Althusser’s Hegel

French Marxist Louis Althusser (1918-90) was the academic director of France’s most prestigious university during the 1960s. He open-mindedly helped promote the work of Michel Foucault and Jacques Lacan, and maintained personal friendships with other important figures such as Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze. Althusser left provocative, underdeveloped sketches of a historiography opposed to all forms of historical teleology or predetermination (see also Structural Causality, Choice). In 1960s Paris, this new historiography was considered inseparable from a strong polemic against any and all forms of Hegelianism or Hegelian influence in contemporary social thought. (See also Archaeology of Knowledge).

There indeed have been a lot of bad Hegelianisms to which this criticism legitimately applies. But much careful work in recent decades has by now, I think, established that it need not apply to Hegel himself. In fact, Hegel even appears as a major precursor of the putatively anti-Hegelian historiography.

Before his famous anti-Hegelian period, Althusser interpreted Hegelian Spirit as “process without a subject”. Process without a subject already anticipated the characteristics he later called “aleatory”. In the late period, he emphasized that history is about understanding results, not origins.

In an extremely different context and style, Brandom has developed a reading of Hegel as practicing backward-looking recollective reconstruction of the present rather than asserting forward-moving teleology or predetermination in history.

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