Le Bel Aujourd'hui
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Reviewed by: Sergej Seitz (University of Vienna)
Luz Ascarate’s dissertation Imaginer selon Paul Ricœur is a thorough study of Ricœur’s philosophy of imagination. It will be well received by at least three groups of readers. (1) Ricœur scholars will find in Ascarate’s book a novel interpretation of Ricœur’s philosophical oeuvre. Not only propounding yet another reconstruction of Ricoeur’s take on imagination (Kearney 1988; Taylor 2006), Ascarate’s account presents imagination as the key concept of his thought, structuring both his early phenomenological writings and his later hermeneutic and social-ontological reflections. (2) Phenomenologists will be drawn to the way the book retraces Ricœur’s explication of the pivotal role of imagination in phenomenological methodology. While in Husserl imagination remains by and large an operative concept, Ricœur is the first to highlight the crucial “place of imagination in the philosophical method of foundation” (Ascarate 2022, 15), as Ascarate shows. (3) Social and political philosophers, finally, will be interested in Ascarate’s reconstruction of how Ricœur’s phenomenology of imagination may inform the critical analysis of (ideological and utopian) social imaginaries, thus launching a dialogue between phenomenology and critical theory.
Combining these three points of intervention, Ascarate’s general aim is to sketch, with Ricœur, the contours of a post-foundationalist social ontology that unveils both the constitutive and the subversive functions of imagination at the heart of social relations. Crucially, this endeavor is not framed as a timeless philosophical reflection but as a response to contemporary social challenges. In view of a new foundational crisis—similar to the one Husserl takes as his point of departure in his Krisis book—Ascarate holds that it is high time to resuscitate imagination as a radical social and political force. Reclaiming imagination and the imaginary as the primary resources of our (inter)subjective self-understanding is necessary to counter neoliberal reification and the infamous ideological belief that “there is no alternative.”
As Olivier Abel notes in his favorable preface, Ricœur is indeed a promising interlocutor in this regard. On the one hand, Ricœur recognizes the “emancipatory potential” of imagination and its ability to “enlarge the sense of the real” (8) by disclosing hidden possibilities. On the other hand, he does not fall prey to the idea of an imaginary “creatio ex nihilo” (Castoriadis 1975; Papadimitropoulos 2015) that reproduces the metaphysical illusion of the imagining subject as an absolute, autonomous origin. Following Ricœur, Ascarate stresses the productive power of imagination while at the same time recognizing the responsive condition of a human subject that never intervenes “out of nothing,” but inevitably acts within an already constituted socio-historical world.
The book is divided into two parts. In the first part, Ascarate reconstructs Ricoeur’s phenomenology of imagination in a roughly chronological manner, starting with (1) his “Husserlian heritage” and his early phenomenology of the will before proceeding to (2) the role of imagination in his hermeutics of symbols and to (3) his later reflections on ontology and anthropology. The second part deals with the import of Ricoeur’s thinking of imagination for social ontology. Here, Ascarate begins by (4) sketching the contemporary discourse in critical theory and post-foundationalist social philosophy before (5) outlining a phenomenology of utopias. In what follows, I trace the main steps in Ascarate’s argument before pointing out some problems and indicating how, in my view, critical reflection should proceed.
Ascarate does not confine herself to Ricœur’s published works but also takes into account his lecture courses (such as the important, yet still unpublished, Lectures on Imagination held in Chicago in 1976) as well as his translator’s notes on the early translation of Husserl’s Ideen I (Husserl 1950) done during the war. Right from the beginning, Ricœur construes imagination as the philosophical faculty par excellence. As Ascarate makes clear, we find the conviction that doing philosophy would not be possible without the imaginary suspension of factual reality already in his early work. Even more than that, according to Ricoeur, phenomenology as a method is not feasible without the faculty of imagination. What Husserl calls epoché, the bracketing of our natural attitude toward the world, requires the ability to neutralize the grip of reality. In this sense, “imagination can appear as the foundation of phenomenology” (41). It is precisely this neutralizing function of imagination that Ascarate focuses on throughout her book. Phenomenological research involves neutralizing or suspending reality—not in the sense of denying it, but in terms of disclosing the contingency of its factual conditions. In this vein, Ascarate also speaks of the “suspending function of imagination” (76).
