Althusser, Louis

Althusser, Louis
One of the most original and influential of twentieth-century Marxist social philosophers, Louis Althusser provoked a spectacular, but deeply controversial renewal of Marxist scholarship across a whole range of humanities and social science disciplines. His most important work, and the height of his influence, spanned the decades of the 1960s and 1970s. Viewed in political terms, his project was to provide an analysis and critique of the Stalinist distortion of Marxism. But Althusser differed sharply from many contemporary Marxist critics of Stalinism in refusing to employ the rhetoric (as he saw it) of merely humanist moral condemnation. Instead, a ‘rigorously scientific’ analysis of the causes and consequences of Stalinism was seen to be a necessity, if political opposition to it was to be effective.
The quest for a scientific approach to the understanding of history took Althusser in two directions: first, to a rereading of the classic texts of the Marxian tradition; and, second, to a philosophical consideration of the nature of science, and how to distinguish it from other forms of knowledge or discourse ( ideology ). Althusser's view of science was an ambitious attempt to recognize science as a social practice in which knowledge is produced, and so as a part of the history of those societies within which it is conducted. At the same time, Althusser retained from the materialist tradition of Marxism the insistence that the real world exists prior to, and independently of, our historically and socially produced knowledge of it. Ideology also alludes to this independently existing reality, but does so, according to Althusser, in a way quite different from science. In ideology, individual ‘subjects’ are provided with a way of recognizing themselves and their relation to the society in which they are situated. This mode of recognition-or misrecognition-serves primarily to orient practical conduct. In the case of the dominant ideology , it does so in ways which tend to reproduce and preserve the prevailing system of social domination.
Althusser's view of science was put to work in his rereading of the classic Marxian texts. The most famously controversial outcome of this process was the proclaimed ‘epistemological break’ between the earlier (pre-1845) and mature writings of Marx. The philosophical humanism of the early Marx, according to which history was to be understood as a process of progressive human self-realization, was rejected as a pre-scientific ‘theoretical ideology’. Only after Marx's ‘settling of accounts’ with his earlier philosophical position did the beginnings of a new and scientific approach to the understanding of human history emerge in his writings. This new approach- historical materialism -did not arise fully formed, and Althusser and his associates employed a method of ‘symptomatic reading’ to recover the basic structure of concepts (‘problematic’) definitive of Marx's science of history. During the 1960s Althusser and his close colleagues produced a series of texts (For Marx, Reading Capital, and Lenin and Philosophy were probably the most influential) in which rigorous definitions and applications of these concepts were attempted. In part, this was a matter of reworking already well-established Marxian concepts: the ideas of forces and relations of production, the typology of modes of production, the concepts of ideology, the state, and social formation (all of which are treated separately in this dictionary).
But, amidst this reworking of established concepts, Althusser was addressing long-standing lacunae and failings in Marxist theory. First, there is the question of economic determinism (or ‘economism’). Drawing on indications in texts by Marx and Engels themselves, together with currently influential structuralist ideas, Althusser advanced a view of social wholes as ‘decentered structures in dominance’. Societies are ordered combinations of economic, ideological, and political practices, none of which is reducible to any of the others, and each of which has its own specific weight in the shaping of the whole (‘structural causality’).
The view of history as a linear sequence of epochs or stages (the succession of modes of production) through which humankind passes en route to communist self-realization had become identified with Marxist orthodoxy. Althusser rejected this as a historicist ideology, and claimed to uncover an anti-historicist view of history as a ‘process without a subject’ in Marx's later writings. For Althusser, the major historical transitions are always contingent, always exceptional outcomes of the over-determination or ‘condensation’ of a multiplicity of contradictions affecting a social order. Accordingly, the quasi-religious certainty that ‘history is on our side’ should have no place in a Marxist understanding of history.
But Althusser's most controversial position was his stand against ‘theoretical humanism’: his view of the relation between subjects and society. Not only is the view of history as a process of human self-realization to be rejected, but so also is any notion of autonomous individual agency, as the source or basis of social life. Individuals are ‘bearers’ of social relations, their sense of self an outcome of the social process of ‘interpellation’ (or ‘hailing’), which is itself the modus operandi of the dominant ideology. Althusser's apparent denial of individual autonomy outraged humanist Marxists and non-Marxist social theorists alike; but, paradoxically, still more extreme anti-humanist views than Althusser's own have come to be very influential in post-structuralist cultural theory.
So influential were the ideas of the Althusserians in fields as diverse as literary and film criticism, political sociology, anthropology, feminist social theory, epistemology, cultural studies, and sociology of development that, for a moment, it appeared that a new orthodoxy was in the making. But already Althusser was busily changing the rules. From 1967 onwards came a spate of self-critical writings, many bearing the imprint of the radical student movement of the time. Now Althusser appeared to retract his earlier commitment to a theory of the nature of science, viewing philosophy rather as a practice of mediating between science and politics. Along with this went a deepening of his scepticism concerning the scientific status even of much in the mature writings of Marx himself. This story is told in full in, The Rise and Fall of Structural Marxism (1984).
As his autobiography reveals, Althusser had always been psychologically unstable. A period of deep depression in 1980 resulted in his killing his wife Hélène, and he spent the final decade of his life in obscurity, most of it in a Paris mental hospital.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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  • Althusser, Louis — ▪ French scholar born October 16, 1918, Birmandreis, Algeria died October 22, 1990, near Paris, France       French philosopher who attained international renown in the 1960s for his attempt to fuse Marxism and structuralism.       Inducted into… …   Universalium

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