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Castoriadis, C. (1988). The first institution of society and second—order institutions. Free Associations, 1(12):39-51.

(1988). Free Associations, 1(12):39-51

The first institution of society and second—order institutions

Cornelius Castoriadis

Our topic today is: Is there a theory of the institution?1 My answer is: Certainly not. There is not, and cannot be, a theory of the institution, for theory is theoria: the gaze [regard] that puts us face to face with something and inspects it. We cannot put ourselves face to face with the institution and then inspect it, since the means one would use to do so form a part of the institution. How could I talk about the institution in a language that professes to be rigorous, formalized or formalizable to an indefinite degree, etc., when this language itself is an institution, perhaps the first and most important of institutions?

We are speaking French here. I am speaking to you in French since I have learnt French, though it happens that my mother tongue is Greek. Neither my French nor my Greek, however, is in any way natural. Since people here at the conference seem to be enjoying the jokes the speakers have been making, let us say that I was born in China (I am not even saying that I would be Chinese, but simply born in China). If that were the case, I would be condemned all my life not to know the difference between erections and elections, since l and r are not distinct phonemes in Chinese. Yet it is not just a matter of phonetics.

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