LOUIS PIERRE ALTHUSSER (French: ; 16 October 1918 – 22 October
1990) was a French
Marxist philosopher . He was born in
Althusser was a longtime member—although sometimes a strong
French Communist Party
Althusser is commonly referred to as a structural Marxist , although his relationship to other schools of French structuralism is not a simple affiliation and he was critical of many aspects of structuralism.
Althusser's life was marked by periods of intense mental illness. In 1980, he killed his wife, the sociologist Hélène Rytmann , by strangling her. He was declared unfit to stand trial due to insanity, and was committed to a psychiatric hospital for three years. He did little further academic work, dying in 1990.
* 1 Biography
* 1.1 Early life * 1.2 Health * 1.3 Early years at ENS * 1.4 De-Stalinisation * 1.5 1980s
* 2 Thought
* 2.1 Epistemological break
* 2.2 Levels and practices
* 2.3 Contradiction and overdetermination
* 3 Reception and influence * 4 Legacy
* 5 Selected bibliography
* 5.1 Original works in English translation * 5.2 Selected articles in translation
* 6 References * 7 Further reading * 8 External links
Althusser was born in
French Algeria in the town of
Following the death of his father, Althusser moved from
Returning from the war, he was in poor health, both mentally and physically. In 1947 he was hospitalized for the first time for manic-depressive psychosis and received electroconvulsive therapy .
Althusser would from this point suffer from periodic mental illness for the rest of his life and was repeatedly hospitalized. In about 1950 he received narcotherapy and from 1964 to 1980 he was treated by the psychiatrist and psychonanalyst René Diatkine.
EARLY YEARS AT ENS
After the war, Althusser was able to finally attend the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris. The school was sympathetic with his illness, allowing him to reside in his own room in the school infirmary. Althusser would live at the ENS in the Rue d'Ulm for decades, except for periods of hospitalization. His professional role within the school structure was ill-defined, leading to his nickname amongst the students Althusserarien ("Althusser good for nothing").
In 1946, Althusser met Hélène Rytman , a revolutionary of
Lithuanian Jewish origin. Hélène had been involved with the French
resistance and had been a member of the
French Communist Party
Althusser obtained his diplôme d\'études supérieures (fr)
(roughly equivalent to an MA thesis) in 1947 for a work directed by
Formerly a devout if left-wing Catholic, Althusser joined the French Communist Party in 1948, a time when others such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty were losing sympathy for the party. That same year, Althusser passed the agrégation in philosophy.
Twentieth Party Congress in 1956,
Despite the involvement of many of his students in the protests of May 1968 , Althusser initially greeted these developments with silence. Later, he expressed an opinion similar to the official PCF line, describing the students as victim to "infantile" leftism . As a result, Althusser was attacked by many former supporters. In response to these criticisms, he revised some of his positions, claiming that his earlier writings contained mistakes, and his later works saw a significant shift in emphasis.
In 1980, Althusser's therapist Diatkine, who by now was also treating Althusser's wife Hélène, recommended that Althusser be hospitalized, but the couple refused. On the morning of 16 November 1980, Althusser emerged from their flat at ENS in a confused state, claiming that he had killed his wife. She was found strangled in the apartment. Althusser was sent to a psychiatric hospital and was declared to suffer from diminished responsibility . He was not tried, but instead committed to the Sainte-Anne psychiatric hospital, where he remained until 1983.
Upon release, he moved to northern
He died of a heart attack on 22 October 1990 at the age of 72. Much of his post-1980 work has been published posthumously.
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Althusser's earlier works include the influential volume Reading
Capital (1965), which collects the work of Althusser and his students
in an intensive philosophical rereading of
Several of Althusser's theoretical positions have remained
Marxist philosophy . The introduction to his collection
For Marx proposes a great "epistemological break" between Marx's early
writings (1840–45) and his later, properly
Marxist texts, borrowing
a term from the philosopher of science
Althusser is also widely known as a theorist of ideology . His
best-known essay, "
Althusser's thought evolved during his lifetime. It has been the
subject of argument and debate, especially within
Althusser argued that Marx\'s thought was fundamentally misunderstood
and underestimated. He fiercely condemned various interpretations of
Marx's works—historicism , idealism , and economism —on grounds
that they fail to realise that with the "science of history",
historical materialism , Marx has constructed a revolutionary view of
social change. These errors, he believes, result from the notion that
Marx's entire body of work can be understood as a coherent whole.
