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Louis Althusser

Louis Althusser

Overview
Louis Pierre Althusser (altyˈsɛʁ; 16 October 1918 – 22 October 1990) was a French
France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

 Marxist philosopher
Marxist philosophy
Marxist philosophy or Marxist theory are terms that cover work in philosophy that is strongly influenced by Karl Marx's materialist approach to theory or that is written by Marxists...

. He was born in Algeria
Algeria
Algeria , officially the People's Democratic Republic of Algeria , also formally referred to as the Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria, is a country in the Maghreb region of Northwest Africa with Algiers as its capital.In terms of land area, it is the largest country in Africa and the Arab...

 and studied at the École Normale Supérieure
École Normale Supérieure
The École normale supérieure is one of the most prestigious French grandes écoles...

 in Paris, where he eventually became Professor of Philosophy.

Althusser was a longtime member - although sometimes a strong critic - of the French Communist Party
French Communist Party
The French Communist Party is a political party in France which advocates the principles of communism.Although its electoral support has declined in recent decades, the PCF retains a large membership, behind only that of the Union for a Popular Movement , and considerable influence in French...

. His arguments and theses were set against the threats that he saw attacking the theoretical foundations of Marxism.
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Encyclopedia
Louis Pierre Althusser (altyˈsɛʁ; 16 October 1918 – 22 October 1990) was a French
France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

 Marxist philosopher
Marxist philosophy
Marxist philosophy or Marxist theory are terms that cover work in philosophy that is strongly influenced by Karl Marx's materialist approach to theory or that is written by Marxists...

. He was born in Algeria
Algeria
Algeria , officially the People's Democratic Republic of Algeria , also formally referred to as the Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria, is a country in the Maghreb region of Northwest Africa with Algiers as its capital.In terms of land area, it is the largest country in Africa and the Arab...

 and studied at the École Normale Supérieure
École Normale Supérieure
The École normale supérieure is one of the most prestigious French grandes écoles...

 in Paris, where he eventually became Professor of Philosophy.

Althusser was a longtime member - although sometimes a strong critic - of the French Communist Party
French Communist Party
The French Communist Party is a political party in France which advocates the principles of communism.Although its electoral support has declined in recent decades, the PCF retains a large membership, behind only that of the Union for a Popular Movement , and considerable influence in French...

. 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
Empiricism
Empiricism is a theory of knowledge that asserts that knowledge comes only or primarily via sensory experience. One of several views of epistemology, the study of human knowledge, along with rationalism, idealism and historicism, empiricism emphasizes the role of experience and evidence,...

 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
Cult of personality
A cult of personality arises when an individual uses mass media, propaganda, or other methods, to create an idealized and heroic public image, often through unquestioning flattery and praise. Cults of personality are usually associated with dictatorships...

" and of ideology itself.

Althusser is commonly referred to as a Structural Marxist
Structural Marxism
Structural Marxism was an approach to Marxist philosophy based on structuralism, primarily associated with the work of the French philosopher Louis Althusser and his students. It was influential in France during the 1960s and 1970s, and also came to influence philosophers, political theorists and...

, although his relationship to other schools of French structuralism
Structuralism
Structuralism originated in the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and the subsequent Prague and Moscow schools of linguistics. Just as structural linguistics was facing serious challenges from the likes of Noam Chomsky and thus fading in importance in linguistics, 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. During one of his bouts, he killed his wife by strangling her.

Early life


Althusser wrote two autobiographies, L'Avenir dure longtemps (The Future Lasts a Long Time) which is published in The United States as "The Future Lasts Forever," in a single volume with Althusser's other, shorter, earlier autobiography, "The Facts." They are not straightforward autobiographies and cannot be treated as such (at least without provisions) for purposes of strict biographical information.

Althusser was born in French Algeria
French Algeria
French Algeria lasted from 1830 to 1962, under a variety of governmental systems. From 1848 until independence, the whole Mediterranean region of Algeria was administered as an integral part of France, much like Corsica and Réunion are to this day. The vast arid interior of Algeria, like the rest...

 in the town of Birmendreïs
Birmendreïs
Bir Mourad Raïs is a town in Algiers Province, Algeria. The town is named in honor of the famous Ottoman admiral Murat Rais. It is the birthplace of French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser. As of 1998, its population was 43,300.-References:...

, near Algiers
Algiers
' is the capital and largest city of Algeria. According to the 1998 census, the population of the city proper was 1,519,570 and that of the urban agglomeration was 2,135,630. In 2009, the population was about 3,500,000...

, 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 demise. Althusser also alleges 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
Algiers
' is the capital and largest city of Algeria. According to the 1998 census, the population of the city proper was 1,519,570 and that of the urban agglomeration was 2,135,630. In 2009, the population was about 3,500,000...

 with his mother and younger sister to Marseilles, where he spent the rest of his childhood. He joined the Roman Catholic youth movement Jeunesse Etudiante Chrétienne in 1937. Althusser performed brilliantly at school at the Lycée du Parc
Lycée du Parc
The Lycée du Parc is a public secondary school located in the sixth arrondissement of Lyon, France. Its name comes from the Parc de la Tête d'Or, one of Europe's largest urban parks, which is situated nearby....

 in Lyon
Lyon
Lyon , is a city in east-central France in the Rhône-Alpes region, situated between Paris and Marseille. Lyon is located at from Paris, from Marseille, from Geneva, from Turin, and from Barcelona. The residents of the city are called Lyonnais....

 and was accepted to the elite École normale supérieure
École normale supérieure
An école normale supérieure or ENS is a type of publicly funded higher education in France. A portion of the student body who are French civil servants are called Normaliens....

 (ENS) in Paris. However, he found himself enlisted in the run-up to World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

, and like most French soldiers following the Fall of France Althusser was interned in a German POW
Prisoner of war
A prisoner of war or enemy prisoner of war is a person, whether civilian or combatant, who is held in custody by an enemy power during or immediately after an armed conflict...

 camp. Here, his move towards Communism
Communism
Communism is a social, political and economic ideology that aims at the establishment of a classless, moneyless, revolutionary and stateless socialist society structured upon common ownership of the means of production...

 was to begin. He remained in the camp for the rest of the war, and this experience further contributed to his lifelong bouts of mental instability.

