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|Name Cornelius Castoriadis|
Region Western Philosophy
|Born March 11, 1922 (1922-03-11) Constantinople, Ottoman Empire (present-day Istanbul, Turkey)|
Other names "Pierre Chaulieu," "Paul Cardan," "Jean-Marc Coudray"
Alma mater University of AthensUniversity of Paris
Notable work ListThe Imaginary Institution of Society (1975)Crossroads in the Labyrinth (1978–1999, 6 vols.)
School Continental philosophyWestern MarxismLibertarian socialism
Died December 26, 1997, Paris, France
Spouse Piera Aulagnier (m. 1975–1984)
Education National and Kapodistrian University of Athens
Books The imaginary institution, Crossroads in the Labyrinth, World in fragments, A Society Adrift Interview, Postscript on Insignific
Similar People Claude Lefort, Karl Marx, Jacques Lacan, Piera Aulagnier, Jacques Derrida
Castoriadis, one of the most provocative and contradictory philosophers of the 20th century
Cornelius Castoriadis ([kastɔʁjadis]; Greek: Κορνήλιος Καστοριάδης [kastoriˈaðis]; March 11, 1922 – December 26, 1997) was a Greek-French philosopher, social critic, economist, psychoanalyst, author of The Imaginary Institution of Society, and co-founder of the Socialisme ou Barbarie group.
- Castoriadis one of the most provocative and contradictory philosophers of the 20th century
- Cornelius castoriadis on the imaginary institution of society
- Early life in Athens
- Paris and leftist activity
- Early philosophical research
- Career as economist and distancing from Marxism
- Philosopher of history and ontologist
- Later life
- Autonomy and heteronomy
- The Imaginary
- The Ancient Greeks and the Modern West
- Lasting influence
- Major publications
His writings on autonomy and social institutions have been influential in both academic and activist circles.
Cornelius castoriadis on the imaginary institution of society
Early life in Athens
Cornelius Castoriadis (named after Saint Cornelius the Centurion) was born on March 11, 1922 in Constantinople, the son of Kaisaras ("Caesar") and Sophia Kastoriadis. His family had to move in July 1922 to Athens due to the Greek–Turkish population exchange. He developed an interest in politics after he came into contact with Marxist thought and philosophy at the age of 13. At the same time he began studying traditional philosophy after purchasing a copy of the book History of Philosophy (Ιστορία της Φιλοσοφίας, 1933, 2 vols.) by the historian of philosophy Nikolaos Louvaris.
Sometime between 1932 and 1935, Maximiani Portas (later known as "Savitri Devi") was the French tutor of Castoriadis. During the same period, he attended the 8th Gymnasium of Athens in Kato Patisia, from which he graduated in 1937.
His first active involvement in politics occurred during the Metaxas Regime (1937), when he joined the Athenian Communist Youth (Κομμουνιστική Νεολαία Αθήνας, Kommounistiki Neolaia Athinas), a section of the Young Communist League of Greece. In 1941 he joined the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), only to leave one year later in order to become an active Trotskyist. The latter action resulted in his persecution by both the Germans and the Communist Party.
In 1944 he wrote his first essays on social science and Max Weber, which he published in a magazine named Archive of Sociology and Ethics (Αρχείον Κοινωνιολογίας και Ηθικής, Archeion Koinoniologias kai Ithikis). During the December 1944 violent clashes between the communist-led ELAS and the Papandreou government, aided by British troops, Castoriadis heavily criticized the actions of the KKE.
In December 1945, three years after earning a bachelor's degree in law, economics and political science from the School of Law, Economics and Political Sciences of the University of Athens (where he met and collaborated with the Neo-Kantian intellectuals Konstantinos Despotopoulos, Panagiotis Kanellopoulos, Konstantinos Tsatsos), he got aboard the RMS Mataroa, a New Zealand ocean liner, to go to Paris (where he remained permanently) to continue his studies under a scholarship offered by the French Institute of Athens. The same voyage—organized by Octave Merlier—also brought from Greece to France a number of other Greek writers, artists and intellectuals, including Constantine Andreou, Kostas Axelos, Georges Candilis, Costa Coulentianos, Emmanuel Kriaras, Adonis A. Kyrou, Kostas Papaïoannou, and Virgile Solomonidis.
