Castoriadis and autopoiesis
Adams S. (2007) Castoriadis and autopoiesis. Thesis Eleven 88(1): 76–91. Available at http://cepa.info/4151
Table of Contents
Questioning objective knowledge
The living being
Castoriadis’s encounter with autopoiesis was a decisive factor for his philosophical trajectory. Its influence can be seen on four interconnected levels of his thought: his reconsideration of Greek sources for his later interpretation of trans-regional being as self-creating; his rethinking of objective knowledge; his ventures into philosophical cosmology; and his re-evaluation of the living being, especially in light of his dialogue with Varela. In brief, Castoriadis’s engagement with autopoiesis was significant for his shift towards an ontology of radical physis. His shift to radical physis does not point so much to a rejection of the project of autonomy, however, as, paradoxically, its simultaneous radicalization and relativization.
Key words: Autonomy, autopoiesis, Castoriadis, creation, radical physis, Varela
Castoriadis’s location within the auto-poietic field is heterodox. He was an active participant in the francophonic debates in the 1980s, where he developed many key insights in new directions. Castoriadis’s encounter with autopoiesis must be regarded as fundamental to his philosophical trajectory. In particular, it provided major momentum to his rethinking of physis, and to the subsequent shift from a regional ontology of nomos evident at the time of The Imaginary Institution of Society (1987a [Note 1975] ), to a trans-regional ontology of radical physis that occurred during the 1980s. Castoriadis’s shift to an ontology of radical physis itself can be interpreted as related to the Whiteheadian impulse towards a critical philosophical interpretation of science. Castoriadis’s encounter with the autopoietic field occurred on four different but intertwining levels: first, a philosophical elucidation and radicalization of Varela and Maturana’s neologism ‘autopoiesis’ in terms of its Greek sources and imaginary schema; second, a reconsideration of the objectivity of knowledge, especially in terms of the entwining of subject and object, and as this applies to the idea of increasing order or complexity; third, a rethinking of cosmology, particularly in regards to the ‘spectre of the spatialization of time that haunts physics’; and finally, a review of the living being – that is, autopoiesis in the narrow sense – and ongoing discussion with Varela regarding the limits of autonomy. The present article maps these overlapping currents and concludes that the implications radicalize Castoriadis’s project of autonomy, narrowly understood, but can also serve as a corrective to the broader project of autonomy.
Building on the discoveries of von Neumann in the 1940s[Note 1] autopoiesis is a term first coined by Varela and Maturana in 1973.[Note 2] The idea of autopoiesis does not constitute a unitary framework, rather it is but one of a number of heterogeneous trends within a contested and interdisciplinary field that ranges from cybernetics, psychology, biology and physics to chemistry and mathematics; it comprises overlapping and sometimes conflicting approaches such as self-organization theory, complexity theory, systems theory, chaos theory etc. It is an important natural scientific and theoretical development; indeed, in a later paper (1999a), Castoriadis singles out the new biology as the only ‘creative’ cultural innovation in the post Second World War era of general conformism.[Note 3] Autopoiesis from this perspective is a great advance on mechanistic visions of and approaches to nature, and to ‘living systems’ in particular which have long been conceived as an effect of mechanistic conditions. Yet, Castoriadis’s location within this field is ambiguous. On the one hand, he has always and consistently critiqued theoretical directions emerging from cybernetics and information theory (we see this in the early paper ‘Modern Science and Philosophical Interrogation’), [Note 4] and indeed his ongoing criticism of many strands of ‘complexity’ theory was that they ultimately rested on an onto-logic of determinacy: ontological creation and the emergence of alterity could not be accounted for. Nonetheless, he participated in many of the Cerisy Colloques that related to this broad field – Selforganization in 1981 (Castoriadis, 1997b; Dumouchel and Dupuy, 1983), in honour of Prigogine in 1983 (Brans et al., 1988; Castoriadis, 1997c), in honour of Morin in 1986 (Bougnoux et al., 1990; Castoriadis, 1989, 1990) and in honour of Barel in 1991 (Amiot et al., 1993; Castoriadis, 1993) – and at least one important discussion group hosted by CNRS (Groupe Interdisciplinaire), and his dialogue and engagement with Varela, the chief proponent of the autopoietic approach, is well known; Varela’s studies on living systems within the context of immunology were of inspiration to Castoriadis’s own reflections on the living being. Varela (1986) himself distinguishes autopoietic theory, in the narrow sense, from the more mathematically oriented selforganization theories of, for example, Henri Atlan (e.g. 1979, 1998; Milgram and Atlan, 1983). Although the autopoietic field historically emerged from cybernetics, biology and mathematics, its influence is now also felt in the social sciences and humanities; Luhmann’s autopoietic systems theory is the classic example.[Note 5] Unlike Luhmann, however, Castoriadis rejects autopoietic thought – that is, recourse to a biological framework – as fundamentally inadequate to elucidate the social-historical world.
