Althusser Darwin Monod Emergence

In my last post I showed how around 1966 Althusser was converted, by his collaborator Pierre Macherey, to the view that the concept of immanent structural causality should allow for, and account for, forms of order which were created in and through disorder. But the precise methodology involved remained an unresolved problem.

In the autumn of 1967 Althusser hailed Jacques Monod as having managed to clarify the type of structural causality which Althusser considered that Marx had used in a practical way in Capital but had not been able to formulate explicitly as a methodology. Monod was a leading pioneer in genetic research (later a Nobel prize winner) who had just been appointed Professor of Molecular Biology at the Sorbonne. In his inaugural lecture Monod explained the concept of living system. Within weeks, Althusser responded with a lecture in which he argued that the categories of emergence and of living system, as used by Monod, could aid understanding of the conceptual framework of structural causality in Marx.[1]  Here I draw on the detailed account provided by Maria Turchetto in an elegant and carefully researched article.[2]

Monod started by explaining that the causal processes of genetic reproduction via DNA were purely mechanical. ‘The cornerstone of the scientific method is the postulate that nature is objective.  In other words, the systemic denial that true knowledge can be got at by interpreting phenomena in terms of  final causes – that is to say of ‘purpose’.[3] Thus, any kind of teleology is emphatically ruled out.

But here there is a difficulty.  Biology studies living beings, and these are, as Monod put it, ‘objects with a purpose, represented in their structure, and at the same time realised through their performance.’ They are driven to survive and reproduce – thus they are teleonomic.[4]

So how to resolve the apparent contradiction between teleonomy and objectivity in biology? How does causality avoid drifting into teleology – final cause determinism – when dealing with organic creatures whose structure is adapted to survival?

Monod attacks the two major theories which have tried to deal with this problem: vitalism and animism. Vitalism argues that living objects are made of a form of matter which is fundamentally different from ordinary matter because it contains a built-in survival drive. Prominent advocates of vitalism included Henri Bergson (élan vital) and the physicist Niels Bohr. But, as I have noted, Monod insists that at the fundamental particle level there is no difference between organic and inorganic material.

Animism, in Monod’s words, is the hypothesis that natural phenomena can and must be explained in the same manner, by the same “laws” as subjective human activity, conscious and purposeful.[5] One of the main examples which Monod gives of animistic thought is dialectical materialism, in what is now often called its Soviet variant. He attacks Engels’ Anti-Dühring and Dialectics of Nature which he sees as based on an anthropocentric and idealist projection of human thought processes on to the natural world. He concedes that alternative views can possibly be found in Marx and Engels.  His main target is the version of dialectics of nature which was official doctrine in the French Communist Party.[6]

In this period Althusser still wished to retain influence in the Party and was generally careful to make no public challenge to its deterministic version of the dialectics of nature.[7] Privately (as his archives were to show) he was as critical as Monod of the dogmatic pseudo-science of Soviet style Diamat. As Turchetto notes the model of scientific explanation utilised by genetics, as Monod presented it in his inaugural lecture, was exactly what Althusser in fact recognised and valued as a dialectical materialist methodology.[8]

To preserve teleonomy, without lapsing into teleology, Monod introduces the concept of emergence. This he uses in two senses:

  • emergence as the property of a system insofar as it is different from the elements that compose it. Life emerges from a certain organization of matter – but it’s the same matter that is treated by physics. Advances in molecular biology have, ‘explained the physical support of emergence and the physical nature of the elementary teleonomic interactions’.[9]There are living systems. There is no living matter’.
  • the genesis of such organizations or systems – and this genesis, Monod insisted, is a matter of chance.

The operation of chance – of random events – is crucial to Monod’s concept of science as non-teleological and objective. The historical evolution of living organisms takes place as the determined result of the operation of scientific laws. But not in a way that can be predicted. Such laws are a necessary part of the explanation of evolution – but the course of evolution is not deducible from these laws.  At this point, in Monod’s lecture, he produced a pebble and used it as an analogy.  Science, he explained, cannot predict the exact configuration of the atoms in this particular pebble – but that configuration must, of necessity, be compatible with the laws of physics.  In this respect, he argued, the entire biosphere is no different from the pebble. The necessary laws of science must allow for the operation of chance.  But whatever the combination of chance and necessity – purpose and teleology have to be excluded.

