“A childhood memory: those stories of explorers who come upon an immense river without knowing where it leads. They hollow out a log and entrust their craft to the current for months simply to discover the sea” (Althusser 1998, 386). So concluded a letter in the remarkable correspondence that Althusser carried on with Franca Madonia in the heady years of the 1960s. The letter is dated 6 March 1963, the middle of perhaps the most productive period in his life, the period in which he wrote his most influential books and essays. The passage gives us in the form of a myth a sense of the way Althusser conceptualized his own philosophical activity: neither patient, linear and progressive theory-building nor the construction of explanatory models (in the structuralist spirit of the time). In attempting to identify what was genuinely new and unprecedented in Marx, Althusser’s orientation was to texts rather than to ideas or arguments abstracted from texts. To think was to explore what had already been thought and written, moving through the already-thought to take a position in it. Most philosophers took a position without being aware that they did so; Althusser, in contrast, sought to develop a theory of taking positions in philosophy. It was in this sense that he could speak of “cutting a path” through “the immense forests” of Marx’s Capital (Althusser 1975, 14).
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