Agency, science and revolution: An examination of the political thought of Louis Althusser and Jean-Paul Sartre

Lee M Rademacher, Purdue University


This study examines the contrasting perspectives of structuralist and humanist thought to determine their adequacy for political theory. French theorist Louis Althusser argued that various dimensions of the external world, such as the legal, political, economic, social and religious contain practices that shape the human condition ideologically. Taking a Marxist stance, Althusser's theory seeks to find the underbelly of capitalist practices that “interpellate” or “hail” a subject to live in a capitalist system uncritically. From this perspective, subjectivity, for Althusser, is curtailed by capitalist practices. Yet according to Althusser, this is the essence of ideology: to create a system that envelops subjectivity in a misrecognition of the truth. Jean-Paul Sartre, on the other hand, incorporates a humanist approach, not by eliminating structure as some philosophers do, but by including the agent as an active creator of his/her world. Society, for Sartre, is composed of structures or systems, but they are also the products of the existential projects of agents. The debate between structuralism and humanism has created a false dichotomy to the extent that one is forced to accept the premises of one or the other. The overall purpose of this study is to compare both Althusser's and Sartre's works and determine if this dichotomy truly exists: is Althusser a dogmatic structuralist whose theory annihilates intentionality; and does Sartre's theory explore the concept of freedom so radically that it negates the effects of the social structure? In order to accomplish this, I examine several areas important to political theory: how agency or the concept of the self is depicted by both authors; how each develops a theory of epistemology for political society, and the possibility for revolution. This study shows that there is not an absolutely clear distinction between the structuralism of Althusser and the humanism of Sartre. Both theorists include varying degrees of subjectivity, intentionality and structure. ^




Major Professor: Michael A. Weinstein, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Philosophy|Political Science, General|Sociology, Social Structure and Development

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