Castoriadis espies in the neologism of autopoiesis a potential reactivation of ancient Greek imaginary schemas for elucidating being. ‘Auto’ meaning, ‘of and by itself’ and ‘poiesis’ meaning ‘creative production’, or for Castoriadis, ‘radical creation’ lends Castoriadis points of support to elucidate being in general as à-être (not just the regions of anthropic being) as ‘self-creating’, or literally, ‘autopoietic’. As such, the field of autopoiesis could hold promising insights for Castoriadis’s deepening philosophical interpretation of scientific, that is, epistemological frameworks, and, in tandem, a more speculative philosophical elucidation of alternative visions of being. In this vein, as Arnason (2003) has pointed out, Castoriadis’s approach – in the context of his shift to radical physis – is reminiscent of Whitehead’s project in that there is a paramount need for critical, philosophical interpretations of scientific visions of the world to be enriched by quasi-speculative, alternative philosophical articulations of the world.[Note 6]
Castoriadis’s encounter with autopoiesis coincides with a further wave of immersion in Greek sources: pre-Socratic visions of self-animated being, archaic insights – from Hesiod’s poetic ontology – of creatio ex nihilo, and the meaning of being as an interplay of chaos and kosmos (that is, the idea that being is neither fully ordered nor fully rational in the way that inherited science and philosophy presume) and a rediscovery of the creative aspects of physis, especially as articulated in its classic form by Aristotle, all provide impetus to his onto-cosmological thought, that is philosophical interpretations of world order.[Note 7] The convergence of these two encounters – the autopoietic and the ancient Greek – marks a further ontological shift in Castoriadis’s thought: the shift from regional nomos (at the time of The Imaginary Institution of Society (1987a [Note 1975] ) to radical physis, dating from the early 1980s (Adams, 2003). Therewith he began to rethink the idea of nature and natural modes of being, and to elucidate a trans-regional ontology of radical physis, in which all regions of being are characterized by a selfmoving quality of creation of form. Castoriadis’s interpretation of being became increasingly associated with his own neologism, à-être. It points to a notion of magmatic, trans-regional being as irregularly stratified; as an incessant always becoming being; and as a never-ending creation of new forms and new determinations, but which themselves are not so totally closed such that would prevent the emergence of new ontological forms. In this respect, too, we can see Castoriadis’s interpretation of creative nature as a critical reconsideration of the romantic imaginary of nature, and as part of the intermittent tradition of natura naturans/natura naturata that was especially important as a critique of Enlightenment visions of nature as generally inert and emptied of meaning.[Note 8] In the same vein, Castoriadis’s later philosophical elucidations could be interpreted along the lines of a critical Naturphilosophie – especially in light of the discussion of Whitehead, above.
A further point is worth mentioning: first, for Castoriadis, the chief characteristic of the Greek vision of being as self-moving and self-creating lies in its contrast to the Christian schema, in which, on Castoriadis’s account, nature/being is neither self-creative nor self-moving, but produced and set into motion externally and divinely by a Creator-Legislator God. His alternative elucidation of being can also be interpreted as part of his wider polemic against monotheistic (and therefore heteronomous) traditions and sources, and the importance of reinvigorating classical sources both for the project of autonomy writ large but in particular in its aspect as la philosophie. By la philosophie I mean the invention of philosophy in the strong sense, which for Castoriadis coincided with the birth of the democratic polis in ancient Athens, and was consubstantial with the birth of autonomy. In this vein, la philosophie signifies the shift from what we could call the philosophical (le philosophique) to philosophy proper, and its invention is analogous to what Castoriadis refers to as the creation of la politique – or politics in the strong and explicit sense – as opposed to the political (le politique). In this context, la philosophie as philosophy proper refers to the explicit interrogation or problematization of the social institution qua world, whereas le philosophique is but its mere interpretation: here the link to the Whiteheadian project seems obvious.[Note 9]
Questioning objective knowledge
Castoriadis’s encounter with the autopoietic field can also be seen at the level of epistemology in relation to the question of objective knowledge. In philosophical terms, Castoriadis interrogates the Cartesian, but especially the Kantian separation between the subject and object of knowledge (and the underlying metaphysics of mechanistic, inert nature). Castoriadis emphasizes rather their ultimate interconnection (1997e), and in so doing, the affirmation of the entwining of the chaotic and ordering elements of being itself, as well as, in a radicalization of Heidegger’s Kantbuch, the ever present interlacing of epistemology and ontology. For Castoriadis, all acts of knowledge are the function of two ensembles – that which depends on the observer and that which depends on the observed – and the origin of their emergence is ultimately undecidable (1997e: 345). Castoriadis does not suggest thereby that the distinction should be collapsed, rather that we need to recognize that the demarcation between the ‘subject’ and ‘object’ can only ever be achieved incompletely and contingently (Castoriadis, 1987c).