Paris and leftist activity
Once in Paris, Castoriadis joined the Trotskyist Parti Communiste Internationaliste (PCI). He and Claude Lefort constituted a "Chaulieu–Montal Tendency" in the French PCI in 1946. In 1948, they experienced their "final disenchantment with Trotskyism", leading them to break away to found the libertarian socialist and councilist group and journal Socialisme ou Barbarie (S. ou B., 1949–1966), which included Jean-François Lyotard and Guy Debord as members for a while, and profoundly influenced the French intellectual left. Castoriadis had links with the group around C. L. R. James until 1958. Also strongly influenced by Castoriadis and Socialisme ou Barbarie were the British group and journal Solidarity and Maurice Brinton.
Early philosophical research
In the late 1940s, he started attending philosophical and sociological courses at the Faculty of Letters at the University of Paris (faculté des lettres de Paris), where among his teachers were Gaston Bachelard, the epistemologist René Poirier, the historian of philosophy Henri Bréhier (not to be confused with Émile Bréhier), Henri Gouhier, Jean Wahl, Gustave Guillaume, Albert Bayet, and Georges Davy. He submitted a proposal for a doctoral dissertation on mathematical logic to Poirier, but he eventually abandoned the project. The working title of his thesis was Introduction à la logique axiomatique (Introduction to Axiomatic Logic).
Career as economist and distancing from Marxism
At the same time (starting in November 1948), he worked as an economist at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) until 1970, which was also the year when he obtained French citizenship. Consequently, his writings prior to that date were published pseudonymously, as "Pierre Chaulieu," "Paul Cardan," "Jean-Marc Coudray" etc.
In his 1949 essay "The Relations of Production in Russia", Castoriadis developed a critique of the supposed socialist character of the government of the Soviet Union. The central claim of the Stalinist regime at the time was that the mode of production in Russia was socialist, but the mode of distribution was not yet a socialist one since the socialist edification in the country had not yet been completed. However, according to Castoriadis' analysis, since the mode of distribution of the social product is inseparable from the mode of production, the claim that one can have control over distribution while not having control over production is meaningless.
Castoriadis was particularly influential in the turn of the intellectual left during the 1950s against the Soviet Union, because he argued that the Soviet Union was not a communist but rather a bureaucratic capitalist state, which contrasted with Western powers mostly by virtue of its centralized power apparatus. His work in the OECD substantially helped his analyses.
In the latter years of Socialisme ou Barbarie, Castoriadis came to reject the Marxist theories of economics and of history, especially in an essay on "Modern Capitalism and Revolution", first published in Socialisme ou Barbarie in 1960–61 (first English translation in 1963 by Solidarity). Castoriadis' final Socialisme ou Barbarie essay was "Marxism and Revolutionary Theory", published in April 1964 – June 1965. There he concluded that a revolutionary Marxist must choose either to remain Marxist or to remain revolutionary.
When Jacques Lacan's disputes with the International Psychoanalytical Association led to a split and the formation of the École Freudienne de Paris (EFP) in 1964, Castoriadis became a member (as a non-practitioner).
In 1968 Castoriadis married Piera Aulagnier, a French psychoanalyst who had undergone psychoanalytic treatment under Jacques Lacan from 1955 until 1961.
In 1969 Castoriadis and Aulagnier split from the EFP to join the Organisation psychanalytique de langue française (O.P.L.F.), the so-called "Quatrième Groupe", a psychoanalytic group that claims to follow principles and methods that have opened up a third way between Lacanianism and the standards of the International Psychoanalytical Association.
Castoriadis began to practice analysis in 1973 (he had undergone analysis in the 1960s first with Irène Roubleff and then later with Michel Renard).
Philosopher of history and ontologist
In 1967, Castoriadis submitted a proposal for a doctoral dissertation on the philosophy of history to Paul Ricœur (then at the University of Nanterre). An epistolary dialogue began between them but Ricœur's obligations to the University of Chicago in the 1970s were such that their collaboration was not feasible at the time. The subject of his thesis would be Le fondement imaginaire du social-historique (The Imaginary Foundations of the Social-Historical) (see below).
