A critique of aspects of Louis Althusser's epistemology as employed by Manuel Castells

Master Thesis


Permanent link to this Item
Journal Title
Link to Journal
Journal ISSN
Volume Title

University of Cape Town

This thesis is an assessment of Castells' claim to have used Althusserian epistemology both as a theoretical basis for a critique of empiricist urban sociology, and in the establishment of a Marxist scientific alternative. To this end, Castells employed the Althusserian conception of the social totality, which was characterized by a complex structured unity of relatively autonomous instances with their own laws of development, This was intended to establish the last-instance determination by the economy, and to avoid the empiricist portrayal of the relationship between base and superstructure as one of essence and phenomena, According to Althusser, theory, like the other relatively autonomous practices, has its own specific raw material, labour and product, and was thus separate from and irreducible to any of the other practices. Each chapter of this thesis outlines an aspect of Althusser's work that can explicitly or implicitly be identified in Castells' writings. The critical responses to Althusserianism are then examined in order to disclose the unresolved and contradictory elements of his position, and the extent to which these have led to problems in Castells' work, More importantly, it is argued that Castells' theoretical allegiance to Althusser is deliberately inconsistent: he has significantly altered every controversial tenet of the latter, while neglecting to acknowledge that these changes are in fact distortions which directly oppose the character of Althusserianism, Castells wavers between contradictory epistemologies, and this results in his analyses being stranded between Althusserian theoreticism and empiricism. It is my contention that Castells wished to use the ready-made Althusserian system without falling prey to its unpalatable implications, especially Althusser's conclusion that Marxism is a science that produces ideology for the masses, who are never able to achieve a genuine cognitive appropriation of reality, and are thus unable to participate in the development of theory. This reduction of individual consciousness to ideology undermined the significance of class consciousness and political practice, which are commonly regarded as the fundamental principles of revolutionary Marxist practice.

Bibliography: leaf 189-197.