Buried in the flood of comments posted recently on this blog have been several allusions to the term “overdetermined” as used by Louis Althusser and some of those influenced by him. I have been under a good deal of stress lately, and since I find it relaxing to sort out complicated concepts, I thought I would spend a few restful moments explaining the notion of overdetermination.
The term has its origin in Linear Algebra, where a system of linear equations is said to be underdetermined if it has fewer equations than unknowns. “Underdetermined” here means that the equations cannot be solved for the values of the unknowns because the equations do not provide sufficient information. A system of two linearly independent equations in three unknowns can only be reduced to the point at which the values of the remaining two variables lie somewhere along a straight line. A system of two equations in four unknowns reduces to a plane of equally correct solution points, and so forth.
By contrast, if the system has more equations than unknowns, it is said to be overdetermined. There is, so to speak, too much information, and if the equations are all linearly independent of one another, there will be no consistent set of values of the variables that satisfy the equations [if there is a set of values that satisfy the equations, then the equations are not independent, which means their number can be reduced by the number of degrees of overdetermination.]
Freud borrowed the term “overdetermined” to describe a curious phenomenon that he encountered on occasion when analyzing the dreams of his patients. A patient would recount a dream and then would be led to associate freely to each element of the dream [not to the dream as a whole], continuing until the train of associations ran out. Usually in a case of successful dream analysis the associations would lead to the repressed wishes or fantasies lying beneath each element of the dream. The dream would then be completely analyzed. But sometimes, even after each element had been fully explained, associations would continue and an entirely different set of repressed wishes and fantasies would surface. Dream elements that led in this way to two completely different repressed wishes, each by itself sufficient to explain the dream element, were said by Freud to be overdetermined. The mind, in effect economizing, found a way to give expression to two different repressed wishes by means of the same dream element. This was, Freud concluded, one of the many ways in which the laws regulating the unconscious differ from the laws governing conscious thought.
In the period following the publication of Das Kapital, an enormous, complex, many-sided debate sprang up among Marx’s legions of followers concerning the precise role of economic institutions and developments in the determination of social, political, legal, and other institutions and practices in society. Marx’s most dramatic claim, setting him against almost everyone writing before and during his lifetime, was that contrary to what everyone else thought, it was not the religion or the politics or the law or the philosophy of a society that determined its fundamental character and its historical development, but instead its system of the social relations of material production. His vivid and memorable teaching of the base and superstructure of a society captured this claim in an unforgettable image. The post-Marx debates focused on many aspects of his theories, none more contentiously than on this image of base and superstructure. Some of his followers argued that according to Marx the economic base was the sole determinant of the institutional and ideological superstructure. Others argued that this unidirectional causality held true only in the end or in the long run or in the last instance or fundamentally. And some said that there were a number of factors that determined the organization and direction of development of a society, of which the economic was only one, albeit the most important.
As I understand him, Althusser, confronting a debate in the French intellectual world between “orthodox” Marxists who offered a simplified base/superstructure analysis and anti-Marxists who rejected Marx’s insights, opted for the view that the evolution of a society has multiple determinants, of which the economic is the most important, but by no means the only, factor. So far so good. He then royally confused matters by referring to this as “overdetermination,” which was just the wrong term to use.
Well, that was good for me. I hope it was good for you.