July 22, 1978
Very seriously, we appreciate the evident time and energy and care contributed to the letter you sent to us last month. It "engages" our work in a manner directly useful in working out our formulations toward greater precision and clarity. We only wish other graduate students and faculty would do likewise; that would, of course, help us enormously.
This letter addresses itself to the first and longer portion of your letter, that pertaining to our usage of the Althusserian term, "overdetermination." I hope that before too long, we will have some thoughts down on paper regarding the second portion. I believe that it would be best to begin by specifying what exact points in your letter and in Freud serve me in replying to your letter; the following list should, then, serve as reference points in the argument developed below.
1. First paragraph, 5th and 6th lines: the two sciences business is not secondary or in any way non-essential to our whole formulation. Your bracketing of that epistemological/methodological position will, I intend to show, reappear as a constant problem within your arguments over the interpretation of "overdetermination."
2. Second paragraph, page 2: I do not agree at all with your rendering of Freud's meaning by the term "overdetermination': Thus I will follow a very different, opposed view of Freud’s meaning along a chain of reasoning eventuating in further disagreements over Althusser's intent in developing the term “overdetermination"; over what a psychoanalysis does for a patient, and, perhaps most importantly, over what I understand to be Marx's particular method of socio-economic analysis which, I believe, may be usefully and accurately designated by the summary term, "overdetermination."
*(My references to Freud are still taken - as in our paper - from the Brill/modern Library edition of Works)
3. The opening pages of the chapter on "The Dream Work," and especially pages 323-4, distinguish most importantly between the elements" of the "dream content" and the "dream thoughts" which are ascertained, as Freud puts it, after the dream has occurred by means of psychoanalytically guided free association. The "elements" are nodal points of interaction ("meeting" says Freud) among the ascertained dream thoughts. I will argue that [it is?] just this point you have missed or misinterpreted in your letter.
4. Freud, page 341: “it is left to the interpretation of the dream to restore the coherence which the dream-work (condensation, displacement, censorship, etc.) has destroyed." To be frustratingly brief, my reading of Freud rules out any notion that one or another or any sequentially considered set of dream thoughts could explain, let alone cause, a particular dream content or any of its constituent elements. What is crucial is the "meeting" of any 'n' dream thoughts in so particular a manner as to precipitate - in a constructed interpretation - a correspondingly particular nodal point or element of actual dream content. One dream thought thus could not possibly serve to explain why one and not the other of its (the dream thought s) elements surfaces within the dream content as an element of it. As I read them, neither Freud nor Althusser operate with a notion of overdetermination as articulated in your second paragraph, page two, i.e., several individually sufficient explanations.
To get at this point in a different way, consider that any dream content is first "ascertained" or remembered by the patient - certainly a process involving some selectivity based in turn upon some generally defined mental orientation of the patient. Similarly, dream thoughts are ascertained by the subsequent speech -of the patient - a process involving again the general mental orientation of the patient and the conditions obtaining during the interval between dream and speech. What we have, then, to deal with are fragments of dreams and fragments of thoughts elicited after and about those dreams. Confronting this fragmentary collection of mental events, Freud proposes to link dream elements to dream thoughts in a precise manner which is not at all that presented in your cited paragraph on page 2. It is a manner that assumes multiple causality (or explanatory variables)—but goes well beyond multiplicity to put the emphasis on the interaction between, the "meeting,” the relationships among dream thoughts that produce or explain a dream element or elements. Freud specifically says that several elements of dream thoughts appear in a dream while others do not; thus, again, that one dream thought can not explain either the dream in toto or the presence within it of some and not other elements of the dream thoughts.
To interpret a dream, to “explain” it, then, involves a complex interaction between patient and psychoanalyst involving several levels of selectivity. The patient selectively rem-embers dream content and selectively articulates dream thoughts: The psychoanalyst selectively elicits and encourages the articulations and probably also the remembrances of the patient. Together, patient and doctor construct, according to Freud's proposed method, an interpretation of dreams, i.e. together they construct a “coherent” dream content. (I do not take seriously Freud's idea that interpretation “restores” coherence, since there is no way to demonstrate or prove some original coherence.
NOW, there are no doubt several or-perhaps many different “coherent” dream contents, i.e. interpretations, that a patient with or without an analyst might construct along the lines of Freud's proposed method. Presumably, an analyst can either minimize or maximize the degree to which the analyst’s own preferred construction is impressed upon the patient in the course of the patient’s own effort at the construction of a coherence. At least formally, I believe psychoanalysis aims at facilitating the patient's construction of a coherent dream content so as to make the patient aware of his/her own manner of thinking (in the broadest possible sense). This is how I understand Freud: constructing a coherent dream content out of fragmentary dream elements and dream thoughts involves principles of selectivity (what remembered, what is freely associated in speech, what is thought “important" among remembrances and articulations of dream thoughts) and a methodological principle, namely, linking dream contents to dream thoughts via overdetermination.
