Louis Althusser: biography of this structuralist philosopher

The work of many thinkers and philosophers has contributed over the years to the development of knowledge and theoretical bodies that explain how the world and the society in which we live operate, as is the case with Marxism, a philosophical doctrine, an influence political and economic lasts to this day.

One of the figures who contributed to the analysis of Marxist doctrine was the structuralist philosopher Louis Althusser., Which we will talk about throughout the article, by dissecting his biography and his most outstanding works.

Who was Louis Althusser?

Louis Althusser (1918-1990), born in Algeria, he was a renowned Marxist philosopher and a prominent academic supporter of the French Communist Party. Althusser is generally known as a structural Marxist, although he and Michel Foucault refused to be classified as authors of this philosophical current.

He studied in Paris, at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure, where he eventually became a professor of philosophy. These arguments were a response to multiple threats to its ideological foundations, including the influence of empiricism and a growing interest in democratic socialist and humanist orientations.

Althusser believed that Karl Marx’s theories had been misinterpreted because they had been viewed as a single theoretical body of work, when in fact Marx had experienced an “epistemological break” that separated his later works from his earlier humanism. Althusser said that Marx developed an innovative historical theory which saw the individual as a product of society, culture and ideology.

Further, Althusser asserted that Marx analyzed society in terms of social and political units called “practices” rather than in terms of individuals. His ideas went on to influence several 21st century thinkers, including Jacques Derrida, GA Cohen, Anthony Giddens, Judith Butler and Slavoj Žižek, and several of his students went on to become prominent intellectuals.

Thought and works

Althusser’s early works include the influential volume “To Read Capital,” a collection of the work of Althusser and his students on an intense philosophical re-reading of Karl Marx’s “Capital”. The book reflects on the philosophical state of Marxist theory as a “critique of political economy” and on its subject.

The project was somewhat analogous, in Marxism, to the return of contemporary psychoanalysis to Freud undertaken by Jacques Lacan, with whom Althusser was also involved (and with whom he shared both moments of friendship and enmity). Several of Althusser’s theoretical positions have remained very influential in Marxist philosophy, although he sometimes deliberately exaggerated his arguments to provoke controversy.

In his essay “On the Young Marx”, he takes a term from the French philosopher of science Gaston Bachelard, proposing a great “epistemological break” between the first writings of Marx, with a more “Hegelian” style (of a philosophical system founded by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel) and “feuerbachiano” (in reference to Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach, intellectual father of atheistic humanism) and his later texts, properly Marxist.

On the other hand, in another of his essays, “Marxism and Humanism”, Althusser shows a strong statement of antihumanism applied to Marxist theory, condemning ideas such as “human potential” and “being-species”, which the Marxists often propose as a consequence of a bourgeois ideology of humanity.

In the chapter “Contradiction and overdetermination” of his work “The Theoretical Revolution of Marx”, he borrows the concept of overdetermination (the idea that a single observed effect is determined by several causes at the same time) from psychoanalysis, to replace the idea of ​​”contradiction” by a more complex model of multiple causality in political situations.

The latter idea is closely related to the concept of hegemony of Antonio Gramsci, who defines it as the socio-political power that arises from allowing the “spontaneous consent” of the population through leadership or intellectual authority. State.

Althusser is also widely known as an ideological theorist, A concept based on Gramsci’s theory of hegemony and exposed in his essay “Ideology and Ideological Apparatus of the State: Notes to an Inquiry”.

For Althusser, hegemony is entirely determined by political forces, while ideology is based on Freud and Lacan’s concepts of the unconscious and the mirror stage (the stage where the child is for the first time the ability to perceive oneself).

The “epistemological break”

As we discussed at the beginning, Althusser considered Marx’s thought to be fundamentally misunderstood and underestimated. He strongly condemned various interpretations of Marx’s works with the argument that they had not realized that with the “science of history”, historical materialism, Marx had constructed a revolutionary vision of social change.

Althusser believed that these misinterpretations resulted from the misconception that all of Marx’s work could be understood as a cohesive whole. Instead, Althusser argued that Marx’s work contained a radical “epistemological break”. Althusser’s project was to help the world fully understand the originality and power of Marx’s extraordinary theory., Paying as much attention to what is not said as to what is explicit.

However, Althusser argued that Marx had discovered a “continent of knowledge”. He compared Marx’s ideas on history to the contributions of Tales to mathematics, Galileo to physics, or Freud to psychoanalysis, arguing that the structure of his theory was different from any proposition of his predecessors.

Althusser also believed that Marx’s theory was based on concepts, such as forces and relations of production, which had no equivalent in classical political economy. In addition to its unique structure, Marx’s historical materialism had an explanatory power different from that of classical political economy. While political economy explained economic systems as a response to individual needs, Marx’s analysis took into account a wider range of social phenomena and their roles in a structured whole.

Althusser concluded that “capital” offered both a model of the economy and a description of the structure and development of an entire society. He also saw the epistemological break as a process rather than a clearly defined event.

He described Marxism and psychoanalysis as sciences which have always had to fight against ideology, thus explaining the subsequent ruptures and divisions, because their two objects of analysis, the “class struggle” and the unconscious human mind, were divided and separated from each other.

Bibliographical references:

  • Althusser, Louis (1988). Navarro, Fernanda (ed.). Philosophy and Marxism (in Spanish). 21st century.

  • Elliott, Gregory (2006). Althusser: The deviation from theory. Leiden, Boston: Brill Publishers.

  • Jay, Martin (1984). “Structuralist reading of Louis Althusser and Marx”. Marxism and totality: the adventures of a concept from Lukács to Habermas. Berkley, Los Angeles: University of California Press. pages 385 to 422.

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