In his 1975 work, L'Institution imaginaire de la société (Imaginary Institution of Society), and in Les carrefours du labyrinthe (Crossroads in the Labyrinth), published in 1978, Castoriadis began to develop his distinctive understanding of historical change as the emergence of irrecoverable otherness that must always be socially instituted and named in order to be recognized. Otherness emerges in part from the activity of the psyche itself. Creating external social institutions that give stable form to what Castoriadis terms the (ontological) "magma of social significations" allows the psyche to create stable figures for the self, and to ignore the constant emergence of mental indeterminacy and alterity.
For Castoriadis, self-examination, as in the ancient Greek tradition, could draw upon the resources of modern psychoanalysis. Autonomous individuals—the essence of an autonomous society—must continuously examine themselves and engage in critical reflection. He writes:
... psychoanalysis can and should make a basic contribution to a politics of autonomy. For, each person's self-understanding is a necessary condition for autonomy. One cannot have an autonomous society that would fail to turn back upon itself, that would not interrogate itself about its motives, its reasons for acting, its deep-seated [profondes] tendencies. Considered in concrete terms, however, society doesn't exist outside the individuals making it up. The self-reflective activity of an autonomous society depends essentially upon the self-reflective activity of the humans who form that society.
Castoriadis was not calling for every individual to undergo psychoanalysis, per se. Rather, by reforming education and political systems, individuals would be increasingly capable of critical self- and social reflexion. He offers: "if psychoanalytic practice has a political meaning, it is solely to the extent that it tries, as far as it possibly can, to render the individual autonomous, that is to say, lucid concerning her desire and concerning reality, and responsible for her acts: holding herself accountable for what she does."
In his 1980 Facing the War text, he took the view that Russia had become the primary world military power. To sustain this, in the context of the visible economic inferiority of the Soviet Union in the civilian sector, he proposed that the society may no longer be dominated by the party-state bureaucracy but by a "stratocracy"—a separate and dominant military sector with expansionist designs on the world. He further argued that this meant there was no internal class dynamic which could lead to social revolution within Russian society and that change could only occur through foreign intervention.
In 1980, he joined the faculty of the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) as Directeur d'études (Director of Studies). He had been elected Directeur de recherche (Director of Research) in EHESS at the end of 1979 after submitting his previously published material in conjunction with a defense of his intellectual project of connecting the disciplines of history, sociology and economy through the concept of the social imaginary (see below). His teaching career at the EHESS lasted sixteen years.
In 1980, he was also awarded his State doctorate from the University of Nanterre; the final title of his thesis under Ricœur (see above) was L'Élément imaginaire de l'histoire (The Imaginary Element in History).
In 1984, Castoriadis and Aulagnier divorced.
He died on December 26, 1997 from complications following heart surgery. He was survived by Zoe Christofidi (his wife at the time of his death), his daughter Sparta (by an earlier relationship with Jeanine "Rilka" Walter, "Comrade Victorine" in the Fourth International), and Kyveli, a younger daughter from his marriage with Zoe.
Edgar Morin proposed that Castoriadis' work will be remembered for its remarkable continuity and coherence as well as for its extraordinary breadth which was "encyclopaedic" in the original Greek sense, for it offered us a "paideia," or education, that brought full circle our cycle of otherwise compartmentalized knowledge in the arts and sciences. Castoriadis wrote essays on mathematics, physics, biology, anthropology, psychoanalysis, linguistics, society, economics, politics, philosophy, and art.
One of Castoriadis' many important contributions to social theory was the idea that social change involves radical discontinuities that cannot be understood in terms of any determinate causes or presented as a sequence of events. Change emerges through the social imaginary without strict determinations, but in order to be socially recognized it must be instituted as revolution. Any knowledge of society and social change can exist only by referring to (or by positing) social imaginary significations. Thus, Castoriadis developed a conceptual framework where the sociological and philosophical category of the social imaginary has a central place and he offered an interpretation of modernity centered on the principal categories of social institutions and social imaginary significations; in his analysis, these categories are the product of the human faculties of the radical imagination and the social imaginary, the latter faculty being the collective dimension of the former. (According to Castoriadis, the sociological and philosophical category of the radical imaginary can be manifested only through the individual radical imagination and the social imaginary.) However, the social imaginary cannot be reduced or attributed to subjective imagination, since the individual is informed through an internalisation of social significations.