In terms of the living being as a complex system, Atlan’s thought, which examines increasing order from disorder, raises important questions for Castoriadis, who argues that to measure the creation of order or complexity that emerges from the living being’s encounter – or shock – with noise or disorder presents difficulties, as the construction of ‘order’ from ‘disorder’ cannot be demarcated from the subjective (in the widest sense) viewpoint of the scientific observer. Castoriadis introduces the philosophical notion of the pour soi in relation to the living being: the living being constitutes or creates its world, accepting only the information that it decides to integrate as such. This ‘information’ is created by the living being; it is not found awaiting it in nature. It is therefore this closed world (from the point of view of the functioning of the living being: informational, cognitive etc.) which is characteristic of the living being and a propros of which Varela speaks of ‘biological autonomy’. Castoriadis raises (but for which he finds no resolution) concerns about the epistemological implications of the living being’s self-creation of itself as an interior unity through the organization of its own world (Castoriadis, 1987c). The organization of each Eigenwelt forms the a priori conditions of the living being’s encounter with the natural world (1997f: 365); ‘information’ cannot enter the world of the living being without being transformed by its local properties and laws. Conventional approaches to knowledge cannot ‘enter’ into the internal world of the living being. In relation to the ‘x’ of ‘noise’ or ‘shock’ which the living being encounters, mentioned above, the ‘x’ is conventionally assumed to exist externally to the living being, is selectively sampled by the living being and cognitively metabolized, that is, transformed into the interior self-organization of its self-created world for-itself as meaningful information, which presents difficulties for the scientist to access. The living being, unlike non-living nature, creates an interiority – a proto-self – as part of the creation of its Eigenwelt, into which the scientific observer cannot fully enter. All acts of knowledge are the function of two ensembles: that which depends on the observer and that which depends on the observed (as the natural world), which, Castoriadis admits, has a certain structure in itself.
In this context, Castoriadis argues that the idea of ‘passage’ from a disordered state to an ordered one presents difficulties within Atlan’s thought in that it remains ultimately within the determinist imaginary. In an extension of his critique of Kant’s idea of sufficient reason, Castoriadis argues that although certain types of disorder might be necessary, they are not sufficient to produce a higher level order (that would be a return to the old physics!). What is missing is the idea of the ‘supplement of creation’ as opposed to a ‘supplement of sufficiency’. Absent, then, in Atlan’s account is the recognition of the self-creative element of being. For Castoriadis, a ‘supplement of sufficiency’ simply cannot exist; instead we find the moment of autocreation of the living being, in particular, and of being qua being in its heterogeneous strata and incessant self-creation. Castoriadis concludes that Atlan and Milgram’s ideas, which give the probabilistic automaton upon which the living being is modeled more efficacy than the determinist automaton, nonetheless still lean on determinist affirmations.
The third aspect to Castoriadis’s engagement with the idea of autopoiesis is at the physical level, in particular, the astrophysical or cosmological. The period in which Castoriadis concentrated on cosmological considerations – the second half of the 1980s – coincides with the latter part of his engagement with autopoietic thought more generally. This direction emerges from his reflections on time and creation, beginning with his presentation prepared for the Cerisy Colloque in honour of Ilya Prigogine in 1983. The 1983 paper grew into the essay ‘Time and Creation’ (1997c [Note 1986] ) and a series of unpublished seminars, outlining the foci of his cosmological considerations, themselves overlapping to some extent with his trans-regional ontology of radical physis.
