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Cornelius Castoriadis, Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy, ed. David Ames Curtis (Oxford University Press, 1991)

Preface to the Electronic Reprint of the 1989 Editor's Foreword (2003)

The editor's Foreword to Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy and the book it introduces have an interesting history. A brief recounting of that history may help the reader to appreciate more fully both this Foreword--reprinted below with the permission of the publisher, Oxford University Press--and the problems the book itself encountered in the process of its publication. Like any other work in a capitalist society, a book is a product of struggle and bears the scars and mutilations of that struggle in the final product offered for sale to the often unsuspecting end-consumer. Not surprisingly, the cultural and intellectual conflicts of that society enter into the product and inevitably leave their disfiguring marks, as well.


English-language translation of Cornelius's work already had a substantial history when I entered upon the scene. In the pseudonymous person of "Maurice Brinton," London Solidarity had been publishing excellent Castoriadis translations since 1960, even before Socialisme ou Barbarie's British sister organization adopted its definitive name. The baton was taken up temporarily, but not very skillfully, by Telos (1975-1982) until controversy surrounding the value of Castoriadis's writings led to a split in this American journal's editorial board, Telos editor Paul Piccone maintaining an aggressively negative view of Cornelius's contributions as against his champions, Dick Howard and Joel Whitebook, among others. Two volumes of post-S. ou B. Castoriadis writings in translation also were already under way by that time: soon before my first arrival in France in late December 1984, the first volume from the Carrefours du labyrinthe series was published as Crossroads in the Labyrinth (though it was of questionable value as a translation) and The Imaginary Institution of Society came into print in 1987 (though it remained available exclusively in an expensive hardbound copy for another decade).

My initial translation project undertaken with Castoriadis's approval and support was to present what became the Political and Social Writings (PSW), a selection in three volumes of his principal S. ou B.texts that had been reprinted by "Editions 10/18" along with previously unpublished materials as well as new introductions and essays (1973-79) . Although many "political" and "alternative" presses were among the 40 publishers I contacted for this project, only one academic press, at the University of Minnesota, responded affirmatively. Once the first two PSW volumes appeared in 1988, Cornelius and I turned our efforts toward finding a publisher for Domaines de l'homme (1986), the second volume in his Carrefours du labyrinthe series. I had already translated a number of these texts for various journals in order to develop interest in publication of a book-length volume, and other texts already had been written and published in English by Castoriadis himself. When it became clear that it would be extremely difficult to find an editor willing to publish this 455-page volume in its entirety, we accepted an offer from Josué V. Harari and Vincent Descombes's Odéon series at Oxford University Press (OUP). In late November 1989, Harari proposed to us a three-volume series (for, in the meantime, a new volume in the Carrefours series, Le monde morcelé, was being readied for publication), if we would quickly prepare an initial selection of Castoriadis's Carrefours writings that by happenstance were already available in English.

Cornelius and I rapidly fulfilled our side of the bargain for what became Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy (PPA). But neither was there a timely publication of this first volume (instead, there was an unexplained, nearly two-year delay between OUP's receipt of the materials and final publication), nor were contracts ever forthcoming for the two subsequent volumes Harari had promised "in principle." We thus irrevocably gave up the possibility of publishing translations of the Carrefours series in correct order with recognizable renditions of the original French titles, and we received little in return either for our good-faith efforts or for the trust we placed in the Odéon series editors, one of whom was a former member of S. ou B. Cornelius, especially, felt that we had to rely on these editors' good will and thereby overcame my objections when I questioned whether such an insecure arrangement, which didn't even include a signed translator/editor's contract for the first volume, might be too unreliable a proposition. (Cornelius nevertheless always insisted quite strongly that I be paid well for my professional work.)

To add insult to injury, even our joint choice for PPA's subtitle was not honored! As I wrote, with Cornelius's prior approval, on December 13, 1990 to my OUP editor:

Our subtitle for Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy has been altered without our being consulted. "Essays in the Self-Transformation of Humanity" has been changed to the wholly unacceptable "Essays in Political Philosophy." The replacement subtitle is (a) redundant, considering that it already contains two-thirds of the title, (b) a contradiction of the author's insistance that there is no such thing as political philosophy (cf. p. 102 of MS: "political philosophy...really has never been anything but a philosophy talking about politics and external to the latter"), and (c) does not convey the overall argument of the book, which does not concern simply "political philosophy" but also the effort, to be undertaken by humanity as a whole, to transform itself (i.e., to assert its autonomy concretely). I see no valid reason why "Essays in the Self-Transformation of Humanity," which reprises the final page of the last article of the volume, should not be retained. I should note here that Castoriadis is in full agreement with all of the above listed reasons. He will be glad to say so in writing, should you require this.

