Ideology and Scientific Practice: Althusser’s Search for the Real Conditions of Existence

By Tristan

Ideology operates, so that everything remains the same. It is the family which loves; the school which conditions; the culture which inspires; it is the glue that holds society together, and ensures that nothing breaks. This essay will explore the way in which Althusser conceptualised ideology, through following primarily the Spinozist (rather than the Marxist) trajectory of his work. This trajectory is useful, because it highlights the implications of Althusser viewing ideology ‘in general’ as a material, omni-historical structure. Ideology in general functions through the systematic process of ‘always-already’ interpellating individuals as ideological subjects, and it is maintained through the act of misrecognition, which causes subjects to not be able to control the instances of ideological determination. These two processes provide a subject with the illusion of free-will, when they are actually acting out the desires of the regional ideological Subject. The two implications of this ideological process, for Althusser, are that the asymmetrical social relations cannot be concretely challenged at the level of the subject; and that it provides the conditions of possibility for both the structures of ideology in general and the relation of production to continue to work and be reproduced by themselves. This essay will not have an argument per se; it will instead aim to highlight the complexity of the ideological structure by drawing attention to two points: first, the necessity for a scientific practice to determine the real essences of the conditions of existence; and secondly, the inherent limitation of this scientific practice in assisting with class struggle and its potential to be revisionist rather than revolutionary.

Althusser’s conception of ideology marked a radical break from previous theorisations on the nature of ideology. This radical break can be clearly identified by examining the different meanings that Marx and Althusser both attributed to the phrase “ideology has no history.”[1] For Marx, ideology had no history in and of itself, because ideology on its own was a “nothingness,” existing only through a “collective construction by concrete individuals.”[2] In contrast, Althusser regards ideology as having no history because it is a “non-historical reality,” meaning that it has its own objective essence, independent of those who constitute a specific historical period.[3] It is in this sense that Althusser re-thought ideology as omni-historical, as it is an essential structure that is immanent to all societies throughout history. What constitutes the ideology of each historical condition is ‘ideology in general’, which is determined by the hegemony of the dominant ideology.[4] Hence it is important for Althusser that ideologies are inseparable from every social formation, meaning that even a fully-transitioned communist society, for example, would still have instances of ideological determination.

Ideology determines every representation that individuals have of the real conditions of their existence by virtue of it being an essential omni-historical structure. This representation is inherently illusory, because ideology is composed of “so many world outlooks [or a set of notions]…which do not correspond to reality.”[5] This means that the set of notions held by an individual are necessarily false ‘representations of knowledge,’ because each ideological representation is determined by the structure of the dominant ideology in general. Hence, these ideological representations of the real, for Althusser, have to be re-conceptualised as functioning through the active principle of the imaginary, because it is only through the imaginary that individuals comprehend their world. It is in light of this that Althusser labels humans as “ideological animals” because as humans have only ever existed within ideology—we need ideology in order to survive, as it is necessary for “social cohesion” to be maintained.[6]

The imaginary relation that individuals have to the real is unconscious and founded on a material existence. Althusser regards the imaginary as being unconscious within an individual, because ideology—which as we know is a representation of the imaginary relation—only exists inside an “apparatus, and its practice, or practices.”[7] The ideas of individuals therefore do not originate within their subjectivity; instead they are articulations of the ideological state apparatuses, which are institutions that govern over many different regions within the “private domain.”[8] It is through physical action in the form of “practice, or practices” that both ideology and the imaginary become materialised, because these ‘practices’ are manifested in the form of daily rituals which create and cement values, beliefs and traditions into the body of the individuals.[9] In this notably Spinozist conception, Althusser is insisting upon an imaginary without a subject, meaning that the imaginary is taking place “outside and prior to the mind of the individual.”[10] This removal of subjectivity with regards to how individuals imaginarily live in relation to their conditions of existence, will be crucial to our later discussion, as the materiality of the imaginary is central to the way in which free-will and agency are denied in ideological subjects.