Imagination is not, however, confined to facilitating the epoché. As Ascarate emphasizes, Ricœur also shows that and how the eidetic reduction requires imagination. The intentional varying of an object’s characteristics that is at the heart of this methodological device of classical phenomenology would be impossible without the faculty of imagination. In this way, imagination surpasses perception. While perception (Wahrnehmung) always involves ‘value-ception’ (Wertnehmung), as Scheler points out (Scheler 1980, 205), it remains bound to the order of facts—to the specific way, that is, in which objects are empirically organized in the world. In the eidetic reduction, by contrast, imagination “deterritorializes our perception” and “breaks the order of facts” (47) that perception reveals. In short, where perception only registers facts (the given empirical reality), imagination penetrates the realm of essences.
Imagination thus plays a double role in phenomenological methodology. On the one hand, it is what suspends the firmness of empirical reality under the epoché: “Ricœur appropriates Husserl’s conviction to break the kingdom of the empirical law by force of the liberty of imagination in order to access the field of the possible” (69). On the other hand, imagination makes possible the eidetic reduction by allowing us to transcend the contingent world of facts and push through to the world of essences. Writing about the “illustrative function of imagination,” Ricœur claims that “fiction is the true revealer of essence” (Ricoeur, in Husserl 1950, 24). It discloses precisely what cannot be otherwise: “imagination … reveals, by way of free variation, the true resistance of essence and its non-contingency” (Ricoeur, in Husserl 1950, 223).
Turning to Ascarate’s presentation of the role of imagination within Ricœur’s own philosophy of the will, imagination functions as the precondition of decision and action. Imagination presents possibilities for intervention, thus directing our will toward the future. There is no genuine decision without imagination. At the same time, imagination can render us passive and lure us away from action whenever the “charm of an unreal” prompts “an escape from reality” (80). That is to say, even as imagination is oriented toward the absent, the other, and the beyond, it needs to remain bound to the present and the conditions of reality, at least to some extent.
This, Ascarate suggests, becomes especially clear in Ricœur’s thinking about evil and human fallibility in Fallible Man (Ricœur 1986). To understand the human condition of moral fallibility, Ricœur argues, we must first come up with a notion of innocence. For without a preliminary and counterfactual understanding of innocence, some inclination or other could not even be identified as evil (see also Ascárate 2021). Because we are never truly innocent, however, we cannot perceive innocence in its purity. Again, imagination has to step in, furnishing an “imagination of innocence” (112). This imagination of innocence displays our own innocence as a (forever unrealized) possibility. This is not some Hegelian daydream in which I imagine myself as beautiful soul with a clean moral sheet. As Ricœur emphasizes, “this imagination is not a fanciful dream; it is an ‘imaginative variation’, to use a Husserlian term, which manifests the essence by breaking the prestige of the fact. In imagining another state of affairs …, I perceive the possible, and in the possible, the essential.” (Ricœur 1986, 112) Thus, the imagination of innocence discloses not so much a random possibility among others as my essential humanity, while at the same time always running the risk of regressing into self-righteous reverie.