Health


After the war, Althusser was able finally to attend ENS. However, he was in poor health, both mentally and physically. In 1947 he received electroconvulsive therapy
Electroconvulsive therapy
Electroconvulsive therapy , formerly known as electroshock, is a psychiatric treatment in which seizures are electrically induced in anesthetized patients for therapeutic effect. Its mode of action is unknown...

. Althusser was from this time to 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 found himself living at the ENS in the Rue d'Ulm for decades, except for periods of hospitalization.

Post-War


In 1946, Althusser met Hélène Rytman, a revolutionary
Revolutionary
A revolutionary is a person who either actively participates in, or advocates revolution. Also, when used as an adjective, the term revolutionary refers to something that has a major, sudden impact on society or on some aspect of human endeavor.-Definition:...

 of Lithuanian
Lithuanians
Lithuanians are the Baltic ethnic group native to Lithuania, where they number around 2,765,600 people. Another million or more make up the Lithuanian diaspora, largely found in countries such as the United States, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Russia, United Kingdom and Ireland. Their native language...

-Jewish origin and eight years his senior. She remained his companion, and eventually his wife, until her death, at his hands, in 1980.

Formerly a devout if left-wing
Left-wing politics
In politics, Left, left-wing and leftist generally refer to support for social change to create a more egalitarian society...

 Catholic, Althusser joined the French Communist Party
French Communist Party
The French Communist Party is a political party in France which advocates the principles of communism.Although its electoral support has declined in recent decades, the PCF retains a large membership, behind only that of the Union for a Popular Movement , and considerable influence in French...

 (PCF) in 1948, a time when others such as Merleau-Ponty were losing sympathy for the party. That same year, Althusser passed the agrégation
Agrégation
In France, the agrégation is a civil service competitive examination for some positions in the public education system. The laureates are known as agrégés...

 in philosophy
Philosophy
Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Philosophy is distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational...

 with a dissertation on Hegel, which allowed him to become a tutor at the ENS.

De-Stalinisation


With the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, Nikita Khrushchev
Nikita Khrushchev
Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev led the Soviet Union during part of the Cold War. He served as First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964, and as Chairman of the Council of Ministers, or Premier, from 1958 to 1964...

 began the process of "de-Stalinisation". For many Marxists - including the PCF's leading theoretician Roger Garaudy
Roger Garaudy
Roger Garaudy or Ragaa Garaudy is a French philosopher. Formerly a prominent communist author, he has converted to Islam and written several books which have been controversial due to his anti-Zionist positions and denial of the Holocaust.-Early life, politics and religion:Born to Catholic and...

 and the pre-eminent existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Charles Aymard Sartre was a French existentialist philosopher, playwright, novelist, screenwriter, political activist, biographer, and literary critic. He was one of the leading figures in 20th century French philosophy, particularly Marxism, and was one of the key figures in literary...

 - this meant the recovery of the humanist
Humanism
Humanism is an approach in study, philosophy, world view or practice that focuses on human values and concerns. In philosophy and social science, humanism is a perspective which affirms some notion of human nature, and is contrasted with anti-humanism....

 roots of Marx's
Karl Marx
Karl Heinrich Marx was a German philosopher, economist, sociologist, historian, journalist, and revolutionary socialist. His ideas played a significant role in the development of social science and the socialist political movement...

 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
Communist Party of China
The Communist Party of China , also known as the Chinese Communist Party , is the founding and ruling political party of the People's Republic of China...

, albeit cautiously and careful not to identify himself with Maoism
Maoism
Maoism, also known as the Mao Zedong Thought , is claimed by Maoists as an anti-Revisionist form of Marxist communist theory, derived from the teachings of the Chinese political leader Mao Zedong . Developed during the 1950s and 1960s, it was widely applied as the political and military guiding...

. His stance during this period earned him notoriety within the PCF and he was attacked by its secretary-general
Secretary-General
-International intergovernmental organizations:-International nongovernmental organizations:-Sports governing bodies:...

 Waldeck Rochet
Waldeck Rochet
Waldeck Rochet was a French communist politician.-Early life and career:...

. 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 during his 1973 reply to John Lewis
John Lewis (philosopher)
John Lewis was a British Unitarian minister and Marxist philosopher and author of many works on philosophy, anthropology, and religion....

.

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 parallel the official PCF line in describing the students as victim to "infantile" leftism
Left-wing politics
In politics, Left, left-wing and leftist generally refer to support for social change to create a more egalitarian society...

. 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.

1980s


On 16 November 1980, Althusser strangled his wife Hélène to death, following a period of mental instability. There were no witnesses, and the exact circumstances are debated with some claiming it was deliberate, others accidental. Althusser himself claimed not to have a clear memory of the event, saying that, while he was massaging his wife's neck, he discovered he had strangled her. Althusser was diagnosed as suffering from diminished responsibility
Diminished responsibility
In criminal law, diminished responsibility is a potential defense by excuse by which defendants argue that although they broke the law, they should not be held fully criminally liable for doing so, as their mental functions were "diminished" or impaired. The defense's acceptance in American...

, and 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
Myocardial infarction
Myocardial infarction or acute myocardial infarction , commonly known as a heart attack, results from the interruption of blood supply to a part of the heart, causing heart cells to die...

 on 22 October 1990 at the age of 72. Much of his post-1980 work has been published posthumously.

Thought



Althusser's earlier works include the influential volume Reading Capital
Reading Capital
Reading Capital is a 1965 work of Marxist philosophy and theory. The book collects essays developed by Louis Althusser and his students in a seminar on Karl Marx's Das Kapital which took place earlier in 1965...

, which collects the work of Althusser and his students on an intensive philosophical re-reading of Karl Marx's
Karl Marx
Karl Heinrich Marx was a German philosopher, economist, sociologist, historian, journalist, and revolutionary socialist. His ideas played a significant role in the development of social science and the socialist political movement...

 Capital
Das Kapital
Das Kapital, Kritik der politischen Ökonomie , by Karl Marx, is a critical analysis of capitalism as political economy, meant to reveal the economic laws of the capitalist mode of production, and how it was the precursor of the socialist mode of production.- Themes :In Capital: Critique of...

. 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
Étienne Balibar
Étienne Balibar is a French Marxist philosopher. After the death of his teacher Louis Althusser, Balibar quickly became the leading exponent of French Marxist philosophy.- Life and work :...