Ideology is able to be maintained and reproduced through the process of recruiting individuals to be interpellated as subjects. For Althusser, the individual is best thought of as a body, as it is a non-social being which exists solely for theoretical clarity, whereas a subject is a human—an ideological being. Interpellation functions through the individual being recognised by the ‘category of the subject,’ which is the ‘Absolute Subject’ in each different regional ideological apparatus—the Parent for the family ISA, the teacher for the education ISA, the God for the Religious ISA, and so on.[11] The “existence of ideology and the interpellation of individuals as subjects are one and the same thing” because interpellation is the necessary mechanism of ideology.[12] It is in this sense that an individual is a strictly theoretical term, because whenever there is the functioning of an ideological apparatus (note: there always is), an individual will ‘always-already’ be interpellated as a subject, meaning that the condition of being subject is an inherent part of life itself. To be a subject, therefore, is to recognise one’s own subjection towards the Subject, which implies a recognition of the desires of the Subject that are communicated through the material ideological apparatuses.[13] Hence, once a subject recognises their own subjection towards the Absolute regional-ideological Subject, they thereby recognise and simultaneously accept the fixed position to which they have been subjected, making them ready to practice the rituals that are expected by the ideological state apparatus.

Subjects who are subjected to the determinations of the Subject misrecognise their own condition of subjection, and believe that they are consciously acting on the basis of free will. Despite the lack of freedom within the subjection process, freedom remains an essential aspect to the processing of the interpellation mechanism. Ideology—whilst still determining a subject’s life—provides them with the ‘gift of freedom,’ bestowing onto them the value and responsibility of being a politico-legal abiding subject.[14] Freedom is an essential element, because providing the ‘gift of freedom’ ensures that both “subjects and the ideological structure continue to work by themselves.”[15] For example, a subject is free to act within the market, free within the constraints of the law, and free to respect the values of the family. However, this freedom at the level of the subject is an illusion. The only freedom that it actually ensures is that of the dominant relations of production. Hence, a subject inadvertently denies themself freedom by freely acting with the desires of the subject.[16] It is this process of ‘free’ self-submission towards ideology that Althusser labels as the act of misrecognition. Althusser’s conception of misrecognition is best thought of using Spinoza’s notion of free will. Herein, subjects “believe that they are free” simply because within their imaginary relation they are aware of their “volitions and desires”; however, they are unaware of the material ideological structures that have “determined them to desire.”[17] Therefore, for Althusser, in order for the relations of production to be reproduced, ideology has to ensure that the humanist illusion is kept alive, so that subjects continue to believe that the state of things is the product of their own autonomous desires.

For Althusser, ideology functions primarily on the principle of repetition because this is the structure par excellence for ensuring the reproduction of the relations of production. One reason that it is so effective in ensuring repetition is that it naturalises the conditions of exploitation and domination. In doing so, ideology portrays the conditions of existence as if they are “true and cannot be otherwise.”[18] Ideology therefore plays a vital role in nullifying the class struggle, because it allows for one class to rule over the other, whilst minimising the occurrence of revolts among subjects. The strength of ideology with regards to the process of naturalisation is that, due to it being both structural and unconscious, it cannot be instrumentalised by one class over another. Although this may appear as a weakness, it allows for not only the dominated and exploited to accept their marginalised class position, but also for the oppressors in the ruling class to believe that their rule is justified, as if it was a mark of their “divine right or moral duty.”[19] The other reason is that, as aforementioned, because interpellated subjects are sentenced to live their existence through an imaginary relation to the real, there is no way at the level of the subject to gain true knowledge of the totality of the complex structural determinations which materially regulate their actions, beliefs and desires. The goal for the ideological state apparatuses is therefore to ensure that nothing happens to make history a process of continuity rather than of breaks; and to keep people uttering the “admirable words of the [Subject’s] prayer—So be it.”[20]