And here Monod invoked the name of Darwin.  The discovery of DNA, long after his death, gave decisive support to Darwin’s central contention: that the emergence of living objects whose behaviour is teleonomic – directed to survival and reproduction – is a matter of chance.  Not foreseeable or deductible from the laws of science.[10]

In the 1960s Althusser was generally labelled a structuralist, and therefore, presumed to belong to some kind of determinist current of materialism. This was the Althusser targeted by the invective of Edward Thompson and many others.

Since Althusser’s death in 1990, publication of material from the huge archive of manuscript work which he left behind has shown that already in the mid-1960s Althusser was thinking intensely about the problems posed by the interrelation of contingency and structure – encounter and necessity.  Later Althusser would identify these categories as central to a philosophical position which he called aleatory materialism. (from the Latin alea = dice).  Aleatory themes are explored again and again in texts written in the 1960s and 1970s but kept in secrecy at the time.  Their publication since Althusser’s death has led in turn to a re-examination of the works which were published in that period, and a clearer recognition that texts like the celebrated essays in For Marx (for example) are complicated by a subversive subtext.  One of the main deviant strands is that of chance and the encounter.  This subtext is closely examined in some of the best recent books on Althusser.  Notably those by Warren Montag and Emilio de Ípola.[11]  Also – and in absorbing detail – by Micco Lahtinen in his outstanding study of Althusser’s recurrent engagement with the thought of Machiavelli from 1962 onwards.[12]  He celebrated Machiavelli as a major exponent of aleatory materialism. He was fascinated by Machiavelli’s account of political transformation as the possible result of an encounter between Fortuna (chance) and a leader – the Prince – whose personal leadership capacities (his Virtù) would (if the right circumstances came along) enable him to seize and exercise revolutionary power. Althusser wrote much about Lenin as just such a leader. But not with the intensity of focus and thought evident in his extraordinary book Machiavelli and Us which was published nine years after his death.

Much of Althusser’s 1967 lecture is an attack on Monod’s attempt to apply natural selection to cultural and philosophical developments.  But Althusser also pays homage to the scientific richness and intellectual honesty of Monod’s lecture – its profound materialist and dialectical tendency.  What Althusser praises in Monod is the theme of how chance and necessity interweave in Darwin’s work to generate emergence of species. Althusser refers to the scientific category of emergence as, full of dialectical resonance. Here Althusser (though in a rather tentative way) suggests that emergence might be an acceptable element in the dialectics of nature, despite the general determinism of official Communist Party materialist doctrine.

Traditionally one speaks of the ‘qualitative leap’ of ‘the dialectical transition from quantity to quality’ etc. In the notion of emergence Monod offer something that allows us, to a partial extent, to restate this question with intra-scientific elements.[13]

 Althusser is critical of Monod’s use of the single term emergence to cover both (1) the generation of structures and forms, and (2) also processes of reproduction of such stable entities once they have come into existence. He notes however that, in practice, Monod nearly always uses the word ‘emergence’, to designate the sudden appearance of new forms.[14] Althusser wants to emphasise the element of chance in the generation of systems, in contrast to the forces of law and necessity which come into operation to maintain and reproduce systems once they have been created.

 Althusser in the 1980s

The themes of chance and necessity which were strategic in Monod’s discussion of biology, were to become explicit and central in Althusser’s final phase of work in the 1980s.  In the vividly written and posthumously published paper, written in 1982, to which its editors gave the title, The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter, Althusser argues that, in the history of material philosophy, it is deterministic variants which have been dominant.  He identifies an alternative and subterranean current of aleatory materialism.  The figures he lists include: Epicurus, Machiavelli, Spinoza, Hobbes, Rousseau, Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Derrida.[15]

As in his earlier work, Althusser refers to events which happen by chance as encounters. Sometimes the elements which meet in an encounter combine, take hold, gel, take form – i.e. turn into more stable patterns, structures or beings.[16]

For a being (a body, an animal, a man, state (or Prince) to be, an encounter has to have taken place… every encounter is aleatory, not only in its origins (nothing ever guarantees an encounter) but also in its effects… nothing in the elements of the encounter prefigures, before the actual encounter the contours and determinations of the being that will emerge from it.[17]

This has implications for causal explanation.  Causes can be identified, but only by a retrospective procedure.