, while the original French edition contains additional contributions from Jacques Ranciere
Jacques Rancière
Jacques Rancière is a French philosopher, Professor of Philosophy at European Graduate School in Saas-Fee and Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Paris Jacques Rancière (born Algiers, 1940) is a French philosopher, Professor of Philosophy at European Graduate School in Saas-Fee...

, Pierre Macherey
Pierre Macherey
Pierre Macherey is a French Marxist literary critic at Université Lille Nord de France. A former student of Louis Althusser and collaborator on the influential volume Reading "Capital", Macherey is a central figure in the development of French post-structuralism and Marxism...

, and Roger Establet
Roger Establet
Roger Establet is a French scholar of the sociology of education. He was a student at lycée Massena in Nice, and in khâgne at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris. in 1959, he entered the École normale supérieure, where he earned degrees in philosophy and sociology. He was a professor at the...

.

Several of Althusser's theoretical positions have remained very influential in Marxist philosophy
Marxist philosophy
Marxist philosophy or Marxist theory are terms that cover work in philosophy that is strongly influenced by Karl Marx's materialist approach to theory or that is written by Marxists...

. 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
Gaston Bachelard
Gaston Bachelard was a French philosopher. He made contributions in the fields of poetics and the philosophy of science. To the latter he introduced the concepts of epistemological obstacle and epistemological break...

. His essay Marxism and Humanism is a strong statement of anti-humanism
Marxist humanism
Marxist humanism is a branch of Marxism that primarily focuses on Marx's earlier writings, especially the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 in which Marx espoused his theory of alienation, as opposed to his later works, which are considered to be concerned more with his structural...

 in Marxist theory, condemning ideas like "human potential" and "species-being", which are often put forth by Marxists, as outgrowths of a bourgeois
Bourgeoisie
In sociology and political science, bourgeoisie describes a range of groups across history. In the Western world, between the late 18th century and the present day, the bourgeoisie is a social class "characterized by their ownership of capital and their related culture." A member of the...

 ideology of "humanity". His essay Contradiction and Overdetermination borrows the concept of overdetermination
Overdetermination
Overdetermination, the idea that a single observed effect is determined by multiple causes at once , was originally a key concept of Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis....

 from psychoanalysis
Psychoanalysis
Psychoanalysis is a psychological theory developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud. Psychoanalysis has expanded, been criticized and developed in different directions, mostly by some of Freud's former students, such as Alfred Adler and Carl Gustav...

, in order to replace the idea of "contradiction" with a more complex model of multiple causality
Causality
Causality is the relationship between an event and a second event , where the second event is understood as a consequence of the first....

 in political situations (an idea closely related to Antonio Gramsci
Antonio Gramsci
Antonio Gramsci was an Italian writer, politician, political philosopher, and linguist. He was a founding member and onetime leader of the Communist Party of Italy and was imprisoned by Benito Mussolini's Fascist regime...

's concept of hegemony
Hegemony
Hegemony is an indirect form of imperial dominance in which the hegemon rules sub-ordinate states by the implied means of power rather than direct military force. In Ancient Greece , hegemony denoted the politico–military dominance of a city-state over other city-states...

).

Althusser is also widely known as a theorist of ideology
Ideology
An ideology is a set of ideas that constitutes one's goals, expectations, and actions. An ideology can be thought of as a comprehensive vision, as a way of looking at things , as in common sense and several philosophical tendencies , or a set of ideas proposed by the dominant class of a society to...

. 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
Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud , born Sigismund Schlomo Freud , was an Austrian neurologist who founded the discipline of psychoanalysis...

 and Lacan's
Jacques Lacan
Jacques Marie Émile Lacan was a French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist who made prominent contributions to psychoanalysis and philosophy, and has been called "the most controversial psycho-analyst since Freud". Giving yearly seminars in Paris from 1953 to 1981, Lacan influenced France's...

 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, to not be subjected to it.

Althusser's thought went through an evolution in his lifetime, and has been the subject of argument and debate, especially within Marxism and specifically concerning his theory of knowledge (epistemology).

The epistemological break


Althusser's contention is that Marx's
Karl Marx
Karl Heinrich Marx was a German philosopher, economist, sociologist, historian, journalist, and revolutionary socialist. His ideas played a significant role in the development of social science and the socialist political movement...

 thought has been fundamentally misunderstood and underestimated. He fiercely condemns various interpretations of Marx's works - historicism
Historicism
Historicism is a mode of thinking that assigns a central and basic significance to a specific context, such as historical period, geographical place and local culture. As such it is in contrast to individualist theories of knowledges such as empiricism and rationalism, which neglect the role of...

 idealism
Idealism
In philosophy, idealism is the family of views which assert that reality, or reality as we can know it, is fundamentally mental, mentally constructed, or otherwise immaterial. Epistemologically, idealism manifests as a skepticism about the possibility of knowing any mind-independent thing...

, economism
Economic determinism
Economic determinism is the theory which attributes primacy to the economic structure over politics in the development of human history. It is usually associated with the theories of Karl Marx, although many Marxist thinkers have dismissed plain and unilateral economic determinism as a form of...

 - on the grounds that they fail to realise that with the "science of history", historical materialism
Historical materialism
Historical materialism is a methodological approach to the study of society, economics, and history, first articulated by Karl Marx as "the materialist conception of history". Historical materialism looks for the causes of developments and changes in human society in the means by which humans...

, 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". Though the works of the young Marx
Young Marx
Some theorists consider Karl Marx's thought to be divided into a "young" period and a "mature" one. There is disagreement to when Marx's thought began to mature, and the problem of the idea of a "Young Marx" is the problem of tracking the development of Marx's works and of its possible unity...

 are bound by the categories of German philosophy
Philosophy
Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Philosophy is distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational...

 and classical political economy
Political economy
Political economy originally was the term for studying production, buying, and selling, and their relations with law, custom, and government, as well as with the distribution of national income and wealth, including through the budget process. Political economy originated in moral philosophy...

, with The German Ideology
The German Ideology
The German Ideology is a book written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels around April or early May 1846. Marx and Engels did not find a publisher. However, the work was later retrieved and published for the first time in 1932 by David Riazanov through the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow...

