go into the "methods and procedures" section of a scientific report, with the primary purpose of assuring reproducibility of the results. The operational elements include laws, equations and exemplars that show how the theory attaches to reality, how it can be applied to solve problems. For example, anywhere in the world Einstein's E = mc˛ will be recognized as the relativist description of operations for calculating the potential energy of matter (in designing nuclear weapons, etc.). Similarly, Maxwell's equations and Newton's laws are associated with objective procedures, embodied in engineering formulas, tables and sample problems.

By ideological superstructure, I mean all the elements of conceptual interpretation‑­statements about the meaning of operations, what kind of entities are being manipulated in the experimental apparatus and in the equations used to massage data, etc. This is the side of theory where basic arguments occur, such as the famous Bohr‑Einstein debate, where all the ambiguities persist concerning the nature of the photon or the electron, the nature of evolutionary processes, disease processes, or stellar processes. No theory can be useful in the search for new knowledge without giving play to this subjective interpretational side. Though the scientific method works well in eliminating the subjective factor from the operational base, this is neither possible nor desirable for the ideological superstructure where passionate debate is just as necessary as the tradition of scientific integrity.

Obviously, the ideological superstructure in my model is completely internal to the process of science and, hence, in no way corresponds, even roughly, to the external aspect of science as charged by Schwartzman and Siddique. True, the superstructure does provide a window through which outside concepts are brought into scientfic theory; hence, mine may well constitute the first concrete proposal for a cognitive mechanism by which social ideas can be smuggled into natural science.

Similarly, while the operational base certainly includes the empirical content of science, this has nothing whatsoever to do with philosophical empiricism or operationism, as Schwartzman and Siddique charge, since these philosophical systems seek to minimize the role of the subjective while my model gives full play to the creative interpretational aspects of science through the ideological superstructure. In particular, my model treats a mathematical equation as an objective tool for scientists which, in itself, is no more ideological than a laser or a centrifuge; ideology enters in considering how such tools are used in social processes.

There is, of course, constant interaction between operational base and ideological superstructure as the entire theoretical structure develops and changes through practice, thus neatly comprehending the theory/practice dialectic. Clearly, the complexities of this dialectical model would never fit into the narrow Althusserian conceptual scheme.

Significant, too, is the difference in the way the two models treat Marxist ideology. Schwartzman and Siddique must beat around the bush, saying that "working class (Marxist) ideology as a revolutionary material force in society is guided by the science of society, historical materialism, but as an ideology itself does not produce knowledge of the social formation." In my model no hedging is needed and one may come right out and say that Marxist ideology is scientific in nature, based as it is on Marxist scientific philosophy (historical and dialectical materialism are, of course, part of the ideological superstructure).

Another fundamental difference between our two approaches relates to their point about ideology penetrating to the very core of science: they draw a parallel with Narskii's discussion of relative truth, its core of absolute truth, and the dialectical relation of absolute and relative truth. It seems more helpful to conceive of scientific knowledge, not as having a "core" of absolute truth, but rather as a dialectical interpenetration of relative and absolute truth, an intertwining of truth and error rather than the interpenetration of science and ideology claimed by the authors. This analysis has led me to realize that the basic error of the Althusserian approach must be its neglect of the relative/absolute dialectic, with a consequent confusing of science with pure truth, of ideology with absolute error. Many statements by these authors would make much better sense if rephrased with this dialectic in mind:

AUTHORS SAY: The interpenetration of science and ideology.

REPHRASED: The interpenetration of truth and error in science

AUTHORS SAY: It is impossible to guarantee the definitive isolation of scientific truth from ideological conceptions at any given historical point.

REPHRASED: It is generally impossible to separate completely the truth from the error in a given theoretical structure.

AUTHORS SAY: A mathematical formulation of theory is just as ideological as some popular interpretation, particularly when the theory reaches its limits.

REPHRASED: The mathematical basis of a theoretical structure usually becomes just as useless as the interpretive superstructure when the theory is used outside the limits of its validity.

Finally, the way in which Althusser's "structuralist" approach acts as a conceptual straitjacket is nowhere more evident than in his ahistoricism, typified by the statement that "ideologies have no history." Schwartzman and Siddique do not challenge this statement but merely interpret it to mean that an ideology is a closed system, not open to self‑correction and self‑development in the way that science is. (Presumably, this interpretation reflects the kind of autonomy they ascribe to ideology.) But when they apply Althusserian theory to actual science, things do not turn out exactly as theory predicts. In their very interesting account of geology's origins, for example, it turns out that ideology does have a history, a development, and even an end. While they remark that theoretical geology still bears the ideological birthmarks left by Hutton two centuries earlier, they also state that "in its critical self-consciousness modern geology has moved far from ideological determination, at least from this source."

In fact, their example tends to support my thesis that scientific ideology is a part of the theoretical superstructure, and thus subject to self‑correction in the same process that characterizes the development of scientific knowledge. This is the process described by Engels [1894]:

It is self‑evident that where things and their interrelations are conceived, not as fixed, but as changing, their mental images, the ideas, are likewise subject to change and transformation; and they are not encapsulated in rigid definitions, but are developed in their historical or logical process of formation.


Frederick Engels 1894 In preface to Marx Capital iii New York: International 1967, 13f.

Pyotr Fedoseyev World Marxist Review Dee 1978.

V. I. Lenin 1902. What Is to Be Done? Sect. II.B.

Lester Talkington "On the role of ideology in the natural sciences." Science and Nature No. 4, 84‑88.

Another Marxist View of Structure in Theory

Each theory is complex in structure. For example, two parts may be distinguished in physical theories: formal calculations (mathematical equations, logical symbols, rules, etc.) and a "substantive" interpretation (categories, laws, principles). The structure and treatment of this "substantive" part of theory are connected with the scientist's philosophy and with definite methodological principles of approach to reality. Dictionary of Philosophy, M. Rosenthal and P. Yudin, eds. Moscow: Progress 1967 p 449.

[Unfortunately, this notable passage does not appear in new 1984 edition; see review of Dictionary of Philosophy, this issue. Editor.]

SOURCE: Schwartzman, David W.; Siddique, Mohsin. "How Ideology Relates to Natural Science, with Examples from Geology and Cosmogony," with response by Lester Talkington, Science & Nature,  no. 7/8 (1986), pp. 101-111.

Science and Nature, Table of Contents, issues #1-10 (1978-1989)

Louis Althusser on Hegel’s Expressive Totality

Ideology Study Guide

Marx and Marxism Web Guide

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