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Cornelius Castoriadis (Greek: Κορνήλιος Καστοριάδης, March 11, 1922 - December 26, 1997) was a Greek philosopher, social critic, economist, psychoanalyst, author of The Imaginary Institution of Society, and co-founder of the Socialisme ou Barbarie group.[2]


Early life in Athens

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.

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.[3] 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 [4] 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 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 École Freudienne de Paris in 1964, Castoriadis became a member (as a non-practitioner).[5] 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 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.[6]

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."[7]


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"[8] - 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 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.[9] 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.”

Castoriadis 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 (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. Here are a few.


The concept of autonomy appears to be a key theme in his early postwar writings which he continued to elaborate on its meaning, applications, ramifications, and limits until his death, gaining him the title the "Philosopher of Autonomy". The word itself is composite and of Greek origin, with auto meaning 'by-itself' and nomos meaning law. So, autonomy is the condition of creating one's own laws. An autonomous society is different than a heteronomous one (hetero = others) because 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 (αυτο-νομούνται).[10] In contrast, the members of heteronomous societies attribute their imaginaries to some extra-social authority (i.e. God, ancestors, historical necessity).

This relates to what he identified as the need of societies to legitimise their laws, or believe that their laws are correct. Tribal societies for example did that through religion, believing that the laws where given to them by a super-natural ancestor or god and so must be true. Capitalist societies legitimise their system (capitalism) through 'reason', claiming that their system makes logical sense.[11] Castoriadis observes that nearly all such efforts are tautological in that they legitimise 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', capitalist societies first define what logic is: the maximization of utility and minimization of cost, and then base their system on that logic.

As he explains in one of his lectures in the Greek village of Leonidio in 1984,[12] 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 Independence 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's 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.


This term originates in the writings of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and is strongly associated with Castoriades' work. To understand it better we might think of its usual context, the "imaginary foundation 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,[13] as well as speaking in Brussels,[14] 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 are 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 problem 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.

So, imaginaries are directly responsible for all aspects of culture. The Greeks for 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 where ever changing according 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.


This is a concept that one encounters frequently in Castoriades work (in all the references above for example). 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 Greeks different to other nations 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 preexisting 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, in 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. Same goes for colonisation since the neighbouring Phoenicians, who had a similar expansion in the Mediterranean, where monarchical till their end. During this time of colonisation 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, they, for the first time in known history, legislate anew from the ground up. What also made the Greeks special was the fact that, following 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 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.[15]

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."[16]

Lasting Influence

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).[17] Sociologist Hans Joas attempted in the early 1980s to bring Castoriadis' work and thought to an anglophone audience, as did others, with little success.[18] 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 is named for the eleventh and final of Karl Marx's Theses on Feuerbach, which simply states "Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.") The journal 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.[19]

Major publications

Postscript on Insignificance: Dialogues with Cornelius Castoriadis. (ed./trans.: Gabriel Rockhill and John V. Garner) Continuum Books, London 2011. 160 pp. ISBN 978-1-4411-3960-3. (hb.)
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.: Helen Arnold) Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 2007. 304 pp.
A Society Adrift. Interviews and Debates, 1974-1997 (trans.: Helen Arnold) Fordham University Press, New York, 2010. 259 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.


^ Cornelius Castoriadis, World in Fragments. Writings on Politics, Society, Psychoanalysis, and the Imagination, 273-310.
^ Cornelius Castoriadis Dies at 75
^ Castoriadis, Cornelius; Anti-Mythes (1974). "An Interview with C. Castoriadis". Telos (23): 131.
^ Howard, Dick (1974). "Introduction to Castoriadis". Telos (23): 117.
^ Roudinesco, Elizabeth. Jacques Lacan & Co. University of Chicago Press. pp. 433.
^ Figures of the Thinkable, p. 151
^ Figures of the Thinkable, p. 163
^ Castoriadis, Cornelius (02 1980). "Facing the War". Telos (46): 48.
^ Morin, Edgar (1997-12-30). "An encyclopaedic spirit". Radical Philosophy. Retrieved 2008-04-03.
^ Castoriadis, Cornelius; Anti-Mythes (01 1974). "An Interview with C. Castoriadis". Telos (23): 152.
^ C. Castoriadis (1999) « La ‘rationalite’ du capitalisme» in Figures du Pensable Les carrefours du labyrinthe Published: Paris, Seuil
^ Castoriadis C. (1984) Αρχαία Ελληνική Δημοκρατία και η Σημασία της για μας Σήμερα Εκδ. Ύψιλον
^ Castoriadis C. (1974) The Imaginary Institution of Society. p. 23, Publisher MIT Press 1987
^ Castoriadis C. (1981) Daniel Cohn-Bendit et le Public de Louvain-la-Neuve, "De l'ecologie a l;autonomy", Edition de Seuil, Paris.
^ Figures of the Thinkable, p. 146
^ Figures of the Thinkable, p. 134
^ Anthony Elliott. Critical visions: new directions in social theory. Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.
^ Hans Joas. Pragmatism and social theory. University of Chicago Press, 1993
^ amazon.com

External links

Obituaries, biographies

Cornelius Castoriadis 1922-1997 at the Anarchist Federation website libcom.org, 27 September 2003
Symposium: Cornelius Castoriadis, 1922–1997, obituaries and profiles by Axel Honneth, Edgar Morin, and Joel Whitebook, Radical Philosophy magazine, July/August 1998 (access restricted to subscribers)
"Obituary: Castoriadis and the democratic tradition" by Takis Fotopoulos, Democracy & Nature", Vol. 4 No. 1 (1997)

Bibliographies; analyses; critiques

The Cornelius Castoriadis/Agora International Website contains bibliographies in many languagues and the complete text of the Socialisme ou Barbarie magazine series (texts scanned in the original French)
L'Association Castoriadis with bibliography, news, media events, original articles (in French)
"Cornelius Castoriadis and the triumph of the will" by Alex Callinicos, Chapter 4.3 of Trotskyism, 1990.
Cornelius Castoriadis, critical analysis at the Anarchist Federation website libcom.org
"An Introduction to Cornelius Castoriadis' Work" by Fabio Ciaramelli, Journal of European Psychoanalysis #6, Winter 1998 (access restricted to subscribers)
"The Strange Afterlife of Cornelius Castoriadis" by Scott McLemee, Chronicle of Higher Education, 26 March 2004 (access restricted to subscribers)
Full text of the Cornelius Castoriadis symposium held at the University of Akureyri, from the special issue of Nordicum-Mediterraneum, e-magazine of Nordic and Mediterranean studies, December 2008
"The autonomy project and Inclusive Democracy: a critical review of Castoriadis’ thought", by Takis Fotopoulos, The International Journal of Inclusive Democracy, Vol.4, No.2 (April 2008)
"Unities and Tensions in the Work of Cornelius Castoriadis With Some Considerations on the Question of Organization" by David Ames Curtis, talk delivered to "Autonomy or Barbarism"-sponsored event in Athens, 7 December 2007

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