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Louis Althusser

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Louis Althusser (October 19, 1918 - October 23, 1990) was a Marxist philosopher. He was born in Algeria and studied at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, where eventually he became Professor of Philosophy. He was a leading academic proponent of the French Communist Party and his arguments were a response to multiple threats to the ideological foundations of that socialist project. These included both the threat from an empiricism which was beginning to invade Marxist sociology and economics, and a threat from humanistic and democratic socialist orientations which were beginning to corrode the purity of the European Communist Parties. Althusser is commonly referred to as a structuralist Marxist, although his relationship to other schools of French structuralism is not a simple affiliation.

Table of contents
1 Works
2 Biographical information
3 See also
4 References
5 External Links


Althusser is most widely known as a theorist of ideology, and his best-known essay is Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Some notes toward an investigation (available in several English volumes including Lenin and Ideology). The essay establishes the concept of ideology, which is related to Antonio Gramsci's concept of hegemony. Whereas hegemony is ultimately determined entirely by political forces, ideology draws on the Lacan's idea of the Other, and describes the structures and systems that allow us to meaningfully have a concept of the self. These structures, for Althusser, are both agents of repression and inevitable - it is impossible to escape ideology.

The most memorable section of this essay comes when he discusses the concept of hailing, and of interpollation. He uses the example of a police officer walking down the street and, seeing someone suspicious, shouting, "Hey, you!" This is hailing. Althusser discusses the process by which the person being hailed recognizes themselves as the subject of the hail, and knows to respond. This recognition stems from the interpollation of the external ideology into consciousness. That is to say, our concept of who we are is ordered by ideology, and we are able to identify ourselves as the object of the policeman's words.

But Althusser's influence on Marxist philosophy and also post-structuralism is much broader than this single essay's contribution.

His earlier works include the influential volume Reading Capital, which collects the work of Althusser and his students on an intensive philosophical re-reading of 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 Ranciere and Pierre Macherey, among others. The project was approximately analogous, within Marxism, to the contemporary psychoanalytic return to Freud undertaken by Jacques Lacan, with which Althusser was also involved. (Althusser's personal and professional relationship with Lacan was complex; the two were at times great friends and correspondents, at times enemies.)

Several of Althusser's theoretical positions have remained very influential in Marxist philosophy, though he sometimes overstated his arguments deliberately in order to provoke controversy. Althusser's essay On the Young Marx proposes that there is a great "epistemological break" between Marx's early, Hegelian writings and his later, properly Marxist texts. 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 hegemony).

Several of Althusser's students became eminent intellectuals in the 1980s and 1990s: Étienne Balibar in philosophy, Jacques Ranciere in history and the philosophy of history, and Pierre Macherey in literary criticism.

Biographical information

On November 16, 1980, Althusser murdered his wife, and confessed openly. Diagnosed as suffering from diminished responsibility, he was not tried for the offence but instead committed to the Sainte-Anne psychiatric hospital. The murder was chronicled by Althusser himself in his memoirs, including the autobiographical L'Avenir dure longtemps, which is available in an English volume titled The Future Lasts Forever.

See also

Ferdinand de Saussure
Claude Levi-Strauss
Roland Barthes
Slavoj Zizek
Baruch de Spinoza
Nicolo Machiavelli


External Links

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This article is part of The Contemporary Philosophers series
Analytic philosophers:
Paul Churchland | Daniel Dennett | Saul Kripke | Ruth Barcan Marcus | Thomas Nagel | Alvin Plantinga | Hilary Putnam | W. V. Quine | John Rawls | John Searle
Continental philosophers:
Jean Baudrillard | Jacques Derrida