 (written in 1845) there is 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. The problem (according to Althusser) is compounded by the fact that even Marx
Karl Marx
Karl Heinrich Marx was a German philosopher, economist, sociologist, historian, journalist, and revolutionary socialist. His ideas played a significant role in the development of social science and the socialist political movement...

 himself does not fully comprehend the significance of his own work, being only able to communicate it obliquely and tentatively. The shift can only be revealed by way of a careful and sensitive "symptomatic reading". Thus, Althusser's project is to help us 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
Thales
Thales of Miletus was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher from Miletus in Asia Minor, and one of the Seven Sages of Greece. Many, most notably Aristotle, regard him as the first philosopher in the Greek tradition...

 to mathematics
Mathematics
Mathematics is the study of quantity, space, structure, and change. Mathematicians seek out patterns and formulate new conjectures. Mathematicians resolve the truth or falsity of conjectures by mathematical proofs, which are arguments sufficient to convince other mathematicians of their validity...

, Galileo
Galileo Galilei
Galileo Galilei , was an Italian physicist, mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher who played a major role in the Scientific Revolution. His achievements include improvements to the telescope and consequent astronomical observations and support for Copernicanism...

 to physics
Physics
Physics is a natural science that involves the study of matter and its motion through spacetime, along with related concepts such as energy and force. More broadly, it is the general analysis of nature, conducted in order to understand how the universe behaves.Physics is one of the oldest academic...

 or, better, Freud's psychoanalysis
Psychoanalysis
Psychoanalysis is a psychological theory developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud. Psychoanalysis has expanded, been criticized and developed in different directions, mostly by some of Freud's former students, such as Alfred Adler and Carl Gustav...

, 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 ground-breaking epistemology that rejects the distinction between subject
Subject (philosophy)
In philosophy, a subject is a being that has subjective experiences, subjective consciousness or a relationship with another entity . A subject is an observer and an object is a thing observed...

 and object
Object (philosophy)
An object in philosophy is a technical term often used in contrast to the term subject. Consciousness is a state of cognition that includes the subject, which can never be doubted as only it can be the one who doubts, and some object or objects that may or may not have real existence without...

. In opposition to empiricism
Empiricism
Empiricism is a theory of knowledge that asserts that knowledge comes only or primarily via sensory experience. One of several views of epistemology, the study of human knowledge, along with rationalism, idealism and historicism, empiricism emphasizes the role of experience and evidence,...

, Althusser claims that Marx's philosophy, dialectical materialism
Dialectical materialism
Dialectical materialism is a strand of Marxism synthesizing Hegel's dialectics. The idea was originally invented by Moses Hess and it was later developed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels...

, 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": I, the "raw material" of pre-scientific ideas, abstractions and facts; II, a conceptual framework (or "problematic") brought to bear upon these; III, the finished product of a transformed theoretical entity, concrete knowledge. On this view, the validity of knowledge is not guaranteed by 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
Base and superstructure
In Marxist theory, human society consists of two parts: the base and superstructure; the base comprehends the forces and relations of production — employer-employee work conditions, the technical division of labour, and property relations — into which people enter to produce the necessities and...

.

In addition to its unique epistemology, Marx's theory is built on concepts - such as forces
Means of production
Means of production refers to physical, non-human inputs used in production—the factories, machines, and tools used to produce wealth — along with both infrastructural capital and natural capital. This includes the classical factors of production minus financial capital and minus human capital...

 and relations of production
Relations of production
Relations of production is a concept frequently used by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in their theory of historical materialism, and in Das Kapital...

 - that have no counterpart in classical political economy
Political economy
Political economy originally was the term for studying production, buying, and selling, and their relations with law, custom, and government, as well as with the distribution of national income and wealth, including through the budget process. Political economy originated in moral philosophy...

. Even when existing terms are adopted - for example, the theory of surplus value
Surplus value
Surplus value is a concept used famously by Karl Marx in his critique of political economy. Although Marx did not himself invent the term, he developed the concept...

 that combines David Ricardo's
David Ricardo
David Ricardo was an English political economist, often credited with systematising economics, and was one of the most influential of the classical economists, along with Thomas Malthus, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill. He was also a member of Parliament, businessman, financier and speculator,...

 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
Homo economicus
Homo economicus, or Economic human, is the concept in some economic theories of humans as rational and narrowly self-interested actors who have the ability to make judgments toward their subjectively defined ends...

, 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, such individual needs can serve as a premise for a theory explaining the character of a mode of production
Mode of production
In the writings of Karl Marx and the Marxist theory of historical materialism, a mode of production is a specific combination of:...

 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
Das Kapital
Das Kapital, Kritik der politischen Ökonomie , by Karl Marx, is a critical analysis of capitalism as political economy, meant to reveal the economic laws of the capitalist mode of production, and how it was the precursor of the socialist mode of production.- Themes :In Capital: Critique of...

 has greater explanatory power than political economy, in that 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.

Though 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
Hegelianism
Hegelianism is a collective term for schools of thought following or referring to G. W. F. Hegel's philosophy which can be summed up by the dictum that "the rational alone is real", which means that all reality is capable of being expressed in rational categories...

 are to be found in Capital
Das Kapital
Das Kapital, Kritik der politischen Ökonomie , by Karl Marx, is a critical analysis of capitalism as political economy, meant to reveal the economic laws of the capitalist mode of production, and how it was the precursor of the socialist mode of production.- Themes :In Capital: Critique of...

. He even goes so far as to state that only Marx's Critique of the Gotha Programme and some marginal notes on a book by Adolph Wagner
Adolph Wagner
Adolph Wagner was a German economist and politician, a leading Kathedersozialist and public finance scholar and advocate of Agrarianism...

 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.

Levels and practices


Because of Marx's belief that the individual is a product of society, it is, in Althusser’s view, 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 - but rather defines society as a set of fixed "levels" and "practices". He uses this analysis to defend Marx’s historical materialism
Historical materialism
Historical materialism is a methodological approach to the study of society, economics, and history, first articulated by Karl Marx as "the materialist conception of history". Historical materialism looks for the causes of developments and changes in human society in the means by which humans...

 against the charge that it crudely posits a base (economic level) and superstructure
Base and superstructure
In Marxist theory, human society consists of two parts: the base and superstructure; the base comprehends the forces and relations of production — employer-employee work conditions, the technical division of labour, and property relations — into which people enter to produce the necessities and...