Rather, Althusser holds, Marx's thought contains a radical
"epistemological break". Although the works of the young Marx are
bound by the categories of German philosophy and classical political
economy , The German
Ideology (written in 1845) makes a sudden and
unprecedented departure. This "break" represents a shift in Marx's
work to a fundamentally different "problematic", i.e., a different set
of central propositions and questions posed, a different theoretical
framework. Althusser believes that Marx himself did not fully
comprehend the significance of his own work, and was able to express
it only obliquely and tentatively. The shift can be revealed only by a
careful and sensitive "symptomatic reading". Thus, Althusser's
project is to help readers fully grasp the originality and power of
Marx's extraordinary theory, giving as much attention to what is not
said as to the explicit. Althusser holds that Marx has discovered a
"continent of knowledge", History, analogous to the contributions of
Althusser believes that Marx's work is fundamentally incompatible with its antecedents because it is built on a groundbreaking epistemology (theory of knowledge) that rejects the distinction between subject and object . In opposition to empiricism , Althusser claims that Marx's philosophy, dialectical materialism , counters the theory of knowledge as vision with a theory of knowledge as production. On the empiricist view, a knowing subject encounters a real object and uncovers its essence by means of abstraction. On the assumption that thought has a direct engagement with reality, or an unmediated vision of a "real" object, the empiricist believes that the truth of knowledge lies in the correspondence of a subject's thought to an object that is external to thought itself. By contrast, Althusser claims to find latent in Marx's work a view of knowledge as "theoretical practice". For Althusser, theoretical practice takes place entirely within the realm of thought, working upon theoretical objects and never coming into direct contact with the real object that it aims to know. Knowledge is not discovered, but rather produced by way of three "Generalities": (1) the "raw material" of pre-scientific ideas, abstractions and facts; (2) a conceptual framework (or "problematic") brought to bear upon these; and (3) the finished product of a transformed theoretical entity, concrete knowledge. In this view, the validity of knowledge does not lie in its correspondence to something external to itself; because Marx's historical materialism is a science, it contains its own internal methods of proof. It is therefore not governed by interests of society, class, ideology, or politics, and is distinct from the economic superstructure .
In addition to its unique epistemology, Marx's theory is built on
concepts—such as forces and relations of production —that have no
counterpart in classical political economy . Even when existing terms
are adopted—for example, the theory of surplus value , which
Although Althusser insists that there was an epistemological break,
he later states that its occurrence around 1845 is not clearly
defined, as traces of humanism, historicism, and
LEVELS AND PRACTICES
Because of Marx's belief that the individual is a product of society,
Althusser holds that it is pointless to try to build a social theory
on a prior conception of the individual. The subject of observation is
not individual human elements, but rather "structure". As he sees it,
Marx does not explain society by appealing to the properties of
individual persons—their beliefs, desires, preferences, and
judgements. Rather, Marx defines society as a set of fixed "levels"
and "practices". He uses this analysis to defend Marx's historical
materialism against the charge that it crudely posits a base (economic
level) and superstructure (culture/politics) "rising upon it" and then
attempts to explain all aspects of the superstructure by appealing to
features of the (economic) base (the well known architectural
metaphor). For Althusser, it is a mistake to attribute this economic
determinist view to Marx. In much the same way that Althusser
criticises the idea of a social theory founded on an historical
conception of human needs, so he critiques the idea that economic
practice can be used in isolation to explain other aspects of society.
