Louis Althusser  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Louis Pierre Althusser (October 16, 1918October 22, 1990) was a French Marxist philosopher, best-known for developing structural Marxism and for strangling his wife.

He was born in Algeria and studied at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris, where he eventually became Professor of Philosophy. He was a lifelong member and sometimes strong critic of the French Communist Party. 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 on Marxist theory, and humanist and democratic socialist orientations which manifested as divisions in the European Communist Parties, as well as the problem of the 'cult of personality' and of ideology itself. Althusser is commonly referred to as a Structural Marxist, although his relationship to other schools of French structuralism is not a simple affiliation and he is critical of many aspects of structuralism.

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 Stalinist 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. 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 to render it invulnerable to any criticism of the empirical sort.

Althusser has had broad influence in the areas of Marxist philosophy and post-structuralism: Interpellation has been popularised and adapted by the feminist philosopher and critic Judith Butler; the concept of Ideological State Apparatuses has been of interest to Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek; the attempt to view history as a process without a subject garnered sympathy from Jacques Derrida; historical materialism was defended as a coherent doctrine from the standpoint of analytic philosophy by G. A. Cohen; the interest in structure and agency sparked by Althusser was to play a role in Anthony Giddens's theory of structuration; Althusser was vehemently attacked by British historian E. P. Thompson in his book The Poverty of Theory. As well as this, several of Althusser's students became eminent intellectuals in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s: Alain Badiou, Étienne Balibar and Jacques Ranciere in philosophy, Pierre Macherey in literary criticism and Nicos Poulantzas in sociology. The prominent Guevarist Régis Debray also studied under Althusser, as did the aforementioned Derrida, noted philosopher Michel Foucault, and the pre-eminent Lacanian psychoanalyst Jacques-Alain Miller.



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