 (culture/politics) 'rising upon it' and then attempts to explain all aspects of the superstructure
Base and superstructure
In Marxist theory, human society consists of two parts: the base and superstructure; the base comprehends the forces and relations of production — employer-employee work conditions, the technical division of labour, and property relations — into which people enter to produce the necessities and...

 by appealing to features of the (economic) base (the well known architectural metaphor). For Althusser, it is a mistake to attribute this economic determinist
Economic determinism
Economic determinism is the theory which attributes primacy to the economic structure over politics in the development of human history. It is usually associated with the theories of Karl Marx, although many Marxist thinkers have dismissed plain and unilateral economic determinism as a form of...

 view to Marx: much as he criticises the idea that a social theory can be founded on an historical conception of human needs, so does he 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
Ideology
An ideology is a set of ideas that constitutes one's goals, expectations, and actions. An ideology can be thought of as a comprehensive vision, as a way of looking at things , as in common sense and several philosophical tendencies , or a set of ideas proposed by the dominant class of a society to...

 practice and politico
Politics
Politics is a process by which groups of people make collective decisions. The term is generally applied to the art or science of running governmental or state affairs, including behavior within civil governments, but also applies to institutions, fields, and special interest groups such as the...

-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
Relations of production
Relations of production is a concept frequently used by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in their theory of historical materialism, and in Das Kapital...

 of capitalist
Capitalism
Capitalism is an economic system that became dominant in the Western world following the demise of feudalism. There is no consensus on the precise definition nor on how the term should be used as a historical category...

 societies are the buying and selling of labour power
Labor power
Labour power is a crucial concept used by Karl Marx in his critique of capitalist political economy. He regarded labour power as the most important of the productive forces of human beings. Labour power can be simply defined as work-capacity, the ability to do work...

 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
Base and superstructure
In Marxist theory, human society consists of two parts: the base and superstructure; the base comprehends the forces and relations of production — employer-employee work conditions, the technical division of labour, and property relations — into which people enter to produce the necessities and...

 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 allows us to comprehend social change and thus provides a theory of history
History
History is the discovery, collection, organization, and presentation of information about past events. History can also mean the period of time after writing was invented. Scholars who write about history are called historians...

. Althusser explains the reproduction of the relations of production
Relations of production
Relations of production is a concept frequently used by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in their theory of historical materialism, and in Das Kapital...

 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
Vladimir Lenin
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was a Russian Marxist revolutionary and communist politician who led the October Revolution of 1917. As leader of the Bolsheviks, he headed the Soviet state during its initial years , as it fought to establish control of Russia in the Russian Civil War and worked to create a...

 analysis of the Russian Revolution of 1917
Russian Revolution of 1917
The Russian Revolution is the collective term for a series of revolutions in Russia in 1917, which destroyed the Tsarist autocracy and led to the creation of the Soviet Union. The Tsar was deposed and replaced by a provisional government in the first revolution of February 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., disparity between urban industrialisation and medieval conditions in the countryside, and 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
Tsar
Tsar is a title used to designate certain European Slavic monarchs or supreme rulers. As a system of government in the Tsardom of Russia and Russian Empire, it is known as Tsarist autocracy, or Tsarism...

 and had become sophisticated socialists.

For Althusser, this example reinforces his claim that Marx's explanation of social change is more complex than to see it as the result of a single contradiction between the forces
Means of production
Means of production refers to physical, non-human inputs used in production—the factories, machines, and tools used to produce wealth — along with both infrastructural capital and natural capital. This includes the classical factors of production minus financial capital and minus human capital...

 and the relations of production
Relations of production
Relations of production is a concept frequently used by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in their theory of historical materialism, and in Das Kapital...

. The differences between events in Russia and Western Europe
Western Europe
Western Europe is a loose term for the collection of countries in the western most region of the European continents, though this definition is context-dependent and carries cultural and political connotations. One definition describes Western Europe as a geographic entity—the region lying in the...

 highlight that a contradiction between forces
Productive forces
Productive forces, "productive powers" or "forces of production" [in German, Produktivkräfte] is a central idea in Marxism and historical materialism....

 and relations of production
Relations of production
Relations of production is a concept frequently used by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in their theory of historical materialism, and in Das Kapital...

 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 draws the conclusion that Marx’s concept of contradiction is inseparable from the concept of a complex structured social whole. In order to emphasise that changes in social structure relate to numerous contradictions, Althusser describes these changes as "overdetermined
Overdetermination
Overdetermination, the idea that a single observed effect is determined by multiple causes at once , was originally a key concept of Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis....

", using a term taken from Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud , born Sigismund Schlomo Freud , was an Austrian neurologist who founded the discipline of psychoanalysis...

. This interpretation allows us to account for how many different circumstances may play a part in the course of events, and furthermore permits us to grasp 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, in his view, 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/vestiges of Hegelian (idealist) dialectics, and is a component part of his general anti-humanist position.

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
Subject (philosophy)
In philosophy, a subject is a being that has subjective experiences, subjective consciousness or a relationship with another entity . A subject is an observer and an object is a thing observed...

 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-/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/her an idea of the range of properties he/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
Politics
Politics is a process by which groups of people make collective decisions. The term is generally applied to the art or science of running governmental or state affairs, including behavior within civil governments, but also applies to institutions, fields, and special interest groups such as the...

-legal practice. However, other characteristics of individuals, such as their beliefs about the good life
The good life
The good life is a term for the life that one would like to live, or for happiness, associated with the work of Aristotle and his teaching on ethics.-Religious approaches:...

 or their metaphysical
Metaphysics
Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world, although the term is not easily defined. Traditionally, metaphysics attempts to answer two basic questions in the broadest possible terms:...

 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," which draws heavily from Lacan
Lacan
Lacan is surname of:* Jacques Lacan , French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist** The Seminars of Jacques Lacan** From Bakunin to Lacan: Anti-Authoritarianism and the Dislocation of Power, a book on political philosophy by Saul Newman** Lacan at the Scene* Judith Miller, née Lacan...

 and his concept of the Mirror Stage
Mirror stage
The mirror stage is a concept in the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan. Philosopher Raymond Tallis describes the mirror stage as "the cornerstone of Lacan’s oeuvre."...