A promise was duly made to remove this redundant and contradictory subtitle to which we had both vehemently objected; and another proposed title, Autonomy: Essays in Philosophy and Poltics, was at one time approved. In the end, without apology or explanation, the volume appeared with the offending and misleading subtitle substituted by OUP. Since that time, English-language readers have thus labored under a false impression that PPA is a purely academic volume concerned inexplicably with a "political philosophy" Castoriadis regularly belittled or denied, instead of a deliberate intervention in and explicit contribution to the effort to achieve the project of autonomy as Castoriadis helped to conceive it and to champion it.

It was only much later that I learned why OUP defiantly and steadfastly ignored the author's own wishes concerning the title and publication of his book as part of a three-volume series that never materialized. My New York OUP editor Liz McGuire finally admitted to me that, as soon as OUP editors in England saw a copy of the manuscript I had prepared for publication, with the word PHILOSOPHY figuring so prominently in the title, they sought to have the entire project scrapped immediately. Odéon series editor Harari had from the start entertained the (to me, rather repugnant) hope that PPA would become "the next On Grammatology" (the touchstone, for many Anglo-Saxon editors, of marketing success in the world of academic publishing, despite that Derrida tome's manifest unreadability). OUP's British editors in turn found it outrageous that someone like Castoriadis, often lumped into the "French theory" category, would be publishing a book about Philosophy without having any recognized Anglo-American analytic-philosophy credentials. When it proved impossible to cancel purely and simply a book OUP had already accepted for publication, the next best thing was an alteration in the subtitle, apparently with the thought that relegating the book to the inconsequential realm of "political philosophy" lessened the outrage some OUP editors felt in seeing Oxford publishing this volume at all. For his part, Harari threatened to seize control of the book from me, its editor, when I questioned his failure to fulfill financial and moral commitments made to Cornelius and myself. Indeed, this was neither the first nor the last time I willingly made myself the lightning rod for criticism in service to the goal of making quality Castoriadis translations widely available in the English language. (Cornelius consistently resisted the idea of hiring a literary agent but agreed for me to play many aspects of that role; I always conscientiously checked with him before proceeding, as the excerpt from December 13, 1990 letter to OUP quoted above attests.) Descombes, for his part, maintained that he was merely a "scientific advisor" having nothing to do with anything relating to contractual matters. As for OUP, it even took a year after publication for the company grudgingly to send Castoriadis his promised complimentary hardbound and paperback copies.


In what follows on this page, I have scrupulously followed Oxford University Press's stipulation "that apart from converting into electronic format the OUP material must not be altered, modified, or added to in any way." This, despite the fact that both the book itself, in its subtitle, and my editor's Foreword to this volume, were altered without Cornelius's or my consent.

The interested reader can click on the various links to discover what was excised from the original draft of this Foreword. Some sentences were eliminated apparently in order to tone down enthusiasm about the book's publication and about its contents, or to play down claims as to its philosophical significance and political import. Other, more substantial cuts go to the heart of what this book is about. The original draft Foreword was intended to show PPA's relevance to contemporary issues both in academe and beyond, taking a stand against both neoconservative advocates of a narrowly defined authoritarian test of "cultural literacy" and multicultural "radicals" who had ceased to make the project of autonomy a central feature of their theoretical practice. A short incursion into the question of how Castoriadis's conceptions of "social imaginary significations" and of "the social-historical" might contribute to an understanding of the then-burning issues of "race" and "gender" was also dropped. Thus, like the subtitle of the volume, the final printed version of this Foreword offered a distorted and truncated view of the book it was introducing. By keeping in mind the subtitle Castoriadis and I had originally chosen and by reading the Foreword in the light of the excised passages, the reader may glean a more informed view of what we tried to bring to her attention and consideration, and she may also be encouraged to reflect upon the struggle cultural workers, like any other workers, face daily within a capitalist society.

David Ames Curtis, September 28, 2003

CREDIT LINE: From PHILOSOPHY, POLITICS, AUTONOMY by Cornelius Castoriadis, edited by David Ames Curtis, copyright ©1991 by Oxford University Press, Inc. Used by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.


