Suzi Adams (Ed.): Ricoeur and Castoriadis in Discussion: On Human Creation, Historical Novelty, and the Social Imaginary

Ricoeur and Castoriadis in Discussion: On Human Creation, Historical Novelty, and the Social Imaginar Book Cover Ricoeur and Castoriadis in Discussion: On Human Creation, Historical Novelty, and the Social Imaginar
Social Imaginaries
Suzi Adams (Ed.)
Rowman & Littlefield International
Hardcover £80.00

Reviewed by: Angelos Mouzakitis (University of Crete)

It is with great pleasure that I welcome the publication in English of the conversation between Castoriadis and Ricoeur that took place on 9 March 1985 on the radio show Le Bon Plaisir on France Culture.  Being one of the rare occasions where the two thinkers crossed swords publicly, this dialogue is a source of inspiration for everyone interested in their works and in the specific domains of being that they set as their task to explore. The dialogue was already published in French by Johann Michel in 2016, but the English edition is much more than a reproduction of the French one. The book is divided in two main parts, while it comprises also short biographical notes on Ricoeur and Castoriadis and a comprehensive index.  Four texts are printed prior to the book’s officially described ‘first part’, which is nothing less than the textual version of the original encounter between the two thinkers.  These texts are no less important than the rest of the contributions and they are the following: First, Suzi Adams’s short “editor’s forward”, followed by Johann Michel’s “Note to the French Edition” and “Preface to the French edition” and Johann P. Arnason’s “Preface: Situating Castoriadis and Ricoeur”.

As I have already reviewed the French edition of the dialogue I will refrain from commenting on the book’s “first part” and on Johann Michel’s preface, although a word of appraisal for Scott Davidson’s excellent translation of the original texts in English is certainly in place.

As the subtitle of the book clearly suggests, the radio discussion between Ricoeur and Castoriadis focused primarily on the impact of imagination on history and the same holds for the essays of the distinguished scholars that comprise the second part of this publication, rendering it a genuine contribution to philosophy and social theory on its own.

Johann Arnason’s preface to the English edition complements perfectly Johann Michel’s preface to the French edition and is in many ways also complementary to Arnason’s second contribution to the volume. In the ‘Preface’ Arnason unravels in a concise yet comprehensive manner the complex set of elective affinities and stark differences between the projects of the two thinkers, as well as their attitudes towards politics and religion, but he wisely refuses to directly attribute the former to the latter. Apart from a shared critique to ‘orthodox’ Marxism, Arnason traces interesting convergences between Ricoeur and Castoriadis in areas least expected: Indeed, Arnason establishes a shared understanding of history qua praxis and creation and a common indebtedness to Aristotle’s “thesis on the multiple modes of being” (xxviii), without disregarding the—apparent both in the dialogue and the respective oeuvres—differences in accent between Ricoeur and Castoriadis on these issues. Moreover, it is Ricouer’s emphasis on metaphor that in Arnason’s view brings him closer to Castoriadis’s understanding of history as creative praxis and Castoriadis’s essay on the revolutionary project in the Imaginary Institution of Society that reveals a hermeneutic aspect in Castoriadis’s approach- more precisely, Arnason identifies three hermeneutic ‘steps’ in Castoriadis’s critique of Marxism in this text  (xxiii-xxvi).  Importantly, Arnason also shows that Castoriadis’s concept of institution has deep roots in French sociology and especially in the writings of Durkheim and Mauss (a theme that re-emerges in his second contribution). He furthermore argues that Castoriadis partly endorses Durkheim’s conception of religion as he follows Durkheim in identifying the ‘sacred’ as forming the kernel of religion but unlike Durkheim sees in religion nothing more than heteronomy. Ricoeur’s approach to religion is less unequivocal according to Arnason and the Judeo-Christian tradition is ever present in his works, as he explores both the areas opened up by “philosophical critique and religious hermeneutics” (xviii). What is more, Arnason attempts to draw some analogies between Ricoeur’s treatment of religion and Castoriadis’s “invocation of Greek beginnings” and suggests that Castoriadis’s account of Greek mythology might provide us with a more fecund perspective on the relationship between myth and reason (xxx).