. 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
Subject (philosophy)
In philosophy, a subject is a being that has subjective experiences, subjective consciousness or a relationship with another entity . A subject is an observer and an object is a thing observed...

. The person is conscious of themselves 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/herself as the subject of the hail, and knows to respond. Althusser calls this recognition a "mis-recognition" (méconnaissance) because it is working retroactively: a material individual is always-already an ideological subject, even before he is born. The "transformation" of an individual into a subject has always-already happened; Althusser acknowledges here a debt to Spinoza's theory of immanence
Immanence
Immanence refers to philosophical and metaphysical theories of divine presence, in which the divine is seen to be manifested in or encompassing of the material world. It is often contrasted with theories of transcendence, in which the divine is seen to be outside the material world...

. To highlight this, Althusser offers the example of Christian
Christian
A Christian is a person who adheres to Christianity, an Abrahamic, monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as recorded in the Canonical gospels and the letters of the New Testament...

 religious ideology, embodied in the Voice of God
God
God is the English name given to a singular being in theistic and deistic religions who is either the sole deity in monotheism, or a single deity in polytheism....

, instructing a person on what his place in the world is and what he must do to be reconciled with Christ
Christ
Christ is the English term for the Greek meaning "the anointed one". It is a translation of the Hebrew , usually transliterated into English as Messiah or Mashiach...

. From this, Althusser draws the point that in order for that person to identify himself as a Christian
Christian
A Christian is a person who adheres to Christianity, an Abrahamic, monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as recorded in the Canonical gospels and the letters of the New Testament...

, he must first already be a subject; that is to say, by responding to God's call, by following His rules, he is affirming himself as a free agent, the author of the acts for which he assumes responsibility. We can’t 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.

Further to the above, Althusser advances two theses on ideology: I, "Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence"; II, "Ideology has a material existence". The first thesis tenders the familiar Marxist contention that ideologies have the function of masking the exploitative arrangements on which class societies are based.

The second thesis posits that ideology does not exist in the form of "ideas" or conscious "representations" in the "minds" of individuals. Rather, ideology consists of the actions and behaviours of bodies governed by their disposition within material apparatuses. Central to the view of individuals as responsible subjects is the notion of an explanatory link between belief and action, that
For Althusser, this is yet another effect of social practice:
These material rituals may be compared with Bourdieu's concept of habitus. ISAs may also anticipate Foucault
Michel Foucault
Michel Foucault , born Paul-Michel Foucault , was a French philosopher, social theorist and historian of ideas...

's disciplinary institutions
Disciplinary institutions
Disciplinary institutions is a concept proposed by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish . School, prison, barracks or the hospital are examples of historical disciplinary institutions, all created in their modern form in the 19th century with the Industrial Revolution...

 which provide a critical rethinking of Althusser.

Althusser also recognized the role played by what he termed "Repressive State Apparatus". According to Althusser, the basic function of the Repressive State Apparatus (Heads of State, government, police, courts, army etc.) is to intervene and act in favour of the ruling class by repressing the ruled class through violent and coercive means. The Repressive state apparatus (RSA) is controlled by the ruling class, because more often than not, the ruling class possesses State power. He accentuates the differences between the RSA and the ISAs as follows:
1. The RSA functions as a unified entity (an organized whole) as opposed to the ISA which is diverse and plural. However, what unites the disparate ISAs is the fact that they are ultimately controlled by the ruling ideology.

2. The RSA functions predominantly by means of repression and violence and secondarily by ideology whereas the ISA functions predominantly by ideology and secondarily by repression and violence. The ISAs function in a concealed and a symbolic manner.


At times when individuals and groups pose a threat to the dominant order the state invokes Repressive State Apparatus. The most benign measures taken by the RSA are the systems of law and courts where putatively public contractual language is invoked in order to govern individual and collective behavior. As threats to the dominant order mount, the state turns to increasingly physical and severe measures: incarceration, police force and ultimately military intervention are used in response.

Perry Anderson in his essay "Considerations on Western Marxism" writes that

Reception and influence


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
Joseph Stalin
Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin was the Premier of the Soviet Union from 6 May 1941 to 5 March 1953. He was among the Bolshevik revolutionaries who brought about the October Revolution and had held the position of first General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union's Central Committee...

 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
Economist
An economist is a professional in the social science discipline of economics. The individual may also study, develop, and apply theories and concepts from economics and write about economic policy...

 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
Marxist philosophy
Marxist philosophy or Marxist theory are terms that cover work in philosophy that is strongly influenced by Karl Marx's materialist approach to theory or that is written by Marxists...

 and post-structuralism
Post-structuralism
Post-structuralism is a label formulated by American academics to denote the heterogeneous works of a series of French intellectuals who came to international prominence in the 1960s and '70s...

: Interpellation has been popularised and adapted by the feminist philosopher and critic Judith Butler
Judith Butler
Judith Butler is an American post-structuralist philosopher, who has contributed to the fields of feminism, queer theory, political philosophy, and ethics. She is a professor in the Rhetoric and Comparative Literature departments at the University of California, Berkeley.Butler received her Ph.D...

; the concept of Ideological State Apparatuses has been of interest to Slovenia
Slovenia
Slovenia , officially the Republic of Slovenia , is a country in Central and Southeastern Europe touching the Alps and bordering the Mediterranean. Slovenia borders Italy to the west, Croatia to the south and east, Hungary to the northeast, and Austria to the north, and also has a small portion of...

n philosopher Slavoj Žižek
Slavoj Žižek
Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher, critical theorist working in the traditions of Hegelianism, Marxism and Lacanian psychoanalysis. He has made contributions to political theory, film theory, and theoretical psychoanalysis....

; the attempt to view history as a process without a subject
Subject (philosophy)
In philosophy, a subject is a being that has subjective experiences, subjective consciousness or a relationship with another entity . A subject is an observer and an object is a thing observed...

 garnered sympathy from Jacques Derrida
Jacques Derrida
Jacques Derrida was a French philosopher, born in French Algeria. He developed the critical theory known as deconstruction and his work has been labeled as post-structuralism and associated with postmodern philosophy...

