Louis Althusser on Hegel’s Expressive Totality

   To break with the religious myth of reading: with Marx this theoretical necessity took precisely the form of a rupture with the Hegelian conception of the whole as a 'spiritual' totality, to be precise, as an expressive totality. It is no accident that when we turn the thin sheet of the theory of reading, we discover beneath it a theory of expression, and that we discover this theory of the expressive totality (in which each part is pars totalis, immediately expressing the whole that it inhabits in person) to be the theory which, in Hegel, for the last time and on the terrain of history itself, assembled all the complementary religious myths of the voice (the Logos) speaking in the sequences of a discourse; of the Truth that inhabits its Scripture; -- and of the ear that hears or the eye that reads this discourse, in order to discover in it (if they are pure) the speech of the Truth which inhabits each of its Words in person. Need I add that once we have broken with the religious complicity between Logos and Being; between the Great Book that was, in its very being, the World, and the discourse of the knowledge of the world; between the essence of things and its reading; -- once we have broken those tacit pacts in which the men of a still fragile age secured themselves with magical alliances against the precariousness of history and the trembling of their own daring -- need I add that, once we have broken these ties, a new conception of discourse at last becomes possible?

SOURCE: Althusser, Louis. “From Capital to Marx's Philosophy,” in Reading Capital [Part 1], by Louis Althusser and Étienne Balibar, translated by Ben Brewster (London: New Left Books, 1970), pp. 11-69; this excerpt p. 17.

    Two essential characteristics of Hegelian historical time can be isolated: its homogeneous continuity and its contemporaneity.

    (1) The homogeneous continuity of time. The homogeneous continuity of time is the reflection in existence of the continuity of the dialectical development of the Idea. Time can thus be treated as a continuum in which the dialectical continuity of the process of the development of the Idea is manifest. On this level, then, the whole problem of the science of history would consist of the division of this continuum according to a periodization corresponding to the succession of one dialectical totality after another. The moments of the Idea exist in the number of historical periods into which the time continuum is to be accurately divided. In this Hegel was merely thinking in his own theoretical problematic the number one problem of the historian's practice, the problem Voltaire, for example, expressed when he distinguished between the age of Louis XIV and the age of Louis XV; it is still the major problem of modern historiography.

    (2) The contemporaneity of time, or the category of the historical present. This second category is the condition of possibility of the first one, and in it we find Hegel's central thought. If historical time is the existence of the social totality we must be precise about the structure of this existence. The fact that the relation between the social totality and its historical existence is a relation with an immediate existence implies that this relation is itself immediate. In other words: the structure of historical existence is such that all the elements of the whole always co-exist in one and the same time, one and the same present, and are therefore contemporaneous with one another in one and the same present. This means that the structure of the historical existence of the Hegelian social totality allows what I propose to call an 'essential section ' (coupe d'essence ), i.e., an intellectual operation in which a vertical break is made at any moment in historical time, a break in the present such that all the elements of the whole revealed by this section are in an immediate relationship with one another, a relationship that immediately expresses their internal essence. When I speak of an 'essential section', I shall therefore be referring to the specific structure of the social totality that allows this section, in which all the elements of the whole are given in a co-presence, itself the immediate presence of their essences, which thus become immediately legible in them. It is clear that it is the specific structure of the social totality which allows this essential section: for this section is only possible because of the peculiar nature of the unity of this totality, a 'spiritual' unity, if we can express in this way the type of unity possessed by an expressive totality, i.e., a totality all of whose parts are so many 'total parts ', each expressing the others, and each expressing the social totality that contains them, because each in itself contains in the immediate form of its expression the essence of the totality itself. I am referring to the structure of the Hegelian whole which I have already discussed: the Hegelian whole has a type of unity in which each element of the whole, whether a material or economic determination, a political institution or a religious, artistic or philosophical form, is never anything more than the presence of the concept with itself at a historically determined moment. This is the sense in which the co-presence of the elements with one another and the presence of each element with the whole are based on a de jure preliminary presence: the total presence of the concept in all the determinations of its existence. That is how the continuity of time is possible: as the phenomenon of the concept's continuity of presence with its positive determinations. When we speak of a moment of the development of the Idea in Hegel, we must be careful to observe that this term reduces two meanings to one: the moment as a moment of a development (which invokes the continuity of time and gives rise to the theoretical problem of periodization); and the moment as a moment of time, as the present, which is never anything but the phenomenon of the presence of the concept with itself in all its concrete determinations.