Indeed, every philosophical discourse is to some degree a walk on a tightrope on the edge of deceptive imagination. As evidenced by his reflections on symbols and symbolism, Ricœur is well aware of this. The fact that all thought takes place within a specific language and within a specific symbolism and imaginary does not mean that the philosopher has to renounce the idea of beginning anew. However, there is no beginning anew without some presuppositions. Thinking in and with symbols is what gives our thoughts content, but at the same time symbolism “introduces radical contingency” (Ricoeur 2004, 399) into our discourse. Ascarate argues that “the symbol is the eidos from the point of view of its contingency, an eidos from the point of view of its imaginary foundation that cannot be fully explicated” (134). Acknowledging the imaginary foundation of essence in this way leads to the surprising conclusion that essence is not simply discovered but always to some degree invented. In this context, Ascarate cites the Lectures on Imagination, where “Ricœur argues … that the imaginary variations take on a productive and creative function, for instead of verifying a concept they create new concepts” (167). As it turns out, the eidetic reduction is, to speak with Kant, not so much a kind of reproductive imagination as a kind of productive imagination.
Indeed, as Ascarate’s study makes clear, concerning the classical distinction between reproductive and productive imagination, Ricœur proves to be a fierce advocate of the latter. Apparently, one of his most elaborate pleas for productive imagination is to be found in the soon-to-be-published Lectures on Imagination. Here, Ricœur argues that it is only in productive imagination that we get an unobstructed view of the phenomenon of imagination. For as long as it is conceived in terms of reproduction, imagination is held captive by perception, making the former but a second-rate compensation for, or maidservant of, the latter. (Ascarate mentions that Ricœur accuses Sartre and Ryle of reducing imagination to this reproductive role.) Productive imagination, by contrast, roams freely, evading the suffocating grip of perception.
To see imagination in all its productivity, it is necessary, Ricœur argues, to cut the cord tying it to the image. Conceiving of imagination in terms of an image (an image-portrait, a depiction of something that already exists) inevitably leads to neglecting imagination’s creative powers. While reproductive imagination is associated with this notion of an image-portrait, productive imagination, as Ricœur understands it, ought to be thought of in terms of fiction. Productive imagination has the power to “open our mind to new perspectives on the real” (165). This again foreshadows the emancipatory function of utopian narratives: “productive imagination has an ontological force,” Ascarate writes, “that consists in enlarging and producing new visions of the world and new ways of seeing things. Thus, it can change our way of being in the world” (166). In renouncing the pictorial function of image-portraits, productive imagination is thus closer to language than to the visual realm. As Ascarate shows, Ricœur gains this insight from Gaston Bachelard and his phenomenology of poetic imagination (Bachelard 1983). True poetry, as in the case of the living metaphor, constitutes an event in the most radical sense: the birth of new meaning (Ricœur 2003; see also Seitz and Posselt 2017; Flatscher and Seitz 2023). Metaphor is in this sense language in statu nascendi: “According to Ricœur, Bachelard makes a decisive step … by understanding the new as an event born in language and through it.” (169) Bachelard’s conception of poetic imagination supports the “hypothesis of another life” (169).
However, as Ascarate makes clear, Ricœur does not stop here but in fact goes beyond Bachelard, arguing that productive imagination is not restricted to poetic metaphors. Far from being confined to art, productive imagination is at work even in scientific discourse. In Ricœur’s view, scientific models are the result of productive imagination, too; what science comes up with is not merely a picture of the real. In poetry as well as in science, “imagining does not consist in making appear what is absent from perception, but rather in edifying an autonomous sense.” (Foessel 2014, 245) This interest in the possibility of the new, Ascarate notes, is what unites Kant’s, Husserl’s, and Ricœur’s reflections on imagination. (One could also add Arendt to the list, who locates productive imagination at the heart of political judgment, referring to Kant’s notion of enlarged mentality [erweiterte Denkungsart], see Arendt 1992; Zerilli 2016).
Against this background, Ascarate seeks to draw from her reconstruction of Ricœur’s thinking of productive imagination both ontological and anthropological consequences. On the ontological level, Ascarate sketches how Ricœur’s take on imagination may engender a new ontology, an “ontology of the possible (175) or an “ontology of hyperreality” (30). The concept of hyperreality, although rather underdeveloped throughout the book, points to a conception of reality that does not limit the real to what is factually given but includes the possible. The possible, then, is not a separate sphere neatly cut off from the real but forms an intrinsic part of reality. On the anthropological level, (productive) imagination is framed as a uniquely human faculty. In Ascarate’s words, “the human being is the one who imagines; or the human being is the one who creates new possibilities from the real” (181). In this sense, the “productive function of imagination” (187) is what makes the essence of the human being.