The ‘spectre of the spatialization of time that haunts physics’ is essential to Castoriadis’s discussion of astrophysics. Time has traditionally been divided into subjective time and cosmological time: time of the world ‘as receptacle and dimension of whatever may appear, and as order and measure of this appearance’ (1997c [Note 1986] : 374). Castoriadis offers an alternative account of cosmological time: no longer reducible to a dimension of space, time appears as the time of otherness, or as the emergence of alterity. Unlike space, time, then, is not extrinsic to the new form emerging, rather it is consubstantial and co-emergent with it. In direct critique of Plato’s chora and Kant’s categories, time for Castoriadis is not an empty receptacle: empty time abstracted from the concrete form is not thinkable. Within this schema, being qua being is envisaged as à-être, as irregularly stratified, as the creation and destruction of forms, as an essentially temporal mode of being, yet one with an irreducible ensidic dimension. Thus the poietic dimension of what Castoriadis refers to as the first natural stratum – those strata of nature that are ensidizable – cannot totally be without local determinations. Creation in this sense for Castoriadis also incorporates the creation of laws and determinations. What we also see in this later essay – as opposed to the earlier Imaginary Institution of Society – is the shift from an emphasis on the creation of forms by the social-historical to an emphasis on the creation and destruction of forms as a general feature of being, a result of his thinking through the ‘arrow of time’ via the dimension of otherness. Time is indeed not reversible, but not in the conventional sense for Castoriadis. Rather, the irreversibility of time is indicative of the emergence or self-creation of forms that is the ultimate characteristic of being qua being. The self-creation of a new form (that is, as an other not merely different form) discloses time as creation (and destruction) of forms, and as such, cannot be linearly irreversible (1997c [Note 1986] : 397). Time is the means by which the world can be meaningfully ordered.
The living being
The final aspect of Castoriadis’s engagement with autopoietic thought occurs at the level of the living being (autopoiesis in the narrow sense that Varela lent it). Indeed, Varela constitutes Castoriadis’s primary and most sustained interlocutor in regards to the problematic of the living being. Theirs was a friendly and fruitful dialogue: Castoriadis (1980) was the first to review Varela’s (1979) Principles of Biological Autonomy and their mutual interest and engagement continued throughout the 1980s: Varela was a member of the aforementioned discussion group and participant at many of the Cerisy Colloques into the 1990s, where Varela presented a paper, entitled ‘Du bios au Logos’, at the 1990 Cerisy Colloque in honour of Castoriadis. He participated in a radio discussion with Castoriadis in the mid-1990s (Castoriadis, 1999b) and even, after Castoriadis’s death in 1997, presented a conference paper in New York in 2000, entitled ‘Castoriadis and the Life Sciences’. Common to both their approaches – as well as that of their contemporary, Atlan (1979) – is a critique of scientism in general. More particularly, Castoriadis and Varela both critique the conception of informational input/output in cybernetics as applied to the living being, for it assumes an interpretation of information as already completely formed in nature and waiting for the living being to simply find and absorb it. For Varela, the living being is an autonomous system in that it maintains its self-identity and organizational closure, where organizational closure signifies the autonomy of the living system’s cognitive domain. As autopoietic, the living being produces itself constantly and, as such, brings itself into being as living being, that is as that which is for itself.
The enigma of the living being had long interested Castoriadis: as early as 1973 in ‘Modern Science and Philosophical Interrogation’ (1984), as well as in The Imaginary Institution of Society (1987a [Note 1975] ), the living being was a recurring theme. The living being itself has multiple interstices in Castoriadis’s thought: it is situated at the interface of anthropic being, living nature and non-living nature, and exhibits shifting lines of continuity and discontinuity between these regions of being. With Castoriadis’s shift towards a transregional ontology of physis around the mid-1980s, the relationship between anthropos and the living being tends to be increasingly drawn in terms of continuity, although with important points of differentiation – especially around the capacity for autonomy – that comprise the focus of his critique of Varela. In this vein, as we have seen, the momentum of Castoriadis’s rethinking of the living being occurred as part of his prolonged encounter with scientific models of autopoiesis, and, as part of the increasing trend to interpret the living being as ontologically creative and as the archetype of the mode of being for-itself (I will return to this), the living being came to be seen more in continuity with anthropic modes of being, yet, at the same time, in psychoanalytic contexts, Castoriadis was careful to demarcate the human and non-human levels of being for-itself (see especially Castoriadis, 1989, 1990, 1997f).
