There are inevitable difficulties in any serious materialism. In its earliest phases it has a comparative simplicity of definition, since it rests on a rejection of presumptive hypotheses of non-material or metaphysical prime causes, and defines its own categories in terms of demonstrable physical investigations. Yet such definitions are subject to two inherent difficulties: first, that in the continuing process of investigation, the initial and all successive categories are inherently subject to radical revision, and in this are unlike the relatively protected categories of presumed or revealed truths; second, that in the very course of opposing systematic universal explanations of many of the common-ground processes, provisional and secular procedures and findings tend to be grouped into what appear to but never can be systematic, universal and categorical explanations of the same general kind. Thus material investigation, grounded in the rejection of categorical hypotheses of an unverifiable kind, and basing its own confidence in a set of provisional working procedures and demonstrations, finds itself pulled nevertheless towards closed generalizing systems: finds itself materialism or a materialism. There is thus a tendency for any materialism, at any point in its history, to find itself stuck with its own recent generalizations, and in defence of these to mistake its own character: to suppose that it is a system like others, of a presumptive explanatory kind, or that it is reasonable to set up contrasts with other (categorical) systems, at the level not of procedures but of its own past ‘findings’ or ‘laws’. What then happens is obvious. The results of new material investigations are interpreted as having outdated ‘materialism’. Or, conversely, defence of ‘the materialist world-view’, specified in certain positions now frozen in time, involves contempt for or rejection of apparently incompatible evidence and procedures, and their categorical assignment to systems taken to be alternative and of the same kind: in the ordinary rhetoric, ‘idealism’. Intellectual confusion is then severe enough, but it is made worse by the fact, on the one hand, that much of the new ‘evidence’ and ‘procedures’, especially in its interpreted and theoretically presumed forms, is indeed incompatible, not only (which is not important) with the frozen ‘world-view’ but with the significant criteria of the materialist enterprise; and by the fact, on the other hand, that within the world-view, however frozen, there is still hard, often very hard evidence of a kind that is indeed likely to be smothered in the difficult process of the search for genuine compatibilities and necessary reformulations.

These are among the most evident intellectual difficulties of the contemporary argument about materialism, but there is a further set of political and cultural considerations. Materialist modes of investigation have been historically connected, though never exclusively, with certain radical forms of social and political struggle. In Marxism, especially, this connection has been raised to the level of a conscious alliance. It is then not only that there can be confusion between certain frozen forms and certain kinds of political commitment and action: a confusion that reached bizarre extremes in identification of socialism with selected received generalizations—the brutal equation of certain (material) ‘laws’ with certain (political) loyalties. It is also that, in other political areas, affiliation to socialism appeared to involve affiliation to ‘materialism’, not as a body of evidence and procedures but as a verbal category: to be a socialist was to be, by definition, a materialist, even if the relevant actual positions held were of a kind to which material investigation would be (indeed sometimes by prior theoretical assertion) inappropriate or inapplicable. Again, more widely, necessary processes of investigation and re-investigation, over a range from political strategies to philosophical problems and cultural practices, were either dismissed, within the received verbal categories, as ‘anti-materialist’ or ‘idealist’, or were, by the proponents themselves, in reaction against the frozen forms and their political and cultural consequences, carefully distanced from materialism or the more convenient ‘vulgar materialism’.

It is in this confused and complex situation, within the interactions and the failures to interact of politics, science and philosophy, that the question of ‘materialism’ has to be raised again, at the most general level. The significance of the recent work of Sebastiano Timpanaro is that he has not only raised the question; adequately read, he has provoked it.

