Towards a Post-Phenomenology of Life: Castoriadis' Critical Naturphilosophie

By Adams, Suzi | Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, January 2008 | Go to article overview

Towards a Post-Phenomenology of Life: Castoriadis' Critical Naturphilosophie


Adams, Suzi, Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy


In the wake of Merleau-Ponty's rethinking of nature and ontology, contemporary discussions in French phenomenology have sought to redraw the lines of continuity between human and non-human nature through a reconsideration of 'life'. (1) The present paper focuses on a little discussed thinker within current French phenomenological constellations: Cornelius Castoriadis. Emerging from multiple encounters with Merleau-Ponty's thought, Castoriadis' philosophy is best known for its interrogation of autonomy and creation in the socio-political domains. (2) His later reflection, however, reveals a renewed consideration of the creativity of nature which can be reconstructed in terms of the problematic of 'life'. Castoriadis' critical Naturphilosophie provides us with significant insights into the ontological pre-conditions of anthropic life on the one hand, or nonhuman regions of the cosmos as 'living' on the other. For Castoriadis, life qua life is understood as auto-poietic, that is, as self-moving, self-creating. The reconsideration of the self-creativity of being is part of his wider dialogue between romantic and Enlightenment currents of modernity where a critical Naturphilosophie is understood to question the lifelessness of the modern, mechanistic cosmos. (3) Although his later Naturphilosophie reconfigures the lines of continuity and discontinuity between human and non-human nature, Castoriadis does not reduce human institution to nature as part of a cosmic whole as some of the early Romantics were wont to do. Rather, with his image of being as heterogeneous and irregularly stratified, he continues to further clarify the characteristics unique to the human condition and question the flattening effects of the unfettered pursuit of rational mastery on the social and natural worlds as part of his project of autonomy. Castoriadis' contribution to a phenomenology of vertical life is doubly significant: first, he extends the notion of 'being alive' (leben) to nonliving, that is, physical nature. Second, on Castoriadis' account, with the emergence of the living being, the 'subjective instance' is instaurated. Here the world as an ultimate horizon is not seen as apriori to existential life; it does not exist in the physical world. Rather, the emergence of existential life (erleben) is seen as co-emergent with the 'world' as a horizon of (proto)meaning, and new mode of being. Thus, Castoriadis' perspective on the vertical dimensions of life addresses the ontological preconditions of ways of being-in-the-world. In the present context, we will primarily focus on his elucidation of the kosmos and the living being as they pertain to the question of 'life' in its vertical dimensions. The paper concludes that Castoriadis' interpretation of life and his ontology of nature are to be understood as a critical rethinking of Naturphilosophie as part of his wider project of autonomy.

Castoriadis' philosophical trajectory can be interpreted through the rethinking of the ancient Greek problematic of nomos and physis as 'human institution' and 'nature'. Castoriadis' first ontological turn was announced in the publication of The Imaginary Institution of Society; it was a regional ontology of the social-historical as part of his project to elucidate the being of nomos as self-creating human institution. His second ontological turn emerged most clearly in the mid 1980s as a general ontology of radical physis as a-etre. (4) His re-thinking of physis entailed a broadening of its parameters from his earlier interpretation of it as a normative order for anthropos and was anchored in the rediscovery of its creative element, as part of his radicalization of the classic Aristotelian formulation of physis as internal qualitative movement and change (alloiosis), to creative emergence. With Castoriadis' increasing emphasis on radical physis, his account of ontological creation of form expands from anthropic regions of being to incorporate natural modes and regions of being as well. …

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