Althusser believes that both the base and the superstructure are
interdependent, although he keeps to the classic
understanding of the determination of the base "in the last instance"
(albeit with some extension and revision). The advantage of levels and
practices over individuals as a starting point is that although each
practice is only a part of a complex whole of society, a practice is a
whole in itself in that it consists of a number of different kinds of
Althusser conceives of society as an interconnected collection of these wholes: economic practice, ideological practice, and politico -legal practice. Although each practice has a degree of relative autonomy, together they make up one complex, structured whole (social formation). In his view, all levels and practices are dependent on each other. For example, among the relations of production of capitalist societies are the buying and selling of labour power by capitalists and workers . These relations are part of economic practice, but can only exist within the context of a legal system which establishes individual agents as buyers and sellers; furthermore, the arrangement must be maintained by political and ideological means. From this it can be seen that aspects of economic practice depend on the superstructure and vice versa. For him this was the moment of reproduction and constituted the important role of the superstructure.
CONTRADICTION AND OVERDETERMINATION
An analysis understood in terms of interdependent levels and
practices helps us to conceive of how society is organised, but also
comprehend social change and thus provides a theory of history .
Althusser explains the reproduction of the relations of production by
reference to aspects of ideological and political practice;
conversely, the emergence of new production relations can be explained
by the failure of these mechanisms. Marx's theory seems to posit a
system in which an imbalance in two parts could lead to compensatory
adjustments at other levels, or sometimes to a major reorganisation of
the whole. To develop this idea, Althusser relies on the concepts of
contradiction and non-contradiction, which he claims are illuminated
by their relation to a complex structured whole. Practices are
contradictory when they "grate" on one another and non-contradictory
when they support one another. Althusser elaborates on these concepts
by reference to Lenin\'s analysis of the
Russian Revolution of 1917
Lenin posited that despite widespread discontent throughout Europe in the early 20th century, Russia was the country in which revolution occurred because it contained all the contradictions possible within a single state at the time. In his words, it was the "weakest link in a chain of imperialist states". He explained the revolution in relation to two groups of circumstances: firstly, the existence within Russia of large-scale exploitation in cities, mining districts, etc., a disparity between urban industrialisation and medieval conditions in the countryside, and a lack of unity amongst the ruling class; secondly, a foreign policy which played into the hands of revolutionaries, such as the elites who had been exiled by the Tsar and had become sophisticated socialists .
For Althusser, this example reinforces his claim that Marx's explanation of social change is more complex than the result of a single contradiction between the forces and the relations of production. The differences between events in Russia and Western Europe highlight that a contradiction between forces and relations of production may be necessary, but not sufficient, to bring about revolution. The circumstances that produced revolution in Russia, mentioned above, were heterogeneous, and cannot be seen to be aspects of one large contradiction. Each was a contradiction within a particular social totality, at a different structural level of social practice. From this, Althusser concludes that Marx's concept of contradiction is inseparable from the concept of a complex structured social whole. To emphasise that changes in social structures relate to numerous contradictions, Althusser describes these changes as "overdetermined ", using a term taken from Sigmund Freud . This interpretation allows us to account for the way in which many different circumstances may play a part in the course of events, and how these circumstances may combine to produce unexpected social changes or "ruptures".
However, Althusser does not mean to say that the events that determine social changes all have the same causal status. While a part of a complex whole, economic practice is a "structure in dominance": it plays a major part in determining the relations between other spheres, and has more effect on them than they have on it. The most prominent aspect of society (the religious aspect in feudal formations and the economic aspect in capitalist ones) is called the "dominant instance", and is in turn determined "in the last instance" by the economy. For Althusser, the economic practice of a society determines which other aspect of that society dominates the society as a whole.
