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Western Philosophy
20th-century philosophy
Name: Cornelius Castoriadis
Birth: March 11, 1922 (Constantinople, Turkey)
Death: December 26, 1997 (Paris, France)
Main interests
Marxism, Political philosophy, Psychology, Psychoanalysis, Economics
Notable ideas
Influences Influenced
Karl Marx, etc |
Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Maurice Brinton, Takis Fotopoulos

Cornelius Castoriadis[1] (Greek: Κορνήλιος Καστοριάδης) (March 11 1922-December 26 1997) was a Greek-French philosopher, economist and psychoanalyst. Author of the The Imaginary Institution of the Society, co-founder of the Socialisme ou Barbarie group, director of the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales since 1979 and 'philosopher of autonomy' he is one of the major thinkers of the 20th century.

Early life in Athens

He was born in Constantinople and his family moved soon after to Athens. Castoriadis 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 boarded a Portuguese boat (Mataroa) from Piraeus to Paris, where he remained permanently, to continue his studies under a scholarship offered by the French Institute.

Activities in Paris

Once in Paris, Castoriadis joined the local Trotskyist and Communist groups, but broke with the former 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 who were 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 (UK) 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. In 1980 he joined the faculty of the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales.

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.

On December 26, 1997, he died from complications following heart surgery.


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).

Castoriadis's work will be remembered for its remarkable continuity and coherence as well as for its extraordinary breadth. It was "encyclopaedic" in the original Greek sense, Morin noted, 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, never claiming a spurious "expertise" conferred by specialization or losing sight of the overall picture.

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 Han Joas attempted in the early 1980s to bring Castoriadis' work and thought to an anglophone audience, as have others, with little success. Some of Castoriadis' greatest influence in the anglophone world has come in the field of cultural anthropology.

Part of the problem which may prevent people from engaging with his thought lies in the great specificity he uses to redefine his terms. While he uses traditional terms as much as possible (this may be the result of a desire to avoid overwhelming the reader with neologisms), he consistently redefines these terms and invests them with very specific content. Further, some of his terminology changed throughout the later part of his career, with the general tendency that the terms took on a greater clarity and 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 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.: D.A.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' Struggel Against Bureaucracy to Revolution in the Age of Modern Capitalism. (ed./trans.: D.A.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.: D.A.Curtis) University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 1993. 405 pp.ISBN 0-8166-2168-3.
  • Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy. Essays in Political Philosophy. (ed. David A. Curtis) Oxford University Press, New York/Oxford 1991. 306 pp. ISBN 0-19-506963-3.
  • The Imaginary Institution of Society. (trans.:Kathleen Blamey) MIT Press, Cambridge 1998. 432 pp. ISBN 0-262-53155-0. (pb.)
  • Crossroads in the Labyrith. (trans.: M.H.Ryle/K.Soper) MIT Press, Cambridge, MA 1984. 345 pp.
  • On Plato's Statesman. (trans.: D.A.Curtis) Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA 2002. 227 pp.
  • Le Contenu du Socialisme. Paris 1979. (fr.) (in: PSW, vol.1)
  • 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.

External links

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