Paul Ricœur, Cornélius Castoriadis: Dialogue sur l’histoire et ­l’imaginaire social

Angelos Mouzakitis

Dialogue sur l' histoire et l' imaginaire social Book Cover Dialogue sur l' histoire et l' imaginaire social
Paul Ricœur, Cornélius Castoriadis
Éditions de l'EHESS
Paperback 8.00 €

Reviewed by: Angelos Mouzakitis (University of Crete)

Being one of many faithful readers of both Castoriadis and Ricoeur who didn’t have the good chance to listen to the live transmission of the Ricoeur-Castoriadis encounter in 1985, I felt elated by the publication of this short retranscription. On 9 March 1985, Paul Ricoeur invited Cornelius Castoriadis in his radio programme ‘bon plaisir’ on France Culture and made possible an invaluable dialogue between them; both of great significance for the Castoriadis and Ricoeur scholar and for anyone interested in the enigmas of society and history.

As the “note on the present edition” informs the reader, Dialogue sur l’histoire et l’imaginaire social (hereafter referred to as D) is the posthumous title given to the discussion that took place on March 9th. The actual text emerged out of cross-referencing Zoe Castoriadis’ original transcript and extracts from the actual transmission kept in Fonds Ricoeur, while the transformation of the verbal exchange into proper textual mode was carried out with the aid of distinguished Ricoeur and Castoriadis scholars, Catherine Goldstein, Pascal Vernay, Olivier Fressard and Johann Michel. Indeed, Johann Michel’s role in the whole project is pivotal, as he is both responsible for the edition and the author of the enlightening introduction to the “dialogue”.

Michel’s introduction, as dense as the actual encounter, does much more than the usual background setting for the – often uninitiated – reader, it aims, quite successfully, at establishing both the main subject of the encounter and highlighting the major convergence and divergence at play in the thought of Ricoeur and Castoriadis at the moment of this specific encounter and in  their wider philosophical projects and political agendas.

Given the telling title of the book, the reader would be hardly surprised by the pivotal role Johann Michel attributes to the way the two thinkers treat the problem of imagination (D: 10-11). It is actually Castoriadis who introduces indirectly in his opening statement the notion of imagination through witty word-play, as he admits that the doctoral thesis he intended to carry out under Ricoeur’s supervision on the ‘imaginary element’, “remained…elementary and imaginary” (D: 39). This is indeed a bold and clever move, for it directs the discussion to a subject central to Castoriadis’ works and entices at the same time Ricoeur’s kind and somewhat careless reaction, as Ricoeur rightly emphasizes the importance of Castoriadis’ published work on imagination up to that point but then goes on to misrepresent Castoriadis’ opus magnum as “The Imaginary production of society” (D: 39). Michel rightly treats this mistake as a revealing (Freudian) lapsus on Ricoeur’s part (D: 9), since it epitomizes Ricoeur’s unfailing resistance to Castoriadis’ insights regarding the radically creative character of imagination.

It is certainly no accident that Castoriadis would attack the Kantian theory of imagination from the outset and especially Kant’s understanding of transcendental imagination as ‘productive’. As he also does at many other instances in his works, Castoriadis criticizes Kant’s use of the word ‘creative’ to describe imagination only once – and almost accidentally – in the third Critique (see D: 40), while he remains confined by the venerable philosophical traditions relegating  imagination to the status of mere reconstruction of the past or at best to a reconfiguration of already existing or perceived elements. Indeed, in The Imaginary Institution of Society, Castoriadis claims that since Plato and Aristotle a series of great thinkers, including Kant, Heidegger and Freud, sensed but readily concealed the true workings of imagination (see e.g. Castoriadis, 1987: 170-176). It should be said of Kant’s treatment of imagination that it is rather complex and entails, among other significant aspects, a break with the Cartesian theory of affect and an acknowledgement of both the passive and active elements that are in play in this human faculty (see Caygill, 1995: 59). In this respect, and as it is evident in this very debate between Ricoeur and Castoriadis, Kant’s theory of imagination is amenable to multiple interpretations and criticisms. It is certainly interesting that in spite of being both inspired by psychoanalysis as Michel rightly points out in his introduction (D: 25), Ricoeur and Castoriadis come up with contrasting evaluations of the Kantian treatment of this issue.

As we know, Castoriadis aspired to demonstrate through his works the possibility of the existence of an originary level of – collective and individual – imagination, or as Arnason puts it, the “general concept of the radical imaginary covers both the social-historical and the psychic/somatic dimension” (Arnason, 2004: 44). Thus imagination becomes a register for both the collective and individual capacity to shape the social-historical realm in an indeterminate and properly creative manner, not a merely productive one. For Castoriadis the emergence of new forms or eide of social-historical being is not adequately explained by the mainstream philosophical interpretation of imagination, based on the Platonic and Aristotelian discourses on mimesis which remains blind to history as incessant unfolding of unprecedented, unique forms, ranging from institutions to more individual manifestations of life.

Indeed, the concept of mimesis is central to the works of both Castoriadis and Ricoeur, even if in opposing ways. On the one hand, Castoriadis grounds his theoretical edifice on the assumption that creation is magmatic in nature, namely emergence of unprecedented eide out of the unconscious and the anonymous collectivity. Here the difficulty lies less with the assumption of a level of individual or collective life that is deeper than – and different in its modality from – what is commonly understood as a unified field of being, that can be grasped through reason (or in Castoriadis’ jargon through the workings of identitary logic), but with the enigmatic ontological status of the anonymous collectivity and the relation between this collectivity and the unconscious of the singular human being.

