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  • The Myth of the State of NatureExtract From Initiation à la philosophie pour les non-philosophes
  • Louis Althusser
    Translated by G. M. Goshgarian

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The State of Nature is a mythic state in which idealist philosophers imagine that people lived before entering the state of society: Robinson Crusoe’s solitude, for example, or a community without the “disadvantages” of society as we know it. In many religions, this State of Nature is called paradise.

To take the example of Christianity, paradise was the condition of a human couple whom God created without sin and entrusted to the goodness of nature. Nature was generous then: it provided humanity with nourishment and, what is more—this is important—it was transparent for them. Not only was it enough, to satisfy one’s hunger and thirst, to stretch out one’s hand to pick fruit that was always ripe; it was also enough for Adam to see something with his eyes or take it in hand in order to obtain full knowledge of it. Contrary to what is all too often supposed, people had the right to know all things: this knowledge was provided by the senses, was identical to intelligence in man, was identical to the words designating it, and was perfectly immediate and transparent. Adam did not have to work, produce, or seek in order to know. He knew, as the “Christian philosopher” Malebranche puts it, “by simple sight.”1 The truth of things was in things, in their empirical existence, and it was enough to extract it from them by simply looking in order to possess it. The abstract was identical to the concrete. This image typifies, better than any other, the theory of knowledge known as empiricism—which, as we shall see, has not disappeared along with the religious myth of paradise.

There is, however, something else in this myth: the idea that nature was generous and that it was enough to reach out and pick fruit that was always in easy reach. In a word, people did not have to work to eat any more than they had to work to know. There is, as will readily be seen, an unmistakable relationship between the empiricist notion of knowledge and the fact that people did not have to work to produce their means of subsistence. In one case as in the other, Nature, or objects, or the object, suffices for everything. There is no need to transform nature to satisfy human needs; the answer is inscribed in the object in advance. It is enough to extract it; this extraction is, in its simplicity and immediacy, the empiricist form of abstraction. Hence it is obvious that idealist philosophy can represent such abstractions, in which all people live, as the simple effect of contact between human beings and nature, that is, between human beings and objects. At the same time, it is obvious that this distorted conception of abstraction bears on both the practice of knowledge, reduced to “simple sight,” and the practice of production, reduced to the mere picking of fruit that is always ripe and always in easy reach (“handgreiflich,” Hegel).2

There was something else again in this myth, of course: the idea that human relations are as transparent as the relations between people and natural objects. Since all the problems of the relations between people and nature have been settled in advance by the generosity of nature, it is understandable that relations between people should display this transparency. Thus believers or philosophers endow man in this state of paradise or nature with a body that is itself transparent to his soul or intelligence. The body is, consequently, no longer Plato’s “tomb” or “shroud”:3 a barrier to knowledge of nature or the self that comes between human intelligence or the human soul and the nature of bodies [End Page 17] or of things, this opaque thing that desires and feels hunger, pleasure, and pain. The body is simply a tool that obeys man without resisting, has neither passions nor desires nor an unconscious and, since it is nothing other than practical transparency, is, by the same token, theoretical transparency.

Under these conditions, in which...