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Louis Althusser

(1918—1990) French philosopher

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French Marxist philosopher, whose writings were widely influential in continental philosophy until he was declared insane.

Born near Algiers, Althusser studied philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, where he remained for the rest of his working life. A Catholic activist in his youth, he became a communist after World War II. In For Marx (1965) and Reading Capital (1965) Althusser elaborated a ‘theory of theoretical practice’, which was intended to transcend the perceived self-contradictions of an empiricist epistemology. Translating the Marxist concept of ‘means of production’ to the intellectual sphere, Althusser claimed to differentiate between true sciences, which constitute valid forms of knowledge, and pernicious ideologies, which are mere systemizations of error. The criteria evolved in this way could then be used to affirm the scientific validity of Marxist theory and differentiate it from its bourgeois (intrinsically false) competitors. By thus elevating ideological issues above economics, Althusser implicitly flattered the theoreticians by raising the seminar room, library, and cafe-bar to forums of much greater value than the factory floor and the cobble-strewn street.

Left-wing critics subsequently accused Althusser of being little more than Kant with an opaque vocabulary, and by the end of the 1970s disenchanted followers were collaborating to produce volumes of denunciation. Unabashed, Althusser himself joined in with Essays in Self-Criticism (1976), which boldly jettisoned much of his previous thinking to redefine philosophy as a dualistic practical intervention of both theory and politics, making materialist philosophy ‘in the last instance, class struggle in the field of theory’. Those intellectuals who found Althusser unintelligble may have felt a degree of vindication in 1980, when Althusser admitted strangling his wife to death and the charges against him were dismissed by the legal authorities on grounds of his undoubted insanity. Before this, Althusser's unexpected appearance at Lacan's École Freudienne, at which he announced that he had been summoned ‘by the libido and the Holy Ghost’ might have been taken as an early warning of impending disaster. The announcement of Althusser's insanity brought to a close an era of discredited Parisian academic philosophy.

Subjects: Social sciences

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