Arnason’s second contribution has the title “Castoriadis and Ricoeur on Meaning and History: Contrasts and Convergences” and focuses more explicitly on the problem of the nature of imagination and its importance for the way in which history is both understood and made. Here Arnason attempts to establish a certain convergence between Ricoeur’s defense of ‘productive’ imagination and Castoriadis’s radical, creative understanding of this human faculty, by focusing on the Fichtean background that informs Ricoeur’s approach to imagination and Castoriadis’s later attempt to counterbalance the hyperbolic assumption of creation ex nihilo with a concept of creation that pays heed to the always already conditioned character of human praxis (59). Arnason underlines Ricoeur’s and Castoriadis’s common opposition to structuralism and traces affinities between Castoriadis’s critique of identitary logic, Elias’s concept of figuration, Mann’s concept of network and Ricoeur’s own treatment of pre-figuration, configuration and re-figuration (62-63). Arnason’s essay concludes with a reassessment of Castoriadis’s notion of signification which aims at revealing dualities that emerge when we think of imagination in both its transforming and containing capacities. It is then Ricoeur’s work on Ideology and Utopia that in Arnason’s view provides a bridge between the two thinkers in regard of the workings of imagination in socio-historical contexts. Admittedly, apart from the challenging interpretation of the works of the two thinkers that it offers, the charm of Arnason’s contribution lies in the fact that he brings his own groundbreaking research in the discussion.

George H. Taylor’s essay “On the Cusp: Ricoeur and Castoriadis at the Boundary” is a clearly argued and thought-provoking attempt to think across the boundaries that at once separate and conjoin their philosophical projects. The great merit of Taylor’s contribution lies in the fact that he is able to construct a quite convincing argument (especially concerning Ricoeur) by reading together Ricoeur’s Lectures on Ideology and Utopia and his still unpublished—but eagerly awaited—lectures of the same period on imagination. Indeed, Taylor advances the rather bold claim that if the radio conversation between the two thinkers had taken place a decade ago, Ricoeur’s response to Castoriadis’s defense of a radical, creative force inherent in imagination might have been radically different (35). Indeed, the passages from Ricoeur’s Lectures on Imagination that Taylor cites seem to clearly support his argument, although admittedly one has to wait until the whole text becomes available to the public before one passes a more definitive judgment on the issue. In any case, on the one hand Taylor points to Ricoeur’s conception of utopia in the homonymous lectures as ‘the possibility of a nowhere’ with regard to a given socio-historical state-of-affairs, while underlying the passage from a conception of productive imagination based on the reconfiguration of a given reality to a more radical understanding of this process in terms of transfiguration (38). Finally, in order to bring the two thinkers together Taylor—like every other contributor to the volume—has to emphasize the contextual aspect of Castoriadis’s understanding of creation ex nihilo, as creation that does not take place in nihilo or cum nihilo.

Suzi Adams’s paper “Castoriadis and Ricoeur on the Hermeneutic Spiral and the Meaning of History” offers a refreshing and imaginative perspective on the dialogue, as it focuses from the outset on the difference between creation and production that seems to be the pivotal point of disagreement between the two thinkers in the radio discussion. The section of the paper that confronts the problem of creation ex nihilo bears the telling title “Much ado about Nothing: Creation or Production?” (112).  It is as difficult to miss the Shakespearean reference here as it is to decide to what extent it is used to indicate a parallel between the series of misunderstandings taking place in the homonymous play and the possible misinterpretations Castoriadis’s concept has received. Adams is also interested in bridge building. She argues about an indelible hermeneutic dimension present even on the most originary level of signification (131) and presents us with the metaphor of the “hermeneutic spiral” as a way out of the hermeneutic circle that both thinkers attempted to surmount in different ways. Importantly, Adams argues that the substitution of the hermeneutic circle with the hermeneutic spiral extracts the hermeneutic experience from the level of mere understanding and it “incorporates critical and productive/creative dimensions” (129). Her essay shows the different attitudes the two thinkers entertained in relation to the conception of chaos, the relation to tradition and the emergence of radically new forms of collective life (or radical discontinuity)  in history. Adams gives center stage to Gadamer’s notion of historically effected consciousness, although she confronts this aspect of historical life from Ricoeur’s perspective, not Gadamer’s in an attempt to dissociate it from traditional hermeneutics. Adams’s invocation of Assmann’s concept of cultural memory and of Nikulin’s distinction between collective memory and collective recollection as guiding threads for any current attempt to understand tradition merits the reader’s attention and invites further elaboration.