Only of late has the Anglophone reading public become aware of Cornelius Castoriadis and his five decades of work. Despite the pioneering efforts of the British journal Solidarity to translate Castoriadis' writings, efforts continued at one time by Telos and now by Thesis Eleven, it was only in 1984, with the publication of Crossroads in the Labyrinth, that Castoriadis' distinctive thought became accessible to a broad English-speaking audience. That first book-length translation, which contained articles from the previous decade, was followed by the publication of The Imaginary Institution of Society in 1987 and two volumes of his Political and Social Writings in 1988; the writings found in these latter translations, however, date from the mid-1940s through the mid-1970s. The publication of the present volume will be the first time that Castoriadis' essays are published in English in book form in a timely fashion.

What makes this situation so striking is that there are so few living, active writers of Cornelius Castoriadis' experience and breadth of vision. To recap briefly the path he has traveled, (1) Castoriadis, born in 1922 in Constantinople, began his political life at age fifteen years as a member of the Greek Communist Youth, formed an opposition group within the Greek Communist Party (1941) after the German Occupation, joined the Trotskyists (1942) when he became convinced that the Communists were unreformable, and spent much of the rest of the war dodging both Stalinist agents and the Gestapo. Leaving Greece for France, he joined the Trotskyist Fourth International in Paris, where his unwelcome attack on the Fourth's "unconditional defense of the Soviet Union" led him and others to form an opposition group, Socialisme ou Barbarie. Basing their criticism on people's actual aspirations toward autonomy in the form of workers' self-management, they developed an intransigent critique of Russia and other Stalinist regimes as new social formations, neither traditionally capitalist nor socialist. The group broke with the Fourth (1948) to become eventually the most influential source for a non-Communist Left in France as well as the forerunner to the ideas and actions of the May 1968 student rebellion. Editor of the journal Socialisme ou Barbarie, Castoriadis authored its principal texts (1949-1966). He retired from his day job as an economist at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (1970) and became a practicing psychoanalyst (1974) as well as a Director of Studies at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (1979). He is now recognized as one of Europe's foremost political and social thinkers. That he addresses in the present collection such a wide variety of topics and disciplines as philosophy, politics, and history, both ancient and modern, economics, ecology, contemporary political and social thought, aesthetics, the philosophy of science, and psychoanalysis is an indication of the breadth of his vision.

In the articles, lectures, and conference discussions that follow, we discover Castoriadis the essayist and engaged writer. (2) Employing his vast erudition, his fine sense of purpose and proportion, and his sharp wit, he goes straight to the heart of the issues he addresses, placing the aspiration for individual and collective autonomy at the center of his concerns. These essays represent not discussions about specific political and social events, nor a discourse designed to erect or resurrect a "social theory," nor even philosophical speculations about the nature of "the political." These essays are actual philosophical and political attempts, through example and participation, to contribute to the ongoing historical movements that foster people's creative assertion of their autonomy.

Where does this self-implicating human creation that is individual and collective autonomy come from? Like all creation, Castoriadis would say, it comes from nowhere (ex nihilo); we cannot reduce it to anterior "causes" or attribute it to an invariant "human nature." However, creation does not occur without any means (cum nihilo) or out of all context (in nihilo). In fact--and this is the principal thesis presented and defended in this book--the beginnings of autonomy as a social-historically effective project can be dated and located. It began in Greece and took place in the Greek poleis from the eighth to the fifth century B.C., to be repeated in another form in the bürger cities that arose at the end of the Middle Ages in Western Europe. This project of autonomy is expressed in the simultaneous, but not identical, creation (and then recreation) of philosophy and politics as the reflective questioning of instituted traditions and the attempt to alter these traditions and institutions through conscious collective action.

Here misunderstandings may arise. When someone speaks of ancient Greece or "European culture" today, the habitual reaction is often to shout "Imperialism!", "Eurocentrism!", and "Down with Western Civilization!"as a Stanford University student's sign in fact proclaimed during a protest in favor of replacing the school's mandatory introductory course in European culture with a broader study of world cultures. Philosophy and politics began in Greece? What a narrow view! What about "Eastern Philosophy"? And did not Greek democracy mean slavery for many as well as the disenfranchisement of women?

For Castoriadis, philosophy is not synonymous with speculation about the world, its origins, its meaning. It is the reflective questioning of socially instituted representations, including those instituted with the help of philosophical reflection. His bold claim is that reflection itself as well as effective judging and choosing are historical in character and have their origins in ancient Greece. Thus there is, for example, no oriental "philosophy," this being an anachronistic use of the Greek term. What Greek philosophy makes possible, he argues, is not (religiously) instituted ideas and beliefs along with interminable commentary thereupon, but dozens of contending schools of thought. Thus, too, politics as self-responsible conscious collective action to alter a society's institutions is also a Greek creation, one that not only implies but also presupposes the establishment of a public space open to all who assert themselves as free and consider themselves and each other as equals. As this is a project, autonomous political activity aims not at a ready-made system requiring no further changes, but rather at the inauguration and continuous renewal of a reflective and willed effort to reshape our institutions to our recognized needs and desires in such a way that the project of individual and collective autonomy is itself fostered and reinforced. What is interesting about the Greek poleis, Castoriadis argues, is not a Greek "model" of democracy and politics (which we would somehow now be asked to endorse or to reject), but the ongoing instituting activity it fostered for four centuries. Moreover, philosophy implies politics and vice versa, for philosophy as the reflective challenge to inherited thought cannot exist without the assertion of a political will that this be possible, and politics cannot consciously transform existing institutions unless these institutions themselves can be put explicitly into question.