It is here that the therapeutic import of Ricœur’s philosophy of imagination comes in. Productive imagination, Ascarate hopes, may enables us to respond to the present “crisis of sense” (146). Philosophy must combat the hegemony of instrumental rationality in which reason has lost its emancipatory force. Resuscitating this force requires that we draw on human creative power as “the experience of a human being to suspend the given world and access the possible” (189). Imaginative creativity should then help us reacquaint ourselves with the possibility of bringing about new ways of living together, new social foundations, and new ways of forging the social bond. Ascarate even trusts the “phenomenology of fiction” to assume the role of “a first philosophy for times of crisis: it would be a thinking that searches for foundations in an epoch that has lost them; an opening toward new ways of thinking” (191).
To explicate the critical and social-ontological implications of Ricœur’s philosophy of imagination, Ascarate draws primarily on his Lectures on Ideology and Utopia (Ricoeur 1986). Her goal is to show the relevance of Ricœur’s conception of imagination for critical theory and post-foundational social philosophy. Ricœur’s phenomenological account of ideology and utopia could, Ascarate argues, open up a new perspective on the critique of ideology, thus bringing into dialogue phenomenology and the Frankfurt school.
In his analysis of the relation between ideology and utopia, Ricœur makes use of Karl Mannheim’s Ideologie und Utopie (Mannheim 2015). As Ascarate shows, Ricœur twines the phenomenological, hermeneutic, and anthropological strands of his thought together to give an account of the social and political imaginary in its various guises. Ricœur starts off by reformulating Mannheim’s distinction between ideology and utopia in Kantian terms: “utopia is the fiction of productive imagination and ideology is reproductive social imagination” (213). From a phenomenological perspective, then, utopia is a function of productive imagination. What is more, Ricœur explicitly associates utopia with Husserl’s idea of eidetic reduction. Utopia “is close to the imaginary variations around an essence as proposed by Husserl” (Ricoeur 1986, 36). (Which begs the question, of course, whether the assumption of an authentic essence runs the risk of blunting utopia’s critical edge.)
Ascarate also emphasizes that Ricœur does not simply pit utopia against ideology. Rather, he argues that both ideology and utopia have “constitutive as well as pathological dimensions” (214). Ideology’s constitutive function is social integration. It generates a sense of affiliation and belonging. In contrast to classical Marxian approaches, Ricœur renounces the idea of ideology as mere distortion of reality. As a form of social and political imagination, ideology does not primarily disguise material conditions but is constitutive of social cohesion. Utopia, for its part, can assume a pathological modality once it regresses into mere denial: “utopia is effectively pathological whenever it presents itself as a flight from reality” (253), causing us to lose ourselves in the passivity of fascination or reverie. Instead of dissolving reality, utopia has to reveal reality in a different way by providing an imaginary exterior standpoint. As Ascarate writes, “when utopia’s exterritoriality is turned toward reality, its constitutive, creative, and critical force is unleashed” (256).