Being an established Ricoeur scholar, Jean-Luc Amalric offers his invaluable insights on Ricoeur and Castoriadis in his paper “Ricoeur and Castoriadis: The Productive Imagination between Mediation and Origin”, which focuses primarily on the way the two thinkers conceptualized imagination and historical praxis, while it also addresses their critique of structuralism (77-78). Amalric argues that despite their differences Castoriadis and Ricoeur share the “diagnosis concerning the occultation-discreditation of imagination in the philosophical tradition”, as well as the conviction that the “renewal of the theory of imagination” has to focus on the “central function of imagination in human action and its foregrounding” (81). Amalric argues that Ricoeur’s emphasis on the role of productive imagination and Castoriadis’s critique of Marxism and his very idea of creation reveals a “common critique of structuralism” (84) and “an essential agreement… on the originary and constituting status of the social imaginary” (89-90). According to Amalric, one crucial difference between the two thinkers concerns their stance towards ontology: Castoriadis’s approach is said to be an “ontology of creation” (93), a thesis somewhat reminiscent of Habermas who in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity argues that a fundamental ontology operates behind Castoriadis’s concept of society as a ‘collective subject’. Ricoeur is seen as conscientiously refraining from ascribing to ontology the status of primary philosophy, while treating it as ‘a promise land’ within his horizon of philosophical expectations (94).  Amalric draws on an impressive number of Ricoeur’s writings and key-concepts like metaphor and mimesis, in order to arrive at a theory of imagination that links imagination and praxis from the perspective of an ever-present oscillation between “a revolutionary pole and a reformatory pole” (102). He even seems to prefer Ricoeur’s indirect conception of autonomy based on the ‘dialectic’ of ideology and utopia to that of Castoriadis, most probably because of his preference for a philosophical discourse that is less bound by ontological concerns than Castoriadis’s project. However, it has to be reminded that Castoriadis’s understanding of autonomy is not only —admittedly—tied up to the idea of (permanent) revolution as Amalric (102) rightly observes, but it also emerges from an ineradicable oscillation between (a fundamental) heteronomy and the possibility of a radical alteration of this heteronomous state-of-affairs, where autonomy presents itself as a ‘moment’ or an event, to use the phenomenological parlance. The relationship (I would not dare say dialectic) between autonomy and heteronomy in Castoriadis’s works is arguably somehow reminiscent of—though not identical with—Ricoeur’s ‘dialectic’ between ideology and utopia and it might well be a fruitful  area for further research.

Last but definitely not least, let me briefly address Francois Dosse’s excellent contribution entitled “The Social Imaginary as Engine of History in Ricoeur and Castoriadis”, which is finely supported by Natalie J. Doyle’s smooth and subtle translation.  At the first part of his paper Dosse follows Ricoeur’s path to the formulation of a unique stance on imagination through his appropriation of Sartre’s theory of imagination, which Ricoeur extends so as to account not only for its negating but also for its productive forces, his indebtedness to Bachelard and the parallels the understating of imagination in The Symbolism of Evil exemplifies with the treatment of imagination in Merleau-Ponty’s The Visible and the Invisible, the latter being a source of influence also for Castoriadis. Drawing on Amalric’s book Paul Ricoeur, L’ Imagination Vive, Dosse shows how Ricoeur escapes the “aporias of solipsism” with the introduction of a collective imaginary dimension that “is not the opposite of action, but it can lead to it in a creative way” (143). Dosse stresses the tangible involvement of imagination in socio-historical praxis pointing to Ricoeur’s explicit linkage of action with imagination and his treatment of ideology and utopia as “imaginative practices”, or as the “operator of choice at the intersection of will and desire” in Fallible Man (145). Dosse also explores Ricoeur’s work on metaphor and his opposition to structuralism, focusing on his use of livid metaphor as a means to open up the question of tradition from a perspective that refuses to think of tradition as a reified relic (148).  It goes without saying that his treatment of Ricoeur does not neglect to take into account his lectures on ideology and utopia and the conceptual couplet ‘mimesis-figuration’. Dosse sees Castoriadis’s attempt at constructing a theory of imagination as premised on an antithesis between chaos and institution. Dosse discusses Castoriadis’s break with the Lacanian conception of the symbolic and argues that Castoriadis shows the “double dimension of the symbolic, which pertains to a logic both ‘enseidic’ and imaginary” (158).  Moreover, Dosse argues that the enseidic/imaginary couplet in Castoriadis’s thought finds a counterpart in Ricoeur’s distinction between “the semilogical level of rationality and the hermeneutic level, which refers to interpretative plurality” (158).  Dosse also traces other important convergences in the works of Ricoeurand Castoriadisthat allow him to conclude his essay arguing for the existence of a “real proximity” between the two thinkers.

Although the high quality and the complex structure of every single paper contained in this book, as well as the fecundity of the actual encounter between Ricoeur and Castoriadis makes the task of adequately assessing this little volume almost impossible, I hope that I did not fail to at least convey the ‘spirit’ underlying each contribution and the book as a whole. I have to congratulate Suzi Adams for her immaculate editorial work and I cannot help but think that although one could hardly imagine a better start for the launch of the “social imaginaries” series than this quite important collective volume, there are even more exciting things to come in the near future.

Suzi Adams (Ed.): Ricoeur and Castoriadis in Discussion, Rowman & Littfield International, 2017

Ricoeur and Castoriadis in Discussion: On Human Creation, Historical Novelty, and the Social Imaginary Book Cover Ricoeur and Castoriadis in Discussion: On Human Creation, Historical Novelty, and the Social Imaginary
Social Imaginaries
Suzi Adams (Ed.)
Rowman & Littlefield International
Paperback £24.95