He used traditional terms as much as possible, though consistently redefining them. Further, some of his terminology changed throughout the later part of his career, with the terms gaining greater consistency but breaking from their traditional meaning (thus creating neologisms). When reading Castoriadis, it is helpful to understand what he means by the terms he uses, since he does not redefine the terms in every piece where he employs them.
Autonomy and heteronomy
The concept of "autonomy" appears to be a key theme in his early postwar writings and he continued to elaborate on its meaning, applications and limits until his death, gaining him the title of "Philosopher of Autonomy". The word itself is Greek, where auto- means 'for/by itself' and nomos means 'law,' defining the condition of creating one's own laws, whether as an individual or as a whole society. Castoriadis noticed that while all societies construct their own unique laws and institutions, members of autonomous societies are fully aware of this fact and explicitly self-institute. In contrast, members of heteronomous societies (hetero- 'other') delegate this process to extra-social authorities and attribute their imaginaries to gods or ancestors or, in modern ideologies, to historical necessity.
Castoriadis emphasized the need of societies to legitimize their laws or explain, in other words, why their laws are good and just as they claim them to be. Most traditional societies did that through religion, believing that their laws were given by a super-natural ancestor or god and therefore must be true. Modern capitalist societies legitimize their system (capitalism) through 'reason', claiming it makes 'logical sense'. Castoriadis observes that nearly all such efforts are tautological in that they legitimize a system through rules defined by the system itself. So just like the Old Testament and the Koran claim that 'There is only one God, God', capitalism first defines logic as the maximization of utility and minimization of cost, and then bases its own legitimacy on its effectiveness to meet this criterion.
As he explains in one of his lectures in the Greek village of Leonidio in 1984, many newly founded societies start from an autonomous state which is usually in the form of direct democracy, like the town hall meetings during the American Revolution and the local assemblies of the Paris Commune. What they end up with, however, is a form of governance by which the citizens do not legislate directly but delegate this power to a group of experts who remain in power, largely unchecked by official means, for a number of years. The ancient Greeks on the other hand developed a system of continuous autonomy where the people (demos) voted constantly on matters of government and law and where the elected rulers, the archons, were mainly asked to enforce them. In such a system, courts of law were governed by common citizens who were appointed to the degree of judge briefly and army generals were voted in by the people and had to convince them of the correctness of their decisions. Taking some poetic licence to expand this point, he says that in this system, the president of the national treasury could have been a Phoenician slave, since he would only be asked to implement the rulings of the demos.
Castoriadis' writings delve at length into the philosophy and politics of the ancient Greeks who, as a true autonomous society knew that laws are man-made and legitimization tautological. They challenged these laws on a constant basis and yet obeyed them to the same degree (even to the extent of enforcing capital punishment) proving that autonomous societies can indeed exist.
The term "the Imaginary" originates in the writings of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (see the Imaginary) and is strongly associated with Castoriadis' work. To understand it better we might think of its usual context, the "imaginary institution of societies". By that, Castoriadis means that societies, together with their laws and legalizations, are founded upon a basic conception of the world and man's place in it. Traditional societies had elaborate imaginaries, expressed through various creation myths, by which they explained how the world came to be and how it is sustained. Capitalism did away with this mythic imaginary by replacing it with what it claims to be pure reason (as examined above). That same imaginary is, interestingly enough, the foundation of its opposing ideology, Communism. By that measure he observes (first in his main criticism of Marxism, titled the Imaginary Institution of Society, and subsequently in a speech he gave at the Université catholique de Louvain on February 27, 1980) that these two systems are more closely related than was previously thought, since they share the same industrial revolution type imaginary: that of a rational society where man's welfare is materially measurable and infinitely improvable through the expansion of industries and advancements in science. In this respect Marx failed to understand that technology is not, as he claimed, the main drive of social change, since we have historical examples where societies possessing near identical technologies formed very different relations to them. An example given in the book is France and England during the industrial revolution with the second being much more liberal than the first.
