This paper considers Cornelius Castoriadis’s articulation of social imaginary significations with an emphasis on their link to the radical imaginary. Castoriadis wrote on social imaginary significations for more than thirty years, and his understanding of them changed significantly during this time, yet this is not reflected in debates on his work. The paper argues that there are three distinct phases in his reflections. The first phase can be dated 1964-1970. This early phase is characterized by Castoriadis’s break from Marx and subsequent settling of accounts with Marxism. Central to Castoriadis’s critique of Marx was the recognition of history (or: the social-historical) as the domain of meaning and unmotivated creation as the work of the radical imaginary. Importantly, Castoriadis also considered the intertwining of the imaginary with the symbolic, on the one hand, and with social doing, on the other. Castoriadis’s approach in this early phase can be considered phenomenological in the broad sense that Merleau-Ponty gave it in the Phenomenology of Perception. The second phase is dated 1970-1975; that is, the period in which Castoriadis wrote the second part of The Imaginary Institution of Society wherein he announced his turn to ontology. This is his most self-contained and systematic articulation of social imaginary significations. Castoriadis extends and develops his notion of magma in relation to social imaginary significations and emphasizes the social imaginary creation of a world ex nihilo as an ontological creation, whilst the radical imaginary is presented as a part of his emergent general ontology of à-être. The third ‘kaleidoscopic’ phase is dated 1976-1997 and may be understood as a period of consolidation and expansion. Although his basic understanding of social imaginary significations did not dramatically alter (although further developments are visible), his thought went in a myriad of different directions and patterns – hence kaleidoscopic — that nonetheless shaped a wider background against which his elucidation of social imaginaries were configured. His reconsideration of the sacred, the ‘ground power’ of institutions, and the development of a poly-regional ontology of the for-itself were key to this changing background. The paper will conclude with a critical engagement with the implications of the changing permutations of the imaginary element for Castoriadis’s thought.
Dr. Suzi Adams is Senior Lecturer in the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences at Flinders University and permanent External Fellow at the East-Central European Institute for Philosophy, Charles University (Prague). She is a founding co-ordinating editor of the Social Imaginaries refereed journal and book series, and from October-December 2019, was an inaugural Senior Research Fellow at the Humanities Centre for Sustainable Futures at the University of Hamburg. She has published widely in the social imaginaries field, including most recently Social Imaginaries: Critical Interventions (Eds. Suzi Adams and Jeremy Smith), 2019, Rowman and Littlefield International, London. She is currently writing a monograph entitled Castoriadis and the Imaginary Element (forthcoming with Rowman and Littlefield International).