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Cornelius Castoriadis ( , March 11 1922-December 26 1997) was a Greek-philosopher, economist and psychoanalyst. Author of the The Imaginary Institution of Society, co-founder of the Socialisme ou Barbarie group and 'philosopher of autonomy'.


Early life in Athens

Castoriadis was born in Constantinoplemarker and his family moved in 1922 to Athensmarker. 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 Britishmarker 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 Parismarker, where he remained permanently, to continue his studies under a scholarship offered by the French Institutemarker.

Paris and leftist activity

The journal Socialisme ou Barbarie.
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-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.

Career as economist and distancing from Marxism

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 Unionmarker, because he argued that the Soviet Union was not a communist, but rather a bureaucratic state, which contrasted to 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 Le mouvement révolutionnaire sous le capitalisme moderne.


When Jacques Lacan's disputes with the International Psychoanalytical Association led to a split and the formation of the École Freudienne de Paris in 1964, Castoriadis became a member (as a non-practitioner). In 1969 Castoriadis split from the EFP with the "Quatrième groupe". He trained as a psychoanalyst and began to practice in 1974.

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 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, 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 heracts: holding herself accountable for what she does."


In his 1980 Facing The War text, he viewed 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.

Later life

In 1980, he joined the faculty of the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Socialesmarker.

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 that their members are aware of this fact, and explicitly self-institute (αυτο-νομούνται). In contrast, the members of heteronomous societies attribute their imaginaries to some extra-social authority (i.e. God, ancestors, historical necessity).

The Ancient Greeks and the Modern West

Castoriadis 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 strongsubversiveness."

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 thiscapitalist 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 andcollective autonomy, that is to say, of the will to freedom. This would require an awakening of the imagination and of the creative imaginary.

Major concepts

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 has resulted in some of the most well-known writing to emerge from the continent (especially in the figure of Jurgen 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 have others, with little success.

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.

  • Autonomy
  • Heteronomy
  • Magmas
  • Alienation
  • Ensemblist-Identitary Logic
  • The Socio-Historical
  • Praxis (Πράξις)
  • Technique
  • Imaginary
  • Radical Imaginary
  • Originary Psychic Monad
  • Institution
  • Teukhein (Τεύχειν)
  • Legein (Λέγειν)

Major publications

  • The Imaginary Institution of Society. (trans.:Kathleen Blamey) MIT Press, Cambridge 1998. 432 pp. ISBN 0-262-53155-0. (pb.)
  • The Castoriadis Reader (ed./trans.: David Ames Curtis) Blackwell Publisher, Oxford 1997. 470 pp. ISBN 1-55786-704-6. (pb.)
  • World In Fragments. Writings on Politics, Society, Psychoanalysis, and the Imagination. (ed./trans.: David Ames Curtis) Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA 1997. 507 pp. ISBN 0-8047-2763-5.
  • Political and Social Writings. Volume 1: 1946-1955. From the Critique of Bureaucracy to the Positive Content of Socialism. (ed./trans.: David Ames Curtis) University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 1988. 348 pp. ISBN 0-8166-1617-5. (PSW, vol. 1)
  • Political and Social Writings. Volume 2: 1955-1960. From the Workers' Struggle Against Bureaucracy to Revolution in the Age of Modern Capitalism. (ed./trans.: David Ames Curtis) University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 1988. 363 pp. ISBN 0-8166-1619-1.
  • Political and Social Writings. Volume 3: 1961-1979. Recommencing the Revolution: From Socialism to the Autonomous Society. (ed./trans.: David Ames Curtis) University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 1993. 405 pp. ISBN 0-8166-2168-3.
  • Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy. Essays in Political Philosophy. (ed. David Ames Curtis) Oxford University Press, New York/Oxford 1991. 306 pp. ISBN 0-19-506963-3.
  • Crossroads in the Labyrinth. (trans.: M.H.Ryle/K.Soper) MIT Press, Cambridge, MA 1984. 345 pp.
  • On Plato's Statesman. (trans.: David Ames Curtis) Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA 2002. 227 pp.
  • Le Contenu du Socialisme. Paris 1979. (fr.) (in: PSW, vol.1)
  • The Crisis of Western Societies. TELOS 53 (Fall 1982). New York: Telos Press
  • La Brèche: vingt ans après. (Réédition du livre de 1968 complété par de nouveaux textes). Paris 1988. (fr.)
  • Figures of the Thinkable. (trans.: H. Arnold) Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA 2007. 304 pp.

Further reading

  • Thesis Eleven (Journal), Special Issue 'Cornelius Castoriadis', Number 49, May 1997. Sage Publications, London. ISSN 0725-5136
  • Maurice Brinton: For Workers' Power. Selected Wrintings. (ed. David Goodway) AK Press Edinburgh/Oakland 2004. ISBN 1-904859-07-0.


  • "His line clearly converged with that of anarchism, but although he made occasional references to the anarchists, like many former Marxists he had little respect for them, and in return they took little notice for him. This was probably a mistake, since many ... of his ideas are highly relevant to the work facing the anarchist movement in the contemporary world." Nicolas Walter, in: "Freedom newspaper Anarchist fortnightly", 07.02.1998.

  • (Question: Are you a revolutionary?) Castoriadis: "Revolution does not mean torrents of blood, the taking of the Winter Palacemarker, and so on. Revolution means a radical transformation of society's institutions. In this sense, I certainly am a revolutionary." (from "The Revolutionary Force of Ecology")



  1. Cornelius Castoriadis Dies at 75
  2. Figures of the Thinkable, p. 151
  3. Figures of the Thinkable, p. 163
  4. Figures of the Thinkable, p. 134
  5. Figures of the Thinkable, p. 146

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