Similarly, in the issue of ecology he observes that the problems facing our environment are only present within the capitalist imaginary that values the continuous expansion of industries. Trying to solve it by changing or managing these industries better might fail, since it essentially acknowledges this imaginary as real, thus perpetuating the problem.
Thus, imaginaries are directly responsible for all aspects of culture. The Greeks had an imaginary by which the world stems from Chaos and the ancient Jews an imaginary by which the world stems from the will of a pre-existing entity, God. The former developed therefore a system of immediate democracy where the laws were ever changing according to the people's will while the second a theocratic system according to which man is in an eternal quest to understand and enforce the will of God.
Castoriadis also believed that the complex historical processes through which new imaginaries are born are not directly quantifiable by science. This is because it is through the imaginaries themselves that the categories upon which science is applied are created. In the second part of his Imaginary Institution of Society (titled "The Social Imaginary and the Institution"), he gives the example of set theory, which is at the basis of formal logic, which cannot function without having first defined the "elements" which are to be assigned to sets. This initial schema of separation (schéma de séparation, σχήμα του χωρισμού) of the world into distinct elements and categories therefore, precedes the application of (formal) logic and, consequently, science.
The concept of "Chaos" that one encounters frequently in Castoriadis' work. According to that, the Greeks developed an imaginary by which the world is a product of Chaos, as narrated by both Homer and Hesiod. The word has since been promoted to a scientific term, but Castoriadis is inclined to believe that although the Greeks had sometimes expressed Chaos in that way (as a system too complex to be understood), they mainly referred to it as nothingness. He then concludes what made the ancient Greek society different to other societies is exactly that core imaginary, which essentially says that if the world is created out of nothing then man can indeed, in his brief time on earth, model it as he sees fit, without trying to conform on some pre-existing order like a divine law. He contrasted that sharply to the Biblical imaginary, which sustains all Judaic societies to this day, according to which, in the beginning of the world there was a God, a willing entity and man's position therefore is to understand that Will and act accordingly.
The Ancient Greeks and the Modern West
Castoriadis views the political organization of the ancient Greek city states as a model of an autonomous society. He argues that their direct democracy was not based, as many assume, on the existence of slaves and/or the geography of Greece, which forced the creation of small city states, since many other societies had these preconditions but did not create democratic systems. The same goes for colonisation since the neighbouring Phoenicians, who had a similar expansion in the Mediterranean, were monarchical till their end. During this time of colonization, however, around the time of Homer's epic poems, we observe for the first time that the Greeks, instead of transferring their mother city's social system to the newly established colony, instead, for the first time in known history, legislate anew from the ground up. What also made the Greeks special was the fact that, following the above, they kept this system as a perpetual autonomy which led to direct democracy.
This phenomenon of autonomy is again present in the emergence of the states of northern Italy during the Renaissance, again as a product of small independent merchants.
He sees a tension in the modern West between, on the one hand, the potentials for autonomy and creativity and the proliferation of "open societies" and, on the other hand, the spirit-crushing force of capitalism. These are respectively characterized as the creative imaginary and the capitalist imaginary:
He argues that, in the last two centuries, ideas about autonomy again come to the fore: "This extraordinary profusion reaches a sort of pinnacle during the two centuries stretching between 1750 and 1950. This is a very specific period because of the very great density of cultural creation but also because of its very strong subversiveness."
Castoriadis has influenced European (especially continental) thought in important ways. His interventions in sociological and political theory have resulted in some of the most well-known writing to emerge from the continent (especially in the figure of Jürgen Habermas, who often can be seen to be writing against Castoriadis). Hans Joas published a number of articles in American journals in order to highlight the importance of Castoriadis' work to a North American sociological audience, and Johann Pál Arnason has been of enduring importance both for his critical engagement with Castoriadis' thought and for his sustained efforts to introduce it to the English speaking public (especially during his editorship of the journal Thesis Eleven). In the last few years, there has been growing interest in Castoriadis's thought, including the publication of two monographs authored by Arnason's former students: Jeff Klooger's Castoriadis: Psyche, Society, Autonomy (Brill), and Suzi Adams's Castoriadis's Ontology: Being and Creation (Fordham University Press).