During this period, Castoriadis wrote a veritable cluster of papers spanning approximately one year (December 1985–January 1987) that each address the living being. In May 1985, Castoriadis delivered ‘The State of the Subject Today’ (1989) to an audience of the psychoanalytic Fourth Group. In December 1985 he finished drafting ‘The Ontological Import of the History of Science’ (1997e); ‘Pour-soi et subjectivité’ (1990) emerged from the Cersiy Colloque honouring Edgar Morin in June 1986; and in October 1986 Castoriadis was in Florence to deliver his paper ‘Phusis and Autonomy’ (1997d) in which he directly addresses Varela’s idea of ‘biological autonomy’, as well as reactivating and radicalizing the creative aspects to Aristotelian physis – in relation to the living being and to being in general – he had previously overlooked. Finally, 1986–7 saw him deliver a seminar series on human creation (posthumously published as Sujet et Vérité, 2002).[Note 10] and especially, ‘Psychoanalysis and Philosophy’, 1997a). The final is the radio discussion with Varela from December 1995. These seminars, especially Seminar IV on 21 January 1987 and Seminar V on 28 January 1987, provide us with Castoriadis’s most thoroughgoing elucidation of the living being from this period.
Castoriadis’s philosophical elucidation of the living being combines critical engagement with scientific autopoiesis and an explicit re-activation of the philosophical idea of the Für-sich sein. Here we encounter his fusion of Aristotelian and Kantian motifs, although it is no longer just the Kant of the Critique of Pure Reason but also of the Critique of Judgement, and the rethinking of the philosophical implications of physis as creative.[Note 11] In accord with the general trend evidenced in Castoriadis’s trajectory at this time, the living being is now less characterized as ‘organizing’ and more properly theorized in terms of creation, in particular, creation of an Eigenwelt, with its attendant implications, both philosophical and biological.
The living being, although forming its own region of being, is elucidated as part of a more generalized dimension of being for-itself, of which Castoriadis identifies six overlapping levels: the living being, the human psyche, the social individual, the social-historical, as well as the ‘emergent capacity’ of the autonomous subject and the autonomous society (1990: 119). The living being is considered as the archetypal form of the for-itself (1990: 13); its ontological qualities permeate all regions and modes of being of the for-itself. As being for-itself, the living being is its own end and creates its own proper world (Eigenwelt), through which no ‘information’ can enter without being subjected to the laws and determinations of that world. The crucial difference between the living being and other regions of the for-itself is that the living being operates within functional closure – the defunctionalization of the human psyche ruptures the stratum of the living being at the anthropic moment. The living being instaurates the ‘subjective instance’ of a proto-self; it self-constitutes itself as itself – in contrast to inorganic nature, it creates a unity and an interior, a ‘subjective instance’. At the level of the living being, (proto)meaning comes into being for the first time: ‘existence’ is given (subjective) meaning by the living being.
Although nature as a whole is autopoietic and some reflections of this elementary characteristic are found at all levels of being, it is only at the level of the living being that ‘life’[Note 12] and the ‘subjective instance’ is first manifested, and correspondingly, another (an other) mode of being is created: the living being represents a rupture of inorganic nature and as such a rupture of and within being. An Eigenwelt consists of presentation, representation and putting into relation various elements to form a world. Everything that presents itself in this Eigenwelt is affect by a sign of value (positive, negative or zero); the living being possesses an intention which it translates into action. Implicit in the creation of an Eigenwelt is the imaginative capacity, although not yet the ‘radical imagination’ of the human psyche; the living being exhibits a corporeal imagination in the creation of an Eigenwelt. The elemental form of the imagination comes into play in creating ‘the image as image and as that image’ (Castoriadis, 1989), by creating its own world such that anything that it encounters ‘externally’ can only be processed or made ‘meaningful’ by entering into its own world. The living being in its self-constitution of an Eigenwelt exhibits three aspects: an aesthetic-noeitic (representation and the image – being able to put into image, make an image be, is of ontological importance – or ‘cognition’ in Varela’s terms), affect and intention/desire (1989: 13). For Castoriadis an Eigenwelt indicates that the ‘x’ of the external is – contra Kant – nothing in-itself, rather it is – to take up Fichte – an Anstoss, or ‘shock’ which becomes ‘something’ only as the living being forms it into something – in its own manner: ‘information’ is not reducible to input/output but is a creation (1989: 13). We may think of the Anstoss as an encounter with the world horizon. As such, the living being does not just ‘represent’ the external world to itself, but rather creates an interiority, or an archetypal ‘subjective instance’ (Castoriadis, 1990). An oftrepeated illustration by Castoriadis of the subjective instance of the living being concerns ‘colour’ in the natural world; colours do not exist in the physical world as such. The living being creates colour as a new stratum of being that is meaningful – has a reality – for it.
