‘Isonomia and the Origins of Philosophy’ by Kōjin Karatani

Published by Duke University Press in 2017.

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“Karatani’s book makes you see the entire history of philosophy in a new way; it deserves to become an instant classic.” —Slavoj Žižek

In Isonomia and the Origins of Philosophy—published originally in Japanese and now available in four languages—Kojin Karatani questions the idealization of ancient Athens as the source of philosophy and democracy by placing the origins instead in Ionia, a set of Greek colonies located in present-day Turkey. Contrasting Athenian democracy with Ionian isonomia—a system based on non-rule and a lack of social divisions whereby equality is realized through the freedom to immigrate—Karatani shows how early Greek thinkers from Heraclitus to Pythagoras were inseparably linked to the isonomia of their Ionian origins, not democracy. He finds in isonomia a model for how an egalitarian society not driven by class antagonism might be put into practice, and resituates Socrates’s work and that of his intellectual heirs as the last philosophical attempts to practice isonomia’s utopic potentials. Karatani subtly interrogates the democratic commitments of Western philosophy from within and argues that the key to transcending their contradictions lies not in Athenian democracy, with its echoes of imperialism, slavery, and exclusion, but in the openness of isonomia.


Kōjin Karatani (柄谷 行人 Karatani Kōjin, born August 6, 1941, Amagasaki) is a Japanese philosopher and literary critic.

Educated at University of Tokyo, where he received a BA in economics and an MA in English literature. The Gunzō Literary Prize, which he received at the age of 27 for an essay on Natsume Sōseki, was his first critical acclaim as a literary critic. While teaching at Hosei University, Tokyo, he wrote extensively about modernity and postmodernity with a particular focus on language, number, and money, concepts that form the subtitle of one of his central books: Architecture as Metaphor.

In 1975, he was invited to Yale University to teach Japanese literature as a visiting professor, where he met Paul de Man and Fredric Jameson and began to work on formalism. Starting from a study of Natsume Sōseki, the variety of the subjects examined by Karatani became so wide that he earned the nickname The Thinking Machine.

Karatani collaborated with novelist Kenji Nakagami, to whom he introduced the works of Faulkner. With Nakagami, he published Kobayashi Hideo o koete (Overcoming Kobayashi Hideo). The title is an ironic reference to “Kindai no chokoku” (Overcoming Modernity), a symposium held in the summer of 1942 at Kyoto Imperial University (now Kyoto University) at which Hideo Kobayashi (whom Karatani and Nakagami did not hold in great esteem) was a participant.

He was also a regular member of ANY, the international architects’ conference that was held annually for the last decade of the 20th century and that also published an architectural/philosophical series with Rizzoli under the general heading of Anyone.

Since 1990, Karatani has been regularly teaching at Columbia University as a visiting professor.

Karatani founded the New Associationist Movement (NAM) in Japan in the summer of 2000. NAM was conceived as a counter–capitalist/nation-state association, inspired by the experiment of LETS (Local Exchange Trading Systems, based on non-marketed currency). He was also the co-editor, with Akira Asada, of the Japanese quarterly journal, Hihyōkūkan (Critical Space), until it ended in 2002.

In 2006, Karatani retired from the chair of the International Center for Human Sciences at Kinki University, Osaka, where he had been teaching.

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