For Althusser, the only possible way to gain true knowledge of the complex totality of ideological determinations is through a scientific practice. Althusser claims that it has to be necessarily through a scientific practice because only science can undo a subject’s interpellation into the ideological, as it is the only practice which can possibly exist without subjective experience.[21] Science is a subjectless and non-experiential practice, because it allows those who write its discourse to leave the imaginary where they had been confined to live, thereby providing the conditions for pursuing a true knowledge outside of the ideological apparatuses.[22] Unique to science is that it does not require an external theoretical ‘bedrock’ to practice, which means that there is no possibility for the ‘ideological unconscious’ to be present in its theoretical operations.[23] Science achieves this because it is strictly a practice of abstracting a “rigorous system of basic scientific concepts.”[24] Abstraction is key here, as it is a deductive process which “abstracts” the “real essence of a given object” and it is the necessary method for obtaining what Althusser regards as “true knowledge.”[25] It is this criteria of science, which allows Althusser to regard the Marxist tradition—following from the ‘old Marx’ of Capital—as a scientific practice. This is because Althusser believes that, through his abstraction, Marx was able to gain concrete knowledge which necessarily exists, i.e. surplus value, and determine the real essence of the capitalist relations of production, away from the “real which contains it and kept it in hiding.”[26] With regard to ideology, although it is possible to claim that certain instances are ideological outside of a scientific practice, the process of making that claim against ideology is still an ideological process, as it can only be deduced through imaginary representations. Hence, for Althusser, it has to be necessarily through a—primarily Marxist—scientific practice that the essence of the ideological structure can be truly known, which Althusser believes is absolutely essential for establishing any concrete Marxist policy that is suited to deal with the complexity of the real conditions of existence.

A scientific practice, however, is not as concrete of a solution for subverting the dominant ideology as Althusser maintains, because—through placing the class-struggle secondary—it risks achieving mere political revisionism. It was this issue in Althusser’s work on ideology that Ranciere famously took charge at in Althusser’s Lesson. For Ranciere, just because Althusser saw science as the necessary practice to gain knowledge of the social and historical conditions of determination, does not mean that science necessarily has any revolutionary potential. Ranciere argues that Althusser’s transposition of the class struggle into the binary of “ideology as the weapon of the dominant class and science as the weapon of the dominated class” is incredibly reductionist and works solely to negate the possibility of future revolutionary struggle. Scientific knowledge is particularly concerning for Ranciere, because he believes it is representative of the academic revisionism that prohibited political progress after the student uprisings of May 68.[27] Ranciere views scientific representation qua revisionism because he believes that, instead of science being the “Other of ideology, it rather exists within institutions and forms of transmission that manifest bourgeois ideological domination.”[28] Hence, where the attention against ideology has to be focused for Ranciere is not against ideology in general, but against ideology which operates through a bourgeois structure.[29] Therefore, in contrast to Althusser, Ranciere believes that ideology is in fact essential to any revolutionary struggle, because challenging the dominant ideology of the bourgeois requires the “proletarian ideology of Marxism-Leninism.”[30]

Reading Ranciere against Althusser highlights the incredible complexity of the ideological structure. Although, as scholars, belief in the revolutionary necessity of scientific Marxism inspires hope, there is sadly a lot of truth in Ranciere’s objection. This is particularly true within the modern university, which is becoming increasingly victim to the dominant neoliberal ideology. The neoliberalisation of the universities has caused the pursuit of ‘true knowledge’ itself to become governed by the logic of the market, causing Althusser’s conception of science  to exist only in its “mythical essence.”[31] Furthermore, faced with many contemporary existential security issues, such as climate change, globalised class-struggle, and the rise of the far-right—to name a few—the ramifications of focusing primarily on thinking as a scientific practice, whilst rendering concrete direct action secondary, may result in disaster. However, to a large extent the contemporary left has still not found its way out of the confusion that prevailed after the events of 68’, and it is becoming increasingly harder to find true representations of the contemporary conditions of existence. If there is to be any chance in establishing a successful revolution today, what is required has to be a return to the essence of Marxism; that is, “the concrete analysis of concrete conditions.”[32] This means that Althusser’s mission of determining true knowledge through a scientific practice must not be abandoned.

