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|Born||Louis Pierre Althusser|
16 October 1918
Birmendreïs, French Algeria
|Died||22 October 1990 (aged 72)|
|Main interests||Politics, Economics, Ideology|
|Notable ideas||The epistemological break|
Ideological state apparatuses
|Born||Louis Pierre Althusser|
16 October 1918
Birmendreïs, French Algeria
|Died||22 October 1990 (aged 72)|
|Main interests||Politics, Economics, Ideology|
|Notable ideas||The epistemological break|
Ideological state apparatuses
|Part of a series on|
Louis Pierre Althusser (French: [altysɛʁ]; 16 October 1918 – 22 October 1990) was a French Marxist philosopher. He was born in Algeria and studied at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, where he eventually became Professor of Philosophy.
Althusser was a longtime member—although sometimes a strong critic—of the French Communist Party. His arguments and theses were set against the threats that he saw attacking the theoretical foundations of Marxism. These included both the influence of empiricism on Marxist theory, and humanist and reformist socialist orientations which manifested as divisions in the European communist parties, as well as the problem of the "cult of personality" and of ideology.
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 by strangling her.
Althusser was born in French Algeria in the town of Birmendreïs, near Algiers, to a pieds-noirs family. He was named after his paternal uncle who had been killed in the First World War. Althusser alleged that his mother had intended to marry his uncle, and married his father only because of the brother's death. Althusser later alleged that his mother treated him as a substitute for his deceased uncle, to which he attributed deep psychological damage.
Following the death of his father, Althusser moved from Algiers with his mother and younger sister to Marseille, where he spent the rest of his childhood. He joined the Roman Catholic youth movement Jeunesse Étudiante Chrétienne in 1937. Althusser was a brilliant student at the Lycée du Parc in Lyon and was later accepted by the elite École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris. However, he was drafted in the run-up to World War II and, like most French soldiers following the Fall of France, Althusser was interned in a German prisoner of war camp. Here, he began the thinking that took him toward Communism. He was held in the camp for the rest of the war, under conditions that contributed to his lifelong bouts of mental instability.
Althusser would from this point suffer from periodic mental illness for the rest of his life. The ENS was sympathetic, however, allowing him to reside in his own room in the school infirmary. Althusser lived at the ENS in the Rue d'Ulm for decades, except for periods of hospitalization.
Formerly a devout if left-wing Catholic, Althusser joined the French Communist Party (PCF) 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 with a dissertation on Hegel, which allowed him to become a tutor at the ENS.
With the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, Nikita Khrushchev began the process of "de-Stalinisation". For many Marxists — including the PCF's leading theoretician Roger Garaudy and the pre-eminent existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre — this meant the recovery of the humanist roots of Marx's thought, and the opening of a dialogue between Marxists and moderate socialists, existentialists, and Christians. Althusser, however, opposed this trend, proffering a "theoretical anti-humanism" and sympathising with the criticisms made by the Communist Party of China, albeit cautiously. He was careful not to identify with Maoism. His stance during this period earned him notoriety within the PCF, and he was attacked by its secretary-general Waldeck Rochet. As a philosopher he was treading another path, which would later lead him to "aleatory materialism"; however, this did not stop him from defending Marxist orthodox thought in relation to his own position and work, such as in his 1973 reply to John Lewis.
Despite the involvement of many of his students in the events of May 1968, Althusser initially greeted these developments with silence. He was later to express 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 a significant shift in emphasis was seen in his later works.
On 16 November 1980, Althusser strangled his wife Hélène to death. There were no witnesses, and the exact circumstances are debated, with some claiming it was deliberate, others accidental. In his posthumously published autobiography, he describes the murder in detail. Althusser was diagnosed as suffering from diminished responsibility. He was not tried, but instead committed to the Sainte-Anne psychiatric hospital.