; historical materialism
Historical materialism
Historical materialism is a methodological approach to the study of society, economics, and history, first articulated by Karl Marx as "the materialist conception of history". Historical materialism looks for the causes of developments and changes in human society in the means by which humans...

 was defended as a coherent doctrine from the standpoint of analytic philosophy
Analytic philosophy
Analytic philosophy is a generic term for a style of philosophy that came to dominate English-speaking countries in the 20th century...

 by G. A. Cohen; the interest in structure and agency
Structure and agency
The question over the primacy of either structure or agency in human behavior is a central debate in the social sciences. In this context, "agency" refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. "Structure", by contrast, refers to the recurrent...

 sparked by Althusser was to play a role in Anthony Giddens
Anthony Giddens
Anthony Giddens, Baron Giddens is a British sociologist who is known for his theory of structuration and his holistic view of modern societies. He is considered to be one of the most prominent modern contributors in the field of sociology, the author of at least 34 books, published in at least 29...

's theory of structuration; Althusser was vehemently attacked by British historian
Historian
A historian is a person who studies and writes about the past and is regarded as an authority on it. Historians are concerned with the continuous, methodical narrative and research of past events as relating to the human race; as well as the study of all history in time. If the individual is...

 E. P. Thompson
E. P. Thompson
Edward Palmer Thompson was a British historian, writer, socialist and peace campaigner. He is probably best known today for his historical work on the British radical movements in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, in particular The Making of the English Working Class...

 in his book The Poverty of Theory.

Althusser's influence is also seen in the work of economists Richard D. Wolff
Richard D. Wolff
Richard D. Wolff is an American economist, well-known for his work on Marxian economics, economic methodology, and class analysis.- Early and personal life :...

 and Stephen Resnick
Stephen Resnick
Stephen A. Resnick is a North American heterodox economist. He is well-known for his work on Marxian economics, economic methodology, and class analysis.- Biography :...

, who have interpreted that Marx's mature works hold a conception of class different from the ones normally understood. For them, in Marx class does not refer 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
Socialist Register
Socialist Register is an annual journal. It was founded in 1964 by Ralph Miliband and John Saville. They had criticisms of the New Left Review after Perry Anderson assumed leadership of the NLR. Miliband and Saville sought to bring about a journal in the orientation of The New Reasoner....

, Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski
Leszek Kolakowski
Leszek Kołakowski was a Polish philosopher and historian of ideas. He is best known for his critical analyses of Marxist thought, especially his acclaimed three-volume history, Main Currents of Marxism, which is "considered by some to be one of the most important books on political theory of the...

 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.


Kolakowski further argued that, despite Althusser's claims of scientific rigor, structural Marxism was unfalsifiable and thus unscientific, and was best understood as a quasi-religious ideology
Ideology
An ideology is a set of ideas that constitutes one's goals, expectations, and actions. An ideology can be thought of as a comprehensive vision, as a way of looking at things , as in common sense and several philosophical tendencies , or a set of ideas proposed by the dominant class of a society to...

. In 1980, sociologist Axel van der Berg described Kolakowski's critique as "devastating," proving that "Althusser retains the orthodox radical rhetoric by simply severing all connections with verifiable facts."

Legacy


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 Etienne 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
Michael Sprinker
Michael Sprinker was a literary critic known for his writings on Louis Althusser, Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht, among others, as well as for his editorial work at Verso, Cambridge University Press, the New Left Review and The Minnesota Review...

. 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 Jacques Derrida.

Eventually, a colloquium
Colloquium
Colloquium can refer to:* the Parliament of Scotland, called a "colloquium" in Latin records.* any musical piece celebrating birth or distribution of good news, a hymn...

 was organized in France at the University de Paris 8 by Sylvain Lazarus
Sylvain Lazarus
Sylvain Lazarus is a French sociologist, anthropologist and political theorist. He has also written under the pseudonym Paul Sandevince. Lazarus is a Professor at the Paris 8 University.-Life and work:...

 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 contibutors of the 1960s journal Cahiers pour l'Analyse
Cahiers pour l'Analyse
Cahiers pour l'Analyse was a journal published by a group of young philosophy graduates at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris in the 1960s. Ten issues of the journal appeared between 1966 and 1969...

: 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
Alain Badiou
Alain Badiou is a French philosopher, professor at European Graduate School, formerly chair of Philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure . Along with Giorgio Agamben and Slavoj Žižek, Badiou is a prominent figure in an anti-postmodern strand of continental philosophy...

, Étienne Balibar
Étienne Balibar
Étienne Balibar is a French Marxist philosopher. After the death of his teacher Louis Althusser, Balibar quickly became the leading exponent of French Marxist philosophy.- Life and work :...

 and Jacques Ranciere
Jacques Rancière
Jacques Rancière is a French philosopher, Professor of Philosophy at European Graduate School in Saas-Fee and Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Paris Jacques Rancière (born Algiers, 1940) is a French philosopher, Professor of Philosophy at European Graduate School in Saas-Fee...

 in philosophy
Philosophy
Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Philosophy is distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational...

, Pierre Macherey
Pierre Macherey
Pierre Macherey is a French Marxist literary critic at Université Lille Nord de France. A former student of Louis Althusser and collaborator on the influential volume Reading "Capital", Macherey is a central figure in the development of French post-structuralism and Marxism...

 in literary criticism
Literary criticism
Literary criticism is the study, evaluation, and interpretation of literature. Modern literary criticism is often informed by literary theory, which is the philosophical discussion of its methods and goals...

 and Nicos Poulantzas
Nicos Poulantzas
Nicos Poulantzas was a Greek Marxist political sociologist. In the 1970s, Poulantzas was known, along with Louis Althusser, as a leading Structural Marxist and, while at first a Leninist, eventually became a proponent of eurocommunism. He is most well known for his theoretical work on the state...

 in sociology
Sociology
Sociology is the study of society. It is a social science—a term with which it is sometimes synonymous—which uses various methods of empirical investigation and critical analysis to develop a body of knowledge about human social activity...

. The prominent Guevarist Régis Debray
Régis Debray
Jules Régis Debray is a French intellectual, journalist, government official and professor. He is known for his theorization of mediology, a critical theory of the long-term transmission of cultural meaning in human society; and for having fought in 1967 with Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara in...

 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
Michel Foucault
Michel Foucault , born Paul-Michel Foucault , was a French philosopher, social theorist and historian of ideas...