    It is this absolute and homogeneous presence of the determinations of the whole with the current essence of the concept which allows the 'essential section' I have been discussing. This is what in principle explains the famous Hegelian formula, valid for all the determinations of the whole, up to and including the self-consciousness of this whole in the knowing of this whole which is the historically present philosophy -- the famous formula according to which nothing can run ahead of its time. The present constitutes the absolute horizon of all knowing, since all knowing can never be anything but the existence in knowing of the internal principle of the whole. However far philosophy goes it can never escape the bounds of this absolute horizon: even if it takes wing at dusk, it still belongs to the day, to the today, it is still merely the present reflecting on itself, reflecting on the presence of the concept with itself -- tomorrow is in essence forbidden it.

    And that is why the ontological category of the present prevents any anticipation of historical time, any conscious anticipation of the future development of the concept, any knowledge of the future. This explains the theoretical difficulty Hegel experienced in dealing with the existence of 'great men', whose role in his reflection is therefore that of paradoxical witnesses to an impossible conscious historical forecast. Great men neither perceive nor know the future: they divine it as a presentiment. Great men are only clairvoyants who have a presentiment of but can never know the imminence of tomorrow's essence, the 'kernel in the shell', the future in invisible gestation in the present, the coming essence being born in the alienation of the current essence. The fact that there is no knowing the future prevents there being any science of politics, any knowing that deals with the future effects of present phenomena. That is why no Hegelian politics is possible strictly speaking, and in fact there has never been a Hegelian politician.

  I have insisted on the nature of historical time and its theoretical conditions to this extent because this conception of history and of its relation to time is still alive amongst us, as can be seen from the currently widespread distinction between synchrony and diachrony. This distinction is based on a conception of historical time as continuous and homogeneous and contemporaneous with itself. The synchronic is contemporaneity itself, the co-presence of the essence with its determinations, the present being readable as a structure in an 'essential section' because the present is the very existence of the essential structure. The synchronic therefore presupposes the ideological conception of a continuous-homogeneous time. It follows that the diachronic is merely the development of this present in the sequence of a temporal continuity in which the 'events' to which 'history' in the strict sense can be reduced (cf. Lévi-Strauss) are merely successive contingent presents in the time continuum. Like the synchronic, which is the primary concept, the diachronic therefore presupposes both of the very two characteristics I have isolated in the Hegelian conception of time: an ideological conception of historical time.

    Ideological, because it is clear that this conception of historical time is merely a reflection of the conception Hegel had of the type of unity that constitutes the link between all the economic, political, religious, aesthetic, philosophical and other elements of the social whole. Because the Hegelian whole is a 'spiritual whole' in the Leibnizian sense of a whole in which all the parts 'conspire' together, in which each part is a pars totalis, the unity of this double aspect of historical time (homogeneous-continuity/contemporaneity) is possible and necessary. [pp. 94-96.]

  Very schematically, we can say that classical philosophy (the existing Theoretical) had two and only two systems of concepts with which to think effectivity. The mechanistic system, Cartesian in origin, which reduced causality to a transitive and analytical effectivity: it could not be made to think the effectivity of a whole on its elements, except at the cost of extra-ordinary distortions (such as those in Descartes' 'psychology' and biology). But a second system was available, one conceived precisely in order to deal with the effectivity of a whole on its elements: the Leibnizian concept of expression. This is the model that dominates all Hegel's thought. But it presupposes in principle that the whole in question be reducible to an inner essence, of which the elements of the whole are then no more than the phenomenal forms of expression, the inner principle of the essence being present at each point in the whole, such that at each moment it is possible to write the immediately adequate equation: such and such an element (economic, political, legal, literary, religious, etc., in Hegel) = the inner essence of the whole. Here was a model which made it possible to think the effectivity of the whole on each of its elements, but if this category -- inner essence/outer phenomenon -- was to be applicable everywhere and at every moment to each of the phenomena arising in the totality in question, it presupposed that the whole had a certain nature, precisely the nature of a 'spiritual ' whole in which each element was expressive of the entire totality as a 'pars totalis'. In other words, Leibniz and Hegel did have a category for the effectivity of the whole on its elements or parts, but on the absolute condition that the whole was not a structure.