Ricoeur, on the other hand, rightly discerned in the Aristotelian notion of mimesis – already in itself a considerable narrowing down of the all-encompassing Platonic use of the term as he reminds us in The Rule of Metaphor (Ricoeur, 2003: 42) – much more than the description of poiesis in terms of mere repetition. Indeed, in a series of writings the of which the three volumes of Time and Narrative and the Rule of Metaphor are arguably the most significant, Ricoeur discerns “a metaphor of reality” and an “iconic augmentation of the real” (Ricoeur, 1979: 292) in mimesis and comes up with a threefold interpretation of this notion as “prefiguration, configuration, refiguration” (see Ricoeur, 2004: 527).

Ricoeur resists Castoriadis’ notion of creation ex nihilo, despite the fact that Castoriadis distinguishes (re)productive and properly creative socio-historical processes, trivial and radical forms of social-historical change in his work, while he also explains time and again that creation does not happen in the absence of pre-given social and natural/biological elements or without the use of such elements. These points should account for Ricoeur’s objection that social action always takes place in a “pre-structured” world that we constantly “re-construct” (see D: 44). Moreover, in my understanding of Castoriadis, the ‘nothing’ out of which radical creation occurs is a provocative name given to the enigmatic mode of being of the unconscious, which can only be thought by some ‘bastard reasoning’ as Plato famously wrote of the chora in the Timaeus.

Despite unmistakable convergences we encounter in the dialogue between the two thinkers, Ricoeur states curtly the point of distention in the most concise and revealing of manners: “Self-creation [of societies], no. Successive reconfigurations, yes” (D: 60). Michel treats this fundamental difference as over-determined by divergent political projects and personality differences (e.g. D: 29, 33), however both the nature and the origins of this difference appear to be elusive.Indeed, the difference between ‘creation ex nihilo’ and what we could call paraphrasing Ricoeur ‘creation through reconfiguration’ presents us with a main point of divergence between Castoriadis and hermeneutic phenomenology in general. One would only need to consider Gadamer for that reason, for whom meaning is inexhaustible in principle and consequently interpretation is both conditioned and virtually unlimited, both exegetic and creative.

In this respect, there is an important convergence between the way Castoriadis conceptualizes the emergence of radically new forms of being and the phenomenological idea of the ‘event’. It is certainly no accident that in this very dialogue Ricoeur takes refuge in the notion of the event in order to account for the emergence in history of “elements that were not there before” (D: 42). But this is surely also an ontological problem as evident in Castoriadis’ retort to Ricoeur’s blunt rejection of the possibility of “absolute novelty” (D: 42). “This is the problem” he states, “the way in which we think of temporality and of being within temporality” (D: 42-43) and he goes on to propose that we attempt to conceptualize temporality in terms of the emergence of levels of being (D: 43), an idea found in many of his later works, which also renders problematic the unicity of being.

It is important to note that Castoriadis wishes to introduce a level of signification more profound than that of the understanding, which grounds language but is neither restricted by language’s structural properties nor by its horizon of significations. Bearing in mind the proto-institutions of legein and teuchein describe states-of-affairs that ground but are not identical with given languages and practices,  the problem is thus both of epistemological and ontological import, while its undeniable relation to the political might be most difficult to properly grasp. Michel approaches some of the epistemological problems we encounter once we attempt to bring Castoriadis and Ricoeur in dialogue, giving specific emphasis to Ricoeur’s advancement of a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ and his treatment of ideology in his famous lectures on ideology and utopia and in Castoriadis’ treatment of Marxism qua ideology (D: 25-26). There are however even wider issues to take into account in this respect. When Ricoeur , defends Habermas’s ideal of undistorted communication in the closing stages of the exchange, (D: 66), he does not merely provide the reading public with a moral and political ideal, a Kantian regulative principle (D: 67) as he readily describes his position. His defense of ‘the better argument’ also suggests a theory of meaning, a philosophy of language, an anthropology and a social ontology. This becomes all too evident, when after having ‘agreed’ on the point that humanity can be thought as a unity only in the form of a task (D: 68), they go on to further describe this insight in clearly divergent ways. For Castoriadis humanity as unity “is not a regulative idea of reason” but rather “a political imaginary signification that animates a political project” (D: 68). For Ricoeur, it touches upon practical reason, an “act of thought according to the categories” of practical reason and any given “juridical exigencies” (D: 68-69). Implied here are the themes of democracy, autonomy and justice so dear to both thinkers and of course two distinct critiques – and understandings – of modernity.

Apart from the problem of evil – or the monstrous as Castoriadis prefers to call it – that Ricoeur mentions as regretfully having escaped their proper attention on this occasion (D: 69), there are perhaps too many things left unsaid in this brief exchange between Ricoeur and his guest. This is an unavoidable aspect given the format of this interview, especially when thinkers like Castoriadis and Ricoeur are brought together in dialogue. Nonetheless, their writings are there for us to grasp, together with a growing corpus of works dedicated to their projects, which brings to the fore the need to confront the thoughts of these two great thinkers time and again and to put into practice what Ricoeur calls in this brief exchange – the “gesture of novation/tradition” (D: 68).

Arnason, Johann P. (2014), “Creative Imagination” in Suzi Adams (ed.), Castoriadis: Key-Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.
Castoriadis, Cornelius (1987), The Imaginary Institution of Society, translated by Kathleen Blamey. Cambridge: Polity.
Caygill, Howard (1995), A Kant Dictionary. Oxford: Blackwell.
Ricoeur, Paul (1979), “The Narrative Function.” in John B. Thompson (ed.) Paul Ricoeur: Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 274-296.
Ricoeur, Paul (2003), The Rule of Metaphor, translated by Robert Czerny with Kathleen McLaughlin and John Costello, SJ. London: Routledge.
Ricoeur, Paul (2004), Memory, History, Forgetting. Translated by Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

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