No determination of the being which issues from the taking hold of the encounter is prefigured, even in outline, in the being of the elements which converge in the encounter. Quite the contrary: no determination of these elements can be assigned except by working backwards from  the result to its becoming, in its retroaction.[18]

It is at this point in the argument that Althusser invokes the work of Darwin as an example of aleatory materialism. Darwin’s evolutionary biology centres on the role of natural selection in generating – out of an infinity of random encounters – organic creatures and species which possess some degree of relative stability.[19]

There is an useful discussion in Morfino’s fine book of the way in which Althusser identifies Darwin’s The Origin of Species as an exemplary instance of structural causation.  Darwin is not about explaining how forms appear in nature. These are the result of random processes – encounters, contingency, the aleatory  The main focus in Darwin is on the processes of natural selection as these operate on forms.

The fundamental core of Darwin’s thesis is not the thesis concerning the evolution of forms (against fixism). It is instead the thesis concerning the primacy of the encounter over form, i.e., the contingency not so much of the world (a term which has no sense in Darwin’s thought) but of each and every form, insofar as each is the result of a complex weave of encounters, each of which is necessary and  result of the operation of causal laws. But according to a necessity that, is completely aleatory, that is, deprived of both project and telos [i.e. purpose and aim].

 In this sense, the elements that have come together are not there for the sake of the form, with each having its own history, each an effect in its turn of a weave of encounters that have taken place or, to the contrary, of encounters that have been missed.[20]

 In the final section of the Underground Current Althusser turns to consider the origins of capitalism.

The aleatory in Marx

Althusser sees Marx as drawing – sometimes in an inconsistent way – on both the deterministic and the aleatory traditions in materialism. In tracing the aleatory strand in Marx, Althusser places much stress on Marx’s account of the historical emergence of industrial capitalism.  Marx argues that there was element of chance in this; he writes of the encounter [das Vorgefundene] between available labour power and the owners of money. We can suppose, says Althusser, that this encounter had occurred several times in history before taking hold in the West.  Capitalism did not create the conditions for its own emergence as a system.  Instead a number of developments took place separately and independently. Notably, the accumulation of sums of money in the hands in incipient industrial entrepreneurs; the availability of workers who had been deprived of access to land.[21]

We must beware of a temptation to say that because capitalism became strongly established as a self-reproducing self-perpetuating system, there was an inevitability about this process.  The danger here is slipping into a teleological reading of historical development. There was not a ideal type capitalist structure waiting in advance for its component elements to appear. There was a element of chance: for example, as Marx notes, the conditions for the emergence of industrial capitalism seemed to be present in and around the City states of Northern Italy in the 16th Century; yet it did not happen on any large scale.  The reason, he suggests, was the absence of a large enough national domestic market to absorb the products of industry.[22]

Here Monod’s pebble is a relevant analogy.  Once capitalism has become established as a system, the factors and forces which led to that outcome can be explored and argued over.  But the chains of causation which historians identify and debate, should not be treated as establishing any kind of an inevitable development.  Althusser argues that materialism becomes contaminated with idealism when it uses the concept of genesis to explain historical developments – as if capitalism as a structure was waiting in advance, and helped to organise the preconditions for its emergence.

The various elements which went into the making of capitalism ‘took hold’, fused, and lasted, and led to the creation of,

stable relationships and a necessity the study of which yields laws – tendential laws, of course: the laws of the development of the capitalist mode of production (the law of value, the law of exchange, the law of cyclical crises).[23]

Let’s be clear that Althusser is in no way questioning the search for the chains of causation which led to the development of capitalism.  Since he wrote, for example the eurocentrism and nationalism of traditional explanations has come under attack; a wider range of causal forces are being studied and debated by historians. Nor is he questioning the search for the laws of motion of a capitalist system, once established.  But the laws of motion of a system cannot explain its genesis.  The forces at work as systems and beings emerge cannot be deduced from the laws of motion governing such entities once they have become established.