Timpanaro’s work is available in English in two volumes: On Materialism and The Freudian Slip.footnote1 He has also published studies of nineteenth-century Italian culture, including an important account of Leopardi. On Materialism is a collection of essays, of which the most substantial are ‘Considerations on Materialism’ and ‘Structuralism and its Successors’. The other three essays are on ‘Praxis and Materialism’, the materialism of Engels, and Korsch and Lenin. The Freudian Slip is a more consecutive volume, beginning from a philological examination of Freud’s interpretations of verbal errors and proceeding to a substantial examination of the relations between materialism and psychoanalysis. The mode of the writing is in the best sense polemical. There are substantial occasional statements of position, and other significant references and allusions. But the writing is strongest when it has another position and text to engage with; indeed, in the case of the professionally minute investigation of the relevant Freudian texts, so strong as to be overpowering. Yet in substance the writing is not criticism; it is a deeply engaged polemic, with substantial political implications and intentions, against major contemporary tendencies in Western Marxism, notably the work and the effects of the Frankfurt School and of Althusser, and, more broadly, what Timpanaro calls ‘voluntarism’ and ‘Platonist scientism’. His central point of attack is on the question of materialism, from which all these tendencies are seen as divergent, and he is unusual in summoning to his aid, in what remains primarily a set of philosophical arguments, the work of natural scientists. For a generation, now, there has been an unusual uneasiness between Marxism and the natural sciences. Timpanaro regrets this, and argues to overcome it, not only because there are then gaps in knowledge and failures in its development, but because through the gaps, and from both sides, pour the enemies of materialism.

This is an attractive and provocative stance. Its many challenges deserve the most careful consideration. Dissenting immediately from one of his most basic formulations, on ‘the links between the struggle for communism and the struggle against nature’, I find, nevertheless, so close a convergence of interests and sympathies that it is not only an exceptional pleasure to read his books but important to try to engage with them. I propose to discuss, centrally, the very difficult relations between his understanding of materialism and his uses of the concept of ‘nature’; and then, more briefly, his critique of psychoanalysis and his spirited and indispensable critique of structural linguistics and its extensions to structuralism.

Timpanaro’s most general definition of the fundamentals of materialism can be accepted, at first sight, as it stands: ‘By materialism we understand above all acknowledgment of the priority of nature over “mind”, or if you like, of the physical level over the biological level, and of the biological level over the socio-economic and cultural level: both in the sense of chronological priority (the very long time which supervened before life appeared on earth, and between the origin of life and the origin of man), and in the sense of the conditioning which nature still exercises on man and will continue to exercise at least for the foreseeable future.’footnote2 It is difficult to see how anyone could deny the intention of the first proposition, though it is better expressed in its specifying than in its general terms. The cautionary notation of ‘mind’ needs to be extended also to ‘nature’, but there can be no serious argument against the existence of a physical world before life and of other life-forms before man. And it is important that while these facts are never denied, within any relevant area of argument, they are quite often dismissed as banalities which have little practical bearing on the more interesting questions that lie ahead. One of the excuses for this impatience is that the general terms used to summarize the enormous and complex body of facts, on which the propositions necessarily rest, are shot through with inherently subsequent interpretations of a philosophical and cultural character. Thus it is not unproblematic to say that ‘nature’ has ‘priority over’ ‘mind’, but we can only approach these problems in good faith if we have, with full seriousness, taken the weight of the astronomic, geological and biological evidence before entering the more congenial ground of the humanist categories. And it is in this area, at first sight, that the effect of the declining contribution of the natural sciences to the general culture of Marxism has been most apparent. While the sense of proportion imposed by this fundamental materialism is either forgotten or dismissed as a preliminary banality, the way is indeed open for every kind of obscurantism and evasion.

Yet it is in the area of the second proposition that the most serious damage is actually done. And this is more difficult to see, because the language in which its undoubtedly correct intention is expressed is even more inherently problematic. ‘The conditioning which nature still exercises on man’: the problem here is the use of ‘nature’, coming through in the language as the humanist personification of all that is ‘not man’, to describe a very complex set of conditions which are indeed, in part, quite extrinsic or extrinsic with only marginal qualifications (the range is from the solar system through the physical composition of the planet to the atmosphere), but which are also, and crucially, intrinsic to human beings (evolved physical organs, the genetic inheritance). Thus a particular linguistic structure, the separation and contrast between ‘nature’ and ‘man’, largely developed in periods of the dominance of idealist and humanist thought, makes it very difficult for us to move from the complex and differential facts which are indeed our material and physical conditions to any statement of the general relationship between these ‘conditions’ and what, within the linguistic complex, we still isolate as ‘conditioned’.