Althusser's arguably more complex and materialist (than other
Marxisms) understanding of contradiction in terms of the dialectic
attempts to rid
IDEOLOGICAL STATE APPARATUSES
Because Althusser held that a person's desires, choices, intentions, preferences, judgements, and so forth are the products of social practices, he believed it necessary to conceive of how society makes the individual in its own image. Within capitalist societies, the human individual is generally regarded as a subject endowed with the property of being a self-conscious, "responsible" agent whose actions can be explained by his or her beliefs and thoughts. However, for Althusser, a person's capacity to perceive himself or herself in this way is not innate or given. Rather, it is acquired within the structure of established social practices, which impose on individuals the role (forme) of a subject. Social practices both determine the characteristics of the individual and give him or her an idea of the range of properties that he or she can have, and of the limits of each individual. Althusser argues that many of our roles and activities are given to us by social practice: for example, the production of steelworkers is a part of economic practice, while the production of lawyers is part of politico -legal practice. However, other characteristics of individuals, such as their beliefs about the good life or their metaphysical reflections on the nature of the self, do not easily fit into these categories.
In Althusser's view, our values, desires, and preferences are
inculcated in us by ideological practice, the sphere which has the
defining property of constituting individuals as subjects.
Despite its many institutional forms, the function and structure of
ideology is unchanging and present throughout history; as Althusser
states, "ideology has no history". All ideologies constitute a
subject, even though he or she may differ according to each particular
ideology. Memorably, Althusser illustrates this with the concept of
"hailing" or "interpellation ". Drawing heavily from
Jacques Lacan and
his concept of the
Mirror Stage , he compares ideology to a policeman
shouting "Hey you there!" toward a person walking on the street. Upon
hearing this call, the person responds by turning around and in doing
so, is transformed into a subject . The person is conscious of being
a subject and aware of the other person. Thus, for Althusser, being
aware of other people is a form of ideology. Within that, Althusser
sees subjectivity as a type of ideology. The person being hailed
recognizes himself or herself as the subject of the hail, and knows to
respond. Althusser calls this recognition a "mis-recognition"
(méconnaissance), because it works retroactively: a material
individual is always already an ideological subject, even before he or
she is born. The "transformation" of an individual into a subject has
always already happened; Althusser here acknowledges a debt to Spinoza
's theory of immanence . To highlight this, Althusser offers the
RECEPTION AND INFLUENCE
Although Althusser's theories were born of an attempt to defend
Communist orthodoxy, the eclecticism of his influences—drawing
equally from contemporary structuralism, philosophy of science, and
psychoanalysis as from thinkers in the
Marxist tradition—reflected a
move away from the intellectual isolation of the Stalin era .
Furthermore, his thought was symptomatic of Marxism's growing academic
respectability and of a push towards emphasising Marx's legacy as a
philosopher rather than only as an economist or sociologist . Tony
Judt saw this as a criticism of Althusser's work, saying he removed
Althusser has had broad influence in the areas of
and post-structuralism : interpellation has been popularised and
adapted by the feminist philosopher and critic
Judith Butler , and
elaborated further by
Göran Therborn ; the concept of ideological
state apparatuses has been of interest to Slovenian philosopher Slavoj
Žižek ; the attempt to view history as a process without a subject
garnered sympathy from
Jacques Derrida ; historical materialism was
defended as a coherent doctrine from the standpoint of analytic
G. A. Cohen ; the interest in structure and agency
sparked by Althusser was to play a role in
Althusser's influence is also seen in the work of economists Richard D. Wolff and Stephen Resnick , who have interpreted that Marx's mature works hold a conception of class different from the normally understood ones. For them, in Marx class refers not to a group of people (for example, those that own the means of production versus those that do not), but to a process involving the production, appropriation, and distribution of surplus labor. Their emphasis on class as a process is consistent with their reading and use of Althusser's concept of overdetermination in terms of understanding agents and objects as the site of multiple determinations.
Althusser's work has also been criticized from a number of angles. In a 1971 paper for Socialist Register , Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski undertook a detailed critique of structural Marxism, arguing that the concept was seriously flawed on three main points: I will argue that the whole of Althusser's theory is made up of the following elements: 1. common sense banalities expressed with the help of unnecessarily complicated neologisms ; 2. traditional Marxist concepts that are vague and ambiguous in Marx himself (or in Engels) and which remain, after Althusser's explanation, exactly as vague and ambiguous as they were before; 3. some striking historical inexactitudes.