Here, Ricœur distances his phenomenological account of ideology and utopia from Mannheim’s. Mannheim is concerned about the ways in which ideology and utopia attack the status of social facts. While ideology reifies facts, displaying them as unchanging, naturally given entities, utopia fails to recognize the binding character of facts, presenting them as arbitrarily changeable (Mannheim 2015). Ricœur, however, does not share Mannheim’s concern with regard to utopia: “Ricœur insists on the positive aspects of utopia, that is, on the constitutive or productive function of imagination” (231–2). Seen from this perspective, the pronounced distance to reality is not utopia’s weakness but its strength. Instructive in this respect is Ascarate’s mention of the different paradigms of utopia in Mannheim and Ricœur. In Mannheim, the paradigmatic utopia is Thomas Münzer’s anabaptism. Ricœur, by contrast, turns to Thomas More’s Utopia. Mannheim cherishes Münzer for his active desire and engagement to realize his utopia (in a religious revolution). For Ricœur, it is precisely utopia’s unrealizability that makes it a productive social and political force. The fact that utopia cannot turn its back on reality does not mean that the gap between reality and utopia should simply be closed. For this gap ensures society’s openness and non-totalization. In this sense, utopian thinking is necessary for any human community: “while it is possible to imagine a society without ideology, to think of a society without utopia amounts to creating a society without purpose: no longer exceeding reality would lead to a facticity that marks the ruin of human will” (237). In this view, exceeding factual reality is a matter of life and death for any genuinely human society. It is not the lack of congruence with reality that makes utopia constitutive of the social but the aspiration “to undermine the established order” (239).
Ascarate emphasizes that utopia unites imagination and emancipation. Imagination has to break with the past. Ricœur puts into question Marx’s distinction between interpretation and transformation. For utopian imagination at once interprets and transforms reality. This also points to the essentially antagonistic character of utopia that is already stressed by Mannheim. Every utopia implies an anti-utopianism launched against other utopian proposals: “in every utopia there is a counter-utopian aspect directed against another utopia. This antagonism dynamizes the relation between utopias” (235). The communist utopia, for example, denounces all other utopias as ideology, which also inhibits a clear-cut, ahistorical distinction of ideology and utopia. What seems utopian from one political perspective can appear ideological from another.
Despite its antagonistic character, Ricœur praises utopia for its potential of nonviolent transformation. In order to bring about something new, we have to break with the past, but this rupture should not be achieved by violence, Ricoeur argues, but by imagination: “instead of violence, imagination has to perform the break with the past” (Ricoeur 1986, 378). Ascarate notes that Ricœur’s role models in this context are Saint-Simon and Fourier. Utopian socialism favors imagination over violence. As Ricœur emphasizes with Fourier, utopia not only demands the possible but also that which, in a given situation, seems impossible. From this perspective, utopia seems to be the test case for the ontology Ascarate envisages in her reading of Ricœur—namely, a philosophy of hyperreality that conceives of reality not in terms of an abstraction from the possible but as a recognition of the manifold horizons of possibilities, even if they remain unacknowledged.
By way of conclusion, I raise some critical questions and mark points of departure for further reflection. These concern (1) the inner structure and articulation of the phenomenon of imagination, (2) the status of passivity in relation to the social imaginary, and (3) the search for foundations within a post-foundationalist framework.
First, let me note that, in my view, one of the merits of Ascarate’s book is the way it manages to capture the complexity of the phenomenon of imagination as well as its many dimensions. Note the long list of different functions of imagination that are discussed throughout the book. Needless to say, given that Ricœur “considers it the central function of imagination” (161), the function of neutralization or suspension looms large. However, reference is also made to an “emancipatory function” (8), a “practical function” (39), an “illustrative” and “exemplary function” (42), an “evasive” function (83), an “intermediary function” (97), a “productive function” (99), a “creative function” (125), an “integrative” and “distortive” function (of ideology, 213, 216), a “critical function” (of utopia, 229), and a “constitutive function” (232) of imagination. This list underscores imagination’s many faces. Ascarate does not, however, investigate how these different functions are interrelated. It remains unclear, for instance, whether some of them are mere synonyms or whether some are more fundamental or more primordial than others. Given that a phenomenology of imagination has to explicate the compossibility of imagination’s various functions, what we require is a more detailed and comprehensive cartography of its fault lines. This could also entail a less egological account of imagination, especially in regard to questions of political imagination. The attempt to render the phenomenology of imagination productive for social ontology can only succeed if it enables us to think of imagination in terms of collective acts and intersubjective processes (see Seitz 2022).