If the idea of autonomy brought Castoriadis and Varela together as interlocutors, it also is revealing of their differences. For Varela, autonomy has a meaning at the level of biology and the living being: the ongoing maintenance of its identity in its organizational, that is, cognitive, closure. For Castoriadis, however, autonomy is not part (either really or potentially) of the pour-soi’s mode of being; he prefers the term self-constitution to characterize the living being. But this is not simply a matter of semantics: autonomy and self-constitution have radically different implications for Castoriadis. He continues to reserve the idea of autonomy for human modes of being; the institution of the project of autonomy can only be understood as a political and cultural project that entails (in varying aspects of explicitness and obliqueness) the recognition that collective law is self-instituted – that is, not extra socially instituted – as well as the explicit interrogation of the institution of the world on an ongoing basis. The living being, on the other hand, creates the proto-meanings of its Eigenwelt, first, in (functional) closure and second, once and for all. For Castoriadis, autonomy is centrally linked to the Greek philosophical invention of nomos – indeed, Castoriadis tells us that ‘It is the term nomos that gives full meaning to the term and project of autonomy’ (1997d: 332). Nomos remains a mode of being specific to humankind; it enables a ‘self-reflexivity’ – beyond that of the ‘“blind” selfconstitution’ (1987c) of the living being – and an explicit political activity (as la politique). For Varela it is the self-creation, that is, autonomous creation, of an Eigenwelt (in Castoriadis’s parlance) that marks the biological autonomy of the living being. Varela has moved to collapse nomos into physis – nomos is the culmination of a self-creative physis – without retaining the productive tension of the nomos/physis problematic. As we have seen above, Castoriadis requires that self-creation of one’s world is recognized per se, and recognized in its ultimate openness, that is, able to be problematized, in order for the project of autonomy to be more than an ‘emergent capacity’ in the human realm.
Can Varela and Castoriadis be brought into accord? Varela is arguing against mechanistic notions of the living being: the living being is not caused, it autonomously – of and by itself for itself as itself – creates its own world. Castoriadis too argues against forms of determinism, but whereas he accepts that the living being creates its world in (functional) closure, the socialhistorical can rupture the tendency to closure by self-reflexive interrogation of the laws it gives itself in a way that the living being cannot. Yet Castoriadis sometimes hesitates at the dividing line between autonomy and selfcreation of a world in the human realm (I think specifically here of Castoriadis’s seminars on ancient Greece). In this sense, the signification of autonomy is ambiguous in Castoriadis’s thought. In this vein, too, the German critics of Castoriadis – and I think here of Habermas (1985) and Honneth (1986), whose article entitled ‘Rescuing the Revolution with an Ontology’ aptly sums up their main critical points – might hold some credence. Yet, another interpretation is possible: we can think of nomos as a region which forms part of the wider horizon of the eidos of the world for the poly-regionality of the pour-soi.[Note 13] Creation of an Eigenwelt is the ontological creation of the most basic form for each mode of being for-itself: self-creation of eidos is characteristic of the for-itself; the world, as an order of meaning, is first brought into existence with the living being. Prior to the emergence of the living being, there is neither ‘world’ nor ‘meaning’ in – or rather, for – strata of non-living inorganic nature. The form of the world is created autonomously, in Varela’s sense; but it is only in the human realm that it can be recognized as such, put into question and changed; only in the human realm can the political promise of nomos be activated. The living being, or, to use the example favoured by Castoriadis in his engagement with Varela, the schizophrenic, cannot put their world into question; it is created in a very strong closure that cannot be ruptured. Yet it is the very rupture of closure that autonomy entails, which for Castoriadis can only be achieved reflexively. Conversely, the appearance – or self-creation – of the living being is itself a rupture with other (inorganic) strata of being. For Castoriadis, the recognition of the self-creating, self-constituting mode of being of the living being as being-for-itself heralds an important marker on the way to autonomy and stronger lines of continuity between human and natural modes of being than at the time of The Imaginary Institution of Society. The autonomist imaginary has potentially broader relevance for more regions of being than the merely anthropic, and as such could have greater overlap with Varela’s sense of biological autonomy than Castoriadis has acknowledged. However, in that Varela tends to collapse nomos into physis, the value of retaining the notion of biological autonomy is potentially more limited than a first glance might reveal.