Kołakowski further argued that, despite Althusser's claims of
scientific rigour, structural
Gerald Cohen , in his essay 'Complete Bullshit', has cited the
'Althusserian school' as an example of 'bullshit' and a factor in his
co-founding the 'Non-Bullshit
Since his death, the reassessment of Althusser's work and influence has been ongoing. The first wave of retrospective critiques and interventions ("drawing up a balance sheet") began outside of Althusser's own country, France, because, as Étienne Balibar pointed out in 1988, "there is an absolute taboo now suppressing the name of this man and the meaning of his writings." Balibar's remarks were made at the "Althusserian Legacy" Conference organized at SUNY Stony Brook by Michael Sprinker . The proceedings of this conference were published in September 1992 as the Althusserian Legacy and included contributions from Balibar, Alex Callinicos, Michele Barrett, Alain Lipietz, Warren Montag, and Gregory Elliott, among others. It also included an obituary and an extensive interview with Derrida.
Eventually, a colloquium was organized in France at the University of
In retrospect, Althusser's continuing importance and influence can be seen through his students. A dramatic example of this points to the editors and contributors of the 1960s journal Cahiers pour l\'Analyse :
In many ways, the "Cahiers" can be read as the critical development of Althusser's own intellectual itinerary when it was at its most robust.
This influence continues to guide some of today's most significant
and provocative philosophical work, as many of these same students
became eminent intellectuals in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s:
Badiou has lectured and spoken on Althusser on several occasions in France, Brazil, and Austria since Althusser's death. Badiou has written many studies, including "Althusser: Subjectivity without a Subject", published in his book Metapolitics in 2005. Most recently, Althusser's work has been given prominence again through the interventions of Warren Montag and his circle; see for example the special issue of borderlands e-journal edited by David McInerney (Althusser "> cast some doubt on his own scholarly practices. For example, although he owned thousands of books, Althusser revealed that he knew very little about Kant, Spinoza, and Hegel. While he was familiar with Marx's early works, he had not read Capital when he wrote his own most important Marxist texts. Additionally, Althusser had "contrived to impress his first teacher, the Catholic theologian Jean Guitton, with a paper whose guiding principles he had simply filched from Guitton's own corrections of a fellow student's essay," and "he concocted fake quotations in the thesis he wrote for another major contemporary philosopher, Gaston Bachelard."
ORIGINAL WORKS IN ENGLISH TRANSLATION
For Marx (1965, English translation 1969)
Reading Capital (with
Étienne Balibar ,
Pierre Macherey , etc.).
(1965, English translation 1970).
* Lenin and
SELECTED ARTICLES IN TRANSLATION
* "Our Jean-Jacques Rousseau". TELOS 44 (Summer 1980). New York: Telos Press
* ^ At the time, the ENS was part of the University of Paris
according to the decree of 10 November 1903.
* ^ Alan D. Schrift (2006), Twentieth-Century French Philosophy:
Key Themes and Thinkers, Blackwell Publishing, pp. 86–7: "In 1975,
Althusser was awarded his Doctorat d'Etat at the University of
Picardie on the basis of published work."
* ^ Althusser Glossary 1969: "structure, decentred"
* ^ Warren Montag, Althusser and His Contemporaries: Philosophy's
Perpetual War, Duke University Press, 2013, p. 30: "Althusser's
critique of the two leading interpreters of Hegel, Alexandre Kojeve
and Jean Hyppolite focuses on what he calls their 'existentialism'".
* ^ Kaplan, Alice (13 March 1994). "Book Review: A Living Death:
The Future Last Forever: A Memoir, By Louis Althusser". Los Angeles
Times. Retrieved 20 November 2014.
* ^ A B C D E F G H I J K L M N "
* Althusser: A Critical Reader (ed. Gregory Elliott).
* Anderson, Perry , Considerations on Western Marxism
* Barker, Jason and G. M. Goshgarian (eds.), "Other Althussers",