Cornelius Castoriadis (Κορνήλιος Καστοριάδης) (March 11 1922-December 26 1997) was a Greek-French philosopher, economist and psychoanalyst. Author of the 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 soon after 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 (Kommounistike 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 Ethikes). During the violent episodes between ELAS and the Athenian people against the British troops and the Papandreou government in December 1944, 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-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.
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 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. Although he was active in the political movements of the 1960s, his interests shifted from direct political action and revolution towards seeking to understand the relationship of the human individual to social formations.
This led him towards more philosophical and psychoanalytic understandings of human social and political life and 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 reflexion. 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 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. This led some people to suggest he had become a cold war apologist for the West.
In 1980, he joined the faculty of the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales.
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).
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 physics, biology, anthropology, psychoanalysis, linguistics, society, economics, politics, philosophy, and art.
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 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.