This becomes all the more urgent, second, in light of Ascarate’s/Ricœur’s aim to integrate imagination within an ontology of possibility and an anthropology of the capable subject. In this framework, the positive, productive, and creative aspects of imagination take center stage. Imagination’s productivity, its creative power, and its disclosing force always are presented as somehow ‘more essential’ than its deceptive, reproductive, and ideological aspects. This raises the question of how the coercive function of the social imaginary, the repressive function of ideology, and the fixating function of reproductive imagination are to be explicated within an approach that focuses primarily on human capabilities. For within such an approach, the passive aspects of our socio-political being come into view only as secondary, derivative, or pathological phenomena. On the other end of the spectrum of conceptualization, as Andreas Hetzel recently outlined with recourse to Bachelard, the contours of a different phenomenology of imagination come into relief—one that no longer thinks of imagination as the subject’s autonomous capability but as “a capability of the images themselves, the capability of presenting themselves before our eyes. Imagination would then be not so much the … capability of producing images as a consciously sought-out incapability, a readiness to be fascinated by the images … in their activity and waywardness” (Hetzel 2021, 112; see also Calin and Hetzel 2021). I bring this up to indicate the different routes theorization can take within the phenomenology of imagination—and to suggest that the problem of how to reconcile the intuition that imagination forms an essential part of human autonomy with the observation that imagination (or ‘the imaginary’) is all too often precisely what holds us firmly in its grip rather than what we command still remains to be solved.
This leads, third, to the question of autonomy or heteronomy in the context of the institution of social and political foundations. In my view, Ascarate remains rather vague in this respect. On the one hand, she inscribes Ricœur’s reflections on imagination into the discourse on post-foundationalist political philosophy, where the possibility of ultimate, transcendental foundations is rejected in favor of the need for contingent, historical foundations (Marchart 2018; Butler 1995). On the other hand, her diagnostics of crisis appears at times quite nostalgic, mourning the loss of an era where social foundations were not yet in question. Take, for instance, Ascarate’s description of the phenomenologist’s role in the present: “The phenomenologist is, for us, the one who still dreams of evidences in a world that has lost them; the one who” remains faithful to “those that search for foundations” (266). By contrast, we could ask whether it was not at times precisely the quest for strong foundations and infallible evidence that prevented us from genuinely dreaming. In other words, the nostalgic stance toward lost foundations seems incompatible with the post-foundationalist theory framework Ascarate claims to employ. Note, though, that such compatibility is not even desirable. As I see it, Ascarate has exemplarily shown how phenomenology can today proceed without continuing to be haunted by the specter of absolute evidence, which may also be one of the liberating powers of imagination in phenomenology.
I thank Matthias Flatscher and Anna Wieder for their helpful comments and remarks.
This work has been funded by the European Union (ERC, PREDEF, 101055015). Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Research Council Executive Agency. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.
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 That is not to say, of course, that the phenomenon of imagination eludes Husserl. As Julia Jansen points out, “[h]ardly any other philosopher in the history of philosophy has paid as much detailed attention to the nature of imagining and to the distinct characteristics of imagined objects as Husserl” (Jansen 2016, 69). Ascarate’s point is that though Husserl indeed calls imagination the “vital element” (Husserl 1983, 160) of phenomenology, he nonetheless privileges perception as the default form of intentionality.
 All translations from Ascarate’s book and other non-English sources are my own.
 The question of whether imagination is to be construed either as creation or as responsive productivity is at the center of the debate between Ricœur and Castoriadis (Adams 2017). Note, also, that Castoriadis repeatedly defends his account against this criticism, see (Castoriadis 1997).
 This conception seems close to Merleau-Ponty’s idea of “coherent deformation” (Merleau-Ponty 1969, 262).
 These lectures are currently edited by George Taylor and will be published in 2023.
 Ricœur’s attempt to rethink the social bond as constituted by the imaginary powers of ideology and utopia may, Ascarate argues, also resonate well with Oliver Marchart’s political ontology (Marchart 2019).