Far from being a sanctification of "Western values"--even those of dialogue and questioning for their own sake--the thrust of Castoriadis' argument, then, is that it is only to the extent that we are willing and able to put our values into question, knowing why and for what purpose we are doing so, that we can continue the West's unique project of autonomy. Autonomy is not merely "self-institution." The latter is always occurring in society, most often in the form of heteronomy, the "self-occultation"of this self-instituting process, its imputation to an extrasocial, supranatural source. It was because the Greeks had no sacred books that this project could come into being in the first place. It was because the reassertion of autonomy in Western European cities was expressed in an effort at self-rule, free from Church dictates and State power, that lucid philosophical questioning could effectively be reborn.

This being the thrust of Castoriadis' argument, the priority he assigns to ancient Greece as the birthplace of philosophy, politics, and the project of autonomy appears not as a "romantic" glance backward or a pious "defense" of "Western values," but as an elucidation of their unique meaning, which implies and involves a critical continuation of this very project. As he argues in "The Greek Polis and the Creation of Democracy," the problem for those who wish to flatten out history and make the Greeks just another people is that history itself as impartial "historiography" along with "the reasoned investigation of other cultures and the reflection upon them" are also Greek inventions. This is the "minute" but absolutely "decisive point" that advocates of the flattening approach have missed. It is only when we acknowledge and come to appreciate the true uniqueness of the Greco-Western tradition that we realize the significant contribution an impartial understanding of other cultures qua other cultures offers for the project of autonomy, this effort to question our own representations and to transform our institutions. To adopt for a moment the coarse categories of course catalogues, coming to terms with and assuming the legacy of "Western Civilization" does not stand in contradiction to, but serves precisely as the presupposition for, the study of "world cultures" as well as the possible critical and genuine reception of them. (3) Likewise, an awareness of other cultures is necessary for us to be able to criticize and alter our own. Here we can sense the aspiration for autonomy that is implication this talk of world cultures. Yet this aspiration often now not only does not speak its name but denies its own existence.

Autonomy is not the only "social imaginary signification" of the modern West. The other main cultural meaning guiding our lives is what Castoriadis calls "the unlimited expansion of 'rational' mastery." Such pseudorational mastery has been implemented most notably in capitalism and totalitarianism but also in our technoscientific attitude toward, and transformation of, nature and society (now accompanied by the prospect of worldwide ecological destruction). With the waxing of the project of total control has come the waning of the project of autonomy. As with the choice Castoriadis has formulated of "socialism or barbarism," the battle between autonomy and heteronomy--between the assertion of autonomy and that which today erodes its very existence--is not one of an external opposition but of two intimately connected options, unfolding together as they alter themselves and each other. To respond fully to the challenge of and the challenges to autonomy, in the domain of philosophy as well as in the political realm, is of the greatest import today. These essays invite us to assume precisely that responsibility, in our thought and in our action.

December 1989 David Ames Curtis


1. For an in-depth biographical/intellectual history, see Castoriadis's General Introduction to the first volume of his Political and Social Writings, tr. David Ames Curtis, 2 vols. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988) and my Foreword, also found in this first volume. A constantly updated supplement to the bibliography which appears in the Appendixes is available through: Agora International, 27 rue Froidevaux, 75014 Paris, France.

2. More than half of these writings originally appeared in English, a language he speaks fluently; I have edited them mainly with an eye toward correcting printer's errors, standardizing terminology and clarifying a few ambiguous phrases. With one exception, I translated the rest. As mentioned in note 17 of my Foreword to the first volume of Castoriadis's Political and Social Writings (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), pp. xxi-xxii, the nonsexist--if still grating--use of "s/he" and "his/her" is employed when translating and editing Castoriadis's contemporary writings; he, too, now generally employs "nonsexist" language.

3. Should the point need making, "Greek" and "European" in Castoriadis' vocabulary designate cultural formations, not geographical locations, or "racial types."