All this is preface to what, I think, really matters here. Althusser is interested in Freud's methodological principle for two reasons. The first and less important lies in its usefulness to combat the crude and reductionist economic materialism that has become so pervasive among many elements in the Marxian tradition. The more important reason lies in its usefulness in permitting Althusser to formulate his notion of the distinctiveness of Marxian science. Thus, for Althusser, social events are like dream contents in their immediate lack of “coherence.” Historically considered conditions and developments within the ideological and political, as well as economic, realms of social life are like dream thoughts. The interaction, then, of these realms overdetermines social events giving history a “coherence” much as interpretation gives “coherence” to dreams. But, of course, no one realm can by itself give “coherence” (shades of the rejected economism).
However, Althusser goes well beyond Freud; it is only the latter's general idea he absorbs. As you quite rightly noted, Althusser makes reciprocity among socially causal realms or variables or forces central to his argument. He goes even further to insist that each realm within the social totality is completely constituted by as well as constitutive of every other designated realm. Thus Althusser's overdetermination is a very significantly modified, extended, and, I believe, deepened version of Freud's formulation vis a vis dreams.
Now to the punch-line of all this: Althusser is most interested in the fact that, in general, several "coherences" are constructible in either dream interpretation or social analysis. The patient who with the analyst eventually constructs a complex interaction of dream thoughts so as to produce a "coherent" dream content gains from this process an insight into the basic methods of his/her own mental processes: basic concepts, anxieties, fears, needs, etc. The fruit of the analysis of the dream, its interpretation, is not some restored coherence, but rather self-consciousness about ones own mental processes, i.e, thinking broadly considered. A different patient, confronting quite similar dreams contents and/or thoughts might well produce a quite different construction expressing correspondingly different mental processes.
In the social-analytical area [arena?], Althusser identifies Marxism as, simultaneously and necessarily, a particular way of thinking about society (a social science) and a correspondingly particular construction of what the "coherence" of any place and time in history is. Operating within such a Marxism, Althusser –identifies coherences and their constitutive sciences other than Marxism and offers a Marxian scientific explanation for why and how these alternative sciences exist, i.e. their overdetermination.
Given all this, I hope the following brief responses to certain particular points you raised will not be too unclear. Yes, Althusser's argument that Marxism approaches the explanation (bringing “coherence” to) of any social event via overdetermination asserts that the latter comprises an epistemological/methodological foundation of distinctively Marxian science. Your concern with completeness I do not understand. Neither the Interpretation of dreams nor of social events can ever be complete because the constituent elements of the process of interpretation are always changing, because the object of interpretation is always altered (enhanced) self-consciousness which in turn works changes.in actions which react back upon the thinking process and so on. Completeness would imply something like Freud's notion of restoring coherence, which Althusser rejects for reasons I indicated above as my own as well.
In any case, Althusser certainly does support the notion that two or more well-developed (never complete) sciences can and do offer alternative coherent explanations for events. They do this operating out of different conceptual frameworks or processes of thinking (including what is "seen” and "selected" among infinitely fragmentary givens).
The important distinction between a cause and an explanation is a huge issue of central importance. We agree on that. Let me here simply say that Althusser uses overdetermination as a method of explaining, all causes and effects including the causes and effects of using overdetermination as a method for social theory. At the same time, Althusser insists unwaveringly that a final distinction always remains between an event (cause or effect) and the various human explanations offered by it. (Here is perhaps a faint thread linking Marx back to Kant).
As to your idea of Althusser being interested in some parallel notion to free association, I very much doubt it. The effort to draw such parallels lies rather with Althusser's theoretical opponents within the Marxian-tradition, i.e. the Frankfurt school's “critical” theorists and most evidently in the work of Habermas on knowledge vis-a-vis human interests.
Althusser insists that sciences deal with alternatively constructed meanings orr coherences, that between all of these and “the real totality” there verneine [?] both a gap and a fundamental, ceaseless-mutual determination: changing sciences (knowledges, understandings) are a constituent element of the totality-they seek to grasp and thus the changes in the real impact upon knowledges of the real and vice versa. Althusser’s concept of Marx's dialectics focuses on the argument that overdetermination implies/defines contradiction. But this letter will never stop other than abruptly, given the many points you raised explicitly and implicitly in your letter. Know much of what I've written here must appear at best too dense. Well, we might continue to exchange thoughts. Certainly I will go much further in specifying our meaning in the term over-determination in future writings thanks to your letter and the reflections it has stimulated. I very much hope this letter is of interest to you.