In conclusion, the ideological structure which condemns subjects to live with relation to the real in a merely illusory sense is synonymous with society itself, making it hard to subvert and even harder for the relations of production to be concretely challenged. Ideology in general functions so effectively by virtue of its very undeterminable structure, that the effectivity of any pursuit of the real at the level of subject is consequently indiscernible. This means that any humanist ambitions of an ideological absolution, or any revolt against the desires of the Subject in pursuit of a radical freedom, have to be regarded as necessarily revisionist and incredibly ideological. Whether it will be more ‘productive’ to hold fidelity towards a search for the real condition of existence, or whether it is time to finally accept the condition of despair and commit a struggle towards an indiscernible difference, is perhaps a question for another time. However, in order to work towards the historical break that the world desperately needs, there must necessarily be at the very least a recognition that the human condition is one of ideological subjection.

Tristan is in their fourth year studying International Relations and Philosophy. They are interested in new imperial practices, Structuralism, and the reconfiguration of the categories of emancipatory politics.


[1] Louis Althusser, Lenin and philosophy: And other essays (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 159.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 161.

[4] Jacques Ranciere, Althusser’s Lesson, trans. Emiliano Battista (London: Continuum, 2011), 135.

[5] Althusser, Lenin and philosophy: and other essays,162.

[6] Louis Althusser, Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists: and other essays, trans. Ben Brewster (London: Verso, 1989), 24-29.

[7] Althusser, Lenin and philosophy: and other essays, 166.

[8] Ibid, 144.

[9] Ibid, 169.

[10] Warren Montag, Althusser and His Contemporaries: Philosophy’s perpetual war(Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 129.

[11] Althusser, Lenin and philosophy: and other essays, 173.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 178.

[14] Montag, Althusser and His Contemporaries: Philosophy’s perpetual war, 137.

[15] Althusser, Lenin and philosophy and other essays, 181.

[16] Orzen Pupovac, “‘Es Kommt Drauf an’: notes on Althusser’s critique of the subject,” in Encountering Althusser: Politics and Materialism in Contemporary Radical Thought, ed. Katja Djefenbach et al. (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), 235).

[17] Baruch Spinoza, The collected Works of Spinoza: Volume 1, trans. Edwin Curley (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 239).

[18] Althusser, Lenin and philosophy and other essays, 181.

[19] Althusser, Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists: and other essays, 28.

[20] Althusser, Lenin and philosophy: and other essays, 181.

[21] Pupovac, ‘Es Kommt drauf an’: notes on Althusser’s critique of the subject, 326.

[22] Althusser, Lenin and philosophy: and other essays, 171.

[23] Alain Badiou, The Adventure of French Philosophy,trans. Bruno Bosteels (London: Verso, 2012), 139.

[24] Althusser, Lenin and philosophy: and other essays, 171.

[25] Louis Althusser, From Capital to Marx’s philosophy, inReading Capital,ed. Louis Althusser, and Etienne Balibar, trans. Ben Brewster (Paris: Francois Maspero, 2015), 35-6.

[26] Ibid, 36.

[27] Ranciere, Althusser’s Lesson, 129.

[28] Ibid, 141.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid, 142.

[32] Mao Tse-Tung, Selected Works(Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1961), 165.

Works Cited

Althusser, Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists: and other essays. Translated by Ben Brewster. London: Verso, 1989.

Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy: and other essays. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Althusser, “From Capital to Marx’s Philosophy”. In Reading Capital. Translated by Ben Brewster. Edited by Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar. Paris: Francois Maspero, 2015

Badiou, The Adventure of French Philosophy. Translated by Bruno Bosteels. London: Verso, 2012.

Montag, Althusser and His Contemporaries: Philosophy’s perpetual war. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012.

Pupovac, “‘Es Kommt drauf’: notes on Althusser’s critique of the subject.” In Encountering Althusser: Politics and Materialism in Contemporary Radical Thought. Edited by K. Diefenbach, S. R. Francis, G. Kirin, &, P. D. Thomas. London: Bloomsbury, 2015. Ranciere, Althusser’s Lesson. Translated by Emiliano Battista. London: Continuum, 2011.

Spinoza, The Collected Works of Spinoza: Volume 1. Translated by Edwin Curley. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.

Tse-Tung, Selected Works. Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1961.

Featured image by Internet Archive Book Images via flickr


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