A second point of difference with Varela and the proponents of autopoiesis more generally is worth mentioning at this point: Castoriadis does not use the language of systems theory. It is clear that Castoriadis, in terms of human modes of being – that is, the social-historical – does not employ the concept of system. Instead, he introduces the idea of socialhistorical (and other anthropic modes of being) as magma in Chapter 4 of The Imaginary Institution of Society. In the final chapter of that book we see him extend the notion of magma into natural modes of being as well, in particular the living being. Moreover, with the emergence of the dimension of ontology of the for-itself, the living being is seen rather as a proto-self, not a system. The difficulties with the idea of ‘system’ are that it excludes for Castoriadis a diachronic approach. Yet is this problematic resolved in the idea of a proto-self that creates its Eigenwelt ‘once and for all’, especially when the idea of a ‘once and for all’ is interpreted as a marker of difference to the ‘incessant self-alteration’ of the social-historical? At an earlier juncture (1984 [Note 1973] ), he seemed content with the idea of the diachronic implications of a living system: ‘The same question arises in different fashion in biology, where the “system” only counts as a living system by virtue of its capacity to “evolve,” whether at the ontogenetic level, the phylogenetic level or the level of the global biosystem’ (1984 [Note 1973] : 203–4). In many respects, the notion of the living system seemed to not close down the problematic of the entwining of synchronic and diachronic approaches that Castoriadis left unresolved in his more developed philosophy of the living being in the 1980s.
In relation to the idea of the ‘self’ a potential misunderstanding needs to be clarified: it is not always apparent in the renderings of ‘self’ in English whether it refers to the impersonal use of ‘auto’ as in ‘auto-organization’ or ‘autopoiesis’, or rather if it refers to the ‘self’ of a subjective instance, as in Castoriadis’s various overlapping regions of the modes of being for-itself, or Morin’s psychoanalytic self (soi), or the reflexive use, e.g. s’auto-créer, that is not widely used in English. In this context, Ricoeur’s (1992 [Note 1990] ) introduction to Oneself as Another is helpful for its elucidation of the different ways in which we – and different languages, in what Descombes (1991) calls a ‘philosophical grammar’ – can express the self. In the case of autopoiesis, the ‘self’ of the subjective instance is not theorized as such, rather the focus is on the impersonal self of ‘auto-organization’, yet it is interesting too that a 1995 paper by Varela is entitled ‘The Emergent Self’ wherein he argues that living beings have to be understood as a ‘mesh of virtual selves’. Certainly at the level of the living being, it does not just create a world of and by itself, but also for-itself: the instauration of the subjective level requires a sense of a proto-self. For Castoriadis, the world or being qua being creates itself; whilst I am not suggesting for Castoriadis that the being is a self in the strong sense of the term, there is a sense that transregional being that self-creates itself by itself needs to be understood very generally in terms of an impersonal self or proto-self of creation.
In conclusion, Castoriadis’s advances in rethinking the living being, cosmology and objective knowledge occur as part of a more general shift in the 1980s to an ontology of radical physis as trans-regional creative emergence; these developments emerged directly from his encounter with scientific conceptions of autopoiesis. The project of autonomy remained central to Castoriadis’s trajectory. The shift to a trans-regional ontology of physis does not dilute Castoriadis’s commitment to autonomy (nomos is not collapsed into physis); if anything it radicalizes it further, as, reminiscent of Whitehead, Castoriadis puts into question the existing scientific institution of the world – elucidating thereby an alternative ontology – in order to effect change. Philosophical elucidation is important to Castoriadis as one of the twin aspects of autonomy: it interrogates the social institution of the world. Castoriadis’s rethinking of the idea of nature and objective knowledge, his shift to a more romantic conception of nature as creative, and the development of his regional ontologies of the living being and cosmology are intrinsic to the philosophical aspects of the project of autonomy, as they interrogate – put into question – the vision of nature that underpins the cultural project of the infinite pursuit of ‘rational mastery’ as embodied in capitalism and capitalist science, as one of the dual, imaginary institutions of modernity. His critical reconsideration of the romantic imaginary of nature – and its meaning for us – serves to problematize the unlimited rational mastery sought by an ultimately overbearing age of reason, and in that sense, it might be seen also as a complement and corrective to the project of autonomy, in that it invites us to rethink – as a political project – nature, our interconnections with it, and limits on our control over and intervention into it.
