Cornelius Castoriadis, in lively conversation with dancer-choreographer Clara Gibson Maxwell
|Full name||Cornelius Castoriadis|
|Born||March 11, 1922
Constantinople, Occupied Ottoman Empire
|Died||December 26, 1997
|Era||20th century philosophy|
|Main interests||Marxism, political philosophy, psychology, psychoanalysis, economics|
Cornelius Castoriadis, (March 11, 1922 - December 26, 1997) was a Greek philosopher, economist and psychoanalyst. Author of The Imaginary Institution of Society, co-founder of the Socialisme ou Barbarie group and 'philosopher of autonomy'.
Castoriadis was born in Constantinople and his family moved in 1922 to Athens. He developed an interest in politics after he came into contact with Marxist thought and philosophy at the age of 13. His first active involvement in politics occurred during the Metaxas Regime (1937), when he joined the Athenian Communist Youth (Kommounistiki Neolaia). In 1941 he joined the Communist Party (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" (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. After earning degrees in political science, economics and law from the University of Athens, he sailed to Paris, where he remained permanently, to continue his studies under a scholarship offered by the French Institute.
Once in Paris, Castoriadis joined the Trotskyist Parti Communiste Internationaliste, but broke with it by 1948. He then joined Claude Lefort and others in founding the libertarian socialist group and the journal Socialisme ou Barbarie (1949–1966), which included Jean-Franois 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.
At the same time, he worked as an economist at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development 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, etc. 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 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, 1960–61; first London Solidarity English translation, 1963).
When Jacques Lacan's disputes with the International Psychoanalytical Association led to a split and the formation of the cole Freudienne de Paris in 1964, Castoriadis became a member (as a non-practitioner). In 1969 Castoriadis split from the EFP with the "Quatrime groupe". He trained as a psychoanalyst and began to practice in 1974.
In his 1975 work, L'institution imaginaire de la socit (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 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 cole des Hautes tudes en Sciences Sociales.
On December 26, 1997, he died from complications following heart surgery.
Edgar Morin proposed that Castoriadis's 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's 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 determinations, but in order to be socially recognized must be instituted as revolution. Any knowledge of society and social change –can exist only by referring to, or by positing, singular entities–which figure and presentify social imaginary significations.–
Concerning his political views, autonomy appears as a key theme in his early postwar writings. Not until his death did he stop elaborating on its meaning, applications, ramifications, and limits, and therefore he has been called the "Philosopher of Autonomy". He defined an autonomous society in contrast to a heteronomous one. While all societies make their own imaginaries (institutions, laws, traditions, beliefs and behaviors), autonomous societies are those in which their members are aware of this fact, and explicitly self-institute (îî¿-îî¿îî¿îîî). In contrast, the members of heteronomous societies attribute their imaginaries to some extra-social authority (i.e. God, ancestors, historical necessity).
Castoriadis's writings delve at length into the philosophy and politics of Ancient Greece. For Castoriadis, it was these societies which innovated ideas about autonomy and democracy, and these societies which continue to provide insights into the present. 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 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 characterized as the capitalist imaginary and the creative imaginary:
I think that we are at a crossing in the roads of history, history in the grand sense. One road already appears clearly laid out, at least in its general orientation. That's the road of the loss of meaning, of the repetition of empty forms, of conformism, apathy, irresponsibility, and cynicism at the same time as it is that of the tightening grip of the capitalist imaginary of unlimited expansion of "rational mastery," pseudorational pseudomastery, of an unlimited expansion of consumption for the sake of consumption, that is to say, for nothing, and of a technoscience that has become autonomized along its path and that is evidently involved in the domination of this capitalist imaginary. – The other road should be opened: it is not at all laid out. It can be opened only through a social and political awakening, a resurgence of the project of individual and collective autonomy, that is to say, of the will to freedom. This would require an awakening of the imagination and of the creative imaginary.
Castoriadis has influenced European (especially continental) thought in important ways. He remains a source of post-Lacanian psychiatric theory and practice, which is the dominant mode of psychoanalysis in France today. On the other hand, 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 Jrgen Habermas, who often can be seen to be writing against Castoriadis). Sociologist Hans Joas attempted in the early 1980s to bring Castoriadis' work and thought to an anglophone audience, as did others, with little success. However, the publication in 2009 of Australian Jeff Klooger's Castoriadis: Psyche, Society, Autonomy by the academic publisher Brill marks a significant advance in the area of English-language studies of Castoriadis's main ideas. In the last two decades there has been a growing interest in Castoriadis' work centred in Australia, stemming from Castoriadis' association with the Melbourne-based journal 'Thesis Eleven', which published many of his essays in English translation for the first time. A number of books on Castoriadis by Australian scholars are forthcoming, the first of these being the work by Jeff Klooger mentioned above, to date the only book-length study of Castoriadis to have appeared in English.
Castoriadis used traditional terms as much as possible, though consistently redefining these terms. Further, some of his terminology changed throughout the later part of his career, with the general tendency that the terms took on a greater consistency, but more closely resembled 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.
^ î: Castoriadis if referring to Merleau-Ponty and the influence his phenomenology exercised on his own ontology in several of his texts including "Merleau-ponty and the weight of the ontological tradition".
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