    If the whole is posed as structured, i.e., as possessing a type of unity quite different from the type of unity of the spiritual whole, this is no longer the case: not only does it become impossible to think the determination of the elements by the structure in the categories of analytical and transitive causality, it also becomes impossible to think it in the category of the global expressive causality of a universal inner essence immanent in its phenomenon. The proposal to think the determination of the elements of a whole by the structure of the whole posed an absolutely new problem in the most theoretically embarrassing circumstances, for there were no philosophical concepts available for its resolution. The only theoretician who had had the unprecedented daring to pose this problem and outline a first solution to it was Spinoza. But, as we know, history had buried him in impenetrable darkness. Only through Marx, who, however, had little knowledge of him, do we even begin to guess at the features of that trampled face. [pp. 186-187]

SOURCE: Althusser, Louis. “The Object of Capital" (1965), in Reading Capital [Part 2], by Louis Althusser and Étienne Balibar, translated by Ben Brewster (London: New Left Books, 1970), pp. 71-198; these excerpts pp. 94-96, 186-187.

This essay is Althusser’s most complete exposition of the concept. Here and elsewhere can be found an explanation of Marx’s conception of totality and its difference from Hegel.

    On this point I believed that I had found an important difference between Marx and Hegel. For Hegel, society, like history, is made up of circles within circles, of spheres within spheres. Dominating his whole conception is the idea of the expressive totality, in which all the elements are total parts, each expressing the internal unity of the totality which is only ever, in all its complexity, the objectification-alienation of a simple principle. And in fact, when you read the Rechtsphilosophie, you find that Hegel is deploying, in the dialectic of the Objective Spirit which produces them, the spheres of abstract law, of Moralität and Sittlichkeit, so that each produces the other through the negation of the negation so as to find their truth in the State. There are many differences between them, but since their relation is always one of "truth", these differences are always affirmed only to be denied and transcended in other differences, and this is possible because in each difference there is already present the in-itself of a future for-itself. And when you read the Introduction to the Philosophy of History, you find the same process, one might even say the same procedure: each moment of the development of the Idea exists in its States, which realize a simple principle -- the beauty of individuality for ancient Greece, the legal spirit for Rome, etc. And borrowing from Montesquieu the idea that in a historical totality all concrete determinations, whether economic, political, moral or even military, express one single principle, Hegel conceives history in terms of the category of the expressive totality.

    For Marx, the differences are real, and they are not only differences in spheres of activity, practices and objects: they are differences in efficacy. The last instance operates here in such a way that it explodes the peaceful fiction of the circle or the sphere. It is not an accident that Marx abandons the metaphor of the circle for that of the edifice. A circle is closed, and the corresponding notion of totality presupposes that one can grasp all the phenomena, exhaustively, and then reassemble them within the simple unity of its centre. Marx on the other hand presents us with an edifice, a foundation, and one or two upper floors -- exactly how many is not stated. Nor does he say that everything must fall into these categories, that everything is either infrastructure or superstructure. You could even argue for the idea, essential to Capital, that the Marxist theory of societies and of history implies a whole theory of their incidental costs and their failures. Marx only says that you must distinguish, that the distinctions are real, irreducible, that in the order of determination the share of the base and that of the superstructure are unequal, and that this inequality or unevenness in dominance is constitutive of the unity of the whole, which therefore can no longer be the expressive unity of a simple principle all of whose elements would be the phenomena.

SOURCE: Althusser, Louis. “Is it Simple to be a Marxist in Philosophy?” (1975), in Essays in Self-Criticism [Part 2 on site ], translated by Grahame Lock (London: New Left Books, 1976), pp. 162-207; this excerpt pp. 182-183.

Also in Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists and Other Essays, edited with an introduction by Gregory Elliott (London; New York: Verso, 1990) pp. 203-240.


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