Althusser remained in hospital until 1983. Upon release, he moved to northern Paris and lived reclusively, seeing few people. He continued to work and write, but published little. A notable exception is his autobiography, L'Avenir dure longtemps, in which Althusser describes the killing (among other topics). 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.
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 Karl Marx's Capital. The book reflects on the philosophical status of Marxist theory as "critique of political economy", and on its object. The current English edition of this work includes only the essays of Althusser and Étienne Balibar, while the original French edition contains additional contributions from Jacques Rancière, Pierre Macherey, and Roger Establet.
Several of Althusser's theoretical positions have remained influential in 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 Gaston Bachelard. His essay "Marxism and Humanism" is a strong statement of anti-humanism in Marxist theory, condemning ideas like "human potential" and "species-being", which are often put forth by Marxists, as outgrowths of a bourgeois ideology of "humanity". His essay "Contradiction and Overdetermination" borrows the concept of overdetermination from psychoanalysis, in order to replace the idea of "contradiction" with a more complex model of multiple causality in political situations (an idea closely related to Antonio Gramsci's concept of cultural hegemony.)
Althusser is also widely known as a theorist of ideology. His best-known essay, "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Toward an Investigation", establishes the concept of ideology. Althusser's theory of ideology draws on Marx and Gramsci, but also on Freud's and Lacan's psychological concepts of the unconscious and mirror-phase respectively, and describes the structures and systems that enable the concept of the self. These structures, for Althusser, are both agents of repression and inevitable: it is impossible to escape ideology and avoid being subjected to it. On the other hand, the collection of essays from which "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" is drawn contains other essays which confirm that Althusser's concept of ideology is broadly consistent with the classic Marxist theory of class struggle.
Althusser's thought evolved during his lifetime. It has been the subject of argument and debate, especially within Marxism and specifically concerning his theory of knowledge (epistemology).
Althusser's contention is that Marx's thought has been fundamentally misunderstood and underestimated. He fiercely condemns various interpretations of Marx's works—historicism, idealism, and economism—on the 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 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 Thales to mathematics, Galileo to physics, or, better, Freud's psychoanalysis, in that the structure of his theory is unlike anything posited by his predecessors.
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 combines David Ricardo's concepts of rent, profit, and interest—their meaning and relation to other concepts in the theory is significantly different. However, more fundamental to Marx's "break" is a rejection of homo economicus, or the idea, held by the classical economists, that the needs of individuals can be treated as a fact or "given" independent of any economic organisation. For the classical economists, individual needs can serve as a premise for a theory explaining the character of a mode of production and as an independent starting point for a theory about society. Where political economy explains economic systems as a response to individual needs, Marx's analysis accounts for a wider range of social phenomena in terms of the parts they play in a structured whole. Consequently, Marx's Capital has greater explanatory power than does political economy because it provides both a model of the economy and a description of the structure and development of a whole society. In Althusser's view, Marx does not simply argue that human needs are largely created by their social environment and thus vary with time and place; rather, he abandons the very idea that there can be a theory about what people are like that is prior to any theory about how they come to be that way.
Although Althusser steadfastly holds onto the claim of its existence, he later asserts that the turning point's occurrence around 1845 is not so clearly defined, as traces of humanism, historicism, and Hegelianism are to be found in Capital. He states that only Marx's Critique of the Gotha Programme and some marginal notes on a book by Adolph Wagner are fully free from humanist ideology. In line with this, Althusser replaces his earlier definition of Marx's philosophy as the "theory of theoretical practice" with a new belief in "politics in the field of history" and "class struggle in theory". Althusser considers the epistemological break to be a process instead of a clearly defined event — the product of incessant struggle against ideology. The distinction between ideology and science or philosophy is thus not assured once and for all by the epistemological break.
Because of Marx's belief that the individual is a product of society, Althusser believes 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 he criticises the idea of a social theory founded on an historical conception of human needs, so does Althusser critique 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 Marxist materialist 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 parts. Economic practice, for example, contains raw materials, tools, individual persons, etc., all united in a process of production.