Many thanks to Johann Arnason and Mats Rosengren for their generous comments on earlier drafts. Great thanks are also due to Zoé Castoriadis and Myrto Gondicas, whose tireless efforts made access to unpublished documents in the Castoriadis archives possible.
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A different approach is taken by Gare (2000), who traces the precursors of self-organization theory to the proto-cybernetic tektology of the Russian Aleksandr Bogdanov. Given that Castoriadis has consistently critiqued cybernetic approaches, given his strong interest in the philosophical interrogation of contemporary science and in a ‘non-reductionist’ science as well as the creativity of both the social and the natural dimensions of being, all of which are crucial to his broader project of autonomy as radical social transformation, Gare’s criticisms of Castoriadis that he has made little effort ‘to show how a new science would facilitate the transformation of society’ (p. 354) or, because of his interest in politics, would not see that ‘the democratic organization of society at all levels requires a new, non-reductionist science that allows for the appreciation of the creativity of nature, society and individuals’ (p. 355) seem surprising (see Castoriadis, 1987d). See also Komesaroff’s (1986) critical approach to science and society.
This was the first published usage (Maturana and Varela, 1973). In a later paper (1995) Varela speaks of inventing the idea/term in 1970.
Castoriadis qualifies this compliment by pointing out that it leaned on von Neumann’s work in the first half of the century. This proviso, however, points rather to the limitations of Castoriadis’s strong notion of creation ex nihilo as excluding an interpretative element, rather than to a lack of originality or inventiveness within the new biology itself.
First written in 1970, published in 1973 (English publication 1984).
See, for example, Luhmann (1984). For a critical appraisal of Luhmann, see Arnason (1997). For a critical discussion of systems theory and complexity as they pertain to social change, see Fotopoulos (2000).
See, for example, Whitehead (1961).
See, for example, the posthumous publication of Castoriadis’s 1983 seminars on ancient Greece (2004), as well as the paper on the social imaginary and scientific change (1987b). For a discussion of Aristotle, radical physis and Varela, see Castoriadis (1997d).
Parallels can be drawn here between the later trajectory of Castoriadis and Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty’s (2003) lectures on nature, which included a critical reappraisal of the romantic idea of nature, centrally informed his breakthroughs in the unfinished The Visible and the Invisible (1968).
Elsewhere I have critiqued Castoriadis for neglecting the interpretative dimension to creation and the creative dimension to interpretation. In this vein, Castoriadis’s understanding of the philosophical as le philosophique is always already problematized (see Adams, 2005; see also Arnason, 2001).
A final development in Castoriadis’s philosophy of the living being occurs late in Castoriadis’s trajectory, roughly speaking, from the 1990s (for example, ‘Done and To Be Done’, 1997f [Note 1989] and especially, ‘Psychoanalysis and Philosophy’, 1997a). The final is the radio discussion with Varela from December 1995.
Kant’s third critique makes a useful analogy for Castoriadis’s trajectory: from the importance of the imagination (as taken up and altered by Kant in the first and second editions of the first critique) to the increasing importance on the creative aspects of nature and aesthetic creation as an oblique form of autonomous questioning or judgment is an emergent trend in his post-1990 trajectory. Kant’s third Critique also opens onto the Romantic current of modern thought, with echoes of natura naturans/natura naturata, which becomes central to Schelling’s Naturphilosophie.
‘Life’ for Castoriadis is signified by the presence of the imagination, in the case of the living being, the corporeal imagination. This becomes increasingly clearer in his post 1990 thought (see note 10 above).
Thus when Castoriadis shifts from a regional ontology of nomos to a transregional ontology of physis he does not collapse nomos into physis but rather relocates Heidegger’s ontological difference such that being qua being is characterized by physis-as-creation, which is differently and concretely manifested according to the level or region of being in question.
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