Malabou on Althusser/Darwin and aleatory materialism

The distinguished French philosopher, Catherine Malabou has written a lucid commentary on Althusser’s invocation of Darwin as an exponent of aleatory materialism.[24]  She focuses strongly on the theme of selection. Here she introduces the category of plasticity – a term which she uses widely in her own philosophical work – and which she uses to mean (roughly) openness to change, to the creation of the new, in nature and in society.

An attentive reading of The Origin of Species reveals that plasticity constitutes one of the central motifs of Darwin’s work [it refers to] a fundamental connection between the variability of individuals within the same species and the natural selection between these same individuals… The form ‘takes’ when variability encounters natural selection … selection guides variability and regulates the formation of forms … plasticity is understand as the fluidity of structures, on the one hand, and the selection of viable durable forms likely to constitute a legacy or lineage on the other.[25]

The second focus in Malabou’s account of the Darwin / Althusser connection is (disconcertingly) the category of nothingness.  Both of them, she writes, share the same vision of the encounter as, a strange ontological point of departure: nothingness, nothing, the same critique of teleology the same concept of selection – thus the same materialism.[26]

 To refer to Althusser’s terminology, variability is the ‘void’ or ‘empty point’ or ‘nothingness’ from where forms can emerge.[27]

 Commentary on Althusser’s posthumous publications has stressed the enormous importance of the void in his thinking, and the difficulties in interpreting this dimension of his work.[28]  For her part, Malabou develops a directly political argument based on the void and the encounter.  We need, she  argues, to free the repressed philosophical status of impoverishment, expropriation, dispossession as the origin of any formative process… practice and theory both owe their energy, the power of their dynamism to their orginary absence of determine being.[29] The promise of justice, equality and legitimacy cannot be presupposed. It has to be made possible.


A final comment

I have been looking at the Althusser-Darwin connection for exploration of more adequate models of causation that those which are in general use in Marxist political economy today. If capitalism is seen as a complex adaptive system, what types of causation are at work when crisis comes along? The study of emergence processes is one promising direction being taken in current research.  To see where Althusser and Darwin intersect on emergence is a way of identifying some of the key methodological issues in what I think is an interesting way.  In Althusser, there is a huge stress on the crucial gap at the point of contact between the encounter and the development of stable forms and structures. I find the invocation of nothingness both fascinating and troubling.  In their treatment of the gap between encounter and necessity what I find questionable is the way in which Althusser, and some of his commentators, reach for analogies and metaphors.  For example, to illustrate the process in which structures are formed Althusser starts talking about how ‘water “takes hold” when ice is there waiting for it, or milk does when it curdles, or mayonnaise when it emulsifies’.[30]  This relapse into homely metaphors is a sign that difficulties are probably being evaded.  Is the freezing of water really an example of the operation of chance?  If ice is waiting for water to freeze does this not suggest the advance presence of a structural pattern – exactly what Althusser has explicitly ruled out. This issue has been troublesome since the start of the aleatory tradition in philosophy. Epicurus suggested that when atoms collide with each other as they swerve, the ones which more permanently stick together have little hooks.  Notice how even a highly accurate thinker like Malabou find it difficult to avoid qualifying her endorsement of the aleatory.  She writes: Matter is what forms itself in producing the conditions of possibly of this formation itself.[31]  Again the hint of some kind of process or logic of pattern formation.

I want a political economy which gives a central place to the categories of uncertainty, risk (and its commodification) – so I’d rather have a nothingness gap than talk of mayonnaise.  But I worry that grand talk about encounters may distract attention from where real progress  needs to be made in current research.  Which is exactly how and why – in all kinds of circumstances, both today and historically – capitalism takes root, or is prevented from coming into existence by the prevalence of other forms of surplus-value extraction.

Darwin’s emphasis on chance has not gone unchallenged.  At least one notable  scientific researcher, Stuart Kauffman, has argued that the encounters which natural selection gets to work on, may not be random, but are guided by some kind of logic of pattern formation.[32] The historical emergence of capitalism needs a similar scrutiny.

There is a danger of mysticism in reaching too quickly for causation by chance, as a substitute for resourceful and painstaking empirical work.


[1] Althusser 1990, pp.145-165.

[2] Turchetto 2009.