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, amongst 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.
An analysis understood in terms of interdependent levels and practices helps us to conceive of how society is organised, but also allows us to 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 in spite of 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. It was, in his words, 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 Marxism of the influence and vestiges of Hegelian (idealist) dialectics, and is a component part of his general anti-humanist position.
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. For Althusser, however, a person's capacity for perceiving him 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. Ideological practice consists of an assortment of institutions called "Ideological State Apparatuses" (ISAs), which include the family, the media, religious organisations, and most importantly in capitalist societies, the education system, as well as the received ideas that they propagate. There is, however, no single ISA that produces in us the belief that we are self-conscious agents. Instead, we derive this belief in the course of learning what it is to be a daughter, a schoolchild, black, a steelworker, a councillor, and so forth.
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 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 him 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 example of Christian religious ideology, embodied in the Voice of God, instructing a person on what his place in the world is and what he must do to be reconciled with Christ. From this, Althusser draws the point that in order for that person to identify himself as a Christian, he must first already be a subject; that is, by responding to God's call and following His rules, he affirms himself as a free agent, the author of the acts for which he assumes responsibility. We cannot recognize ourselves outside of ideology, and in fact, our very actions reach out to this overarching structure. For Althusser, we acquire our identities by seeing ourselves mirrored in ideologies.
Although Althusser's theories were born of an attempt to defend what some saw as 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 both 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 Marxism "altogether from the realm of history, politics and experience, and thereby ... render[ed] it invulnerable to any criticism of the empirical sort."
Althusser has had broad influence in the areas of Marxist philosophy and post-structuralism: interpellation has been popularised and adapted by the feminist philosopher and critic Judith Butler; 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 philosophy by G. A. Cohen; the interest in structure and agency sparked by Althusser was to play a role in Anthony Giddens's theory of structuration; Althusser was vehemently[need quotation to verify] attacked by British historian E. P. Thompson in his book The Poverty of Theory.[non-primary source needed]
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:
Kołakowski further argued that, despite Althusser's claims of scientific rigour, structural Marxism was unfalsifiable and thus unscientific, and was best understood as a quasi-religious ideology. In 1980, sociologist Axel van der Berg described Kołakowski's critique as "devastating", proving that "Althusser retains the orthodox radical rhetoric by simply severing all connections with verifiable facts".
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 Marxism Group'. He says that 'the ideas that the Althusserians generated, for example, of the interpellation of the subject, or of contradiction and overdetermination, possessed a surface allure, but it often seemed impossible to determine whether or not the theses in which those ideas figured were true, and, at other times, those theses seemed capable of just two interpretations: on one of them they were true but uninteresting, and, on the other, they were interesting, but quite obviously false'.
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 Paris VIII by Sylvain Lazarus on May 27, 1992. The general title was Politique et philosophie dans l'oeuvre de Louis Althusser, the proceedings of which were published in 1993.
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: Alain Badiou, Étienne Balibar and Jacques Rancière in philosophy, Pierre Macherey in literary criticism and Nicos Poulantzas in sociology. The prominent Guevarist Régis Debray also studied under Althusser, as did the aforementioned Derrida (with whom he at one time shared an office at the ENS), noted philosopher Michel Foucault, and the pre-eminent Lacanian psychoanalyst Jacques-Alain Miller.
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 & Us) and "Décalages: An Althusser Studies Journal", edited by Montag. (See "External links" below for access to both of these journals.)
In 2011 Althusser continued to spark controversy and debate with the publication in August of that year of Jacques Rancière's first book, Althusser's Lesson (1974). It marked the first time this groundbreaking work was to appear in its entirety in an English translation. In 2014, On the Reproduction of Capitalism was published, which is an English translation of the full text of the work from which the ISAs text was drawn.
The publication of Althusser's posthumous memoir 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."