, and the pre-eminent Lacanian psychoanalyst Jacques-Alain Miller
Jacques-Alain Miller
Jacques-Alain Miller is a French academic. He is a Lacanian psychoanalyst.-Life and career:As a student at the École Normale Supérieure, he met his future father-in-law Jacques Lacan in 1964 while attending his seminars at the rue d'Ulm...

.

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
Warren Montag
Warren Montag is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California. He is known primarily for his work on twentieth century French theory, especially Althusser and his circle, as well as his studies of the philosopher Spinoza.-Overview:Montag's...

 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.)

As late as 2011 Althusser continued to spark controversy and debate with the publication in August of that year of Jacques Ranciere'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.

Selected bibliography


Original works in English translation
  • Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. (Online version)
  • For Marx. (Online version)
  • Reading Capital
    Reading Capital
    Reading Capital is a 1965 work of Marxist philosophy and theory. The book collects essays developed by Louis Althusser and his students in a seminar on Karl Marx's Das Kapital which took place earlier in 1965...

     (with Étienne Balibar
    Étienne Balibar
    Étienne Balibar is a French Marxist philosopher. After the death of his teacher Louis Althusser, Balibar quickly became the leading exponent of French Marxist philosophy.- Life and work :...

    , Pierre Macherey
    Pierre Macherey
    Pierre Macherey is a French Marxist literary critic at Université Lille Nord de France. A former student of Louis Althusser and collaborator on the influential volume Reading "Capital", Macherey is a central figure in the development of French post-structuralism and Marxism...

    , etc.). (Online version)
  • The Spectre of Hegel: Early Writings. ed. François Matheron; trans. G. M. Goshgarian. London: Verso, 1997.
  • Essays in Self-Criticism. (Online version)
  • Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists. (Online version)
  • Machiavelli and Us.
  • Politics and History. (Online version)
  • The Humanist Controversy and Other Texts.
  • Writings on Psychoanalysis.
  • The Future Lasts Forever: A Memoir (Extract in Critical Inquiry
    Critical Inquiry
    Critical Inquiry is a peer-reviewed academic journal in the humanities published by the University of Chicago Press. It is considered a leading journal within literary studies, and particularly in the field of critical theory....

    )
  • Philosophy of the Encounter: Later Writings, 1978-1987, trans. and ed. G.M. Goshgarian, Verso, 2006.


Selected articles in translation
  • “Our Jean-Jacques Rousseau”. TELOS
    TELOS (journal)
    Telos is an academic journal published in the United States. It was founded in May 1968 to provide the New Left with a coherent theoretical perspective. It sought to expand the Husserlian diagnosis of "the crisis of European sciences" to prefigure a particular program of social reconstruction...

     44 (Summer 1980). New York: Telos Press

Further reading

  • Althusser: A Critical Reader (ed. Gregory Elliott).
  • Anderson, Perry
    Perry Anderson
    Perry Anderson is a British Leftist intellectual, historian, and political essayist. He is often identified with the post-1956 Western Marxism of the New Left in Europe. He is Professor of History and Sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles and an editor of the New Left Review. He...

    , Considerations on Western Marxism
  • Callinicos, Alex
    Alex Callinicos
    Alexander Theodore Callinicos is a Trotskyist political theorist, a member of the Central Committee of the Socialist Workers Party and its International Secretary, and is Director of the Centre for European Studies at King's College London...

    , Althusser's Marxism (London: Pluto Press, 1976).
  • Elliott, Gregory, Althusser: The Detour of Theory by (New York: Verso, 1987); (republished by Haymarket Books, 2009)
  • Ferretter, Luke, "Louis Althusser" (London and New York: Routledge, 2006)
  • James, Susan, 'Louis Althusser' in Skinner, Q. (ed.) The Return of Grand Theory in the Human Sciences
  • Judt, Tony
    Tony Judt
    Tony Robert Judt FBA was a British historian, essayist, and university professor who specialized in European history. Judt moved to New York and served as the Erich Maria Remarque Professor in European Studies at New York University, and Director of NYU's Erich Maria Remarque Institute...

    , "The Paris Strangler," in The New Republic
    The New Republic
    The magazine has also published two articles concerning income inequality, largely criticizing conservative economists for their attempts to deny the existence or negative effect increasing income inequality is having on the United States...

    , Vol. 210, No. 10, March 7, 1994, pp. 33–7.
  • Waters, Malcolm, Modern Sociological Theory, 1994, page 116.
  • Lewis, William, Louis Althusser and the Traditions of French Marxism
    Louis Althusser and the Traditions of French Marxism
    Louis Althusser and the Traditions of French Marxism is a 2005 book by William S. Lewis. Lewis examines the "Structural Marxism" of Louis Althusser, which was popular in the 1960s and 1970s. His approach places Althusser's thought within the context of the history of the French Communist Party and...

    . Lexington books, 2005. (link)
  • McInerney, David (ed.), Althusser & Us, special issue of borderlands e-journal, October 2005. (link)
  • Warren Montag
    Warren Montag
    Warren Montag is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California. He is known primarily for his work on twentieth century French theory, especially Althusser and his circle, as well as his studies of the philosopher Spinoza.-Overview:Montag's...

    , Louis Althusser, Palgrave-Macmillan, 2003.
  • Resch, Robert Paul. Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1992. (link)
  • Elisabeth Roudinesco
    Elisabeth Roudinesco
    Élisabeth Roudinesco is a French academic historian and psychoanalyst. She is an independent guest researcher at University of Paris VII – Denis Diderot...

    , Philosophy in Turbulent Times: Canguilhem, Sartre, Foucault
    Michel Foucault
    Michel Foucault , born Paul-Michel Foucault , was a French philosopher, social theorist and historian of ideas...

    , Althusser, Deleuze, Derrida, Columbia University Press, New York, 2008.
  • Heartfield, James, The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained, Sheffield Hallam UP, 2002
  • Lahtinen, Mikko, "Politics and Philosophy: Niccolò Machiavelli and Louis Althusser's Aleatory Materialism", Brill, 2009 (forthcoming in paperback via Haymarket, 2011).
  • Thomas, Peter D., "The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism", Brill, 2009 (forthcoming in paperback via Haymarket, 2011).

External links


Endnotes