[3] Monod 1972, p.30.  This is an extended book-length version of his 1967 lecture.

[4] A dictionary definition is: the property of living systems of being organized towards the attainment of ends without true purposiveness (OED).

[5] Monod 1972, p.38.

[6] See Morfino 2014, Ch. 1 for a careful analysis of Engels’ dialectics of nature and of Monod’s critique.

[7] Elliott 1996 is an outstanding account of Althusser’s political activity.

[8] Turchetto 2009, p.64.

[9] For a classic and still important discussion of life by a physicist, see Schrödinger [1943] 1989.  Rosen 2000 has a useful evaluation of Monod and Schrödinger the light of current scientific knowledge.

[10] For interesting discussions on the limitations of the laws of physics see Cartwright 1983 and  2007.

[11] Montag 2013, de Ípola 2018.

[12] Lahtinen 2009.

[13] Althusser 1990, p.149.

[14] Althusser 1990, p.155.

[15] Althusser 2006, p.167

[16] Althusser 2006, p. 191.

[17] Althusser 2006, p.193.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Althusser 2006, p.194.

[20] Morfino 2014, p.60.

[21] Althusser 2006, p.198. His main reference here is to Capital Vol. 1, p.874 (in Ch. 26, The Secret of Primitive Accumulation).

[22] Marx 1976, p.876.

[23] Althusser 2006, p.197.

[24] Malabou 2015.  In her collaborative work with Derrida (previously her PhD supervisor), and in her own major books, plasticity has been a central concept for Malabou.

[25] Malabou 2015, p.50. Malabou seeks to qualify Althusser’s encounter argument by talking about planned social selectivity (she mentions exams, job interviews and similar processes of social role allocation).  She could however have noted the political economy argument that planning by economic units – firms, households, governments etc. – does not prevent overall incoherence and anarchy as an effect of competition.

[26] Malabou 2015, p.48.

[27] Malabou 2015, p.50.

[28] See Matheron 1998, and Montag 2010 for two powerful accounts.

[29] Malabou 2015, p.58.

[30] Althusser 2006, p.192.

[31] Malabou 2015, 48.

[32] See, for example, Kauffman 1993.


Althusser, Louis 1990, Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists, London: Verso.

Althusser, Louis 2006, Philosophy of the Encounter: Later Writings 1978-1978, London: Verso.

 Althusser, Louis 2006, The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter, in, Althusser 2006.

Bhandar Brenna and Jonathan Goldberg-Hiller (eds.) 2015, Plastic Materialities: Politics, Legality and Metamorphosis in the Work of Catherine Malabou, Durham NC: Duke University Press.

Cartwright, Nancy 1983, How the Laws of Physics Lie, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cartwright, Nancy 2007, Hunting Causes and Using Them, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

de Ípola, Emilio 2018, Althusser: The Infinite Farewell, (trans. Gavin Arnall), Durham NC: Duke University Press.

Kauffman, Stuart 1993, The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection In Evolution, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lahtinen, Mikko 2009 Politics and Philosophy: Niccoló Machiavelli and Louis Althusser’s Aleatory Materialism, Leiden: Brill.

Malabou, Catherine 2015, Whither Materialism? Althusser/Darwin, in, Bhandar and Goldberg-Hiller (eds.).

Marx, Karl 1976, Capital Vol. 1, London: Penguin Books.

Matheron, François 1998, The Recurrence of the Void in Louis Althusser, Rethinking Marxism, 10.3: 22-37.

Monod, Jacques 1972, Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology, London: Collins.

Montag, Warren 2010, The Late Althusser: Materialism of the Encounter or Philosophy of Nothing? Culture Theory and Critique, 51, 2: 157-170.

Montag, Warren 2013, Althusser and His Contemporaries: Philosophy’s Perpetual War, Durham NC: Duke University Press.

Morfino, Vittorio 2014, Plural Temporality: Transindividuality and the ‘Aleatory Between Spinoza and Althusser, Leiden: Brill.

Rosen, Robert 1990, Essays on Life Itself, New York: Columbia University Press.

Schrödinger, Erwin 1962, What Is Life? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Turchetto, Maria 2009, Althusser and Monod: A New ‘Alliance’? Historical Materialism 17,3: 61-79.

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